Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 53.djvu/230

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tion of the currency occasioned by the prevalent practice of clipping the hammered coin. In 1695 he devised a scheme for arresting its progress. A royal proclamation was to be suddenly and simultaneously issued in every part of the country, calling in the hammered coin to be weighed, after which it was to circulate only at its weight value, the difference between that and its nominal value being made good to the possessors by the state. This expedient had the approval of the king, but was eventually deemed too hazardous for adoption. On 30 Nov. 1699 he was elected to the chair of the Royal Society, which he continued to hold until 1704.

Learning, patience, industry, instinctive equitableness of judgment, comprehensiveness of view, subtlety of discernment, and command of apt and perspicuous language; in short, all the qualities best fitted to adorn the woolsack, are ascribed to Somers by his contemporaries. Yet, partly by the fault of his reporters, partly in consequence of the dearth of causes célèbres, partly by reason of his early surrender of the great seal, his recorded achievement is by no means commensurate with his reputation. Of his decrees in chancery only the meagre summaries given by Vernon and Peere Williams are extant. In the most important case which came before him in the exchequer chamber, that of the bankers who had recovered judgment in the court of exchequer for arrears of interest due to them as assignees of certain perpetual annuities charged by Charles II upon the hereditary excise as security for advances, he expended some hundreds of pounds and an immense amount of thought and research, with no better result than to defeat an intrinsically just claim, on the technical ground that it was not cognisable in the court of exchequer, but only by petition of right. No judgment so elaborate had ever been delivered in Westminster Hall as that by which, in November 1696, he reversed the decision of the court of exchequer; and its subsequent reversal on 23 Jan. 1699–1700 by the House of Lords, in which lay peers then voted on legal questions, affords no ground for questioning the soundness of its law. The result caused Somers a mortification so intense as still further to impair a constitution never strong, and already undermined by excessive application to business; but the story that it made him so ill that he never again appeared on the woolsack is a mere fiction (Burnet, Own Time, 8vo, iv. 443 n.; Lords' Journal, xvi. 499 et seq.). He increased the efficiency of the House of Lords as a legal tribunal by compelling the judges to sit as assessors, stiffly maintained its jurisdiction to review cases decided in the Irish House of Lords, and in the cases of the Countess of Macclesfield and the Duchess of Norfolk vindicated for it an independent jurisdiction in cases of adultery by a wife.

Somers had opposed the commutation of the ancient hereditary revenues of the crown for an annual grant (17 Dec. 1689), and was requited by William with a larger measure of his confidence than was enjoyed by any other Englishman except Sunderland [see Spencer, Robert, second Earl of Sunderland]. Perhaps Dutch was one of the ‘septem ferme idiomatum’ of which, according to Filicaia, he was master; at any rate he could converse with the king in French, and though he had never travelled, he was probably neither ignorant nor negligent of foreign affairs. At his instance William readily renounced (March 1693) the prerogative of disposing of judicial patronage proprio motu, which he had usurped while the great seal was in commission. Their relations were improved by the steady loyalty of which Somers gave proof after the defeat at Neerwinden, when he went forthwith to the Guildhall and raised a loan of 300,000l. to meet the exigencies of the hour (August 1693). If William insisted on vetoing the Place Bill, which would have excluded from the House of Commons all paid servants of the crown except ministers, he yielded, probably to Somers's advice, in regard to the Triennial Bill, which received the royal assent towards the end of 1694, and the king and the lord keeper were heartily at one in approving the omission to renew the Licensing Act, by which the press gained a liberty that Milton's eloquence had failed to secure for it. On the death of Queen Mary, 28 Dec. 1694, Somers aided Sunderland in bringing about a reconciliation (rather apparent than real) between the king and the Princess Anne. The king was guided by Somers's advice in regard to the assassination plot, and in the affair of Sir John Fenwick (1645?–1697) [q. v.], in which a certain deviation from the strict line of impartial justice must be acknowledged; and with Somers rested the responsibility for the cashiering of the numerous justices of the peace who refused to join the association for the protection of the king's person. In 1695 and the four succeeding years Somers was one of the lords justices who formed the council of regency during the king's absence on the continent, and of which virtute officii he was the working head. Hence he was associated in the popular mind with William and his foreign policy far more closely than there is reason