MURRAY, Hon. William (1705-93), of Ken Wood, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer



29 Nov. 1742 - 8 Nov. 1756

Family and Education

b. 2 Mar. 1705, 4th s. of David Murray, 5th Visct. Stormont [S], and bro. of Hon. James Murray. educ. Perth g.s.; Westminster 1718-23; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1723-7; L. Inn 1724, called 1730. m. 20 Sept. 1738, Lady Elizabeth Finch, da. of Daniel Finch, M.P., 7th Earl of Winchilsea and 2nd Earl of Nottingham. cr. Lord Mansfield 8 Nov. 1756; Earl of Mansfield, Notts. with sp. rem. to Louisa, Viscountess Stormont, 31 Oct. 1776; Earl of Mansfield, Mdx. with sp. rem. to his nephew, Visct. Stormont, 1 Aug. 1792.

Offices Held

K.C. 1742, solicitor-gen. 1742-54; attorney-gen. 1754-6; P.C. 19 Nov. 1756; 1. c. j. of King’s bench 1756-88.


Murray came of a well-known Jacobite family; in the 1715 rebellion both his father and his eldest brother were taken up on suspicion of high treason; another brother, James, went into exile, eventually becoming secretary of state to the Pretender. According to his own account, as a schoolboy

I saw very soon the blessings of a free government, and I did not, even then, argue so weakly as to think that a free government could be preserved but by allowing such a resistance as was necessary at the Revolution ...
When I went to the university, as I was upon a foundation, I took all the oaths to the Government.
When I took them I well knew the force of those engagements. I was not ignorant of the nature of the question, if it can be called a question, for I never could see the doubt. That a Protestant should reason himself into a Jacobite is as incomprehensible in politics as it is in religion that a man should reason himself into an atheist.1

He seems to have antedated his conversion, for during a visit to his Jacobite brother in Paris at the end of his second year at Oxford he wrote to his brother-in-law, John Hay, titular Earl of Inverness and secretary of state to the Pretender:

I flatter myself you will excuse the ambition of a young man, if I make use of the freedom I at present have, to desire you to make a tender of my duty and loyalty to the King; a very small present, but all I have to offer. Twill in some measure excuse my presumption for offering my service, though in so private a station as not to be able to render any considerable, that I do it at a time when so many are wanting to their duty, that ’tis some merit to protest against it ... The chief end I would propose from my studies and education, and the greatest glory I can aim at is to be able to serve his Majesty in any way that he pleases to command me.2

Choosing the law as the most independent profession, Murray quickly made his name at the parliamentary bar. In 1736, as counsel for the bishops against the Quakers bill, he gained such ‘credit with the clergy’ that at a by-election for Oxford University in 1737 he was considered by the Whigs as a candidate to oppose William Bromley jun.; but, in his own words, ‘the great business I was then coming in to at the bar of the House of Commons made it imprudent for me to think of coming into Parliament; and this idea was dropped’.3

During the next five years Murray rose to the top of his profession, appearing before the House of Commons for the city of Edinburgh on the Porteous riots bill in 1737, for the merchants’ petition against the Spanish depredations in 1738, and for the opposition candidates in the Westminster election in 1741, when Horace Walpole describes him as speaking ‘divinely’, ‘beyond what was ever heard at the bar’4 of the House. He received many offers of a seat but determined that when he came into Parliament it ‘should be in connection with the Whigs, and in office, so that there might be no possibility of doubt concerning the conduct I meant to hold’.5 These conditions were fulfilled in 1742, when the Duke of Newcastle decided that it was essential to strengthen himself in the House of Commons and that in Murray, who had recently acted for him in a private matter, he had found ‘a sure way of doing it. I know (and my brother is now fully convinced of it) that I can absolutely depend upon Mr. Murray. He will beat them all ... I mean Pitt, Lyttelton, etc.’. Newcastle’s friends agreed, the Duke of Richmond observing that ‘the only objection that can be made to him is what he can’t help, which is that he is a Scotchman, which (as I have a great regard for him) I am extremely sorry for’.6 One of the Members for Boroughbridge died opportunely; Sir John Strange, the solicitor-general, was ready to resign his office; and at the end of November Murray entered Parliament as solicitor-general. Within a fortnight of taking his seat, he made his maiden speech, as Horace Walpole reports,

with the greatest applause; Pitt answered him with all his force and art of language, but on an ill-founded argument. In all appearance they will be great rivals.

In the next session,

Murray shines as bright as ever he did at the bar, which he seems to decline to push his fortune in the House of Commons under Mr. Pelham.7

In 1751 Chesterfield describes Murray and Pitt as

beyond comparison the best speakers [in the House of Commons] ... They alone can inflame or quiet the House; they alone are so attended to in that numerous and noisy assembly that you might hear a pin fall while either of them is speaking.8

But his Jacobite connexions were a serious liability, especially after the Forty-five rebellion. Many years later, when he had become Lord Mansfield, the Duke of Newcastle wrote:

Men of my Lord Mansfield’s parts and abilities generally can make their own way in this country; but in his Lordship’s case it was impossible. He had the misfortune to be so nearly allied to the most declared enemies of the Protestant succession; his own character not known in that respect; his first appearance in the world marked with the most intimate connection with the late Lord Bolingbroke and Mr. Pope; and his public appearances as counsel and his private friendships and acquaintances with those at the head of the opposition, Sir Wm. Wyndham, Lord Bath, Lord Granville, etc.; that nothing but the most determined resolution and support from me, not tainted with those principles or those acquaintances, could have forced his way to the great stations he has been in.9

At the end of 1752 the younger Horace Walpole, prosecuting a secret personal vendetta against the Pelhams, circulated an anonymous leaflet suggesting that they were under the influence of a ‘dangerous faction, who intend to overthrow the Government and restore the exiled and arbitrary House of Stuart’; that ‘a Scotchman of a most disaffected family and allied in the nearest manner to the Pretender’s first minister’ had been ‘consulted on the education of the Prince of Wales and entrusted with the most important secrets of Government’; in short, that two Jacobites, Murray and his friend, Andrew Stone, the Duke of Newcastle’s confidential advisers, governed the country. The leaflet started a witch-hunt against Murray and Stone, culminating in formal charges of Jacobitism, which were found by a cabinet inquiry to be absolutely baseless.10 Nevertheless the affair put an end to Murray’s political career. As Chesterfield wrote at the time:

The evidence against them was really nothing; but, upon the whole, the affair has affected them both, and they will feel the weight of it as long as they live. No reasonable man, I believe, thinks them Jacobites now, whatever they may have been formerly. But parties do not reason, and every Whig party man, which is nine in ten of the Whig party, is fully convinced that they are at this time determined and dangerous Jacobites.11

On Pelham’s death a year later, one of the chief objections to Murray as his successor was that he had ‘too lately been the object of clamour on the worst species of Scotch principles’. When the chief justiceship of the King’s bench fell vacant in 1756, he claimed it, ‘agreeably to his constant asseverations that he meant to rise by his profession, not by the House of Commons’.12

He died 20 Mar. 1793, the founder of English commercial law.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick


  • 1. Murray’s speech before the Committee of Council, 23 Feb. 1753, Add. 33050, f. 331.
  • 2. 6 Aug. 1725, Stuart mss 85/21. The letter appears to be a copy.
  • 3. Murray’s speech, loc. cit.
  • 4. To Mann, 24 Dec. 1741.
  • 5. Murray’s speech, loc. cit.
  • 6. P. Yorke, Hardwicke, i. 307.
  • 7. To Mann, 9 Dec. 1742, 24 Jan. 1744.
  • 8. To his son, 11 Feb. 1751.
  • 9. To Stone, 15 Oct. 1762, Add. 32943, f. 224.
  • 10. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 298-332.
  • 11. To Dayrolles, 6 Apr. 1753.
  • 12. Mems. Geo. II, i. 380; ii. 223-4.