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

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WIDDRINGTON, Sir THOMAS (d. 1664), speaker of the House of Commons and commissioner of the great seal, belonged to a younger branch of the well-known Northumbrian family. He was the eldest son of Lewis Widdrington of Cheesebourne Grange in the parish of Stamfordham, and was an executor of his father's will in 1630 (Hodgson, Hist. of Northumberland, ii. ii. 542). His mother was Katherine, daughter of William Lawson of Little Usworth, co. Durham. His younger brother, Ralph [q. v.], is noticed separately. According to Wood (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 661), ‘at about sixteen years of age he spent some time in one of our northern colleges in Oxon., and I think in Cambridge, but took no degree;’ he matriculated as pensioner at Christ's College, in April 1617 and graduated B.A. in June 1620 (Addit. MS. 5885, f. 74 b). He was admitted to Gray's Inn on 14 Feb. 1619 (Foster, Reg. of Admissions, p. 153), and was called to the bar in due course. From 1625 to 1631 he reported cases in the court of king's bench (Hargrave MSS. 38–9; Lansdowne MS. 1083, f. 356; a note on f. 1 of the last-named manuscript states that he was appointed king's reporter by privy seal in 1617, but this is a mistake). In November 1631 he became recorder of Berwick, where he addressed a speech of loyal welcome to Charles I on 2 June 1633 (Scott, Berwick-upon-Tweed, p. 200; Rushworth, ii. i. 179). In 1634 he married Frances, daughter of Ferdinando Fairfax, afterwards second baron Fairfax [q. v.], an alliance which doubtless helped to bring him into prominence some years later (Addit. MS. 29670, f. 137 b). He was appointed recorder of York in 1638, and there again it was his duty, on 30 March 1639, to bid the king welcome. His speech on that occasion, though fulsome and extravagant, seems to have pleased the royal taste, for he was knighted two days later (Rushworth,ii. ii. 886; Drake, Eboracum, pp. 368, 136–7; Metcalfe, Book of Knights, p. 194). In the same year he became an ancient and bencher of Gray's Inn, and was Lent reader there in 1641; in November 1641 he was elected treasurer (Douthwaite, Gray's Inn, 1886, p. 71; Dugdale, Orig. Jurid. 1680, pp. 297, 299).

He was returned M.P. for Berwick on 11 March, and again on 3 Oct. 1640 (Members of Parliament, i. 482, 491). Though never prominent in debate, he was frequently employed by the Long parliament in committees and conferences, for which he was well fitted by his legal knowledge. He drew up the articles of impeachment against Bishop Wren, and laid them before the lords on 20 July 1641, with ‘a smart, aggravating speech’ (Rushworth, iii. i. 350; Parl. Hist. ii. 861, 886). On 18 Aug. 1645 he took the chair when the house resolved itself into a grand committee for reviewing the propositions to the king (Commons' Journals; Cal. State Papers, Dom., 1645–7, p. 64). He was sent as a parliamentary commissioner to the army on 12 June 1647 (Whitelocke, pp. 252–253). On 15 March 1648 he was appointed a commissioner of the great seal (ib. p. 295). On 12 Oct. he was raised to the degree of serjeant-at-law and made one of the king's serjeants (ib. p. 342; Commons' Journals). He ‘had no great mind to sit in the House of Commons’ after ‘Pride's Purge,’ and seems to have absented himself for some weeks; but Cromwell consulted him, together with Bulstrode Whitelocke [q. v.] and William Lenthall [q. v.], upon the state of affairs, on 18 and 21 Dec. Widdrington and Whitelocke spent all the next day in attempting to frame a satisfactory scheme, and on the 23rd they took part in a fruitless conference at the speaker's house. On the 26th they were both summoned to the committee for the king's trial; but they withdrew to Whitelocke's house in the country, and did not return to the house until 9 Jan. (Whitelocke, pp. 360–5, 367).

When the great seal of Charles I was replaced by that of the parliament on 8 Feb. 1649, Widdrington retired from the commission, pleading ill health and ‘some scruples in conscience;’ the house showed its appreciation by voting him a quarter's salary more than was due to him, and by entitling him to practise within the bar (ib. p. 378). He was appointed serjeant for the Commonwealth on 6 June 1650, and a member of the council of state on 10 Feb. 1651 (Commons' Journals). At a meeting convened by Cromwell on 10 Dec. 1651 to discuss the settlement of the nation, he advocated some form of monarchy, suggesting the Duke of Gloucester as king; and at the conference held in Whitehall on 19 April 1653, he spoke strongly against the impending dissolution of the Long parliament (Whitelocke, pp. 516, 554). He had been put on the militia commission for Yorkshire on 28 Aug. 1651, and he served on various committees during the Commonwealth and protectorate, e.g. trade and navigation, distressed protestants in Piedmont, and Durham College (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1651 p. 381, 1655–6 pp. 1, 100, 218). Cromwell made him once more a commissioner of the great seal on 4 April 1654 (ib. 1654, p. 73), but dismissed him, 6 June 1655, upon his refusal to execute the ordinance for reforming the court of chancery. He remained, however, until 1659 on the treasury commission, to which he had been appointed in August 1654 (Whitelocke, pp. 621, 625–7; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1654 p. 284, 1655 p. 362, 1656–7 p. 19, 1658–9 pp. 23, 323; Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. pp. 94, 95), and in 1655 he also became chancellor of the county palatine of Durham (Deputy-Keeper of Publ. Rec. 5th Rep. App. ii. 253). He represented York in the parliament of 1654, and was re-elected in 1656, but preferred instead to sit for Northumberland, and was chosen as speaker on 17 Sept. 1656 (Parl. Hist. iii. 1432, 1484; Commons' Journals, 1 Oct. 1656). He was so ill in the following January that he had to be carried into the house in a sedan-chair, and the house at first adjourned for some days, and afterwards appointed Whitelocke to take the chair during his absence, 27 Jan.–18 Feb. (Burton, Diary, i. 337, 369, 375; WhiteLocke, pp. 654–5). As speaker he showed to no great advantage in the house (Burton, ii. 34, 70, 147, 149); but on 31 March 1657 he made a learned speech at Whitehall in support of the ‘petition and advice’ (of which Sir Philip Warwick thought him the true author), and spoke impressively at the inauguration of Cromwell as lord protector (ib. i. 397; Parl. Hist. iii. 1492, 1515; Warwick, Memoirs, p. 381). After the dissolution of this parliament Widdrington was made lord chief baron of the exchequer on 26 June 1658 (Whitelocke, p. 674; Siderfin, Reports, ii. 106); but this office was restored to John Wilde [q. v.] by the Long parliament on 18 Jan. 1660, when Widdrington was for the third time made a commissioner of the great seal (Commons' Journals). He was also elected a member of the council of state on 31 Dec. 1659, and again on 23 Feb. 1660 (ib.) Being elected for both York and Berwick in the Convention parliament, he chose the former; he was on the committee for the reception of Charles II, and also on that for the indemnity bill (ib. 14 and 15 May 1660).

At the Restoration he lost all the offices and honours which he had gained since the civil war; but he was restored to the degree of serjeant on 1 June 1660, and was appointed temporal chancellor of the bishopric of Durham on 21 Dec. (Dugdale, Orig. Jurid., Chronica Ser. p. 115; Hutchinson, Hist. of Durham, i. 553). He was returned for Berwick to the parliament of 1661, but took no active part in its proceedings; he had already resigned the recordership of Berwick, and he resigned that of York in or about January 1662 (Members of Parliament, i. 526; Drake, p. 368; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661–2, pp. 234, 612). It was probably shortly before the election of 1661 that his offer to dedicate ‘Analecta Eboracensia’ to the mayor and corporation of York was refused, the citizens having looked for a more substantial gift (Caine, pp. viii–xi). In 1663 he founded a free school at Stamfordham (ib. p. xxix; Foss, Judges of England, vi. 518). He died on 13 May 1664, and was buried in the chancel of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, near his wife and daughter Dorothy, both of whom had died in 1649. A monument was erected to his memory in 1674 (Peck, Des. Cur., ed. 1779, p. 543; Maitland, London, ii. 1362; Strype, Survey, iv. 80). His will is dated 1 Sept. 1663 (see abstract in Archæologia Æliana, new ser. i. 18). His only son Thomas died at The Hague in 1660 (Egerton MS. 2146, f. 34). He left four daughters, all married, viz. Frances, to Sir John Legard, bart.; Catherine, to Sir Robert Shaftoe; Mary, to Sir Robert Markham, bart.; and Ursula, to Thomas Windsor, lord Windsor (afterwards Earl of Plymouth) [q. v.] (Caine, p. xxii). The royalist Sir Philip Warwick sums him up as ‘a good lawyer, but naturally a cautious and timorous man’ (Memoirs, p. 381).

Widdrington wrote, in or about 1660, ‘Analecta Eboracensia,’ a description and history of the city of York. In disgust at his treatment by the citizens he withheld it from publication; but it was edited in 1897 by the Rev. Cæsar Caine. His reports of king's bench cases, 1–7 Charles I, are in Hargrave MSS. 38–9, and parts of them are in Lansdowne MSS. 1083, 1092. Rushworth printed from them the arguments in the case of the imprisoned members (App. i. 18–55). Letters from him to Lord Fairfax are in Additional MS. 18979, ff. 174, 178, 182, 184, 245, 249. Some of these, with a few others, are printed in Johnson's ‘Fairfax Correspondence’ (i. 367), Bell's ‘Memorials of the Civil War’ (see refs. in index), and Neill's ‘The Fairfaxes of England and America’ (p. 13). A full list of his extant speeches is given by Caine (introd. to Anal. Ebor. p. xxx). An epitaph on Lord Fairfax has also been attributed to him (ib. p. xxxi).

[Caine, introduction to Analecta Eboracensia; Foss's Judges of England, vi. 513; Commons' Journals, passim; other authorities cited in text.]

J. A. H-t.