Wright, Nathan (DNB00)

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WRIGHT, Sir NATHAN (1654–1721), judge, eldest surviving son of Ezekiel Wright, B.D., rector of Thurcaston, Leicestershire, by Dorothy, second daughter of John Oneby of Hinckley in the same county, was born on 15 Feb. 1653–4. He was entered in 1668 at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but left the university without a degree, and in 1670 was admitted at the Inner Temple, where he was called to the bar on 29 Nov. 1677, and elected bencher in 1692. On the death of his father in 1668 Wright inherited a competence which enabled him to marry early, and gave him a certain standing in his native county. The recordership of Leicester, to which he was elected in 1680, he lost on the surrender of the charter of the borough in 1684, but was reinstated in office on its restoration in 1688. In the same year he was elected deputy-recorder of Nottingham, and was junior counsel for the crown in the case of the seven bishops (29 June). On 11 April 1692 he was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law. On 16 Dec. 1696 he greatly distinguished himself by his speech as counsel for the crown in the proceedings against Sir John Fenwick [q. v.] in the House of Lords, and shortly before the commencement of Hilary term 1696–7 he was made king's serjeant and knighted.

Wright opened the case against the Earl of Warwick on his trial on 28 March 1699 for the murder of Richard Coote, conducted on 12 Oct. following the prosecution of Mary Butler, alias Strickland, for forgery, and was one of the counsel for the Duke of Norfolk in the proceedings on his divorce bill in March 1699–1700 [see Howard, Henry, seventh Duke of Norfolk]. In the same year he was offered the great seal, in default of a better lawyer willing to succeed Lord Somers. He accepted not without hesitation, and was appointed lord keeper and sworn of the privy council on 21 May. He took his seat as speaker of the House of Lords on 20 June following, and the oaths and declaration on 10 Feb. 1700–1. He was one of the lords justices nominated on 27 June 1700, and again on 28 June 1701, to act as regents during the king's absence from the realm. He was also an ex-officio member of the board of trade. Wright presided over the proceedings taken against Somers and the other lords on whom it was sought to fix the responsibility for the negotiation of the partition treaty [see Bentinck, William, first Earl of Portland; Montagu, Charles, Earl of Halifax; Somers or Sommers, John, Lord Somers]. He continued in office on the accession of Queen Anne; he pronounced on 31 July 1702 the decree dissolving the Savoy Hospital, and presided over the commission which on 22 Oct. following met at the Cockpit to discuss the terms of the projected union with Scotland but accomplished nothing. On 14 Dec. 1704 he conveyed the thanks of the House of Lords to Marlborough for his services in the late campaign.

Among the sages of the law Wright has no place. Entirely without experience of chancery business, he made a shift to supply his deficiencies by assiduous study of a manual of practice compiled for his use; but, though he succeeded in avoiding serious error, the extreme circumspection with which he proceeded entailed a vast accumulation of arrears. His shortcomings were the more conspicuous by contrast with the great qualities of his predecessor, and the political meanness which led him to exclude Somers with other whig magnates from the commission of the peace gave occasion to unpleasant animadversions in the House of Commons (31 March 1704). His judicial integrity, however, is unimpeached even by his most censorious critic, Bishop Burnet; and his intervention, by the issue of writs of habeas corpus (8 March 1704–5), on behalf of the two counsel committed by the House of Commons to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms for pleading the cause of the plaintiffs in the Aylesbury election case, if indiscreet, was at any rate courageous [see Montagu, Sir James]. The House of Commons peremptorily enjoined the serjeant-at-arms to make no return to the writs, and might perhaps have proceeded to commit the lord keeper had not an opportune prorogation terminated the affair [cf. Holt, Sir John].

The coalition of the following autumn between Marlborough and Godolphin and the whig junto was sealed by the dismissal of Wright, now out of favour with both parties, and his replacement (11 Oct.) by William (afterwards Lord) Cowper [q. v.] Neither peerage nor pension rewarded his services; but the wealth which he had amassed, largely, it was rumoured, by the corrupt disposal of patronage, enabled him to sustain with dignity the position of a county magnate. His principal seat was at Caldecote in Warwickshire, but he had also estates at Hartshill, Belgrave, and Brooksby in Leicestershire. He died at Caldecote on 4 Aug. 1721, and was buried in Caldecote church.

Wright married, in 1676 (license dated 4 July), Elizabeth, second daughter of George Ashby of Quenby, Leicestershire (Chester, London Marr. Licences, col. 1514), by whom he had six sons and four daughters. The eldest son, George Wright, purchased the manor of Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire, which remained in his posterity until the present century.

Wright is described by Macky (Memoirs, Roxburghe Club, p. 50) as ‘of middle stature,’ with ‘a fat broad face much marked by the small-pox.’ An engraving from his portrait by White, done in 1700, is in the British Museum (cf. Nichols, Leicestershire, iii. 218). His decrees in chancery are reported by Vernon and Peere Williams. For the proceedings in the case of the Savoy, see ‘Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica,’ vii. 238, and Stowe MS. 865. For epistolary and other remains, see Additional MSS. 21506 f. 111, 28227 ff. 67, 71, 29588 f. 135; Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. i. 440, ii. 103, 12th Rep. App. iii. 14. A small but important modification of criminal procedure, the substitution (by 1 Anne, stat. ii. c. 9, s. 3) of sworn for unsworn testimony on behalf of the prisoner in cases of treason and felony, appears to have been due to Wright's initiative.

[Le Neve's Pedigrees of the Knights (Harl. Soc.); Inner Temple Books; Nichols's Leicestershire, i. 435 et seq., 438, 453, iii. 176, 194, 216, 1059, iv. 689, 1036; Dugdale's Warwickshire, ed. Thomas, p. 1097; Lipscomb's Buckinghamshire, iv. 151; Howell's State Trials, xii. 280, 954, xiii. 1250, 1355, xiv. 861, 876; Luttrell's Relation of State Affairs; Raymond's Rep. p. 135; London Gazette, 20–28 May, 27 June–1 July 1700, 26–30 June 1701; Lords' Journals, xvi. 583; Boyer's Annals of Queen Anne, i. 155, iii. 184, iv. 181; Account of the Conduct of the Duchess of Marlborough, 1742, pp. 124, 147; Burnet's Own Time (fol.) ii. 242, 379, 426; Vernon's Letters, ed. James, ii. 54, 56, 257; Noble's Continuation of Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England, i. 35; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, x. 302; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin, vi. 25; Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Stanhope's Hist. of England, 1701–13.]

J. M. R.