Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 27.djvu/209

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Holt
Holt
203

family of some antiquity seated at Grislehurst, Lancashire. His mother was Susan, daughter of John Peacock of Chawley, near Cumnor, Berkshire. He was educated at Abingdon grammar school, Winchester College, and Oriel College, Oxford, which he entered in 1658 (Wood, Ath. Oxon. iv. 505). Tradition says that his friends at the university were a very dissipated set; that he lived to try one of them for felony, and that on visiting him in gaol and asking about his old companions, he received the response, ‘Ah, my lord, they are all hanged but myself and your lordship.’ Another story is, that finding himself in the neighbourhood of Oxford without any money, he procured a week’s lodging at a county inn by pretending to charm away an ague from which the landlady’s daughter was suffering, by binding round her arm a scrap of parchment, on which he had scrawled a few Greek characters to look like a spell, and that in after years this scrap of writing was put in as the principle evidence against an old woman indicted before him of sorcery, whereupon Holt told the jury the story and directed an acquittal. It is certain that he left Oxford with a degree, and kept his terms at Gray’s Inn, of which he had been admitted a member while still a child (19 Nov. 1652), in time to be called to the bar on 27 Feb. 1663. About ten years later he figured with some frequency in the reports, an in 1676 was elected an ancient of his inn. He was assigned as one of the counsel for the Earl of Danby in his impeachment in 1679, and also for the Lords Powis and Arundell of Wardour, two of the five popish lords impeached in the same year. He appeared for the crown during the next few years in various cases growing out of the excitement caused by the popish plot, e.g. that of Giles charged in 1680 with attempting to murder John Arnold, J.P. for Monmouthshire; the trial of Slingsby Bethel [q. v.] in the following year for an assault on Robert Mason, king’s waterman, at election-time (State Trials, viii. 747); besides those of Pilkington and others in 1683, and William Sacheverell and others in 1684, both cases of election riots. He was also counsel for Lord Russell on his trial for complicity in the Rye House plot in 1683. In the same year he appeared for the East India Company in their great case against Sandys for infringement of their monopoly of the East India trade. His argument is reported at length in ‘State Trials,’ x. 371 et seq. In 1684 he appeared for the defendant in the case of the Earl of Macclesfield v. Starkey [see Gerard, Charles]. The recordership of London having, in consequence of the decision in the celebrated quo warranto case, become a crown office, Holt, who had expressed an opinion in favour of the legality of the decision, was appointed to it in February 1685-6. He was knighted at Whitehall on 9 Feb., and on 22 April following was called to the degree of serjeant-at-law, and was appointed king’s serjeant at the same time. He resigned the recordership after a year on refusing to pass sentence of death upon a deserter from the army. He was nevertheless retained as king’s serjeant, in which capacity he attended the council held at Whitehall on 22 Oct. 1688 for the purpose of establishing the birth of the Prince of Wales. He was no longer employed on behalf of the crown, and legal etiquette precluded him from holding briefs against it, but he privately advised Lord Clarendon in some litigation in which he was involved with the queen-dowager. On the flight of James II he was summoned by the lords to attend the convention as one of their legal assessors (22 Jan. 1688-9); and on 31 Jan. was returned to parliament for Beeralston, Devonshire. He was one of the managers on the part of the commons in their conference with the lords on the import of the word ‘abdicate’ by which James’s action in quitting the kingdom had been described in their vote, and advocated its retention in preference to the milder word ‘desert’ suggested by the lords. On 17 April he was appointed lord chief justice of the king’s bench, and on 26 Sept. he was sworn of the privy council.

During the passage of the Bill of Rights and Succession through parliament, Holt was examined by both houses as to the dispensing power, and gave his opinion in favour of its constitutional character. One of his first acts as chief justice was to grant the place of chief clerk of the enrolments in the king’s bench to his brother Roland. Thereupon one William Bridgman, who claimed the post as trustee for the Duchess of Grafton under letters patent of Charles II, brought an action in the king’s bench to oust Roland. The case was tried in Trinity term 1693, before three puisne judges of that court and a jury, Holt sitting uncovered by his brother during the proceedings. A verdict was given for the defendant, it being proved that the place had lain in the gift of the chief justice for centuries, and that the grant by letters patent was a usurpation. The plaintiff then offered a bill of exceptions, and as the judges refused to seal it, holding that the case had been properly left to the jury, presented a petition to the House of Lords, complaining of their conduct. The matter was discussed at length by the peers, and the judges were summoned to the bar of the house to answer for themselves, but eventually the petition was with-