PORTER, Sir Charles (1631-96), of Essex Buildings, 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



1685 - 1687
17 May 1690 - 1695

Family and Education

b. 6 Sept. 1631, 2nd s. of Edmund Porter (d. 1670), rector of Heveningham, Norf. and preb. of Norwich, by Mary, da. of Sir Charles Chibborne of Messing Hall, Essex.  educ. M. Temple 1656, called 1663, bencher 1682, reader 1687, treasurer 1688–9.  m. (1) lic. 1 Jan. 1666, Sarah Mitchell of Edmonton, Mdx., s.p.; (2) lic. 3 Jan. 1671, Letitia (d. 1692), da. and coh. of Bartholomew Coxeter of Weald Manor, Bampton, Oxon., 1s. 2da.  Kntd. 25 Jan. 1686.1

Offices Held

Under-clerk in Chancery ?1656–63; solicitor to Duke of York 1660–85; dep. remembrancer of first fruits and tenths 1678–Mar. 1688 (acting remembrancer 1682), remembrancer Mar. 1688–d.; KC 1685–d.; ld. chancellor [I] 1686–7, 1690–d.; PC [I] 1686–8, 1690–d.; ld. justice [I] (jt.) 1690–2, 3–28 July 1693, (sole) June–July 1696, (jt.) July 1696–d.2

Member, R. Adventurers into Africa 1663, asst. 1667–71; member, R. African Co. 1672.

Freeman, Dublin 1686.3


Porter was an able lawyer, but it was his reliability, administrative competence and convivial manner, rather than any outstanding sharpness of mind, that twice brought him the lord chancellorship of Ireland. Though by temperament and principle a High Church Tory, and for many years an official in James II’s household, his unhappy experiences in the Dublin administration in 1686–7, under political siege from Lord Tyrconnel, culminating in a brusque dismissal, alienated him from his former royal master and gave him a keener appreciation of the undesirability of a Catholic sovereign. Furthermore, he was said to be always short of money, in spite of preferment and a successful career at the bar. It was not surprising, therefore, that he should have come forward in December 1688 as an early supporter of the Prince of Orange. Reappointed a King’s Counsel, he resumed and even expanded his legal practice, pleading frequently before the Lords in 1689–90. Defeated in the 1690 general election in the borough of New Windsor, when he and William Adderley* were pitted against two other experienced courtiers in Baptist May* and Sir Christopher Wren*, he was seated on petition in May, following two divisions in which the tellers on his side were all High Tories. Enlisting in the Court party, he ‘greatly assisted the King’s affairs’ in what remained of the session, and in September, after false rumours of likely preferment in England, kissed hands on reappointment as Irish lord chancellor, and ex officio as a member of the new commission of lords justices for that kingdom. He may have viewed this as a stepping stone, for he was later to complain that he had lost money by exchanging his professional fees for an official salary. In the interim before travelling to Dublin to take up his duties at the end of the year he continued to serve the administration in the Commons. He was ordered on 27 Nov., along with another newly appointed Irish judge, Sir Richard Reynell, 1st Bt.*, to prepare a bill for the attainder of rebels in England and Ireland and the confiscation of their property, and his name was also included in the committee of 6 Dec. to draw up clauses for this bill, to apply the produce of the forfeitures to paying the cost of the war, and to reserve some proportion to the King’s disposal. Listed as one who would probably support Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) in the event of an opposition attack in the Commons in December, Porter was classified as a member of the Court party in Robert Harley’s* analysis of the House early the following year, and as a placeman in successive lists in 1692 and 1693, though he served continuously in Ireland until the autumn of 1693.4

As a lord justice in Dublin, Porter was one of the signatories to the settlement that in 1691 ended the Jacobite war, the articles of Limerick. He had after his arrival been convinced by the Williamite commander-in-chief, Ginkel, of the strategic necessity of procuring a rapid peace, even at a high price. Such an assessment chimed in with his own belief that the Ulster Presbyterians constituted almost as great a potential threat to the maintenance of English rule in Ireland as the now defeated Catholics. Thus although he had not himself been a principal in the negotiations, his identification in the public mind with the authorship of the treaty was not entirely unjustified. This cost him popularity among the planter interests in Ireland, especially the ultra-Protestants, many of them returning fugitives from England, whose enthusiasm for the Revolution was already colouring their politics with a strongly Whiggish tinge and who were thus predisposed to suspect a Tory like Porter of Jacobite and Catholic sympathies despite his record under King James. He was unfortunate too in that his colleague in the Irish government, the Court Whig Thomas Coningsby*, was greedy and unscrupulous, and probably the source of the majority of complaints of arbitrary and corrupt administration which began to be levelled at the lords justices as early as January 1692. Yet the chancellor’s own financial anxieties would have aroused temptation, and his association with men of such dubious virtue as William Culliford*, the Irish revenue commissioner, must raise questions about his judgment if not his integrity.5

Criticism of Porter and Coningsby came to a head after the session of the Irish parliament held by the lord lieutenant, Lord Sydney (Henry Sidney†), in October–November 1692, which ended in disorder and a premature prorogation. As one of Sydney’s close advisers, Porter became a focus of the Irish opposition’s hostility. He also bore responsibility, as a lord justice, for some of the administrative abuses raised as grievances by members of both houses, notably the admission of Catholics into the militia and the quartering of the army on Protestant landowners, and although as yet no accusations of corruption were directed expressly at him, the unspecified charges of embezzlement of stores and maladministration of forfeited estates clearly implicated both the former lords justices. The Irish oppositionists carried the case to England, supported by both Court Whigs and Country Whigs there, and in February 1693 brought their complaints before the Lords and Commons at Westminster. Witnesses then provided further details of the allegations against the Dublin government, arguing that there had been not only personal corruption but a systematic policy of favouring the Catholic interest at the expense of the Protestant. In practice this meant little more than that Porter in particular had carried out to the letter the provisions of the articles of Limerick, considering them to be binding even without ratification by either the English or the Irish parliament. Coningsby, who sat in the Commons, was able to defend himself, but no speech on Porter’s behalf is recorded. The upshot of the inquiries, an address against abuses in the Irish administration, included no explicit censure of the former lords justices, but Porter’s position was immediately weakened. While he kept his post as chancellor, despite rumours that he would be removed and paid off with an Irish peerage and a lump sum of £10,000, he was dropped from the commission of lords justices in July 1693 and, along with Coningsby, was threatened with impeachment in the forthcoming session of the English Parliament. To prevent the two men procuring a pre-emptive pardon from the Queen and Council, a petition to the crown was lodged in June 1693 by the Earl of Bellomont (Richard Coote*), and James Hamilton of Tollymore, co. Down, the most prominent of the Irish opposition campaigners, asking for a stop to be put to any such proceedings. On being told that this was an unusual request, Hamilton is said to have remarked ‘that it was very unusual for men who had destroyed a kingdom to have pardons granted them’. In order to protect Porter and Coningsby from a parliamentary assault, and the Court from public exposure, certain Councillors, including Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), took advantage of the petition to propose a conciliar hearing of the grievances. Advised by Robert Harley, Bellomont and Hamilton swallowed their preference for parliamentary process and responded with a detailed catalogue of complaints, expanding upon the evidence given to the Irish parliament and, earlier in the year, at Westminster, but this time alleging corruption and ‘miscarriages’ of government directly against Porter and Coningsby. The Council dismissed the case, but Porter did not capitalize on his success by pushing for a pardon. Such a request, he felt, would smack too much of ‘vanity’; it would be more proper, and be a clearer vindication, for the proposal to come from the crown voluntarily rather than be solicited. Unhappily for him, no such offer was made, and he was obliged to seek permission to come to England in the autumn to defend himself against probable impeachment.6

Arriving in London early in November 1693, Porter rejoined the ranks of the Court party, to which Grascome’s list, drawn up earlier in the year, had already consigned him. He intervened on 27 Nov. in the debate on the triennial bill, concerning the proposed amendment to require that a Parliament be ‘declared’ rather than ‘held’: his concern was to preserve the royal power to prorogue or adjourn, and he thus required an explanation to be inserted into the bill, so that ‘what you intend may not encroach upon the prerogative of the King’. The issue of the Irish forfeited estates also called forth a comment from him: he opposed a motion in ways and means on 15 Dec. to raise £1 million from the resumption of the forfeitures, observing with perfect disingenuousness that they were in fact ‘inconsiderable’ and would scarcely raise £10,000. But his principal interest was of course his impeachment. On 16 Dec. the articles were brought in. Porter spoke on that occasion in his own defence, but the impeachment was not finally debated and dismissed until 29 Jan. 1694. He was charged with malversation in dealings with forfeited estates and other measures of the crown, with various acts of arbitrary and ‘tyrannical’ government, and a ‘traitorous’ promotion of the Catholic interest through ‘discouraging’ Protestants from prosecuting lawsuits against Catholics and by imposing an oath on the militia which omitted all reference to abjuring papal authority. Although the Commons did vote the militia oath illegal, each article in turn was resolved to be insufficient. Porter returned to Ireland the following June not only with this acquittal but with a confirmation of his tenure of the lord chancellorship, and the royal pardon he had refrained from soliciting the year before.7

Porter’s travails were not yet at an end, however. The appointment to the Irish government in 1693 of the Whig Lord Capell (Hon. Sir Henry Capel*), first as a lord justice and then as lord deputy, installed in Dublin Castle a man whose political opinions were diametrically opposed to his own. Their mutual antipathy was reinforced by Capell’s alliance with some of the very political interests in Ireland who had originated the campaign against the chancellor, notably the Brodrick brothers, Alan† and Thomas*, and Robert Rochfort, who was chosen speaker of the commons in the Irish parliament summoned by Capell in 1695. They and others formed a cabal from which Porter was excluded. He was fearful of their schemes, reporting to friends in England in May 1695 his belief that a plot was on foot against himself, which might best be defeated by the procurement of a letter from the King to Capell expressing confidence in the chancellor and forbidding any inquiry into the making or implementation of the articles of Limerick. Porter looked to Sydney (now Earl of Romney) as his patron for intercession at court. Capell for his part moved cautiously at first, insinuating various criticisms of the chancellor into his private correspondence with the secretaries of state: that Porter was unpopular in Ireland, and suspected of being in the ‘interest of the Irish’ and ‘not firm to his Majesty’s government’. Aside from a dispute over the nomination of a new archbishop of Dublin, in which deputy and chancellor espoused rival candidates, the conflict was mere shadow-boxing until Capell’s Irish parliament met in September 1695. The new house of commons divided on factional lines: the deputy’s followers made up a reconstructed Court party, opposed principally by personal adherents of Porter and former courtiers under Romney, while the ‘Country’ wing of the 1692 opposition remained unco-operative over supply and independent on issues of ‘national’ concern. Underlying most disputes was a struggle for supremacy between Porter and Capell. Early rounds went to the lord deputy, as when, contrary to the King’s express wish, the Irish privy council declined to prepare a bill to confirm the articles of Limerick, and when Robert Rochfort was elected speaker, after a contest in which Porter’s own candidate, Sir Joseph Williamson*, had made no showing. But the critical test came as Capell’s party began inquiries into his predecessors’ administration. A surprise attack on 23 Sept. produced a vote declaring that ‘the countenance and favour which the Irish papists had had in this kingdom during the late governments here since the year 1690’ had been ‘a . . . cause of the miseries of this kingdom’. Capell used his influence to prevent any censure being passed on Romney or Coningsby, but could not, or would not, forestall an impeachment of Porter. The deputy protested, in his letters to England, that he had been powerless to stop these proceedings, but the evidence of other observers seems to bear out Porter’s allegation that Capell had in fact encouraged his commons managers, including the speaker, to press the matter. At the very least he stood unhelpfully aloof. The articles necessarily dealt with specific abuses of power supposedly committed by Porter as lord chancellor, since these were not covered by the pardon granted him in 1693, which had been concerned with his activities as a lord justice, especially in concluding the Limerick treaty, but they also accused him of being ‘a great favourer of the late King James’s adherents and the Irish papists’, both in his chancery judgments and in his appointments to the local commissions of the peace. On 25 Oct., after 11 hours’ debate, the impeachment was rejected, largely through ‘the steadiness of the country gentlemen’, as Porter himself put it, though Capell denounced the chancellor’s defenders as consisting in the main of ‘lawyers, attorneys and solicitors . . . the commissioners of the revenue and collectors . . . many gentlemen likewise that have suits depending in his court, and all the Irish and Jacobite interest’. Alan Brodrick added another category, ‘trencher friends (for he kept a very good table, and is a very boon companion)’, and indeed it does appear that Porter’s honesty on the bench and approachability had made him personally popular, despite the political animosity fostered by his opponents. But the basic division of the commons seems to have been determined by party faction: Porter, it was said, had been responsible for creating a ‘Tory’ interest in Irish politics, something that is confirmed by the nature of his support (as revealed in a contemporary analysis of Irish MPs) and by the endorsement his cause received outside parliament from the Church of Ireland clergy. The effect of his success in this crucial vote was to reinforce King William’s resolve to maintain a balance between the rival political forces in Ireland. The King made it clear he would not be stampeded into removing from office any of his loyal servants, and Capell was ordered to suppress any schemes to carry the campaign against Porter into England again. In consequence, the superficial cordiality that had marked earlier relations between deputy and chancellor was restored, even though in the commons their rival sets of supporters were openly at odds, with Porter’s friends accused of working against the grant of supply. The truce, however, proved only temporary. In January 1696 a quarrel broke out over Capell’s recommendation to preferment of two lawyers who had been among the foremost of Porter’s prosecutors, and the following month Porter complained to Coningsby of continued exclusion from the lord deputy’s inner circle of advisers. Despite the King’s injunction, there was a scheme in operation to send an Irish MP across to England to solicit the chancellor’s recall. After Capell’s death in May 1696 factional strife broke out once more, this time in the Irish privy council, which overturned Capell’s nomination of his successors, and elected Porter instead as sole lord justice for the time being, upon which the Irish house of lords sent him an address of congratulation. The Whig dominance of the English ministry made it impossible that this arrangement would be ratified, however, and in July two Irish Whigs, Lords Mountrath and Drogheda, were appointed, both members of the ‘old gang’ that had governed under Capell, though the King’s determination not to give way to faction meant that Porter kept his place as the third member of the commission.8

Yet another Whig plot against Porter was in train by the autumn. In August it was reported that a ‘remonstrance’ would be brought over to England to threaten one more impeachment, in the Westminster Parliament, unless he was replaced, and Lord Keeper Somers (Sir John*) intervened at a sitting of the English lords justices to advise against the preparation of a bill to ratify the articles of Limerick, again requested by Porter, on the grounds that such a measure was in reality only a manoeuvre to shield the chancellor from inquiry. Evidently the Irish Whigs were still preparing to embark on their project when Porter died suddenly, of an apoplexy, while sitting in the study of his house in Chancery Lane, Dublin, on 8 Dec. 1696, possibly a result of the continuous stress to which he had long been subjected. He had been in court that morning, had ‘been easy to himself all day’, dined ‘and seemed very well; retired to his closet to write a letter, sat down in his chair and died, not speaking one word, nor stirring either foot or hand’. From a ministerial perspective, the Duke of Shrewsbury commented, ‘I cannot but look upon it as a great good fortune to the King’s affairs in Ireland to be rid of a man who had formed so troublesome a party in that kingdom’, but the King himself was ‘sorry for the loss of a good chancellor and thinks the root of all animosity against him was for little else than his supporting the articles of Limerick’. To an Anglican bishop, however, ‘a very good friend to the Church of Ireland has gone’. At his death, Porter’s finances were in as parlous a state as ever, ‘his miserable family’ having no means of providing for either of his daughters. As a mark of gratitude as well as charity, King William gave them what Porter himself had repeatedly sought, a parcel of forfeited lands, and the chancellor’s reputation was still high enough among his fellow Tories for this grant to be the only exemption allowed by the English Parliament in the Irish Forfeitures Resumption Act of 1700.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 401; PRO NI, De Ros mss D638/10/1, Porter to Coningsby, 19 Jan. 1692; Wood, Life and Times, i. 42; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1076; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 874.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 1039; vi. 471; HMC Lords, ii. 322; A. B. Beaven’s list of Irish PCs (Hist. of Parl.).
  • 3. J. T. Gilbert, Cal. Ancient Recs. Dublin, v. 410.
  • 4. Burnet, iii. 73; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 28–29; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 17; 1690–1, p. 211; HMC Lords, ii. 256–7 and passim; iii. 26, 33, 118, 123–5, 128, 148–9, 154, 187, 190, 194; CJ, x. 419; Add. 29578, f. 318; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 108–9, 144, 154; De Ros mss D638/18/18, Porter to Coningsby, 15 Jan. 1694[–5].
  • 5. J. G. Simms, War and Pol. in Ire. 191, 205–6; W. Troost, Wm. III and Treaty of Limerick, 39–41; De Ros mss D638/13/112, John Pulteney* to Coningsby, 13 Feb. 1691–2; Add. 28876, ff. 245–8.
  • 6. Troost, 62–64, 70–71, 81–83; Penal Era and Golden Age ed. Bartlett and Hayton, 16–17, 23–26; F. G. James, Ire. in the Empire 1688–1770, p. 33; Luttrell Diary, 440–2; De Ros mss D638/14/38, Sydney to Coningsby, 19 Mar. 1691–2; D638/9/7, Nottingham to same, 24 June 1693; D638/18/12, 16, Porter to same, 11, 24 Aug. 1693; Add. 70017, ff. 36–37; 70035, ff. 146–7, 154; 70278, draft of memorial from Bellomont and Hamilton, [Aug. 1693]; Boyer, Wm. III, ii. 375; Luttrell, iii. 80, 123, 153, 164, 208; CSP Dom. 1693, pp. 145, 295; HMC Portland, iii. 534; viii. 35–37; Huntington Lib. Ellesmere mss 9885.
  • 7. Troost, 84–87; Luttrell, iii. 223, 310; Grey, x. 331, 366; Nat. Archs. Ire. Wych mss 1/98, William Ball to Sir Cyril Wych(e)*, 16 Dec. 1693; CJ, xi. 33–34; Portledge Pprs. 179; Wood, iii. 445–6; CSP Dom. 1694–5, p. 115.
  • 8. Troost, 77–80, 87–149; Penal Era and Golden Age, 27–29, 40–41, 43–44; Dorset RO, Lane (Trenchard) mss D60/X20, Capell to Sir John Trenchard*, 4 Nov. 1693; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 62, 159–60, 215–16, 219–20, 236, 248–51, 257–8, 266, 268, 272–3, 281, 288–9; De Ros mss D638/18/18, 22, 48, 52, 55, 57, 36–37, 39, 72, Porter to Coningsby, 15 Jan., 9 Mar. 1694[–5], 15 May, 8, 26 Oct., 9 Nov. 1695, 5, 26 Jan., 1 Feb. 1695[–6], 7 July 1696; Wych mss 1/134, 138, bp. of Kildare to Wych(e), 20 July, 29 Oct. 1695; HMC Downshire, i. 482, 496–7, 569–71, 574–7; Surr. RO (Kingston), Somers mss 371/4/F5, 11, 7, 13–14, Capell to Somers, 25 Aug., 8, 28 Sept., 7 Oct., 17 Nov. 1695; HMC Portland, iii. 570; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 246, 267, Capell to Portland, 28 Sept. 1695, 7 Mar. 1696; 251, same to the King, 26 Oct. 1695; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248/1, ff. 278–9; Burnet, iii. 285–6; CSP Dom. 1695, pp. 109, 129, 133–4; BL, Evelyn mss, George* to John Evelyn, 30 Dec. 1695; Shrewsbury Corresp. 112, 125–6.
  • 9. Troost, 150–3; De Ros mss D638/18/77, 83, 86, Porter to Coningsby, 18 Aug., 6, 20 Oct. 1696; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 425–7; HMC Downshire, i. 686; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 8–9; iii. 155; Add. 28880, f. 428; Epistolary Curiosities ed. Warner, i. 166; Shrewsbury Corresp. 451; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 461; CJ, xii. 51; xiii. 293.