Somers, John (DNB00)
SOMERS or SOMMERS, JOHN, Lord Somers (1651–1716), lord chancellor of England, came of a family belonging to the rank of small landed gentry, which seated at Clifton, Severn Stoke, Worcestershire, and appears to have early conformed, as it afterwards steadfastly adhered, to the reformed faith. Its consequence was enhanced towards the end of the sixteenth century by the acquisition of the dissolved nunnery of Whiteladies, Claines, near Worcester, which Richard Somers or Sommers, as the name was popularly spelt, grandfather of the lord chancellor, settled on his daughter Mary upon her marriage with Richard Blurdon, a Worcester clothier. The lord chancellor's father, John Somers, an attorney, fought on the side of the parliament during the civil war, throve in his profession on the restoration of tranquillity, inherited the Clifton estate, and, dying in January 1680–1, was buried in Severn Stoke church, where his widow (Catherine, youngest daughter of John Severne of Powyck, Worcestershire) was also interred on 16 March 1709–10. Besides his son John he left two daughters: (1) Mary, born 1653, married Charles Cocks, M.P. for Worcester 1694–5, and afterwards for Droitwich, whose son-in-law was Philip Yorke (Lord-chancellor Hardwicke) [q. v.], and whose grandson Sir Charles Cocks, bart., was created, 17 May 1784, Baron Somers of Evesham; (2) Elizabeth, born 1655, married Sir Joseph Jekyll [q. v.], master of the rolls.
John Somers, the future chancellor, who was born at Whiteladies, Claines, near Worcester, on 4 March 1650–1, was brought up by his father's sister at Whiteladies, and educated at the Worcester cathedral school, at private schools at Walsall, Staffordshire, and Sheriff Hales, Shropshire, and at the university of Oxford, where he matriculated from Trinity College on 23 May 1667, but did not graduate. There is, however, no reason to believe that Somers wasted his time at Oxford. On the contrary, it is probable that, with his friend Henry (afterwards Sir Henry) Newton (1651–1715) [q. v.], he there laid the basis of that large and exact accomplishment in the Italian and other foreign languages and literature which is celebrated in the courtly alcaics of Filicaia—
septem ferme idiomatum
Per ostia intras, Nili ad instar,
Immodicæ maria alta famæ
(Poes. Toscan. 1762, ii. 50). There also, in all likelihood, he began those philosophical and theological studies in which Burnet (Own Time, fol. ii. 107) attests his proficiency. He was admitted on 24 May 1669 a student at the Middle Temple, was called to the bar on 5 May 1676, and elected a bencher on 10 May 1689. During his pupilage he resided in Elm Court, afterwards in Pump Court. Among his early patrons were Sir Francis Winnington, solicitor-general 1675–9, and Charles Talbot, twelfth earl (afterwards duke) of Shrewsbury, whose estates his father managed. By Shrewsbury he was introduced to William, lord Russell, Algernon Sidney, and other eminent whigs. He did not, however, allow the distractions of society to wean his mind from the severe studies proper to his profession. After exploring the entire field of English law and equity, he made himself an adept in the civil law, and prepared himself for political action by a close study of the constitution of his country.
Somers appeared as junior counsel for the seven bishops, 29–30 June 1688, being retained against the wish of the defendants at the instance of Henry Pollexfen [q. v.], afterwards chief justice of the common pleas, who refused to plead without him. The event proved that the old lawyer had not misplaced his confidence. Somers showed to no less advantage in court than in consultation. His learning furnished him with a precedent exactly in point, the exchequer chamber case of Thomas v. Sorrel (Vaughan, p. 330), in which it was held that no statute could be suspended except with the consent of the legislature, and his powerful appeal to the jury, which closed the pleading, virtually decided the case. He was shortly afterwards elected recorder of London, but declined the office.
The important rôle assigned to Somers by Lord Campbell in the negotiations with the prince of Orange (November–December 1688) is ignored by the contemporary authorities. But on his return to parliament, 11 Jan. 1688–9, for Worcester, which he continued to represent until his elevation to the woolsack, he at once took the lead in the critical debates on the settlement of the monarchy. Brushing aside the pedantic quibbles of more timid constitutionalists, he maintained with irrefragable logic that the desertion of the kingdom by James II was in fact an abdication of the throne. In this he carried the commons with him, but in the subsequent conference with the lords he encountered an opposition which yielded rather to stress of circumstances than the cogency of his arguments. If not exactly the author of the ‘Declaration of Rights,’ he presided over the committee which framed it, and doubtless had the principal share in its composition. In the debate on the coronation oath he supported an amendment which, if carried, would have relieved George III of one of his scruples in regard to the emancipation of his catholic subjects; otherwise he took comparatively little part in the discussion of the details of the new settlement, being fully engrossed by the office of solicitor-general, to which he was appointed on 4 May 1689. On 31 Oct. following he was knighted. He drafted the declaration of war against France (7 May), took part in the debate on the bill of rights (8 May), and at the conference with the lords on the bill to reverse the sentence against Titus Oates nobly vindicated the right of even the worst of mankind to evenhanded justice (July). In the debate on the revenue bill (17 Dec.), he opposed the grant to the Princess Anne. He was probably the author of the able ‘Vindication of the Proceedings of the late Parliament of England, An. Dom. 1689, being the first in the Reign of their present Majesties King William and Queen Mary,’ which was published at London in the following year, 4to (see Somers Tracts, ed. Scott, x. 257; Parl. Hist. vol. v. app. iv.). In the debates of the ensuing session on the indemnity bill and the bill for restoring corporations he advocated an assignment of the grounds of exception from the one, and the exception from the other of all persons who had been concerned in procuring the corrupt surrender of charters. In the prosecution of the Jacobite Lord Preston and his associates, 16–19 Jan. 1690–1, Somers discharged his duty with a temperate firmness in happy contrast to the excessive zeal characteristic of the previous régime. The judges, Sir John Holt [q. v.] and his colleagues, Pollexfen and Atkyns, were equally considerate, and when, the case being proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the jury convicted the prisoners, the king, on the recommendation of Somers, exercised his prerogative of mercy.
On 2 May 1692 Somers succeeded Sir George Treby as attorney-general. In the autumn, parliament was occupied with a much-needed measure for regulating the procedure in cases of treason, which occasioned a prolonged struggle between the two houses. The bill was eventually abandoned owing to the refusal of the lower house to accept the lords' amendments, and the attorney-general's speeches materially contributed to this result. His action has been censured by Lord Campbell, but on inadequate grounds. The chief point to which he took exception in the amendments was a limitation of ten days for the presentment of the indictment, to run not from the discovery but from the commission of the offence. Such a rule would have rendered it in many cases impossible to lay an indictment at all; and the measure as eventually passed (7 Will. III, c. 3) justified Somers's opposition by fixing the period of limitation at three years.
As attorney-general Somers conducted before the high steward's court, 31 Jan. to 4 Feb. 1692–3, the prosecution of Charles Mohun, fifth baron Mohun [q. v.], for the murder of his rival in the good graces of Mrs. Bracegirdle, a case in which, the fact being proved, the prisoner owed his acquittal to the uncertainty which then reigned as to the precise degree of complicity necessary to support a charge of murder. In his private capacity the attorney-general also appeared for the Duke of Norfolk in his action for criminal conversation against Sir John Germaine. He stated the evidence with as much decency as the nature of the case permitted, and obtained a verdict.
On 23 March 1692–3 Somers was made lord keeper of the great seal, which had been in commission since the accession of William III, and was sworn of the privy council. On 2 May following he took his seat on the woolsack as speaker of the House of Lords. On 22 April 1697 he was advanced to the dignity of lord high chancellor of England, and on 2 Dec. following he was raised to the peerage—an honour which he had declined in 1695—by the title of Baron Sommers of Evesham, Worcestershire. On the 14th of the same month he took his seat in the House of Lords. About the same time he was provided with the means of supporting his dignities by grants of the two royal manors of Reigate and Howlegh, Surrey, and a pension of 2,100l.
Amid his official cares Somers by no means lost his taste for liberal pursuits and the society of men of learning and letters. He kept up his Italian to such purpose that his letter of condolence to Count Lorenzo Magalotti on Filicaia's death could hardly offend the ear of the most fastidious member of the Accademia della Crusca (Magalotti, Lett. Fam. ii. 166). He corresponded with Le Clerc; he offered Bayle a handsome contribution towards the cost of producing his dictionary, which that sturdy savant declined rather than be beholden to the minister of a prince by whom he deemed himself ill-used. He was a connoisseur in art, and brought Vertue into vogue by commissioning him to engrave a portrait of his friend, Archbishop Tillotson, for whose widow he afterwards helped to provide. He was intimate with Bishop Burnet, whose scheme for the augmentation of livings, known as Queen Anne's Bounty, he cordially promoted; and friendly with George Hickes [q. v.], the nonjuror; nor did he altogether disdain the society of Matthew Tindal, the deist, for whose ‘Rights of the Christian Church’ he is said to have written the preface; nor even that of the yet more adventurous freethinker, Janus Junius Toland. Addison, Congreve, Steele, Kneller, Garth, were members with him of the Kit-Cat Club, and must have often shared the hospitality which he dispensed at Powis House. Addison owed to him his pension. Swift, who made his acquaintance in 1702, was initiated by him in the true principles of whiggism, and dedicated to him the ‘Tale of a Tub’ (1704), in a style of profuse adulation, but, looking to him for preferment which he did not get, deserted to the tories, and became his mortal enemy. Even then he admitted that Somers had ‘all excellent qualifications’ for office ‘except virtue’ (Works, ed. Scott, iii. 187, xii. 237). The great historical antiquaries Thomas Rymer [q. v.] and Thomas Madox [q. v.] owed much to Somers's encouragement.
Graver interests brought him into close relations with Charles Montagu (afterwards Earl of Halifax), John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton. In concert with Montagu, chancellor of the exchequer, and in consultation with Locke, who owed to him a place in the council of trade, and with Sir Isaac Newton, whose appointment as master of the mint he supported, Somers applied his mind to the serious problem presented by the depreciation of the currency occasioned by the prevalent practice of clipping the hammered coin. In 1695 he devised a scheme for arresting its progress. A royal proclamation was to be suddenly and simultaneously issued in every part of the country, calling in the hammered coin to be weighed, after which it was to circulate only at its weight value, the difference between that and its nominal value being made good to the possessors by the state. This expedient had the approval of the king, but was eventually deemed too hazardous for adoption. On 30 Nov. 1699 he was elected to the chair of the Royal Society, which he continued to hold until 1704.
Learning, patience, industry, instinctive equitableness of judgment, comprehensiveness of view, subtlety of discernment, and command of apt and perspicuous language; in short, all the qualities best fitted to adorn the woolsack, are ascribed to Somers by his contemporaries. Yet, partly by the fault of his reporters, partly in consequence of the dearth of causes célèbres, partly by reason of his early surrender of the great seal, his recorded achievement is by no means commensurate with his reputation. Of his decrees in chancery only the meagre summaries given by Vernon and Peere Williams are extant. In the most important case which came before him in the exchequer chamber, that of the bankers who had recovered judgment in the court of exchequer for arrears of interest due to them as assignees of certain perpetual annuities charged by Charles II upon the hereditary excise as security for advances, he expended some hundreds of pounds and an immense amount of thought and research, with no better result than to defeat an intrinsically just claim, on the technical ground that it was not cognisable in the court of exchequer, but only by petition of right. No judgment so elaborate had ever been delivered in Westminster Hall as that by which, in November 1696, he reversed the decision of the court of exchequer; and its subsequent reversal on 23 Jan. 1699–1700 by the House of Lords, in which lay peers then voted on legal questions, affords no ground for questioning the soundness of its law. The result caused Somers a mortification so intense as still further to impair a constitution never strong, and already undermined by excessive application to business; but the story that it made him so ill that he never again appeared on the woolsack is a mere fiction (Burnet, Own Time, 8vo, iv. 443 n.; Lords' Journal, xvi. 499 et seq.). He increased the efficiency of the House of Lords as a legal tribunal by compelling the judges to sit as assessors, stiffly maintained its jurisdiction to review cases decided in the Irish House of Lords, and in the cases of the Countess of Macclesfield and the Duchess of Norfolk vindicated for it an independent jurisdiction in cases of adultery by a wife.
Somers had opposed the commutation of the ancient hereditary revenues of the crown for an annual grant (17 Dec. 1689), and was requited by William with a larger measure of his confidence than was enjoyed by any other Englishman except Sunderland [see Spencer, Robert, second Earl of Sunderland]. Perhaps Dutch was one of the ‘septem ferme idiomatum’ of which, according to Filicaia, he was master; at any rate he could converse with the king in French, and though he had never travelled, he was probably neither ignorant nor negligent of foreign affairs. At his instance William readily renounced (March 1693) the prerogative of disposing of judicial patronage proprio motu, which he had usurped while the great seal was in commission. Their relations were improved by the steady loyalty of which Somers gave proof after the defeat at Neerwinden, when he went forthwith to the Guildhall and raised a loan of 300,000l. to meet the exigencies of the hour (August 1693). If William insisted on vetoing the Place Bill, which would have excluded from the House of Commons all paid servants of the crown except ministers, he yielded, probably to Somers's advice, in regard to the Triennial Bill, which received the royal assent towards the end of 1694, and the king and the lord keeper were heartily at one in approving the omission to renew the Licensing Act, by which the press gained a liberty that Milton's eloquence had failed to secure for it. On the death of Queen Mary, 28 Dec. 1694, Somers aided Sunderland in bringing about a reconciliation (rather apparent than real) between the king and the Princess Anne. The king was guided by Somers's advice in regard to the assassination plot, and in the affair of Sir John Fenwick (1645?–1697) [q. v.], in which a certain deviation from the strict line of impartial justice must be acknowledged; and with Somers rested the responsibility for the cashiering of the numerous justices of the peace who refused to join the association for the protection of the king's person. In 1695 and the four succeeding years Somers was one of the lords justices who formed the council of regency during the king's absence on the continent, and of which virtute officii he was the working head. Hence he was associated in the popular mind with William and his foreign policy far more closely than there is reason to suppose was really the case. Addison sang of
Britain advanced and Europe's peace restored
By Somers' counsels and by Nassau's sword.
(To His Majesty, 1695). But in fact it is extremely doubtful whether Somers was consulted at all by William during the negotiations which terminated in the Anglo-French peace of Ryswick. When the subsequent scheme for the partition of the inheritance of the childless and moribund king Charles II of Spain between England, France, the empire, and Holland took definite shape, William sent Somers the draft of the ‘first partition’ treaty. Moreover the king authorised him to confer with such of his colleagues as he might deem most worthy of trust, and directed him, in the event of the treaty being approved, to have the necessary commission under the great seal made out with such secrecy that even the clerks who engrossed it should not know its real effect, and transmitted to him, with blank spaces for the names of the commissioners. This letter, which was dated 25 Aug. 1698, N.S., reached Somers, then at Tunbridge Wells, only a few days before the draft treaty was signed by the plenipotentiaries (8 Sept., N.S.). He lost no time in taking counsel with Shrewsbury, Charles Montagu, James Vernon [q. v.], secretary of state for foreign affairs, and Edward Russell, earl of Orford, first lord of the admiralty. The treaty commended itself to none of the five statesmen. They thought it staked too much on the good faith of Louis XIV, and that the assignment of Spain, the Indies, and the Netherlands to the Electoral Prince of Bavaria (Joseph Ferdinand), and of the duchy of Milan to the Archduke Charles would prove no equivalent for the cession to the dauphin of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the marquisate of Finale, the Tuscan ports, and the Biscayan marches. They also thought that it would be prejudicial to the English Levantine trade, and enormously increase the maritime power of France, and they deprecated the assumption of new responsibilities by a country already overburdened with taxation.
The opinion of the council, which did but anticipate that of the country, and evinced a singularly just insight into the designs of the Grand Monarque, with whom the partition treaty was but a device for breaking up the grand alliance, was communicated by Somers to the king in a cautiously worded letter (28 Aug.). It caused William some uneasiness, but as it was accompanied by the required commission, and he had already gone too far to recede with honour, he stifled his misgivings and ratified the definitive treaty at Loo in November. To the ratification Somers affixed the great seal, taking care at the same time that neither it nor the commission was enrolled in chancery. Notwithstanding this precaution, however, the secret transpired almost immediately, and when William, on 6 Dec., met parliament with a speech composed by Somers, in which a modest increase of the army was proposed, an animated debate resulted in a bill for its reduction to a total of seven thousand men, all of whom were to be English (17 Dec. 1698). During the progress of this bill Somers was frequently closeted with the king, whose indignation he in vain attempted to appease. When it became certain that the measure would pass, William announced his determination to leave the island with his Dutch guard and pass the rest of his days in Holland. For once the chancellor lost his composure, almost his temper, as he dilated on the ‘extravagance,’ the ‘madness’ of the proposal, and implored the king to suffer it to go no further. William was obdurate, and Somers tendered his resignation. It was not accepted, but by the support which he gave the bill in the House of Lords Somers lost the king's confidence. At the same time he shared his growing unpopularity. He was the reputed author of ‘A Letter balancing the Necessity of keeping a Land Force in Times of Peace, with the Dangers that may follow it,’ a very modest argument for a small regular army, which had appeared anonymously in 1697 (State Tracts, ii. 585). He was suspected of being the king's adviser in the negotiations occasioned by the death of the Electoral Prince of Bavaria, 6 Feb. 1699, N.S., which resulted in the second partition treaty, by which Spain, the Indies, and the Netherlands were assigned to the Archduke Charles, and the duchy of Milan to the Duke of Lorraine, on condition of the cession of his duchy to the dauphin, who was to retain the territories allotted to him by the former treaty. But, beyond affixing the great seal to the commission, Somers appears to have known no more of the negotiation than the rest of the world until shortly before the second partition treaty was signed at London on 21 Feb. 1699–1700. He afterwards affixed the great seal to the ratification. As in the case of the former treaty, neither commission nor ratification was enrolled in chancery.
Somers was also supposed—and with no more reason—to be the life and soul of the opposition to the bill for the resumption of the grants of forfeited Irish estates, which was returned from the House of Lords, with certain important amendments, in April 1700. To displace him accordingly became the prime object of the country party, and to that end an attempt was made to saddle him with responsibility for the piratical acts of Captain William Kidd (d. 1701) [q. v.] He was one of the undertakers who had procured Kidd his commission, equipped his ship, and were jointly interested in such ships and cargoes as he might capture from the pirates. When, therefore, instead of making war on the pirates, the captain hoisted the black flag himself, the undertakers were credited with an accurate foresight of events, and were denounced as aiders and abettors of piracy. The agitation culminated on 10 April 1700 in a motion in the House of Commons for an address to the king for the lord-chancellor's perpetual exclusion from his councils and presence. It was defeated, but by so small a majority that William thought it expedient that Somers should retire. He was not unwilling to do so, but urged that his resignation would be interpreted as an acknowledgment of guilt. The king therefore sent him the usual warrant, upon which, on 17 April, he surrendered the great seal. After an interval, during which the seal went a-begging, he was succeeded by Sir Nathan Wright [q. v.]
In retirement Somers found leisure to recruit health long since shattered by excessive application to public business, and to concern himself more actively with the transactions of the Royal Society. He kept, however, a watchful eye on public affairs; and ‘Several Orations of Demosthenes to encourage the Athenians to oppose the exorbitant power of Philip of Macedon, englished from the Greek by several Hands,’ which appeared under his direction in 1702 (London, 24mo), had at that juncture a more than academic interest. Meanwhile he did not escape the consequences of the implicit confidence which, in the matter of the partition treaties, he had reposed in the king. The death of the king of Spain, 1 Nov. 1700, N.S., was followed by the publication of a will, signed by him under French influence, by which he nominated as his successor Philip, duke of Anjou, the second son of the dauphin. Louis XIV at once pronounced in favour of the will, formally recognised the duke as king of Spain, and occupied the Spanish Netherlands. In England he had the tories on his side, while the whigs rallied to the imperial cause. After the general election of January 1700–1 the tories soon gained the upper hand. In the House of Lords an address to the king for disclosure of all treaties negotiated since the peace of Ryswick brought the partition treaties under discussion (14 March). The negotiations were censured as both unconstitutional and impolitic. Portland, who bore the brunt of the attack, sought to share his responsibility with Somers and his friends. In the result the lords voted an address to the king unequivocally condemning the policy of the treaties and deprecating for the future the practice of negotiating without the advice of his natural-born subjects. A similar address was voted by the commons, who loudly demanded the impeachment of Portland, Somers, Orford, and Halifax. Released from his oath of secrecy by the king, Somers obtained leave to attend the lower house, and was heard in his defence on 14 April. He laid his letter of 28 Aug. 1698 on the table, and the whole responsibility for the negotiations upon the king, whose mandate he pleaded in justification of the transmission of the blank commission under the great seal, and the subsequent affixing of the great seal to the ratification, ignoring the fact that the mandate was not peremptory, but conditional on the treaty being approved. The enrolment of the documents in chancery he denied to be part of his duty.
The limits of the royal prerogative were then so ill defined that Somers must be acquitted of grave delinquency; but his defence was not such as could safely be admitted, and a resolution to proceed with his impeachment was carried, though only by a small majority. A motion was also carried for an address to the king for the immediate and perpetual exclusion of the impeached lords from his councils and presence. But to this attempt to snatch judgment before trial, William, fortified by a counter-address from the House of Lords, paid no heed. In May the impeachment, swollen in Somers's case to fourteen articles, by inclusion of the stale charge concerning his connection with Kidd and some other fictitious accusations, came before the House of Lords. The minor charges Somers triumphantly rebutted; the rest of the indictment was not pressed; and, after a wrangle between the houses about procedure, his acquittal, which carried with it that of the other lords, was formally pronounced on 17 June. The turbulent scenes which attended these proceedings evoked Swift's ‘Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, with the consequences they had upon both those States,’ in which (chap. ii.) a parallel is drawn between Somers and Aristides.
On the recognition of the Pretender as king of England by Louis XIV, William, who had returned to his favourite notion of forming a coalition administration, permitted Somers to kiss his hand (3 July 1701). In the autumn, while the king was abroad, and on his return to England, Somers is stated to have written the speech—delivered by the king (30 Sept.) at the opening of parliament—which, by its spirited but sober patriotism, rallied for the time both parties to the throne. His early return to power was confidently anticipated. Sunderland wrote to the king (11 Sept. 1701) that Somers was ‘the life, the soul, and the spirit of his party’ (Miscellaneous State Papers, iii. 446); but the death of the king on 8 March 1701–2 completely changed the aspect of affairs.
During the early years of Queen Anne's reign Somers, excluded from the privy council and even from the commission of the peace, became the virtual head of the junto of whigs (including Wharton, Orford, Halifax, and Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland) whose loyal support of the government contributed in no small degree to the vigorous prosecution of the war, while they successfully maintained the principle of religious liberty in the long struggle on the Occasional Conformity Bill, and championed the rights of constituencies against the House of Commons in the matter of the Aylesbury scrutiny [see Holt, Sir John, and Smith, John, (1657–1726)]. In the meantime, through the influence of the Duchess of Marlborough, Somers and his friends effected the elimination from the ministry of the high tory element (April 1704). They were thus enabled in 1705 to provide for the contingency of the queen's death by the Naturalisation of the House of Hanover and Regency Acts (4 Ann, cc. 4, 8), while they commended themselves to the queen by resisting the factious proposal of the tories to invite the Princess Sophia to take up her residence in the country. The transference of the great seal from Sir Nathan Wright to Lord Cowper [see Cowper, William, first Earl Cowper] increased their influence, and in the following year they obtained places in the commission (10 April) for the settlement of the treaty of union with Scotland. Besides taking an active part in adjusting the details of that great act of state, Somers was burdened with its defence in the House of Lords. Meanwhile he had found time to initiate a measure for the reform of the procedure of the courts of common law and equity, which, with certain mutilations, passed into law (4 Ann c. 16), and was only superseded by the more radical changes of the present century. On the reconstruction of the ministry in 1708 he was sworn president of the council (25 Nov.). Fully aware that he was still personally unacceptable to the queen, he endeavoured to remove her prejudices by assiduous homage, and, as the star of Lady Marlborough waned, sought to enlist Mrs. Masham's interest on his side. Secretly guided by Harley and St. John, the queen flattered his hopes, while she inclined more and more to the side of the tories, who steadily gained ground in the country. In 1710 the ministry committed the mistake of rejecting the terms offered by Louis XIV at the conference of Gertruydenberg, and the still more serious blunder of impeaching Sacheverell. Somers had opposed the impeachment, and, when its effect on the country was manifest, he inclined to accept the overtures made to him by Harley for a coalition. He was, however, overborne by his colleagues, and fell with them on 21 Sept. The queen desired him to retain office, having at length reached the conclusion, as she told Lord Dartmouth, that he was a man who had never deceived her; but Somers declined to desert the other members of the junto (Hist. MSS. Comm. 13th Rep. App. ii. 214–20; Burnet, Own Time, 8vo, vi. 7 n.).
Failing health now compelled him to take a less active part in debate. He continued, however, to advocate the vigorous prosecution of the war, and signed the protest against the restraining order on 28 May 1712. On the accession of George I he was sworn of the privy council, 1 Oct. 1714, and accepted a place in the cabinet without office. He was voted a pension of 2,000l., and appointed custos rotulorum of Worcestershire and commissioner of coronation claims (2 Aug. and 4 Oct. 1714); but thenceforth, except to attend an occasional cabinet council, he rarely left his Hertfordshire villa, Brookmans, near North Mimms, where he died of paralysis on 26 April 1716. His remains were interred in North Mimms church. As he was unmarried, his title became extinct.
Courtly and reserved by nature or habit, Somers carried into the relations of ordinary life a certain formality of demeanour, but in his hours of relaxation could be an agreeable companion. It does not appear that he was a brilliant talker, but his vast erudition and knowledge of affairs placed him at his ease with men of the most diverse interests and occupations. His religious opinions appear to have been latitudinarian. His domestic life did not escape the breath of scandal. His oratory, which cannot be judged by the meagre reports which alone are extant, is said to have united close reasoning with a masculine eloquence, the charm of which was enhanced by a musical voice. To Burke, Somers was the type of ‘the old whigs’ to whom was addressed the famous ‘Appeal;’ to Macaulay he was no less a symbol of awe and veneration. Yet as a statesman he does not merit all the praise which has been lavished upon him by his whig panegyrists. His part in shaping the settlement of 1688–1689 has been unduly magnified; in the matter of the partition treaty he showed a lamentable want of firmness; notwithstanding his latitudinarian opinions, he does not seem to have been particularly zealous even for the small measure of religious liberty secured by the Toleration Act. On the other hand his sagacity, industry, and disinterestedness are undeniable; his motto, ‘Prodesse quam conspici,’ was no vain boast, and only once towards the close of his career, when he gave some countenance to the agitation for the repeal of the union with Scotland (1713), did he dally with faction.
Somers was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller as lord chancellor in wig and robes, holding the chancellor's purse; also as a member of the Kit-Cat Club and Royal Society. The first portrait, a three-quarter-length, passed into Lord Hardwicke's collection. The Kit-Cat Club portrait is in the possession of Mr. William Baker of Bayfordbury, Hertfordshire. Other portraits of him by the same artist are in the National Portrait Gallery and at the Middle Temple. He was also painted by Richardson in 1713. Engravings of these portraits are among the prints at the British Museum and in Addit. MS. 12097, besides an etching by Picart, done in 1704, in Addit. MS. 20818, f. 194. Unless these portraits grossly belie him, his somewhat commonplace physiognomy must have afforded but a poor index of his powers.
Somers's learning, sagacity, and clearness are discernible in four political tracts written when he was about thirty, and published in London in 1681, viz.:
- ‘The Memorable Case of Denzil Onslow, tried at the Assizes in Surrey, 20 July 1681, touching his Election at Haslemere in Surrey’ (against the corrupt practice of fagot voting).
- ‘A brief History of the Succession of the Crown of England, collected out of records and the most authentick historians’ (in defence of the legality of the Exclusion Bill).
- ‘A Just and Modest Vindication of the Proceedings of the two last Parliaments’ (in answer to the royal declaration).
- ‘The Security of Englishmen's Lives; or the Trust, Power, and Duty of the Grand Juries of England’ (a vindication of the right of the grand jury to reject the bill of indictment against Lord Shaftesbury). Separate reprints of the ‘Brief History’ appeared in London in 1688–9, fol., and 1714, 4to, and of ‘The Security of Englishmen's Lives’ in 1682, 12mo, and 1766, 8vo.
According to Burnet (Own Time, i. 500), ‘The Just and Modest Vindication’ was the joint production of Algernon Sidney, Somers, and Sir William Jones, while ‘The Security of Englishmen's Lives’ was entirely Somers's composition, though it passed as the work of Arthur Capel, earl of Essex [q. v.] To Somers are also assigned the anonymous versions of ‘Ariadne to Theseus’ and ‘Dido to Æneas’ in ‘Ovid's Epistles by several Hands,’ London, 1683, 3rd ed. 8vo, and the ‘Life of Alcibiades’ in ‘Plutarch's Lives by several Hands,’ London, 1684, 8vo. The poems (in tolerable imitation of Dryden) brought Somers into relations with Tonson, for whose edition of ‘Paradise Lost’ (1688) he helped to procure subscribers. The authenticity of a coarse jeu d'esprit, ‘Dryden's Satire to his Muse,’ printed as by Somers in the supplement to ‘The Works of the most celebrated Minor Poets,’ London, 1750, 8vo, is denied—on good grounds, it may be hoped—by Pope (Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, iii. 252 n.), and a tradition which ascribes to him the ‘Tale of a Tub’ need only be mentioned to be rejected.
To Somers have further been conjecturally ascribed four anonymous tracts, viz.
- ‘A Discourse concerning Generosity,’ London, 1693; 2nd edit. 1695, 12mo.
- ‘Jus Regium; or the King's Right to grant Forfeitures and other Revenues of the Crown,’ &c., London, 1701, 4to.
- ‘Anguis in Herba; or the fatal Consequences of a Treaty with France,’ London, 1701, 4to (reprinted in State Tracts, iii. 312 et seq.).
- ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei, being True Maxims of Government,’ &c., London, 1709, 8vo; 2nd edit. with title, ‘The Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations concerning the Rights, Powers, and Prerogatives of Kings,’ &c., London, 1710, 8vo (frequent reprints). Their authenticity is doubtful.
Somers's large and valuable library passed to his brother-in-law, Sir Joseph Jekyll, and furnished the basis of the collection known as the ‘Somers Tracts,’ first published in London between 1748 and 1752, 16 vols. 4to, afterwards edited by Sir Walter Scott, London, 1809–13, 13 vols. 4to. Most of his manuscripts found their way into the possession of Lord-chancellor Hardwicke's son, the Hon. Charles Yorke, and perished in a fire at his chambers in Lincoln's Inn on 27 June 1752. A selection from such as were saved was printed in the ‘Miscellaneous State Papers’ (1778).