Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Littleton, Edward (1589-1645)
LITTLETON, Sir EDWARD, Lord Littleton (1589–1645), born at Munslow, Shropshire, in 1589, was eldest son of Sir Edward Littleton of Henley in the county, chief justice of North Wales, by Mary, daughter of Edmund Walter, chief justice of South Wales. He matriculated at Oxford as a gentleman-commoner of Christ Church on 28 Nov. 1606 (Oxf. Univ. Reg., Oxf. Hist. Soc., vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 291), and was admitted B.A. on 28 April 1609 (ib. vol. ii. pt. iii. p. 286). In 1608 he entered the Inner Temple, and was called to the bar in 1617 (Inner Temple Students, ed. Cooke, 1547–1660, p. 185). He became a profound lawyer, and was especially well versed in records, which he studied in company with John Selden. On his father's death in 1621 Littleton was appointed to succeed him as chief justice of North Wales, and was made a bencher of his inn in 1629. He was returned M.P. for both Leominster and Carnarvon in 1625, when he elected to serve for the former borough, being again chosen by the same constituency in 1625–6 and 1627–8. In parliament he took an active part with the opposition in the proceedings against the Duke of Buckingham, arguing that common fame was a sufficient ground for the house to act upon. When parliament met again in March 1628, Littleton was placed in the chair of the committee of grievances, and on 3 April presented to the house their report, upon which was founded the Petition of Right. In the subsequent conferences with the lords he ably enforced the resolutions, and replied to the objections of the crown officers with temper and point. He was designated by the lord president in reporting the arguments as a ‘grave and learned lawyer.’ In the debate on the king's answer to the Remonstrance, on 6 May 1628, Littleton declared, in reply to a question by Edward Alford, that by the confirmation of the statutes without explanation the subject would be in a worse condition than before. When the goods of John Rolle, a member of the house, had been seized for his refusal to pay tonnage and poundage, and a serious breach of parliamentary privilege had been thereby committed, Littleton, on 22 Jan. 1629, moved that ‘the parties be sent for that violated the liberties.’
On the dissolution of this parliament in March 1629, several members were imprisoned for holding down the speaker in the chair while the protestation against tonnage and poundage was passed. On their appeal to the court of king's bench Littleton, who had taken no part in the proceedings, appeared for Selden, who was one of those arrested, and learnedly contended for his right to be discharged on bail (Howell, State Trials, iii. 85, 252). Though a strenuous advocate of the liberty of the subject, he had never shown himself a violent partisan, while his language was always moderate and courteous. The king saw the benefits which would result from his services, and accordingly recommended him as recorder of London, to which office he was elected on 7 Dec. 1631. About the same time he was appointed counsel to the university of Oxford, and in the autumn of 1632 he became reader to the Inner Temple (Dugdale, Origines, p. 168). His popularity in London obtained for him on this occasion a present from the aldermen of 100l., two hogsheads of claret, and a pipe of canary. On 17 Oct. 1634 he was made solicitor-general, and was knighted on 6 June 1635 (Metcalfe, Book of Knights, p. 193). He principally distinguished himself by his elaborate argument against John Hampden in the case of ship-money; his speech occupied three days (Howell, iii. 923). On 27 Jan. 1640 he became chief justice of the common pleas; he received the degree of serjeant nine days before (Rymer, Fœdera, fol., xx. 380). His ambition, as he told Hyde, was now satisfied. On 20 May following he was appointed a member of the select committee of the council for ship-money (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1640, p. 185). After the flight of Finch the great seal was delivered to Littleton (who had, by the recommendation of Lord Strafford, been previously admitted into the privy council), with the title of lord keeper, on 18 Jan. 1641, and a month later he was created Lord Littleton of Munslow. This advance did not add to his reputation or his personal comfort. In the common pleas he had presided with great ability; in the chancery he was an indifferent judge. At the council and in parliament he felt himself out of his element, and was so disturbed with the unhappy state of the king's affairs that he fell into a serious illness, and was absent from his place for some months.
One of his first duties was to express the thanks of the lords and commons to the king for passing the act for triennial parliaments. There followed the impeachment and attainder of his friend the Earl of Strafford, in behalf of whom he was prevented from pleading by his illness, the Earl of Arundel acting for him as speaker in the House of Lords (Howell, ii. 956). On 18 May 1641 he was placed at the head of a commission to execute the office of lord high treasurer. On his resuming his seat he had the difficult duty of presiding during all the violent measures that occupied the house for the remainder of that year and the beginning of the next. When, on 16 Aug., the parliamentary commissioners were about to proceed to Edinburgh nominally to treat with the Scottish parliament, Littleton was asked to pass their commission under the great seal, but he demurred in the absence of directions from the king. On 9 Sept. 1641 he voted against the refusal of the lords to communicate their resolution on divine service to the commons. He firmly refused to put the great seal to the proclamation for arrest of the five members in January 1642, and entreated to be allowed to resign (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1641–3, p. 252). His conduct, while it displeased the king, was so satisfactory to the commons that on their nomination of lieutenants for the several counties they placed him at the head of his native shire (Howell, ii. 1085). In March 1642 the king retired to York in deep disgust at what he considered Littleton's want of devotion. He was particularly offended with Littleton's vote in favour of the ordinance for the militia, and his arguments in support of its legality (Whitelocke, Memorials, p. 59). Littleton, however, explained to Hyde that he had given this vote and others, which he knew would be obnoxious to the king, for the purpose of disarming the rising distrust of the commons, and of preventing their proposed intention of taking the seal from him. He thereupon planned with Hyde that he would take advantage of the customary recess of the house between Saturday and Monday morning to send the great seal to the king, and himself to follow after. On 23 May Littleton's departure from London was reported to the lords, who immediately ordered him to be taken into custody; but at the end of the third day after his flight he kissed the king's hand at York (Clarendon, History, 1849, ii. 494–504). In a letter to the lords he pleaded the king's commands as an excuse for his departure, and enclosed an affidavit showing his inability from illness to travel to Westminster as ordered. At the same time he ‘took the boldness’ to inform the lords that he had the king's express commands upon his allegiance not to depart from him. It was not until a year afterwards that the parliament voted that if he did not return with the seal within fourteen days he should lose his place, and the two houses passed an ordinance for a new seal on 10 Nov. 1643.
Through the good offices of Hyde the king ultimately became reconciled to Littleton, although he did not for some time entrust him with the actual custody of the seal. On 31 Jan. 1643 Littleton received, with other of Charles's adherents, the degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford; in March he was again appointed first commissioner of the treasury (Fourth Report Pub. Rec., Appendix, ii. 187); and on 21 May 1644 he was entrusted with a military commission to raise a regiment of foot-soldiers, consisting of gentlemen of the inns of court and chancery, and others. Of this regiment, the ranks of which were soon filled, he acted as colonel.
Littleton died at Oxford on 27 Aug. 1645, and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, where his daughter erected a monument to his memory. By his first wife, Anne, daughter of John Lyttelton of Frankley, Worcestershire, he had a son and two daughters, who all died in infancy. His second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Jones, judge of the king's bench, and widow of Sir George Calverley of Cheshire, brought him an only daughter, Anne, who was married to her cousin, Sir Thomas Littleton, bart., of Stoke St. Milborough, Shropshire.
Clarendon (Hist. ii. 491) describes Littleton as a ‘handsome and proper man,’ of a very graceful presence, and ‘notorious for courage, which in his youth he had manifested with his sword.’ Both friends and enemies readily acknowledge that he was a learned lawyer, powerful advocate, and an excellent judge; that he was incorruptible and moderate; and that in private life he was highly esteemed. But he was not made for power; he was weak and wavering, and by endeavouring to be the friend of all parties he retained the confidence of none. He had, however, faithful friends on both sides who did not doubt his integrity. Hyde, who knew him well, was his friend to the last. Whitelocke, of the parliament side, always speaks kindly of him, and when in 1645 the commons seized his books and manuscripts, Whitelocke induced them to bestow them on him, with the intention, he asserts, of restoring them to the owner or his family when ‘God gave them a happy accommodation’ (Memorials, p. 172).
A volume of reports in the common pleas and exchequer from 2 to 7 Charles I was published with his name in 1683, but they are probably not of his composition. His portrait has been engraved from a portrait by Vandyck; a half-length original by an unknown artist is in the possession of the Earl of Home.
[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 175; Biog. Brit.; Foss's Judges, vi. 343–52; Gent. Mag. December 1856, p. 717; Parl. Hist. vols. ii. and iii.; Life of Clarendon, i. 146; Granger's Biog. Hist. of Engl. 2nd edit. ii. 219; Cat. of National Portraits, 1866, p. 111; Gardiner's Hist. of Engl. 1603–42, vols. vi–x.]