Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Steele, William
STEELE, WILLIAM (d. 1680), lord chancellor of Ireland, son of Richard Steele of Sandbach, Cheshire, was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge, in 1627, and was scholar there 1629–31. He entered Gray's Inn on 13 June 1631, and was called to the bar on 23 June 1637. On 17 Aug. 1644 he was one of the commissioners appointed by parliament for the execution of martial law, and in January 1647 he conducted the prosecution of Captain Burley for his attempt to rescue Charles I in the Isle of Wight (Husbands, Ordinances, folio, 1646, p. 535; Hillier, King Charles in the Isle of Wight, 1852, p. 67). On 29 Jan. 1648 the House of Commons recommended him to the lords to succeed Serjeant Glynne as recorder of London, but he did not obtain the post till 25 Aug. 1649 (Foss, vi. 490; Commons' Journals, v. 450). On 10 Jan. 1649 the court which tried Charles I appointed four counsel to manage the case on behalf of the Commonwealth, one of them being Steele, who was selected to act as attorney. Steele was ill and could not act. ‘The said Mr. Steele,’ ran the report, ‘no way declineth the service of the said court out of any disaffection to it, but professeth himself to be so clear in the business that if it should please God to restore him, he should manifest his good affection to the said cause, and that it is an addition to his affliction that he cannot attend this court to do that service that they have expected from him, and as he desires to perform’ (Nalson, Trial of Charles I, pp. 9, 21). On 9 Feb. following he was sufficiently recovered to take the leading part in the prosecution of the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Holland, and other royalists before another high court of justice (State Trials, iv. 1064, 1167, 1209). He published his argument on Hamilton's case under the title of ‘Duke Hamilton, Earl of Cambridge, his Case’ (4to, 1649).
As recorder of London, Steele took part in the trial of John Lilburne [q. v.] in July 1653, and in May 1654 he was one of the commissioners for the trial of Don Pantaleon Sa for murder. On 17 Jan. 1652 he was appointed one of the committee for the reformation of the law (Commons' Journals, vii. 74). He became serjeant-at-law on 25 Jan. 1654, and on 8 Feb. 1654, when Cromwell was entertained by the city, welcomed him with a long speech on the origin of government and the duties of rulers (Mercurius Politicus, 9–16 Feb. 1654; Foss, vi. 491). In the parliament of 1654 he was one of the members for London. He was sent on circuit as commissioner with Judge Aske in March 1655, and on 28 May of the same year was made chief baron of the exchequer (Mercurius Politicus, 24–31 May 1655; Thurloe, iii. 244, 305, 540).
Steele had been appointed a member of the council for the government of Ireland on 27 Aug. 1654, but he had never entered on the duties of his office; on 26 Aug. 1656 he was promoted to the post of lord chancellor of Ireland, and in September following he landed at Dublin (Deputy Keeper of Irish Records, 14th Rep. p. 28; Foss, vi. 491; Thurloe, i. 731, v. 215, 398, 405, 558; Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, ii. 348). His letters to Thurloe on the offer of the crown to Cromwell and the proclamation of the second protectorate in Ireland breathed great devotion to the Protector, and in December 1657 he received a summons to Cromwell's House of Lords (ib. vi. 294, 416). As he could not be spared from Ireland, this was a mere compliment.
When Cromwell died, Steele took part in the proclamation of Richard Cromwell in Ireland, and, while lamenting the old Protector, wrote cheerfully of the prospects of the cause (ib. vii. 383, 388). Meanwhile, however, he had quarrelled with Henry Cromwell, who complained that Steele, while professing the greatest desire to be serviceable to him, was secretly intriguing to gain partisans among the opponents of the lord deputy in the hope of ruling the roast himself (ib. vii. 199). Thurloe, however, disbelieved this account of Steele's intrigues, thinking it not in accordance with his character to endeavour to set up for himself (ib. vii. 243, 269). After the fall of Richard Cromwell and the recall of Henry, Steele was one of the five commissioners appointed by the restored Long parliament to govern Ireland on 7 June 1659 (Commons' Journals, vii. 674. The instructions of the commissioners are Carte MS. lxvii. 307). On 26 Oct. 1659 the army in England, having a second time expelled the Long parliament, erected a committee of safety, of which body they named Steele a member. Steele took the opportunity to return to England, ‘by whose departure,’ comments Ludlow, ‘the affairs of Ireland suffered much, he being generally esteemed to be a man of great prudence and uncorrupted integrity.’ When he came to London, however, he refused to act on the committee of safety, and advised Fleetwood and the officers to leave constitutional questions to the parliament (Ludlow, Memoirs, ii. 125, 131, 153). At the Restoration, thanks to the fact that he had no hand in the king's death, Steele was not in any way excluded from the act of indemnity. It has been said that he ‘secured his personal safety … by betraying the secrets of Henry Cromwell to Clarendon and Ormonde,’ but the statement rests on no evidence and is opposed to probability (Duhigg, History of the King's Inns, 1806, p. 190). Steele took shelter in Holland for some time after the Restoration (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663–4, pp. 498, 505, 507). He returned to England later, and died in 1680. His will, proved on 19 Oct. 1680, describes him as of Hatton Garden, Middlesex.
Steele married first, on 15 March 1638, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Godfrey of Wye, Kent; secondly, Mary Mellish, widow of Michael Harvey. He left three sons: Richard, William, and Benjamin (Aitken, Life of Richard Steele, ii. 350–3).[Noble's House of Cromwell, ed. 1787, i. 396; Foss's Judges of England, vi. 489–92; Aitken's Life of Richard Steele, ii. 349–53, gives a pedigree of this branch of the Steele family. O'Flanagan's Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of Ireland, 1870, i. 351–7; Burke's History of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland, 1879, pp. 86–7.]
Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.258
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line
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