Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Law, Edward (1750-1818)

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LAW, EDWARD, first Baron Ellenborough (1750–1818), lord chief justice of England, fourth son of Edmund Law [q. v.], bishop of Carlisle, by his wife Mary, daughter of John Christian of Unerigg or Ewanrigg, in the parish of Dearham, Cumberland, was born at Great Salkeld, Cumberland, where his father was then rector, on 16 Nov. 1750. At the age of eight he went to live with his maternal uncle, the Rev. Humphrey Christian. After a short time at school at Bury St. Edmunds, Law was removed to the Charterhouse, where he was admitted a scholar on 22 Jan. 1761 upon the nomination of Dr. Sherlock, bishop of London. Here he remained six years, 'a bluff burly boy, at once moody and good-natured, ever ready to inflict a blow or perform an exercise for his schoolfellows' (Capel Lofft, quoted in Lord Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices, iii. 96). He became captain of the school, and being elected an exhibitioner on 2 May 1767, matriculated on 11 July in the same year at Peterhouse, Cambridge, of which his father was then the master. While at the university he became acquainted with Vicary Gibbs [q. v.], Simon de Blanc, and Soulden Lawrence, all of whom afterwards sat with him on the judicial bench, and with William Coxe [q. v.], who drew a flattering description of his friend as 'Philotes' (Quarterly Review, 1. 102–3). Law was third wrangler and senior chancellor's medallist in 1771, and obtained the member's prize for the second best Latin essay in 1772 and 1773. He graduated B.A. 1771 and M.A. 1774. Though his father wished to have all his sons in the church, Law determined to try his fortune at the bar, and was admitted a student at Lincoln's Inn on 10 June 1769. Having been elected a fellow of his college on 29 June 1771, Law was enabled to go up to London, where he became the pupil of George Wood, the celebrated special pleader, who afterwards became a baron of the exchequer. In 1775 he commenced practising as a special pleader on his own account, and soon made a handsome income. After five years' drudgery in chambers he was called to the bar on 12 June 1780 (the same day as William Pitt, his fellow-student of Lincoln's Inn), and joined the northern circuit, where his family connection and the reputation which he had acquired as a special pleader stood him in good stead. He rapidly acquired a large practice, and in spite of Thurlow's objections to his whig principles was made a king's counsel on 27 June 1787, and on 16 Nov. 1787 was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple, to which society he had been admitted in November 1782 on leaving Lincoln's Inn. Hitherto Law's fame at the bar had been confined to the northern circuit; but on the suggestion of Sir Thomas Rumbold, who had married his youngest sister, Joanna, he was retained as the leading counsel for Warren Hastings, his juniors being Thomas Plumer and Robert Dallas [q. v.], both of whom were subsequently raised to the bench. The ability with which he conducted the defence was quickly recognised, and in the many wrangles with the managers on the numerous and important questions of evidence he showed that he was quite capable of holding his own. The trial commenced on 13 Feb. 1788, but it was not until 14 Feb. 1792 that Law's turn came to open the defence. His speech, which lasted three days (Bond, Speeches of the Managers and Counsel in the Trial of Warren Hastings, 1860, ii. 524–683), was most remarkable for the lucidity of the statements and the manly vigour of the arguments, though 'the finer passages have rarely been surpassed by any effort of forensic power … and would have ranked with the most successful exhibitions of the oratorical art had they been delivered in the early stage of the trial' (Lord Brougham, Historical Sketches, 3rd ser. p. 205). At the commencement of his speech he appears to have been exceedingly nervous, and unable to do himself justice; but on the second day 'Mr. Law was far more animated and less frightened, and acquitted himself so as to emit as much éloge as, in my opinion, he had merited censure at the opening' (Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay, 1842, v. 282–9). On 15 and 19 Feb. 1793 Law opened the defence on the second charge, relating to the treatment of the begums of Oude (ib. iii. 172–294), and two years later, on 23 April 1795, his client was acquitted by a large majority. Long before the conclusion of the trial Law had acquired a lucrative London practice and had established his reputation as a leading authority on mercantile questions. Alarmed at the excesses of the French revolution, Law deserted the whig party, and on 14 Nov. 1793 was appointed by the tory government attorney-general and serjeant of the county palatine of Lancaster. As one of the counsel for the crown he assisted at the trials of Lord George Gordon in 1787 (Howell, State Trials, xxii. 213–336), of Thomas Hardy in 1794 (ib. xxiv. 199–1408), of John Horne Tooke in 1794 (ib. xxv. 1–748), of William Stone in 1796 (ib. pp. 1155–1438), of John Reeves in 1796 (ib. xxvi. 529–96), and by his brilliant cross-examination of Sheridan procured a verdict for the crown in 1799 at the trial of Lord Thanet and others for assisting in the attempt to rescue Arthur O'Connor (ib. xxvii. 821–986). He also conducted the prosecutions of Thomas Walker at Lancaster in April 1794 (ib. xxiii. 1055–1166), of Henry Redhead, otherwise Yorke, at York in July 1795 (ib. xxv. 1003–1154), and, as attorney-general, of Joseph Wall at the Old Bailey in January 1802 (ib. xxviii. 51–178).

On the accession of Addington to power Law was appointed attorney-general (14 Feb. 1801) in the place of Sir John Mitford, who had been elected speaker on Addington's resignation of the chair. He was knighted on the 20th of the same month by George III, who asked him if he had ever been in parliament, and being answered in the negative added, 'That is right; my attorney-general ought not to have been in parliament, for then, you know, he is not obliged to eat his own words' (H. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, 1829, p. 107). A few days afterwards Law was returned to the House of Commons for the borough of Newtown in the Isle of Wight, and on 18 March, in a fiery maiden speech, supported the bill for continuing martial law in Ireland, to the operation of which measure 'he conceived the house owed their debating at this moment and the preservation of their rights, their privileges, and their property' (Parl. Hist. xxxv. 1044). In the following month, during the debate upon the introduction of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Bill, he declared 'solemnly that the constitution of the country would not be safe if the bill ... were not passed' (ib. pp. 1288–90), and on 27 May brought in the Habeas Corpus Suspension Indemnity Bill (ib. pp. 1507–8, 1523–1526, 1533–4), which was quickly passed through the house (41 Geo. III, c. lxvi.). In March 1802 he opposed Manners-Sutton's motion for a select committee of inquiry into the revenue of the duchy of Cornwall, and asserted that 'the elegant accomplishments and splendid endowments of the prince showed that he had experienced the highest degree of parental care, liberality, and attention' (ib. xxxvi. 433–5). Law was in the House of Commons but little more than a year, for on the death of Lord Kenyon, with whom his relations had always been strained, he was appointed lord chief justice of England. Having been previously called to the degree of serjeant-at-law he was sworn in before the lord chancellor on 12 April 1802, and took his seat on the king's bench on the first day of Easter term (East, Reports, ii. 253–4). By letters patent, dated 19 April 1802, Law was also created Baron Ellenborough of Ellenborough in the county of Cumberland, and having been sworn a member of the privy council on 21 April, took his seat in the House of Lords on the 26th of the same month (Journals of the House of Lords, xliii. 554). In his maiden speech on 13 May 1802 he opposed Lord Grenville's motion for an address, and spoke warmly in favour of the definitive treaty of peace with France (Parl. Hist. xxxvi. 718–22). Woodfall, in describing Ellenborough's speech in a letter to Lord Auckland on the following day, said that 'he seized upon Lord Grenville like a bulldog at the animal's baiting for the amazement of beings not less brutish than the poor animal himself ... but lawyers so rapidly raised to high station cannot on the sudden forget their nisi prius manners' (Journal and Corresp. of William, Lord Auckland, 1862, iv. 158). In June 1803, while defending the conduct of the ministers, he showed his contempt for his opponents by declaring that 'he could not sit still when he heard the capacity of ministers arraigned by those who were themselves most incapable, and when he saw ignorance itself pretending to decide on the knowledge possessed by others' (Parl. Hist. xxxvi. 1572). In supporting the second reading of the Volunteer Consolidation Bill on 27 March 1804 he stoutly maintained the 'radical, essential, unquestionable, and hitherto never-questioned prerogative' of the crown to call out all subjects capable of bearing arms for the defence of the realm, and declared his readiness if the necessity should arise to cast his gown off his back, and grapple with the enemy (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. i. 1027–9). On 8 April 1805, in consequence of the lord chancellor's indisposition, Ellenborough sat as speaker of the House of Lords by virtue of a commission under the great seal, dated 23 April 1804 (Journals of the House of Lords, xlv. 135). During the debate on Lord Grenville's motion for a committee on the catholic petition in May 1805, Ellenborough expressed his strong opposition to the admission of Roman catholics to political rights, and solemnly stated his opinion that 'the palladium of our protestant, and, indeed, of our political security, consists principally in the oath of supremacy' (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. iv. 804–16). In the following July he strenuously opposed the bill for granting further compensation to the Athol family in respect to the Isle of Man, and fearlessly described it as 'a gross job' (ib. v. 776–9). In consequence of Pitt's death, while holding the office of chancellor of the exchequer, the exchequer seal was, according to the established practice, committed to the custody of the chief justice on 25 Jan. 1806 (London Gazettes, 1806, p. 109) until a fresh appointment should be made. Addington insisted upon bringing one friend with him into the cabinet of 'All the Talents' (February 1806), and chose Ellenborough, who refused the offer of the great seal, but unwisely consented to accept a seat in the cabinet without office; the only precedent of such a combination of political and judicial offices being that of Lord Mansfield. The appointment gave rise to much criticism, and though the vote of censure was negatived in the lords without a division, and defeated in the commons by a majority of 158 (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. vi. 253–84, 286–342), the government undoubtedly lost ground by it. While supporting the Slave Importation Restriction Bill in May 1806 Ellenborough entered into a violent altercation with Lord Eldon, which was only put an end to by the clerk of the table reading the standing order against taxing speeches.

Ellenborough regularly attended Lord Melville's impeachment in Westminster Hall, and on 12 June 1806 gave a verdict of guilty against him on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th articles. Notwithstanding his views on Roman catholic emancipation, he agreed to the introduction of the Roman Catholics' Army and Navy Service Bill. When, however, the rupture occurred between the king and Grenville, Ellenborough sided with the king, and asserted that there was nothing unconstitutional in requiring the ministers to pledge themselves never to propose any further concessions to the Roman catholics. After the resignation of the cabinet Ellenborough became entirely estranged from the whigs, and acted in close alliance with Lord Sidmouth. In February 1808 he supported Lord Sidmouth's motion relative to the restitution of the Danish fleet, and condemned the expedition to Copenhagen in the strongest terms (ib. x. 648–50). During the debate on the third reading of the Indictment Bill Ellenborough insisted that the principle of the bill was misunderstood, and that the opposition to it was 'no better than a tub thrown out for the purpose of catching popular applause,' concluding his speech with a sharp attack upon Lord Stanhope (ib. xi. 710). In February 1811 he was appointed (51 Geo. III, c. i. sec. 15) a councillor to the queen as custos personæ during the regency, and in the following month opposed, in an exceedingly violent speech, Lord Holland's motion for a return of the criminal informations for libel (ib. 1st ser. xix. 148–52). In July 1812, while speaking against the Marquis of Wellesley's motion for the relief of the Roman catholics, he referred to 'the measure proposed by the council of which he was part, though he did not approve of their opinions on the subject of the catholics' (ib. xxiii. 846–7), and in the same month successfully moved the rejection of Lord Holland's ex-officio Information Bill (ib. pp. 1082–9). On 22 March 1813 he warmly defended his conduct in 'the delicate investigation' in which he had been concerned as one of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the charges against the Princess of Wales on 29 May 1806 (ib. xxv. 207–13). He roundly declared that the accusation which had been made against himself and his brother commissioners was 'as false as hell in every part,' and in the course of his speech 'hardly omitted one epithet of coarse invective that the English language could supply him with' (Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, iii. 94). From an account of the discussion at the meeting of a committee of the privy council held in February 1813, it appears that Ellenborough refused to concur in any declaration importing the princess's innocence, 'although the proof was not legally complete, his moral conviction being that the charges were true' (Diary of Lord Colchester, ii. 425). In July 1815 he opposed Michael Angelo Taylor's Pillory Abolition Bill, contending that there were several offences to which that punishment 'was more applicable than any other that could be found' (Parl. Debates, 1st ser. xxxi. 1123–6), and in June 1816 zealously supported the Alien Bill, which he described as 'comparatively a lenient measure, imperiously called for by the existing circumstances of the world' (ib. xxxiv. 1069). He spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 12 May 1817, when he opposed Lord Grey's motion censuring Lord Sidmouth's circular letter to the magistrates (ib. xxxvi. 496–9).

As chief justice he presided at the trials of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard for high treason (Howell, State Trials, xxviii. 345–528), of Jean Peltier for a libel on Napoleon Bonaparte (ib. pp. 529–620), of Mr. Justice Johnson for libelling the lord-lieutenant and lord chancellor of Ireland (ib. xxix. 422–502), of James Perry, the proprietor of the 'Morning Chronicle,' for a libel on the king (ib. xxxi. 335–68), of the two Hunts, joint proprietors of the 'Examiner,' for publishing an article reflecting on the excessive flogging in the army (ib. pp. 367–414), and of the same two defendants for libelling the Prince of Wales [see Hunt, James Henry Leigh]. On the last occasion, 9 Dec. 1812, Ellenborough made a violent attack upon Hunt's counsel, Brougham, whom he much disliked. In June 1814 he presided at the trial of Thomas, lord Cochrane, afterwards tenth earl of Dundonald [q.v.], and others for a conspiracy to defraud the Stock Exchange, when all the defendants were found guilty (The Trial of Charles Random de Berenger, &c., taken in shorthand by W. B. Gurney, 1814). An application by Lord Cochrane for a new trial was refused by Lord Ellenborough, and he was subsequently sentenced by the court to a year's imprisonment, an hour's detention in the pillory, and a fine of 1,000l. For this excessive sentence Ellenborough was greatly blamed, and though he indignantly denied the imputation of having had any political bias in the case, his house was attacked and his person insulted. On 5 March 1816 Cochrane presented in the House of Commons thirteen charges against Ellenborough for his 'partiality, misrepresentation, injustice, and oppression' at the trial (Parl. Debates, xxxii. 1145–1208), and on 1 April an additional charge (ib. xxxiii. 760–3). His motion, however, on 30 April, that these charges should be considered in a committee of the whole house, which was seconded by Burdett, was defeated by 89 to none, the tellers for the ayes (Cochrane and Burdett) having no votes to record; and on the motion of Ponsonby every notice of the charges against Ellenborough was expunged from the votes of the house (ib. xxxiv. 103–132). In the same session an act was passed abolishing the punishment of the pillory, except for perjury and subornation (56 Geo. III, c. cxxxviii.). Early in 1816 Ellenborough's health had begun to show signs of giving way, and during the trial of James Watson for high treason (Howell, State Trials, xxxii. 20–673), in June 1817, he was obliged, while summing up, to ask Mr. Justice Bayley to read part of the evidence. In the following autumn he went on the continent in the hope of recovering his strength. He presided at Hone's second and third trial at the Guildhall in December 1817, but though he summed up strongly against the defendant, the jury, to his great mortification, on each occasion returned a verdict of not guilty (The Three Trials of William Hone for publishing Three Parodies, &c., 1818). So annoyed was he at 'the disgraceful events which have occurred at Guildhall within the last three or four days,' that he wrote to Lord Sidmouth on 21 Dec. 1817 announcing his intention to resign 'as soon as the convenience of government in regard to the due selection and appointment' of his successor would allow (Pellew, Life of Lord Sidmouth, iii. 236–7). His health now became completely broken, and his absence from court more frequent. At length, on 21 Sept. 1818, he wrote to the lord chancellor giving notice of his intention to resign 'on the first day of next term' (Twiss, Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, 1844, ii. 320–1), and on 6 Nov. following executed his deed of resignation. A few weeks later, on 13 Dec. 1818, he died at his house in St. James's Square, London, aged 68, and was buried on the 22nd of the same month in the chapel of the Charterhouse, where a monument by Chantrey was erected to his memory.

Ellenborough was a man of vigorous intellect and great legal knowledge, intolerant of contradiction and overbearing in his opinions. He was essentially a strong judge, though, unfortunately for his judicial reputation, his temper was hasty and his prejudices violent. Of his integrity, and of his determination to do justice, there can be no doubt; but his judgments were frequently biassed by his political and religious feelings, and his habit of browbeating the juries was notorious. He was a forcible, but not an eloquent, speaker. In the House of Lords he often overstepped the bounds of parliamentary license, and his language, though doubtless sincere, was frequently intemperate. As a legislator his fame for the most part depends upon the act known by his name (43 Geo. III, c. lviii.), by which ten new capital felonies were created, and which has since been repealed. He thought that the criminal laws could not be too severe, and once declared that ours were superior 'to every other code of laws under the sun' (Parl. Debates, xxv. 526). He therefore consistently opposed all the humane efforts of Sir Samuel Romilly for the amelioration of the criminal code, and for a considerable time even resisted any measure of relief for insolvent debtors. He was treated with obsequious deference by his brother serjeants and the bar, and, though he indulged freely in sarcasm, is said to have been an extremely agreeable companion. In the course of his career he amassed a large fortune, and lived in magnificent style both in town and at Roehampton. Some seven years after his elevation to the bench he left Bloomsbury Square for St. James's Square, being the first common law judge who moved to the west end of London (Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices, iii. 246 n.). In his person he was clumsy and awkward, with dark eyes, shaggy eyebrows, and a commanding forehead. His ungainly walk and peculiarities of manner, coupled with his Cumbrian accent and his love of long words and sonorous phrases, made him a favourite subject of mimicry. Charles Mathews the elder gave an inimitable imitation of him in the judge's charge to the jury on the first night of Kenney's farce of 'Love, Law, and Physic' at Covent Garden on 20 Nov. 1812. Though immediately withdrawn on the interposition of the lord chamberlain, whose aid it is said was invoked by the infuriated chief justice, the offending speech was subsequently given, by special request, at Carlton House for the delectation of the Prince Regent (Life and Correspondence of Charles Mathews the Elder, abridged by Edmund Yates, 1860, pp. 164–70).

His portrait in judicial robes, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806, and was lent by the Earl of Ellenborough to the Loan Collection of National Portraits at South Kensington in 1868 (Catalogue No. 49). It has been engraved by C. Turner, R. W. Sievier, and others. Miss Law, of 3 Seymour Street, Portman Square, possesses a half-length by Romney, and there is another portrait in the benchers' room at the Inner Temple.

Ellenborough's judgments are recorded in Howell's 'State Trials,' and the reports of Espinasse (vols. iv–vi.), Campbell, Starkie (vols. i. and ii.), East (vols. ii–xvi.), J. P. Smith, Maule and Selwyn, and Barnewall and Alderson (vol. i.). A number of sarcastic pleasantries and judicial witticisms, which have been ascribed by tradition to Ellenborough, will be found in Moore's 'Memoirs and Lives of the Judges,' by Townsend, Campbell, and Foss respectively. His 'Opening of the Case in support of the Petitions of the Merchants of London and Liverpool against the Bill "to Prohibit the Trading for Slaves on the Coast of Africa within certain limits" … at the Bar of the House of Lords,' &c., was published in 1799 [London], 4to.

He married, on 17 Oct. 1789, Anne, daughter of Captain George Phillips Towry, R.N., a commissioner superintending store accounts in the victualling office. Lady Ellenborough whose beauty was such that passengers through Bloomsbury Square used to linger on the pavement in order to gaze at her as she watered the flowers on the balcony (Townsend, i. 307), survived her husband many years, and died in Stratford Place, Oxford Street, London, on 16 Aug. 1843, aged 74. Her portrait, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in March 1789, was lost at sea while being conveyed to Russia. A later portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1813 (Catalogue No. 158). Ellenborough had thirteen children, seven sons and six daughters. Two sons and a daughter died in infancy. His eldest and second sons, Edward and Charles Ewan, are separately noticed.

The youngest son, William Towry Law (1809–1886), born on 16 June 1809, entered the army; he subsequently took orders and became chancellor of the diocese of Bath and Wells; he joined the church of Rome in 1851, and died on 31 Oct. 1886. He married, first, the Hon. Augusta-Champagne Graves (d. 1844), fifth daughter of Thomas North, second lord Graves; secondly, Matilda, second daughter of Sir Henry C. Montgomery, bart., and left issue by both wives. The eldest son, Augustus Henry Law (1833–1880), born on 21 Oct. 1833, after some service in the royal navy, followed the example of his father in becoming a Roman catholic, and subsequently, in January 1854, entered the Society of Jesus. After some years spent in teaching at Glasgow, where his genial humour, his sea stories, and his love for the navy made him a general favourite, Law was ordained, and was in the autumn of 1866 sent to the mission in Demerara, British Guiana. Returning in 1871, and professing the four vows in August 1872, he left England again, after an interval of a few years, for the Cape of Good Hope. In March 1879 he joined the first missionary staff to the Zambesi, and died at King Umzila's kraal on 25 Nov. 1880, worn out by starvation and fatigue incurred in the course of the expedition (Foley, vii. 439; Some Reminiscences of Father Law, Messenger of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1881, i. 333; Memoir of the Life and Death of A. H. Law, Lond. 1883, 8vo, 3 pts.).

Of Lord Ellenborough's five surviving daughters (1) Mary Frederica, born on 27 June 1796, became the wife of Major-general Thomas Dynely, R.A., C.B., on 10 July 1827, and died on 16 Sept. 1851; (2) Elizabeth Susan, born on 6 Sept. 1799, married on 3 Feb. 1836 Charles, second baron Colchester, and died on 31 March 1883; (3) Anne, born on 5 Dec. 1800, became the second wife of John, tenth baron Colville, on 15 Oct. 1841, and died on 30 May 1852; (4) Frederica Selina, born on 6 April 1805, married on 8 Aug. 1829 Henry James Ramsden of Oxton Hall, Yorkshire, and died on 16 April 1879; and (5) Frances Henrietta, born on 11 Feb. 1812, married first, on 8 March 1832, Charles Des Vœux, and secondly, on 29 Sept. 1841, Sir Robert Charles Dallas, bart.

[Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices of England, 1857, iii. 94–247; Townsend's Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges, 1846, i. 299–397; Foss's Judges of England, 1864, viii. 317–24; Lord Brougham's Historical Sketches of Statesmen in the Time of George III, 3rd edit. 1843, pp. 198–222; Memoirs of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840; Diary and Correspondence of Lord Colchester, 1861; Pellew's Life of Lord Sidmouth, 1847; Life and Times of Lord Brougham, 1871; Spencer Walpole's History of England, 1878, vol. i.; W. H. Bennet's Select Biog. Sketches from the Note-books of a Law Reporter, 1867, pp. 7–17, with photograph; Law Review, iii. 8–16; Jerdan's National Portrait Gallery, 1831, vol. ii. with portrait; European Mag. lxx. 99–102, with portrait, lxxiv. 541–2, 546; Gent. Mag. 1818 vol. lxxxviii. pt. ii. pp. 565–6, 1819 vol. lxxxix. pt. i. pp. 83–4; Annual Register, 1818, Chron. p. 204; Annual Biography and Obituary for 1819, iii. 444 [442]; Georgian Era, 1833, ii. 316–17; Law and Lawyers, 1840, i. 15, 32, 193–8, 344–51, ii. 18–19; Lodge's Peerage, 1857, pp. 219–20; Doyle's Official Baronage, 1886, i. 673–4; Masters of the Bench of the Inner Temple, 1883, p. 85; Lincoln's Inn and Inner Temple Registers; Grad. Cantabr. 1856, p. 230; Cambridge Univ. Calendar, 1889, pp. 113, 409, 431; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parl. pt. ii. p. 206; London Gazettes; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 326.]

G. F. R. B.