1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow

Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow
(often known as: Baron Thurlow)
British lawyer and politician
(1732-1806)




EDWARD THURLOW, BARON THURLOW (1732-1806), was born at Bracon-Ash, in the county of Norfolk, in 1732. His father was a clergyman, and held successively the livings of Little Ashfield in Suffolk and of Stratton St Mary's in Norfolk. His mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Robert Smith of Ashfield. Thurlow received his early education at home. He was next placed under the care of Mr Brett at Seaming, where he remained for four years, and was then sent to the grammar school of Canterbury, where he was considered a bold refractory clever boy. In October 1748 Thurlow entered Caius College, Cambridge, and speedily justified his school reputation. The dean of the college, upon the extent and accuracy of whose classical acquirements grave suspicion rested, had directed him, as a punishment for some act of insubordination, to translate a passage of the Spectator into Greek. Thurlow executed his task with care, and then gave it for revisal, not to the dean, but to the tutor of the college. When reprimanded for having thus infringed the college rules, Thurlow retorted that he had carried his exercise to one who could inform the dean whether or not he had obeyed his orders. The insult was too grave for rustication, and yet too slight to justify expulsion. Thurlow was therefore permitted to withdraw his name from the college books, and he left Cam-bridge without a degree (1751). He now took chambers, and began regularly to keep terms in the Inner Temple, which he had joined while still an undergraduate. He was for some time a pupil along with the poet Cowper in the office of Mr Chapman, an eminent solicitor in Lincoln's Inn. On 22d November 1754 Thurlow was called to the bar, and subsequently went on the western circuit—at first with little success. But the tide turned. In the case of Luke Bobinson v. the Earl of Winchelsea (1758) Thurlow came into collision with Sir Fletcher Norton,, then the terror of solicitors and the tyrant of the bar, and put down his arrogance with dignity and success. From this time his practice increased rapidly. In December 1761 he was made a king's counsel, through the influence of the duchess of Queensberry. In January 1762 he was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple. It now became necessary for him to take his side in politics, and, after repeated oscillations, and with some hesitancy, Thurlow threw himself into the ranks of the Tory party. In May 1768 he became member for Tarn worth. In 1769 the Douglas Peerage case came on for hearing in the House of Lords, and Thurlow, who had drawn the pleadings some years before (Notes and Queries, 3d ser., iii. 122), led for the appellant in a speech of great ability and analytic power. In March 1770, as a recognition of his defence in the previous January of the expulsion of Wilkes, Thurlow was made solicitor-general on the resignation of Dunning, and in the following year (23d January 1771), after he had enhanced his reputation with the Government by attacking the rights of juries in cases of libel (Rex v. Miller, 20 State Trials, 870-896) and the liberty of the press (16 Parly. Hist., 1144), was raised to the attorney-generalship. Thurlow's public life was as factious as his youth had been daring, His violent hatred of the American colonists, and his extreme and imprudent assertion that as attorney-general he might set aside by scire facias us forfeited every charter in America (debate on the American Prohibitory Bill, 18 P. H., 999); his speech in aggravation of punishment in the case of Horne Tooke (20 St. Tr., 777-783), when he argued that the prisoner ought to be pilloried, because imprisonment was no penalty to a man of sedentary habits and a fine would be paid by seditious subscription ; and his consistent opposition to all interference with the slave trade,—are characteristic of the man. In 1778 Thurlow became lord chancellor and Baron Thurlow of Ashfield (June), and took his seat in the House of Lords, where he soon acquired an almost dicta-torial power. He resolutely opposed the economical and constitutional reforms proposed by Burke and Dunning. Under Bockingham he still clung to the chancellorship, while conducting himself like a leader of the opposition. To the short-lived ministry of Shelburne he gave a con-sistent support. Under the coalition of Fox and North (April to December 1783) the great seal was placed in commission, and Lord Loughborough was made first com-missioner. But Thurlow, acting as the king's adviser, and in accordance with his wishes, harassed the new ministry, and ultimately secured the rejection of Fox's India Bill (24 P. II., 226). The coalition was at once dissolved. Pitt accepted office, and Thurlow again became lord chancellor (December 23, 1783). At first he sup-ported the Government heartily, but soon his overbear-ing temper asserted itself. Imprudently relying on the friendship of the king, and actuated by scarcely disguised enmity to Pitt, Thurlow passed rapidly from occasional nets of hostility to secret disaffection, and finally to open revolt. He delivered himself strongly against a bill, intro-duced without his privity, for the restoration to the heirs of attainted owners of estates forfeited in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Partly to please the king and queen, partly from dislike to Burke, and partly perhaps from a real belief in the groundlessness of the accusation, he supported Warren Hastings on every occasion " with indecorous violence." His negotiations with the Whigs during the discussion of the Begency Bill (1788—19th February 1789) went beyond the limits of mere perverse coquetry, and were designed to secure his seat on the woolsack in the event of Fox being called to power. The climax was reached in 1792, when he virulently attacked Pitt's bill " to establish a sinking fund for the redemption of the national debt," not on account of the economic objections to which it was justly liable, but on the trivial ground that it was an unconstitutional attempt to bind future parliaments. The bill was carried, but only by a narrow majority, and Pitt, feeling that co-operation with such a colleague was impossible, insisted successfully on his dismissal (June 15, 1792). The ex-chancellor, who had a few days before (June 12) been created Baron Thurlow of Thurlow, with remainder to his brothers and their male descendants, now retired into private life, and, with the exception of a futile intrigue, under the auspices of the prince of Wales, for the formation of a ministry from which Pitt and Fox should be excluded, and in which the earl of Moira should be premier and Thurlow chancellor (1797), finally abandoned the hopes of office and the dictatorship which he had so long exercised in the House of Lords. In 1795 he opposed the Treason and Sedition Bills without success. In 1801 he spoke on behalf of Home Tooke—now his friend—when a bill was introduced to render a priest in orders ineligible for a seat in the House of Commons. His last recorded appearance in the House of Lords was on May 4, 1802. He now spent his time between his villa at Dulwich and Brighton, Bognor, Scar-borough, and Bath. He died at Brighton on 12th Septem-ber 1806, and was buried in the Temple church. Thurlow was never married, but left three natural daughters, for whom he made a handsome provision. The title descended to his nephew, son of the bishop of Durham.
Lord Thurlow was a master of a coarse caustic wit, which habitu-ally in his private and too frequently in his public life displayed itself in profanity. He was a good classical scholar and made occasional translations in verse from Homer and Euripides. His judicial and his ecclesiastical patronage was wisely exercised; he was the patron of Dr Johnson and of Crabbe, and was the first to detect tlie great legal merits of Eldon. Thurlow's personal ap-pearance was striking. His dark complexion, harsh but regular features, severe and dignified demeanour, piercing black eyes and bushy eyebrows, doubtless contributed to his professional and political eminence and provoked the sarcasm of Fox that he looked wiser than any man ever was. Yet he was far from being an impostor. By intense though irregular application he had ac-quired a wide if not a profound knowledge of law. Clear-beaded, self-confident, and fluent, able at once to reason temperately and to assert strongly, capable of grasping, rapidly assimilating, and forcibly reproducing minute and complicated details, he possessed all the qualities which command success. His speeches in the trial of the duchess of Kingston for bigamy (20 S. T., 355-651) are singularly vigorous and effective, while his famous opening in the Douglas Peerage case and his argument for the crown in Campbell v. Hall (20 S. T., 312-316) show that he might have rendered high service to the judicial literature of his country had he relied more upon his own industry and less upon the learning of Hargrave and Kenyon
See Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vii. 153-333 ; Foss's Judges of
England, viii. 374-385; Public Characters, 1798; Notes and Queries, 2d ser., iii.
283; 3d ser., iii. 122; Reports of his decisions by Brown, Dickens, and Vesey
(Junior); Brougham's Statesmen of the Time of George III. (A. W. R.)







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