BLENCOWE, John (1642-1726), of Marston St. Lawrence, Northants.
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Family and Education
b. 30 Nov. 1642, 1st s. of Thomas Blencowe of Marston St. Lawrence by his 2nd w. Mary (d. 1687), da. of Francis Savage, DD, of Ripple, Worcs. educ. Oriel, Oxf. 1661; I. Temple 1663, called 1670, bencher 1687. m. 23 Dec. 1675, Anne (d. 1718), da. of Rev. John Wallis, DD, FRS, fellow of New Coll. Oxf., 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (1 d.v.p.) suc. fa. 1674; kntd. 12 Dec. 1697.1
Asst. Banbury corp. 1683–4.2
Serjeant-at-law 1689; baron of Exchequer 1696–Nov. 1697; j.c.p. Nov. 1697–1722.3
Blencowe, whose ancestral connexion with Marston stretched back to the mid-15th century, appears to have displayed no more than an average talent for his chosen career in the law, but had the good fortune to acquire in Dr John Wallis a father-in-law ambitious to see him rise in his profession. Wallis was an outstanding mathematician and Oxford professor, employed after the Revolution by successive secretaries of state as a decipherer, and, as Wallis always considered his own services meagrely rewarded, he was not above using his contacts on Blencowe’s behalf with great persistence. Elected in 1690 for Brackley, a short distance from his family seat, Blencowe’s punctilious involvement in the debates and routine proceedings of the Commons, at least in the earlier sessions, reflected his own keenness to promote his chances of legal preferment. Early on, he was noted as a Whig by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†). On 30 Apr., at the second reading of the regency bill, when the validity of commissions in the monarch’s absence came under discussion, Blencowe argued that the ‘authorities’ derived from them could not continue ‘when the King is gone’. On 18 Dec. he reported from the committee to prepare a clause for disposing confiscations of rebels’ estates as security towards war expenditure, and for apportioning some of the forfeitures to the King’s own use. Around April 1691 Robert Harley* considered his attachment to the Country party as ‘doubtful’, an assessment that would appear to square with Wallis’ own recommendation of him in the same month to Viscount Sydney (Hon. Henry Sidney†), secretary of state in the northern department, as ‘cordially affected to their Majesties’ service’. At the end of September Wallis pressed the case for Blencowe’s appointment to the court of common pleas with Archbishop Tillotson:
When I last waited on your Grace at London, I took the boldness to make a suggestion in the behalf of (my son-in-law) Mr Serjeant Blencowe (but without his privity) as a person so well known in Westminster Hall, and in the House of Commons, that I need not give any character of his abilities in his profession. I shall only say that I know him to be a person of great integrity, of temper and consideration and cordial to the Government. There are now two places void in the court of common pleas which will I presume be supplied on his Majesty’s return. Both the secretaries have signified to me their Majesties’ gracious inclination to be kind to me, and their own readiness to assist in it.4
Blencowe played a particularly vocal part in the third session. On 13 Nov. 1691 he made the first of several speeches in support of the Old East India Company, and later, on 2 Dec., he spoke against the proposal to establish a £1,500,000 stock for the company. On 11 Dec., when the House considered the Lords’ amendments to the treason trials bill, Blencowe was among several lawyers who took issue with an added clause which raised sensitivity about the Lords’ privilege of impeachment, although his own grounds for opposition are unrecorded. He supported the elections bill at third reading on the 12th, having assisted in its preparation the previous November, and spoke once more in favour of the Old East India Company on the 19th. He was able to reiterate his views on the Lords’ amendments to the treason bill when the outcome of a conference between the two chambers was reported on the 31st. On 5 Feb. 1692 when the bill for vesting Irish forfeitures in the crown was reported, Blencowe objected to the committee’s omission of a clause for forfeiting the remainder of estates in tail. In March a judicial vacancy on the King’s bench prompted Wallis to put Tillotson again in mind of Blencowe’s worthiness for the advancement which had already been ‘signified by L[or]d Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) and others’: in his recital of his son-in-law’s qualities he stressed his attachment to ‘those principles as to church and state which I am well assured your Grace would not dislike’. Wallis was careful to add that Blencowe himself was not ‘solicitous’ for the post. On 26 Aug. Nottingham was able to offer Wallis the deanery of Hereford, possibly in the belief that it would release him from having to fulfil promises to Blencowe, or possibly sensing that Wallis was obliquely angling for recognition of some kind for himself. Whatever the reasons behind Nottingham’s offer, Wallis declined.5
Blencowe was less active in the 1692–3 session. According to Narcissus Luttrell’s* record of proceedings in those months, he spoke in the House only three times: on 14 Dec. 1692, for committal of the bill ‘for the preservation of their Majesties’ person and government’; on 25 Feb. 1693, against addressing the King to dissolve the Old East India Company; and on 6 Mar. in favour of a private bill brought in on behalf of Lord Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†). In the course of January and February he managed through the Commons a similar measure for selling land belonging to a distant relative. The following session Blencowe unluckily incurred the displeasure of the House for absenteeism, although he does not seem to have been seriously in error: he had certainly been present in January 1694, obtaining nomination to a committee on the 12th, and was allowed leave of absence for an unspecified length of time on 23 Feb. However, less than three weeks then elapsed before on 14 Mar. he and 13 other Members were sent for into the custody of the serjeant-at-arms for disregarding a recent call of the House. He was discharged on payment of fees on the 31st. On 22 Feb. 1695 he was accorded a month’s leave, but had returned by 22 Apr. when he was ordered to prepare a clause for a supply bill, requiring stage coachmen to renew their licences annually, which he presented later the same day. Grascome’s analysis of the 1690 Parliament, reflecting the political situation current at some point between 1693 and 1695, indicates that during these later sessions Blencowe went through a phase of opposition: it is possible that this occurred during the 1693–4 session since the ministry was evidently unwilling to make any attempt in March 1694 to save him from the embarrassment of a committal into custody.6
Wallis renewed his solicitations for Blencowe in September 1695, suggesting on the 17th to the new secretary of state for the north, Sir William Trumbull*, that Blencowe be raised to the King’s bench, and in another letter of the 30th denied any ambition of being ‘made great’ himself, but referring to his own son, John (Wallis*), and Blencowe, reminded Trumbull that ‘a kindness to either of them would be so to me’. Blencowe would have stood for Brackley in 1695, but was ‘prevailed upon’ by Lords Sunderland and Monmouth to step aside in order that the latter’s son, Hon. Harry Mordaunt*, might be chosen there instead. He did not put himself forward elsewhere. Informing Trumbull on 19 Nov. of this development, and observing that the latest vacancy among the judges had been filled, Wallis bemoaned the lot of his family: ‘It seems hard that neither I, nor any of mine, are preferred.’ But the following summer Blencowe’s name was submitted to the King by the Duke of Shrewsbury as Lord Keeper Somers’ (Sir John*) nominee to be appointed a baron of the Exchequer. In his memorandum to William, Shrewsbury described Blencowe as ‘one who in former parliaments has seemed very well. Though not now in the House, he is an honest and able lawyer, and son-in-law to Dr Wallis of Oxford who deciphers the letters, and will think anything done for him at least as great an obligation, as if it were to himself.’ Blencowe’s patent for the office was issued on 17 Sept. 1696. Wallis, however, was not so easily satisfied and wrote stuffily to Trumbull on 23 Nov.:
I begged that my son-in-law Mr Serjeant Blencowe might be made a judge of the common pleas rather than the exchequer, the perquisites there being inconsiderable compared with his practice, and (I doubt) the salary ill-paid. This being refused, I ask for myself. The same sagacity which serves to decipher a letter might be otherwise serviceable if thought worthy to be employed.
In November 1697 Wallis’ wishes were met and Blencowe was moved to common pleas, but it is not clear if Wallis was directly responsible for the appointment. Early in 1701, when the chief justiceship of common pleas stood vacant, Wallis saw a further opportunity for his son-in-law’s advancement even though Blencowe had positive reasons for not seeking the post himself, and tentatively broached the matter with Dr Humphrey Hody, Archbishop Tenison’s domestic chaplain: ‘I do not find that Mr Justice Blencowe thinks fit to seek it because it is thought some great man have an eye upon it for whom he hath a just esteem, and would not appear in opposition’, but added, ‘a promotion of my son-in-law would (on account of his lady my daughter) be a gracious favour to myself’. The ‘great man’ Wallis mentioned was probably the lord chief justice, Sir John Holt†, who was known to favour Sir Thomas Trevor* for the post. Wallis remained unrealistically hopeful that such obstacles might be surmounted and that the King might after all see fit to bestow the office on Blencowe. However, Blencowe was destined to progress no higher up the judicial ladder, presumably because he lacked substantial political connexions, and remained contentedly a puisne judge until his retirement. At the accession of Queen Anne there was some suggestion that he would be removed from common pleas, but in June 1702 a patent was issued for his reappointment. One of the more contentious legislative measures of this period upon which he was required to declare an opinion was the 1705–6 regency bill, at its committee stage in the Upper House. The judges were called in on 30 Nov. 1705 to pronounce on a clause for preventing the lords justices, who were to act in the sovereign’s absence, from repealing Acts of Parliament. Blencowe was equivocal, submitting that since the bill vested regal power in the lords justices, that power might also be limited by the same statute, but at the same time he did not consider it possible to operate what would thereby amount to ‘a qualified legislature’. He retired in June 1722, when in his 80th year, and as a mark of favour his full salary of £1,000 was continued until his death. Well before he left the bench he had become thoroughly convinced that he had ascertained the longitude and intended to lay his extensive writings on the subject before Parliament, though he never did so. It is possible that this was an early manifestation of the dementia which overcame him in his last years and gave rise to some bizarre behaviour. He died on 6 May 1726 and was buried at Brackley where a simple memorial tells that ‘in every station, he excelled, and was beloved’.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
- 1. Vis. Northants. (Harl. Soc. lxxxvii), 20–21; DNB; ibid. (Wallis, John).
- 2. Banbury Corp. Recs. (Banbury Hist. Soc. xv), 302.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 76; Cal. Treas. Bks. xi. 268; xiii. 161, 366.
- 4. DNB (Wallis, John); Add. 32499, ff. 255, 291, 372; Grey, x. 101.
- 5. Luttrell Diary, 16, 56, 75–76, 88, 99, 172; Grey, x. 206–15; Add. 32499, ff. 297, 327; DNB.
- 6. Luttrell Diary, 319, 375, 449, 469; Vis. Northants. (Harl. Soc. lxxxvii), 248.
- 7. HMC Downshire, i. 551, 555, 586, 706; HMC Lords, n.s. vi. 325; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 216; Add. 32499, f. 372; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 294; Cal. Treas. Bks. xi. 268, 329; xiii. 161, 366; xvii. 258; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 183; Nichols, Lit. Anecs. ix. 273; Baker, Northants. i. 645.