WILLES, John (1685-1761), of Lincoln's Inn and Astrop, Northants.
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Family and Education
b. 29 Nov. 1685, 1st s. of Rev. John Willes, canon of Lichfield, by Anne, da. of Sir William Walker, mayor of Oxford. educ. Lichfield g.s.; Trinity, Oxford 1700; L. Inn 1708, called 1713, bencher 1719. m. Margaret, da. and coh. of Charles Brewster of Worcester, 4s. 4da. Kntd. 23 Jan. 1737.
K.C. 1719; 2nd justice of Chester 1726, c.j. 1729; attorney-gen. 1734; serjeant-at-law 1737; l.c.j. of common pleas 1737-d.; commr. for great seal 1756-7.
Lord Carteret used to say that he had make Willes chief justice:
I will tell you how: I knew him at Oxford: Queen Anne’s Ministry had caught him scribbling libels: I had even then an interest with men in power—I saved him from the pillory—now, you know, if he had stood in the pillory, Sir Robert Walpole could never have made him a judge.1
He first came to the fore in 1721, when, during the proceedings on a by-election at Minehead, a motion that ‘John Willes of Lincoln’s Inn had been guilty of a crime in having caused the writ to be delivered to a candidate’ was negatived without a division’.2 He put up for Bishop’s Castle in 1722, but withdrew in favour of the Duke of Chandos’s candidate, on the understanding that Chandos would find him another seat and pay all expenses. After a great deal of trouble Chandos arranged for him to be put up on Edward Eliot’s interest for Launceston,3 where he was defeated but returned on petition. Only three speeches of his have been recorded. On 30 Mar. 1732, as a lawyer, he unsuccessfully opposed the resolution to declare void the sale of the Radclyffe annuity and the Derwentwater estate.4 He spoke at length against the repeal of the Septennial Act in March 1734; and on 28 Feb. 1735 he supported the subsidy to Denmark. In spite of his disreputable private life—his passion for gaming, according to Horace Walpole ‘was notorious, for women, unbounded’5—he was rapidly advanced in his profession by Walpole. When the chief justiceship of the common pleas fell vacant in 1737, the 1st Lord Egmont writes,
there were two that put in for it, Judge Denton and Sir John Willes, attorney-general. Denton exposed his long service, to which Sir Robert Walpole replied: ‘I confess it, but you don’t whore; Willes must have it.’ ‘I did not know,’ answered Denton, ‘that whoring is a necessary qualification for a chief justice,’ and going his way made no scruple to relate the story. Willes accordingly got it, who does not care who knows his attachment to women. An acquaintance of his told him, he heard that one of his maids was delivered of a bastard. ‘What is that to me?’ said Willes. ‘Aye, but’, said the other,’ ‘tis reported you are the father.’ ‘Then what is that to you,’ replied the other.6
After Walpole’s fall Willes attached himself to Leicester House, who put him down for the great seal in the future reign.
He was offered the great seal as lord keeper in 1757, but missed it by stipulating for a peerage with it, which was refused by George II.7 He died 15 Dec. 1761.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 169-70.
- 2. CJ, xix. 717.
- 3. Chandos to Oakeley, 27 Nov. 1721, to Carter, 27 Feb., to Brinsden 7 Mar., to Vincent 17 Mar. and to John Willes 17 Mar. and 17 Apr. 1722, Chandos letter bks.
- 4. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 248.
- 5. Mems. Geo. II, i. 89.
- 6. HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 270.
- 7. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 407-8.