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LORD CHANCELLORS OF ENGLAND.
LIFE OF SIR WILLIAM PAULET, LORD PAULET OF ST. JOHN BASING,
EARL OF WILTSHIRE AND MARQUESS OF WINCHESTER, LORD KEEPER OF THE GREAT SEAL.
As this individual held the Great Seal of England in his own right above seven months,-according to the plan of this work, I am called upon here to introduce [March 7, 1547.] a sketch of his life; but as he had little connection with the law, and was not a very interesting character, although for a long tenure of high office he exceeded all the statesmen of the century in which he lived,-my memoir of him shall be very brief. He accounted for his not being upset by any of the storms which assailed him, by saying that he was “a willow, and not an oak," and there would be no great pleasure or instruction in minutely observing his bendings.
He was born about the year 1476, and was the only son of Sir John Paulet, of a very ancient family in Somersetshire. One of his ancestors was a serjeant at law in the reign of Henry V.* Having studied at the University, he was removed to the inns of Court-but more with a view to general education than to qualify him for the law as a profession; and it is doubtful whether he was ever called to the bar.
He was of a cheerful temper, pleasing manners, moderate abilities, and respectable acquirements. Exciting no envy or jealousy, he had every one's good word, and accommodating himself to the humours of all, all were disposed to befriend him.
By his family interest he was soon introduced at Court, and
gaining the favour of Henry VIII, was made by him Comptroller and Treasurer of the Household. He was thus near the person of the Sovereign, and had occasionally the honour to tilt with him and to play with him at primero,--taking care always to be worsted, after a seeming exertion of his utmost skill. So successful were these arts, that without any greater service, on the 9th of March, 1539, he was raised to the Peerage by the title of Baron St. John, of Basing, and three years after he was made a Knight of the Garter. He accompanied the King as an amusing courtier rather than as
a military officer, in the expedition into France, in (A. D. 1544.] which Paris might easily have been surprised, but which terminated in the capture of Boulogne, and the fruitless siege of Montreuil. He was soon after promoted to the office of Grand Master of the Household. When Henry's will was to be made for arranging the govern
ment of the country during the approaching minori[A. D. 1546.]
ty, both parties counted with confidence on the coöperation of Lord St. John; and his name was inserted with general approbation in the list of the Executors. Guided by his principle of siding with the strongest, on the ac
cession of the new Sovereign he supported the elec(Jan. 1547.]
tion of Somerset as Protector, and concurred in the measures by which Wriothesley was deprived of the office of Chancellor, and banished from the Council.
The Protector, having got the Great Seal into his hands, was in great perplexity as to how he should dispose of it. Wishing to depress the clergy, he was unwilling to recur to the practice of giving it to an ecclesiastic; and he was determined to advance the Reformation, with the principles of which the blending of civil and spiritual employments was deemed incompatible. Besides, Archbishop Cranmer certainly would not have accepted the office of Chancellor himself, and probably would not have liked to see it bestowed on any other prelate who might thus have eclipsed him. Rich, who had gained such unenviable notoriety on the trials of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More,--a cunning and experienced lawyer,--had become Lord Rich, and one of the Executors ;-but there was the greatest reluctance to promote him farther, from his general bad character, and the special reasons which convinced Somerset that no confidence could be reposed in his fidelity.
There being no other producible lawyer belonging to the party, Somerset resolved to take time for consideration, and in the meanwhile to place the Great Seal in the hands of some one who might do its routine duties, who could not be formidable to him, and from whom he might resume it at pleasure. Such a man was Paulet Lord St. John.
Accordingly, on the 7th of March, 1547, the Protector having received the Great Seal from the messengers he had sent to demand it from Wriothesley, went through the ceremony of presenting it to the infant King, and then, in his Majesty's name, delivered it to St. John, with the title of “ Lord Keeper,”--to be held by him for a fortnight, with all the powers and emoluments belonging to the office of Lord Chancellor. *
In a few days after, the Lord Keeper, by order, put the Great Seal to the letters patent, setting aside the will of Henry VIII., and constituting Somerset Protector, with unlimited power, till the young King should reach his majority; and proving an apt instrument, as far as politics were concerned, there were successive grants to him of the office of Lord Keeper--till the 29th of May, --till the 6th of July, and till the Feast of all Saints ;-he, on each occasion, going through the ceremony of returning the Seal into the King's hands, and receiving it back again for the extended time.
But at last, the complaints of the suitors and the public voice, which even then could not long be entirely disregarded, required that some new arrangement should be made to despatch the judicial business of the Court of Chancery, for which the Lord Keeper, with all his plausibility, had shown himself to be quite incompetent. He contrived to get through Easter and Trinity terms by postponing the hearing of eauses, and taking time to consider his judgments, and pretending that it was necessary for him to leave the Court of Chancery that he might sit in the Star Chamber, or attend the Council. The long vacation came to his relief; but Michaelmas term was approaching, and he himself, with his usual discretion, begged that he might be permitted to resign.
The Protector had no longer any choice; and, on the 23d of October, 1547, before All Saint's day arrived, Lord St. John resigned the Great Seal into the King's hands at Hampton Court; and it was delivered to Rich, with the title of Lord Chancellor.
* The entry on the Close Roll, after stating the King's acceptarice of the Great Seal (which must have been shown to hiin as a toy), thus proceeds :-"Quo die circa horam primam post meridiem prefatus Dns Rex Sigillum suum prum apud Palm suum prum in sua privata camerâ in presencia &c. prfto nobili viro Willo Seynt John per spaciuin quatuordecim dierum prx scquent. scdm beneplacitum regium custodiend. exercend. et utend. comisit et tradidit, ipsumque Willm Dnm Seynt John adtunc et ibidem custodem Magni Sigilli Regii fecit ordinavit et constituit Hend pr termino et per spacm quartuordecim dier. scdm beneplacitum regium cum omnibus et singulis auctoritatibus, &c. que Cancellariis Anglie prtu officii sui fcre et excre consuerat posset et valeat.” It then goes on to record that the new Lord Keeper, in the King's presence, having taken the Seal from the bag and sealed a dedimus potestatem with it, returned it into the bag and carried it off with him.-R. CI. | Ed. 6 m. 14.
† These are the only instances I find of the Great Seel being granted for a term certain, the grant, where not during pleasure, having been for life or upon a contingency, such as the illness or absence of the Chancellor.
I“ Idemque Dmns Rex de avisamento et consensua precarissimi avunculi sui Edwardi Ducis Somers prne sue Regie Gubernatoris et Rega, et subditor. suor. Protectoris cetmq. consilm surum, tunc et ibidem Sigillum illud in baga prca ut erat inclusum spectabili et honorabili viro Rico Riche militi Dno Riche custodiend. utend. et excrcend tradidit, et libavit ipsmq. Ricum Riche Cancellarium suum Anglie adtunc et ibidem fecit, &c. Rot. C1. 1 Ed. VI.
Lord St. John, after his resignation, remained true to his party till the Protector's fall was certain ; and then going over to Wriothesley, attended the meetings of the Executors, held in Ely Place, which brought about a revolution in the government. He hesitated for a moment between the rival chiefs of the victorious party, but, seeing Dudley Earl of Warwick was the more powerful, he joined in those measures which drove Wriothesley from the Council, and broke his heart.
The ex-Lord keeper was rewarded with the office of Lord High Treasurer, which he contrived to hold under three successive reigns, while there was sometimes a Protestant and sometimes a Roman Catholic Sovereign on the throne, and while many of his colleagues were disgraced, imprisoned, beheaded and burnt. In 1551 he showed his aptness for office by presiding, as Lord
High Steward, on the trial of his benefactor the [A. D. 1551.] Duke of Somerset, who, having escaped from the great peril which first assailed him, and having been pardoned and discharged from the Tower on paying a large fine, had again incurred the resentment of his rival, now become Duke of Northumberland, and had excited great jealousy by the marks of returning favour bestowed upon him by the youthful King
His death was therefore determined upon. On the 17th of October, 1551, he was committed to the Tower on a charge of treason, and he was brought to trial, before the Lord High Steward, on the 1st of December following. According to usage, Rich, the Lord Chancellor, ought to have presided; but although he had given an opinion upon his guilt in the Star Chamber, he managed to throw the odious and unprofitable task of trying him upon Paulet, who, having been before made Earl of Wiltshire, was now gratified with the title of Marquess of Winchester.
The trial took place in Westminster Hall, the Lord High Steward “sitting under the cloth of state, upon a bench between two posts three degrees high."*
The only evidence produced consisted of the written depositions of witnesses who could not be brought to state more than that Somerset had engaged in a plot to imprison the Duke of Northumberland, the Marquess of Northampton, and the Earl of Pembroke. An objection was made by the prisoner, that these three ought not to sit as Judges on his trial, the charge being for practices against them ; but the Lord High Steward ruled that "no challenge lies against a Peer of England, who, giving his verdict, without oath, on his honour, must be presumed to be absolutely free from favour or affection, hatred or malice.”
The prisoner required to be confronted with the witnesses; but he was told that, according to well-considered precedents, “where the King was concerned, the written depositions of witnesses taken privately by the King's Council, in whose good faith, impartiality, and cunning the law reposes entire confidence, were sufficient."
* i St. Tr. 518.
A difficulty still remained, supposing the witnesses were believed, -to make out the plot to be treason. Although the counsel for the Crown argued, “with much bitterness," that this was a case within 25 Ed. III., Northumberland himself declared " he would never consent that any practice against him should be reputed treason."
The Lord High Steward decided, that “if it was not treason, it was felony." Thereupon all the Lords acquitted Somerset of tréason, a majority found him guilty of felony, and the Lord High Steward sentenced him to be hanged.*
Burnet says, “it is generally believed that all the pretended conspiracy, upon which he was condemned, was only a forgery; and, indeed, the not bringing witnesses into court, but only the depositions, and the parties sitting Judges, gave great occasion to condemn the proceedings against him.”+ But, according to the notions of the times, the Ex-Lord Keeper was not much worse thought of for this specimen of his judicial powers, and he continued to enjoy a pretty fair reputation.
On the death of Edward VI. he first took part with Lady Jane Grey; but, by the unerring instinct which ever guided him, he was the first to leave her
party, and go over to Queen Mary, who was so much pleased, that she forgave him, and renewed his patent of Lord High Treasurer. During her reign he remained very quiet, and taking example by the fate of Cranmer and others, he conformed very rigidly to the reigning religion, and without actively urging prosecution, would by no means run any risk of giving offence by trying to restrain or soften it.
On the accession of Elizabeth he avoided the scandal of an abrupt change of religion; but he soon fell in with the system established by her; and though she [A. D. 1558.] placed all her confidence in Cecil, she allowed the wily old courtier still to enjoy his place of Lord Treasurer till his death in 1572, when he was in his 97th year, and had 103 descendants to attend him to the grave.
It was shortly before his death, being asked “how he did bear up in those dangerous times wherein great alterations were made both in Church and State," he re
(A. D. 1572.] turned the noted answer, “ By being a willow, and not an oak." No one, however, will be seduced to follow his example who has any regard to posthumous fame, for his existence is now known only to dull biographers, genealogists, antiquaries, and is discovered only to be contemned; while the name of Sir Thomas More will continue to be familiar as household words in the mouths of
1 St. Tr. 520.
Burn. Ref. ü. 186,