Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Finch, John (1584-1660)
FINCH, Sir JOHN, Baron Finch of Fordwich (1584–1660), speaker of the House of Commons and lord keeper, son of Sir Henry Finch [q. v.], by Ursula, daughter of John Thwaites, was born on 17 Sept. 1584, admitted a member of Gray's Inn in February 1600, and called to the bar on 8 Nov. 1611. Clarendon states that he 'led a free life on a restrained fortune,' and that he 'set up upon the stock of a good wit and natural parts, without the superstructure of much knowledge in the profession by which he was to grow' (Rebellion, Oxford ed. i. 130), and Finch himself, on the occasion of his instalment as lord chief justice, publicly confessed that the first six years of his pupilage were mainly devoted to other pursuits than the study of the law (Rushworth, Hist. Coll. ii. 256). In 1614 he was returned to parliament for Canterbury. In 1617 he was elected a bencher of his inn, where, in the autumn of the following year, he discharged the duties of reader (Douthwaite, Gray's Inn, p. 66). Foss says, without giving his authority, that in 1617 he was elected recorder of Canterbury. He was certainly recorder of the city in March 1618-19 ( Egerton MS. 2584, f. 177), and was dismissed by the corporation shortly afterwards. The cause of his removal does not appear. Finch himself, in a letter dated 4 Jan. 1619, soliciting the interest of Lord Zouch, warden of the Cinque ports, with the privy council, from which he had obtained a mandamus against the corporation for his reinstatement, speaks vaguely of the 'factious carriage' of one Sabin (ib. f. 100). The corporation had refused to obey the order of the privy council, and it remained as yet unenforced. On 19 May 1620 the corporation wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Zouch praying that they might not be compelled to re-elect Finch, as it would be 'against their consciences and their charter, and greatly to the disquiet of the city.' On 28 May, however, they changed their tone, humbly informing the council that they were willing to re-elect Mr. Finch as their recorder,' and craving 'pardon for discontenting their lordships' (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619-1623, pp. 108, 144, 146, 148). Finch was returned to parliament for Winchelsea in February 1623-4, but was unseated on petition on the ground that certain voters had been excluded by the mayor. A new writ issued on 19 March, and Finch was re-elected (Comm. Journ. i. 739). He exchanged Winchelsea for Canterbury at the election of 1625. On 31 May the king, and on 13 June 1625 the king and queen paid a visit to Canterbury, and were received with an address by Finch as recorder. The addresses, notes of which are preserved in Sloane MS. 1455, ff. 1-6, must have been remarkable only for the style of fulsome adulation in which they were conceived. In 1626 he was knighted and appointed king's counsel and attorney-general to the queen (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1625-6, p. 456; Rymer, Fœdera, Sanderson, xiii. 633, 866). On 17 March 1627-8 he was elected speaker of the House of Commons, being still member for Canterbury (Comm. Journ. i. 872). His speech to the throne, couched though it was in language of the most extravagant loyalty, nevertheless concluded with three petitions: (1) that the house might be assured of the immunity of its members from arrest, (2) that freedom of debate might be respected, (3) that access to the royal person might be granted on suitable occasions (Parl. Hist. ii. 225). On 14 April 1628 he presented a petition against the practice of billeting soldiers on private citizens. On 5 May he conveyed to the king the answers of the commons to various royal messages, in particular to the demand of the king to know whether the commons would rest content with his 'royal word and promise for the redress of their grievances. Finch expressed on behalf of the commons at once their entire confidence in the royal word, and their settled conviction that 'no less than a public remedy will raise the dejected hearts' of the people at large (ib. pp. 281, 346). In the debate on the royal message of 5 June, enjoining the commons not to meddle with affairs of state or asperse ministers, Sir John Eliot having risen ostensibly to rebut the implied charge of aspersing ministers, Finch, 'apprehending Sir John intended to fall upon the duke' (Buckingham), said, with tears in his eyes: 'There is a command laid upon me to interrupt any that should go about to lay aspersion on the ministers of state;' upon which Eliot sat down, the house, after some desultory conversation, resolved itself into a committee of public safety, and Finch repaired to the king, from whom next day he brought a conciliatory message. On this occasion he seems to have acted as a mediator between the king and the commons. Sir Robert Philips, who replied to the royal message on behalf of the house, while expressing himself very cautiously on the general question, lauded Finch as one who had 'not only at all times discharged the duty of a good speaker, but of a good man' (ib. pp. 402-7; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1628-9, p. 153). In September and October 1628 Finch was associated with the attorney-general, Sir Robert Heath, in investigating the circumstances attending the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham (ib. pp. 332, 343). On 25 Feb. 1628-9 Finch delivered a message from the king commanding the adjournment of the house. Several members objected that adjournment was a matter for the house to determine, and Sir John Eliot proceeded to present a remonstrance on the subject of tonnage and poundage, which Finch refused to read. Eliot then read it himself. Finch, however, refused to put the question, and, rising to adjourn the debate, was forced back into the chair, and held there by Denzil Holies, Valentine, and others, Holies swearing 'God's wounds he should sit still till it pleased them to rise.' Finch burst into tears, exclaiming, 'I will not say I will not, but I dare not,' reminding the house that he had been their 'faithful servant,' and protesting 'he would sacrifice his life for the good of his country, but durst not sin against the express command of his sovereign.' Meanwhile with locked doors the substance of Eliot's remonstrance was adopted by the house and declared carried. Shortly afterwards parliament was dissolved, not to meet again for eleven years (Parl. Hist. ii. 487-91). In 1631 Finch was much employed in Star-chamber and high commission cases (Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star-chamber and High Commission, Camd. Soc.) In the autumn of 1633, the Inns of Court having decided to provide a grand masque for the entertainment of the king and queen, by way at once of testifying their loyalty and protesting against the austere views lately published by Prynne in his 'Histrio-Mastix,' Finch was elected one of the committee of management. The performance, which took place on Candlemas day (2 Feb. 1633-4), is described at some length by Whitelocke, and seems to have been a very splendid pageant. The masquers went in procession from Ely House, Holborn, by way of Chancery Lane and the Strand to Whitehall. The dancing took place in the palace, the queen herself dancing with some of the masquers. The revels were prolonged far into the night, and terminated with a stately banquet. Finch was subsequently deputed to convey the thanks of the members of the four inns to the king and queen for their gracious reception of the masquers. The entertainment was afterwards repeated by royal command in the Merchant Taylors' Hall (Whitelocke, Memoirs, pp. 19, 22). About the same time Finch was busily engaged in the proceedings taken against Prynne in the Star-chamber. His speech, in which he charges Prynne with veiling under the name of Herodias a libel on the queen, is reported in 'Documents relating to William Prynne' (Camd. Soc. pp. 10, 11). Attorney-general Noy dying in the following August was succeeded by Sir John Banks, and Sir Robert Heath having been removed from the chief-justiceship of the court of common pleas on 14 Sept., Finch was appointed to succeed him on 16 Oct., having taken the degree of serjeant-at-law on 9 Oct. Notes of his speeches on being sworn in as serjeant, taking leave of Gray's Inn on 12 Oct., and being sworn in as chief justice, are preserved in Sloane MS. 1455, ff. 7-15. These changes inspired some legal wit with the following couplet :
Noy's floods are gone, the Banks appear,
The Heath is cropt, the Finch sings there.
(Dugdale, Chron. Ser. 106-7; Croke, Rep. Car. p. 375 ; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1634-5, p. 221). On the bench Finch distinguished himself by the height to which he carried the royal prerogative, and the severity of his sentences. Thus a certain James Maxwell and his wife Alice having been found guilty in the Star-chamber (17 April 1635) of libelling the king and the lord keeper, and Lord Cottington proposing a fine of 3,000l. for the offence against the king and the same sum to the lord keeper, the lord chief baron moved to add in the case of the woman a whipping, in which he was supported by Finch. The motion, however, was lost. In another Star-chamber case (27 Jan. 1636-7) one Elmstone having been sentenced to imprisonment and also to stand in the pillory at Westminster, Finch moved to add that he lose his ears. The motion was lost. On Prynne's second trial (1637) Finch surpassed himself in brutality. He drew the attention of the court to the fact that some remnants of Prynne's ears still remained, and moved that they be cut close, and that he be stigmatised with the letters S. L. (seditious libeller) on his cheeks, which proposals were adopted into the sentence. In the case of John Langton (1638), one of the subordinate officials of the exchequer, charged with abuse of the royal prerogative, Finch doubled the fine of 1,000l. proposed by Lord Cottington, and added the pillory, imprisonment, and disability to hold office, in which the rest of the court concurred, Archbishop Laud, however, being for raising the fine to 5,000/lFinch also added a whipping to the sentence of fine, pillory, and mutilation proposed by Lord Cottington for one Pickering, a Roman catholic, found guilty in 1638 of libelling the king and queen by calling them Romanists, and sacrilegiously converting part of a churchyard into a pigsty (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1635 p. 31, 1636-7 p. 398, 1637 p. 214, 1637-8 pp. 384, 474 ; Cobbett, State Trials, iii. 717, 725).
On 12 Feb. 1636-7 the king laid before the judges a case for their opinion on the legality of ship-money. The opinion which they all subscribed, but for which, according to Clarendon, Finch was mainly responsible, was to the effect that the king had an uncontrolled discretion in the matter. To this opinion Finch and the majority of his colleagues adhered on the occasion of the trial of Hampden in the exchequer chamber. He delivered a long and somewhat 'rambling judgment, concluding with the statement that 'upon common law and the fundamental policy of the kingdom the king may charge his subjects for the defence of the kingdom when it is in danger,' and 'that the king is sole judge of the danger, and ought to direct the means of defence' Cobbett, State Trials, iii. 843, 1243). Of this judgment Clarendon says that it made ship-money 'more abhorred and formidable than all the commitments by the council table, and all the distresses taken by the sheriffs in England ; the major part of men looking upon these proceedings with a kind of applause to themselves, to see other men punished for not doing as they had done ; which delight was quickly determined when they found their own interest, by the unnecessary logic of that argument, no less concluded than Mr. Hampden's' (Rebellion, i. 127,130). In March 1638-9 Finch was sworn of the privy council, and on 17 Jan. 1639-40 he obtained through the influence of the queen the place of lord keeper, then vacant by the death of Lord Coventry. His appointment was far from giving universal satisfaction. Thus, Sir Richard Cave writes to Sir Thomas Roe, under date 7 Feb. 1639-40: 'The lord keeper keeps such a clatter in his new place that they are more weary of him in the chancery than they were before in the common pleas.' On 7 April 1640 he was created Baron Finch of Fordwich in Kent (Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley (Camd. Soc.), p. 32 ; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1639-40 pp. 341, 344, 436, 1640 p. 12). The Short parliament of 1640 was opened by the king on 13 April with a few words indicative of the gravity of the situation, the task of more fully setting forth the royal wishes and intentions being devolved upon the lord keeper. After dwelling upon the magnanimity shown by the king in 'sequestering the memory of all former discouragements,' and once more summoning a parliament, Finch proceeded to expatiate upon the threatening aspect of Scottish affairs, and the consequent necessity of obtaining immediate supplies. On this theme he again enlarged on 20 April, but with no effect, the commons resolving that grievances must take precedence of supply. On 5 May parliament was dissolved. One of the first acts of the Long parliament was the exhibition of articles of impeachment against Finch. The principal counts in the indictment were three : (1) his arbitrary conduct when speaker on the occasion of Eliot's motion on tonnage and poundage ; (2) malpractices on the bench in 1635 for the purpose of extending the royal forest in Essex beyond its legal boundaries ; (3) his conduct in Hampden's case (Harleian Miscellany, v. 566-9 ; Somers Tracts, iv. 129-32; Trevelyan Papers, Camd. Soc. iii. 199-200). Finch appeared at the bar of the House of Commons during the preliminary stage (21 Dec.), and made an elaborate speech in his own defence, but took refuge in Holland before the form of the articles was finally determined, arriving at the Hague on 31 Dec. 1640. According to Clarendon (Rebellion, i. 311, 526) the house was 'wonderfully indisposed to hear anything against' him, though Falkland denounced him as the 'chief transgressor' in the matter of ship-money. His estates in Kent and Middlesex were sequestrated in 1644, being estimated as of the annual value of 338l.; but his wife, Lady Mabel, was permitted to occupy them at the annual rent of 100l. so long as they should continue in sequestration (Lords' Journals, vi. 568 a, vii. 272 ; Add. MS. 5494, f. 206). They seem to have been subsequently redeemed for 7,000l., though Finch's name does not appear in Dring's 'Catalogue' (1733) (Parl. Hist. ii. 528-34 552-60, 685-98; Cobbett, State Trials, iv. 18; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661-2, p. 328). During his exile Finch seems to have resided principally at the Hague. Here in 1641 Evelyn met him, and lodged for a time in the same house with him, the house, oddly enough, of a Brownist, where, says Evelyn, 'we had an extraordinary good table' (Diary, 26 July and 19 Aug. 1641). Two letters to Finch, one from Henrietta Maria, the other from Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia, belonging to this period, may be read in 'Archæologia,' xxi. 474 et seq. They are of slight historical importance, but by the familiarity of their style serve to show the intimate terms on which he stood with the writers. A letter to Sir Christopher Hatton, dated 3 Jan. 1640-1, announcing his arrival at the Hague (Add. MSS. 28218 f. 9, 29550 f. 49), was printed in 1641 (Brit. Mus. Cat. 'Finch'). Another to Dr. Cosin, dean of Peterborough, written in a very inflated style, but not without touches of humour, is undated, but must have been written in 1641 or 1642, as it contains a reference to the 'danger that hangs over the head' of Cosin, viz. the prosecution in the high commission court for innovating in religion, which terminated 22 Jan. 1642 in sequestration. It was printed in 1642 and reprinted in 1844 (Newcastle Reprints of Rare Tracts, Historical, i.) On 14 July 1647 Finch petitioned the House of Lords for leave to return home to die in his native country. The petition was ordered to be considered, and was entered in the journal of the house, but no leave appears to have been granted (Lords' Journals, vii. 331). In October 1660 Finch was one of the commissioners for the trial of the regicides, but took little part in the proceedings. He died on the 27th of the following month, and was buried in St. Martin's Church, near Canterbury. As he left no male issue the peerage became extinct. Finch married first Eleanor, daughter of George Wyat; and secondly, Mabel, daughter of the Rev. Charles Fotherby, dean of Canterbury. Smith (Obituary, Camd. Soc., p. 52) calls him a 'proud and impious man, but loyal to his prince.' His character has been painted in black colours by Campbell ; but though a bigoted supporter of despotic power, there is no reason to suppose that he was other than a conscientious man. His view of the duty of a judge was certainly very humble, if we may credit the statement of Clarendon (Rebellion, i. 130) that while lord keeper he announced his intention of giving effect on all occasions to the mandates of the privy council. It has, however, never been suggested that he was open to pecuniary corruption. Wood says that he was the author of a 'Manuale Mathematicum,' curiously written on vellum with his own hand, formerly preserved among the manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 388), but now missing from the Ashmolean collection at the Bodleian (Black, Cat. p. 1505). He was also one of the first donors to Gray's Inn library (Douthwaite, Gray's Inn, p. 176).
[Berry's County Genealogies (Kent); Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors; Foss's Lives of the Judges.]