COPLEY, Sir John Singleton (1772-1863), of 25 George Street, Hanover Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



18 Mar. 1818 - 1818
1818 - 1826
1826 - 25 Apr. 1827

Family and Education

b. 21 May 1772, at Boston, Mass., 1st s. of John Singleton Copley, portrait painter, and Mary Susannah Farnum, da. of Richard Clarke, E.I. agent, of Boston. educ. at Dr. Thomas Horne’s, Chiswick; Franks’s sch. Clapham; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1790, fellow 1795-1804, travelling bachelor (to USA) 1795-6; L. Inn 1794, called 1804. m. (1) 13 Mar. 1819, Sarah Garay (d. 15 Jan. 1834), da. of Charles Brunsden, wid. of Lt.-Col. Charles Thomas, 2 Ft. Gds., 1s. d.v.p. 4da. (2 d.v.p.); (2) 5 Aug. 1837, in Paris, Georgiana, da. of Lewis Goldsmith, journalist, 1da. suc. fa. 1815; kntd. Oct. 1819; cr. Bar. Lyndhurst 25 Apr. 1827. d. 12 Oct. 1863.

Offices Held

Sjt.-at-law 6 July 1813; charity commr. 1818-34; king’s sjt. and c.j. Chester circuit Dec. 1818-July 1819; solicitor-gen. July 1819-Jan. 1824; att.-gen. Jan. 1824-Sept. 1826; master of rolls and recorder, Bristol Sept. 1826-Apr. 1827; PC 20 Nov. 1826; ld. chan. Apr. 1827-Nov. 1830, Nov. 1834-Apr. 1835, Sept. 1841-July 1846; c. bar. exch. Jan. 1831-Dec. 1834; member, jud. cttee. of PC 1833; high steward, Cambridge Univ. 1840-d.


Copley’s professional rival and political opponent John Campbell II*, writing in the 1850s, asserted that ‘from his entrance into public life, he has shown himself to be devoid of public principle, and to be actuated too often by a sense of interest’.1 The validity of this judgement is called into question by Campbell’s scant regard for accuracy and wilful misrepresentation of evidence; but it has an element of truth, for Copley, the most versatile of politicians, was ‘the supremely successful careerist of his age’.2 From the outset of his parliamentary career he was reputed to have abandoned his former radical political views to ensure his future promotion under the auspices of the Liverpool ministry.3 He bitterly resented the charge and, denying that he had ever belonged to a political club or even indulged in political activity before he entered the House, dismissed it with a vehemence ‘from which’, as an obituarist saw it, ‘we may infer either that it was overstated, or that the allegation with its innuendoes nipped him too closely’.4 Whatever the truth about his supposed radical past, by 1820 Copley, as a common lawyer of outstanding talent and a new solicitor-general who had readily defended the repressive legislation adopted after Peterloo, was set fair, at the age of 49, on the road to advancement. Recently married to the seductive, vulgar and flighty niece of chief baron Shepherd, ‘a handsome woman, very Portuguese in her appearance’, 23 years his junior and a Waterloo widow after six weeks of marriage, he had ‘taken a country place’ at Hanwell, Middlesex, though he was mostly based in the London house in George Street which he had inherited from his debt-ridden father in 1815. In addition to his wife, he supported his mother and spinster sister Mary, who both lived into their nineties.5

On 1 Jan. 1820, Campbell told his brother:

I dined at Copley’s ... [and] rallied him about his conduct with former freedom, and he retains his former good humour. Copley told me in confidence that the only thing ministers are afraid of is the [regent’s] divorce ... All the ministers, and particularly the chancellor, resist it as much as possible.6

Two days later Copley’s wife gave birth to a daughter, Sarah, who survived for less than a month. His mother informed his married sister that

your brother being greatly occupied with his business, and his wife having no near connections, you will naturally suppose that Mary and myself have been called to much attention ... You cannot form an idea of the occupations of his mind and time ... The diabolical [Cato Street] conspiracy ... occasions much business, which my son has his share of. This is the fourth time he has been called to renew his election, and, though there is no contest, expense accompanies the scene.7

After being returned again unopposed for Ashburton on the Clinton interest at the general election, Copley appeared for the crown in the prosecutions of Thistlewood and others of the conspirators.8 He defended the aliens bill, 1 June, and had something to say on Mackintosh’s stealing in shops bill, 30 June 1820. According to Campbell, it was initially thought that he ‘would go out of Parliament and conduct the prosecution against Queen Caroline at the bar of the House of Lords’; but in the event it was arranged that he and the attorney-general, Sir Robert Gifford*, should stay in and appear in person for the crown in support of the bill of pains and penalties.9 While Joseph Phillimore* reckoned that, given Gifford’s shortcomings, ministers ‘must rely upon the solicitor-general mainly, whose shoulders are quite equal to the burden’, Lord Grey was unimpressed by his performances in the early stages of the trial, which Campbell too deemed ‘very bad’.10 His reply on the whole case, 28, 30 Oct. 1820, helped to boost his reputation, though the duke of Wellington did not think that ‘he made so much impression as the attorney, or that the case of the bill was much improved by him’. Soon afterwards his mother told his sister to disregard press reports that his health had suffered: he was ‘very well’, even though his labours had been ‘very arduous and tiresome’.11

Copley briefly justified the omission of the queen’s name from the liturgy, 23 Jan., and spoke at greater length against its restoration, 26 Jan. 1821, when his assertion that ‘no person could agree with the present motion without being alike an enemy to the monarch and the monarchy itself’ earned him a rebuke from the Speaker. The young Whig George Howard*, a spectator in the gallery, thought his speech was ‘not very powerful’; and the radical Whig Member Grey Bennet wrote that Copley delivered

a very bad, stupid and ill argued speech with abuse of the queen ... We cheered and laughed and made such a noise as to completely disconcert him. He got into a great passion, bellowed like a bull and roared himself hoarse.12

Campbell recorded two encounters with Copley after the failure of the parliamentary campaign in support of the queen. On 25 Feb. he wrote:

Copley becomes very insolent in his triumph. He said to me the other day: ‘What chiefly delights me is that we remain in, not from being liked, but because you Whigs are hated - just as one has more pleasure in succeeding by a piece of roguery than upon the merits’. This is a very characteristic speech.

And on 10 Mar. 1821:

Copley swaggers now very much. He says that from the time the green bag was laid on the table till a short time before the meeting of Parliament, he had no notion that ministers could stand, but that now he considered them immortal. He boasts of the special favour vouchsafed to them by Providence, for, if the bill had either been lost on the second reading, or had been carried by so large a majority as to go down to the Commons, in either case they were ruined. He was yesterday laughing at the Whigs for being shy of the radicals, and trying by their moderation to preserve the good opinion of the king, observing that their only chance was to force themselves in on the shoulders of the people. Campbell. Had you come into the House on the popular side, what a firebrand you would have been! Scarlett. He would have retained his name of Jacobin Copley. Solicitor-General. That is a calumny lately invented. Scarlett. It is a name I well remember your being called by, before you went over.13

Copley opposed reception of Davison’s petition against Justice Best† and became involved in a slanging match with Creevey, 23 Feb. 1821. The same day he obtained leave to introduce a bill to expedite the dispatch of business in the court of king’s bench, which he introduced, 26 Feb.14 It became law on 6 Apr. (1 & 2 Geo. IV, c. 16). He voted silently against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He opposed Martin’s bill to allow prisoners accused of capital crimes to be defended by counsel, 30 Mar., and spoke at length against inquiry into Peterloo, 15 May. He led the opposition to Mackintosh’s forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May, when the Tory backbencher Henry Bankes thought he spoke ‘with some effect’,15 moved a wrecking amendment, and was a teller for the minority in the division, as he was for those opposed to the bill when it was defeated, 4 June. He was a teller for the majority against inquiry into chancery delays next session, 30 May. That day he denied that the Constitutional Association was illegal, and on 3 June he opposed Whitbread’s attempt to stop its prosecutions for blasphemous libel. He presented an Ashburton petition against the poor relief bill, 20 June,16 and was a teller for the minority against Martin’s bill to prevent the ill-treatment of cattle, 29 June 1821.

Early in 1822 Copley published a substantial review of The State of the Nation, a defence of government policy which concluded with the assertion that ‘ministers are fully entitled to the praise of a zealous performance of all their public duties’, their ‘effectual prosecution of business without pretension’ and their ‘sober, steady victory over the most appalling difficulties’ (pp. 205-6). In the House, 8 Feb., he gave assurances that Henry Hunt’s* complaints over his treatment in Ilchester gaol were under investigation, and defended a clause of the Irish insurrection bill. On 20 Feb. he deplored Hume’s ‘scandalous’ attack on the judges who had found against Hunt’s appeal, but he was required by the Speaker to swallow his words.17 He supported the navy three per cents bill, 11 Mar., opposed Hume’s amendment to the mutiny bill concerning courts martial, 12 Mar., and upheld the revised regulations for the management of Ilchester gaol, 13 Mar. He opposed reduction of the judge-advocate’s salary, 20 Mar., justified a prosecution by the Constitutional Association, 27 Mar., and spoke against inquiry into the administration of justice in Middlesex county court, 28 Mar. He voted against Canning’s Catholic peers relief bill, 30 Apr. He was a teller for the minority against considering mitigation of the criminal code, 4 June, and the majority hostile to investigation of the vice-chancellor’s jurisdiction, 26 June. He presented a petition against Phillimore’s Marriage Act amendment bill, 12 July, and explained a detail of the smuggling prevention bill, 29 July 1822.18 When a vacancy occurred in the representation of Cambridge University in late October 1822 Copley sought Lord Liverpool’s backing, but found the premier committed to support his young nephew Lord Hervey*. He nevertheless canvassed the residents, professing himself to be ‘a stout anti-Catholic’, and formed a London committee which included some junior members of the government. He withdrew when Speaker Manners Sutton confirmed his own candidature; and it was too late for him to re-enter the contest when Manners Sutton pulled out on account of doubts as to his eligibility. Some thought that through the Speaker’s vacillation he had been ‘driven from a certain success’.19

Copley, who produced a review of the Administration of the Affairs of Great Britain, Ireland and their Dependencies at the start of 1823, informed the House, 13 Mar., that government had no intention of abandoning the principle of the Act of the previous year dealing with insolvent debtors, though he did not entirely rule out the possibility of excluding from its scope those who secured for themselves collusive arrests. He persuaded Moore to withdraw his motion for a repeal bill with a promise to reconsider the subject, 18 Mar. Next day he defended the grant for the insolvent debtors court.20 He saw no reason to change the regulations governing confinements for contempt, 10 Apr., and dismissed Carlile’s petition of complaint over his prosecution and imprisonment, 8 May. He was a teller for the majorities against Mackintosh’s resolutions for criminal law reform, 21 May, and adjournment of the debate on Williams’s motion for inquiry into chancery administration, 4 June. In the resumed debate the following day he replied to Brougham, defended the master of the rolls, Sir Thomas Plumer†, and denied the need for inquiry; he was a teller for the hostile majority. He voted for the usury laws repeal bill, 17 June, and in the government minority against the Scottish juries bill, 20 June. He opposed the main thrust of the attack on chief baron O’Grady, 17 June, 2, 3, 8, 9 July, and argued that Basil Cochrane had no legitimate grievance against the authorities, 24 June. He spoke against Mackintosh’s amendment to the larcenies bill and was a teller for the majority, 25 June 1823.

In October 1823 Sir Charles Abbott, chief justice of king’s bench, commented that while Copley had ‘less learning’ than Gifford, he possessed ‘a much better person, countenance, and manner; a good head, and a kind heart, and [was] not deficient in learning. I suppose he will soon fill one of our high offices’.21 The following month the retirement of Sir Robert Dallas†, chief justice of common pleas, and the death of Sir Richard Richards†, chief baron of the exchequer, necessitated a reshuffle of legal offices. Had Plumer been willing to retire from the rolls, Gifford would have replaced him and Copley been offered the common pleas, though there was a report that he ‘says he cannot afford to take the common pleas and quit his present lucrative situation and prospects’.22 In the event, Gifford took the common pleas and the exchequer was offered to Copley who, ‘not being in affluent circumstances, preferred becoming attorney-general’.23

He opposed the production of papers on the criminal judicature of the Isle of Man and was a teller for the minority, 18 Feb. 1824. Next day he voted against a return of information on Catholic office-holders. He dismissed a charge of breach of privilege against lord chancellor Eldon, 1 Mar., and was a teller for the majority against it. He modified Hume’s motion for a return of committals by London, Middlesex and Surrey magistrates before acquiescing in it, 2 Mar. On Lord Althorp’s county courts bill, 4 Mar., he proposed an amendment to provide indemnity and compensation for displaced officials. He explained his proposals in detail, 26 Mar., and carried them against Althorp’s protests. On 5 Mar. he introduced his promised bill to amend the laws concerning insolvent debtors; it became law, 17 June 1824 (5 Geo. IV, c. 61). He seconded Hume’s wrecking amendment to Martin’s ‘vexatious and every way unnecessary’ cattle ill-treatment bill, 9 Mar., and was a teller for the majority for the Welsh judges bill, 11 Mar. He presented an Ashburton petition against the exportation of long wool, 25 Mar.24 On Plumer’s death that month Gifford became master of the rolls and the common pleas were offered to Copley, who was understood to have first refusal of them; he decided to stay where he was. Soon afterwards his mother reported that ‘he gets through his busy scene with health and good spirits’.25 Copley was a government teller for the aliens bill, 2 Apr., and for the majority against Lamb’s ‘injurious’ proposal to allow defence by counsel in felony cases, 6 Apr. He secured further amendments to the county courts bill, 10 May,26 and succeeded in thwarting Althorp’s bid to delete his compensation clause, 24 May. He was a teller for the majority against an address on gaol commitments, 27 May. He presented an Ashburton petition for inquiry into the prosecution of the missionary John Smith in Demerara, 31 May;27 but on 11 June he defended the proceedings at length and was a teller for the government majority. Bankes thought he spoke ‘with dexterity and effect’, but the Whig George Agar Ellis* reckoned that he performed ‘indifferently’.28 He said that the privy council was the proper tribunal to consider alleged abuses in the administration of the Isle of Man, 18 June 1824. During the summer Copley, who had now moved his country residence to Wimbledon, spent three weeks in Paris with his wife.29

He denied the right of the Catholic Association, whose conduct was ‘a direct interference with the impartial administration of justice’, to be heard at the bar of the House against the bill to suppress it, 18 Feb. 1825. He voted silently against relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, and the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. He opposed repeal of the Bubble Act and denied that any of Carlile’s property had been confiscated by government, 29 Mar. He presented a petition from two officials of king’s bench for compensation for losses sustained under the County Courts Act, 4 May.30 He defended the proposed increase in judges’ salaries, 16 May, and on 20 May rejected Brougham’s amendment to block the promotion of puisne judges as ‘altogether uncalled for’; he was a teller for the hostile majority. He insisted that Carlile and others had been rightly prosecuted for blasphemous libel, 2 June. The same day he got leave to introduce a bill to repeal so much of the Bubble Act as related to joint-stock companies, which became law, 5 July 1825 (6 Geo. IV, c. 91), and supported Williams’s successful amendment to increase puisne judges’ retirement allowances by an extra £400. He explained details of the smuggling prevention bill, 10 June.31 He was a teller for the majority against an amendment to the university police bill, 20 June, defeated Martin’s cattle cruelty bill on its second reading, 21 June, and declined his invitation to help him prepare a more acceptable measure, 28 June.32 He defended the Scottish partnerships bill, 22 June. Having been earlier consulted by the home secretary Peel on the defects of Hume’s Combination Act of 1824, and been named to the select committee of inquiry, 29 Mar., he dealt with details of the subsequent amendment bill, 27, 29, 30 June.33 He blamed the delay in the distribution of the Deccan prize money on the ‘complexity of the business’, 28 June 1825.

Shortly before the end of the session John Hobhouse* met the Copleys at dinner and pronounced them

both singular in their way ... [Lady Copley] very much so, flighty and coquettish, but still with some talent ... She is handsome, and has intelligent black eyes. Her passion, as she says, leads her to the universe of clever men only. The attorney is a talking man, having been a Whig before he was a law officer of the crown. He looks with indifference at politics and politicians, and cares but little if that indifference should be manifest to all. He does not seem to me to have much information out of his profession ... He has a ‘tranchant’ decisive way of talking, without much regard to facts.

Eleanor Fazakerley told Henry Fox*, 29 Aug. 1825, that Copley, who was ‘called a pleasant man’, was in fact ‘vulgar’, and that his wife was ‘an affected, vulgar woman’.34 Soon afterwards their only son, born in August 1824, died. In November 1825 Copley declared his candidature for Cambridge University at the next general election. He was aiming to turn out William Bankes, the increasingly discredited victor of 1822 and a rabid opponent of Catholic relief. Like Bankes, the other sitting Member, Lord Palmerston, the secretary at war and a pro-Catholic, stood his ground, and a fourth candidate emerged in the shape of Goulburn, the Irish secretary, another anti-Catholic. Lord Lowther*, who had chaired Copley’s short-lived committee in 1822, commented that ‘ere long [he] will be chief justice and probably chancellor, [and] I suppose is very anxious for this additional distinction’. The Whig, Professor Adam Sedgwick, who worked for Palmerston, wrote that ‘Copley is a clever fellow, but is not sincere, at least when I pass him I am sure I smell a rat’.35

Thomas Creevey*, noting a rumour that Eldon was on the verge of retirement and that Gifford was not considered fit to replace him (he was, in fact, Eldon’s personal choice to do so), thought Copley had his eye on the great seal: ‘but they say it is impossible, as he is not a chancery man’. Hudson Gurney*, for one, wished ‘most heartily Copley was chancellor’.36 In the House, 15 Feb. 1826, Copley said there was no need for further legislation on joint-stock company frauds. He successfully opposed Martin’s motion for a bill to prevent bear-baiting, 21 Feb., but did not then resist his renewed cattle cruelty bill, though he thought Martin’s piecemeal efforts were misguided. Later that day he thwarted Denman’s motion condemning the conduct of William Kenrick†, a Surrey magistrate and Welsh judge. He explained details of the promissory notes bill, 24, 28 Feb., when he presented an Ashburton petition for the abolition of slavery.37 He defended the Jamaican slave trials as an honest attempt to carry out the existing law, however morally repugnant it might be, 2 Mar. He did not object to Hume’s motion for further returns of commitments for contempt, 7 Mar., but thought it was impossible to go as far as Hume wished without abolishing chancery altogether. Anticipating legislation likely to be introduced on the basis of the chancery commissioners’ forthcoming report, he asserted that ‘the principles upon which ... chancery was established were so sound and so admirable, that he would deny the ingenuity of man ... to devise a system more beneficial to the community’. He agreed that defects in the law concerning patents should be remedied, but did not consider them to be as serious as some contended, 22 Mar. He made a fleeting appearance at York assizes, ‘pocketed three hundred guineas, danced at the assize ball, and went off again the next morning’.38 He offered explanatory comments on details of the Bank charter bill, 14 Apr., and the criminal justice bill, 17 Apr., and again opposed Lamb’s attempt to establish defence by counsel, 25 Apr. Seeking leave to introduce a measure to effect the recommendations of the chancery commissioners, 18 May 1826, he detailed its main features and paid a personal tribute to Eldon. The lateness of the session and difficulties created by the financial provisions of the bill led to its being held over to the new Parliament.39 At about this time Copley’s sister wrote:

My brother is so entirely occupied with public and professional duties, that it is quite in vain to expect anything from him. He bears his hard work wonderfully, and is never so happy as when he can steal a few hours to run down to us [at Wimbledon], but he always brings his work with him.40

At the general election of 1826 Copley led the poll for Cambridge University throughout and finished 140 ahead of Palmerston and 264 clear of Bankes.41

Gifford died suddenly, 4 Sept. 1826. Almost immediately Canning, the foreign secretary, who was probably playing his own game, strongly advised Liverpool to make Copley master of the rolls, ‘with a distinct understanding that he is to succeed to the office of lord chancellor; but till that succession occurs, is to remain in the House of Commons’. He summarized his reasons as follows:

1. The master of the rolls ought to be restored to the House of Commons. 2. The chancery report is in Copley’s hands, and no other can manage it. 3. Copley is the only man fit to be lord chancellor as a politician; and the mastership of the rolls will prepare [him] for it as a judge. 4. He will be a tower of strength to the government, first in the House of Commons, and afterwards in the House of Lords.42

Liverpool told Eldon that Copley ‘should be made to accept the mastership of the rolls’; but the lord chancellor, whose plans to retire in favour of Gifford had been thrown into disarray, had reservations, as he explained to Peel:

I doubt extremely whether ... [Copley] will accept the office of master of the rolls even with the prospect of possessing the great seal. His professional emoluments must be very great. The object for him naturally to look to is the king’s bench, and report as to the state of health of the chief justice [Abbott] does not represent the prospect of obtaining that object as at a distance. I have stated to Lord Liverpool ... my apprehensions that he will decline the rolls. He ought not, perhaps, yet a man of his eminence in that part of the profession in which he has been engaged, he may probably feel unwilling to go into a court of equity as a judge, never having been in one as a counsel, and especially that equity court in which much business is rather business of form, than requiring the exercise of a powerful intellect.

Eldon suggested to Liverpool that if he were to retire, ‘a general arrangement as to the chancery offices should now be made, instead of that partial arrangement of filling up the rolls only for a time’:

He stated some weighty objections to this, and continues to object to it. He thinks that Copley would go better to the chancellorship with a little experience gained at the rolls, and I think he feels an unwillingness that my departure should precede what may come forward upon the Catholic question. There could be, too, no objection to Copley’s going from the rolls to the king’s bench ... Unfortunately he is out of town, so that it has been impossible, and the rather because it is not known where he is, to learn what his feelings are. The notion is that he should remain, if he takes the office, in the House of Commons at least till the chancery bill is got through there.43

When Copley was found the offer was made to him, and he accepted it ‘as a stepping stone’ and ‘without any doubt’, as Eldon told Peel:

Indeed, though I doubted whether he would accept ... yet recollecting that the chancellorship and the chief justiceship of the king’s bench may soon be open, and, on the other hand, a change of administration may not be so impossible a thing in the meantime, as to make the acceptance a foolish thing, of an office and house worth £8,000 a year for life, which may be accepted without prejudice to his moving to either of the above offices if they happen to be vacant in due time, I think he has acted very prudently, especially taking into the account that he goes to school in the lower form (the rolls) to qualify him to remove into the higher, if he takes the chancellorship.44

Eldon agreed to remain in office for the time being, but it was clear that Copley was almost certain to succeed him ‘as a matter of course’ and ‘at no distant period’, especially as the anticipated death of the duke of York, the anti-Catholic heir to the throne, was expected to ‘be the break-up of a powerful party, and must eventually drive out Lord Eldon’.45

Copley was re-elected for Cambridge University without difficulty and resumed his seat, 12 Feb. 1827.46 Charged with the task of bringing in the revised chancery reform bill and now assured of adequate funds to implement its proposals, he expounded its details at length, 27 Feb., and brought it in, 14 Mar.47 In the climate of uncertainty created by Liverpool’s stroke, Burdett’s motion to consider Catholic claims assumed great significance as a test not only of opinion in the new Parliament, but of the continued viability of the system whereby the question was regarded as an open one within the government. Canning may have had an inkling of what Copley intended, for, having made short work of the ‘malignant’ Sir Edward Knatchbull on the corn bill, he wrote to Knighton, the king’s secretary, 3 Mar., ‘Do not, I entreat you (for his own sake) let Copley be the Sir E. Knatchbull of Monday [5 Mar., the first day of the Catholic debate]’.48 On the second Copley spoke strongly against relief, invoking Catholic persecutions and intolerance of past centuries. While he professed willingness to concede their claims on their guarantee of adequate securities, he contended that ‘the Catholics of the present day were just as little disposed to give security for their allegiance to the state, as the Catholics of former years’. His reference to the ‘liberality’ of Cambridge University prompted Hobhouse, who thought he was ‘speaking ... like a drunken man’, to utter a ‘sort of horse laugh’, to which Copley responded with a sneer at Hobhouse’s failure to obtain the university seat before 1820. (The reporters were under the impression that Copley’s remark was aimed at Scarlett, a beaten candidate in 1822.) Hobhouse later wrote:

This caused a great shout from both sides in which I joined, though I did not know what he had said, and the effect was that Copley was completely astounded and stopped for at least two minutes. I cheered him to give him courage. At last he proceeded, but the conclusion of his speech was very lame.49

Copley, who took much of the material for his speech from a recent pamphlet by the Rev. Henry Phillpotts, insisted that he was ‘not one of the ministers of the crown’ and had ‘no connection with the government’. Later in the debate Canning, supposedly suspecting Eldon, whose niece was married to Phillpotts, of ‘encouraging Copley’, delivered what Hobhouse described as an ‘angry and contemptuous attack’ on him. The episode excited considerable interest, not least because the motion was defeated and, as more than one observer reckoned, Copley had openly admitted both before and after his speech that he ‘did not care which way the question went’, ‘not caring personally one farthing’ about it. Canning was generally thought to have gone too far.50 His friend Lord Binning* dismissed the notion that Copley had been the mouthpiece of Eldon, let alone the king:

I doubt whether ... [it] was the speech of the chancellor. It certainly was not that of the king. He found it necessary to make a speech for Cambridge, and like all insincere men who put themselves in a false position, wishing to show his zeal, and at the same time to leave himself a very wide door through which to retreat at a future and convenient opportunity, he blundered the matter, went ... further than he meant, and got a sad licking for his pains.

A little over a week later Canning sent Copley an apology for his ‘severity’; but, according to Lord Colchester, it was not received with much grace.51 The Whig James Abercromby* believed that Copley, ‘being an idle man’, had taken Phillpott’s pamphlet as his text because

it furnishes topics on a question where his own opinions are directly at variance with all the argument of his speech. He is a man whose opinions, as far as he has any, are all liberal, perhaps even in the extreme, but he has no feeling or principle.52

Copley very reluctantly agreed to postpone further consideration of the report on the chancery bill until after Easter, 23 Mar. 1827; the measure subsequently foundered. He was given a week’s leave to attend Bristol sessions, 5 Apr. When Eldon declined to remain in office under him Canning, with the king’s enthusiastic backing, offered the great seal to Copley, who accepted with little hesitation.53 Two months later Greville dined with Lord Lyndhurst, as he had now become:

He talked to me a great deal about his acceptance of the great seal and the speculation it was. He had been master of [the] rolls with £7,000 a year for life ... He debated whether it was worth while to give this up to be chancellor perhaps only one year, with a peerage and the pension. He talked the matter over with his wife, and they agreed that if it only lasted one year (which he evidently thought probable) it was worth while, besides the contingency of a long chancellorship ... In talking of the speculation he had made, political opinions and political consistency seemed never to occur to him, and he considered the whole matter in a light so businesslike and professional as to be quite amusing.54

Lyndhurst himself apparently told Benjamin Disraeli† in 1836 that he had been

not very sanguine as to the success of the Canning cabinet; but the great seal and a peerage? ‘Who would refuse it?’ I thought I would not baulk fortune, and that a seat in the House of Lords would always keep me a career.55

His appointment ‘mortally offended’ many Whigs, notably Lord Grey, and enhanced his reputation as a self-interested careerist: ‘He is a shabby fellow and always follows le plus fort’, commented Mrs. Arbuthnot.56

Lyndhurst stayed true to form by remaining in his office under Lord Goderich and Wellington. His vocal support for Catholic emancipation in 1829, which Mrs. Arbuthnot, who thought him ‘a sad fellow without an atom of character or dignity’, considered ‘very clever and ingenious [and] impudent to the last degree’, provoked derision in some quarters.57 His elevation went to his wife’s head: she became ‘a sad plague’ to him, flirting shamelessly with other men, flaunting her vulgarity and creating a society scandal by her blatant liaison with Lord Dudley (John William Ward*, who was said to be trying to ‘put a Ward in chancery’ and was credited with the paternity of the Lyndhursts’ daughter Sophia).58 She also slept with the duke of Devonshire, and the duke of Cumberland tried to rape her in the summer of 1829: according to Greville, to whom she confided the tale, she ‘had the flowers’ at the time; ‘not that this made any difference’ to her resistance.59 Lyndhurst, whose extravagant tastes were supposed to have involved him in heavy debts, was himself no angel in sexual matters.60 Lady Lyndhurst’s influence over Grey, who was reputed to be one of her lovers, was generally thought to be behind his bid to keep Lyndhurst as lord chancellor on his accession to power in November 1830. It was thwarted by his protesting colleagues, and Brougham replaced him.61 To nobody’s surprise, for he needed the money, Lyndhurst accepted Grey and Brougham’s offer of the vacant place of chief baron of the exchequer.62 It did not neutralize him politically, as was hoped, for he opposed the reform bills in the Lords, with great ability, and was centrally involved in the abortive attempts of May 1832 to create a Conservative government to carry a modified measure.63

Lyndhurst disposed of the Wimbledon house early in 1831. His ‘wretched’ wife, ‘ill, lone and desolate’, died in ‘premature labour’ in Paris in January 1834. William Holmes* commented that ‘no person who takes an interest in Lord Lyndhurst’s fame or good character can regret the event’; but Lady Granville, who was in Paris when he went over to collect his daughter, noted that he ‘seemed to feel the shock very strongly’, and heard that ‘although one knew the sort of relationship they must have been upon, yet his manner when with her was that of kindness and even fondness’.64 By late 1834 he was living with Henrietta Sykes, wife of the complaisant cuckold Sir Francis Dashwood, ‘a demi-mondaine rather after the style of his late wife’, who also bestowed her favours on Disraeli: he was said to be ‘so infatuated that he has no brain left’.65 In 1837, at the age of 65, he married a woman 35 years his junior, who gave birth to their daughter Georgiana Susan in May 1838. Two years later he took a 14-year lease on Turville Park, Buckinghamshire.66 He served as lord chancellor in both Peel’s administrations. Successful operations in the 1850s saved him from blindness, and in his robust old age he was a frequent and luminous speaker in the Lords: on his 88th birthday, for example, he opened a debate on the paper duty, ‘showing’, in the words of Lord Malmesbury, ‘a clearness of intellect and a memory which seemed hardly possible at his age’.67 He died, aged 91, at his London residence (where he had for many years entertained politicians, authors, artists, scientists and clever and beautiful women) in October 1863, survived by his wife and three daughters (his daughter Penelope had died young in 1837). By his brief will, dated 21 Nov. 1862, he left everything to his wife, whom he directed to pay £2,500 to their daughter. The will was incorrectly drawn and caused problems. Sales of his furniture, silver, objets d’art, porcelain, pictures and books, and of his freehold property in George Street, consisting of the adjoining houses at numbers 25 and 26, raised a total of almost £218,000.68

Greville condemned Lyndhurst in 1837 as ‘a lawyer of fortune ... without any fixed principles, disreputable in public and in private life and only conspicuous for his extraordinary capacity’, who had ‘no interest but what centres in himself’.69 An anonymous obituarist, who pronounced him to have been ‘a great, free and clear spirit’, had this to say of his oratory, which never gained him the ear of the Commons, but came into its own in the Lords:

It was chaste and dignified; it might almost be termed cold, so correctly elegant was the structure of its sentences and so free was it from metaphor, exaggeration and ornament ... It was, nevertheless, eloquence, for it was high-reaching and sustained; but it was lucid rather than brilliant, and, though searching, it was not electrical.70

The physician Sir Henry Holland, who knew him well, commented that his

intellect would have been more fruitful had it been less subtle and sceptical. He lost something of the real by his too keen perception of what was hollow or fantastic in human affairs. He was more amused than disquieted by the foibles or errors of those around him.71

Disraeli, whose early career he promoted, wrote on hearing of his death:

He had a mind equally distinguished for its vigour and flexibility. He rarely originated, but his apprehension was very quick and he mastered the suggestions of others and made them clearer and more strong. He had a great grasp; thoroughly mastered a subject; deep and acute; and sometimes when you thought him slow, was only exhaustive. In his statements accurate, complete and singularly lucid; the clearest mind on affairs with equal power of conceiving and communicating his perspicacious views. His soul wanted ardour, for he was deficient in imagination, though by no means devoid of sensibility. He adapted himself to circumstances in a moment, though he could not create, or even considerably control them. His ambition active, not soaring ... His countenance was that of a high-bred falcon ... Nothing could be finer than the upper part ... [but] the lower ... betrayed the deficiencies of his character: a want of high purpose, and some sensual attributes.72

Brougham, his long time political adversary, gave a generous verdict on ‘my excellent friend Lyndhurst’:

He was not gifted with very great tenacity of political opinions ... My opinion of him is, that he looked up to nobody, or rather ... he held all men very cheap. In truth, he was so immeasurably superior to his contemporaries, and indeed to almost all who had gone before him, that he might well be pardoned for looking down rather than praising. Nevertheless he was tolerably fair in the estimate he formed of character; and being perfectly free from all jealousy or petty spite, he was always ready to admit merit where it existed. Whatever he may have thought or said of his contemporaries ... I do not think his manners were ever offensive to anybody, for he was kind and genial. His good nature was perfect, and he had neither nonsense nor cant, any more than he had littleness or spite, in his composition.73

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


Copley destroyed most of his papers, but there are collections of remnants in Glam. RO (NRA 11640) and at Trinity College, Cambridge (20697). Before being divided, they were used by Sir Theodore Martin for his Life of Lord Lyndhurst (1883), which was written principally as a riposte to the alleged ‘mis-statements and malignant innuendo’ of Lord Campbell’s hostile portrait in his Lives of the Lord Chancellors (1869), viii. 1-210. The most recent biography is D. Lee, Lord Lyndhurst: the Flexible Tory (1994). See also Oxford DNB.

  • 1. Campbell, viii. 207.
  • 2. The words of A. Aspinall in Canning’s Ministry, p. xliii.
  • 3. See, for example, Life of Campbell, i. 350; Romilly Mems. iii. 346; Le Marchant, Althorp, 350-1.
  • 4. The Times, 13 Oct. 1863.
  • 5. Lady Holland to Son, 70; Martin, 155-6; M. Amory, Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley (Boston, 1882), 329, 334, 336.
  • 6. Life of Campbell, i. 365.
  • 7. Amory, 336-7.
  • 8. Martin, 175-8.
  • 9. Life of Campbell, i. 378.
  • 10. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 66; Grey mss, Grey to wife, 18 Aug. 1820; Life of Campbell, i. 381.
  • 11. Martin, 187-94; Wellington mss, Wellington to Mrs. Arbuthnot, 30 Oct. 1820; Amory, 337-8.
  • 12. Castle Howard mss, Howard to Lady Morpeth, 28 [Jan. 1821]; HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 6.
  • 13. Life of Campbell, i. 395-6.
  • 14. The Times, 24, 27 Feb. 1821.
  • 15. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 128.
  • 16. The Times, 21 June 1821.
  • 17. Ibid. 21 Feb. 1822.
  • 18. Ibid. 30 July 1822.
  • 19. Add. 38291, f. 147; 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 29 Oct.; Cambridge Chron. 1, 8 Nov. 1822; Buckingham, i. 392.
  • 20. The Times, 20 Mar. 1823.
  • 21. Martin, 197.
  • 22. Add. 40359, f. 147; 51654, Mackintosh to Lady Holland, 8 Nov.; 51659, Whishaw to same, 13, 29 Nov. 1823; Buckingham, ii. 16; HMC Bathurst, 553-4.
  • 23. Add. 38298, ff. 101, 103; 38576, f. 33; Hobhouse Diary, 108; Amory, 340.
  • 24. The Times, 25 Mar. 1824.
  • 25. Add. 38298, f. 101; Hobhouse Diary, 110; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther [Apr. 1824]; Amory, 340.
  • 26. The Times, 11 May 1824.
  • 27. Ibid. 1 June 1824.
  • 28. Bankes jnl. 151; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 11 June [1824].
  • 29. Martin, 198; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 29 Sept. 1824.
  • 30. The Times, 5 May 1825.
  • 31. Ibid. 11 June 1825.
  • 32. Ibid. 29 June 1825.
  • 33. N. Gash, Secretary Peel, 350; The Times, 28, 30 June 1825.
  • 34. Broughton, Recollections, iii. 107-8, 111-12; Add. 52011.
  • 35. Add. 19242, f. 274; 34586, f. 130; 40383, f. 294; 40384, f. 228; Lonsdale mss, Copley to Lowther [12 Nov.], Lowther to Lonsdale, 15 Nov., Beckett to Lowther, 17 Nov., Long to Lonsdale, 17 Dec.; J.W. Clark and T.M. Hughes, Life of Sedgwick, i. 268-9; Cambridge Chron. 2, 9, 16 Dec. 1825; Amory, 341.
  • 36. Creevey Pprs. ii. 95; Gurney diary, 9 Apr. [1826].
  • 37. The Times, 25 Feb., 1 Mar. 1826.
  • 38. Macaulay Letters, i. 208.
  • 39. Gash, 325.
  • 40. Amory, 342.
  • 41. Cambridge Chron. 16, 23 June 1826.
  • 42. Monypenny and Buckle, Disraeli, i. 386; Add. 38193, f. 252.
  • 43. Twiss, Eldon, ii. 574-5; Add. 40315, f. 266.
  • 44. Monypenny and Buckle, i. 386; Twiss, ii. 575-6; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1249; Add. 40305, f. 217; 40315, f. 268.
  • 45. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1250, 1251; Lonsdale mss, Farnborough to Lonsdale, 10 Sept., Beckett to Lowther, 13 Sept.; Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 21 Sept. [1826]; Buckingham, ii. 306; Amory, 343; Martin, 210-12.
  • 46. Martin, 212; The Times, 13 Feb. 1827.
  • 47. Add. 40391, f. 280; The Times, 15 Mar. 1827.
  • 48. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1292.
  • 49. Add. 56550, f. 141; Broughton, iii. 173-4.
  • 50. Add. 56550, ff. 141-2; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 86, 87, 89; Canning’s Ministry, 48; Bagot, Canning and Friends, ii. 375-6; Colchester Diary, iii. 466; Greville Mems. i. 169.
  • 51. Bagot, ii. 378-9; Greville Mems. i. 169; Add. 56550, f. 147; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 105; Colchester Diary, iii. 469; TCD, Jebb mss 6396/275; Agar Ellis diary, 6 Mar. [1827].
  • 52. NLS Acc. 10655, Abercromby’s memorandum.
  • 53. Martin, 217-18; Canning’s Ministry, 133, 135, 157, 181; Hobhouse Diary, 132; Amory, 343.
  • 54. Greville Mems. i. 213-14.
  • 55. Monypenny and Buckle, i. 386.
  • 56. Canning’s Ministry, 146; Bagot, ii. 390; M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, x. 15378, 15383, 15384; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 127.
  • 57. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 264; George, xi. 15705.
  • 58. George, xi. 15824, 15883, 17047, 17198; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 127; Lady Holland to Son, 91, 113, 132; Fox Jnl. 234-5; Creevey’s Life and Times, 252-3, 363; Williams Wynn Corresp. 366; Edgeworth Letters, 486; Three Diaries, 225-6; Greville Mems. ii. 364.
  • 59. Greville Mems. i. 306-13; Smith Letters, i. 461; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 298, 301; Creevey’s Life and Times, 307-9.
  • 60. Arbuthnot Corresp. 86; Three Diaries, 4-5; Greville Mems. ii. 10.
  • 61. E.A. Smith, Lord Grey, 260; M. Brock, Great Reform Act, 126, 130; Greville Mems. ii. 62-63, 72.
  • 62. Life of Campbell, i. 493, 496-502; Three Diaries, 33, 41, 59; Greville Mems. ii. 86-87, 266-7; Grey-William IV Corresp. i. 50, 51; Arbuthnot Corresp. 247; Brougham, Life and Times, iii. 85-88.
  • 63. Brock, 240-2, 244, 283-4, 288-9, 292, 294.
  • 64. Lady Holland to Son, 143; Countess Granville Letters, ii. 146, 148, 149, 152; Wellington Pol. Corresp. i. 420, 423, 425.
  • 65. Lieven-Palmerston Corresp. 68; Disraeli Letters, ii. 411, 431.
  • 66. Amory, 375-6, 380, 383; Martin, 390.
  • 67. Amory, 397-401, 406-8; Croker Pprs. iii. 367-8; Lord Redesdale, Mems. ii. 680-1; Malmesbury, Mems. of Ex-Minister, ii. 228.
  • 68. The Times, 23, 24 Feb., 4, 7 Mar. 1864.
  • 69. Greville Mems. iii. 356.
  • 70. The Times, 13 Oct. 1863.
  • 71. Sir H. Holland, Recollections of a Past Life, 201.
  • 72. Monypenny and Buckle, ii. 329-31.
  • 73. Brougham, iii. 435-6.