WRIGHT, Robert (c.1634-89), of Wiggenhall St. German, Norf.
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Family and Education
b. c.1634, 1st s. of Jermyn Wright of Wangford, Suff. by Anne, da. and coh. of Richard Butchcroft of Bexwell, Norf. educ. Thetford and Bury St. Edmunds g.s.; Peterhouse, Camb. 1 Apr. 1651, aged 17, BA 1658, MA 1661; L. Inn 1654, called 1661. m. (1) bef. 1660, Dorothy (d.1662), da. and h. of Thomas Moore of Wiggenhall St. German, s.p.; (2) Susan, da. of Matthew Wren, bp. of Ely, 1s. 4da.; (3) bef. 1678, Anne, da of Sir William Scroggs of South Weald, Essex, l.c.j.K.b. 678-81, 1s. Kntd. 15 May 1680; suc. fa. 1681.1
Commr. for assessment, Thetford Sept. 1660-1, Suff. 1663-79, Norf. 1677-9, Cambridge Univ. 1679-80; j.p. Isle of Ely 1666-89, Norf. 1671-89, Cambs. 1679-89, Cambridge 1679, Suff. 1680-d.; freeman, King’s Lynn 1668; bencher, L. Inn 1675; counsel, Cambridge Univ. 1678-81; dep. recorder, Cambridge 1679, recorder 1685-Oct. 1688; c.j. Brecon circuit 1681-4.2
Counsel for the navy by 1669-81; serjeant-at-law 1679, King’s serjeant 1680-4; baron of the Exchequer 27 Oct. 1684-5; j.K.b. 1685-7, l.c.j. 1687-9; commr. for ecclesiastical causes 1686-Oct. 1688.3
Wright came from a widespread minor gentry family which had held manorial property in East Anglia since the early 16th century. His father avoided involvement in the Civil War. Wright himself was ‘a comely person, airy and flourishing, both in his habits and way of living’, and always highly successful with women. His first marriage brought him an estate four miles from King’s Lynn, valued at £1,000 p.a. when he was proposed as one of the knights of the Royal Oak. His second marriage was equally advantageous, since his father-in-law, the bishop of Ely, was able to bring many briefs his way on the Norfolk circuit; though, according to Roger North, ‘he was so poor a lawyer that he could not give an opinion on a written case, but used to bring such cases as came to him to his friend, Mr [Francis] North, [who] wrote the opinion on a paper, and the lawyer copied and signed under the case as if it had been his own’.4
Wright easily defeated a country candidate at a by-election for Lynn in 1668, and probably became an active Member of the Cavalier Parliament. He was appointed to at least 56 committees, including those to prepare the impeachments of (Sir) William Penn and Henry Brouncker in his first session. From 1670 he cannot always be distinguished from the merchant John Wright, who belonged to the country party; but he may have served on a further 117 committees, including many concerned with the law. He testified to the Protestantism of Samuel Pepys in 1673, and made two speeches on legal matters in the same session. As counsel to the navy, he was appointed to the committees for the appropriation bills. His name appeared on the Paston list of 1673-4. On 20 Nov. 1675 he acted as teller for the adjournment, the prelude to the prorogation on the following day. He was listed as a placeman and included on the working lists. (Sir) Joseph Williamson hoped that he would develop into a speaker, Sir Richard Wiseman listed him as a court supporter, and Shaftesbury marked him ‘doubly vile’. In 1677-8 he took the chair for four estate bills, including one promoted by his colleague Robert Coke. He was one of the Members instructed to thank Dr Sprat for his sermon on the anniversary of Charles I’s execution in 1678. He was teller for the adjournment of the debate on pensions on 18 June, and against the adjournment of the debate on supply a week later. In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament he came under suspicion of involvement in the Popish Plot. On 31 Oct. 1678 the Speaker told the House that Coleman had visited Wright’s lodgings shortly before his arrest. A search of his chambers was ordered, and when (Sir) Edmund Wyndham reported that no papers of Coleman’s had been found, Wright protested:
I hope the House hath opinion of me that I am a Protestant, and not a Papist. It is hard that a man should have his papers searched. I have many clients and such reflections may ruin me. I hope you will be pleased to justify me in this matter, that I may not lie under reflection.
The House passed a resolution clearing him of any connexion with the Plot. Nevertheless, he acted as surety for Coleman, for which he later sought compensation out of the estate. In A Seasonable Argument, he was described as a pensioner of Pepys, who ‘has 40s. a day allowed him by the seamen as their counsel, but uses them as he does the nation, viz betrays them’. As one of the ‘unanimous club’, he applied unsuccessfully to the corporation for reelection in 1679.5
At this time Wright was in financial difficulties owing to his ‘voluptuous, unthinking course of life’, having mortaged his estate to Sir Francis North for £1,500, and borrowed a further £500 on the same estate by giving ‘an affidavit that it was clear of all incumbrances’. His third father-in-law obtained a Welsh judgeship for him, and he attached himself to Judge Jeffreys, whom he entertained with imitations of his colleagues. Despite North’s opposition, he was made a high court judge, accompanying Jeffreys on the Bloody Assizes in 1685, and became lord chief justice when his patron went to the wool-sack. In October 1687, as a member of the ecclesiastical commission, he was one of the three visitors sent to Oxford to deal with the fellows of Magdalen College, when Barillon described him as ‘a very firm man, entirely attached to the interest of his Majesty’, adding that ‘they cannot find a Catholic capable of undertaking the work’. As a member of this commission, he ruled that the Declaration of Indulgence was legal and obligatory on all subjects. He presided at the trial of the Seven Bishops in 1688, when he angered Jeffreys by not securing the verdict of guilty. Thomas Bruce commented that at first ‘he behaved himself with modesty [but] for want of talent his head turned round, and he had the misfortune to displease both sides’. In December, as William of Orange approached London, printed articles for his impeachment on charges of high treason were dispersed, including not only his defence of the dispensing power and proceedings at Oxford, but his removal of William Lenthall from his office, his conduct of the trial of the Earl of Devonshire (William Cavendish), and his notorious venality. On 10 Jan. 1689 he wrote to Danby:
I am sensible of the great accusations against me ... but I beseech your Lordship to consider that I never advised any of those fatal counsels, nor assisted any other ways than as one unwillingly gotten into a round is pressed along by the force of it, against his own inclinations. My Lord, I always hated Popery, and can give your Lordship instances of it, hazardous enough to myself and fortune. ... I am as heartily ready to serve the Prince and your Lordship in the establishment of the Protestant religion as any man whosoever and will shew it upon all occasions when I may.
Getting no encouragement from that quarter, he went into hiding, but he was seized on 13 Feb. and sent to Newgate, where he died of gaol fever on 18 May. He was excepted by name from the bill of indemnity after his death. Wangford was sold to his successor, Sir John Holt, and his son Robert emigrated to South Carolina, where he became chief justice. No other member of the family entered Parliament.6
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Geoffrey Jaggar
- 1. Blomefield, Norf. i. 544-5; ix. 195; Copinger, Suff. Manors, iv. 207.
- 2. Lynn Freemen, 175; C. H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii. 578; W. R. Williams, Gt. Sessions in Wales, 140-1.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1668-9, p. 574; Cat. Pepysian Mss (Navy Recs. Soc. lvii), 325, 647.
- 4. Blomefield, i. 544; North, Lives, i. 324.
- 5. Grey, ii. 427; vi. 125-8; CJ, ix. 393, 397, 406, 419, 433, 453, 524-5; CSP Dom. 1679-80, p. 163.
- 6. CSP Dom. 1689-90, pp. 1-2; North, i. 324-6; Add. 28053, f. 382; HMC 7th Rep. 420; Luttrell, i. 502, 530, 554; PRO31/3, bdle. 168, f. 177; bdle. 173, f. 311; Ailesbury Mems. 171; Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxii), 193.