Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Egerton, Thomas

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
770127Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17 — Egerton, Thomas1889Sidney Lee

EGERTON, Sir THOMAS, Baron Ellesmere and Viscount Brackley (1540?–1617), lord chancellor, born about 1540, was the natural son of Sir Richard Egerton of Ridley, Cheshire, by one Alice Sparke. His father's family claimed descent from Robert Fitzhugh, baron of Malpas, a contemporary of William I. He is stated to have become a commoner of Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1556, but his name is absent from the matriculation register. He entered Lincoln's Inn three years later; was called to the bar in 1572; quickly acquired a large practice in the chancery courts, and was rapidly promoted. In 1580 he was governor of his inn, in 1582 Lent reader, and in 1587 treasurer. He became solicitor-general on 26 June 1581, and attorney-general on 2 June 1592. He was knighted at the close of 1593, and was appointed chamberlain of Chester. It is stated that the queen conferred the solicitorship after hearing him plead in a case in which he opposed the crown. 'In my troth,' she is said to have exclaimed, 'he shall never plead against me again.' He conducted the prosecutions of Campion in 1581, of Davison in 1587, of the Earl of Arundel in 1589, and of Sir John Perrot in 1592. On 10 April 1594 Egerton was promoted to the bench as master of the rolls, and after Sir John Puckering's death he became lord keeper on 6 May 1596. The last promotion, like the first, was conferred on him by the queen's 'own choice without any competitor or mediator.' Burghley was ill pleased by Elizabeth's independent action, but the popular verdict was highly favourable to the appointment. 'I think no man,' wrote Reynolds to Essex, 'ever came to this dignity with more applause than this worthy gentleman' (Birch, Memoirs, i. 479). Egerton was made at the same time a privy councillor, and continued to hold the mastership of the rolls till 18 May 1603. Elizabeth consulted him repeatedly in matters of home and foreign policy. In 1598 he was a commissioner for treating with the Dutch, and in 1600 was similarly employed with Denmark. As lord keeper he delivered the queen's messages to parliament, and announced her temporising decision respecting monopolies on Feb. 1597-8. In November 1601 he came into collision with the speaker of the House of Commons on a small question of procedure, and was compelled to withdraw from the position that he first took up. His consideration for deserving young barristers is illustrated by the invariable kindness which he showed to Francis Bacon, who acknowledged his 'fatherly care' when writing of him in 1596. In 1606 Egerton worked hard to secure the attorney-generalship for Bacon, but although he met with no success, his openly displayed patronage was of assistance to Bacon at the bar.

Egerton made the acquaintance of the Earl of Essex [see Devereux, Robert, 1567-1601] soon after coming to court, and in spite of the disparity in their ages a warm friendship sprang up between them. 'They love and join very honourably together,' wrote Anthony Bacon to Dr. Hawkins (Birch, ii. 146). Egerton was one of the few councillors who witnessed the famous scene in the council, in July 1598, when Essex insulted the queen and she boxed his ears. Afterwards in well-reasoned letters Egerton earnestly urged upon Essex the obvious prudence of a humble apology to Elizabeth. While Essex was in Ireland in the autumn of 1599, Egerton sent the earl a timely warning that his policy was exciting suspicion and dissatisfaction at home. When Essex arrived home without leave, he was committed to the custody of the lord keeper on 1 Oct. 1599, and lived in York House, the lord keeper's official residence, till 5 July 1600. A month earlier he was brought before a specially constituted court, meeting in York House, over which Egerton presided, and was then deprived of all his offices. On the morning of Sunday, 8 Feb. 1600-1, the day fixed by Essex for his rebellion, Egerton, with three other officers of state, went to Essex's house to request an explanation of his suspicious conduct. They were allowed to enter, and cries of 'Ball them' were raised by Essex's armed supporters. Essex led them to a back room, and locked the door upon them. They were released at four o'cIock in the afternoon, after six hours' detention, when the failure of Essex's rebellion was known. Egerton took a prominent part in Essex's trial on 19 Feb. 1600-1.

The queen's confidence in her lord keeper increased with her years. He was an active member of all special commissions. From 31 July to 8 Aug. 1602 he entertained the queen at enormous expense for three days at his house at Harefield, Middlesex (Egerton Papers, 340-57). He had bought this estate of Sir Edmund Anderson in 1601. With James I Egerton was soon on equally good terms. On 26 March 1603, two days after the queen's death, the Earl of Northumberland declared that the privy councillors had no authority to act in the interregnum, and that the old nobility should fill their places. Egerton acquiesced so far as to suggest that privy councillors who were not peers should surrender their seats at the head of the council table to those councillors who were. On 6 April 1603 James, while still in Scotland, reappointed Egerton lord keeper, and Egerton met the king on his journey into England at Broxbourne on 3 May. Sixteen days later he resigned the office of master of the rolls to Edward Bruce, lord Kinross. On 19 July, when he received from the king the new great seal, he was made Baron Ellesmere, and on the 24th lord chancellor. Ellesmere proved subservient to James. He adopted James's hostile attitude to the puritans at the Hampton Court conference in 1604, and declared that the king's speech then first taught him the meaning of the phrase, 'Rex est mixta persona cum sacerdote.' On 9 Feb. 1604-5 he expressed resentment at a petition from Northamptonshire demanding the restitution of deprived puritan ministers, and obtained from the Star-chamber a declaration that the deprivation was lawful, and the presentation of the petition unlawful. Three days later he directed the judges to enforce the penal laws against the catholics. Ellesmere helped to determine the Act of Union of England and Scotland in 1606 and 1607. In June 1608 a case of great importance affecting the relations between the two countries was decided by the chancellor and twelve judges in the exchequer chambers. Doubts had arisen as to the status in England of Scottish persons born after the accession of James I. Those born before the accession (the 'antenati') were acknowledged to be aliens. The 'postnati' claimed to be naturalised subjects and capable of holding land in England. Land had been purchased in England in 1607 on behalf of Robert Colvill or Colvin, a grandson of Lord Colvill of Culross, who was born in Edinburgh in 1605. A legal question arose, and the plea that the child was an alien and incapable of holding land in England was raised. Ellesmere decided that this plea was bad, and that the child was a natural-born subject of the king of England. Twelve of the fourteen judges concurred, and Ellesmere treated the two dissentients with scant courtesy. This judgment, the most important that Ellesmere delivered, was printed by order of the king in 1609.

In May 1613 Ellesmere took a prominent part in committing Whitelocke to the Tower for indirectly questioning the royal prerogative by denying the powers of the earl marshal's court; in July 1615 Ellesmere declined to pass the pardon which Somerset had drawn up for himself, with the aid of Sir Robert Cotton; in September 1615 he made recommendations in the council for stifling opposition in the next parliament, and acted as high steward at the trial of the Earl and Countess of Somerset for the murder of Overbury in May 1616. In the struggle between the courts of equity and common law initiated by Coke, Ellesmere successfully maintained the supremacy of his own court. When the king appealed to Ellesmere as to points of law involved in his well-known dispute with Coke in June 1616, Ellesmere obtained from Bacon a legal opinion against Coke, which he adopted. On 18 Nov. 1616, when administering the oaths to Sir Henry Montague, Coke's successor as lord chief justice, he warned the new judge against following the example of his predecessor.

On 7 Nov. 1616 Ellesmere, whose health was rapidly failing, was promoted to the title of Viscount Brackley, which Coke's friends and his enemies miscalled 'Break-law.' As early as 1613 he had pressed his resignation on the king on account of increasing infirmities; but it was not till 3 March 1616-17 that James I allowed him to retire, and even then it was stipulated that his release from office should, unless his health grew worse, only continue for two years. Egerton was at the time lying ill at York House, and the king arranged the matter while paying him a visit. As a reward of faithful service James promised him an earldom. Twelve days later (15 March) Egerton died. He was buried at Dodleston, Cheshire, on 5 April His only surviving son John [q. v.] was created Earl of Bridge water on 27 May following. Bacon asserted that it was by Ellesmere's own wish that he succeeded him as lord chancellor. Ellesmere was chancellor of Oxford University from 1610 till 24 Jan. 1616-17. He is said to have been the first chancellor since the Reformation who employed a chaplain in his family. Dr. John Williams [q. v.] lived with him in that capacity for many years, and Dr. John Donne [q. v.] was also at one time a member of his household. The foundations of the great library at Bridgewater House were laid by the chancellor; some of the books came to him through his third wife, the Dowager Countess of Derby, who as Alice Spencer and Lady Strange was a well-known patron of Elizabethan literature (Collier, Cat, of Bridgewater House Library, 1857, pref.; Masson, Life of Milton, i. 554-61).

Egerton married first. Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Ravenscroft, esq., of Bretton, Flintshire; secondly, Elizabeth, sister of Sir George More of Loseby, and widow both of John Polstead of Abury and of Sir John Wolley; and thirdly, in 1600, Alice, daughter of Sir John Spencer of Althorpe, and widow of Ferdinando, fifth earl of Derby. By his first wife he was father of two sons and a daughter. The younger son John ia separately noticed. The elder son Thomas went the islands' voyage in 1597; was then knighted; was baron of the excequer of Cheshire from 1596; was killed in Ireland in August 1599, and was buried in Chester Cathedral 27 Sept. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Venables of Kinderton, Cheshire, by whom he had three daughters. The chancellor's daughter Mary was wife of Sir Francis Leigh of Newnham Regis, Warwickshire. Ellesmere had no issue by his second and third wives. His third wife, whose daughter married her stepson, John Egerton, 'long survived him, and continued to live at Harefield, where in 1634 Milton produced his 'Arcades.'

Egerton was highly esteemed by his contemporaries. Sir George Paule, in his 'Life of Whitgift,'1612, mentions him as 'a loving, faithful friend to the archbishop in all his Affairs,' 'a lover of learning, and most constant favourer of the clergy and church government established,' Camden mentions an anagram on his name, 'Gestat Honorem,' and gives unstinted praise to the whole of his career. Hacket, Fuller, and Anthony à Wood are equally enthusiastic. Sir John Davies credits him with all the characteristics of on ideal chancellor, and paid a compliment to his literary taste by dedicating his 'Orchestra' to him. (The dedicatory sonnet is in manuscript in a copy of the volume at Bridgewater House, and is not printed in the ordinary editions.) Although always dignified, in his bearing on the bench. Bacon ascribes to him some severely sarcastic apophthegms spoken to suitors in his court. His venerable presence is said to have drawn many spectators to his court, 'in order to see and admire him' (Fuller). Literary men praised him lavishly. Ben Jonson wrote three epigrams in his honour, Samuel Daniel an epistle in verse, and Joshua Sylvester a sonnet.

Ellesmere published nothing except his judgment in the case of the 'postnati' in Colvin's case. He left to his chaplain Williams manuscript treatises on the royal prerogative, the privileges of parliament, proceedings in chancery, and the power of the Star-chamber. Williams owed, according to his biographer, whatever success he achieved as lord keeper to his diligent study of those papers (Hacket, Life of Willliams, pp. 30-1). Williams afterwards presented them to James I. Blackstone refers to the treatise on the Star-chamber in his 'Commentaries,' iv. 267; it is now in the British Museum Harl. MS. 1226. In 1641 'The Priviledges of Prerogative of the High Court of Chancery' was issued as a work of Ellesmere. Of the other two manuscript treatises nothing is now known. It is highly doubtful whether 'Observations concerning the Office of Lord Chancellor,' 1651, and 'Lord Chancellor Egerton's Observations on Lord Coke's Reports,' edited by G. Paule about 1710, have any claim to rank as Ellesmere's productions, although they have been repeatedly treated as genuine. Engraved portraits by Simon Pass and Hole are extant.

[An elaborate life by Francis Henry Egerton, eighth earl of Bridgewater [q.v.] appears in Kippis's Biog. Brit. It was reprinted separately in 1793, and with various editions in 1798, 1801, 1812. and 1828. The Egerton Papers, edited by Mr. J. P. Collier, and published by the Camden Soc. in 1840, contain a number of the chancellor's official papers preserved at Bridgewater House. In the Miscellany of the Abbotsford Club, i. 219-225, are six of Ellesmere's letters, three to James I and three to John Murray; others appear in Cabala. See also Foss's Judges, vi. 135-52; Campbell's Lives of the Lord Chancellors, ii. 174-261; Dugdale's Baronage, ii. 414; Nichols's Progresses of Elizabeth and James I; Gardiner's Hist, of England; Collins's Peerage, ii. 225-32; Birch's Memoirs; Spedding's Life of Bacon; Chauncy's Hertfordshire; Clutterbuck's Hertfordshire; Ormerod's Cheshire; Cal. State Papers (Domestic), 1581-1617.]

S. L. L.