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Portrait of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Ellesmere

Sir Thomas Egerton, Viscount Brackley, Lord Chancellor Ellesmere (c. 1540-1617)

THOMAS EGERTON, VISCOUNT BRACKLEY, LORD CHANCELLOR ELLESMERE, was a natural son of Sir Richard Egerton of Ridley, Cheshire. The exact date of his birth is unrecorded, but, according to Wood,1 when he became a commoner at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1556, he was about seventeen. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1559, and was called to the bar in 1572, being chosen a governor of the society in 1580, Lent reader in 1582, and treasurer in 1588.

He early obtained legal renown and a large practice, and tradition relates that his skillful conduct of a case against the crown gained the notice of Elizabeth, who is reported to have declared: "In my troth he shall never plead against me again." Accordingly, on the 26th of June 1581, he was made Solicitor-General. He represented Cheshire in the parliaments of 1585 and 1586, but in his official capacity he often attended in the House of Lords. On the 3rd of March 1589 the Commons desired that he should return to their house, the Lords refusing on the ground that he was called by the Queen's writ to attend in the Lords before his election by the House of Commons.2

He took part in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586, and advised that in her indictment she should only be styled "commonly called queen of Scots," to avoid scruples about judging a sovereign. He conducted several other state prosecutions. On the 2nd of June, 1592, he was appointed Attorney-General, and was knighted and made Chamberlain of Chester in 1593. On the 10th of April, 1594, he became Master of the Rolls, and on the 6th of May, 1596, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and a privy councillor, remaining, however, a commoner as Sir Thomas Egerton, and presiding in the Lords as such during the whole reign of Elizabeth. He kept in addition the Mastership of the Rolls, the whole work of the Chancery during this period falling on his shoulders and sometimes causing inconvenience to suitors.3

His promotion was welcomed from all quarters. "I think no man," wrote a contemporary to Essex, "ever came to this dignity with more applause than this worthy gentleman."4 Egerton became one of the Queen's most trusted advisers and one of the greatest and most striking figures at her court. He was a leading member of the numerous special commissions, including the ecclesiastical commission, and was the Queen's interpreter in her communications to parliament. In 1598 he was employed as a commissioner for negotiating with the Dutch, obtaining great credit by the treaty then effected, and in 1600 in the same capacity with Denmark. In 1597, in consequence of his unlawful marriage with his second wife, in a private house without banns, the Lord Keeper incurred a sentence of excommunication, and was obliged to obtain absolution from the Bishop of London.5

He was a firm friend of the noble but erratic and unfortunate Essex. He sought to moderate his violence and rashness, and after the scene in the council in July 1598, when the Queen struck Essex and bade him go and be hanged, he endeavoured to reconcile him to the Queen in an admirable letter which has often been printed.6 On the arrival of Essex in London without leave from Ireland, and his consequent disgrace, he supported the Queen's just authority, avoiding at the same time any undue severity to the offender. Essex was committed to his custody in York House from the 1st of October, 1599, till the 5th of July, 1600, when the Lord Keeper used his influence to recover for him the Queen's favour and gave him kindly warnings concerning the necessity for caution in his conduct. On the 5th of June 1600 he presided over the court held at his house, which deprived Essex of his offices except that of master of the horse, treating him with leniency, not pressing the charge of treason but only that of disobedience, and interrupting him with kind intentions when he attempted to justify himself.

After the trial he tried in vain to bring Essex to a sense of duty. On the 8th of February 1601, the day fixed for the rebellion, the Lord Keeper with other officers of state visited Essex at Essex House to demand the reason of the tumultuous assemblage. His efforts to persuade Essex to speak with him privately and explain his "griefs," and to refrain from violence, and his appeal to the company to depart peacefully on their allegiance, were ineffectual, and he was imprisoned by Essex for six hours, the mob calling out to kill him and to throw the great seal out of the window. Subsequently he abandoned all hope of saving Essex, and took an active part in his trial. On the 13th of February he made a speech in the Star Chamber, exposing the wickedness of the rebellion, and of the plot of Thomas Lea to surprise Elizabeth at her chamber door.7 In July 1602, a few months before her death, Elizabeth visited the Lord Keeper at his house at Harefield in Middlesex, and he was one of those present during her last hours who received her faltering intimation as to her successor.

On the accession of James I, Sir Thomas Egerton was reappointed Lord Keeper, resigning the Mastership of the Rolls in May 1603, and the Chamberlainship of Chester in August. On the 21st of July he was created Baron Ellesmere, and on the 24th Lord Chancellor. His support of the King's prerogative was too faithful and undiscriminating. He approved of the harsh penalty inflicted upon Oliver St John in 1615 for denying the legality of benevolences, and desired that his sentencing of the prisoner "might be his last work to conclude his services."8 In May 1603 he caused the committal of Whitelocke to the Fleet for questioning the authority of the Earl Marshal's Court. In 1604 he came into collision with the House of Commons. Sir Francis Goodwin, an outlaw, having been elected for Buckinghamshire contrary to the King's proclamation, the Chancellor cancelled the return when made according to custom into Chancery, and issued writs for a new election. The Commons, however, considering their privileges violated, restored Goodwin to his seat, and though the matter was in the present instance compromised by the choice of a third party, they secured for the future the right of judging in their own elections.

He was at one with James in desiring to effect the union between England and Scotland, and served on the commission in 1604; and the English merchants who opposed the union and community of trade with the Scots were "roundly shaken by him." In 1608, in the great case of the Post Nati, he decided, with the assistance of the fourteen judges, that those born after the accession of James I to the throne of England were English subjects and capable of holding lands in England; and he compared the two dissentient judges to the apostle Thomas, whose doubts only confirmed the faith of the rest. He did not, however, always show obedience to the king's wishes. He opposed the latter's Spanish policy, and in July 1615, in spite of James's most peremptory commands and threats, refused to put the Great Seal to the pardon of Somerset. In May 1616 he officiated as high steward in the trial of the latter and his countess for the murder of Overbury.

He was a rigid churchman, hostile to both the Puritans and the Roman Catholics. He fully approved of the king's unfriendly attitude towards the former, adopted at the Hampton Court conference in 1604, and declared, in admiration of James's theological reasoning on this occasion, that he had never understood before the meaning of the legal maxim, Rex est mixta persona cum sacerdote. In 1605 he opposed the petition for the restitution of deprived Puritan ministers, and obtained an opinion from the judges that the petition was illegal. He supported the party of Abbot against Laud at Oxford, and represented to the king the unfitness of the latter to be president of St John's College. In 1605 he directed the judges to enforce the penal laws against the Roman Catholics.

His vigorous and active public career closed with a great victory gained over the Common Law and his formidable antagonist, Sir Edward Coke. The Chancellor's Court of Equity had originated in the necessity for a tribunal to decide cases not served by the Common Law, and to relax and correct the rigidity and insufficiency of the latter's procedure. The two jurisdictions had remained bitter rivals, the common-law bar complaining of the arbitrary and unrestricted powers of the Chancellor, and the Equity lawyers censuring and ridiculing the failures of justice in the Courts of Common Law. The disputes between the courts, concerning which the king had already in 1615 remonstrated with the chancellor and Sir Edward Coke,9 the Lord Chief Justice, came to a crisis in 1616, when the Court of Chancery granted relief against judgments at Common Law in the cases of Heath v. Rydley and Courtney v. Granvil. This relief was declared by Coke and other judges sitting with him to be illegal, and a counter-attack was made by a praemunire, brought against the parties concerned in the suit in chancery. The grand jury, however, refused to bring in a true bill against them, in spite of Coke's threats and assurances that the Chancellor was dead, and the dispute was referred to the King himself, who after consulting his counsel and on Bacon's advice decided in favour of Equity.

The Chancellor's triumph was a great one, and from this time the equitable jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery was unquestioned. In June 1616, he supported the king in his dispute with and dismissal of Coke in the case of the commendams, agreeing with Bacon that it was the judge's duty to communicate with the king, before giving judgments in which his interests were concerned, and in November warned the new Lord Chief Justice against imitating the errors of his predecessor and especially his love of "popularity."10 Writing in 1609 to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the Chancellor had described Coke (who had long been a thorn in his flesh) as a "frantic, turbulent and idle broken brayned fellow," apologizing for so often troubling Salisbury on this subject, "no fit exercise for a chancellor and a treasurer."11 He now summoned Coke before him and communicated to him the King's dissatisfaction with his Reports, desiring, however, to be spared further service in his disgracing. After several petitions for leave to retire through failing health, he at last, on the 3rd of March 1617, delivered up to James the great seal, which he had held continuously for the unprecedented term of nearly twenty-one years. On the 7th of November 1616 he had been created Viscount Brackley, and his death took place on the 15th of March 1617. Half an hour before his decease James sent Bacon, then his successor as Lord Keeper, with the gift of an earldom, and the presidentship of the council with a pension of £3000 a year, which the dying man declined as earthly vanities with which he had no more concern. He was buried at Dodleston in Cheshire.

As Lord Chancellor Ellesmere he is a striking figure in the long line of illustrious English judges. No instance of excessive or improper use of his jurisdiction is recorded, and the famous case which precipitated the contest between the courts was a clear travesty of justice, undoubtedly fit for the Chancellor's intervention. He refused to answer any communications from suitors in his court,12 and it was doubtless to Ellesmere (as weeding out the "enormous sin" of judicial corruption)13 that John Donne, who was his secretary, addressed his fifth satire. He gained Camden's admiration, who records an anagram on his name, "Gestat Honorem." Bacon, whose merit he had early recognized, and whose claims to the office of solicitor-general he had unavailingly supported both in 1594 and 1606, calls him "a true sage, a salvia in the garden of the state," and speaks with gratitude of his "fatherly kindness." Ben Jonson, among the poets, extolled in an epigram his "wing'd judgements," "purest hands," and constancy.

Though endowed with considerable oratorical gifts he followed the true judicial tradition and affected to despise eloquence as "not decorum for judges, that ought to respect the Matter and not the Humours of the Hearers." Like others of his day he hoped to see a codification of the laws, and appears to have had greater faith in judge-made law than in statutes of the realm, advising the parliament (October 1603) "that laws in force might be revised and explained and no new laws made," and describing the Statute of Wills passed in Henry VIII's reign as the "ruin of ancient families" and "the nurse of forgeries." In the thirty-eighth year of Elizabeth he drew up rules for procedure in the Star Chamber, restricting the fees, and in the eighth of James I ordinances for remedying abuses in the Court of Chancery.

In 1609 he published his judgment in the case of the Post Nati, which appears to be the only certain work of his authorship. The following have been ascribed to him: — The Privileges and Prerogatives of the High Court of Chancery (1641); Certain Observations concerning the Office of the Lord Chancellor (1651) — denied by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke in A Discourse of the Judicial Authority of the Master of the Rolls (1728) to be Lord Ellesmere's work; Observations on Lord Coke's Reports, ed. by G. Paul (about 1710), the only evidence of his authorship being apparently that the MS. was in his handwriting; four MSS., bequeathed to his chaplain, Bishop Williams, viz. The Prerogative Royal, Privileges of Parliament, Proceedings in Chancery and The Power of the Star Chamber; Notes and Observations on Magna Charta,&c., Sept. 1615 (Hari. 4265, f. 35), and An Abridgment of Lord Coke's Reports (see MS. note by F. Hargrave in his copy of Certain Observations concerning the Office of Lord Chancellor, Brit. Mus. 510 a 5, also Life of Egerton, p. 80, note T, catalogue of Harleian collection, and Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, 1806, II.170).

He was thrice married. By his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Ravenscroft of Bretton, Flintshire, he had two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Thomas, predeceased him, leaving three daughters. The younger, John, succeeded his father as 2nd Viscount Brackley, was created Earl of Bridgewater, and, marrying Lady Frances Stanley (daughter of his father's third wife, widow of the 5th Earl of Derby), was the ancestor of the earls and dukes of Bridgewater, whose male line became extinct in 1829. In 1846 the titles of Ellesmere and Brackley were revived in the person of the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, descended from Lady Louisa Egerton, daughter and co-heir of the 1st duke of Bridgewater.

1 Athenae Oxon. (Bliss), ii. 197.
2 D'Ewes's Parliaments of Elizabeth, 441, 442.
3 Cal. of St. Pap., Dom., 1601-1603, p. 191.
4 Birch's Mem. of Queen Elizabeth, i. 479.
5 Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. p. 24.
6 T. Birch's Mem. of Queen Elizabeth, ii. 384.
7 Cal. of St. Pap., Dom., 1598 -1601, pp. 554, 583.
8 State Trials, ii. 909.
9 Cal. St. Pap., Dom., 1611-1618, p. 381.
10 Cal. St. Pap., Dom., 1611-1618, p. 407.
11 Lansdowne MS. 91, f. 41.
12 Hist. MSS. Comm. app. pt. vii. p. 156.
13 Life of Donne, by E. Gosse, i. 43.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol IV.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 368.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Walpole, Horace. A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors
            of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Vol II.
            London: John Scott, 1806.

Sir Thomas Egerton on the Web:

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