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SIR MATTHEW HALE 1609 - 1676
The greatest lawyer of his age


Sir Matthew


OF one the business of whose life was comprised in the simple performance of professional duties, and whose hours of leisure were dedicated to the cultivation of religion, morality, and philosophy; whose public conduct was alike uninfluenced by the favour of a Court, or the fury of faction, and whose humble and modest piety sought not for fame in the vanities of controversy; little can be said with any reasonable hope of gratifying the cravings of ordinary curiosity.

SIR MATTHEW HALE descended from a family of respectable clothiers in Gloucestershire, and was the only child of Robert Hale, of Alderley, in that county, by Joan, daughter of Matthew Poyntz, of the same place, a younger son of the ancient baronial family of that name. His father had been bred to the bar, and is said to have quitted it because he could not reconcile to his conscience the practice of those perversions, denials, and disguisings, of truth for which the duty of a lawyer to his client is generally thought to furnish a sufficient apology : he retired therefore to his moderate estate in the country, where both himself and his wife died before his son, who was born on the first of November, 1609, had reached the age of five years. The young Matthew fell into the hands of Anthony Kingscot, a neighbouring gentleman of good family, and a near relation, but a vehement puritan, who not only placed him to receive the rudiments of a learned education with a zealous member of that profession, the parish priest, but procured for him at Magdalen Hall, in Oxford, of which he was entered in Michaelmas Term 1626, the tuition of the notorious Obadiah Sedgewick, perhaps the most furious and mischievous of the leaders of the party.

TO WHAT extent Hale became at that time impressed with their religious and political doctrines is not known, but it is clear that he imbibed none of the affectation of sanctimonious austerity by which the puritans sought to distinguish themselves, for we are told that the arrival at Oxford of a theatrical company induced him suddenly to abandon his studies; that he indulged with great freedom in the gaieties of youthful society; bestowed remarkable attention on his dress; and became an adept in the management of the sword and other methods of defence which were then, fashionable nay, that he would have entered as a volunteer into the army of the Prince of Orange but for an accident in his private affairs which will be presently mentioned. He had studied however with rapid success previously to the commencement of these excesses, which Sedgewick, to whom the patronage of a young man of independent fortune was then convenient, seems to have endured with great patience and complacency.

THIS sort of carriage left little hope of his submitting to take holy orders, which had been the intention of his guardian, and circumstances which occurred soon after totally extinguished that design. A suit in which he was engaged with a Sir William Whitmore, who claimed part of his estate, obliged him to go to London when he had been but three years at the University, to which he did not return. He had retained Serjeant Glanvill as his leading counsel, and in their frequent intercourse during this incidental connexion that celebrated lawyer observed in him talents so well formed for the study of jurisprudence, that he earnestly, and at length successfully, persuaded him to enter into the profession, and he was accordingly admitted of the society of Lincoln's Inn on the eighth of November, 1629. He now made of ample amen for his past levity, and became a pattern of industry, studying, as is confidently said, even for several years together sixteen hours daily. His improvement kept pace with his application, and he acquired considerable credit while he was yet a student. Noy, then Attorney General, sought his acquaintance,and became so attached to him that it was usual to call him "young Noy. " He was not less intimately known to the admirable Selden ; to Vaughan, afterwards Chief Justice of the Common Pleas; and to many others of great eminence in various branches of science and literature as well as in the knowledge and practice of the law, Thus he was led to extend his labours into natural and experimental philosophy; became highly skilled in mathematics, and even in medicine and surgery ; and joined to a proficiency in those studies, which unaccountably become too frequently the nurses of scepticism, a great extent of scriptural learning, and a desire so intense to explain and inculcate the means of religious and moral perfection, that his writings in that class alone would have sufficed, had he been a member of the sacred profession, to raise his reputation to the highest, as well for industry as for devotion, acuteness, and erudition.

HE WAS called to the bar at the commencement of the great heats which preceded the grand rebellion, and attached himself to the royal cause with a calmness and moderation which were natural to him, and which, though his practice, in which he presently gained great fame, was almost confined to the causes of the King's friends, perhaps aided in procuring for him at least the forbearance of the contrary party: doubtless however the bias which he had, or was supposed to have, towards puritanism operated with greater effect; and that such was his inclination he gave at length the strongest possible proof by subscribing, as he did in 1643, that wretched code of mischief the Covenant, and by sitting in the assembly appointed by the Parliament to settle, as it was called, the government and liturgy of the Church of England. His unquestionable integrity so fat counterbalanced the effect of these demonstrations that the royalists never withdrew from him their confidence in his professional fidelity, He was one of the counsel for Strafford, Laud, Hamilton, Holland, Capel, Craven, and others of them, and for the King himself, nor was he less trusted by the Parliament, which, amidst his engagements in the defence of those who were the chief objects of its persecution, employed him in the important commission for the treaty of Oxford, and other matters which he party held of the highest interest to the welfare of their cause,In the exercise of these opposite services which to any, but a man of the purest intentions must have caused infinite embarrassment and caution, he displayed the most exalted magnanimity and independence. Using terms of great force and warmth in his defence of the Lord Craven, he was interrupted by Prideaux, the attorney general for the rebels, who directly charged him with opposing the government. He answered that he was pleading in defence of those laws which they had declared they would preserve and maintain; that he was doing his duty to his client, and was not to he daunted by threats. His history abounds in instances of this courageous firmness.

BUT WE must ever seek in vain for human perfection. Hale, from no motive that can be divined but a desire to secure professional advancement condescended, after the murder of Charles, to take the oath called " the Engagement, " by which he bound himself, for such were the very words to be true and faithful to the Parliament established without a King, or House of Peers, On this painful subject I will only remark: that he had lately in swearing to the Covenant undertaken (and here again the precise terms are quoted) to preserve the rights and privileges of Parliaments, and to preserve and defend the King's person and authority ' and that he afterwards took the oath of allegiance to Charles the second. He now, without at any time however stepping out of the line of his profession, took a share in public affairs. In January, 1651, he was placed at the head of a commission: appointed by the Parliament to consider, of reformations necessary in the law, and on the twenty fifth of the same month, two years after He as appointed one of the Justices of the Common Bench, the name now given to the Kings Bench by the rebels. We are told that he at first refused to accept that station; telling Cromwell that he was not satisfied about his authority, and therefore scrupled to accept the commission ; to which the other answered, " it is my desire to rule according to the laws of the land ; but if you won't let me govern by red gowns, I am resolved to govern by red coats. " Certain it is that his integrity never bent to the arbitrary, will of the userper. He sentenced a soldier to die for having killed a townsman of Lincoln who had refused to give up his gun, in obedience to an order of Cromwell's that none who had been of the King's party should carry arms, and sent the man to instant execution because he understood that a reprieve was on the way from London. He dismissed a jury which he rightly suspected to have been packed by Oliver's direction to carry a favourite purpose, and refused to try the cause. When his judicial proceedings against some anabaptists who had rushed into a church and insulted a congregation receiving the sacrament, were interrupted by the interference of certain persons in power, he declared that he would sit no more on the Crown side, and kept his word, for when Cromwell expressly required him to assist at the trial of the brave Colonel Pe?r.uddock he positively refused.

HE WAS one of the five members for the County of Gloucester in the first of Oliver's two bastard Parliaments, and sat for the University of Oxford in that called by Richard Cromwell, from whom however he refused to accept a commission as a judge, foreseeing probably the change which was ilthand. He was , again returned for Gloucestershire, to the Parliament, which restored monarchy, and when that great measure was proposed in the House of Commons, moved for a committee to examine the terms which had been offered to the late King, and the concessions that he had offered, with the view of prescribing conditions to Charles the second before he should be admitted to the throne, a motion the rejection of which was so nearly unanimous, that it remains doubtful whether it was even seconded.

CHARLES, if he were displeased by this proposal, and it could scarcely be otherwise, for once sacrificed his private feelings to the welfare and the opinion of his subjects, for certainly no judge had ever before been so universally and so deservedly esteemed. On the seventh of November, 1660, he appointed Hale Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and soon after, much against his will, knighted him. He appears indeed to have enjoyed the royal favour unimpaired during the remainder of his Life, and yet the bias of his inclination was against the Crown. Dryden tells us that it was a common saying with the King that his servants were sure to be cast on a trial before Hale; and his affection to the dissenters, founded on early prejudice, though he never suffered it to relax the integrity of his judicial conduct; was continually betraying itself. Under these disadvantages, which it may safely be said would in that reign have barred the promotion of any lawyer who lived under it but himself, he rose to the head of his profession, and on the eighteenth of May, 1671, became ;Lord Chief Justice of England. Re occupied that exalted seat little more than four years. In the autumn of 1674, a sudden inflammation, according to the report of his physicians, of the diaphragm, placed him in imminent danger of immediate death. He was partially recovered, but his constitution, naturally robust as it was, had received an irremediable shock. He was seized by an asthma which rendered the discharge of his public duties infinitely painful, and on the twenty-first of February, 1675-6, resigned his office. A dropsy succeeded, and having lingered till the twenty-fifth of the following December, he expired on that day, and was buried with his family at Alderley.

OF THE powers of this eminent person's mind, and of his application of those powers, to the duties of his profession, it is needless to speak. While the Law of England shall subsist they will be, broadly and splendidly traced in the education of the student the skill of the advocate, and the decisions of the bench: Let those who so profit by the dictates of his wisdom, and the results of his labour, dedicate to his memory that incense which will be most grateful to his venerable shade. Let them imitate the intenseness and patience of his application; the candour as well as the acuteness of his argument; and the minute justice of his judgments: for all these he was equally celebrated. His conduct in all the relations of life was as pure as that which he displayed to public admiration ; and the sweetness of his temper, the benevolence and simplicity of his heart, endeared, him to the utmost to his family and dependants, and to his private intitiates ; yet, however excellent his nature, piety was indeed the vital principle of his character; a piety not recluse and contemplative, but so directing every action as to consecrate the most ordinary offices of his life. If to some the strictness of his religious observances should seem too severe, let it be remembered that this severity regarded himself alone, while with respect to others he was invariably charitable in opinion, and gentle in correction.

A SINGLE voice was raised against him several years after his death, and impartiality demands that the notes of censure which it uttered should not be here omitted. Roger North, in his memoirs of his brother, the Lord Keeper, bestows on the memory of Sir Matthew Hale a strange mixture, at great length, of praise and blame, from which I will give an extract of the most unfavourable passages. While Hale was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, by means of his great learning, even against his inclination, he did the Crown more justice in that Court than many others in his place had done with all their good-will and less knowledge: but his foible was leaning to the popular: yet when he knew the law was for the King, as well he might, being acquainted with all the records of the Court, to which men of the law are, commonly strangers, he failed not to judge accordingly. He is an upright judge, if taken within himself, and when he appeared, and he often did, and really was impartial; his inclination Ql: prejudice; insensibly to himself; drew his judgement aside ~isbia~;lay strangely for and against characters and denominations, and sometimes, the very habits of persons. If one party was a courtier, and well-dressed, and the other a sort of puritan, with a black cap, and plain clothes, he insensibly thought the justice of the cause with the latter. If the dissenting or anti-court party was at the back of a cause he was very seldom impartial, and the loyalists had always a great disadvantage before him. He became the cushion, exceedingly well his manner of heciring patient, his directions pertinent, and his discourses copious, and, though he hesitated often, fluent: His stop for a word by the produce always paid for the delay, and on some occasions he would utter sentences heroic. His vanity was excessive. He was a subtiliser, and an inventor of unheard of distinctions, and exercising criticisms to get the better (of known maxims of the law, and thereby to transmit great estate& and interests from some persons and families to others. This over-ruling temper of his did, not so much take place in small concerns, and in those between common men, for there his justice shined most, and armed him with a reputation that sustained his authority to do as he pleased in greater; whereby it seems that if he never had dealt in other, but great causes, to hear; and determine them, he might have been accounted the worst judge that ever sat: yet the generality, both gentle and simple, lawyers and laymen, did idolize him: his voice was oracular, and his person little less than adored.

TO the discredit of these censures, already suspicious enough, as they are wholly unsupported by any other testimony, the writer presently after unwarily furnishes an evident clue. The political opinions and the legal doctrines of the sages Hale and North were it seems at variance. Roger North, having disclaimed any invidious feeling, declares that his statement has been dictated merely by the, love of truth; first, says he, in general, for all truth is profitable and secondly, in particular for justice to the character write of against whom never any thing was urged so peremptorily as the authority of Hale ; as if one must of necessity be in the wrong because another was presumed to be in the right. These two chiefs were of different opinions in matters of private light as well as touching the public; and if one was a solomon, saint, or oracle, what must the other be taken for ? It is remarkable that Mr. North in this invective should have omitted the only two established charges which reflect unfavourably on the memory of Sir Matthew Hale, the one tending to detract from his probity, the other from his wisdom. The first has been already mentioned ; the second is grounded on the Lamentable fact that he sentenced to death at the spring assizes for Suffolk in the year 1664 two poor old creatures whom he had tried for witchcraft, and suffered them to be executed; the last act which occurred in England of that stupid and inhuman species of injustice.

LORD CHIEF JUSTICE HALE was twice married; first to Anne, daughter of Sir Henry Moore, of Fawley, in Berks, who brought him ten children, of whom six lived to maturity; Robert, whose line ended in an heiress, married about forty years since to a Mr. Blagden, who assumed her surname, and whose posterity yet remains at Alderley; Matthew; Thomas; Edward; and two daughters; Mary, married first to Edward Adderley,of Innishannon in Ireland, secondly, to Edward Stephens, of Alderley, son of Edward Stephens, of Cherington, in Gloucestershire; and Elizabeth, wife of Edmund Webb, of Bagpath, in the same county, barrister at law. Sir Matthew's second wife was Anne Bishop, of Fawley, a servant in his family, by whom he had no children. In his will he gives the highest character of this worthy woman ; entrusts to her care the breeding of the children of his eldest son, who died before him; and constitutes her one of his executors.

ON subjects of religion, morals, and law, which were his studies, and in philosophy, history, and-serious poetry, which may be deemed his relaxations, so numerous are the effusions of his pen, and so various and confused the accounts which we have of them, that to give with tolerable precision even an ordinary catalogue of his writings would be no light task.

First, more modern and slightly more digestible article : First article