Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Yorke, Charles (1722-1770)
YORKE, CHARLES (1722–1770), lord chancellor, second son of Lord-chancellor Hardwicke [see Yorke, Philip, first Earl of Hardwicke], by Margaret, daughter of Charles Cocks, was born in Great Ormond Street, London, on 30 Dec. 1722. He was educated at Newcome's school, Hackney, and the university of Cambridge, where he went into residence at Corpus Christi College on 13 June 1739, and received the M.A. degree in 1749. Destined to the law from his childhood, he was admitted on 1 Dec. 1735 member of the Middle Temple. Thence he migrated on 23 Oct. 1742 to Lincoln's Inn, where he was called to the bar on 4 Feb. 1745–6, and elected bencher on 8 May 1754. His career opened brilliantly. In the composition of the ‘Athenian Letters’ he had a larger share than any other contributor except his elder brother, Philip Yorke (1720–1790) [q. v.] While still in his nonage he corresponded on learned topics with William Warburton (afterwards bishop of Gloucester), and somewhat later with Montesquieu, Thomas Birch [q. v.], and Thomas Secker [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury. In 1745 his ‘Considerations on the Law of Forfeiture for High Treason, occasioned by a Clause in the late Act for making it Treason to correspond with the Pretender's Sons or any of their Agents’ (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1746; 4th edit. 1795, 8vo), an ingenious defence of one of his father's least defensible measures, established his reputation as a constitutionalist. In 1747 he was appointed to the sinecure place of joint-clerk of the crown in chancery. In the same year he was returned to parliament (7 Dec.) for Reigate, which constituency he continued to represent until the dissolution of 11 March 1768. In the ensuing parliament he sat for the university of Cambridge.
Yorke made his début in the House of Commons by throwing out (7 May 1748) an ill-considered measure for the relief of protestant purchasers, trustees, &c., of papists' effects. He afterwards spoke with weight and effect in support of the regency bill (16 May 1751), the reform of the marriage law (30 May 1753), and the extension of the Mutiny Act to India (8 Feb. 1754). He also once seconded (November 1748) and once moved (1753) the address. On 3 July 1751 he was made counsel to the East India Company, for which he continued to act for many years (see his opinion printed in the appendix to Lord Clive's ‘Letter to the Proprietors of the East India Stock,’ London, 1764, 8vo). In 1754 he took silk, and was appointed solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales. On the formation of the Duke of Devonshire's administration he was appointed solicitor-general (5 Nov. 1756). In this capacity he distinguished himself as Pratt's coadjutor in the crown cases of Florence Hensey [q. v.] and Laurence Shirley, earl of Ferrers [cf. Pratt, Charles, first Earl Camden]. He retained office throughout Pitt's administration, but on the meeting of parliament which followed Pitt's fall he delivered a powerful defence of his German policy and resigned (14 Dec. 1761). Nevertheless on Pratt's elevation to the bench he accepted from Bute the vacant attorney-generalship (22 Jan. 1762), and in spite of the desertion of Prussia, the ignominious peace of Paris, the proscription of the opposition, and the cider tax, he retained the office. He also kept his place on the reconstruction of the administration which followed Bute's retirement [see Grenville, George, and Russell, John, fourth Duke of Bedford], and was thus called upon to deal officially with the difficult questions of constitutional law raised by the publication of Wilkes's celebrated ‘North Briton’ No. 45 [see Wilkes, John]. The bias of his mind was by no means indulgent towards political pamphleteers. He had already (2 Nov. 1762) censured as libellous a whole series of ‘Monitors’ (Nos. 357–8, 360, 373, 376, 378–80), and their supposed author, John Entick [q. v.], had been arrested, his house searched, and his papers seized, under a warrant issued by the secretaries of state, but without the discovery of evidence to convict him. On his consequent release Entick had brought an action against the secretaries, which had resulted in a special verdict, upon which proceedings were pending in error. Such warrants by secretaries of state were neither an innovation nor the revival of an obsolete practice, but were supported by a long course of precedents since the revolution, and Entick's appears to have been the first case in which their legality was contested. The warrants were issued by the secretaries proprio motu without the fiat of the attorney-general. In the case of ‘North Briton’ No. 45 the warrants were issued in anticipation of Yorke's opinion, and described the libel as not only seditious but treasonable. The opinion (27 April 1763) omitted the latter epithet, and characterised the offence as ‘a misdemeanour of the highest nature.’ The discrepancy, or rather contradiction, shows that the opinion was independent and honest. Yorke was also consulted on the question of privilege, and advised that it did not enter into the case, but that Wilkes might be committed to prison even though he offered bail, and there detained pending inquiry as to its sufficiency.
As at that date the only offences recognised as unprivileged were treason, felony, and breach of the peace, this opinion was undoubtedly of a somewhat speculative character, and Yorke did not venture to commit it to writing. In the proceedings on the habeas corpus the legality of the warrant was unsuccessfully impugned, but the plea of privilege was held good. In the printers' actions Yorke showed no sign of faltering, though the juries proved refractory, and his subsequent resignation (2 Nov.) took the world by surprise. Its professed ground was the proscription of the opposition, but Yorke really yielded to the strong pressure put upon him by Pitt, and took leave of the king in tears. Pitt hoped to enlist his services on behalf of Wilkes in the coming parliamentary campaign; but Yorke felt bound by his official past, and emphasised his consistency by arguing for the court in the grand debate on privilege (23 Nov.) with a weight, and force which were greatly enhanced by the independence of his position. Meanwhile he angled for his reinstatement in the attorney-generalship, failing which he signified that he was willing to accept the vacant mastership of the rolls [see Clarke, Sir Thomas], with a salary of 4,000l. and a peerage. These ridiculous advances were repulsed by Lord-chancellor Northington, and Yorke ended by accepting a patent of precedence next after the attorney- general (30 Nov.) His conduct in this crisis betrayed a lamentable weakness which Pitt never condoned. It was, however, viewed with great indulgence by Cumberland and the Rockingham whigs, to which party he thence forth adhered.
In 1764 Yorke was elected to the recorderships of Dover and Gloucester, vacant by his father's death. In parliament (18 Feb.) he voted with the minority against the adjournment of Sir William Meredith's motions condemnatory of general warrants. In the following year (4 March 1765) he opposed Meredith's motion impugning the legality of the ‘information ex officio,’ which he defended on the high ground that the question of libel or no libel was a matter of pure law. On the formation of the Rockingham administration he declined the king's pressing offer of the great seal, and reluctantly acquiesced in the attorney-generalship which was then thrust upon him (25 Aug. 1765). The government was weak and divided, and from the first leant much on his advice. His liberal construction of the Navigation Acts gave legal sanction to the bullion trade between the American seaboard and the Spanish dominions. He approved the repeal of the Stamp Act, but insisted that it must be accompanied by the Declaratory Act. On the passing of Sir William Meredith's resolutions condemnatory of general warrants, he obviated further discussion of a matter best left to the courts of law by defeating George Grenville's proposed measure. A constitution which he had drafted for the province of Quebec was under consideration by the cabinet when the government fell. Its substance was embodied in the Quebec Act of 1774.
Born, so to speak, in the legal purple, Yorke had started in life with the idea that the woolsack was his by a sort of hereditary right; and the rapid and continuous development of his practice had brought him within what seemed measurable distance of his goal. He had rejected the king's offer because he had no faith in the stability of the Rockingham administration. He had in fact reserved himself for Pitt's return to power. He was proportionately mortified by the preference which Pitt now gave to Camden, and resigned his place in consequence (1 Aug.). During the session of 1767 he acted with the opposition on Indian affairs, and in February 1768 he spoke in support of the Nullum Tempus bill. Otherwise he observed a saturnine silence in the devious course of the Chatham administration, while he amused himself with landscape-gardening at his villa at Highgate, and did its honours to Warburton, Hurd, Garrick, and other friends. Among his correspondents at this time was one well qualified to condole with him on his misfortunes, Stanislaus Augustus, king of Poland, to whom he had been introduced by his brother, Sir Joseph Yorke. On Wilkes's incapacitation he differed from his party, but did not utter his views in public, and throughout the subsequent constitutional crisis he maintained the same politic reserve. He was thus in a position of comparative freedom when the impending dismissal of Camden suddenly placed the great seal within his reach (12 Jan. 1770). His acquisition was a matter of cardinal importance to the court, and no pains were spared to secure it. On the other hand, equal pressure was put upon him by the Rockingham party, to which he in effect pledged his word not to accept office. Grafton's offer he accordingly declined, but with characteristic weakness he suffered himself to be drawn into the closet. The private audience failed to remove his scruples, but on the day following (17 Jan.) the king summoned him after the levee to another audience. Yorke presented himself before his sovereign with nerves already shattered by the conflict between ambition and honour; the king pressed him hard, his resolution failed, and he left the closet lord chancellor. It is to his credit that he made no stipulations in his own interest except the usual peerage. He was at once sworn of the privy council, and a patent to create him Baron Morden of Morden, Cambridgeshire, was made out, and brought to him at the family mansion in Great Ormond Street, where he lay prostrated by fever. He retained sufficient consciousness to forbid its authentication under the great seal, which he ‘hoped was no longer in his custody.’ He died about 5 p.m. on 20 Jan. The fever was said to be complicated by colic and the rupture of a blood-vessel; but, whatever its physical antecedents, it is certain that Yorke's death was the consequence of the extreme nervous tension and mental suffering which he had undergone, and rumour gave the event a more tragic colouring. It was asserted, and came to be widely believed, that, goaded to frenzy by the resentment with which his defection was regarded by his party, the chancellor had committed suicide; and, as there was no post-mortem or other equivalent autopsy of the corpse, the lugubrious surmise remained alike uncorroborated and unrefuted.
Yorke's remains were interred in the family vault adjoining the church at Wimpole. Within the church is his monument, with medallion portrait, by Scheemakers. An engraving from the medallion is frontispiece to the ‘Athenian Letters’ (ed. 1798, vol. ii.) Another engraving is in the ‘European Magazine’ (1803, ii. 162–3). His portrait by Allan Ramsay belongs to the Earl of Hardwicke (Cat. Second Loan Exhib. No. 488). His epitaph is in Additional MS. 5848, p. 629.
Yorke married twice: first, on 19 May 1755, Catharina (d. 10 July 1750), daughter of William Freman of Aspeden, Hertfordshire; secondly, on 30 Dec. 1762, Agneta, daughter of Henry Johnson of Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. He had issue by both wives: by the first, a son Philip (1757–1834) [q. v.], who eventually succeeded his uncle Philip as third Earl of Hardwicke; by the second, two sons, Charles Philip Yorke [q. v.] and Joseph Sydney Yorke [q. v.]
Physically Yorke was in every respect a contrast to his father, being fat, coarse-featured, plethoric, and a gourmand; intellectually he was his father's heir, and had he but been endowed with an equal measure of firmness might well have achieved an equal renown. Yorke was F.R.S. and a trustee of the Warburtonian lecture and of the British Museum. He was an Italian scholar, and trifled with the muses. Three of his essays in verse are extant—viz. 1. ‘Ode to the Hon. Miss Yorke [afterwards Lady Anson] on her copying a Portrait of Dante by Clovio.’ 2. Lines ‘To a Lady with a Present of Pope's Works.’ 3. ‘Stanzas in the Manner of Waller, occasioned by a Receipt to make Ink, given to the Author by a Lady’ (see Gent. Mag. 1770, pp. 38–9, and Ann. Reg. 1770, ii. 201–205). The lines beginning ‘Stript to the naked soul, escaped from clay,’ ascribed to him by Lord Campbell (Chancellors, ed. 1857, vii. 113), were really written by Pope (see Warburton, Works, ed. Hurd, xiii. 362–3; and cf. Bolton, Robert, (1697–1763)). Some of Yorke's letters are printed in Warburton's ‘Works’ (ed. Hurd, xiii. 495–510, xiv. 124–53); one to Dr. Birch is in ‘Original Papers’ (1765); and one to Conyers Middleton in Additional MS. 72457, f. 180; others to various friends are in Additional MSS. 9828 ff. 58–63, 19347 ff. 270, 335, 341, and the ‘Pelham Papers,’ Additional MSS. 32724–33072. (As to the disastrous fire at his chambers, see Somers or Sommers, John, Lord Somers, ad fin.)[Collins's Peerage, ed. Brydges, iv. 494; Grad. Cant.; Lincoln's Inn Records; Chamberlayne's Magnæ Brit. Notit. 1748 ii. 286, 1755, ii. 257; Court and City Reg. 1754, p. 99; Official Return of Members of Parliament; Parl. Hist. vols. xiv–xv.; Commons' Journals, ix. 342; Walpole's Memoirs (George II, ed. Holland; George III, ed. Le Marchant and Russell Barker); Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham; Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, ed. Park; Warburton's Works, ed. Hurd, i. 9, 42–60, xiii. 31, 107–18, 132, 204, 262, 291–8, 344, 360–98, 432, xiv. 232–6; Changes in the Ministry, 1765–7 (Royal Hist. Soc., Camden Ser.); Addit. MSS. 5832 f. 89, 22131 f. 22, 22132 ff. 4 et seq.; Grenville Papers, ed. Smith; Grafton's Autobiography, ed. Anson; Chatham's Corresp. ed. Taylor and Pringle; Letters of Junius, No. xlix.; Albemarle's Memoirs of Rockingham; Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, ed. Lord John Russell, i. 15; Howell's State Trials, xix. 927, 1027, 1057, 1303; Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. App. i. 323, 354, 378, 391–2, 416–18, 11th Rep. App. iv. 365, 400, 12th Rep. App. v. 313–14, 14th Rep. App. iv. 524, x. 22, 552–5, 15th Rep. App. vi. 205; Nichols's Lit. Anecd., and Illustr.; Wraxall's Memoirs, ed. Wheatley; Cradock's Memoirs, i. 92, iv. 252; Nicholls's Recollections and Reflections; Gent. Mag. 1755 p. 236, 1762 p. 600; Scots Mag. 1770, pp. 48–9, 53–4; Ann. Reg. 1770 pp. 69, 186, 1834 p. 219; Law Mag. xxx. 49; Cooksey's Essay on Lord Somers, &c.; Harris's Life of Lord-Chancellor Hardwicke; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. ii. 7, iii. 43, 72, vii. 113; Clutterbuck's Hertfordshire, i. 212, iii. 154, 158, 347; Cussans's Hertfordshire (Edwinstree), i. 44, 96; Registers of St. George's, Hanover Square (Harl. Soc.); Adolphus's History of the Reign of George III; Parkes's History of the Court of Chancery, p. 342; Trevelyan's Early History of Charles James Fox.]