NORTON, Fletcher (1716-89), of Grantley, Yorks. and Wonersh, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 23 June 1716, 1st s. of Thomas Norton of Grantley by Elizabeth, da. of William Serjeantson of Hanlith, Yorks. educ. Ripon; St. John’s, Camb. 1734, M. Temple 1734, called 1739, K.C. 1754, bencher 1754. m. 21 May 1741, Grace, da. and h. of Sir William Chapple, justice of the King’s bench 1737-45, 5s. 2da. suc. fa. 1719; kntd. 25 Jan. 1762; cr. Baron Grantley 9 Apr. 1782.
Attorney-gen. to duchy of Lancaster 1758-63; solicitor-gen. Jan. 1762-Dec. 1763; attorney-gen. Dec. 1763-July 1765; P.C. 22 Mar. 1769; chief justice in eyre south of Trent 1769- d.; Speaker of House of Commons 1770-80.
Fletcher Norton was the first of his family to sit in Parliament. He cultivated an electoral interest first at Wigan and then at Guildford, and, through his connexions with Sir James Lowther and Sir Lawrence Dundas, brought into Parliament all his sons who survived to manhood.
At Wigan, Norton and Simon Luttrell had Newcastle’s support in their struggle against Sir William Meredith and Richard Barry and in 1759 secured control of the borough. After 1761 they were challenged by the Duke of Portland, who in 1765 captured the borough. Norton now turned his attention to Guildford, where the estate of Wonersh, inherited from his father-in-law, gave him a considerable interest; and in 1767 concluded an agreement with George Onslow to divide the representation of the borough.
It is not known when Norton became connected with Sir James Lowther, but it seems probable that he had undertaken legal business for the Lowther family before 1754. The election at Appleby in 1754 was a struggle between Lowther and Lord Thanet: Lowther’s candidates, Norton and Sir John Ramsden, were defeated, and petitioned. The election was declared void on 10 Feb. 1756, and, as a compromise, Norton and Philip Honywood, one of Thanet’s candidates, were returned.
Norton supported Government but at first took little part in debate. He made a reputation at the bar and impressed Lord Mansfield.1 ‘His abilities were so good’, writes Walpole2, ‘and his knowledge so great, that no man had more extensive practice in Westminster Hall.’ Through Lowther he became connected with Bute, and was recommended for solicitor-general in 1761 by Newcastle, Bute, and Mansfield. On Charles Yorke’s resignation in December 1763 he became attorney-general.
The debates on general warrants established Norton as one of the most formidable speakers in the Commons: coarse and brutal, but afraid of nobody and heard with attention in all parts of the House. Walpole, who disliked him intensely, admitted3 that he was ‘a tough enemy’. On 17 Feb. 1764 he moved to postpone the question on general warrants for four months, and told the House ‘that were he a judge below he should no more regard a resolution of the House of Commons upon this subject, than that of so many drunken porters’.4 ‘An unlucky sample of nisi prius eloquence’, commented James Harris, a Government supporter, yet an accurate statement of the legal position.
In December 1764 Grenville suggested to Norton that he should become master of the rolls and that Charles Yorke should resume his place as attorney-general. Surprisingly, Norton agreed, apparently accepting it as the stepping stone to the next vacant chief justiceship. His conversation, wrote Northington, lord chancellor, ‘was big with zeal to the King, and attachment to his Administration’.5 But when Yorke, after much delay, declined, and ‘it became material to Government’ that Norton should continue attorney-general, ‘he was, he said, unable to answer so new a proposition entangled by the delay and its consequences, and in which he thought his honour and character concerned’.6 ‘Though he is out of humour’, added Northington, ‘he seemed manageable’, and he continued to defend Government as vigorously as before.
Norton was regarded by the Rockinghams as Bute’s man, and was dismissed by them in July 1765. He opposed the repeal of the Stamp Act, and on 27 Jan. 1766 had a violent altercation with Pitt in the Commons on American affairs.7 He tried to rally Bute’s friends to act independently of Rockingham or Grenville, devoted only to the King, but could not form a coherent group. On 10 Jan. 1766 the King wrote to Bute that Norton ‘had talked as if he and others meant to form a flying party under your banner’;8 while Egmont, at the Cabinet meeting of 2 May, included Norton among those friends of Bute who should be given office.9
‘When Norton was turned out’, writes Walpole, ‘Pitt sent him word that it was not done by his advice, and that were he minister, he should be glad of the assistance of such abilities.’10 When Pitt took office in July 1766 the King named Norton for a place: Pitt said ‘that Norton’s name was not one much esteemed, but that ... he would either now or as opportunity should offer try to shape something agreeable to that gentleman, whom he did not look upon in the bad light others did’.11 In August Bute wrote to the King that Norton had been asked (by whom was not stated): ‘Will you attach yourself to the minister, are you free to do so?’12
He answered he would serve the minister, [but] his attachment was to the King and great friendship and regard for Lord Bute, whom he thought an honest man cruelly injured; this gallant answer did his business before your Majesty saw Mr. Pitt.
But when Chatham in November proposed giving Norton office, Conway (leader in the Commons) ‘remonstrated’, and Chatham replied: ‘Only in case of a vacancy, perhaps master of the rolls, if the present should die.’13
Grenville’s diary for 6 Nov. 1766 contains an entry referring to ‘the desire Sir Fletcher Norton and others of Lord Bute’s friends had to act with Mr. Grenville, but more particularly Sir Fletcher Norton.’ On 7 Nov.: ‘Sir Fletcher Norton’s language was great anger and disgust at the ill-treatment he had met with, but yet did not seem inclined to take any active part.’ And here is part of Grenville’s note of the debate on the Address (11 Nov.): ‘Mr. Grenville was told that Sir Fletcher Norton who had ... intended to speak, had a whisper given him in the House, which advised him to sit still.’ The entry for 3 Dec. in Grenville’s diary reads: ‘Sir Fletcher Norton and Mr. Wedderburn as yet remain firm to Mr. Grenville, and are very angry with Lord Bute.’14 On 5 Dec. he spoke for Grenville’s amendment to the indemnity bill, but abstained from voting.15 On 9 Dec. he spoke against the motion for papers on the East India inquiry.
But Grenville took no pains to cultivate Norton and Rockingham did not want him as an ally. Early in 1767 Norton seems to have made an approach to the court: he is said to have been offered the post of master of the rolls and to have obtained Bute’s approbation.16 He voted against Government on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. On 13 Mar. Grafton wrote to Chatham:17 ‘If your Lordship could see Sir Fletcher Norton for a few minutes, I have great reason to think you might quite fix him.’ But Chatham was too ill to attend to business, and Grafton did not dare to assume responsibility for an appointment which would have offended Conway. On 26 Mar. Rockingham wrote to Newcastle:18 ‘The report of Sir Fletcher Norton’s having made up matters with Aministration is firmly denied by him today in the House of Commons.’ Norton took little part in the debates on the East India inquiry, and was informed orally by Whately of the outcome of the negotiations of July 1767. According to Whately, Norton praised Temple’s conduct as ‘prudent, able, manly, and honest’, while Wedderburn told Rockingham that Norton had no other connexion but with Grenville.19
In April 1768 Norton was counsel for the Crown against Wilkes: he consulted Wedderburn and Whately, Grenville’s friends, who advised him not to accept the brief, but allowed Mansfield to persuade him into doing so.20 Henceforth his course was determined. Here is the account Camden subsequently gave of the terms on which Norton joined Government:21
The Duke of Grafton while he was minister treated with Sir Fletcher for his vote and assistance in Parliament and contrary to my advice (who remonstrated against it) gave him the chief justiceship in eyre, with a pension of £3000 for his life, and stipulated besides to promote him to the first vacant chiefship in Westminster Hall.
According to Walpole:22 ‘It was stipulated that Norton should quit the law, and be chief manager in the House of Commons.’ But this he never became.
Norton spoke against Wilkes on 27 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1769, but not on any of the motions for Wilkes’s expulsion, although he voted with Government. But he ended his speech on the motion to declare Luttrell duly elected, 15 Apr.: ‘Will you tamely sit down under the insult of having this man [Wilkes] returned again?’23 And in the debate on the Middlesex petition against Luttrell’s return he attacked Grenville for his support of Wilkes.
On 17 Jan. 1770 the Speaker, Sir John Cust, resigned. According to the account Norton later gave in the Commons24 he was invited by Grafton to accept the Chair.
To this he had very strong objections. His answer was, if he should accept, it must be understood that he by no means meant to be taken out of the line of his profession; and that consequently the way whenever an opportunity offered should be kept open for his return to Westminster Hall.
His election was opposed by the Rockinghams, who put up Thomas Townshend junior, but Norton was elected by 237 votes to 121. He began his tenure of the Chair by a dispute with Sir William Meredith, in which his high-handed methods did not commend themselves to the House. Insinuations of his partiality to Government were made by Opposition speakers; but his firmness and authority helped to restore the dignity of the House, much impaired during the debates over Wilkes.
It was customary for the Speaker to sit and vote as an ordinary Member when the House was in committee, and it was expected that he would vote with Government. In 1780 Norton described to the House the conduct he had tried to follow as Speaker:25
He said ... he had on every occasion avoided as much as possible giving any opinion respecting matters which came before that House. His duty and inclination led him to adopt that mode of conduct. His duty, lest ... his mixing in debate ... might be supposed to create an improper influence in some of his hearers; and his inclination forbade him, because he knew from experience that whatever he might support as an individual Member, might be apt to bias his judgment in his other character, that of Speaker ... he was satisfied that the seldomer he mixed in debate, the more likely he would be to avoid giving offence to either side of the House.
His only important speeches in committee before 1780 were on the royal marriage bill, 1772, but these were chiefly on legal points.
He was re-elected Speaker without opposition in 1774. At first he did not object in principle to the American war, and told the Commons on 10 Feb. 1775: ‘Levying war against the King is treason; so is endeavouring to wrest the sword out of the hands of the executive power.’ But his attitude towards Government changed. On 7 May 1777, on presenting the supply bill to the King for the royal assent, he said:
By this bill, Sir ... your Commons have given the fullest and clearest proof of their zeal and affection for your Majesty. For in a time of public distress ... their constituents labouring under burthens almost too heavy to be borne, your faithful Commons postponed all other business, and ... have not only granted to your Majesty a large present supply, but also a very great additional revenue—great, beyond example—great, beyond your Majesty’s highest expense.26
The speech was ordered to be printed and on 9 May he received the thanks of the House. It was criticized by Rigby and other Government supporters as not reflecting the sentiments of the House; Norton defended himself, and was supported by Fox, who moved a motion justifying the Speaker’s conduct, which was carried without a division.
Early in 1780 news leaked out of changes contemplated in the law: de Grey was to resign his post of chief justice of the common pleas and to be succeeded by Wedderburn. Norton, incensed at the promotion of a lawyer junior to himself and at what he regarded as the betrayal of Government’s pledges to him, gave vent to his anger in the Commons. On 13 Mar. 1780, during the debate in committee on Burke’s economical reform bill,27 he was asked by Fox whether the Commons were competent to regulate the civil list revenue. Norton revealed that he had been consulted upon the bill before it was introduced: he supported it, and thought Burke ‘deserved well of this country.’ It was legitimate for Parliament to regulate ‘that part of the civil list appropriated to the special purposes of government’, but he disapproved ‘that part ... which proposed the abolition of the several royal domestic establishments’. He wished Burke ‘every possible success in the future progress of his bill, and assured him of every assistance it was in his power to give him’. On the part relative to the influence of the Crown, he said:
It was impossible for any person who sat so many years in the House as he had done, not to perceive both its actual existence and apparent increase; consequently, it was the duty of every Member in that House ... to do all in his power to reduce it ... and adopt and support such measures as might promise best to prevent the return of such evils hereafter.
Towards the end of the speech he attacked North: ‘He was not a friend to the noble Lord, and he had repeated proofs that the noble Lord was no friend of his.’ He alluded to ‘a recent transaction’ in which North’s conduct was such ‘as to put an end to every appearance of mutual good will and friendship’, and threatened if North ‘did not do him justice he would state the particulars to the House’. Later, after an altercation with North, he told how he had been induced by Grafton to accept the Chair, and claimed that the promises then made to him had been broken. North denied all knowledge of this agreement and argued that he was not bound by his predecessor’s promises. In the division, on the clause to abolish the Board of Trade, Norton voted against Government; and on 6 Apr. spoke and voted in support of Dunning’s motion.
On 14 April he informed the House that he had been ill, and could not continue in the Chair.28
He was advanced in years. He was in a bad state of health; he feared the time necessary to the restoration of it would be much longer than the public exigency of affairs would permit, and he therefore hoped the House would not impute to him any want of attention to the public service ... if he should decline any longer remaining in a situation in which he could not render himself serviceable ... he much doubted whether his longer sitting in that chair would answer the expectations of the House.
On Dunning’s proposal an adjournment was made until 24 Apr. The King believed that Norton had pleaded illness to enable the Opposition leaders to go to Newmarket, and Robinson that Norton was blackmailing Government with a view to a peerage.29 However, on 24 Apr. Norton assured the House that he was determined,
contrary to the wishes of his friends, and ... to the advice of his physicians, to persevere at all hazards in the discharge of his duty, at least for the present session ... and as long as his services should prove acceptable to the House.
But North had already decided that there should be a new Speaker in the next Parliament.
When the new Parliament met on 31 Oct. Germain proposed Charles Wolfran Cornwall for the Chair: he praised Norton’s conduct but added that his health would no longer allow him to continue.30 Norton, proposed by the Opposition, then spoke: it was true that his health was too bad for him to accept the Chair, but that was not the real reason why he had been dropped, and he asked ministers to explain ‘why he was thus disgracefully dismissed’. Fox pointed to Norton’s votes and speeches against Government as the real reason. Cornwall was elected by 203 votes to 134, the Rockinghams voting for Norton as they had voted against him in 1770. For the remainder of North’s Administration Norton belonged to the Opposition.
Here is the story, as told by Wraxall,31 about his promotion to the peerage. Shelburne having obtained a peerage for Dunning without informing Rockingham, a group of Rockingham’s followers met to decide what should be done.
They unanimously agreed that the first lord of the Treasury would be at once dishonoured in the Cabinet and disgraced in the public estimation if the secretary of state ... could thus, without his knowledge or participation, dispose of the highest dignities to his own adherents. It was maintained that the reparation ought to be no less public than the affront, and that, in order to wipe it away, some individual must be without delay raised to the peerage at Lord Rockingham’s personal recommendation ... The selection fell on Sir Fletcher Norton ... not indeed so much from inclination as from necessity, no other person appearing equally proper to be created a peer.
The promotion did the Rockinghams no good, for, as Lord Grantley, Norton voted against Fox’s India bill and subsequently supported Pitt.
He died 1 Jan. 1789.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. Add. 32932, f. 292.
- 2. Mems. Geo. III, i. 189.
- 3. To Hertford, 17 Nov. 1763.
- 4. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
- 5. Grenville Pprs. ii. 463-4.
- 6. Northington to Grenville, 26 Nov. 1764, ibid. 467-8.
- 7. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 192-3.
- 8. Sedgwick, 248.
- 9. Fortescue, i. 300.
- 10. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 142; HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 101.