Norton, Fletcher (DNB00)

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NORTON, FLETCHER, first Baron Grantley (1716–1789), eldest son of Thomas Norton of Grantley, near Ripon, Yorkshire, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Serjeantson of Hanlith in Craven, Yorkshire, was born at Grantley on 23 June 1716. Richard Norton (1488?–1588) was his ancestor. He was admitted a member of the Middle Temple on 14 Nov. 1734, and was called to the bar on 6 July 1739. Though Norton is said to have gone for many years without a brief, he ultimately obtained a very large and lucrative practice, and was for many years leader of the northern circuit, and had the principal business in the court of king's bench. In 1754 he became a king's counsel, was elected a bencher of his inn (3 May 1754), and subsequently became attorney-general for the county palatine of Lancaster. At the general election in May 1754 Norton unsuccessfully contested the borough of Appleby. The election, however, was declared void (Journals of the House of Commons, xxvii. 444), and at the fresh election in March 1756 he was returned to the House of Commons for that borough. He was elected one of the members for Wigan in the parliament of 1761, and was appointed solicitor-general on 25 Jan. 1762, being knighted on the same day. He was created a D.C.L. of Oxford University on 20 Oct. 1762. In Michaelmas term 1763 Norton, as solicitor-general (the office of attorney-general being then vacant), exhibited informations against Wilkes for publishing No. 45 of the ‘North Briton’ and the ‘Essay on Woman’ (Howell, State Trials, 1813, xix. 1075, 1382). During one of the debates on the proceedings against Wilkes, Norton ‘indecently quoted a prosecution of perjury’ against Sir John Rushout, who explained that the prosecution had been instigated by Norton himself for an election purpose, and concluded by saying, ‘It was all owing to that honest gentleman! I hope I do not call him out of his name!’ (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George III, i. 326–7). On 16 Dec. 1763 Norton became attorney-general. In the debate on the resolution declaring the illegality of general warrants in February 1764, Norton is reported to have said: ‘if I was a judge I should pay no more regard to this resolution than to that of a drunken porter’ (ib. i. 374–5; see also Parl. Hist. xv. 1403). For this he was severely rebuked in ‘A Letter from Albemarle Street to the Cocoa Tree [Club] on some late Transactions,’ London, 1764, 4to, the authorship of which has been attributed to Lord Temple. Upon the death of Sir Thomas Clarke in November 1764, Norton appears to have been named his successor at the rolls, but the appointment was objected to by Lord-chancellor Northington, and Norton remained attorney-general (Walpole, Memoirs of George III, ii. 36–37).

He took part in the prosecution of William, fourth lord Byron, for the murder of William Chaworth, before the House of Lords in April 1765 (Howell, State Trials, xix. 1183), and was one of the counsel for the appellant in the famous Douglas cause in 1769 (Paton, Scotch Appeal Cases, ii. 178). He was dismissed from the post of attorney-general on the formation of the Rockingham administration in July 1765. During the debate on the petition against the Stamp Act in January 1766, Norton accused Pitt of sounding the trumpet to rebellion, and declared: ‘he has chilled my blood at the idea.’ To which Pitt replied: ‘The gentleman says I have chilled his blood; I shall be glad to meet him in any place with the same opinions, when his blood is warmer’ (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ii. 271–2). At the general election in March 1768 Norton was returned for the borough of Guildford, which he continued to represent until his elevation to the peerage. On 1 Feb. 1769 he defended Lord Mansfield's conduct on the Wilkes case (Cavendish, Parl. Debates, i. 134–5, 138), and was appointed chief-justice in eyre of his majesty's forests south of the Trent on the 19th of the same month, and admitted to the privy council on 22 March following. In the debate on the petition against Colonel Luttrell's return for Middlesex in May 1769, Norton supported Dowdeswell's motion declaring Luttrell duly elected, and made a fierce onslaught on George Grenville (Grenville Papers, vol. iii. p. cxxviii; Cavendish, Parl. Debates, i. 431–3). On 22 Jan. 1770 Norton, whose nomination was proposed by North, and seconded by Rigby, was elected speaker of the House of Commons in the place of Sir John Cust [q. v.] by a majority of 116 votes over the whig candidate, Thomas Townsend the younger (Journals of the House of Commons, xxxii. 613). On 16 Feb. following Norton had a violent altercation with Sir William Meredith. Norton's words were ordered to be taken down by the clerk, but the motion that they were ‘disorderly, importing an improper reflection on a member of this house, and dangerous to the freedom of debate in this house,’ was negatived after a long and exciting discussion (Cavendish, Parl. Debates, i. 458–68). As speaker he signed the warrant committing Brass Crosby [q. v.] to the Tower on 25 March 1771 (Howell, State Trials, xix. 1138). During the debate in committee on the Royal Marriage Bill, Norton contended that the penalty of a præmunire should be defined, a course which gave considerable offence to the court (Parl. Hist. xvii. 422–3, xxi. 260). On 11 Feb. 1774 he called the attention of the house to a letter written by John Horne (afterwards Horne-Tooke) in that day's ‘Public Advertiser,’ accusing him of gross partiality in his conduct as speaker, whereupon it was unanimously resolved that the letter was ‘a false, malicious, and scandalous libel, highly reflecting on the character of the speaker of this house, to the dishonour of this house, and in violation of the privileges thereof’ (ib. xvii. 1006–16, et seq.) At the opening of the new parliament on 29 Nov. 1774 Norton was unanimously re-elected speaker (ib. xviii. 31). While presenting the bill for the better support of the king's household (7 May 1777), Norton boldly declared that the commons ‘have not only granted to your majesty a large present supply, but also a very great additional revenue—great beyond example, great beyond your majesty's highest expence’ (ib. xix. 213). This speech, which was ordered to be printed, created a great sensation. The court highly disapproved of it, and Norton was accused of having used the word ‘wants’ instead of ‘expence.’ Rigby denounced it with great acrimony, but upon Fox's motion a resolution was carried without a division that the speaker had expressed ‘with just and proper energy the zeal of this house for the support of the honour and dignity of the crown in circumstances of great public charge’ (ib. pp. 224, 227–34). On 14 May the court of common council voted the freedom of the city to Norton ‘for having declared in manly terms the real state of the Nation to his Majesty on the Throne.’ No entry of his admission appears in the chamberlain's books, but it is recorded that he declined to accept the gold box, which had also been voted to him (London's Roll of Fame, 1884, p. 60). During the debate on Burke's Establishment Bill (13 March 1780) Norton was called upon by Fox to give his opinion on the competency of the house to inquire into and control the civil list expenditure. Norton in reply declared that ‘parliament had an inherent right vested in it of controlling and regulating every branch of the public expenditure, the civil list as well as the rest,’ but that with regard to the civil list ‘the necessity for retrenchment ought to be fully, clearly, and satisfactorily shown before parliament shall interfere,’ adding that when ‘the necessity was clearly made out it was not only the right but the duty of parliament to interpose, and no less the duty and interest of the crown to acquiesce.’ He assured Burke that he would give him every assistance in his power to carry the bill, and not only acknowledged that his office of chief justice in eyre was a sinecure, but that it ‘was much in his opinion too profitable for the duties annexed to it,’ and that the powers vested in the chief justice ‘were such as ought not to be executed.’ He concluded this remarkable speech with a violent attack upon Lord North for thinking of appointing Wedderburn to the chief justiceship of the common pleas, a post which Norton himself was anxious to obtain (Parl. Hist. xxi. 258–269, 270–3). On 20 March, however, Norton apologised to the house for having ‘very imprudently gone into matters totally foreign to the subject under consideration’ (ib. pp. 296–8). On 6 April he spoke in favour of Dunning's celebrated motion with respect to the influence of the crown (ib. pp. 355–9), and in May he denounced the bill for appointing commissioners to examine the public accounts as a mere job for creating new placemen at the nomination of a minister (ib. pp. 561–3). The king having determined that Norton should not be re-elected speaker, the ministers availed themselves of Norton's bad health as an excuse for not proposing him. Accordingly, at the meeting of the new parliament on 31 Oct. 1780, Charles Wolfran Cornwall [q. v.], the ministerial nominee, was elected to the chair by 203 votes against 134 recorded in favour of Norton, who was proposed by Dunning and seconded by Thomas Townsend (ib. xxi. 793–807). On 20 Nov. following the thanks of the house were voted him for his conduct in the chair by 136 votes to 96 (ib. pp. 873–85), and were conveyed to him by the new speaker on 1 Feb. 1781 (ib. p. 1106). On 12 Dec. 1781 Norton spoke in favour of Sir James Lowther's motion for putting an end to the American war, and declared that ‘it was his firm sentiment that until this was done not a single shilling should be voted as a supply to his majesty’ (ib. xxii. 813–15). He supported Lord John Cavendish's resolutions of censure against the ministry on 8 March 1782 (ib. p. 1144). He was created Baron Grantley of Markenfield, Yorkshire, on 9 April 1782, and took his seat in the House of Lords for the first time on the 16th of the same month (Journals of House of Lords, xxvi. 432). Norton seems to have owed his peerage to the rivalry between Rockingham and Shelburne. The latter obtained a peerage for Dunning without Rockingham's knowledge, whereupon Rockingham insisted that a similar honour should be conferred by the king upon Norton (Wraxall, ii. 258–61). Though he changed sides once more, he does not appear to have taken much part in the debates of the House of Lords. He opposed Fox's East India Bill in 1783, and voted for Pitt's East India Bill in 1784. He was appointed a member of the privy council for the consideration of all matters relating to trade and foreign plantations on 5 March 1784, and again upon the reconstruction of the committee on 23 Aug. 1786. He spoke for the last time in the house on 19 March 1788, when he opposed the third reading of the East India Declaratory Bill (Parl. Hist. xxvii. 245–7). He died at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 1 Jan. 1789, aged 72, and was buried at Wonersh in Surrey on the 9th of the same month.

Norton was a shrewd, unprincipled man, of good abilities and offensive manners. His violent temper and lack of discretion unfitted him for the post of speaker. Though by no means a learned lawyer, he was a bold and able pleader, and was remarkable alike for the clearness of his arguments and the inaccuracy of his statements. According to Lord Mansfield, Norton's ‘art was very likely to mislead a judge and jury; and with him I found it more difficult to prevent injustice being done than with any person whoever practised before me’ (Law and Lawyers, 1840, i. 188). Walpole, who never tires of abusing Norton, even asserts that ‘it was known that in private causes he took money from both parties, and availed himself against one or other of them of the lights they had communicated to him’ (Memoirs of the Reign of George III, i. 240). Junius made a violent attack upon Norton in Letter 39, quoting Ben Jonson's description of the lawyer who ‘gives forked counsel’ (Woodfall's edition, 1814, ii. 139–40). Churchill satirises him in ‘The Duellist’ (bk. iii.) Mason, under the pseudonym of ‘Malcolm Macgreggor, wrote an ‘Ode to Sir Fletcher Norton in imitation of Horace, Ode viii. Book iv,’ which he published with ‘An Epistle to Dr. Shebbeare’ in 1777 (London, 4to). In the satires and caricatures of the day Norton was usually nicknamed ‘Sir Bull-face Double Fee.’

Norton married, on 21 May 1741, Grace, eldest daughter of Sir William Chapple, kt., a justice of the king's bench, by whom he had five sons—viz.: (1) William, his majesty's minister to the Swiss Cantons, who succeeded his father as second baron, and died on 12 Nov. 1822; (2) Fletcher, a baron of the exchequer in Scotland, who died on 19 June 1820; (3) Chapple [q. v.]; (4) Edward, a barrister-at-law, recorder and M.P. for Carlisle, who died on 27 March 1786, and (5) Thomas, who died an infant—and two daughters: Grace Traherne, who died an infant, and Grace, who married, on 19 Nov. 1799, John, third earl of Portsmouth, and died on 16 Nov. 1813. Norton's widow died on 30 Oct. 1803, aged 95.

A portrait of Norton in his speaker's robes, by Sir William Beechey, belongs to Earl Grantley. There is a whole-length caricature of him by James Sayer.

[Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, 1845; Walpole's Journal of the Reign of George III, 1859; Walpole's Letters, 1857–9, vols. iv. v. vi. vii. viii.; Sir N. W. Wraxall's Hist. and Posthumous Memoirs, 1884, i. 246, 257–61, ii. 258–61, v. 244–6; Grenville Papers, 1852–3, ii. 67, iii. pp. cxxviii, 73, 381, 394, iv. 221; Chatham Correspondence, 1838–40, ii. 261, 289, 352, iii. 395, iv. 58, 214; Political Memoranda of Francis, fifth Duke of Leeds (Camd. Soc. 1884), pp. 4, 34, 90, 136; Autobiography of Mrs. Piozzi, 1861, i. 338–9; Twiss's Life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, 1844, iii. 98–9, 137; Boswell's Life of Johnson, edited by G. B. Hill, ii. 91, 472; Mahon's History of England, 1858, v. 52, 251, vi. 139–40, vii. 10–11, 13, 78, 144; Trevelyan's Early Hist. of Charles James Fox, 1881, pp. 265, 336–7, 371, 375, 437, 442, 483; Ferguson's Cumberland and Westmorland M.P.'s, 1871, pp. 424–6, 468; Letters of Junius, 1807, pp. 45, 59, 196; Manning's Speakers of the House of Commons, 1851, pp. 445–56; Brayley and Britton's Hist. of Surrey, 1850, v. 120, 124, 147, 149–51; Georgian Era, 1833, ii. 285–6; Gent. Mag. 1789, pt. i. p. 87; Annual Register, 1789, pp. 241–2; Collins's Peerage, 1812, vii. 551–3; Burke's Peerage, 1892, p. 615; Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886, iii. 1030; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii.]

G. F. R. B.