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Lord Macclesfield now determined on the first vacancy to make a resolute effort to have his protégé appointed a law officer of the Crown, notwithstanding the shock such a promotion might give to aged Serjeants who had been in vain expecting advancement ever since the coming in of King William ; and with this view he prevailed upon the Duke of Newcastle, who had immense borough interest, to return him to the House of Commons for Lewes." Parliament met on the 11th of November after Yorke was elected, and, with the exception of the Christmas recess, continued sitting till he went on the Spring Circuit in the beginning of March; but I cannot find that he opened his mouth in this interval, and it is probable that he prudently remained silent; for the only measure of public interest then debated in the House of Commons was Sunderland's Peerage Bill, on which the Whigs were divided, and it might have appeared presumptuous for a young lawyer, to give any opinion.” Before he had made his maiden speech in parliament, the folly as well as the favour of others working for his advantage, an opportunity most unexpectedly arose for promoting him in his profession. The Attorney and Solicitor-General, though not free from personal dislikes and jealousies, have almost always preserved ostensibly a mutual good understanding, and have cordially co-operated in the public service. But Mr. Lechmere and Sir William Thompson, the then Attorney and Solicitor-General, hated each other so intensely that they had several very indecent quarrels in private causes A.D. 1720. APPOINTED SOLICITOR-GENERAL, AND KNIGHTED. 171
cellaria tunc foret in Anglià,” on the ground
and the articles of Union preserving to each
at the bar, and in the transaction of official business. Their enmity was whetted by a sordid competition,-‘‘which of them should be most resorted to in granting charters of incorporation to Joint Stock Companies?” Now was raging the fever of speculation throughout the nation, of which the “South Sea Bubble” was a symptom, and companies were formed which, both for object and means, equalled in extravagance any thing witnessed in our own times. They brought a great harvest to the law officers of the Crown, but of this Lechmere, being more popular, and supposed to have more influence, carried off by far the largest share. Thompson at last, openly in the House of Commons, preferred a charge against him of corruptly taking excessive fees and recommending improper grants. The charge was indignantly denied by Lechmere, who said that “he had the honour to be a Privy Councillor, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, AttorneyGeneral, a Member of that House, and, more than all, a gentleman ; that such an accusation could not therefore but fall upon him more heavily; that he defied all the world— the worst and bitterest of his enemies—to prove him guilty of corrupt or unwarrantable practices, and that he demanded an immediate inquiry.” Thompson undertook to make good the accusation, and a committee sat to hear the evidence. It appeared that the Attorney-General's clerk had been rather eager to make joint stock companies “pay handsomely,” but there did not rest even a passing shadow of suspicion on his master; whereupon it was unanimously resolved, “that the informations of Sir William Thompson were malicious, scandalous, and false, and that the Right Honourable Nicholas Lechmere had discharged his trust in the matters referred to him with honour and integrity.” Thompson was immediately dismissed from his office of Solicitor-General." Lechmere tried to procure the appointment for an attached friend of his own, that he might no more be exposed to such squabbles; but the Lord Chancellor claimed the appointment as his patronage,_and he was at this time all powerful, both with the King and the minister. Philip Yorke had joined the Western Circuit during this controversy, little thinking that he had any personal interest in it, but while he was attending the assizes at Dorchester he received the two following letters. The first was from the Lord Chancellor, and was directed to “Philip Yorke, Esq., Counsellor at Law, M.P., at the Assizes at Dorchester:”
* However, he was afterwards made Recorder of London and a Baron of the Exchequer. ,
“The King having declared it to be his pleasure that you be his Solicitor-General in the room of Sir Wm. Thompson, who is already removed from the office, I with great pleasure obey his Majesty's commands, to require you to hasten to town immediately upon receipt hereof, in order to take that office upon you. I heartily congratulate you upon this first instance of his Majesty's favour, and am with great sincerity,
The second was from Mr. Secretary Craggs:
“You will be informed from other hands of what has happened between the Attorney and Solicitor-General. In the squabble the latter has lost his employment, and the first, I believe, will not succeed in his recommendation of Mr. Denton to be his successor, for I believe the King has resolved to appoint you, which I am glad of, for his service, and for my particular satisfaction: Who am entirely,
“Your most faithful Servant, “J. CRAGGs. “Cockpit, March 17, 1719 .”
Mr. Yorke on reading these letters, after receiving the hearty congratulations of his brother circuiteers, who rejoiced sincerely in the elevation of such a formidable competitor, returned his briefs, and set off post for London. On the 22nd of March he was sworn in Solicitor-General before Lord Macclesfield, and a few days after, on being presented by him to the King, he received the honour of knighthood.
With the exception of the members of the Western Circuit, the profession considered Sir Philip's appointment a very arbitrary act. He was only twenty-nine years of age, and had been little more than four years at the bar. He had displayed great talents, but Wearg and Talbot, who were considerably his seniors, and had always deserved well of the Whig party, were men of distinguished reputation, and qualified to do credit to any office in the law, however exalted. Others of inferior merit were disappointed, and the blame being all laid on the Lord Chancellor, the resentment which he had before excited by his partiality for the tutor of his sons was greatly exasperated.
A.D. 1720. PROSECUTION OF LAYER. 173
It is said that even the attorneys and solicitors looked askance at the new law officer, though disposed to be proud of the elevation of a gentleman so closely connected with them. Very much run after as a junior, he as yet had not got into any leading business, and they were alarmed by seeing him with so little experience suddenly put over the heads of the gentlemen with silk gowns, whom they had been accustomed to employ. When Easter Term came round and he took his place within the bar in the Court of Chancery, he was left out of most of the new causes which came on to be heard, and some of his discontented rivals were sanguine enough to hope that his premature elevation had ruined him for ever. But by the exertions of his personal friends among the solicitors, by being supposed to have “the ear of the Court,” by his own great talents, by his indefatigable industry, by the gentleness of his manners, and by the insinuating complacency of his address, he rapidly overcame these prejudices, and was retained in every suit." His acceptance of office having, under the recent statute, vacated his seat in the House of Commons, he was re-elected for Lewes without opposition. He afterwards sat for Seaford, being always returned without trouble or expense, which was considered by some of his contemporaries as an instance of his luck, and by others as a proof of his management, in having so effectually insinuated himself into the good graces, first of Lord Macclesfield, and then of the Duke of Newcastle. But for some years to come his name is never mentioned in printed parliamentary debates, and we are left in great doubt as to the part he acted in the House of Commons. It happened in little more than a year, that, Lechmere retiring from the bar with a peerage, there was a vacancy in the office of Attorney-General, and some supposed that the Chancellor would recklessly thrust his juvenile favourite into it, although only thirty years of age; but prudence prevailed, and it was filled up with the experienced Sir Robert Raymond, afterwards Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench." Sir Philip Yorke continuing Solicitor-General, first gained great public applause on the trial of Christopher Layer for high treason in conspiring to bring in the Pretender. The d One account of his début as Solicitor- given by them, “that the King might lawGeneral says, “The storm which was raised fully grant a pardon to a malefactor under by his premature promotion fell wholly on sentence of death, on condition that he would prisoner, after being ably defended by counsel, himself spoke so clearly and ingeniously in his own defence as to make a considerable impression on the Jury, and to endanger the conviction—then considered of the last consequence not only to the safety of the ministry, but of the family on the throne.
his patron.”—Cooksey, 73. suffer himself to be inoculated for the small* There is extant a curious joint opinion pox.”
The Solicitor-General rose to reply when it was late at night, and delivered a speech between two and three hours long, which, during the whole of that time, riveted the attention of all who heard it, and was most rapturously praised as a fine specimen of juridical eloquence. Certainly it is what is technically termed a “hanging speech"—very quiet and dispassionate; seemingly candid, and even kind to the accused; but in the most subtle manner bringing forward all the salient points of the evidence against him—and, by insinuation and allusion, taking advantage of the prepossessions of the Jury. He thus concluded:—
“It has been said, indeed, that he is but an inconsiderable man—of no rank or fortune fit to sustain such an undertaking. That observation may be true; but since it is plain that he did engage in it, this with other things clearly proves that he was set on work and supported by persons of more influence. And, gentlemen, this is the most affecting consideration of all. But I would not even in this cause, so important to the King and to the State, say any thing to excite your passions: I choose rather to appeal to your judgments; and to these I submit the strength and consequence of the evidence you have heard. My Lord, I ask pardon for having taken up so much of your time. I have only farther to beg, for the sake of the King, for the sake of the prisoner at the bar, and for the sake of myself, that if, through mistake or inadvertency, I have omitted or misrepresented any thing, or laid a greater weight on any part of the evidence than it will properly bear, your Lordship will be pleased to take notice of it, so that the whole case may come before the Jury in its just and true light.”
The conviction was certainly according to law; and if Layer's head had been immediately placed on Temple Bar, his execution, though lamentable, might have been thought a necessary severity: but all concerned in the prosecution and the punishment incurred and deserved obloquy—by the delay interposed with a view to elicit from the prisoner the accusation of others, and by his execution long after the verdict, when he had disappointed the hope of further disclosures."
f 16 St. Tr. 319.