THURLOW, Edward (1731-1806).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



23 Dec. 1765 - 3 June 1778

Family and Education

b. 9 Dec. 1731, 1st s. of Rev. Thomas Thurlow of Knapton, Norf. by Elizabeth, da. and h. of Robert Smith of Ashfield, Suff.  educ. King’s Sch. Canterbury; Caius, Camb. 1748; I. Temple 1754, called 1758, bencher 1762, K.C. 1762. unm.  cr. Baron Thurlow of Ashfield 3 June 1778; Baron Thurlow of Thurlow, with sp. rem. to his nephews, 11 June 1792.

Offices Held

Solicitor-gen. Mar. 1770-Jan. 1771; attorney-gen. Jan. 1771-June 1778; P.C. 3 June 1778; ld. chancellor June 1778-Apr. 1783, Dec. 1783-June 1792; teller of the Exchequer July 1786- d.


Thurlow’s father is reported to have said of his son: ‘I have no fear about Ned. He will fight his way in the world’,1 and his motto at college was aut Caesar aut nullus.2 After being asked to leave Cambridge because of insolence, he took up a legal career, being a contemporary of John Dunning and Lloyd Kenyon, with whom he was on close terms. He soon established himself as a bold and determined lawyer, and in 1758 won great renown by worsting Fletcher Norton in the case of Luke Robinson v. the Earl of Winchilsea:

Norton ... was, in a solemn argument, opposed, beat down, and overpowered, by the manly resolution and intrepid spirit of the young lawyer. Indeed, it was a principle of his early life, that to act with confidence was to win regard, and to display courage was half the battle.3

Thurlow’s entry into politics came about through his friendship with Lord Weymouth. In 1765, when Weymouth was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, he intended to make Thurlow chief secretary. Though Weymouth’s appointment was subsequently cancelled, he brought Thurlow into Parliament for Tamworth in December 1765. In the House he became one of the Bedford group. He seems to have spoken for the first time on 27 Jan. 1766, when he opposed hearing a petition against the Stamp Act from the American congress. He voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. 1766, explaining years later:

He threw the whole blame of the war upon those ministers who repealed the Stamp Act; and if the great minister [Grenville] had continued at the helm who planned that act, his firmness and wisdom would have ensured obedience without bloodshed.

On 9 May 1766 he intervened again in debate, attacking Charles Yorke with ‘great abuse’.4

In December 1767, with the rest of the Bedfords, he went over to Administration, voting with the Government on the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768. Thurlow now came into prominence through his part in the Wilkes case, where he was briefed for the prosecution, and in the Douglas case (heard by the House of Lords acting as a court of appeal) in January 1769. He succeeded John Dunning as solicitor-general in March 1770, and became attorney-general less than a year later.

Thurlow’s great asset in debate was his bluff common-sense approach, which appealed greatly to a House that found most lawyers tedious. In the debate of 2 May 1774, for example, on the bill to regulate the government of Massachusetts Bay, he declared:

To say that we have a right to tax America, and never to exercise that right is ridiculous; and a man must abuse his own understanding very much not to allow of that right.

On 2 Feb. 1775, after Dunning had argued that the Americans could not be said to be in rebellion, Thurlow replied:

The several provincial meetings have ordered an arrangement of the militia; that the fencible men hold themselves armed, accoutred, and ready for actual service; that thirty rounds of powder and ball be provided. Now, Sir, if this is not rebellion, I desire the learned gentleman will explain what is rebellion ... I speak openly upon this point, because I am convinced their intentions are to open hostilities against the troops and to become independent of this country; and nothing can prevent their throwing off their allegiance, and becoming independent states, and this country losing all the commercial advantages from them she ever enjoyed, but a vigorous adherence to the measures now proposed.5

But Thurlow’s forthrightness, which made him so useful a debater, made him an uncomfortable colleague. William Knox gave an account of a Cabinet, which Thurlow had attended in his capacity of attorney-general, held to decide what measures to adopt in reply to the Boston Tea Party:6

They all met the following day, and Mr. Pownall and myself were sitting in the outer room, waiting, the result, when the attorney and solicitor came out. ‘Well,’ cried Pownall, ‘is it done?’ ‘No,’ answered Thurlow, ‘nothing is done. Don’t you see’, he added, ‘that they want to throw the whole responsibility of the business upon the solicitor-general and me; and who would be such damned fools as to risk themselves for such —— fellows as these. Now if it was George Grenville, who was so damned obstinate that he would go to hell with you before he would desert you, there would be some sense in it.’

In 1778 Thurlow was appointed lord chancellor and created a peer. The next five years was the period of his greatest political influence: the King confided to him the conduct of delicate political negotiations, such as that preceding the formation of the Rockingham Administration in March 1782. He retained his office under Rockingham and Shelburne, as the King’s observer in the Cabinet, but when the Coalition came to power Fox insisted on his dismissal. In December 1783 Thurlow negotiated Pitt’s assumption of office, and he again held the great seal until 1792.

Walpole wrote of him:7

Thurlow had a solid and deep understanding that penetrated to the marrow of an argument ... a manly soul that owed all its merits to vigorous nature, who had composed him of stern materials ... He was coarse in his manners, indelicate in his pleasures even to a contempt of decorum, though at the head of the law—rough, proud, sullen, and perhaps intrepid.

Thurlow died 12 Sept. 1806.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. R. Gore Brown, Chancellor Thurlow, 3.
  • 2. Add. 35626, f. 198.
  • 3. Gent. Mag. 1806, ii. 882.
  • 4. Fortescue, i. 247; Parl. Hist. xix. 587; Add. 32975, f. 128.
  • 5. Parl. Hist. xvii. 1313; xviii. 226.
  • 6. HMC Var. vi. 270.
  • 7. Last Jnls. ii. 311.