SOMERS, Sir John (1651-1716), of Pump Court, the Middle Temple

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1689 - 23 Mar. 1693

Family and Education

b. 4 Mar. 1651, o. s. of John Somers of College Churchyard, Worcester by Catherine, da. of John Severne of Powick, Worcs.  educ. King’s, Worcester; Sheriff Hales, Salop (Mr John Woodhouse); Walsall g.s. Staffs.; Trinity, Oxf. 1667; M. Temple 1669, called 1676, bencher 1689, reader 1690, treasurer 1690–1. unmsuc. fa. 1681; kntd. 31 Oct. 1689; cr. Baron Somers 2 Dec. 1697.1

Offices Held

Standing counsel to dean and chapter, Worcester 1681; freeman, Worcester Sept. 1688, Nov. 1688, recorder 1688–d.; freeman, Gloucester 1688, recorder 1690–d.; recorder, Orford by 1692–?2

Trustee Droitwich workhouse (later hosp.) 1688; commr. finishing St. Paul’s cathedral 1692, Greenwich Hosp. 1695; gov. Charterhouse by 1696; member, New England Co. by 1698; trustee, Reigate par. lib. 1708, for poor Palatines 1709.3

Solicitor-gen. 1689–May 1692; attorney-gen. May 1692–Mar. 1693; PC 23 Mar. 1693–Mar. 1702, 25 Nov. 1708–d., ld. pres. 1708–10; ld. keeper Mar. 1693–7; ld. chancellor Apr. 1697–1700; ld. justice 12 May–10 Oct. 1695, 1 May–6 Oct. 1696, 25 Apr.–16 Nov. 1697, 20 July–3 Dec. 1698, 2 June–18 Oct. 1699.

Commr. preventing export of wool 1689–92, union with Scotland 1706; chairman, cttee. supply and ways and means 9 Oct. 1690–3.4

FRS 1698, pres. 1698–1703.


As one of the leading Whig politicians of the period, Somers has been the subject of many eulogistic assessments from Whig historians. To Macaulay, he was pre-eminent, even among the Junto, because of his excellence as a jurist, politician, orator and writer; in these respects, ‘he was the greatest man of the age’. However, his character remains obscure and the mainspring of his political actions unclear. This was partly by design, for Somers adopted a posture that was courteous but reserved, and possibly intended to disguise his humble origins, while at the same time providing him with the demeanour of a statesman. It cannot be counterbalanced by an examination of his private papers because the bulk of them were destroyed by fire in 1752.5

Somers served his political apprenticeship during the Exclusion crisis, penning several polemical works in support of the Whig position. After 1681 he disappears from national politics, taking refuge in his barrister’s practice on the Oxford circuit and undertaking other legal tasks. The Prussian diplomat Frederick Bonet offered an interesting insight into his activities during this period when he reported that three to four years before his appointment as lord keeper, Somers had been a ‘petit avocat ou juge de village sur les terres du Comte de Manchester [later secretary of state]’. He came to national prominence as junior counsel for the Seven Bishops in 1688, and no doubt his enhanced reputation facilitated his election to the Convention in January 1689. Once in the Commons he played a leading role in its deliberations, particularly in the formulation of the Bill of Rights, and was quickly recognized as a man of exceptional talent, being appointed solicitor-general in May.6

Although Somers owed his seat at Worcester to his provincial origins, by 1690 he was already a metropolitan figure. London was the natural home for a rising lawyer, keen to take the opportunities available to establish and expand a legal practice and to obtain office. Furthermore, the family’s property in Worcester was under the nominal control of his mother, who did not die until 1710. Somers was returned unopposed at the election of 1690, but not to the satisfaction of some local Tory observers, who nevertheless took comfort from the fact that ‘the citizens showed [so] great an aversion to the old Members, that if they have any ingenuity they cannot but blush to have been thus returned without applause or approbation’. Somers evidently took all this in his stride, merely remarking on the absence of opposition in a letter to John Locke. However, his comments on the ‘sense of the county’ turning against the Whigs illustrated an acute political awareness, being written before a late challenge from Sir John Pakington, 4th Bt.*, saw Somers’ legal mentor Sir Francis Winnington* defeated for knight of the shire. The early election results reported in the Gazette even raised doubts in his mind as to whether his time might be better spent on the Oxford circuit than attending the opening of the parliamentary session. The pull of politics proved stronger for there is evidence that he was present in the Chamber on 22 Mar. 1690, and deeply engrossed in its work by the end of the month.7

Somers was classed as a Whig by the Marquess of Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) in his analysis of the new Parliament. He was also a placeman in a ministry containing many political opponents. Throughout his career in the Commons, Somers had to reconcile his duty to the ministry (and ultimately to the King) with his loyalty to his party. His promotion in 1693 indicates that he was sufficiently skilful to maintain his political links while providing the King, and his closest advisers, with ample testimony of his usefulness to the Court. As a law officer of the crown, Somers was regularly involved in important legislation, some of it sponsored by the government. His work began shortly after the opening of the session, for on 29 Mar. 1690 he was ordered to prepare a bill settling the revenue on William and Mary. His first recorded speech during the session came only a few days later, on 2 Apr., in a debate on a proposed instruction to the committee of supply that it should not sanction a land tax without returning to the full House for permission to do so. As befitting a man keenly aware of the needs of government and the efficacy of a land tax, Somers joined with those attempting to retain the committee’s freedom of action, although without success. On 4 Apr. he was ordered to prepare the poll tax bill and a bill attainting persons in rebellion in Ireland and elsewhere and declaring their estates forfeit and used to fund the Irish campaign. He duly presented the latter bill on the 22nd. On 8 Apr. he presented two supply bills and became embroiled in the contentious debate over the quo warranto judgment issued against the city of London in 1683, supporting the Whigs on the common council who demanded that it should be not only reversed but declared void: ‘a void judgment may be given as well as an erroneous judgment. I will never give my consent to countenance such illegal and cursed judgments, to bring in popery and arbitrary power.’ At the end of the debate, however, the Whigs had to settle for a reversal only and the restoration of the corporation’s ancient privileges. On 9 Apr. he intervened very effectively in the debate over whether to commit or to proceed immediately to a third reading of the bill from the Lords recognizing William and Mary and for avoiding all questions touching the Acts passed by the Convention. In blunt language he argued that the legality of the current Parliament was bound up with the proceedings of the Convention so that ‘if the laws of the last Parliament want confirmation, it is impossible for you to give it’, and, further, that ‘this Parliament depends entirely on the foundation of the last’. According to Burnet this speech forestalled Tory opposition to the bill at the committee stage. On 17 Apr. he was appointed to a committee to prepare a bill to vest the £500 forfeitures in the King and Queen. On 24 Apr. he was appointed to prepare the abjuration bill. A few days later, on 29 Apr., he was appointed to a large committee charged with preparing a bill to secure the King and Queen against the late King James and his adherents. His next recorded contribution to debate occurred on 1 May when the committee of the whole considered a bill from the Lords to establish a regency for the Queen during William’s absence in Ireland. As the opening speaker, he cited many precedents for a regency before rejecting the need for one in the present circumstances with a King already on the throne. The gist of his argument was that any statute should provide a clear statement of where authority lay in order to prevent disputes and confusion, as failure to do so might redound to the advantage of the kingdom’s enemies. He returned to this theme when the committee met again on 6 May, attacking the bill’s opponents for their lack of constructive criticism and denying that any law could be good which mistrusted the King. Thus, he defended the view that power could reside in King and Queen together, even if they were separated geographically, with one of them out of the kingdom. On 15 May he was appointed to a committee to bring in a bill for more effectually securing the government. He presented this bill on the 19th and chaired the committee of the whole on it the following day; thereafter it lapsed, no report being made to the House. His final important actions of this session concerned the Act of Grace sent by the King to the Lords which Somers returned to the Upper House on 22 May after the Commons had also passed it, and he was then named to the subsequent conference committee.8

There are no extant speeches for Somers in the 1690–1 session. However, the Journals continue to show Somers’ involvement in a high level of legislative activity, and it is unlikely that he radically altered his practice of speaking regularly in the House. On 8 Oct. he reported from the Address committee. His legal office presumably prompted the House to appoint him to committees concerned with preparation of specific bills, such as that ordered on 8 Oct. to bring in a bill to regulate treason trials, and those on the 11th to draft bills for the easier recovery of small tithes and for examining the public accounts. However, he did not manage these bills through the House. This was doubtless due to the pressure of his work both as solicitor-general and as chairman of the committees of the whole on supply and ways and means, plus the chairmanship of further committees of the whole when the requisite supply bills reached the committee stage. During this session he took the chair of the committee of the whole on 37 occasions on supply and related matters, plus another three on the bill attainting rebels in England and Ireland. Given that this type of legislation alone required almost daily attendance in the chamber during October, November and December 1690, it is somewhat surprising that Somers found time to participate in the cut and thrust of everyday party politics, such as when he appeared at the committee of elections on 8 Nov. to support the petition of Robert Harley* against Sir Rowland Gwynne* in a dispute over New Radnor. Nor must the pressure of his legal work be forgotten: January 1691 saw the trial of Lord Preston (Sir Richard Grahme†) for treason and much time was spent in the months following deciding on the fate of the convicted peer, who was eventually pardoned and released. This record of active support for the government was duly noted in an analysis compiled by Harley in April 1691 which placed him among the adherents of the Court.9

Somers continued to be very active in the Commons during the 1691–2 session, both in debate and as a legislator. Undoubtedly, his most important function in the House was to chair the committee of supply and ways and means. This involved him in all the major decisions on the estimates of the army and navy, and the consequent fiscal legislation. In all he chaired the committee of the whole on 30 occasions. Nevertheless, these onerous duties did not prevent him from giving his attention to other matters. He was named to several inquiry committees which impinged on supply matters, particularly estimates of the armed forces. Again he was active in debate, his first recorded intervention occurring on 11 Nov. 1691 during the committee of the whole on the treason trials bill when he opposed some clauses on the grounds that it made it difficult to convict persons conspiring against the government. His next major speech occurred on 30 Nov. when the Commons considered the Lords’ amendments to the bill settling the oaths in Ireland. Some peers believed that the bill infringed the articles of Limerick signed in October 1691, and more specifically the article which allowed Irishmen to carry on their professions freely, by taking only the oath of allegiance and not the other religious tests intended in the bill. As the clause related particularly to Irish lawyers Somers had an obvious interest. He warmly supported the bill, but was very suspicious of the Lords’ amendment exempting Irish lawyers from the oaths. He dismissed the defence that the provisions would apply only to current practitioners, advancing the security of the state as his prime concern with the comment that ‘this is the critical time and not futurity’. He also elucidated the practice of Charles II’s reign which had not allowed all Roman Catholic lawyers to be licensed but only those who had obtained a certificate stating that they had practised in England and taken their degree there. The upshot of his intervention was that he was appointed to a committee to prepare reasons to be presented at a conference with the Lords on why the Commons disagreed with their amendment. In December Somers was a determined combatant in the debates over the Lords’ amendments to the bill regulating treason trials. During the Commons’ consideration of these matters on 11 Dec. he intervened on two separate occasions. First, he objected to the provision that a person impeached for treason by the Commons should have the same rights of defence as those accused in inferior courts. His speech exhibited a deep suspicion of the Lords’ motives, reinforced by the knowledge that ‘in the last Parliament, every word was left out that related to impeachments, it was of such moment’. Furthermore, he did not wish to weaken the powers available to the Commons against over-mighty subjects who put themselves beyond the normal scope of the law. Despite his arguments, the Commons voted to accept the amendment. Later in the debate he voiced a second objection, this time over the controversial question of whether it should be the statutory right of every peer charged with treason to be tried by all his peers, rather than by a court selected by the lord steward when the House was not sitting. Somers suspected that this proposal was tantamount to offering most lords impunity for their actions by virtue of the help they could expect from their friends and relatives in the Chamber. Indeed, he feared that in the longer term it would reduce the power of both the crown and the Commons vis-à-vis the Lords. The House was more disposed to agree with him on this issue, but continued disagreement over this clause was to prevent a bill on this subject from reaching the statute book until the 1695–6 session. At the end of the debate he was appointed to the committee to prepare reasons for not accepting the Lords’ amendments in readiness for a further conference with the peers over these differences. On 7 Jan. 1692, as arguments over the bill continued, he was seen as a guardian of the Commons’ rights, in this case the right to determine when to respond to a request for a free conference on the questions still under dispute. There were other issues on which Somers felt compelled to address the House. On 29 Dec. he spoke against the motion to give the bill encouraging privateers against France a second reading on the grounds that the likely result would be to increase illicit trade with the enemy. In this he was unsuccessful, but it must also be noted that no further action was taken on the bill. The same day, his cautious legal mind was seen at work when a privilege case concerning Sir John Cutler, 1st Bt.*, came before the House. Cutler had waived his privilege in a Chancery suit with Lord de la Warr, but had then resumed it. De la Warr protested by petitioning the Commons, whereupon Somers advocated that a committee be appointed to inquire into the matter as in such cases ‘one false step . . . is very dangerous’. The House ignored his advice, preferring to adopt an immediate resolution that Cutler ought not to resume his privilege having first waived it. Somers was one of those Members on 5 Jan. 1692 who successfully opposed a motion for a second reading to be given to the bill for the better regulation and encouragement of the Thames Fishermen’s Company, which he interpreted as an attempt to establish a monopoly, while at the same time encroaching upon the privileges of the lord mayor of London and the vice-admiral of Kent (Sir Thomas Stampe and Viscount Sydney [Hon. Henry Sidney†], respectively, both of whom were Whigs).10

No doubt because of numerous other calls on his time, Somers expended little effort on local legislation. The exceptions were bills concerning his Worcester constituents. On 16 Jan. 1692 he spoke in favour of a motion to engross the bill suppressing hawkers and pedlars, with an exposition worthy of the representative of any ancient borough or market town: the nation was not the better for having pedlars, who were characterized as vagrant, wandering people, when their suppression was for the benefit of the nation as it had been solicited by all the corporations of England. This debate merely revealed to all present the inadequacies of the bill before them and led to demands for it to be dropped and a fresh bill drawn up. The correct procedure to facilitate this manoeuvre was disputed between those who argued that the current bill be laid on the table and those who wished to adjourn. Somers’ advice was to adopt the former course, citing as his authority the precedent of the ‘poor prisoners’ bill in the Convention. His next intervention in debate was on 23 Jan. against the passage of a bill reducing the rate of interest, a measure likely to have interested his friend Locke and ‘the college’. This session provided a second example of his concern to further the interests of his constituents when, on 29 Jan., he presented a petition from the Worcester clothiers’ company praying for an amendment to the bill establishing a new East India Company, placing a statutory obligation on the company to export woollen cloth free of freight charges. This provision aimed to boost the economy of those areas dependent upon such manufactures and thereby reduce the problem of the poor. On a more personal level, at the report stage of the Irish forfeitures bill on 9 Feb. 1692, Somers offered a clause in favour of a Whig office-holder, John Pulteney*, clerk to the council in Ireland, which was accepted without demur. On 15 Feb. he spoke against a clause which sought to revive the commission of accounts by tacking it to the poll bill at the report stage. As a specific bill for this purpose had come to grief earlier in the session over the Lords’ insistence that they should nominate their own commissioners to work alongside those of the Commons, such a manoeuvre offered a way round their opposition. Somers’ speech no doubt reflected the Court’s distaste for such a troublesome body, not to mention the potential damage such a tactic could do to relations between the two Houses, but the clause was carried nevertheless. He was used by the Commons to give extra weight to a message to the Lords on 18 Feb. to remind them of the Irish forfeitures bill, but the measure lapsed due to inactivity in the Upper House, no doubt fortified by royal hostility. His final contribution to this session occurred on 20 Feb. during the proceedings of the committee of the whole on the bill from the Lords outlawing communication with the nation’s enemies, when he opposed successfully a clause to limit the time for prosecutions to within six months of the event.11

As his record of committee chairmanships and speeches has shown, Somers was a key ministerial supporter (albeit one who remained a committed Whig) during a difficult session, and he duly received his reward in May 1692 when he was promoted to attorney-general. His name continued to appear on all lists of the period detailing placemen, including those compiled by Carmarthen and Grascome.12

The pattern of Somers’ involvement in the affairs of the Commons in the 1692–3 session differed very little from that of preceding years. On 10 Nov. 1692 he was appointed to the committee on the Address and duly reported it to the House on the following day. The 11th also saw his first recorded speech of the session against a motion that the bill regulating treason trials be committed. His arguments were an amalgam of those he had used on previous occasions: it would ‘cramp yourselves in the matter of impeachments which, with your money, are the two only things that made this House considerable’, since ‘if that be brought down to ordinary proceedings, the Commons will never undertake impeachments, when counsel must stand upon an equal foot with the Commons, and put themselves under a very low degree’. Moreover, the timing was wrong: the new regime should not be weakened ‘by rendering treason more difficult to be punished’, as there ‘is no danger from this government by a too severe prosecution for treason for the fault thereof is it is too gentle’. His next speech was on 21 Nov. to the committee of the whole charged with responding to the request for advice contained in the King’s Speech. The debate developed into an attack on the Whig-dominated Admiralty commission, fuelled particularly by the London merchants’ concern at their heavy shipping losses. The upshot was a motion enjoining the King to employ as commissioners only people of known experience in maritime affairs. Somers was one of the ministerial Whigs who came to the defence of his colleagues by stating that he could not support the question because it implied that those already employed were not skilled in naval affairs. On 22 Nov. he took the chair of the committee of the whole on supply for the first time during the session: in all he chaired the committee of the whole on 30 occasions. Somers was crucial to the Court’s control of financial legislation as was shown in a debate on 2 Dec., when there was a move to go directly from approving the navy estimates into a committee of ways and means to provide for them, rather than proceeding with the army estimates. This had implications for William’s continental strategy, part of which depended upon getting an army into the field as early as possible in the campaigning season. Somers, while echoing some of the other Members’ prejudices against a standing army, made the obvious point that if ‘an army is necessary for your service I am for using them well, and therefore I am not for passing them over without some consideration’. His argument was heeded, with a committee being ordered for the following day. He was also in the thick of the debates over the bill for the better preservation of their Majesties’ persons and government. Somers had been ordered to bring in this bill on 1 Dec. It provided severe penalties for those who questioned the monarch’s right to the throne orally or in writing, and instituted an abjuration oath for all who held offices of profit under the crown. After the bill had received a second reading on 14 Dec. a fierce debate arose over the motion to commit. Somers spoke for the bill, defending it against charges of innovation, denying it was a new departure to make it an offence of praemunire to refuse the oaths a second time, or that the oath to be exacted was very different from previous ones. He submitted that if the House was critical of the provision to make the speaking of words treason, then the details could be amended in committee, but he rejected the view that it was a novelty, citing as precedents legislation passed by MPs in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, as well as during that of Charles II. He ended with a political question. Did Members ‘have less zeal for this government than they had for theirs?’ Despite this powerful speech the Court’s opponents were able to engineer the bill’s defeat.13

An initiative launched by Somers in the Commons on 1 Dec. 1692 involved him in much more legislative work. On that day he proposed that a committee be set up to investigate expiring laws. His report on 23 Dec. led to an instruction that he prepare the necessary bills to continue them, plus a separate bill for raising the militia for 1693. As the militia was the most urgent measure it received his attention first. He presented a bill on 21 Dec. but played no subsequent role in its management. On 3 Feb. 1693 he introduced the main item of legislation emanating from the committee’s resolutions, a bill reviving, continuing and explaining several expiring laws, which he reported from committee on 20 Feb. A further specific piece of legislation arising from the deliberations of this committee was a bill prohibiting trade with France and encouraging privateers (Somers had criticized a bill with only the latter object in the previous session on the grounds that it would increase illicit trade). He was involved in all stages of the management of this measure after presenting it to the House on 15 Feb., including the management of a conference with the Lords. He was also an assertive advocate of the bill in debate. At the report stage on 2 Mar. he sought to make its provisions effective by offering a clause that the Admiralty include the Act in their instructions to all men-of-war and privateers ‘that they may not pretend ignorance’, which was accepted by the Commons. His other recorded intervention at this stage was to oppose a clause promoted by Hon. Goodwin Wharton* to allow Mediterranean and East India privateers to carry merchandise. He foresaw this was likely to ‘ruin all the merchants and forestall their markets or make all merchants turn to privateering or else run away without their convoy for the advantage of a market’. Despite these persuasive arguments Wharton’s clause was accepted, only to be omitted at the third-reading stage. Somers took this opportunity to offer a constructive rider to the bill with the aim of expediting the procedure on prizes so that the privateer could receive his share within three days after the capture ‘on penalty of double the sum detained’. When the House discussed the Lords’ amendments to the bill on 13 Mar. Somers objected to an alteration whereby the £10 to be paid for every gun taken by a privateer was to be paid by the collector of customs in any port, whereas in the original it was the responsibility of the prize commissioners, on the grounds that he was ‘not willing to give the Lords such a power’, but he saw the logic of the amendment, adding, ‘I think by way of expedient you may make it payable by the officers of the excise’.14

Somers’ participation in debates during the 1692–3 session was characteristically wide-ranging. As one might expect, his political affiliations and previous defence of the Admiralty obliged him to defend Admiral Edward Russell* in his conflict with the Tory secretary of state, Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†). Somers supported a Whig motion on 20 Dec. 1692 that the thanks of the House be given to Russell for his service during the summer. Nottingham, in turn, used the Upper House to defend his actions, thereby provoking a prolonged procedural wrangle. Somers was concerned to protect the privileges of the Commons in the dispute: on 30 Dec. he spoke against a ‘free’ conference with the Lords, preferring only a conference which did not debate the issues. His position as a legal officer of the crown probably dictated his next recorded speech on 3 Jan. 1693, when he spoke without success against the committal of a bill to regulate proceedings in the Crown Office due to its encroachment upon the rights of the crown. Another example of his attention to the minutiae of business appears in his speech at the report stage of the land tax bill on 9 Jan. when he put the House in mind of clauses concerning the commissioners for the counties of Merioneth and Caernarvon which would allow the King to appoint them under the great seal, otherwise there would have been too few men qualified by payment of the poll tax at the necessary rate. On 14 Jan. he was at the centre of a minor controversy brought about by his dual role as attorney-general and chairman of the committee of the whole on supply business: the Lords wanted him to attend them in the former capacity as they were dealing with a matter which concerned the King, but Somers was chairing the committee of the whole on the million bill. In the event, a clash was averted by the simple expedient of the Court carrying a motion that he leave the chair, something extraordinary having happened, and desiring leave for the committee to sit again. This avoided a possible breakdown of relations between the Houses as the Lords could still claim it as a privilege that the attorney-general attend them in such cases while the Commons could refute it with reference to a precedent from James I’s reign. The King’s rights came up again at the report stage of the bill for removing doubts and preventing controversies over royal mines on 16 Jan. Both Somers and Charles Montagu* felt that as the King’s prerogative was so highly concerned in the bill he might be heard by his counsel against it, a request duly granted for the following Friday (20th). On that day Sir Thomas Clarges* criticized this decision, only to hear Somers deliver the riposte that since the King had an interest in the mines it was merely ‘a privilege that is allowed to any private person to be heard by his counsel if desired’. Relations with the Lords again concerned Somers on 17 Jan., when the Commons considered their amendment to the land tax bill which would have enabled the peers to appoint their own assessors to rate their offices and personal estate as well as their own collector and which specifically excluded the penalty of imprisonment for non-payment. He opposed the amendment on the grounds that it was a money bill, noting that ‘this is a clause they never had in any act where lands were charged’, and refuting the precedent of a similar clause in a poll bill as it had never been included ‘in any pound rate tax either in this reign or that of King Charles II’. His intervention in the debate over the second reading of the bill to encourage the woollen manufactures of the kingdom on 19 Jan. may be interpreted as another defence of his clothier constituents, as he joined with others to attack the bill as a project driven on by the factors of Blackwell Hall for their own advancement. On 7 Feb. a committee of the whole took into consideration the Lords’ triennial bill. Chief among the amendments offered by the Court’s adherents in the Commons to tone down its provisions was one eliminating the requirement of annual sessions. Although a supporter of the bill in general, Somers followed the Court line on this point, noting that precedents cited in favour of annual sittings referred to a time when Parliament was mainly a court of justice. Further, annual meetings would be ‘a great grievance to the people’ and ‘tend to the exalting of the power of the House of Lords’. Despite his efforts, the amendment to omit the clause fell. On 17 Feb., also in a committee of the whole, this time on the bill renewing the commissioners of accounts, he supported the addition of a clause empowering the commissioners to state the debt due to the bankers. However, as this was seen as part of a plan to make Parliament responsible for the debt, it was defeated. He was involved in one final controversial incident before the end of the session, on 1 Mar., when a Whig move to adjourn the debate on the orphans bill was lost by 136 votes to 55. Afterwards, Somers complained that Speaker Trevor had incorrectly sent out those in favour of the motion, a contention denied by the Speaker.15

The 1692–3 session had been a difficult one for Somers, caught up in the cross-fire of the party battle: a Whig in a mixed ministry whose leading Tory Members were under pressure from his friends. His response in the Commons seems to have been to eschew major speeches attacking his fellow ministers, while rigorously defending those Whigs facing criticism and, at the same time, getting on efficiently with the legislative and legal business which came his way. This subtle, inoffensive approach made him a prime candidate for promotion when the King sought to strengthen the administration at the end of the session. Somewhat ironically, given his recent clash with Trevor, Somers’ reward was the post of lord keeper, and with it the chairmanship of the Upper House. His appointment signalled several things: public recognition for his sterling services in the Commons, a gesture to soothe Whig tempers following William’s veto of the triennial bill, and a way of replacing the rather unsatisfactory position whereby the great seal was kept in commission. It also marked out Somers’ growing importance as a politician, his status being confirmed by the assiduous way in which the Earl of Sunderland consulted him during the summer of 1693 in an attempt to devise a more satisfactory scheme of management for the Commons. Indeed, such was Somers’ prominence that following Nottingham’s removal from office in November 1693, one contemporary noted that ‘lord keeper, Admiral Russell and the secretary [Sir John Trenchard*] are the governing men’. He continued to be at the centre of the ministry until 1700, having been raised to the lord chancellorship in 1697. The Tories’ enmity towards his achievements was made plain in the attempts to impeach him in 1701. In the early years of Anne’s reign he had to be content with leading the Whigs in opposition, but he gradually increased his influence and played a major role in the negotiations leading to the union with Scotland in 1707. He finally regained office as lord president in 1708. Following the Tory triumph in 1710 he appears to have suffered a physical and mental decline, which was not arrested by the honours heaped on him after 1715. He died ‘of an apoplexy’ at Brookmans, his Hertfordshire retreat, on 26 Apr. 1716.16

Contemporary assessments of Somers varied according to political standpoint. In September 1701 James Vernon I* noticed that ‘Lord Somers is more particularly glanced at in all their pamphlets, for adultery, Socinianism, and I know not what besides’. This accurately portrays the Tory view of him as a dissolute atheist, a picture which Swift elaborated, suggesting he was an associate of John Toland. In fact, Somers’ advocates were sufficiently aware of these charges to contradict them. Hence, Bishop Nicolson took the following note during the debate in the Lords on the occasional conformity bill on 3 Dec. 1702: ‘Lord Somers, never at a conventicle’. Moreover, Nicolson recorded his presence at Anglican services and as a member of the vestry of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. To Whigs, such as Burnet, however, he was the perfect magistrate and lord chancellor, ‘in all respects the greatest man I had ever known in that post’. Likewise, Joseph Addison* praised him as ‘one of the most distinguished figures in the history of the present age’. Of his early career, with which we are primarily concerned, one might perhaps agree with a modern view that he displayed ‘constructive, if self-interested statesmanship’, which served his royal master and party equally well.17

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 1–5.
  • 2. Sachse, 20; Hereford and Worcester RO (Worcester) Worcester chamber order bk. 1679–1721, pp. 35, 51; D. Lemmings, Gent. and Barristers, 238; W. Suss. RO, Shillinglee mss Ac454/951, Nathaniel Gooding to Sir Edward Turnor*, 27 Aug. 1692.
  • 3. Nash, Worcs. i. 328; CSP Dom. 1691–2, p. 267; 1695, p. 73; Al. Carth. 57; W. Kellaway, New England Co. 301; W. Hooper, Reigate, 63; Boyer, viii. app. p. 40.
  • 4. CJ, xv. 262.
  • 5. Macaulay, Hist. Eng. v. 2394; Sachse, p. vii.
  • 6. Sachse, 15–17; DZA, Bonet despatches 24 Mar.–3 Apr. 1693.
  • 7. Sachse, 7–8, 299; Bodl. Ballard 35, f. 50; Locke Corresp. iv. 19–20.
  • 8. Grey, x. 36, 43, 49, 102–3, 127; Burnet, iv. 75–76.
  • 9. H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 62; Add. 70014, f. 355; HMC 13th Rep VI, 30.
  • 10. Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/O59/1, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 24 Nov. 1691; Grey, 190, 209, 213; Luttrell Diary, 50, 75, 94–95, 111, 116; New Hist. Ire. iii. 506; iv. 1.
  • 11. Luttrell Diary, 132–4, 150, 165, 178, 187, 197.
  • 12. Ballard 10, f. 35; Shillinglee mss Ac454/951.
  • 13. Luttrell Diary, 236, 248, 317; Grey, 249–50, 273; Horwitz, 105–9.
  • 14. Luttrell Diary, 277, 284, 459, 464, 477.
  • 15. Ibid. 332, 342, 348, 356, 366–7, 370, 374, 407, 430, 457; Horwitz, 113.
  • 16. Horwitz, 114; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1212, 1219, Sunderland to [Portland], 3 May [1695], n.d.; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxiii), 198; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 163–9, 183; NMM, Vernon mss VER/1/1K, James to Edward Vernon, 28 Apr. [1716].
  • 17. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 156; Sachse, 301–2, 322; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 138, 259, 277, 316, 445; Burnet, iv. 445; J. P. Kenyon, Sunderland, 251.