Comyns, John (DNB00)

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COMYNS, Sir JOHN (d. 1740), judge, was son of William Comyns of Lincoln's Inn, barrister-at-law, by Elizabeth, daughter of Matthew Rudd, of Little Baddow, Essex. He was admitted a student at Lincoln's Inn in May 1683, was called to the bar in 1690, and took the degree of serjeant-at-law on 8 June 1705. He sat in the House of Commons as junior member for Maldon from 1701 to 1708, and from 1710 to 1715. In 1711–12 he acted as temporary chairman of the elections committee. He travelled the home circuit. The only case of public interest in which he was engaged was tried at the Rochester assizes in the summer of 1719. In August of the preceding year fifty children belonging to the charity school of St. Anne's, Aldersgate, had been brought by the master and some of the trustees to hear a sermon preached on behalf of the charity at Chislehurst. The clergyman, the schoolmaster, and the trustees were apprehended, and subsequently indicted as rioters and vagrants. The defendants, for whom Comyns appeared, pleading the authority of the incumbent and of the bishop of Rochester (Atterbury), Sir Lyttleton Powys, who tried the case, was ‘a little suspicious that Mr. Hendley (the clergyman) had Cardinal Alberoni's leave as well as the bishop of Rochester's to carry on worse designs under the specious colour of advancing charity;’ and, the jury returning a verdict of guilty, the defendants were fined 6s. 8d. each. In 1722 Comyns was again returned to parliament for Maldon. In 1726 (7 Sept.) he was sworn a baron of the exchequer in the place of Sir Francis Page, and knighted. In January 1735–6 he was transferred to the common pleas, and two years later (July 1738) he was appointed lord chief baron of the exchequer by Lord Hardwicke. He died on 13 Nov. 1740, and was buried in the parish church of Writtle near Chelmsford. He married thrice, but left no issue. His estate of Highlands, near Chelmsford, passed to his nephew, John Comyns. Comyns is the author of two legal works of great authority, viz.: 1. ‘Reports of Cases adjudged in the Courts of King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer.’ 2. ‘A Digest of the Laws of England.’ Both works were written in ‘law French.’ The ‘Reports’ were translated by the judge's nephew, J. Comyns of the Inner Temple, and published in one volume in 1744, with the sanction and approbation of the judges. They were re-edited in 1792 by Samuel Rose. A translation of the ‘Digest’ was issued in five instalments between 1762–7 (inclusive), and a supplement in one volume was added by ‘a gentleman of the Inner Temple’ in 1776. The work was re-edited and issued in 5 vols. 8vo by Samuel Rose in 1800, and by Anthony Hammond, with considerable additions, in 8 vols. 8vo in 1822. A reprint of this, which is known as the fifth edition, edited by Thomas Day, and incorporating American decisions, was published in New York and Philadelphia in 1824–6, also in 8 vols. 8vo. The authority of Comyns has been treated with signal respect by some of the most eminent of his successors on the bench. Thus Lord Kenyon observed that ‘his opinion alone was of great authority, since he was considered by his contemporaries as the most able lawyer in Westminster Hall;’ Lord Ellenborough described the ‘Digest’ as a ‘book of very excellent authority;’ and Lord-chief-justice Best thought himself ‘warranted in saying that we cannot have a better authority than that eminent writer.’

[Morant's Essex, ii. 60; Lists of Members of Parliament (Official Return of); Luttrell's Relation of State Affairs, v. 561, vi. 720; Howell's State Trials, xv. 1410–14; Lord Raymond's Reports, ed. Bayley, p. 1420; Gent. Mag. ii. 825, vi. 56, viii. 381, 547, x. 571, xiv. 112; Harris's Life of Lord Hardwicke, i. 188, 291, 305; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Maule and Selwyn's Rep. i. 363; Barnewall and Alderson's Rep. i. 713; Price's Rep. viii. 61; Term Rep. iii. 64, 631; Bingham's Rep. v. 387.]

J. M. R.