Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Porter, Charles

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PORTER, Sir CHARLES (d. 1696), Irish lord chancellor, was a son of Edmund Porter, prebendary of Norwich. According to Roger North, who professed to speak entirely from his own knowledge or ‘from Porter's own mouth in very serious conversation,’ he was engaged in the London riots in April 1648, being then an apprentice in the city. He escaped on board a Yarmouth boat to Holland, where he trailed a pike as a common soldier, and was in several actions. He kept an eating-house; but his cavalier customers generally forgot to pay, and he made his way back to England. ‘Being a genteel youth, he was taken in among the chancery clerks.’ He was admitted at the Middle Temple on 25 Oct. 1656, and called to the bar in 1660. Porter was immoderately addicted both to wine and women, but was nevertheless industrious, quick, and well acquainted with all the forms of the court, and his ‘speech was prompt and articulate.’ He began with drawing pleas, then practised at the bar, and soon had a great deal of business. Lord-keeper Guilford took notice of him; but his good fortune had a hard struggle with his dissipated habits, and he was always in debt.

On 7 and 30 March 1668–9 Pepys had interviews with Porter, who was acting as counsel for certain creditors of the navy. The ‘State Trials’ give full details as to his part in the violent contentions between the two houses in Shirley v. Fagg and other cases. In 1675 he was junior counsel with Peck, Pemberton, and Sir John Churchill [q. v.] for Sir Nicholas Crispe against Mr. Dalmahoy, M.P., when the case was argued at the bar of the lords. The House of Commons resented Dalmahoy's trial by the lords as a breach of their privileges, and ordered all the parties into the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, while the House of Lords granted them a protection against all arrest. Porter was seized in the middle of an argument. He managed to read out the lords' protection audibly, but was nevertheless lodged in the Tower on 4 June; the imprisonment was put an end to by a prorogation five days later. So far as Porter was concerned, the chief result of the dispute was to bring him into prominent notice, and he was knighted soon afterwards.

Porter spent money as fast as he made it; and at the accession of James II he was known to be a needy man. ‘His character,’ says North, ‘for fidelity, loyalty, and facetious conversation were without exception. He had the good fortune to be loved by everybody.’ It was hoped that he would prove a useful tool; and he was appointed lord chancellor of Ireland on 22 March 1686, displacing the primate Michael Boyle [q. v.] The lord-lieutenant Clarendon did not like the change. He warned Porter that he would make no fortune in Ireland; for the salary was only 1,000l. a year, and it turned out that other sources of income scarcely yielded 400l. Porter took the oaths on 15 April, dined with the lord lieutenant, and was careful to show himself in friendly companionship with his aged predecessor. He told every one he met that the king had resolved not to have the acts of settlement shaken, and that he knew nothing of any intention to remodel the judicial bench; but Clarendon was better informed. The first patent sealed by Porter was one for Colonel William Legge, Lord Dartmouth's brother, as governor of Kinsale.

In May 1686 Porter's salary was increased to 1,500l., and that was the last mark of favour he received from James II. He advocated a commission of grace to confirm defective titles, and the raising of a revenue in this way while adding to the general security. Tyrconnel's policy was entirely different; he accused Porter of taking bribes from the whigs, and Justin MacCarthy [q. v.] fixed the sum at 10,000l. The charge, Clarendon wrote on 1 May, was as true as if he had been said to have taken the money from the Grand Turk. The struggle went on for the rest of the year, Porter, Chief-justice Keating, and Sir John Temple, the solicitor-general, contending for moderate courses, while Tyrconnel, Nugent, and Sir Richard Nagle [q. v.] combined to secure the supremacy of the king's religion. On 4 Jan. 1686–7 Clarendon dined with Porter, and within a week they both received their letters of recall. Porter was generally regretted in Ireland, and on reaching London he sought an interview with James, which was very unwillingly granted. He asked what he had done to deserve removal, and the king said it was his own fault. Further audience was refused, and no information was ever given of the reasons for his dismissal. Porter returned to his practice at the English bar, and on 18 Jan. 1688–9 Clarendon notes that he was ‘at the Temple with Mr. Roger North and Sir Charles Porter, who are the only two honest lawyers I have met with.’

Porter was known as an active adherent of William as early as December 1688 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. App. vii.) He returned to Ireland in December 1690, and was sworn in lord chancellor and lord justice, with Coningsby as a colleague in the latter office. In October 1691 he signed the articles of Limerick in the court there, and these were enrolled in chancery on 24 Feb. 1691–2. Like William, he was in favour of keeping faith with the Irish. In 1692 Porter attended Sidney, the lord lieutenant, when he went to open parliament. At the beginning of the session, on 10 Oct., he made a short speech in answer to that of Sir Richard Levinge [q. v.], the speaker. On 3 Nov. Porter spoke again, at Sidney's request, against the claim of the Irish House of Commons to originate money-bills, contrary to Poynings's act and to the practice of two centuries. On Sidney's departure, in July 1693, Porter again became a lord justice, but for less than a month. Having been dismissed by James because he was a protestant, he was now threatened with vengeance because he was not protestant enough. Articles of impeachment were exhibited against him in the English House of Commons by Richard Coote, earl of Bellamont [q. v.], himself an Irish protestant; but the matter soon dropped. Lord Capel also urged the king to remove Porter; but William refused, and Porter continued to lead the more tolerant party.

On 30 Sept. 1695 Colonel Ponsonby presented articles to the Irish House of Commons, in which Porter was accused of favouring papists and refusing to discharge magistrates ‘who have imbrued their hands in protestant blood,’ of corruption in his office, and of various irregularities. On 25 Oct. Porter was heard in person, a chair being set for him within the bar of the House of Commons. The speech is unfortunately lost; but the house voted his explanation satisfactory by 121 to 77. That night he overtook the carriage of his enemy, Speaker Rochfort [see Rochfort, Robert], in a narrow lane. Porter's coachman tried to pass the other; but Rochfort lost his temper, produced the mace, and declared that he would not be driven. Porter complained to the lords that his servant had been assaulted and himself insulted, and a communication was made to the other house. The commons declared that the whole thing was pure accident, and the matter dropped. There were no street lamps in Dublin until after the act 9 Will. III, cap. 17, was passed.

Capel died in May 1696, and Porter was elected lord justice by the council immediately afterwards. Lord Dartmouth arrived in Dublin the night after Capel died, and found the whole town ‘mad with joy’(note to BURNET, ii. 159). Porter remained a lord justice until his sudden death, from apoplexy, at his own house in Chancery Lane, Dublin, on 8 Dec. 1692. He died insolvent, or very nearly so.

Whigs and tories formed different estimates of Porter. Lord Somers, on the part of the whigs (ib.), wrote to Shrewsbury after Porter's death that it was ‘a great good fortune to the king's affairs in Ireland to be rid of a man who had formed so troublesome a party in that kingdom.’ Dartmouth thought him a wise man, not actuated, as Burnet said, by ‘a tory humour,’ but bent upon uniting all protestants without distinction of party. And his friend Roger North says ‘he had that magnanimity and command of himself that no surprise or affliction, by arrest or otherwise, could be discerned either in his countenance or society, which is very exemplary; and in cases of the persecuting kind, as injustices and the malice of powers, heroical in perfection.’

[Le Neve's Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ; Clarendon and Rochester Correspondence, ed. Singer; Howell's State Trials, vol. vi.; Roger North's Life of Guilford; Pepys's Diary, ed. Mynors Bright; Burnet's Hist. of his Own Time, ed. 1823; Liber Munerum Publicorum Hiberniæ; Haydn's Book of Dignities; O'Flanagan's Lives of the Irish Chancellors; Oliver Burke's Hist. of the Irish Chancellors; Froude's English in Ireland, vol. i.; Macaulay's Hist. of England.]

R. B-l.