I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.

Edward Thurlow, first Baron Thurlow (1731-1806)

This article was written by James McMullen Rigg and was published in 1898.

ThurlowEdward Thurlow, a lord chancellor, was the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Thurlow (d. 1762), incumbent successively of Little Ashfield, Suffolk, and of Thurston, Long Stratton, and Knapton, Norfolk, by Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Smith, a descendant of Sir Richard Hovell, esquire of the body to Henry V. Thurlow was born at Bracon Ash, Norfolk, on 9 December 1731. His grandfather, Thomas Thurlow, whose cousin, John Thurlow, obtained a license for armorial bearings, 19 November 1664, was a scion of the Thurlows of Burnham, Norfolk, who are traceable as far back as the reign of Henry VIII. It is therefore probable that the carrier of Cromwell's time, whom the chancellor, in disclaiming descent from secretary Thurloe, jocularly claimed as his ancestor, was a mythical personage. Thurlow had two younger brothers: Thomas, bishop of Durham; John, who died alderman of Norwich on 11 March 1782, and whose son, Edward South Thurlow (1764-1847), prebendary of Norwich, was father of Charles Augustus Thurlow (d. 1873), chancellor of the diocese of Chester.

Being hard to manage at home, Thurlow was early committed to the care of the Rev. Joseph Brett, master of Seckars school, Scarning, Norfolk, a disciplinarian of the then approved type. There he became an adept at cock-throwing, which he celebrated in some Latin elegiacs printed by Lord Campbell, and conceived an unalterable aversion for the master. ‘I am not bound,’ he said savagely in later life, when Brett claimed acquaintance, ‘I am not bound to recognise every scoundrel that recognises me.’ After four years at Scarning he was removed with the character of an incorrigibly bad boy to King's school, Canterbury, where he acquired sufficient knowledge of the classics to enable him to take, upon his matriculation at Cambridge, 5 October 1748, a Perse scholarship at Gonville and Caius College. There he distinguished himself by idleness and insubordination. His misconduct occasioned his removal from college without a degree soon after Lady-day 1751. His destination being already determined, he was placed in the office of a solicitor named Chapman, of Ely Place, Holborn, where he found a congenial companion in William Cowper, the poet. Cowper introduced him to his uncle, Ashley Cowper, at whose house in Southampton Row the two spent much of their time in flirting with the ladies.

On 9 January 1752 Thurlow was admitted a member of the Inner Temple, where he was called to the bar on 22 November 1754, elected a bencher on 29 January 1762, reader in 1769, and treasurer in 1770. Though he was never a hard student, he appears to have usually spent the morning hours in reading, and in the evening frequently strayed no farther from his chambers than Nando's coffee-house, in the immediate vicinity of Temple Bar.

The ascription to him of an anonymous pamphlet, published in 1760, entitled ‘A Refutation of the Letter to an Hon. Brigadier-general [George Townshend, first marquis Townshend], commander of His Majesty's forces in Canada,’ is merely conjectural.

At the bar Thurlow is said to have first distinguished himself by the spirit and address with which, in an unreported case of Robinson v. Lord Winchilsea, before Lord Mansfield at the Guildhall in 1758, he discomfited Fletcher (afterwards Sir Fletcher) Norton who thought to silence him by browbeating. He argued for the defendant in the great copyright case of Tonson v. Collins, before Lord Mansfield in the king's bench in Trinity term 1761 and in Hilary term 1762 received from Lord Northington the premature distinction of a silk gown. It is likely that this early advancement was due to the interest of Thomas Thynne, third viscount Weymouth, through which Thurlow was returned to parliament for Tamworth on 23 December 1765. He retained the seat until his removal to the House of Lords, and was elected recorder of the borough on 11 October 1769.

The decisive turn in Thurlow's affairs is traditionally ascribed to a lucky chance. The cause célèbre of Douglas v. Hamilton, on which depended the succession to the Douglas estates, was decided by the court of session (15 July 1767) on an array of minute circumstantial evidence. Thurlow studied the case with care, and expressed in Nando's coffee-house a strong opinion that the decision was erroneous. This was overheard by some of the appellants' agents, and led to his being retained for the appeal. On 14 January 1769 he fought a duel in Hyde Park with the Duke of Hamilton's agent, Andrew Stuart, who had demanded satisfaction for some severe reflections which Thurlow had made upon his conduct. On 27 February the House of Lords reversed the decision of the court of session.

In the House of Commons Thurlow's first reported speech was on the question raised by Wilkes's expulsion, viz. whether a mere vote was adequate for the purpose. In support of the affirmative Thurlow referred to the vote of 11 April 1614, by which it was determined that no future attorney-general should sit in the House of Commons, a precedent followed in the subsequent parliaments of 1620-1 and 1625-6 by the exclusion of Sir Thomas Coventry and Sir Robert Heath.

Appointed solicitor-general, 30 March 1770, Thurlow acted with the attorney-general, Sir William De Grey (afterwards Lord Walsingham), in the prosecution of the printers and publishers of ‘Junius's Letter to the King’. In the House of Commons (27 November and 6 December 1770) he increased his reputation by his able defence of the practice of issuing informations for libel by the attorney-general ex officio, and Lord Mansfield's direction to the juries in the recent cases. He succeeded De Grey as attorney-general on 26 January 1771, stoutly maintained the privilege of the House of Commons in the affair of the lord mayor Brass Crosby and Alderman Richard Oliver, and was placed on the secret committee charged with the investigation of the attendant circumstances (28 March). He was a member of the select committee on East Indian affairs elected on 16 April 1772, and by his opposition to the clause which left the nomination of the judges to the directors contributed to the defeat of the East India Judicature Bill (18 May). He was also a member of the committee for drafting the East India Bill of the following year, supported the parliamentary inquiry into the administration of Lord Clive, and urged that it should be conducted without regard to the rule of law which excuses a witness from answering questions which tend to criminate him.

The reasoning by which, on appeal to the House of Lords in the great copyright case of Donaldsons v. Becket (February 1774), he overthrew Lord Mansfield's doctrine of perpetual copyright at common law was unimpugnable; but in opposing the legislative settlement of the question he evinced an illiberal spirit. He has been censured for supporting (17 February 1774) the motion for compelling the attendance of compositors to give evidence at the bar of the House of Commons as to the authorship of the letter to the speaker imputed to John Horne, afterwards Horne Tooke; but if the house was to assume the functions of a court of justice, it was manifestly desirable that it should proceed upon adequate information. His opposition to the perpetuation of the Grenville Act, by which the jurisdiction in election petition cases was transferred from the whole house to special committees, shows that he had formed a juster estimate of the nature of the evils to be remedied than the author of that measure (25 February 1774). He established his reputation as a constitutionalist by his defence of the ministerial scheme for the government of the province of Quebec (26 May 1774), by his exposition of the nature and extent of the royal prerogative of legislation in dependencies of the crown on the third hearing of the Grenada case before Lord Mansfield (7 November 1774), and by his ingenious though unsuccessful defence of Lord Rochford in the action of false imprisonment brought against him by Stephen Sayre (26 June 1776). His conduct of the Duchess of Kingston's case was marred by both bad taste and cruelty; and in proposing the pillory (24 November 1777) as the reward of Horne's manifesto in favour of the Lexington insurgents he undeniably displayed an excess of zeal.

Throughout the dispute with the American colonies he inflexibly maintained the right of the mother country and the duty of exerting her full might. This naturally endeared him to the king, who insisted on his advancement to the woolsack on the resignation of Lord Bathurst. He was at the same time raised to the peerage as Baron Thurlow of Ashfield, Suffolk (3 June 1778). The event drew from his old friend Cowper a generous if somewhat pedestrian tribute to his ‘superior worth’. He took the oaths in Westminster Hall on 19 June, and in the House of Lords on 14 July, his first act on occupying the woolsack being to declare parliament prorogued. When parliament reassembled (26 November) debate was abundant on the address, the recent treaty of alliance between France and the American confederation, and the consequent manifesto of the British commissioners. The latter document was defended by Thurlow in his usual thoroughgoing style. He also spoke on some other matters, e.g. the Keppel court-martial, the bill for which he remodelled, and the subsequent motions for a court-martial on Sir Hugh Palliser and the removal of the Earl of Sandwich from the admiralty, and was publicly taunted by the Duke of Grafton with his plebeian origin and the recency of his patent. In reply Thurlow haughtily contrasted his own honourable exertions with ‘the accident of an accident,’ to which he ascribed the duke's seat; and protested that he had not solicited but been solicited by the peerage, and that both as chancellor and as a man he was as respectable and as much respected as the proudest peer he then looked down upon. After this manly vindication of his official and personal dignity he had little difficulty in establishing his ascendency over the peers. Under his guidance they turned a deaf ear to the representations addressed to them in 1779 by Lord Shelburne on the distressed and disaffected condition of Ireland and the scandalous waste of the public money, and in 1780 threw out the bills to deprive revenue officers of the parliamentary franchise and government contractors of their seats in the House of Commons which were sent up to them by the lower house. He was emphatically the king's chancellor, and as such was employed on the secret and abortive negotiations for a reconstruction of the administration which followed the resignation of Lords Gower and Weymouth in October 1779. Thurlow consistently supported Sir George Savile's measures for the relief of catholics, and justified the use of the military to repress the Gordon riots (21 June 1780).

His somewhat vague and diffident utterances on the rupture with Holland, 25 January 1781, did not enhance his reputation as a publicist; but he retained the confidence of the king, whose design of raising Lord George Germain to a peerage he loyally furthered; and when the whigs acceded to power under Lord Rockingham (March 1782), they were compelled to acquiesce in Thurlow's continuance in office. In their foreign policy he concurred, but supported none of their domestic measures, and energetically opposed the Contractors Bill and the revision of the civil list. Though he retained the great seal on the death of Lord Rockingham (1 July 1782), he had little to do with the formation of the Shelburne administration, the instability of which he foresaw. To the concession of legislative independence to Ireland he gave a reluctant consent, and took no part in the parliamentary discussion. In the debate of 17 February 1783 on the preliminary articles of peace he ably vindicated the exercise of the prerogative in the cession of the Floridas. On the coalition of Fox and North, the former insisted on Thurlow's resignation, and, the king at length yielding, Thurlow retired with a pension of £2,680 and the reversion (which fell in in 1786) of a tellership in the exchequer, and the great seal was put in commission (9 April 1783). In opposition Thurlow resisted in vain the concession of exclusive jurisdiction to the Irish courts and House of Lords. He continued to be consulted by the king, and it was by his advice that the royal mind in regard to the India Bill was communicated to the peers . On the consequent defeat of that measure the king sent for Pitt, and Thurlow resumed the great seal (23 December), which on the eve of the dissolution (23-24 March 1784) was stolen from his house in Great Ormonde Street. If, as was surmised, the robbery was concerted by political malcontents in the hope of deferring the dissolution, they were signally disappointed. A new seal was hastily cast, and parliament dissolved on 25 March. The lost seal was never recovered, nor were the burglars traced.

On his return from the country with a solid majority, Pitt for some sessions found in Thurlow a fairly loyal supporter; though the chancellor asserted his freedom by opposing the bill for restoring forfeited estates to the descendants of the Jacobite insurgents of 1745 (16 August 1784). Thurlow also warmly espoused the royal scheme for raising Warren Hastings to the peerage, of which Pitt doubted the expediency. He even talked of affixing the great seal to the patent by the mere authority of the king — a step which was averted by the unexpected sanction given by Pitt to the proposed peer's impeachment. At the trial, which began on 13 February 1788, Thurlow presided so long as he held the great seal, and by the consent of all contemporaries nobly sustained the dignity of British justice. With Pitt his relations became less and less cordial. Pitt's attitude towards slavery disgusted him, and he resented his insistence on the advancement of Richard Pepper Arden (afterwards Baron Alvanley) to the mastership of the rolls (4 June 1788). During the discussions on the regency question (November 1788) he entered into clandestine negotiations with the Prince of Wales and the whigs. The discovery of his hat in the prince's closet during a council held at Windsor revealed his intrigues to Pitt, who entrusted Lord Camden with the exposition of his scheme. Meanwhile Thurlow found himself almost equally distrusted by Fox, and as soon as the king's health began to mend gave an ostentatious support to the ministerial proposals. He even affixed the great seal to a fictitious commission for the opening of the parliament to which they were to be submitted.

Conscious that he was distrusted by Pitt, Thurlow keenly resented the elevation of William Wyndham Grenville to the peerage; but dissembled his feelings while he waited the opportunity of dealing a fatal blow at the great minister. He thus supported Pitt's foreign policy even when least defensible, as in the threatening attitude towards Russia (29 March 1791), while he attempted to terminate the impeachment of Hastings on the technical ground that it had abated by the dissolution of the parliament in which it had been instituted, and succeeded in throwing out Fox's libel bill.

Having thus done his best to perpetuate the virtual abrogation of trial by jury in cases in which it was really the palladium of British liberty, he took occasion to pose as its most ardent champion in a charge to the jury of the pix, in which he animadverted severely on an innocent proposal of the chancellor of the exchequer to dispense with it in certain proceedings under the revenue laws. The unfortunate Sinking Fund Bill he opposed with an adroitness which almost secured its defeat. At the same time he so far lost his self-command as to to treat Lord Grenville with discourtesy. Pitt and Grenville thereupon required the king to choose between them and the chancellor, and it was arranged, 18 to 21 May 1792, that Thurlow should retire. He did so on the prorogation (15 June), the only token of favour which he received being a patent (dated 11 June) creating him Baron Thurlow of Thurlow, Suffolk, with remainder to the heirs male of his nephews. Thenceforth Thurlow was rarely heard in debate, though he continued to take part in the judicial business of the House of Lords, and now and again intervened in the parliamentary wrangles to which the trial of Hastings continued to give rise.

The great events which caused Burke to appeal from the new to the old whigs threw Thurlow for a time into the arms of the former party. He courted the Prince of Wales, and moved for an increase of his allowance on his marriage; he opposed the repressive measures taken by the government during the revolutionary fever of 1795-6; and when they passed he withdrew from parliament in simulated disgust. During the winter of 1797 he was occupied in fruitless attempts to mediate between the Prince and Princess of Wales. As all hope of return to power died away, he returned to his place in the House of Lords to discuss with philosophic calm the incidence of taxation, to assert with something of his old hauteur the equality of peers in their legislative character when what he deemed an invidious distinction was made in favour of the Duke of Clarence, to defend the interests of the harassed slave-trader, to emancipate a wife from an incestuous husband, and to oppose the bill for the exclusion of Horne Tooke from the House of Commons. His last speech was in the debate on the peace of Amiens on 4 May 1802, when he absurdly contended that all treaties not expressly renewed were abrogated by the war.

The rest of Thurlow's life was passed between a cottage at Dulwich — the mansion there built for him he would never enter on account of a quarrel with the architect — and various English health resorts. He was frequently to be seen at Brighton, where in the winter of 1805 he was consulted by Sir Samuel Romilly (13 December) in reference to Lady Douglas's charges against the Princess of Wales. He died at Brighton on 12 September 1806, but his remains rest beneath the south aisle of the Temple church, where they were interred with great pomp on 25 September His bust (sculptor unknown), with Latin inscription by Dr. Routh of Magdalen College, Oxford, formerly in the church, now stands neglected in the vestry. In consequence of an early disappointment Thurlow had not married, and the barony of Thurlow of Ashfield died with him; that of Thurlow of Thurlow, Suffolk, descended to his nephew Edward (afterwards Hovell-Thurlow), eldest son of Thomas Thurlow, bishop of Durham. By his mistress, Mrs. Hervey, who figures with him in the ‘Rolliad’ (ode xvi.), and to whom he was much attached, he had several children, for whom he provided.

Thurlow was tall, well built, and singularly majestic in appearance. His features, though stern, were regular, and a swarthy complexion matched well with his keen black sparkling eyes and bushy eyebrows. He was fond of the company of men of letters, and even Dr. Johnson respected his conversational powers. In ordinary society he affected an extreme bluntness, richly lacing his discourse with oaths and vulgar pleasantries; but he was always subservient to his sovereign and courtly to ladies. On proper occasions he knew how to weep, and was unmanned more than once during the king's illness. Fox's bon mot, ‘No man ever was so wise as Thurlow looks,’ evinces the impression which he made on occasions of state. Though his natural powers were considerable, he was too indolent to master either statecraft or law, and regularly employed Francis Hargrave to prime him with authorities and arguments. The judgments thus composed, which are reported by Brown and Vesey junior, were rarely if ever written, and sometimes by their oracular obscurity were calculated to confound rather than convince.

He has been credited with the invention of the restraint on anticipation commonly inserted in married women's settlements; but this is a mere tradition. In politics he seems to have had no principles beyond a high view of the royal prerogative and an aversion to change. Foreign affairs he as far as possible ignored, and commonly went to sleep when they were under discussion at cabinet councils. The ‘majestic sense,’ ascribed to him in Gibbon's ‘Memoirs,’ was an editorial interpolation. His reported speeches are chiefly remarkable for the truculence of their invective. His treachery during the king's illness, and subsequent factiousness, deprive him of all title to respect. In his distribution of patronage, if somewhat dilatory, he was on the whole judicious. Both Samuel Horsley and Robert Potter owed stalls to him; and Lloyd Kenyon, whom he advanced to the chief-justiceship, amply justified his choice. The Egerton MS. 2232 contains transcripts of his scanty manuscript remains relative to affairs of state.

He never lost the tastes of the scholar, and late in life corresponded with Cowper on the best English equivalent for the Homeric hexameter, and with Lord Monboddo on the Platonic philosophy, besides rendering one of the choruses of the ‘Hippolytus’ of Euripides' and the whole of the ‘Batrachomyomachia’ into English verse. Though hardly a patron of learning, he made Johnson, with singular delicacy, an offer of the means of travelling on the continent; and Crabbe owed him relief from pecuniary embarrassments. Though probably orthodox in his theological opinions, he resembled a later chancellor, whose merit he early discerned, John Scott, first earl of Eldon, in his systematic neglect of the external observances of religion.

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 12 January, 2016

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind