Lee, William (1688-1754) (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


LEE, Sir WILLIAM (1688–1754), judge, was second son of Sir Thomas Lee, hart., of Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, by Alice, daughter of Thomas Hopkins, and brother of Sir George Lee [q. v.] His grandfather, Sir Thomas Lee (d. 1691), was created a baronet on 16 Aug. 1660, and sat in parliament as M.P. for Aylesbury from 1661 to 1681, as M.P. for Buckinghamshire in the Convention parliament, and as M.P. for Aylesbury in William III's first parliament until his death in February 1690-1. He was a well-known parliamentary debater in Charles II's reign, and, although often voting with the opposition, was credited with taking bribes from the court (cf. Marvell, Satires, ed. Aitken, pp. 31,83, 183; Burnet, Own Time; Burke, Extinct Baronetage). The judge's father, the second baronet, was M.P. for Aylesbury in the Convention parliament and from 1690 to 1698, when he was unseated on petition. He was re-elected in 1700 and 1701. William, born at his father's seat, Hartwell, I on 2 Aug. 1688, entered in 1703 the Middle Temple, where he was afterwards called to the bar. He spent some time, but without graduating, at Oxford, and in 1717 removed to the Inner Temple, of which he was elected a bencher in 1725. He appears to have practised at first chiefly in the courts of petty and quarter sessions in his native county, and in 1717 distinguished himself by the manner in which he argued a knotty point of law arising in a case of pauper settlement removed thence into the court of king's bench. It is noticeable that on this occasion he was opposed by Yorke, afterwards lord Hardwicke (Rex v. Inhabitants de Ivinghoe, 1 Strange, 90). In the following year he was appointed recorder of Wycombe, and in 1722 he succeeded William Denton [q. v.] as recorder of Buckingham. From 1718 to 1730 he held the office of Latin secretary to the king. On 17 Aug. 1727 he entered parliament, in the whig interest, as member for Chipping Wycombe. In 1728 he was made a king's counsel, and about the same time attorney-general to the Prince of Wales. In 1729 he was one of the prosecuting counsel in Castell v. Bambridge [see under Bambridge, Thomas], but failed to obtain a conviction, although displaying great ability in his arguments. Lee's reputation as a thorough lawyer was now established, and he was designated for the next vacant judgeship. Accordingly, on the removal of Keynolds to the exchequer [see Reynolds, James, 1686-1739] he was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law 5 June 1780, and the next day sworn in as a puisne judge of the king's bench. He declined the customary honour of knighthood, and only accepted it on his elevation to the chiefjusticeship of his court, in succession to Lord Hardwicke, 8 June 1737, when he was sworn of the privy council Though not exactly a great judge, he proved himself able, patient, and impartial. As long as Lord Hardwicke presided in the king's bench, Lee's functions were almost entirely reduced to expressing his concurrence with the decisions of his chief; it was only as chief justice that he had scope to display to full advantage his thorough and minute knowledge of the common law and his strict judicial integrity. His name is associated with few cases of public interest. He decided, however, that a female householder is entitled to vote for, and eligible to serve as, the sexton of a parish, and thus laid the foundation of the parochial and municipal franchises of women ; and by a series of decisions he did much to place the law of pauper settlements on a satisfactory basis. He presided over the special commission which sat at St. Margaret's, Hill Street, Southwark, in July 1746, to try the Jacobite rebels, and in the course of these trials decided four important points of law : (1) that a commission in the army of a foreign state does not entitle the holder, being an Englishman, to be treated as a prisoner of war; (2) that no compulsion short of present fear of death will excuse participation in a rebellion ; (3) that Scotsmen born in Scotland were not entitled under the Act of Union to be tried in Scotland ; (4) that the acceptance of, and acting under, a commission of excise from the Pretender was an overt act of treason. His direction to the jury in the case of William Owen, tried before him at the Guildhall on 6 July 1752 for seditious libel, has been seriously criticised, but was the result of a strictly legal, if somewhat narrow, view of the respective functions of judge and jury. Owen had published a pamphlet animadverting on the conduct of the House of Commons in the case of the Hon. Alexander Murray [q. v.], and Lee, in summing up, directed the jury in effect that it was not for them to determine whether the pamphlet was or was not libellous, that being a matter of law ; but if they were satisfied that it had been published by the defendant, they ought to find him guilty. The jury, however, refused to take the law from the chief justice, and, though there was no doubt of the fact of publication by the defendant, acquitted him. Upon the death of Henry Pelham, 6 March 1754> Lee was appointed chancellor of the exchequer ; but merely ad interim, and without a seat in the cabinet. Lee died of an apoplectic stroke on 8 April following. He was buried on the 17th in Hartwell Church, where a monument was placed to his memory.

Horace Walpole calls Lee a creature of Lord Hardwicke. This appears to be altogether unfair; although his intimate Mendship with the chancellor probably helped his advancement, his abilities were very highly esteemed by better judges than Walpole. Lord Hardwicke, writing shortly after his death, characterises him as 'an able and most upright magistrate and servant of the crown and public.' His reporter, Burrow, after ascribing to him almost every private virtue, adds that on the bench ' the integrity of his heart and the caution of his determination were so eminent that they never will, perhaps never can, be excelled.' The 1744 edition of the ' Reports of Sir John Comyns 'is dedicated to him in very flattering terms. He was a correspondent of Zachary Grey [q. v.], and a friend of Browne Willis [q. v.], the celebrated antiquary. Some excerpts from his note-books and almanacks, published in the 'Law Magazine.' vols, xxxviii. and xxxix., under the title 'Jotting Book of a Chief Justice,' show that he had read widely and carefully beyond the limits of his professional studies, and was well versed in moral and metaphysical science. His unpublished commonplace book, still preserved at Hartwell, in more than a hundred volumes, attests the assiduity and method with which he prosecuted his studies. He was of a genial and even jovial temperament ; thought good cheer and 'a merry, honest wife the best sort of medicine, and hospitality the best sort of charity. He never spoke in parliament, but steadily supported by his vote the principles of the revolution. For this he would never give any but the humorous reason that he came in with King William (meaning that he was born in the year of that monarch 8 accession), and so was Dound to be a good whig.

Lee married twice : first, Anne, daughter of John Goodwin of Bury St. Edmunds, who died in 1729; secondly, on 12 May 1738, Margaret, daughter or Roger Drake, and widow of James Melmoth, described as 'an agreeable young lady of 25,000l. fortune.' She died in May 1752, and was buried in Hartwell Church". By his first wife Lee had issue an only son, William, who succeeded to the manor of Totteridge, which Lee had purchased in 1748. He had no issue by his second wife. His posterity died out in the male line in 1825, and the elder branch of the family having become extinct in 1827, both Hartwell and Totteridge Park are now vested in the representatives of the lord chief justice in the female line [cf. under Lee, John, 1783–1866.]

[Smyth's Ædes Hartwelliana, pp. 64 et seq. 96; Croke's Genealog. Hist. of the Croke Family, i. 614; Wotton's Baronetage, iii. pt i. 149; Burke's Extinct Baronetage; Sixth Rep. Dep.-Keep. Publ. Rec. App. ii. 119; Lipscombe's Buckinghamshire, ii. 305; Browne Willis's Hist, and Antiq. Buckingham, p. 43; Strange's Reports; Burrow's Settlement Cases; Cases tempore Hardwicke; Howell's State Trials, xvii. 383-462, xviii. 330 et seq.; Wynne's Serj.-at-Law; Hist. Reg. Chron. Diary, 1730 p. 44, 1737 p. 7; Harris's Life of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 634; Add. MSS. 21507 f. 93, 32702 f. 385, 32732 ff. 99, 105, 162, 32734 ff. 277, 394, Lansd. MS. 830 f. 120; Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices; Foss's Lives of the Judges.]

J. M. R.