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When suddenly freed, in the autumn of 1841, from professional and official occupations, I revelled for a while in the resumption of my classical studies, and in the miscellaneous perusal of modern authors. By degrees I began to perceive the want of a definite object: I recollected what Lord Coke and Lord Bacon say of the debt due from every successful lawyer to his profession; and I felt within me a revival of the aspiration after literary fame, which, in my most busy days, I was never able entirely to extinguish. Having amused myself with revising for the press "a Selection of my Speeches at the Bar and in the House of Commons," I resolved to write « THE LIVES OF THE CHANCELLORS."
It is for others to judge how this work is executed, but I am more and more convinced that the subject is happily chosen. “ HISTORIES,” says Lord Bacon, “ do rather set forth the pomp of business than the true and inward resorts thereof. But Lives, if they be well written, propounding to themselves a person to represent, in whom actions both greater and smaller, public and private, have a commixture, must of necessity contain a more true, native and lively representation.”* In writing the lives of those who have successively filled a great office there is unity of design as well as variety of character and incident, and there is no office in the history of any nation that has been filled with such a long succession of distinguished and interesting men as the office of Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England. It has existed from the foundation of the
* Advancement of Learning.
monarchy; and although mediocrity has sometimes been the recommendation for it, - generally speaking, the most
, eminent men of the age, if not the most virtuous, have been selected to adorn it. To an English statesman as well as an English lawyer the narrative ought to be particularly instructive, for the history of the holders of the Great Seal is the history of our constitution as well as of our jurisprudence. There is even a sort of romance belonging to the true tale of many of those who are to be delineated, and the strange vicissitudes of their career are not exceeded by the fictions of novelists or dramatists.
I foresaw the difficulties that would beset me sometimes from the want, and sometimes from the superfluity of materials, Struggling with these, I have attemped to present to the reader a clear and authentic account of all who have held the Great Seal of England from the earliest times adapting the scale of my narrative to the varying importance of what is to be told, and trying as I proceed to give a glimpse of the most important historical events, and of the manners of the age.
If I have failed, it will not have been for the want of generous assistance. I wish to speak with the most heartfelt gratitude of the kindness which I have experienced. I have been treated like a shipwrecked mariner cast on a friendly shore -- every one eagerly desirous to comfort and to cherish him. In not one single instance since I entered on the undertaking, when I have applied for assistance, have I met with a rebuff; on the contrary, the most eager and disinterested disposition has been evinced to oblige me. Such good offices I have to boast of, not less from political opponents than from political associates, and my thanks are peculiarly due to many clergymen of the Church of England to whom I was personally unknown, and who have devoted much time and trouble in furnishing me with extracts from parish registers, copies of epitaphs, and other local information.
I must be allowed publicly to express my thanks by name to Lord Langdale, for the use of his valuable collection of Extracts from the Close Roll, respecting the transfer of the Great Seal; - to Earl Fortescue, for the pardon under the Great Seal of his ancestor by Edward IV.; to Lord Francis Egerton, for many original documents of great interest relating to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere ; - to Lord Hatherton, for an original mandate under the hand and seal of his kinsman, Lord Keeper Littleton, for raising money to carry on the war against the Long Parliament; -- to Mr. Duffus Hardy, for many important writs, proclamations, and letters, never before published, which he has discovered for me in the Tower of London ; - to Sir Francis Palgrave, acquainted with the Anglo-Saxon times more familiarly than most men are with the reign of George III., for the direction which he has given to my inquiries whenever I have been at fault; - to Mr. M'Queen, author of “ The Practice of the House of Lords,” for some difficult researches made by him on my account into the antiquities of Equity Practice;
to Mr. Payne Collier, the learned Editor of Shakspeare, for various ballads and handbills published at the death of Lord Chancellor Jeffreys ; – to Mr. Foss, Editor of “ The Grandeur of the Law," who has amassed a noble collection respecting all English lawyers in all ages, for helping me out with dates and facts respecting some of the early Chancellors ; – to Mr. Spence, of the Chancery Bar, for his communication to me of a large portion of his materials for the important work in which he is engaged on the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery ; – to Mr. Parkes, author of “ The History of the Court of Chancery,” for the loan of his large assortment of tracts on English jurisprudence ; – to Mr. Purton Cooper, Q. C., one of the Record Commissioners, for several unpublished MS. treatises on the Practice of the Court of Chancery in early times ; – to Mr. Panizzi, for
the good-humour and intelligence which have laid open to me all the treasures of the British Museum ; — and to
and pupil, Mr. David Dundas, for his assistance in gleaning materials for some lives that have become obscure, but which ought to be known to mankind — particularly that of Lord Chancellor John RUSSELL.
In rapidly travelling through a period of above a thousand years, I am well aware that I must have committed many mistakes, and have passed by, without discovering, much interesting matter. I shall receive very thankfully any information with which I may be favoured, either privately or in print, to enable me to correct errors and to supply omissions. I hope that I have shown myself free from any party or sectarian bias. The great principles of civil and religious liberty I ever wish boldly to avow, and resolutely to maintain ; but I believe that I have fairly appreciated the acts and characters of those whose Lives I have had in hand, without being swayed by the consideration whether they were Roman Catholics or Protestants -- Whigs or Tories. I must request the candid reader not to judge by any particular expression, or any particular Life, but by the whole scope and tendency of the work.
Horace Walpole seeks to deter all who have ever touched a Great Seal from engaging in such a task, by observing, after his criticisms on the historical labours of Sir Thomas More, Lord Bacon, and Lord Clarendon, “ It is hoped no more Chancellors will write our story till they can divest themselves of that habit of their profession — apologising for a bad cause.” * My object has been uniformly to re
” probate violence and fraud, and to hold up integrity and consistency for applause and imitation.
I regret the length into which I have been drawn; but, after a careful revision, I have found nothing that I could omit without injury to my design; and when due regard is had to the number of persons whose history was to be narrated, and to the multitudinous facts to be introduced, I am
• Historic Doubts.