COMYNS, John (c.1667-1740), of Hylands, nr. Chelmsford and Writtle, Essex
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Family and Education
b. c.1667, 1st surv. s. of William Comyns, barrister, of L. Inn by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Matthew Rudd of Little Baddow, Essex. educ. Felsted sch.; Queens’, Camb. 1683; L. Inn 1683, called 1690. m. (1) lic. 21 Apr. 1693, Anne (d. 1705), da. and coh. of Dr Nathaniel Gurdon, rector of Chelmsford, 1s. d.v.p.; (2) 21 Nov. 1708, Elizabeth Courthorpe of Kent, s.p.; (3) Anne Wilbraham (d. 1758), s.p. suc. fa. 1686; kntd. 8 Nov. 1726.1
Gov. Chelmsford g.s.; treasurer, SPG 1701; freeman, Maldon 1699, recorder 1699–1736.
Serjeant-at-law 1705; counsel to George II as Prince of Wales; baron of Exchequer 1726–Jan. 1736, j.c.p. Jan. 1736–July 1738, c. baron July 1738–d.2
‘A man of great abilities and integrity’, Comyns nevertheless claimed that he was ‘not ambitious of honour or riches; my sole ambition hath been to do what good I could in my passage thro’ the world, and not seem unworthy of the station I was in’. He went through life avowing aversion to public office, while finding that Providence thrust it upon him. ‘I am fully persuaded’, he wrote, ‘that promotion comes neither from the east nor the west, but God almighty disposes it as he sees fit.’ Such piety encouraged him to join the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge shortly after its foundation, and to subscribe money for parochial libraries throughout England and the plantations. In April 1700 his lawyer’s eye proved useful in considering proposals to incorporate the society, and to audit its accounts. As a further demonstration of his commitment to the suppression of vice and immorality he helped in June 1701 to draft the charter for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. A year earlier his friends, including the philanthropist John Philipps*, had advised him to seek a post in Ireland, which he regarded ‘as a means to advance religion and the divine glory’, but he was not unhappy to find that his destiny lay in England: ‘I believe it is best for me as it is, and perhaps it will become me rather to continue in a private than a public station.’3
Yet within a year Comyns found himself in one of the most public of offices. He later claimed that his election at Maldon had been ‘without [his] seeking, without expense, and contrary to [his] express desire’. Early in 1700 he had acted on behalf of the town over a mandamus, and his election must have been at least partially in recognition of this service, though he had probably been promoted also in order to oppose the Whig Irby Montagu*, brother of Charles*. Consequently, as Comyns reminisced, although the latter had ‘professed himself much obliged to me, I was violently opposed by the then ministry’. Colonel Montagu’s petition against him was the first to be considered by the committee of elections, making the case a test of Court strength. No doubt as a pointed gesture to highlight Montagu’s electoral corruption, Comyns was among the appointees named on 17 Jan. 1702 to draft the bill to prevent bribery at elections. Later that day an extremely full committee of elections upheld his own return. After a ‘great debate’ and marshalling of Comyns’ support, the House narrowly voted on 27 Jan. to accept the resolution. He was listed by Robert Harley* with the Tories, and his election had been noted by Lord Spencer (Charles*) as a loss for the Whigs. On 26 Feb. he duly voted for the motion vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the impeachments of William III’s ministers. He was a teller on the 28th on a division over Irish forfeitures.4
Re-elected in July 1702, Comyns entered the most active period of his parliamentary career. His zealous Anglicanism made him a natural nominee on 10 Dec. to the committee considering amendments to the first occasional conformity bill, and he maintained a strong interest in such a measure, voting in favour of the Tack on 28 Nov. 1704. He had been one of the opponents of the Lords’ amendment to the 1703 bill for enlarging the time for taking the abjuration oath, and was listed by Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) in mid-March as a likely supporter in the event of a parliamentary attack over Nottingham’s handling of the Scotch Plot. On 12 Dec. 1702 Comyns reported from the committee considering the repair of Aberystwyth harbour, a scheme promoted by his SPCK colleague Sir Humphrey Mackworth*. He was also diligent on behalf of his own locality. The following month, on 21 Jan. 1703, he reported from the committee considering the state of the roads in Essex, and in June of that year obtained a mandamus from the Queen’s bench with the aim of forcing the Whig mayor of Colchester to register Prince George, rather than Sir Isaac Rebow*, as the borough’s high steward. He took the chair of the House on 21 Nov. 1704 during its deliberations on Mackworth’s bill for the relief and employment of the poor, and subsequently reported on the progress made. He was appointed on 28 Feb. 1705 as one of the managers of the conference with the Lords over the Aylesbury election case.5
Despite the fact that the ceremony calling him to be a serjeant-at-law was deliberately deferred until after the election, Comyns was returned without opposition in 1705. Marked as ‘True Church’ and Tory during the following sessions, his party allegiance ensured his dismissal as a deputy-lieutenant of Essex in 1705. He voted against the Court candidate as Speaker on 25 Oct. On 4 Dec. he spoke in a debate about the succession, in favour of leaving to the Queen the decision to bring over the Electress Sophia, but he was much less active than he had been in the previous Parliament. He did not stand for re-election in 1708, but was returned again in 1710, ranked as a Tory on the ‘Hanover list’, and counted as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the first session detected the mismanagements of the previous administration. Yet although he assured Harley of his service, he obtained no place from the new ministry, in marked contrast to his bounty-hunting colleague, William Fytche*. Indeed, as he later complained, throughout Anne’s reign, ‘when I might have expected better, I was by every ministry successively treated with disregard, not to say despite; tho’ I am not conscious of [having given] any just offence’. On 29 Jan. 1712, presumably on account of his animus against the Montagus, he was chosen as substitute for the ill Ralph Freman II* as chairman of the elections committee, to hear James Montagu* defend his return against a petition from the Tory Samuel Gledhill. Unrestricted by office, Comyns retained an independent spirit, but normally shared the views of the administration. His name appears on one of Oxford’s canvassing lists, possibly in connexion with the 1712 attack on Marlborough (John Churchill†), and on 18 June 1713 he voted in support of the French commerce bill. Lord Chancellor Cowper (William*) retained him on the commission of the peace in October 1714, despite his categorization as a Tory on the Worsley and other lists.6
After 1715 Comyns was employed in two separate lawsuits in defence of men accused of having Jacobite sympathies, although his activity in each case can be accounted for by ties of locality, friendship or religious views rather than his own political disaffection. The first was in early 1716 when he successfully moved for a writ of habeas corpus for the release of Anthony Bramston, with whose cousin he had represented Maldon since 1712. On the second occasion, Comyns was one of the counsel representing a schoolmaster and a clergyman, thought to be ‘seditiously disposed to the government’, who were accused of taking children from London to beg at a charity sermon in Kent. The ‘harangue upon the virtue of charity’ which the Court heard from one of the lawyers smacks of the pious advocacy of Comyns, whose interest in alms and education are both well attested. A successful lawyer, he rose to become chief baron of the Exchequer, and wrote two important legal treatises, one of which was hailed as being ‘exceedingly clear and perspicuous, and at the same time, remarkably concise and exact’. He rebuilt Hylands, which he had inherited from his father, on a Greek temple design, and remodelled Guy Harlings in New Street, Chelmsford, in white brick. Since he also bought the manor at Writtle, and owned land in Kent, his failure in 1715 to take the oath for the £600 property qualification is puzzling. He died on 13 Nov. 1740, the year after he had acquired the advowson of a living which he intended for the use of poor clergymen, but he failed to provide for this in his will and it, and the rest of his property, passed after the death of his wife to his nephew, John Comyns, who had followed him into the legal profession.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Mark Knights
- 1. IGI, London; Gent. Mag. 1758, p. 292.
- 2. Essex Review, lv. 70; Chapter in Eng. Church Hist. ed McClure 24; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 358; Bodl. Ballard 7, f. 100; Essex RO, Maldon bor. recs. D/B3/1/24, f. 112; D/B3/1/25, f. 584.
- 3. Gent. Mag. 1740, p. 571; Add. 35585, f. 309; NLW, Picton Castle mss 1489, Comyns to Philipps, 1 Apr. 1700; Chapter in Eng. Church Hist., 1, 4, 7, 23, 59; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 358.
- 4. Add. 35585, f. 309; 70305, (m); Essex RO, Maldon bor. recs. D/B3/3/555, Comyns to William Carr, 5 Jan. 1699–1700; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 131, 135; BL, Lothian mss, folders of election papers, case of Maldon; Cumbria RO (Carlisle) Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/5, James Lowther* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 22, 27 Jan. 1702; G. Harris, Life of Ld. Chancellor Hardwicke, i. 188.
- 5. Luttrell, v. 303.
- 6. Speck thesis, 315; Essex RO, Winterton (Turnor) mss D/Dkw/01/37; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 41; Add. 70197, Comyns to Harley, c.Oct. 1710; 35585, f. 309; Luttrell, vi. 720; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 240.
- 7. Essex Review, xxv. 151; xxix. 103; xlix. 49; lviii. 43; State Trials, xv. 1407–22; VCH Essex, ii. 535; iv. 200; A Digest of the Laws, preface; Morant, Essex, ii. 64; Gent. Mag. 1740, p. 571; PCC 290 Browne.