John Somers Baron of Evesham

John Somers
Portrait of John Somers
John Somers by Godfrey Kneller
Born:4 March 1651
Baron Somers:1697

1 John Somers' family and early career

1.1 Somers' family and education

John Somers' father was also named John Somers. He had fought for parliament in the civil war, and was an attorney at Worcester. John got his first education on the city grammar school in his home town of Worcester. He then went to university at Oxford to study the law. From there he went to practice law at the Middle Temple, becoming an attorney himself at age 25.

1.2 Somers' interest in Constitutional Law

John Somers quickly became entangled in politics because of his interest in constitutional law, or perhaps his early acquaintance with politicians started his interest in this field of the law. However that may be, he made a thorough study of the judicial aspects of the constitution. Combined with his interest in literature he soon began to write about it. He was however as prudent not to irrevocably bind himself firmly to a party this early in his career.

2 The Trial of the Seven Bishops

Somers breakthrough to the centre of the political arena came about with the trial of the seven bishops. James II had on 27 April 1688 declared an act removing all limitations placed on worship and public service by non-Anglicans. The aim was to enable Catholics to enter into public service, and thus to come into power in English Institutions. He ordered it to be read in all churches on Sunday 20 May, but on 18 May Seven bishops reacted by handing a petition against it to James, which was spread throughout London on the next day. The whole affair created a huge uproar throughout the country, and almost all priests refused to read on the designated Sunday. James then decided to break the clergy by arresting them on 8 June, and committing them to the Tower.

This only resulted in the increased popularity of the bishops and all protestant denominations ranging behind them. They were brought to court for an inquiry on June 15th, after which they were temporarily set at liberty. On the 29th the process then began under immense public interest, with dozens of peers attending in court and thousands standing outside. Henry Pollexfen was one of the advocates for the defence, Somers was fourth council of the defence. In the little time that he was allowed, Somers put forth a brilliant defense giving birth to his reputation of judicial and oratory brilliance. Perhaps the jurors were convinced by it, but even if they were not, fear of lynching by the mob should have been sufficient for them to acquit the bishops, and so they did on the next day. The acquittal gave rise to a huge party celebrating the victory over popery and, coincidence or not, the letter inviting William over to England left the same day.

3 Somers in the accession of William III

3.1 Somers' becomes an M.P.

Though without birth or fortune Somers influence had even before the trial become so great that he had become involved in the plans to topple James II by inviting William III to England. On top of that the short but brilliant part Somers played in the defence of the bishops had now made him a champion of Protestantism in the public eye. It was thus no small wonder that he would rise to power when William III entered London on 18 December 1688. On 22 January 1689 he was elected to the convention parliament for his home town of Worcester.

3.2 Somers' role in the accession of King William III

Somers' judicial prowess and oratory skills were now found to be very useful in the legal proceedings to manage the successful ascension of William and Mary. In it he became the chairman of the committee that drew up the Declaration of Right. The content and wording of what later became known as the Bill of Rights was subsequently heavily influenced by him. It is considered one of the masterpieces of his work, mainly because he succeeded in quickly framing words that got a majority in parliament behind it, but also perfectly answered to the purposes of the revolutionaries and became a lasting cornerstone of the English constitution. To the satisfaction of both William and Mary it became law when it was read as introduction to their coronation on 13 February 1689.

4 Somers as Solicitor General

4.1 Somers reverts the verdict against Titus Oates

Somers had now definitely become one of William's party. During the formation of William's first government Pollexfen was made Attorney General in February 1689, only to be succeeded by Treby. At about the same time Somers was made Solicitor General in May 1689. A lot of people were then busy getting sentences reversed that had been illegally passed against them under the previous governments. One of these affairs that would further increase Somers' fame was the revision of the punishment of Titus Oates dealt out under James II. Titus Oates had been famous during Charles II's rule for bringing up all kinds of accusations about Catholic treachery, in the end starting a witch hunt in which many innocent people were executed by the courts. While Charles II had him sentenced for sedition, James II had had him sentenced for perjury and thrown in jail, only to be let out for a pillory on the anniversaries of his perjuries. In the confusion of the revolution he had been set free and had now petitioned the Lords as supreme court of appeal for a revision of his verdict on the technical ground that it had been illegal. The nine judges of the house of Lords did unanimously agree that the sentence had been illegal, because the King's Bench that had made the verdict had not been competent in the matter. The members of the house of Lords however voted to throw him in jail again and to uphold the verdict of the King's Bench, on the ground that Oates was a liar and probably also insane.

Some people in the Commons were however quite disturbed that the supreme court of appeal had voted to let considerations about the moral character of a defendant overrule the judicial grounds on which it had to decide. With all the lawyers in the Commons also agreeing that the verdict had clearly been illegal the verdict of the Lords was perceived as infringing constitutional law. The commons thus made a bill annulling the sentence of the King's Bench. The Lords then amended it, throwing out a preamble that called the original verdict corrupt, and adding that Oates could never again be a witness. In fact upholding the essence of verdict (the consequence of a conviction for perjury) while seemingly agreeing with the Commons. This could however not satisfy them, and so the houses conferred in the Painted Chamber. Somers entered for the Commons and in a manifesto clearly demonstrated that the Lords had been called to use their judicial power, but because they did not like the only decision they could take using that power, had abused their lawmaking power to take another decision. (In effect making a law to infringe on the distribution of justice in a particular case.) The Lords had clearly manoeuvred themselves in an impossible position and lost the argument. Titus Oakes was thus pardoned, and Somers' star shone even brighter, the Commons not lacking to inscribe this victory in their annals.

4.2 Somers' moderation on the Corporations

His moderation was again visible when in January 1690 he became chairman of the Commons Committee on the corporation bill. The corporation bill was meant to restore those corporations to their rights that had illegally (though under heavy pressure) handed over their charters to the crown during the previous reigns. The radical Whigs had (probably justly) wanted to deal out some heavy punishment on this occasion, but Somers prevented this and thus won the applause of those 'guilty'.

4.3 The trial of Preston, Ashton and Elliot.

The next major event in his career was the trial of Preston, Ashton and Elliot. In December 1690 an assembly of some leading Jacobites had been held, and it had decided to send it's ideas about how he could retake power to James II. This and other messages should be conveyed by Richard Graham Viscount Preston a former secretary of state (the chief conspirator) aided by John Ashton and Elliot. On 31 December 1690 they sailed for France but were caught by a faster ship sent after them. When boarded they were caught with the papers upon them. They contained a.o. a letter from Clarendon, one from bishop Turner (speaking for bishop Sancroft too), a list of the English fleet provided by Dartmouth, remark's about England's defences etc. In January the trial against Preston, Ashton and Elliot got under way at the Old Bailey. Somers as Solicitor General led the prosecution. Macaulay remarks that Somers behaved like a modern professional, simply stating the case for the prosecution and arguing on the basis of facts. The judges mostly did likewise by simply hearing the prosecution and the defence and making statements about the law, and abstaining from trying to influence the jury. It all was a far cry from how such proceedings went under the two previous monarchs and marked how the administration of justice had been changed by the Glorious Revolution.

In one respect however we would nowadays not call these proceedings fair. The case against Elliot was harder to prove and as being an insignificant fellow he was not even brought to court. Preston and Ashton were both sentenced to death, but only the low-ranking Ashton was speedily executed. Preston, who was reasonably suspected to have much knowledge of the Jacobite plans, was however given lots of time to think about his impending execution, and finally broke. He named as people whom he personally knew to be in on the conspiracy: Lord Dartmouth, the Earl of Clarendon, Francis Turner Bishop of Ely (one of the 7 bishops) and William Penn (an eminent Quaker), while also naming a lot of people he suspected by hearsay. Again the government was quite modern in it's approach of only prosecuting the four men named. The following action against the traitors however showed all marks of class-society: Clarendon suffered only six months in the tower, Dartmouth was only a few weeks in the tower before he died of sickness, Turner was allowed to flee to France, Penn hid and after some months fled to France too, only to be allowed to return three years later. Even Viscount Preston was pardoned finally though loosing his property.

4.4 Creates the national debt

Somers became Attorney General 1692. In the closing days of 1692 he was chairman of committee of ways and means. Somers saw through an idea by Charles Montague. This was to impose some new taxes on beer and other alcoholics, and to loan a million pounds on the income of these taxes. In the Commons a bill was carried in January 1693, and thus originated the national debt of England. This 'institute' proved an enormous blessing for the nation as it gave the government ready access to money in time of need, and gave the public a save and easy way to invest their savings.

5 Somers in the House of Lords

5.1 Politics from the Woolsack

At about this time it was felt by William that the arrangement of having the great seal in commission lead to unsatisfactory results. Trevor, the first commissioner, was also speaker in the Commons and simply did not have the time to perform his job to satisfaction. William thus needed an eminent lawyer to perform this job well, and for this he chose Somers. For Somers this was not such a blessing because it meant that he had to leave the Commons, in order to preside in the House of Lords. But, not being a peer he would at the same time not be allowed to take part in the debates of the Lords. All in all it meant that he became the mightiest judicial of the realm but his political influence would lessen, even though he entered the Privy Council. It soon became clear that his place as leader of the Whig party in the Commons was taken over by Charles Montague.

5.2 One of the 7 Lord Justices

Another favour of William was that in May 1695 he was appointed one of the seven lord justices to handle the administration when the king went to war. He next played an important role in the recoinage.

5.3 Lord Chancellor and Peer

In April 1697 Somers came to the summit of his power when he became Lord Chancellor, and was elevated to the peerage as baron Somers of Evesham. Though the practical difference between a Lord Chancellor and a Lord Keeper was little, the added prestige and the peerage were of course more than welcome.

Note that John Somers got the title 'Baron', which was the lowest rank in the peerage. Also note the difference in ancestry between Somers and almost all the other Englishmen on these pages. Somers was a professional who had to work for his living, but was was surrounded by men born to wealth and power. Many might have been jealous of such a simple men becoming Lord Chancellor.

5.4 Somers under attack and resigns

In December 1698 a newly elected parliament convened filled with M.P.'s that wanted nothing more than abolishing the taxes, believing they could savely do this by reducing the army to 7,000 men and annulling the grants Wiliam had made to his Dutch friends. On top of that they wanted to get rid of all important members of William's government, and generally rule by themselves overstepping the constitutional limits of their power. Russel was forced to step back a little and Montague, appraising the situation, retreated out of his important office before the second season of this parliament. Somers however trusted on his reputation and friends and tried to whether the storm.

When parliament reopened in November 1699 Harley and Seymour tried to carry a motion against Somers alleging he had been in co-operation with Captain Kidd. Somers was however ably defended by Cowper, and when a vote was called in December the motion failed. Such was the partisanship of some M.P.'s that another attempt was tried somewhat later on the grounds that he had received a grant out of the Crownlands. This improbable attack failed too. A third attack was then launched, but also failed.

It was however obvious to William that such a state of affairs became harmful to the country, and thus he asked Somers to resign. Somers refused to resign, and was therefore dismissed as Lord Chancellor in April 1700. He was succeeded on 21 May 1700 when the seals were taken up by Sir Nathan Wright as Lord Keeper. Somers now continued in the Lords on grounds of his title, only to retire more fully on the death of William in March 1702. He would only reappear on the centre stage for managing the union with Scotland, and to briefly become president of the council in 1708, only to be removed from it in 1710.

6 Leader of the Junto

Next to the role Somers played in seeing through important laws and in (re)establishing the proper administration of justice, a big part of his political activities consisted of leading the Whig party. In stark contrast to the, by nature larger, Tory party the Whig party was rigidly organised. The leadership consisted of Somers baron of Evesham, Charles Montague earl of Halifax, Thomas Wharton

7 Somers' character and abilities

In sharp contrast to a lot of other 'politicians' of this era Somers can be said to have held constantly to the same principles. In general these were those of his party, a principle of moderation and staying reasonable all the time, and one of deep respect for the law, never neglecting in order to seize an opportunity. In behaviour he was always very charming and correct. Courteous and complaisant to the highest degree, capable of acquiring and preserving the favour of a prince (Swift). On the other hand never condescending to those above whom he had risen in rank (Macaulay) Lastly he always kept his temper never losing it even under heavy attacks upon his person, this leading to some thinking dissimulation was his greatest talent (Swift). Intellectually he was no doubt way above the average politician of the time (dubbed a genius by his enemy Swift). This not only proven by his judicial ideas, but also by his early recognition of Locke and Addison and his support for them. In my opinion the genius of Somers' person is the combination of the intellect of a great scholar and political astuteness. A combination very rarely seen in democracies.

Career of John Somers
1683:Defends Sherifs Pilkington and Shute
1688 JuneDefends the seven bishops
1689: 22 JanuaryM.P. for Worcester in the convention
1689: 13 February'his' declaration of Rights is read at the coronation
1689: MaySolicitor General
1689Sees to it that Titus Oates gets a fair trial
1690: JanuaryChairman of the corporations committee
1691: January, Leads the prosecution of Preston and Ashton
1692Becomes Attorney General
1693: JanuarySees the bill through that creates the national debt
1693: 23 MarchLord Keeper of the Great Seal
1695:Member of the Regency Council
1697: AprilLord Chancellor, elevated to the peerage as Baron Somers of Evensham
1699: DecemberSurvives first attack against him
1699:Survives two further attacks
1700:Retreats as Lord Chancellor (Gives up the seal to William)

8 Sources

The original version of this biography was scraped together from various sources. Amongst them Winston Churchill's biography of Marlborough, pages about the individual cases Somers handled, and some Encyclopedia entries.

Though not yet used for this article, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has an article about John Somers