Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Henley, Robert (1708?-1772)

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HENLEY, ROBERT, first Earl of Northington (1708?–1772), lord chancellor, was the second son of Anthony Henley [q. v.] Henley was educated at Westminster School. He matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford, on 19 Nov. 1724, aged 16, was elected a fellow of All Souls, and graduated B.A. on 10 March 1728–9, and M.A. on 5 July 1733. He was admitted a student of the Inner Temple on 1 Feb. 1728, and having been called to the bar on 23 June 1732, joined the western circuit. In his youth he was a hard drinker, and when suffering in later life from a severe fit of gout was overheard in the House of Lords muttering to himself, ‘If I had known that these legs were one day to carry a chancellor, I'd have taken better care of them when I was a lad’ (Memoir, p. 13). His rough and boisterous manners at the bar not unfrequently involved him in altercations with witnesses, and Bishop Newton records a curious anecdote of his being compelled to apologise at Bristol to a pugnacious quaker for the liberties which he had taken with him in cross-examination (Works, vol. i.; Life, pp. 16, 17). Henley spent most of his leisure time at Bath, where he made the acquaintance of Jane, daughter and coheiress of Sir John Huband, bart., of Ipsley, Warwickshire, whom he married on 1 Dec. 1743. His elder brother Anthony (whose marriage to Elizabeth, elder daughter of James, third earl of Berkeley, is amusingly referred to in Mrs. Delany's Autobiography, 1st ser. i. 156–7) dying in 1745, Henley came into possession of the paternal estates in Hampshire and Dorsetshire, together with the town house on the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields, in which he resided when lord chancellor. On 23 April 1745 he was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn, for the purpose of holding chambers in that inn. At the general election in the summer of 1747 he was returned to parliament for the city of Bath, which constituency he continued to represent until June 1757. He joined the Leicester House party, and soon after the death of Frederick, prince of Wales (March 1751), was appointed solicitor-general to the young prince, afterwards George III. On 12 July 1751 he became a king's counsel, and in Michaelmas term was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple. In this year he was also appointed recorder of Bath. Henley was a very successful leader, not only on the western circuit, but at Westminster, both in banc and at nisi prius. In 1754 he was promoted to the post of attorney-general to the Prince of Wales, and on 6 Nov. 1756 was appointed attorney-general in the Devonshire and Pitt administration, being knighted the same day. In accordance with the practice at that time he left the court of king's bench on receiving this appointment, and removed to the court of chancery. On the formation of the coalition ministry by the Duke of Newcastle and Pitt, in the following year Henley, on Pitt's recommendation, received the appointment of lord keeper of the great seal. He was sworn into office and admitted to the privy council on 30 June 1757, and was duly installed in the court of chancery on the first day of Michaelmas term. Henley took his seat as speaker of the House of Lords on 1 July 1757 (Journals of the House of Lords, xxix. 189). He presided over the house as a commoner for nearly three years, but on 27 March 1760 was created Lord Henley, Baron of Grainge in the county of Southampton, in anticipation of the trial of Lord Ferrers for the murder of his steward, John Johnson, it being thought right that the first law officer of the crown should preside. He sat as lord high steward on that occasion on 16 April 1760 and the two following days (Howell, State Trials, 1813, xix. 885–973). Horace Walpole, in a letter to George Montagu, dated 19 April 1760, ridicules his undignified manners (Letters, Cunningham's edit. iii. 299), but his judgment seems to have been both grave and appropriate (Howell, State Trials, xix. 958–959). On 16 Jan. 1761, having delivered up the seal to George III, Henley received it back with the title of lord chancellor (London Gazette, 1761, No. 10070). As a further reward for his steadfast allegiance to the king, he was created Viscount Henley and Earl of Northington on 19 May 1764, and on 21 Aug. in the same year was appointed lord-lieutenant of Hampshire. On 16 April 1765 and the following day he presided as lord high steward at the trial of William, fifth lord Byron, for killing William Chaworth in a duel (Howell, State Trials, xix. 1177–1236). Though frequently incapacitated from his duties by repeated attacks of gout, Northington continued to act as lord chancellor during the successive administrations of Bute, Grenville, and Rockingham. Northington was undoubtedly the cause of Rockingham's dismissal. He had already differed with his colleagues on the commercial treaty with Russia, which had been negotiated by Sir George Macartney, when at the cabinet meeting held at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 4 July 1766 he expressed in the strongest terms his disapprobation of the report which had been drawn up for the civil government of Canada. He subsequently declared that he would not attend any more cabinet meetings, and in an audience with the king advised him to send for Pitt. After some negotiations between Pitt and Temple, in which he took part, Northington was appointed lord president of the council on 30 July 1766 (Camden becoming lord chancellor), in the administration of Grafton and Chatham. A pension and the reversion of the hanaper for two lives upon the death of the second Duke of Chandos were granted to him (see letters between Northington and Pitt in the Chatham Correspondence, 1838, vol. ii.) Owing to increasing infirmities Northington was prevented from taking any important part in the new administration. In May or June 1767 he expressed his wish to retire, but consented to remain in office for some months longer at the king's desire. He resigned on 23 Dec. 1767, and was succeeded as lord president by Granville Leveson, earl Gower. In the course of the following year Northington was offered the post of lord privy seal; but though his health had much improved he declined the offer. He died at the Grange (‘that sweet house of my lord keeper's’) (Walpole, Letters, iii. 162) on 14 Jan. 1772, aged 64, and was buried in Northington Church, where a monument was erected to his memory by his daughters.

In Lord Eldon's judgment Northington was ‘a great lawyer, and very firm in delivering his opinion.’ It has, however, been truly remarked that his boldness in delivering his opinions was not quite equalled by his care and caution in forming them. He was a thoroughly upright judge. When Fox consulted him whether the king could not revoke the patents granted in former reigns, and whether the case might not be laid before the twelve judges for their opinion, Northington is said to have replied, ‘Yes, they might lay the idea before the judges, and then refer Magna Charta to them afterwards to decide on that too’ (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George III, i. 240). His judgments were clear and simple in style, and, according to his biographer, during the nine years in which Northington held the seals, ‘six only of his decrees were ever reversed or materially varied upon appeal’ (Memoir, p. 56). He left behind him a large number of manuscript notes, taken by himself while presiding over the court of chancery. These were subsequently collected and arranged by his grandson, the Hon. Robert Henley Eden, afterwards second Baron Henley, and published in 1818 under the title of ‘Reports of Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery from 1757 to 1766, from the original Manuscripts of Lord Chancellor Northington,’ &c., London, 8vo, 2 vols. A second edition of these reports, ‘with considerable additions,’ was published in 1827, London, 8vo, 2 vols. Several of Northington's judgments dealing with subjects of general interest are appended to his memoir. He was a consistent supporter first of the Leicester House party, and afterwards of ‘the king's friends.’ Although a reckless debater, he did not often speak. He was a great favourite with George III, who declared in a letter to Pitt, dated 7 July 1766, that ‘there is no man in my service on whom I so thoroughly rely’ (Chatham Correspondence, ii. 436). Northington asked the king permission to discontinue the evening sittings in the court of chancery on Wednesdays and Fridays, in order that he might finish his bottle of port comfortably after dinner, a reason which his majesty's solicitude for the happiness of his subjects would, he hoped, make sufficient. Many anecdotes are told of his habit of hard swearing. He was familiarly known by the nicknames of ‘Tom Tilbury’ and ‘Surly Bob.’

By his wife, who survived him many years, and died in Grosvenor Square on 12 Sept. 1787, Northington had eight children, three sons, viz. Robert [q. v.], who succeeded him as the second earl, and Robert and Henry, both of whom died in infancy; and five daughters, viz. (1) Bridget, who married, firstly, on 29 June 1761, the Hon. Robert Lane, only son of George, lord Bingley; and secondly, in 1773, the Hon. John Tollemache, fourth son of Lionel, third earl of Dysart, who was killed in a duel at New York on 25 Sept. 1777. She inherited much of her father's wit and love of jocularity, and was a great favourite at court. Frequent references to her occur in the literature of the day. She died without leaving issue on 13 March 1796. (2) Jane, who married on 26 Dec. 1772 Sir Willoughby Aston, bart., and died without issue. (3) Mary, who married, firstly, on 14 Dec. 1773, Edward, earl Ligonier; and secondly, on 4 Feb. 1778, Thomas, second viscount Wentworth. She died without issue on 29 June 1814. (4) Catherine, who married on 18 March 1777 George, viscount Deerhurst, afterwards seventh earl of Coventry, and died without issue on 9 Jan. 1779. (5) Elizabeth, who married on 7 Aug. 1783 Morton Eden [q. v.] (created an Irish peer by the title of Baron Henley of Chardstock on 9 Nov. 1799), and died on 20 Aug. 1821. Her grandson, the third and present Baron Henley, was created a peer of the United Kingdom by the title of Baron Northington of Watford in the county of Northampton, on 28 June 1885.

Northington was a handsome man, of middle height, rather thin, and with a bright fresh-coloured complexion. His portrait, painted by Thomas Hudson, was lent by Lord Henley to the Loan Collection of National Portraits at South Kensington in 1867 (Catalogue, No. 446). It has been engraved by J. McArdell and W. C. Edwards, and the latter engraving forms the frontispiece to the memoir. Henley was the last person who held the title of lord keeper.

[Lord Henley's Memoir of Lord Chancellor Northington, 1831; Lord Campbell's Lives of the Lord Chancellors, 1846, v. 174–228; Foss's Judges of England, 1864, viii. 303–8; Grenville Papers, 1853, vols. iii. and iv.; Harris's Life of Lord Hardwicke, 1847, vol. iii.; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 1846, i. 96, 108, iii. 33; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, 1845, i. 240, ii. 93–4, 333–335, 347–8, 357, 372, 395, 409, 449, iii. 58–9, 141; Works of Thomas Newton, Bishop of Bristol, with some Account of his Life, 1782, i. 8, 16–18; Lord Albemarle's Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham, 1852, i. 227–82, 343–344, 350–70; Adolphus's Hist. of England, 1840, i. 223–33; Burke's Extinct Peerage, 1883, p. 270; Doyle's Official Baronage of England, 1886, ii. 637–8; Alumni Westmon. 1852, pp. 283, 292, 545; Alumni Oxonienses, 1888, ii. 645; Martin's Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple, 1883, p. 74; Gent. Mag. 1772 xlii. 47, 1787 vol. lvii. pt. ii. 840; Grose's Olio, 1796, pp. 173–5; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 385, 430; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 103, 115.]

G. F. R. B.