LAW, Sir Edward (1750-1818), of St. James's Square, Mdx. and Roehampton, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



25 Feb. 1801 - 19 Apr. 1802

Family and Education

b. 16 Nov. 1750, 4th s. of Rev. Edmund Law, DD, rector of Great Salkeld, Cumb., bp. of Carlisle 1768-87, by Mary, da. of John Christian of Unerigg, Cumb.; bro. of Ewan Law*. educ. Bury St. Edmunds; Charterhouse 1761-7; Peterhouse, Camb. 1767, fellow 1771-89; L. Inn 1769, called 1780; I. Temple 1782. m. 17 Oct. 1789, Ann, da. of George Philips Towry of Shipley, Northumb., commr. of navy victualling office, 7s. 6da. Kntd. 22 Feb. 1801; cr. Baron Ellenborough 19 Apr. 1802.

Offices Held

KC 27 June 1787; bencher, I. Temple 1787, reader 1794; treasurer 1795; King’s attorney and serjeant, co. pal. of Lancaster Nov. 1793-1802; attorney-gen. Feb. 1801-Apr. 1802; serjt.-at-law 12 Apr. 1802; l.c.j. KB Apr. 1802-Nov. 1818 and clerk of the ct. 1804-18; PC 21 Apr. 1802; custodian of seal of Exchequer 25 Jan.-5 Feb. 1806; seat in the cabinet Jan. 1806-Mar. 1807.


Law’s father, the learned bishop of Carlisle, used to say to his sons: ‘What you have to expect from me is a good education, and afterwards half-a-crown to begin the world with—and then you must shift for yourselves’. Two became bishops, one lord chief justice and a peer, and the two others made fortunes in India and America.1 Edward distinguished himself at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, where, according to a fellow student Archdeacon Coxe, ‘his studies resembled the warmth of his disposition’, and where, he claimed, his character was formed by his father’s chaplain, Dr William Paley.2 Being unwilling to enter the church, he studied special pleading under George Wood* while a fellow of his college and practised successfully from 1775 to 1780, when he was called to the bar. He built up a large practice on the northern circuit and took silk in 1787, holding a crown brief in the trial of Lord George Gordon and others for libel.3 His great opportunity came soon afterwards, when at the suggestion of his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Rumbold, he was made leading defence counsel for Warren Hastings (1788-95). Though he did not open the defence until 14 Feb. 1792 and was nervous on the first day of his three-day speech,4 he made a considerable impression, gaining confidence all the time, and was given much of the credit for Hastings’s acquittal in April 1795. He invested in East India Company stock.

He could have had a seat in Parliament, for Westbury on Lord Abingdon’s interest, but his brother Ewan took it instead. Although Law intended to occupy it when Hastings’s trial was over, he did not do so. Instead he acquired a lucrative London practice, his reputation now being second only to Thomas Erskine’s. He parted with the Whigs, whose club he had joined in 1785, over the French revolution, and in November 1793 accepted legal office. He was counsel for the crown in the treason trials of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke* and William Stone and also went to Lancaster to prosecute Thomas Walker (April 1794), at once consenting to an acquittal, and to York to prosecute Henry Redhead (July 1795). In the trial of Lord Thanet and others for conspiring to rescue the prisoner Arthur O’Connor (1799), it was his cross-examination of Sheridan that secured the verdict for the crown. He acquired a reputation as a remorseless cross-examiner and his hectoring, overbearing manner, his Cumbrian accent and his prejudices were remarked on.5

On Addington’s advent to power, Law accepted with alacrity his offer of becoming attorney-general without ever having been solicitor-general. A ‘bold man was wanted in that post’. A seat in Parliament was found for him, Sir Richard Worsley’s* at Newtown, for which he contributed £500 to the Treasury fund. When he was knighted, George III, having ascertained that he had never been in Parliament, said: ‘That is right: my attorney-general ought not to have been in Parliament, for then, you know, he is not obliged to eat his own words’.6 Apart from speaking on legal business, Law lent his voice to administration in support of martial law in Ireland, 18 Mar. 1801, and the suspension of habeas corpus, 14 Apr., for which he brought in and defended the indemnity bill, 27 May, 5 June: ‘I am attached to liberty, and would suffer as much for it as the mock patriots opposite me: but I reflect with satisfaction that the liberty of a few was all that we paid for what is yet preserved to us’. He brought in a bill for the better collection of poor rates, 23 Mar., after presenting a petition from Whitehaven on the subject, which he said exemplified a national problem. On 19 Jan. and 3 Mar. 1802 he defended the peace preliminaries and on 31 Mar. opposed Manners Sutton’s motion for an inquiry into the revenues of the duchy of Cornwall, having investigated the subject for administration. As attorney-general he tried only one case, that of Governor Wall for murder, at the Old Bailey (January 1802).7

Soon afterwards, on the death of his enemy Lord Kenyon, he became lord chief justice, with a barony. Farington was told that, when appointed, ‘he was worth £63,000’. He went on in 1804 to assume the clerkship of the court, worth ‘about £9,000 a year’ for himself, in addition to his chief justice’s salary, thus making ‘£20,000 a year’. Ellenborough, as he now was, took his seat in the Lords, 26 Apr. 1802, and continued to browbeat opposition there: Woodfall wrote of an attack he made on Lord Grenville; ‘lawyers so rapidly raised to high station cannot on the sudden forget their nisi prius manners’.8 He was a keen opponent of Catholic relief, and voted Melville guilty. He was Speaker of the Lords during Eldon’s illness (1805) and custodian of the Exchequer seal on Pitt’s death until the Grenville administration was formed. Despite his views on Catholic relief, to please Sidmouth he became a member of the new administration: he refused the chancellorship, from fear ‘that he would disgrace himself as well as those who should appoint him’; as his critic Romilly pointed out, the chief justiceship was in any case ‘almost as lucrative, and is held for life’ and he had no experience of equity. Instead, Ellenborough agreed against his better judgment to sit in the cabinet without portfolio, which raised a storm of criticism, though Lord Mansfield provided a precedent. Ellenborough was the last example of it, surviving votes of censure in the Lords without a division and in the Commons by 222 votes to 64, 3 Mar. 1806. On going out of office he told Wilberforce, who had voted against him, ‘I have not done much mischief after all’.9

On the collapse of the ministry, Ellenborough had lost confidence in Grenville (the feeling was mutual), and, not seeing eye to eye with Perceval, remained attached to Sidmouth. He had been a commissioner in the ‘delicate investigation’ of the conduct of the Princess of Wales (1806) and clearly thought her guilty. He was also a councillor to the Queen during the Regency (1811). As chief justice, he tried Col. Despard for treason (February 1803), Peltier for libel on Napoleon (February 1803), Mr Justice Johnson (November 1805), Perry, Cossett and the Hunt brothers for libel in their newspapers (1810-12), and Lord Cochrane* for fraud (June 1814). His heavy sentence on Cochrane and refusal to grant a re-trial made him unpopular and his house was one of those attacked by the mob during anti-Corn Law agitation (March 1815). Cochrane brought in 13 charges of injustice against him in the House, 5 Mar. 1816, and another on 1 Apr., but his motion for an inquiry was rejected by 89 votes to none, 30 Apr. By a subsequent motion, every notice of the charges was expunged from the votes of the House.10

Ellenborough’s health began to break down during the trial of James Watson for treason (1817) and when his failing powers became manifest at the trial of Hone for blasphemy in December, he resolved to resign, so he informed Sidmouth, as soon as the government could find a suitable successor. This he eventually did on 6 Nov. 1818, by which time his general debility was much remarked on. He died on 13 Dec. 1818 at his house in St. James’s Square, the first common law judge to leave Bloomsbury for a West End residence, which he purchased from Lord Anson for £18,000 after renting it at first at £1,200 a year. By his will, the house and his villa at Roehampton were sold. He left upwards of £240,000.11 His King’s bench clerkship, intended for his son, was taken from him by his successor Abbot.

Ellenborough was strongly opposed to innovations in the law and thwarted many of Romilly’s efforts to mitigate the criminal code; he was the author of the Act of 1803 (43 Geo. III c.58), which added ten capital offences to the code. Romilly, who deplored his ‘coarse invective’, said that he seemed ‘to consider himself as bound to defend the conduct of all judges, whether living or dead’, though someone hearing him make a panegyric on judges, advised him ‘Stick to obloquy, Ned’. His severity of demeanour, his intolerant manner and his frequent petulance naturally provoked more fear than love. In the exercise of his wit, of which he had a large share, there was ‘too much sarcasm and ridicule’, according to Foss. Brougham, who had no reason to love him, said his nature ‘had nothing harsh in it, except his irritable temper, quickly roused and quickly appeased: his mind was just ... his nature was noble; his spirit was open, manly, honest, and ever moved with disgust at anything false or tricky’.12

In sharp contrast to his attractive wife, of whom he was jealous ‘without the least cause for it’, Ellenborough was ungainly (he was turned out of the Lincoln’s Inn volunteers for ‘awkwardness’):

he moved with a sort of semi-rotatory step, and his path to the place to which he wished to go was the section of a parabola. When he entered the court, he was in the habit of swelling out his cheeks by blowing and compressing his lips, and you would have supposed that he was going to snort like a war horse. His spoken diction, although always scholarlike, rather inclined to the sesquipedalian: his intonation was deep and solemn.

This led to his being mimicked, for example by Charles Mathews on the stage. He was also ‘a great voluptuary in eating’, drank freely and was ‘an entertaining companion at table, full of anecdote and information’.13

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 119.
  • 2. Coxe’s portrait of him as ‘Philotes’, cited by Campbell, 97.
  • 3. State Trials, xxii. 213.
  • 4. Diary of Mme. d’Arblay ed. Dobson, v. 282-9; Brougham, Hist. Sketches (3rd ed.), 205; Bond, Speeches ... in the trial of W. Hastings, ii. 524-683.
  • 5. PRO 30/12/17/8, draft letter to Ld. Abingdon, n.d.; State Trials, xxiii. 1055; xxiv. 199; xxv. 1, 1003, 1155; xxvi. 529; xxvii. 821; Campbell, iii. 96n.
  • 6. Brydges, Autobiog. i. 293; Campbell, iii. 144; H. Best, Personal and Lit. Mems. (1829), 107.
  • 7. State Trials, xxviii. 51.
  • 8. Farington, vi. 105; Auckland Jnl. iv. 158.
  • 9. HMC Fortescue, vii. 349; Windham Diary, 457; Romilly, Mems. ii. 135, 137, Campbell, iii. 189; Parl. Deb. vi. 286-342; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 258.
  • 10. Colchester, ii. 103, 425; Campbell, iii. 189-92; Romilly, ii. 148, 154; iii. 157; State Trials, xxviii. 345, 529; xxix. 422; xxxi. 335, 367; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 537; Parl. Deb. xxxii. 1145, 1208; xxxiii. 760; xxxiv. 103-32.
  • 11. Pellew, Sidmouth, iii. 236; Twiss, Eldon, ii. 320; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 754; Farington, iii. 164, 205; vii. 51; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 217; Gent. Mag. (1818), ii. 567; Campbell, iii. 246n; PRO 30/12/2/2, ff. 82, 86, 97.
  • 12. Romilly, i. 89; ii. 184, 253, 333-40, 396; iii. 94, 146; Jnl. of Hon. H. E. Fox, 27; Foss, viii. 321; Brougham, 198-222.
  • 13. Farington, vii. 51, 96, 142; Campbell, iii. 243.