Willes, John (DNB00)

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WILLES, Sir JOHN (1685–1761), chief justice of the common pleas, came of an old Warwickshire family, and was the son of John Willes, rector of Bishop's Itchington and canon of Lichfield, by his wife Anne, daughter of Sir William Walker, mayor of Oxford. He was born on 29 Nov. 1685, went to Lichfield free grammar school, and on 28 Nov. 1700 became an undergraduate of Trinity College, Oxford, though only fourteen years old. He graduated B.A. in 1704, M.A. in 1707, B.C.L. in 1710, and D.C.L. in 1715. He was also elected a fellow of All Souls' College.

On 20 Jan. 1708 he entered at Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar in June 1713 and joined the Oxford circuit. Though a man of ‘splendid abilities’ and grave demeanour, he was loose and indolent, and took more interest in politics than in law. Still he must have soon attained a good position in his profession, for in 1719 he was appointed a king's counsel. On 12 April 1722 he was elected member for Launceston, the return being amended by inserting his name by order of the house on 17 March 1723–4. He held this seat till 1726. He was a staunch supporter of Walpole, and in 1726 claimed as the reward of his services the solicitor-generalship. He had in particular given assistance during the proceedings against Bishop Atterbury and the bill for imposing additional taxation on the Roman catholics. His request was refused, but he received a judgeship on the Chester circuit in May 1726, and thereby lost his seat, but was returned for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis on 9 June, taking the place of the previous member, Ward, who was expelled the house. He spent so large a sum in contesting this seat that he subsequently sat for West Looe from 23 Aug. 1727 till 1737, where elections were less costly. In February 1729 he was appointed chief justice of Chester, and in January 1734 attorney-general. He was then knighted, and on 23 Jan. 1737 succeeded Sir Thomas Reeve [q. v.] in the chief-justiceship of the common pleas. Being disappointed in his hopes of the chancellorship when Lord Hardwicke succeeded Talbot in 1737, he abandoned Walpole and allied himself with Lord Carteret; but still finding his ambition unlikely to be gratified, he courted the Pelhams, and finally attached himself to Pitt. In 1745 he endeavoured to organise a volunteer regiment of lawyers to guard the royal family during the king's absence (H. Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 410); but this service was not acceptable to the crown, and he failed even to get his commission as colonel. On Lord Hardwicke's resignation he again hoped for the chancellorship, though, according to Walpole, 14 Feb. 1746, he had refused it in 1746; but, owing to the king's objections to his private character, the great seal was put into commission and he was only named senior commissioner. This arrangement lasted from 19 Nov. 1756 to 30 June 1757. He was then offered the chancellorship in the administration of Pitt and Newcastle, but, indiscreetly demanding a peerage as a condition of his acceptance, which the king was unwilling to grant, he was passed over and Robert Henley (afterwards first Earl of Northington) [q. v.] was appointed. His mortification shortened his life, and for some time before his death he was unable to go into court. He died on 15 Dec. 1761 at his house in Bloomsbury Square, London, and was buried at Bishop's Ickington. Though politically an unscrupulous intriguer, he was a lawyer of great learning and a judge of ability. His severity to attorneys led to his court being short of business, and his decisions of importance are few, having regard to the length of time during which he was on the bench. He presided at the trial of Elizabeth Canning [q. v.] for perjury (State Trials, xix. 262), and preserved a long series of reports of cases decided before the common pleas during his chief-justiceship, which he intended to publish. A selection from them, with other cases, was published by Charles Durnford in 1799.

He married Margaret Brewster, a lady of a Worcestershire family, by whom he had four sons and four daughters. His second son, Edward, became a judge of the king's bench in 1768. His portrait, by Thomas Hudson, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and has been engraved by Faber and Johnson; another portrait by Van Loo was engraved by Vertue in 1744 (Bromley, p. 374).

[Foss's Lives of the Judges; Walpole's Memoirs, i. 77; Harris's Lord Hardwicke, iii. 139; Correspondence of the Earl of Chatham, i. 235; Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices, ii. 266 (which contains several inaccuracies); Clowes's Royal Navy, vol. iii.; Parl. Returns of Members of Parliament, 1878; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Register of Lincoln's Inn.]

J. A. H.