I have no books to consult

Stephen Sedley

  • Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason by Norman Poser
    McGill-Queen’s, 532 pp, £24.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7735 4183 2

In March 1718, 13-year-old William Murray, the 11th of Viscount Stormont’s 14 children, set off from the family seat at Scone, near Perth, on a pony. The journey to London, which he made alone, took him almost two months, and it is probable that he never saw Scotland again. Although it was a bare three years since the first Jacobite Rising had attempted to place the Old Pretender, James Edward Stuart, on the throne, and although the Murrays were well-known Jacobites, the family was well enough connected to ensure that, when he reached London, William was able to enter Westminster School and then Christ Church, Oxford, at both of which he shone as a scholar.

Lord Mansfield, as Murray became, spanned the 18th century in more than simply years, though living from 1705 to 1793 was a good start. As chief justice of the King’s Bench for 32 years, he modernised an antiquated system of common law and rationalised a diffuse system of mercantile law; he drafted statutes; he played a central role in politics as cabinet member, counsellor and confidant; he knew everyone from Boswell to Blackstone and Pope to Pitt; and at Kenwood in Hampstead he constructed a mansion, designed by Robert Adam, and a park which remain a high point of British design.

Norman Poser is not Mansfield’s first biographer, but he is arguably the best so far. The first, John Holliday, wrote his not always reliable memoir shortly after Mansfield’s death. Then came Lord Campbell, himself a chief justice, whose biographies of his predecessors became known as one of the new terrors of death, and whose Life of Mansfield contains at least one palpable fabrication. In the 20th century two scholars, Edmund Heward and C.H.S. Fifoot, produced good short biographies focused on Mansfield as a lawmaker; and James Oldham (the author of the excellent entry on Mansfield in the current DNB), with new access to a large cache of Mansfield’s trial notes, produced a scholarly cornucopia, the two-volume Mansfield Manuscripts. Poser, with the further advantage of access to the mass of Mansfield documents assembled over 22 years by Arthur Vanderbilt, who died in 1957 just before retiring from his post as chief justice of New Jersey, has now written the comprehensive biography that Vanderbilt had planned to write.

The well-known engraving of Mansfield, taken by Bartolozzi from the portrait that Reynolds painted of him at the age of eighty, shows what has always seemed to me to be a thin-lipped and cruel face. It is cheering to learn that the reason, according to Reynolds, is that Mansfield had by then lost his teeth. Although Boswell in earlier years had found his ‘cold reserve and sharpness’ repelling, earlier portraits show a much more genial face. In parallel, the real-life Mansfield can be read as a hard-nosed careerist and canny lawyer whose wealth and connections enabled him to survive a good many deserved and a few undeserved buffetings; or as a contradictory and often inconsistent potentate, ruled as much by his heart as by his head; or as both, depending on the situation in which he found himself. Whichever it is to be, a judgment needs to go beyond the simplistic contrast drawn by Poser between Mansfield’s legalism and his ‘decency and sense of fairness’; or the amalgam, as Poser perceives it, of an ‘astute understanding of human nature with a vigorous aspiration to achieve justice’. These are superficial, even hagiographic, evaluations; but Poser’s achievement as a biographer is to equip others to form a fuller judgment.

‘Lord Mansfield’ by John Singleton Copley (1782)
‘Lord Mansfield’ by John Singleton Copley (1782)

On one level, Mansfield’s was a model career and Samuel Smiles wrote of him with reverence. His wife, Elizabeth, to whom he was devotedly married for 46 years, was the daughter of an earl and the granddaughter of a lord chancellor. A dutiful but not excessively devout Anglican, he prospered at the bar, then entered Parliament and almost at once was appointed solicitor-general. He was promoted to attorney-general, a position from which he was able within two years to claim the vacant post of chief justice of the King’s Bench, the principal court of common law. More than once he turned down the office of lord chancellor, aware that, in spite of its grandeur, it was a post that was unlikely to outlast the current ministry. Unsatisfied with the barony that had been conferred on him when he was made chief justice (he took the title from one of the estates of his patron, the Duke of Newcastle), he bided his time and, following the first British victories in the American war, which Mansfield supported, asked the king for an earldom. By now he was an extremely wealthy man from his practice at the bar, from the huge salary and perks of the chief justiceship, and from shrewd mortgage lendings which at his death were said to be bringing in £30,000 a year.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in