Stevens was born in London, in 1662 or thereabouts, the son of a page to Queen Catherine of Braganza. It is assumed his mother was Spanish. He entered into a military career, and accompanied the Second Earl of Clarendon, when he was made lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1685, to Dublin as one of his gentlemen-at-large. Two years later Stevens was appointed collector of taxes at Welshpool, for an area covering mid-Wales and the borders. As a Catholic and supporter of James II, he was forced to flee after the so-called Glorious Revolution, to France, and then with the Jacobites to Ireland. In Dublin, though penniless, he eventually obtained a commission in Fitzjames’s regiment (James Fitzjames being the illegitimate son of James II) and served in the ensuing Jacobite war in Ireland.
Before long, though, Stevens had taken refuge in Lisbon, Portugal. By 1695, he was back in London, where he settled down to write and make a living translating Portuguese and Spanish texts. Over the next 30 years or so he published over 20 translations, including a revision of Shelton’s version of Don Quixote. He also produced a revised edition of Monasticon Anglicanum, a history of defunct church properties designed to appeal to gentlemen amateurs. From 1712 to 1715, he was editor of the British Mercury. He died on 27 October 1726. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the out-of-copyright Dictionary of National Biography, or the modern Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (which requires log-in).
Stevens is largely remembered today not so much for the works he published in his own lifetime but for a journal he kept during his military service in Ireland. This was not published until 1912 when Clarendon Press brought out The Journal of John Stevens, containing a brief account of the war in Ireland 1689-1691. The book’s editor, Rev. Robert H. Murray, explains in his long introduction about the diary’s history and its previous use by historians. He also notes that the version he consulted
Stevens’ journal is considered a major primary source of information about the Jacobite war in Ireland, and, in particular, about the sieges of Limerick. See, for example, And So Began the Irish Nation by Brendan Bradshaw; Jacobite Ireland by J. G. Simms; The Williamite Wars in Ireland by John Childs; or Conquest and Resistance: War in Seventeenth-Century Ireland by Pádraig Lenihan. The journal itself is freely available online at Internet Archive or the CELT website hosted by University College Cork. Here are several extracts.
2 July 1690
‘At break of day those few drums there were beat as formally as if we had been a considerable body, but it was only mere form and we scarce the shadows of regiments, the bodies being dispersed and gone. What was left in dismal manner marched as far as Dublin, where when each commanding officer came to view his strength, shame of marching in such case through the city we not long before had filled with expectation of our actions and hopes of gathering part of the scattered herd caused us to halt in the fields without the town. The colours of each regiment being fixed on eminences that all stragglers might know whither to repair, in the space of near three hours each regiment had gathered a small number, the Grand Prior’s as one of the most considerable being then 100 strong. Thus we marched through the skirts of the city, passing over the river at the Bloody Bridge, which is the farthest off in the suburbs, being now only the remains of four regiments, the others being either quite dispersed or gone other ways, we halted again in a field at Kilmainham, a hamlet adjoining to the city. The general opinion was that we were to encamp in the park till such time as our men came up, and what forces had not been in the rout as also the militia should join us, and then either maintain the city, or, if it were judged expedient, give the enemy battle, which gave occasion to some of our small number to steal away into town thinking they might soon be back with us. But about noon we were all undeceived, the other three regiments having orders to march, and ours only left there without any or knowing whence to expect them. Being thus left by all our lieutenant-colonel marched us away, which we did not hold above a quarter of an hour when we were reduced to only twenty men with the colours. On the road we overtook the Lord Kilmallock’s Regiment, which was untouched, being quartered in Dublin when the defeat at the Boyne. The whole day was a continual series of false alarms, the greatest reached us within two miles of the Naas, where Kilmallock’s officers attempting to draw up their men to line the hedges, the confusion and terror of the soldiers who had never seen the enemy was such they were forced in all haste to march away, It was ridiculous to see the brother of the traitor O’Donnell who had the name of lieutenant-colonel reformed in our regiment, pretend to take authority upon him here, and order us to line the hedges, when at that time our whole strength was but six musketeers, eight pikes, four ensigns, and one lieutenant besides myself, to this was that but the day before hopeful regiment reduced, and yet not one of the number killed, unless they perished who were left drunk when we fled which were four or five. For our comfort no enemy was within twenty miles of us, but fear never thinks itself out of danger. We followed Kilmallock’s men with such speed it had been hard for an enemy to overtake us, and that regiment though till then untouched was in such a consternation that when they came to the Naas they were not 100 strong. Here being quite spent with marching two days without rest or food I used my utmost endeavours to persuade O’Donnell, who as I said pretended to act as lieutenant-colonel, to take up quarters for the few men that were left, to refresh them that night, and be the better able to march next morning, but all in vain. The general infection had seized him and he fancied each minute he stayed was to him time lost and an opportunity given to the enemy to gain ground upon us. Therefore following the dictates of his fear he hasted away commanding all to follow him, but necessity pressing more than his usurped authority, I stayed a while in the town with an ensign who had a lame horse, and having refreshed ourselves with bread and drink which was all the town afforded, we followed both on the same lame creature five miles to Kilcullen Bridge, where we could hear no news of our men, though they lay there that night. So inconsiderable was a regiment grown that it could not be heard of in a town where there are not above twenty or thirty houses and but three good ones. Here we took up for the remaining part of the night in a waste house, and rested the best we could till break of day.’
28 July 1690
‘We continued here. Brigadier Sarsfield marched away with the horse under his command who had quartered in the neighbourhood. At our setting out of Limerick there marched also four pieces of cannon and a body of horse and dragoons, all which took the way of Loughrea for the conveniency of the road which is hard and fit for draught, whereas the way the foot took (as I said before) was unfit for heavy carriages, but being the shorter was judged best for the foot, both for their ease and that they might the sooner relieve Athlone, which was thought to be pressed and in danger and by their coming might be strengthened the better to expect farther relief. But upon the news of the enemies quitting the siege, the foot marched back the easiest though the longest way, and where they could have quarters to refresh them.’
2 August 1690
‘Most of our horse and dragoons, some on the one side of the river some on the other, marched towards Athlone. This day also the French forces departed for Galway to the great satisfaction not only of the inhabitants, but of all the garrison that remained in town. They remained some time at Galway till ships came to carry them into France, thinking it impossible Limerick should hold out a siege, offering to lay wagers it would be taken in three days. Immediately upon their departure His Grace the Duke of Tyrconnel ordered it to be proclaimed that no person should presume to ask above thirty shillings for a pistole, thirty-eight shillings for a guinea and seven and sixpence for a crown in silver, pistoles before being sold for five pounds in brass and silver crowns for thirty or forty shillings. Nay this day the French marched out some of them gave a crown for each silver three-halfpenny piece.’
29 August 1690
‘The enemy’s cannon played as before and enlarged the breach to above forty paces. At the bridge one shot cut both the chains of the drawbridge and did some other damage but not of much moment, because the enemy’s battery had not a full view of it, and their shot came slanting towards one end, yet the passage was very dangerous. The Grand Prior’s detachments were all relieved this afternoon except that where I commanded, which continued in the same place till night, when being relieved we only marched into the street, and having joined the rest of the regiment to the trenches on the south-west side of the town, where we continued all night expecting an attack. The night was extreme cold, dark and rainy and we almost spent for want of rest. For my own particular as appears by this relation I had had none at all for three nights before this and but very little during the whole siege, nor indeed was it possible to have much being upon duty every other day and continually alarmed when we expected to rest. Our cannon and small shot fired the whole night round the walls, and much railing was betwixt our men and the enemies, for we were so closed up on all sides that though the night was stormy we could easily hear one another.’
The Diary Junction