FINCH, Heneage (1621-82), of Ravenstone, Bucks. and Kensington, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1661 - 10 Jan. 1674

Family and Education

b. 23 Dec. 1621, 1st s. of Sir Heneage Finch of Kensington, Speaker 1626, by 1st w. Frances, da. of Sir Edmund Bell of Beaupré Hall, Outwell, Norf. educ. Westminster; Christ Church, Oxf. 1636; I. Temple 1638, called 1645. m. 30 July 1646, Elizabeth, da. of Daniel Harvey, merchant, of Lawrence Pountney Hill, London, 10s. (3 d.v.p.) 4da. suc. fa. 1631; kntd. 6 June 1660; cr. Bt. 7 June 1660, Baron Finch of Daventry 10 Jan. 1674, Earl of Nottingham 12 May 1681.

Offices Held

Commr. for militia, Mdx. Mar. 1660, assessment, oyer and terminer, Mdx. July 1660, Kent Aug. 1660-1, 1665-74, Mdx. Sept. 1660-74, Westminster 1665-74, Northants. 1673-4; bencher, I. Temple June 1660, treas. 1661-73, reader 1661; commr. for sewers, N. Kent Sept. 1660; freeman, Canterbury Oct. 1660; j.p. Kent, Mdx. and Northants. 1661-d.; commr. for loyal and indigent officers, Mdx., London and Westminster 1662; chamberlain, palatinate of Chester 1673-6; gov. of the Charterhouse 1674.

Solicitor-gen. June 1660-70; asst. R. Fishing Co. 1664; attorney-gen. 1670-3; chairman of ways and means 21 Feb.-14 Mar. 1673; ld. keeper 1673-5; PC 9 Nov. 1673-d.; ld. of admiralty 1673-5; PC [S] 1674, 1676; ld. chancellor 1675-d.1


Finch’s first certain ancestor in the male line was summoned to attend the Council in 1337 as representative of Winchelsea, and shortly afterwards acquired land in Sussex. The advance of the family to the ranks of the peerage by the early 17th century was due, like Finch’s own successful career, to a combination of legal eminence and loyal service to the crown. He took no part in the Civil War, but during the Interregnum built up a successful practice at the bar, specializing in municipal law. His accounts showed average earnings of £1,400 in the last four years before the Restoration. His first appearance in public affairs was as counsel for Thomas Street in the Worcester election case of 1659. Next year he was returned both for Mitchell and for Canterbury, for which his cousin John, Lord Finch, the unhappy Speaker of 1628-9, had sat. He had already been promised a baronetcy by his namesake, the 3rd Earl of Winchilsea, and from the first played the leading part in the Convention as one of the royalist junto. He was appointed to 111 committees, from which he made 53 reports, including nine from conferences, and at least 70 of his speeches are recorded. He supported Edward Turnor on 26 Apr. 1660 in urging that the House should render God his due before Caesar’s, and on the following day seconded the motion of Edward King for the suspension of private business. On 1 May he seconded the motion for receiving the King’s letter, and was appointed to the committee to answer it and the conference to discuss it with the Lords. Two days later he was named to the committee for drafting bills in accordance with the declaration of Breda, in which most of the important measures in the first phase of the Convention originated. He took the chair, and was given sole responsibility for the bill to abolish the court of wards. He was also chairman of the bill to confirm land purchases. He penned the bill for confirmation of Parliament, and carried it to the Lords on 5 May with most of the amendments of John Maynard I struck out. He moved the House to concur with the Lords in lifting the sequestration of the Duke of Buckingham’s estate. He introduced the indemnity bill, and bills for the confirmation of legal proceedings and for the cancellation of grants made during the Civil War and Interregnum. On 28 May he reported from a conference on the declaration against the Irish rebels, and two days later introduced a petition for a public thanksgiving. He seconded the motion of Roger Palmer for including John Hutchinson in the indemnity bill, and brought in the tunnage and poundage bill on 20 June. He was chosen chairman both for the indemnity bill and for the important committee to prepare the clause of exceptions. After his appointment as solicitor-general he took the chair in the committee of four named to draft the form of acceptance of the royal pardon. He seconded the vote of thanks to George Monck on 29 June, and spoke against enforcing the repayment of salaries by Protectorate officials, which would have included Monck and Edward Montagu I. His most celebrated speech in the Convention occurred on 9 July in the debate on the ecclesiastical settlement:

The religion of our Church is not to seek, but we have enjoyed it long, and there now should not be [need] to inquire for it; but [he] moved that it be referred to an assembly of divines, for which we ought to petition the King, and [he] said there was no law to alter the government of the Church by bishops.

On 19 July he was instructed to ask the King to postpone the assizes, pending the passing of current legislation. Given special responsibility with Matthew Hale for bringing in a bill for tunnage and poundage, he reported a new book of rates nine days later. He was named to the committee that produced the navigation bill. Finch’s work in August was chiefly concerned with the differences between the Houses over the indemnity bill, though he also brought in a temporary bill to continue the excise. He was chairman of the committee to inquire into the dangerous delays in legislation which these differences entailed, and reported from the conference. He suggested as a compromise that all regicides who not had not been executed should be banished. When the debate on religion was renewed he urged that ordination by presbyters should not be a precedent, but hoped for some moderation in ceremonies. On 14 Aug. he carried the Commons amendments to the indemnity bill to the Lords, who nevertheless insisted on excepting Lambert, Vane and two others. Finch then urged his own House not ‘to venture the shipwreck of the whole vessel [rather] than throw a few overboard. ... The sparing of them was the way to lose the Act of Oblivion, and moved to agree with the Lords.’ Two further conferences followed, which Finch reported, and on 30 Aug. he brought in, on instructions, a draft petition for sparing the lives of Lambert and Vane. For the last fortnight before the adjournment, the House was principally occupied with finance. Finch reported from the revenue committee, brought in two assessment bills, took the chair in a committee of the whole House on customs and excise, and reported from the committee for disbandment. On 11 Sept. he reported from the conference on settling ministers. He was chairman of the committee to draft a petition for a commission on purchases of public lands. He opposed the motion that the King be asked to marry a Protestant as a breach of the prerogative.2

During the recess Finch led for the crown, as his office required, in the prosecution of the regicides. When Parliament reassembled, he seconded the motion for a land tax. He was greatly disturbed at the publication of The Long Parliament Revived, and was chosen chairman of the committee to impeach its author. ‘He could not think anything more dangerous than the writing [of] this book at such a time. ... Burning the book was too tame a punishment.’ On 23 Nov. he proposed granting half the excise to the crown in compensation for the court of wards, and together with William Pierrepont he drafted a clause accordingly. He reported from the committee for the six months’ assessment. He described liberty for tender consciences as Cromwellian cant and wished that the bill to confirm the Worcester House declaration ‘had never been brought in’, though he had been appointed to the committee. He was ordered to carry up the attainder bill on 7 Dec., and on the following day took the chair in the grand committee on the assessment. In the debate on grievances on 13 Dec. he moved against any remonstrance. On 17 Dec. he was ordered to bring in a bill for £70,000 for the expenses of the coronation. But even Finch’s prestige was insufficient to quell the laughter when he proposed a reward for (Sir) Samuel Jones; whereupon he adroitly moved that no further grants out of the excise should be considered. As the appointed date for dissolution was reached and passed, Finch’s burden, in spite of an exceptionally powerful and experienced front bench, grew no less. He was instructed to prepare reasons for conferences on college leases and the prevention of marital separation, and reported from committees considering the Lords’ amendments to the bill abolishing the court of wards and the bill for coronation expenses. As if this were not enough he was placed in the chair of the committee drafting a clause to forbid the adulteration of wine. He reported two conferences just before and after Christmas, and on 29 Dec. was appointed one of the managers of a conference on disbandment.3

At the general election of 1661 Finch was elected at Beaumaris on the Bulkeley interest, but chose to sit for Oxford University for which he had also been returned, unenthusiastically but without a poll, on the nomination of Lord Chancellor Clarendon. Neither the attorney-general nor the senior secretary of state sat in Parliament, and several of the Privy Councillors were promoted to the Lords at or before the coronation. Hence he is likely to have taken no less prominent a part in the inadequately reported first session of the Cavalier Parliament than in the Convention. With Sir George Carteret he conducted Turnor to the Speaker’s chair. He reported the conference on the King’s marriage on 13 May. On the next day he and Job Charlton were ordered to bring in the militia bill, which was to be his principal responsibility in this session. He was sent to ask Bruno Ryves, formerly chaplain to Charles I, to preach on the King’s birthday. After helping to draft a proviso on the third reading of the security bill, he carried it to the Lords and later reported a conference on it. On 1 June, he made the first of 13 reports from grand committee on the militia bill, which yielded to the King sole command of the armed forces. On 7 June, he brought in, according to the instructions of the House, a bill for a free and voluntary contribution to the revenue. He was appointed to the committees for the corporations and uniformity bills, and on 1 July was ordered to bring in a bill for the execution of the attainted prisoners in the Tower. Three days later, he was instructed to bring in the evidence against one of them, Sir Arthur Hesilrige. He acted as chairman of the committee to ensure that High Commission was excluded from the restoration of the temporal jurisdiction of the clergy. He twice reported conferences on the corporations bill, and was one of the Members entrusted with perfecting the bill for the regulation of printing. He was asked to bring in a bill for the maintenance of incumbents in towns, though this did not receive its first reading till the following March. On 27 July he was desired to draw up a petition recommending the Marquess of Winchester to the royal favour. Two days later the Speaker thanked Finch in the name of the House, ‘for his care and discreet carriage’ in managing a conference on printing. He reported the conference on conspiracy on 19 Dec. and was appointed to the joint committee to examine it. On 18 Feb. 1662 he was ordered to prepare reasons for the conferences on the bills against schismatics and for confirming ministers in their livings. He was among those to prepare reasons for a conference on the uniformity bill and to manage a conference on the loyal and indigent officers, which he reported. When the militia bill returned from the Lords, he was chairman of the committee to prepare an expedient reconciling the differences between the Houses. He served on four other conferences in this session and reported that on the highways bill on 19 May.4

Finch’s activity declined as younger men came forward to act as spokesmen for the Court. In the 1663 session he was chiefly concerned with the Declaration of Indulgence, taking the chair of the committee which drafted the address against it. He reported two conferences on priests and Jesuits, for one of which he had acted as chairman in the committee to prepare reasons. With John Kelyng, he was ordered to take care of the prosecution of those responsible for abusing hackney coachmen. On 2 Apr. he reported the King’s message withdrawing the Declaration; he obtained the concurrence of the Upper House to a vote of thanks, with which he, among other Members, attended the King. In an elaborate speech, carefully preserved, he defended the common law against the bill introduced by (Sir) John Bramston to enlarge the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. He was appointed to the committee to bring in the bill restricting office to loyalists, and he was given sole responsibility for bringing in a subsidy bill ‘according to ancient form’, and a clause to assert the royal prerogative of erecting or demolishing fortifications. Marked as a court dependant in 1664, Finch was one of four Members charged with examining the title of the Triennial Act, and he spoke at length, in reply to John Vaughan, in favour of repeal. He was again one of four Members ordered on 30 Mar. to bring in a bill for the better collection of hearth-tax. He was named to the committees for the conventicles and additional corporations bills, and to those to bring in bills for the prevention of profanity and extravagance and for registering conveyances and mortgages (another reform which would have reduced the work available for common lawyers). He was one of the managers of the conference on Dutch depredations on 21 Apr. In October he appeared before the Privy Council on behalf of the Canary merchants who desired a new charter for their company.5

Finch brought in the supply bill in the Oxford session, but owing to an unfortunate lack of liaison on the government side, he denounced as ‘introductive to a commonwealth’ the proposal of Sir George Downing to appropriate the proceeds to the war effort. He spoke in support of the five mile bill and was named to the committee. He exerted himself so much against the proposed ban on foreign cattle (including those imported from Ireland) that he collapsed with nervous exhaustion. He was named to the committee though he continued to oppose the bill on second and third readings. On 24 Oct. 1665 he was instructed to bring in a bill for one month’s assessment for the Duke of York’s benefit, but he does not seem to have done so. A week later he was sent with (Sir) John Berkenhead and Giles Strangways to thank the university for their loyalty, and was created a DCL. The defence of Irish cattle continued in the next session to engage his best efforts. He was again appointed to the committee on the bill, but the effect of his ‘excellent’ speech on 5 Oct. 1666 was lessened when Sir Richard Temple obliged him to withdraw his description of the word ‘nuisance’ as unprecedented in statute. Finch wrote to Ormonde that he had resorted to ‘unreasonable offers’ to defeat the bill, but in vain. On the prohibition of imports from France he helped to manage a conference on 17 Oct. and to prepare reasons for a further conference. With Charlton and (Sir) Edward Thurland he was given special responsibility for a bill to redeem the hearth-tax, and he was one of five Members instructed to bring in a poll bill. Andrew Marvell denounced him as leader of ‘the lawyers’ mercenary band’ in the excise debate. On 10 Dec. he was among those ordered to prepare reasons for a conference on Irish cattle. After Christmas John Milward again found him ‘excellent’ in a conference on the poll bill, which he reported to the Commons. He had been denied permission to appear before the Upper House as counsel for Lord Roos (John Manners), but his name stands first in the committee on the bill to illegitimize Lady Roos’s children. He helped to manage conferences on public accounts and the plague bill, and after attacking the denial of counsel to Lord Mordaunt as ‘of dangerous consequence’, he was added to the impeachment committee.6

The downfall of the lord chancellor, to whom Finch owed his seat, placed him in an awkward position. He helped to draw up the address of thanks, which he thought necessary, and took part in the inquiries into restraints on juries, the miscarriages of the war and the sale of Dunkirk. But his silence was noticed in the House, and the King ordered him to be active in the impeachment of Clarendon. He was among those ordered to search out precedents; but his major speech on 29 Oct. 1667 was little to the taste of the enemies of the fallen minister:

I have said nothing with any design to gratify or serve my Lord Clarendon or any of his relations. ... I am not my lord’s champion, much less a voluntary martyr for him. I have only provided for the peace of my own heart that I may not die with this guilt upon me, of having wanted the courage in a case of blood to speak according to the best of my understanding.

He spoke on most of the articles, pointing out that ‘there was a great mischief in declaring treason by Parliament’. Only the alleged betrayal of secrets to France, he said, must be treason, ‘if you have any inducement to believe it’. He was appointed to draw up reasons for a conference on 16 Nov., but he found the refusal of the Lords to commit Clarendon without specific accusation quite reasonable. ‘No extricating ourselves out of this difficulty’, he said on 2 Dec. ‘but by sending up the articles.’ Two days later he reported the conference on Clarendon’s letter and flight, and helped to draw up reasons for a conference on freedom of speech in Parliament. He was named to the committee on the bill for the banishment and disablement of Clarendon. When the House returned to normal after Christmas, Finch was able to settle his old score with Temple, who in breach of good manners had brought in a triennial bill without leave. He was scandalized at the unprecedented breach of prerogative in the proposal to lay the text of the Triple Alliance before the House. On 18 Mar. 1668 he made ‘a worthy and excellent speech in justification of bishops and their charitable and pious acts’, and in opposition to the proposal to assess them to a subsidy like laymen. Instead, he brought in a bill for raising £100,000 on retailers of wine and brandy. He was appointed to the committee to state the case of restraints on juries on 3 Apr. Although he had appeared as counsel for the defence in Skinner v. the East India Company, he argued ‘most excellently’ against the pretensions of the House of Lords. ‘If a cause be originally tried by the Lords it is barred of all appeal’, he pointed out. ‘The Lords have no power to give a remedy where the law gives none, unless the Commons have a share in that remedy.’7

In the next session Finch carried the House with him in the debate on the conventicles bill, though his reasoning seems specious and unconvincing. But on the next day he was unable to obtain permission for Carteret to be heard by counsel in his defence against charges of irregularity in his accounts:

When the ablest man shall be speechless in the House of Commons, will you put this gentleman to answer for himself, with all his troubles about him? They may say that for him, which he cannot but brokenly and interruptedly say for himself.

Legally, he said, in words which seemed to foreshadow his greatness as a judge, Carteret might be guilty of a misdemeanour, but equitably not. With equal reasonableness he opposed the impeachment of Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle): ‘No man knows, when a spirit of accusation is up, when it will rest again, and he never knew much good done in Parliaments where many impeachments were’. He firmly rejected the claim of the Lords to be the fountain of justice. The Wine Duties Act had not worked well, and on 19 Feb. 1670 Finch was instructed to bring in a new bill to replace it. He drew up reasons for a conference pointing out the absurdity of the Lords’ proviso to the conventicles bill restoring all prerogatives at any time enjoyed by the King or his predecessors, and on 30 Mar. reported the conference and also one on the naturalization bill. A further conference on the privilege of peers under the conventicles bill followed, which he also reported. He acted as chairman for an additional clause to the bill for preventing the surrender of English ships to pirates and on the bill for the sale of fee-farm rents. Though Finch was promoted attorney-general during the summer recess, in the first part of the next session all his speeches were on supply. He was one of six Members instructed to bring in a bill for an additional excise on beer. ‘Would not any man purchase the safety of the kingdom with his blood?’ he asked the House, ‘Will he not do it with his money?’ When it was proposed to defer supply after the assault on Sir John Coventry, he said: ‘Why you should, for an imaginary opinion of the people, set a stop to all things’, he knew not. Nevertheless his was the first name on the committees to bring in the bill for the punishment of the assailants and to consider the Lords’ amendments to it. When the proposal to establish a land registry was revived, he attacked it in committee in a set speech. He helped to prepare reasons for a conference on the subsidy bill on 1 Mar. 1671, and two days later reported a conference on the growth of Popery. But his principal achievement was the final defeat of the Lords’ pretensions to interfere with money bills. He was one of the managers of the conference on 11 Apr., telling the House two days later:

If the Lords can show a precedent that they ever added or took a mite of what the Commons have given the King, they may impose now; and they may exempt themselves, by the same reason, from paying their proportion.

He was ordered to draw up reasons for another conference, and on the last day of the session the House passed a unanimous vote of thanks to him ‘for his great pains and care ... in vindication of their privilege and just and undoubted right of the Commons of England’. His name appeared on both lists of the court party during this session, while an opposition writer described him as

the great framer of all money Acts, which he stuffs with oaths and ruin; the only contriver of the repeal of the Act for Triennial Parliaments; the corrector of all Irish Acts; and hath thereby got £10,000.8

In the turbulent sessions of 1673 Finch and Henry Coventry, ‘who are reckoned to speak as from their places wholly’, were the only debaters on the Court side who could command a hearing. Finch defended the issue of election writs during the recess, which he said had never been challenged before the Long Parliament. He declared that the King’s counsel knew nothing of the Declaration of Indulgence, ‘until it was forth’, agreed that it should never happen again, and was the first Member appointed to draw up an address against it. He was also on the committee to consider a further reply on 25 Feb., but he found some of the expressions in it rather shocking. He reported the conference on the growth of Popery on 6 Mar., and his name stands first on the committee for the test bill. He regarded the bill of ease for Protestant dissenters ‘as a pious thing, to reconcile, and not to establish separation. ... Would not have the dissenters part of the legislative power, till they be of one body with us in doctrine and discipline.’ He reported a conference on the Test and helped to prepare reasons for one on the bill of ease. But he resisted the bill for the general naturalization of Protestant immigrants, bloodsuckers who would starve the poor and destroy the legal system. In October, he advised the House not to protest against the Duke of York’s marriage. ‘It will be in vain to consider of the form of this address, when the matter will not bear one.’ Nevertheless he was named to the committees to draft the address, and to draw up a general test. This was his last session in the Lower House, for on the dismissal of Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury a few days later he was given custody of the great seal and raised to the peerage. He had been named to 245 committees in the Cavalier Parliament and made 47 reports, of which 16 were from conferences and 19 from grand committee. Since the regular reporting of debates began again in 1666, he had made about 130 speeches.9

The government at this juncture has been described as a triumvirate, consisting of Lord Treasurer Latimer (Sir Thomas Osborne), Speaker Edward Seymour, and Finch, who was presumably cast for the role of Lepidus. His interest in the Lower House, mainly with lawyers and chancery officials, was at Latimer’s disposal, and he strongly supported the non-resisting test in 1675, though his request to their lordships not to ‘trifle away their time’ hardly helped to advance it. But if he was only a second-grade figure in the world of high politics, his legal eminence is unquestioned, and his nine years at the head of his profession marked a revolution in equity, to which he gave for the first time intelligible and permanent principles. His courtesy to junior counsel is vouched for by no less a Whig than John Somers. While Shaftesbury marked him ‘thrice vile’ in 1677, William Sacheverell went out of his way to express his esteem and respect. When Latimer (now Earl of Danby) was sent to the Tower in 1679, Finch was reckoned more his friend than any other minister. Though he refused to seal his pardon, he was censured by the Upper House for remarking—with a considerable divergence from the truth—that the King ‘always supports the creatures of his power’, and he argued for the right of the bishops to vote in capital cases. But in the Privy Council he gave the lead in speaking ‘long and violently’ against the King’s decision to dissolve the first Exclusion Parliament, and six months later ‘he spoke so earnestly against the prorogation’ of its successor ‘that his Majesty commanded him to desist’. He voted against exclusion and supported a policy of limitations; but as lord high steward he delivered the death sentence on Lord Stafford in what Burnet considered one of the best speeches he ever made. At Oxford he found legal grounds for the rejection of Fitzharris’s impeachment, and was made an Earl a few weeks later. He died on 18 Dec. 1682 and was buried at Ravenstone.10

Finch’s reputation among lawyers has always been of the highest, but he has not fared so well at the hands of historians, though they have noted his remarkable continuity of office and immunity from attack in a time of passion and intrigue. ‘In the midst of a corrupt court’, wrote Macaulay, ‘he had kept his personal integrity unsullied.’ His family life was exceptional, his marriage a real partnership, and he guided his children (who all turned out well) through the use of praise rather than terror. Burnet described him as

a man of probity and well-versed in the law; but very ill-bred, and both vain and haughty. He was long much admired for his eloquence, but it was both laboured and affected, and he saw it as much despised before he died. ... He was an incorrupt judge, and in his court he could resist the strongest applications from the King himself, though he did it nowhere else.

The last assertion is disproved by Finch’s conduct over the impeachment of Clarendon and the handling of Parliament in 1679. It has been suggested (with hindsight) that his condemnation of Stafford was due to fear, but there is no reason to suppose that Finch believed him innocent. He was not a maker of policy, but during 22 years of continuous ministerial office it is hard to trace any serious deviation from his principles of loyalty to the Church and respect for the prerogative.