NORTHEY, Sir Edward (1652-1723), of Epsom, Surr.

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



16 Dec. 1710 - 1722

Family and Education

b. 7 May 1652, 2nd s. of William Northey, barrister, of the Middle Temple and Old Ford, Mdx. by his 2nd w. Elizabeth Garrett.  educ. St. Paul’s; Queen’s, Oxf. 1668; M. Temple 1668, called 1674, bencher 1697, reader 1698, treasurer 1701.  m. lic. 1 Dec. 1687, Anne, da. of John Jolliffe† of St. Martin Outwich, London and Woodcote Green, Surr., sis. of Sir William Jolliffe†, 2s. 3da.  Kntd. 1 June 1702.1

Offices Held

Attorney-gen. duchy of Lancaster 1689–1714; attorney-gen. 1701–7, 1710–17.2

Commr. rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral 1702; Q. Anne’s bounty 1704; union with Scotland 1706; building 50 new churches 1711–d.3

Gov. St Thomas’ Hospital 1719.4


A successful legal career had allowed Northey’s father to purchase estates in Middlesex, but this inheritance was always intended for Northey’s elder brother, and so Northey followed his father into the law. He established a flourishing legal practice, evidenced by his frequent appearances as counsel before the House of Lords, and the wealth he thereby generated was augmented in 1696 when the will of Lady Wentworth left him a third share of her substantial estate. The most notable event of Northey’s career before the Revolution was his representation of Edward Godden in 1686 during the Godden v. Hales trial upon the right of James II to dispense with the requirements of the Test Act. No political significance should, however, be read into this since contemporaries noted that Northey was assigned to the case simply because Godden ‘could get no counsel to argue for him’. One observer reported that during the trial Northey’s case against the King’s dispensing power was argued ‘very loosely’. Northey’s opinion of James II’s policies is not clear but his acceptance of the Revolution is demonstrated by his appointment in April 1689 as attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster, and by his loan of £200 to the government in March the following year.5

The regard in which Northey was held by 1693 is apparent from the suggestion of his suitability for the vacant place of solicitor-general, but he was superseded on this occasion. Four years later his post in the duchy of Lancaster became the object of a mild, possibly political, tussle. In May 1697 the Junto Whig chancellor of the duchy, the Earl of Stamford, applied to the lords justices to have Northey replaced. Stamford’s request was sidestepped by the lords justices who, having received from Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*) a ‘great character for his [Northey’s] abilities’, merely referred it to the King. The reasons for Stamford’s hostility towards Northey, which James Vernon I* claimed extended to Stamford’s pursuit of the matter with Lord Portland following the decision of the lords justices, were not made clear. Vernon conjectured that ‘it is for disaffection’, but there is no confirmation of such speculation and Stamford’s request was refused by the King. The relationship between the two men had presumably improved by the beginning of 1699, when Northey represented Stamford before the Privy Council in a dispute over hunting rights in Needwood Forest, and Northey’s continuing rise through the legal ranks is clear from the proposal in December 1700 that he be appointed lord chief justice of the common pleas. This position went instead to the attorney-general Sir Thomas Trevor*, but on 28 June 1701 Northey was appointed to succeed Trevor as attorney-general. His appointment dealt a blow to the pretensions of such Tory legal notables as Simon Harcourt I*, Sir Thomas Powys*, Sir Bartholomew Shower* and John Conyers*, and incited the wrath of Bishop Trelawny of Exeter. Trelawny denounced Northey as ‘Stamford’s and Somers’ chief counsel’s creature’ and claimed that his appointment ‘was a defiance of the Ch[urch] and a plain declaration it should be oppressed’, citing in particular Northey’s legal opinion against the attempts by the lower house of convocation to condemn as heretical John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). Trelawny expressed the hope that ‘the ink with which his patent was written in was so thin that in a few weeks not a syllable will be legible’. But Northey retained his place for six years and in 1702 was knighted. In 1704 he took a leading role in the prosecution of John Tutchin for the publication in The Observator of an attack upon the administration of the navy. In June the same year, however, Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) commented upon the frequent newsletter reports that Northey had ‘no great success in his prosecutions of any sort’. Despite the conviction of Tutchin in November that year, Godolphin was writing in 1705 of his disappointment at Northey’s unwillingness to accept a place on the bench, and ominously informed Harley that ‘I am sorry that Mr Attorney will be easy in nothing, perhaps he will be of another mind when he finds it is no more in his power; and I expect then he should say it was never offered him’. Northey retained his post, however, until 1707 when he was replaced by (Sir) Simon Harcourt I. That his removal was for political reasons is evident from his audience with the Queen where, according to Narcissus Luttrell*, the Queen assured Northey ‘that she approved very well of his service, though she had occasion to remove him from the office of attorney-general, [and] therefore had ordered him to sit within the bar, and hold the same privileges as those of her council [sic]’. Northey of course accepted the honour of the right of precedence, after Queen’s counsel, to plead in the Westminster courts. There were rumours in February 1708 that following Harcourt’s resignation Northey would be reappointed attorney-general, and such reports were still circulating in the summer the same year when Northey was said to have met Godolphin ‘several times . . . [which] makes people imagine he will be a[ttorney] g[eneral]’. The apparent alteration in Godolphin’s opinion of Northey may represent an attempt by the lord treasurer to have Northey restored as attorney-general in order to rebuff the Junto’s attempts to have Lord Halifax’s brother (Sir) James Montagu I* appointed. If this was the case then the attempt was to be unsuccessful as Montagu was finally appointed attorney-general, in November, and frustrated ambition is the most likely reason for Northey’s reported comment that ‘though they have at last given Sir James the title of attorney-general they can never give him the reputation to support it’. Northey’s essential moderation was evident in his refusal in December 1709 to act as defence counsel for Dr Sacheverell, and the ministerial alterations in the autumn of 1710 again brought him back to his former office. As a result of Lord Cowper’s (William*) resignation in September as lord chancellor and Harcourt’s unwillingness to replace him, Northey was suggested by both Harcourt and Lord Chief Justice Trevor as a possible lord keeper. However, Harcourt was subsequently persuaded to accept the seal and in October Northey replaced him as attorney-general.6

In December 1710 Northey was successful at the Tiverton by-election. Once in the House he became almost immediately a frequent nominee to committees, particularly those responsible for the drafting of legislation on issues, such as supply and the raising of troops, of paramount concern to the ministry. Such nominations were common for law officers sitting in the Commons, and Northey’s management of very few of these bills suggests that his role would have been confined to advising on legal technicalities in relation to drafting and amendment. Thus during the 1710–11 session, though he had only entered the House in January 1711, Northey was nominated to 13 drafting committees but managed only one bill through the Commons, that which made attempts on the lives of privy councillors a felony without benefit of clergy, a measure prompted by the attempted assassination of Harley. Despite suggestions in the autumn that Northey’s place was in jeopardy for his having allowed the leading Junto Whig lawyer Nicholas Lechmere* to ‘harangue . . . against the ministers’ at a trial concerned with a seditious libel, Northey remained attorney-general. Consequently, his parliamentary activity in the 1711–12 session followed a similar pattern to that of the previous session: the one bill he actually piloted through the House was the militia bill. His only recorded speech occurred in the debate of 24 Jan. 1712 when he spoke in favour of censuring the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) for corruption in dealing with army bread contracts. During the summer recess Northey’s position as attorney-general led to his involvement in moves to prosecute Marlborough for this peculation. Northey’s most significant activity in the 1713 session related to the passage of the bill to confirm the 8th and 9th articles of the French commercial treaty: he was included on the team of ministerial MPs nominated on 14 May to draft it and on 18 June voted in favour of the measure.7

At the 1713 election, Northey was returned again for Tiverton. On 18 Mar. 1714 he spoke during the censure debate concerning Richard Steele*, one report claiming that Northey had ‘insisted upon it that a man was not to print truth which reflected upon the ministry’; and in the supply committee of 12 May he spoke in support of the payment of arrears to Hanoverian troops. Contemporaries found some difficulty at this time in attaching a party label to him. The Worsley list described him as a Tory, while a comparison of the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments classed him as a Whig, and a further list from 1715 classed him as a ‘whimsical’ Whig. This uncertainty probably stemmed from an absence of strong partisan sentiments on Northey’s part. Lord Cowper, in his advice to the new king on judicial appointments in 1714, described Northey as ‘an excellent lawyer’, and a ‘moderate Tory . . . much respected by that party’ who was ‘no further blameable’ for his actions during the Oxford ministry ‘than by obeying those who could command him if he kept his place’. Cowper implicitly recommended retaining Northey as a means of avoiding a clash between rival Whig claimants to the post. Rumours that Northey was to be replaced as attorney-general were circulating in June 1714, but the more moderate counsel of Cowper prevailed and Northey retained his place until retiring, with a pension of £1,500 p.a., in 1717. He remained in the Commons until 1722, voting with the government while he remained in office but thereafter occasionally opposing the ministry. He died at Epsom on 16 Aug. 1723.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Richard Harrison


  • 1. Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 478–9; DNB.
  • 2. Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Official Lists, 22.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 313; A. Savidge, Q. Anne’s Bounty, 124; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 119; E. G. W. Bill, Q. Anne Churches, pp. xxiii–xxiv.
  • 4. J. Aubrey, Surr. (1719), 318.
  • 5. D. Lemmings, Gents. and Barristers, 155; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 380; iv. 56; CSP Dom. 1686–7, pp. 166, 174; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 2004.
  • 6. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Mellish mss. Me 150–89/4, William Houghton to Edward Mellish, 1 Apr. 1693; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 158; 1703–4, p. 535; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/103, 106, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 18, 25 May 1697; Luttrell, iv. 477; v. 66, 180; vi. 165, 169, 643; HMC Portland, iii. 639; iv. 501, 509, 610, 615; Bodl. Ballard 33, f. 58; Nat. Archs. Ire. Wych mss 2/136, Francis Annesley* to Sir Cyril Wych(e)*, 28 June 1701; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 294; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 1 July 1701; Add. 28927, ff. 131–2; Burnet, iv. 525; G. V. Bennett, Tory Crisis 1688–1730, 58–59; DNB; HMC Bath, i. 58–59, 76, 77; DNB (Tutchin, John); Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 21 Feb. 1707–8; BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 52, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull*, 20 Dec. 1709; Hereford and Worcester RO (Hereford), Brydges mss A81/IV/23/a, Edmund to Francis Brydges, 10 Oct. 1710.
  • 7. Trumbull Alphab. mss 54, John Bridges to Trumbull, 30 Nov. 1711; Trumbull Add. mss 136 bdle. 1, Ralph Bridges to same, 25 Jan. 1711–12, 15 Apr. 1712; NSA, Kreienberg despatches 11 Apr., 12 Aug. 1712.
  • 8. Kreienberg despatch 19 Mar. 1714; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 8, f. 69; Trumbull Misc. mss 53, James Johnston* to Trumbull, 14 May 1714; G. Holmes and W. A. Speck, Divided Soc. 66; Newdigate newsletters 22 June 1714; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxxii. 240, 353; The Gen. n.s. vi. 22.