NORTH, Hon. Roger (1653-1734), of the Middle Temple and Rougham, Norf.
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Family and Education
b. 3 Sept. 1653, 6th s. of Sir Dudley North I, 4th Lord North; bro. of Sir Dudley North II and Sir Francis North. educ. Bury St. Edmunds g.s.; Thetford g.s. to 1666; Jesus, Camb. 1667-8; M. Temple 1669, called 1674. m. 26 May 1696, Mary, da. of Sir Robert Gayer of Stoke Poges, Bucks., 2s. 5da.1
Freeman, Lyme Regis 1675, Dunwich 1683; steward to the see of Canterbury 1679-90; bencher and reader, M. Temple 1682, treas. 1683-4; asst. Banbury 1683 Oct. 1688; recorder, Bristol 1685-Oct. 1688.2
KC 1682; solicitor-gen. to the Duke of York 1684-5; solicitor-gen. to Queen Mary of Modena Feb.-Oct 1685, attorney-gen. Oct. 1685 Dec. 1688; chairman, committee of ways and means 19 Nov. 1685.3
North made his career in the law like his brother Francis, who became chief justice of the common pleas in 1675. ‘It was no less a preferment to me’, he later wrote, ‘for the favourite’s place, as they term it in Westminster Hall, was considerable.’ He was immediately called to the bar ex gratia, his practice prospered, and in 1679 he was made steward to the see of Canterbury, which brought him the friendship of Archbishop Sancroft, whom he assisted in his reform of All Souls’ College, Oxford. In 1682 ‘my brother got me made of the King’s counsel, which let me in to advanced fees, and a more considerable post in practice, especially in the Chancery, when I came to settle there’. He was ordered to assist the attorney-general, (Sir) Robert Sawyer, in state trials, notably those that followed the Rye House Plot, ‘for the more steady conduct of the King’s law business’. After his brother became lord keeper, his own professional income rose to £4,000 p.a. ‘I made myself a piece of a courtier,’ he wrote, ‘and commonly on Sundays went to Whitehall’, and in 1684 the Duke of York appointed him his attorney-general. Later in the year there was even a rumour that he would succeed Sir Hugh Wyndham as a judge. In the new reign he became solicitor-general to the Queen. By his own account:
All these steps were without my making court: my brother obtained them, and I had only to kiss the King and Queen’s hands. Jeffreys once told me that there were endeavours to put me by but that he stood my friend, and then ranted at the unreasonableness of the attempt. He might say true for aught I knew, but I was about that time told he had in other places ranted against the Norths, that nothing could happen or fall but a North was presently to be considerable as if they had a monopoly of preferment.4
North, together with Henry Bedingfield, was responsible for the surrender of the Dunwich charter, and he was returned unopposed for the borough at the general election of 1685 by ‘the interest of the neighbouring gentlemen’. He eschewed treating, but promised £10 at Christmas to the poor. A very active Member of James II’s Parliament, he was appointed to 20 committees, including that to recommend expunctions from the Journals, and carried three bills to the Upper House. Although indignantly refusing the fee offered by Edward Meller, he persuaded the Commons on 2 June to reverse their decision to deny leave for the introduction of his estate bill, and was named to the committee. Although he had opposed the bill for the suppression of hawkers and pedlars, he was appointed to the committee. On the report stage he brought in a clause that justices at sessions might license housekeepers to travel and sell within ten miles, but it was rejected.
But I was not wanting to acquaint the lords of my acquaintance, and particularly my brother, of what was coming, who was against it, and the House of Lords threw it out, which much angered my opponents, who ascribed more influence in the matter to me than I was guilty of, though I confess I did all I could within and without the House to prevent them, and was moved in it by pure zeal for poor men, and the benefit of the ordinary housekeepers who were to be oppressed by corporations.
On 16 June he opposed the motion for a bill to naturalize all Protestant refugees, on the grounds that a general naturalization ‘made no distinction, the scum of all Europe might come and be officers and juries’. The effect was to delay the introduction of the bill, which was much disliked at Court, but not to kill it, as North implies. He was among those ordered to bring in a tax on new buildings and to estimate its yield. On 22 June, at the desire of his neighbours in the House, he introduced a bill for the improvement of tillage. On the committee, to which he was the first to be named,
some suspecting a trick of the City of London, whose friend (or rather retainer) they took me to be, gave me trouble, which the interested soon removed. But I was so angry as almost to resolve not to meddle any more in such matters, but my friends, not being spokesmen, set me upon the part, as belonging to my trade.
He was among those instructed to draft a clause forbidding any motions in either House to alter the succession to the throne. He took the chair for the bill to encourage ship-building, and carried it to the Lords on 27 June. Two days later he was ordered with Thomas Christie to assist William Wogan in drafting a bill for registering the deaths, burials, marriages and issue of the nobility and gentry. He spoke ‘so long and so warm’ against the bill to establish a land registry, although he agreed with it in principle, that ‘the House thought fit to order a committee to meet during the recess and to prepare a bill upon the debate, and recommended me to take care of it’. On 1 July he returned the tillage bill to the Lords and was appointed to the committee for the general naturalization bill, which had at last reached its second reading.5
During the recess the lord keeper died, and North himself was promoted to the post of attorney-general to the Queen. Nevertheless when Parliament reassembled he took a more independent line, by his own account, though supporting the fiscal policy of his other brother, Dudley:
As much a courtier as I was, I joined with the Church of England party to maintain the laws and religion established. I voted with those who were against the Court in the article of the dispensing power. But on the matter of money, which was but a trifle—a halfpenny per lb. on tobacco and a farthing on sugar—I was tooth and nail for the King.
On the eve of the reassembly of Parliament he summoned the committee for the land registry bill, consisting of
able Parliament men and very affectionate, as I thought, to the cause. But (oh wonder!) not one would meddle with the matter: they would not hear the bill read, nor look upon an abstract, but were all full of fears and jealousies of I know not what. So that I could not then imagine what had fixed my committee; but I put up my papers and drank my glass and so we parted. Afterwards I was told the secret that they had it insinuated amongst them that the King must name the officers, who would be popishly affected (at least), and so the Papists would have an account of all the estates in England.
During the supply debates he told the House: ‘If we provide for the army but one year, ’twill keep up the hearts of the rebels’. As chairman of ways and means during the absence of the Hon. Heneage Finch I he found that
there was much noise and importunity upon the wording of the questions, which I always took as the court party worded, and then would be the noise of a bear garden on the other side. But I carried it through and was well backed, and though I did not this with so much art as an old Parliament stager would, yet it pleased the managers for the Court, who loved to see their measures advanced, right or wrong.
Presumably North’s services to the Court in the chair were allowed (most exceptionally) to outweigh his defection in the lobby over the employment of Roman Catholic officers, since he retained his post for the remainder of the reign.6
At the age of 32, North’s career had already reached its apogee. His legal practice declined when he was exposed to the full force of Jeffreys’s hostility. He was an earnest student of architecture, acted as executor of Sir Peter Lely, and became an accomplished and enthusiastic musician. At Court, however,
the times began to grow sour, all favour leaned towards the Catholics and such as prostituted to that interest. We who were steady to the laws and the Church were worst looked upon, and I could perceive at the King’s levee and at the Queen’s court I was looked upon with an evil discouraging eye, which made me forbear. I thought my person was no agreeable object, and it was better court to keep it away.