EYRE, Robert (c.1667-1735), of New House, Whiteparish, Wilts.
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Family and Education
b. c.1667, 1st s. of Sir Samuel Eyre of New House, j.Kb, by Martha, da. and coh. of Francis Lucy of Westminster and Brightwalton, Berks. educ. Lincoln, Oxf. 1683; L. Inn 1683, called 1690, bencher 1707, treasurer 1709. m. 6 Dec. 1694 (with £4,000), Elizabeth (d. 1724), da. of Edward Rudge* and sis. of John Rudge*, 3s. 1da. suc. fa. 1698; kntd. 6 May 1710.1
Dep. recorder, Salisbury 1693–5, recorder 1695–d.; recorder, Southampton 1703–23; recorder and alderman, Bristol 1704–28; gov. Charterhouse by 1723–d.2
QC 1707, solicitor-gen. 1708–May 1710; j.Qb May 1710–Nov. 1723, serjeant-at-law 1710; chancellor to Prince of Wales 1714–?27; commr. for building 50 new churches 1715; l.c. baron of the Exchequer Nov. 1723–May 1725; l.c.j.c.p. May 1725–d.
Eyre’s father had purchased New House, six miles south-east of Salisbury, in 1660, although his family had been established in Wiltshire since before the reign of Edward II. This longstanding association with Salisbury helped Eyre first to the recordership, succeeding his second cousin Sir Giles Eyre†, and then to a seat in Parliament. Like Sir Giles’s son John*, who also entered the Commons for the first time in 1698, Eyre began as a Country Whig, classed as a member of the Country party in a comparison of the old and new Parliaments, and forecast as a probable supporter of the disbanding bill, which at any rate he did not vote against. The Journals often fail to distinguish between the cousins, or between them and the Nottinghamshire Member, Gervase Eyre, although most references in the Journals were probably to Robert as a prominent lawyer. The importance of the clothing industry in Salisbury makes Robert the most likely of the three to have managed through the House the bill for the improvement of the woollen manufactures and the restoration of Blackwell Hall which he reported on 4 Mar. 1699. Two days later he was given indefinite leave of absence. When the Blackwell Hall bill was revived in the following session he was again probably the ‘Mr Eyre’ who managed it through the House, chairing a committee of the whole on 22 Dec. 1699 and, following the report, telling on 10 Jan. 1700 in favour of retaining some words in the bill, but it again fell in the Lords. Also connected with the clothing trade in Salisbury was his appointment to a petition from his constituency on 14 Dec. arguing for the repeal of a recent Act preventing the import of lace, from which he reported favourably on the 20th, only for the House to recommit the report. He spoke on 13 Dec. 1699, his first known intervention, in defence of his friend Bishop Burnet’s being continued governor to the Duke of Gloucester.3
Surviving a contest in January 1701, Eyre was probably first-named on 21 Feb. 1701 to draft yet another bill restoring Blackwell Hall, which was never presented. Robert Harley* classed him with the Whigs in December 1701. Although he was the only ‘Eyre’ in the House during this session, his single significant contribution to this Parliament was to present a private relief bill relating to the Irish forfeited estates.
With Gervase Eyre also present during the first two sessions of the Parliament elected in 1702, it is impossible to distinguish him from his namesake in the 1702–3 session. As a parliamentary lawyer with a growing reputation he was probably the ‘Mr Eyre’ named to the committee of 10 Dec. 1702 to redraw the Lords’ amendments to the occasional conformity bill, before being granted a week’s leave of absence on 8 Jan. 1703. He was present on 13 Feb. to vote in favour of agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill for enlarging the time for taking the oath of abjuration. Three days later a ‘Mr Eyre’ acted as a teller for a rider to the militia bill. In the following session he was probably the ‘Mr Eyre’ who presented two bills: to develop properties in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (17 Jan. 1704) and to place promissory notes on the same legal footing as bills of exchange (2 Feb.). With the death of Gervase Eyre, his activity is much easier to detail for the 1704–5 session, when his only task of importance was to manage through the Commons the reintroduced bill to extend the security of bills of exchange. An opponent of the Tack, according to a forecast in October 1704, he did not vote for it on 28 Nov.
Classed as ‘Low Church’ in a list of the 1705 Parliament, Eyre divided for the Court candidate in the contest for the Speakership on 25 Oct. The return of John Eyre to the Commons again makes identification of ‘Mr Eyre’ uncertain. Robert was one of the foremost Country Whig agitators in the struggle over the regency bill. Believing in the necessity of the measure (he spoke on 15 Jan. 1706 in favour of maintaining the arrangements it laid down for summoning Parliament after the Queen’s death), he opposed Ralph Freman II’s motion on 12 Jan. for an instruction to the committee to insert a clause to secure the provisions of the Act of Settlement because this would ‘obstruct the bill’. In any case, he believed a total exclusion of office-holders too sweeping, and especially in the circumstances for which the bill was designed: there were the consequences of ‘150 new elections’ to consider, as well as the fact that, in a House from which many of the more prominent Members had been purged, they would find ‘none to inform you of the state of the nation but burg[esses] not knowing anything’. He supported, however, a modified instruction to ‘regulate’ the arrangements in the Act, the origin of the so-called ‘whimsical clause’. In his view, if ‘reason’ determined Members’ voting a ‘self-denying bill’ would pass easily, but ‘reason [did] not always prevail’, and this method was therefore the only way to secure some exclusion of placemen: ‘the regency bill has such friends as will see it pass with a reasonable instruction’. He it was who on 21 Jan. brought in the amending clause, and he was busy in that day’s debate, speaking for the clause and warding off Court-inspired attempts to adjourn discussion. His principal argument seems to have been that the clause would ‘preserve the constitution’ and the influence of the ‘gent[lemen] of England’ from the encroachments of ‘pensioners’. So closely was he identified with the clause that his desertion from the ‘whimsicals’ on 18 Feb. to vote for the Court’s compromise provoked Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt.*, to write to another leading ‘whimsical’, James Stanhope*, who had already left town:
Ro[bert] Eyre, unknown to Peter King* and I . . . had treacherous made at my Lord Halifax’s [Charles Montagu*] this bargain, and in the most audacious as well as infamous manner that ever was seen in that House gave up his cause, his friends and himself . . . had you been here . . . [he] had preserved his honour.
To Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony, Lord Ashley*) Cropley was equally scathing: ‘Ro[bert] Eyre, to his eternal infamy (can never show his face more), gave up the clause, and you know what giving up a question is, in a manner beyond all instances of that kind ever seen in the House’. A case can be made for Eyre as a consistent supporter both of the regency bill and a limited or ‘reasonable’ exclusion of officers, who colluded at last with the Junto in order to secure at least a partial success for the place clause while at the same time saving the bill, though the evidence of his subsequent career and the critical opinion of his friends, the cooler scepticism of Stanhope as well as Cropley’s wrath, would suggest a more cynical interpretation. However, despite Cropley’s prognostications, Eyre did not lose his reputation forever among Country Whigs. Indeed, he retained, or won back, Shaftesbury’s confidence enough to be named a beneficiary under the Earl’s will and one of the guardians of his heir.4
The episode of the regency bill may be regarded as a turning point in Eyre’s career, though he had been reported in early September as being on the point of death. Perhaps his health was slow to improve, for while he was instructed by Salisbury corporation on the bill to establish a nightly watch there, it is by no means certain that he and not John Eyre was named to other important committees during the session. In May came his first step on the ladder of preferment, as Queen’s Counsel, the first fruits of which were doubtless not what he had expected: going the western circuit he sustained a broken arm when his coach overturned. His change of tack in national politics seems to have been paralleled at this time by a similar shift locally. In backing the efforts of the Tory Charles Fox* to obtain a new charter for Salisbury, he came into conflict with his own former supporters, who accused him of neglecting ‘his true interests’ and dividing the Whig party in the city. Perhaps because he considered the preferment he had received to be inadequate and felt obliged to remind ministers of his capacity for mischief, he began the 1707–8 session in opposition, but came over to the Court in December in the debate on the Scottish privy council. On 20 Dec. he was one of those nominated to invite Dr Eyres to preach before the Commons and on 7 Jan. 1708 he was ordered to draft a bill to alter the Regency Act. By the time of Harley’s fall in February 1708 Eyre was numbered among the ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whigs’. He was thought likely to be made solicitor-general in the consequent ministerial reshuffle, and apropos of his and Henry Boyle’s* likely advancement Thomas Johnson* observed, ‘the staunch Whigs come in, for you know these were often against the Court in King William’s time’. Queen Anne’s refusal to sanction the promotion of (Sir) James Montagu I* to be attorney-general obstructed Eyre’s ambition, though both Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) and the Queen herself would have been happy with his own nomination. In April it was being said that Eyre ‘has the first promise of attorney or solicitor, as either shall become vacant’, and the following month Anne, in proposing an alternative scheme of legal appointments, pencilled in his name for the solicitor-generalship. Throughout the summer the struggle for Montagu’s acceptance continued, with Eyre a frustrated spectator. Meanwhile he was consulted by Bishop Nicolson in February 1708 over Tory objections to the cathedrals bill, was classed as a Whig in two parliamentary lists, and in May secured his re-election at Salisbury unopposed.5
Eyre was eventually confirmed as solicitor in October 1708, necessitating another election which passed again without a contest. He was diplomatically absent on one occasion in January 1709 when the controversial Abingdon election case was decided, but was otherwise as active in the House as his official position demanded. Fortunately, he is now identifiable in the Journals, under his official designation, and, as befitted a law officer, was much involved in legislative matters. Thus he was named to 11 drafting committees, but took little part in the management of the resultant bills through the House. He is known to have voted for one of these, the general naturalization bill, and in April he spoke in favour of another, the bill to amend the Scottish treason laws. During 1709 he subscribed some £2,000 to the Bank.
The 1709–10 session was Eyre’s most important in the Commons. He was named to nine drafting committees, including five relating to supply. He also managed three other bills through the House: the mutiny bill; a recruitment bill; and the bill to secure the government. Most important, however, was his role in the Sacheverell impeachment. He was included among those ordered to draw up the articles of impeachment, which became the committee charged with prosecuting the case. His initial advice had been against this procedure, and he had advocated instead the ‘short way’ of summoning the doctor to the Commons on a charge of showing contempt for the resolution of 1705 that the Church was not ‘in danger’. By this means Whig MPs could have ensured a vote for ‘burning the sermon, and keeping him in prison during the session’. Once impeachment had been decided upon, however, Eyre voted for it and carried out his duties as a manager punctiliously, if without any great zeal. Burnet certainly thought that he had ‘distinguished himself’ in his two contributions to the presentation of the Commons’ case. On 28 Feb. 1710 he spoke to the first article, his task being to show, by close scrutiny of the text of the sermon that Sacheverell had indeed denied that an act of resistance had occurred at the Revolution. When he departed from textual analysis his main concern was to defend not a right of resistance in general but the particular acts of resistance in the peculiar circumstances of 1688, when in his view the very foundations of the constitution had been threatened. Perhaps his most original argument was the one used to counter Sacheverell’s claim that resistance was against the laws of the land, when he pointed out, with some sarcasm, that ‘it can never be supposed, that the laws were made to set up a despotic power to destroy the laws themselves, and to warrant the subversion of a constitution of government which they were designed to establish and defend’. His main point, though, was that any denial of the right of resistance rendered illegal not just the Revolution but all that had flowed from it. To cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Revolution ‘strikes . . . directly at the present establishment’ and ‘must certainly shake’ the authority of ‘that Act of Parliament whereby the crown is settled on her Majesty’, and, obviously, the Protestant succession as well. He did not accuse Sacheverell and other proponents of non-resistance directly of Jacobitism, but such was the unmistakable innuendo: it was no coincidence, he suggested, following Sir Joseph Jekyll, that the recent revival of these doctrines dated from the invasion attempt of 1708. Nevertheless a Sacheverellite observer noted that his manner had not been offensive to the defendant: ‘the doctor afterwards thanked him for using him like a gentleman, which only he did’. Eyre returned on 9 Mar. to reply to Sacheverell’s answer, again confined to the first article, and again for the most part relying on a detailed investigation into the intent and meaning of the sermons. According to a Whig observer, he ‘took notice of the miserable shifts and evasions resorted to by Sacheverell and his counsel’, while a Sacheverellite diarist, admitting that Eyre ‘spoke civilly enough’, saw his efforts as mere repetition. Where he did go further was in his exposition of Parliament’s role in the disposition of the crown. He reaffirmed the Queen’s ‘hereditary right’ but added that her occupation of the throne also enjoyed ‘the sanction of an Act of Parliament’. Furthermore, ‘we have reason to lay some weight upon a parliamentary title, since the Protestant Succession entirely depends upon it’. This was not as categorical as it sounded. To deny any ‘parliamentary title’ would not necessarily debar the Hanoverians, for whom some ‘hereditary claim’ was imputed, but it would lead to ‘endless disputes’ and bloodshed. His peroration consisted of a strong defence of the resort to impeachment, which in private he had argued against. It was the only ‘adequate remedy’ for ‘these great and growing evils’, the public attacks on the legitimacy of the Queen’s title and foundations of government, the disturbances in religion which endangered the Church, the ‘defamation’ of the episcopate and ‘vilification’ of the ministry, for all of which, he declared, Sacheverell and his ilk were responsible. It was, we may presume, at least partly in recognition of his services in the impeachment that Eyre was knighted and raised to the bench in May 1710. Before he took his place as a judge he was sworn a serjeant, he and the other new serjeant, Thomas Pengelly†, marking the occasion with a ‘splendid’ feast attended by Lord Chancellor Cowper (William*) and other peers and judges. The rings distributed bore the motto ‘unit et imperat’.6
During the Harley ministry Eyre was able as a judge to offer some protection to Whig journalists and pamphleteers who had fallen foul of the administration. Following the Hanoverian succession his career continued to progress. As chancellor to the Prince of Wales he faced Commons’ criticism in 1716 for accepting the office while still a judge. Two years later he was obliged to take the Prince’s side in the legal dispute over the King’s prerogative to interfere in the upbringing of the royal grandchildren, but he did not forfeit George I’s favour, and was advanced to be lord chief baron and then lord chief justice of common pleas. Although he was pilloried in print for arrogance, his judicial career was only once touched by controversy, when in 1729 he was cleared of charges of having assisted the sadistic warden of the Fleet, Thomas Bambridge. Eyre became ill by October 1735, when he began receiving treatment from a doctor, and died on 28 Dec., aged 68. He was buried with his forebears in St. Thomas’ church, Salisbury. His eldest son, Robert, who succeeded him as recorder of Southampton, sat for the borough from 1727 to 1729.7