SOMERS, John (1651-1716), of Severn Stoke, Worcs. and Pump Court, Middle Temple.
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Family and Education
b. 4 Mar. 1651, o.s. of John Somers, attorney, of White Ladies, Claines by Catherine, da. of John Severne of Powick. educ. King’s, Worcester; Sheriff Hales, Staffs. (Mr Woodhouse); Walsall g.s. Staffs.; Trinity, Oxf. 1667; M. Temple 1669, called 1676. unm. suc. fa. 1681; kntd. 31 Oct. 1689; cr. Baron Somers 2 Dec. 1697.1
Standing counsel to dean and chapter, Worcester 1681; j.p. Worcs. July 1688-d., commr. for assessment, Worcs. and Worcester 1689-90, M. Temple 1690; freeman, Worcester Sept. 1688, Nov. 1688-d., Gloucester 1691-d.; custos rot. Worcs. 1715-d.2
Solicitor-gen. 1689-92; bencher, M. Temple 1689, reader 1690, treas. 1690-1; commr. for preventing export of wool 1689-92; chairman, committee of ways and means 21 Nov. 1689-93, supply committee 1690-3; attorney-gen. 1692-3; PC 23 Mar. 1693-Mar. 1702, 25 Nov. 1708-d., ld. pres. 1708-10; ld. keeper 1693-7; one of the lds. justices 1695-9; ld. chancellor 1697-1700; commr. for union with Scotland 1706.
FRS 1698, pres. 1698-1703.
Somers’s ancestors had resided as tenants of a small property two miles north of Worcester since Elizabethan times. His father supported Parliament during the Civil War and served as under-sheriff in 1651, but he was too obscure even to sit on the county committee. With ‘all the learning necessary to his profession, and a great deal more in other professions’, Somers became a barrister. With ‘great capacities for business, he was modest and gentle to a high degree’. When an exclusionist pamphlet drafted by the republican Algernon Sidney proved unsuitable, Somers was asked to replace it, and he may have produced two others in 1680-1, though Burnet admits that they ‘made no great effect’. With his friend George Treby he was responsible for the publication of Coleman’s letters. By 1686 he was earning £700 p.a. at the bar, and figured on the list of opposition lawyers ‘considerable for parts’. Though he was one of the dissenters appointed to the county bench in the spring of 1688, he acted as junior counsel for the Seven Bishops, making a brief but effective speech. He was still regarded as a Whig collaborator, nevertheless, for Sunderland recommended him as one of the court candidates for Droitwich, and both the King’s electoral agents and private commentators reported favourably on his ‘character and interest’ at Worcester. On the restoration of the London charter in October he declined the recordership, doubtless in deference to Treby’s claims; but he accepted the same office at Worcester, which two months later elected him to the Convention.3
Somers played a prominent part in the revolution settlement. A very active Member of the Convention, he was appointed to 85 committees, in nine of which he took the chair, and made thirteen recorded speeches. Notes for some of his speeches survive, together with a parliamentary diary for 28-29 Jan. 1689, greatly superior to that kept by Anchitell Grey. For his own speech on the state of the throne he had carefully prepared all the arguments that determined the issue; though what his hearers chiefly retained was his elaborate historical comparison with the expulsion of the Roman Catholic King Sigismund from Sweden in 1599. Sigismund, he said
went but into another [of] his kingdoms, that of Poland; whereas King James is not gone into Scotland nor into Ireland, but, when he was at liberty to go whither he pleased, he chose to go to that place which of any in the world is most averse to the interest of England. ... But before he went away he did utterly incapacitate himself to be our king, for how could he be supreme head of our Church who submitted himself to another, a foreign head?
The effect was somewhat marred by a procedural blunder caused by his inexperience of parliamentary business, which obliged him to resume his seat in mid-sentence. He helped to prepare reasons for insisting that James had abdicated, and made a great impression at the conference on 6 Feb.:
The King, by subverting the constitution and breaking the original contract betwixt King and people, and by violating the fundamental laws and withdrawing himself out of the kingdom, had renounced to be ... such a King as he swore to be at the coronation, such a King to whom the allegiance of the English subjects is due.
Unfortunately the precedent on which he chiefly relied turned out to have been annulled, and he had to be rescued by Treby. He served under Treby in the committee which produced a list of essentials for securing religion, laws, and liberties, and the rapidity with which he gained prestige in the House is shown by his election to the chair for transforming the list into the declaration of rights. When the Lords sent down a bill to prevent disputes concerning the legality of the present Parliament, Somers answered Tory objections to the irregularity of the election writs with great spirit. ‘If this was not a legal Parliament, they who were then met and had taken the oaths enacted by that Parliament were guilty of high treason.’ He was the only eminent Whig lawyer to declare that the revenue lapsed with a demise of the crown. On 1 Mar. 1689 he brought in a bill for better regulating the Exchequer, and he was named to the committees for the suspension of habeas corpus, for the inquiry into the quo warranto proceedings, for drawing up the bill of rights and succession, for bringing in a mutiny bill, and for devising the new oaths. He sought unsuccessfully to persuade the House that the new monarchs should swear to maintain the Church ‘as it is, or shall be, by law established’, and he was anxious to enforce the oath of allegiance on the clergy. As one of the managers of the conference of 22 Apr. he told the Lords: ‘It concerns the Government to know who the persons are that doubt owning the Government’. He supported the address for war with France, ‘a perpetual enemy by interest and inclination’. He took the chair for the bill to enable the executors of Henry Coventry to sell his Piccadilly house. During April Somers was much concerned with drafting supply bills, and on the last day of the month was sent to inform the Lords of the concurrence of the Lower House in their amendments.4
On Treby’s promotion to attorney-general on 4 May, Somers succeeded him as solicitor general. When it was proposed on the third reading of the bill of rights to safeguard the hereditary succession, he objected that such a proviso ‘would bring a suspicion upon what you have done’. He brought in a credit clause for the subsidy bill and chaired a committee for limiting the validity of the book of rates to three years. He was appointed to the committees to inquire into the delay in relieving Londonderry and to consider a bill to regulate the Droitwich salt-works. He helped to prepare reasons for conferences on the succession and on the conviction of Titus Oates, and reported the conference of 29 July, which he was ordered to enter in the Journals. On 9 Aug. he was sent to remind the Lords of the attainder and militia bills. After the recess he and Treby were ordered to bring in a bill of pains and penalties and a bill to indemnify those who had acted in the Revolution. When the country Whigs demanded to know who was responsible for the appointment of Commissary Shales, he asked them: ‘Do you not give great advantages to those about the King to tell him that the Commons go beyond the bounds of his dignity?’ As chairman of ways and means he carried up the bill for the two shillings aid on 11 Dec. Although he regarded the revenue proposed for Princess Anne as excessive, he helped to prepare the address. He took the chair in both sessions for the bill to restore corporations, which he reported on 2 Jan. 1690. He supported the disabling clause, denying that it would permit entry to the corporations to any except Anglicans. Nor was it penal in its effects. ‘There is no possible inconvenience in this proviso’, he asserted; ‘you will have better men and unspotted men in their stead.’ He took the chair for the bill to secure Irish Protestants, which he carried up on 14 Jan. Still hoping to drive the Tories out of public life, he supported the bill to impose a general oath of allegiance, and was named to the committee. In the debate on the indemnity bill on the same day he said:
It is absolutely necessary that some should be punished for vindicating the King’s honour and to justify without doors what we have done. ... If you will have the world see the crimes you have punished you ought to leave it to the committee. State the heads, and leave it to them to adapt persons to it.5
Somers was re-elected in 1690, but his meteoric rise to the head of his profession removed him from the Commons after only three years. Despite his plebeian origins, he became one of the lords of the Whig junto. An indefatigable voluptuary, he died intestate of paralysis on 26 Apr. 1716 at the Hertfordshire house which he had bought from Andrew Fountaine, and was buried at North Mimms. The last of his family, he had added little to the £300 p.a. which he had inherited. The peerage was revived for his sister’s grandson, Charles Cocks†, in 1784.6
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: Edward Rowlands
- 1. DNB.
- 2. W. L. Sachse, Lord Somers, 20, 25, 67, 313; Worcester chamber order bk. 1679-1721, pp. 35, 51.
- 3. Nash, Worcs. ii. 54, 345; Townshend’s Diary (Worcs. Hist. Soc.), ii. 271; Sachse, 2, 20, 25; Burnet Supp. ed. Foxcroft, 382; Grey, viii. 2; Burnet, ii. 289, 302; CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 275.
- 4. Simpson thesis, 94, 173, 384-91; IHR Bull. xlix. 257; Clarke, Jas. II, ii. 297; Macaulay, Hist. 1296, 1300, 1343; Burnet ed. Routh, iv. 75; CJ, x. 23, 105.
- 5. Grey, ix. 241, 456, 498, 517, 541-2; CJ, x. 163, 233, 240, 246-51, 275, 298, 312, 319, 338; Simpson thesis, 393.
- 6. Sachse, 68; Clutterbuck, Herts. i. 464; Nash, ii. 55.