ROMILLY, Sir Samuel (1757-1818), of Russell Square, Mdx. and Tanhurst, Surr.

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



21 Mar. 1806 - 1807
1807 - 26 Feb. 1808
20 Apr. 1808 - 1812
21 Dec. 1812 - 1818
1818 - 2 Nov. 1818

Family and Education

b. 1 Mar. 1757, 2nd surv. s. of Peter Romilly, jeweller, of Frith Street, Soho, Mdx. by Margaret, da. of Aimé Garnault, merchant jeweller, of Westminster. educ. Mr Flack’s, London; articled to Lally, Six Clerks Office 1773; G. Inn 1778, called 1783; continental tour 1781. m. 3 Jan. 1798, Anne, da. of Francis Garbett of Knill Court, Herefs., 6s. 1da. Kntd. 12 Feb. 1806.

Offices Held

KC 2 July 1800; treasurer, G. Inn 1803; chancellor, Durham 1805-15; solicitor-gen. Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807.


Romilly, a lawyer of Huguenot extraction, almost self-educated, began practice in the Chancery courts; in 1784 he joined the midland circuit, which involved a comparatively brief absence from London and where few men of talent were practising. In order to obtain briefs he also attended Warwick quarter sessions. A paper he published in 1784 on the rights of juries in libel cases which anticipated the Libel Act of 1792 brought him to the notice of Lord Lansdowne, who, following up a suggestion first made to him in 1785, offered him a seat for Calne in January 1792 ‘with perfect liberty to vote and act as I should think proper’. Romilly had meanwhile written anonymous pamphlets on criminal law reform and on the probable effects of the French revolution, which he had witnessed. He had also abandoned his circuit for a Chancery practice. But keen as he was to enter Parliament, he was anxious to be perfectly independent and with characteristic scrupulosity, feeling that his patron would regard him as his pawn and would be annoyed if their politics should differ, he declined the offer. Lansdowne renewed the invitation in June 1795, but received the same reply. Romilly was concerned not only with the rectitude of his conduct, but also with how it might appear to others:

I persuaded myself that it was impossible that the little talents which I possessed could ever be exerted with any advantage to the public, or any credit to myself, unless I came into Parliament quite independent, and answerable for my conduct to God and to my country alone ... I formed to myself an unalterable resolution never, unless I held a public office, to come into Parliament but by a popular election, or by paying the common price for my seat. As to the first of these, I knew, of course, that I must never look for it; and as for the latter, I determined to wait till the labours of my profession should have enabled me to accomplish it without being guilty of any great extravagance.1

Romilly’s eyes were already fixed on the highest honours of his profession; in 1801, after taking silk, he wrote the first of two letters to himself examining his situation and prospects: introspections which show that he desired the chancellorship in order to carry out major reforms. Addington’s coming to power benefited his practice by promoting the former law officers out of the court of Chancery; and he began to contemplate an early accession to office. He therefore sought to make ready his schemes of reform, realizing that when he actually came into office he would not have time to plan them. He was ambitious of exercising ‘in an exalted station the noblest faculties of the soul, of improving the conditions of mankind, and adding to the happiness of millions who are unborn’.2 Long disillusioned with the French revolution, he revisited France in 1802, as a critic, for he found himself in a police state.

In 1805, the Prince of Wales, by whom Romilly had lately been consulted on a legal problem, offered him a seat in the Commons. With some embarrassment he refused, explaining that he thought he could be useful only if completely independent; though, as he wrote to Thomas Creevey*, the intermediary in the affair:

If I had been a Member from the beginning of the present Parliament, my vote would have been uniformly given in a way which I presume would have been agreeable to the Prince of Wales ... I think that upon all questions I should have voted with Mr Fox.

The whole truth he confided only to his journal:

I was averse to being brought into Parliament by any man, but by the Prince almost above all others. To be under personal obligations of that kind to him, to be in a situation in which, as a lawyer and as a politician, he might repose a particular confidence in me, was what I, above all things, dreaded.

The Prince, though not particularly pleased by his reply, bore him no grudge. Now able to afford a seat, he wished to pursue his profession without interruption a little longer. Feeling some moral qualms about his willingness to purchase a seat, he justified it to himself as being the only way by which a Member could act with entire independence. He was never entirely happy about this; but thought that one who would therefore ‘seclude himself altogether from Parliament’ would be so dominated by ‘a species of moral superstition’ as to be unfit for any public duties. There were friends from whom he would have been willing to accept a seat, but they possessed no patronage.3

The coming of Fox to power on the death of Pitt brought Romilly expectations of office: he wrote to Jeremy Bentham on 4 Feb. 1806: ‘I suppose there is no doubt that I am to be solicitor-general, though it has never yet been announced to me, nor even that I was to be proposed for that office’. On 8 Feb. he learned from Fox of his appointment, which, he wrote, ‘has not only been unsolicited, but it has been made without connexion with either Lord Grenville or Mr Fox ... I owe it, principally, I believe, to the Prince of Wales.’ The Prince sent him word of his expressing to Fox and Grenville his ‘particular wish’ that Romilly should be given office.4

But he was an obvious candidate. Since 1802 he had been the busiest Chancery lawyer. Lord Minto had written to his wife (27 Dec. 1802), ‘Romilly ... is universally respected, and is remarkably pleasing as well as able’. Young Francis Horner*, making his London debut, wrote that Romilly ‘stands at the head of the profession (as I am informed by everyone), both in point of legal accomplishment, general information, and respectability.’ And at the convivial King of Clubs, Horner found that Romilly ‘evidently received from all an unaffected deference, and imposed a certain degree of restraint’.5 Pitt had regarded him as a suitable solicitor-general in 1804 and Sidmouth, writing to Grenville on 1 Feb. 1806, remarked: ‘In a very short time Romilly will be ripe for the highest situation in the profession’. ‘Of all the appointments’, wrote Lord Buckingham of the new ministry, ‘the legal ones were then considered most satisfactory; that of Sir Samuel Romilly could not have been improved upon.’6 Romilly had no hesitation in accepting. Fox said that he was to be brought in without expense and Romilly wrote in his diary, ‘I cannot hesitate at accepting a seat in Parliament from them. As long as I hold the office ... I must support administration. As soon as they appear to me unworthy to be supported, it will be my duty to resign.’7

Romilly took his seat in the House on 24 Mar. 1806. His maiden speech, on the witnesses declaratory bill (17 Apr.), was directed against an amendment by the master of the rolls (supported by the attorney-general). While in office, he was able to accomplish little, though establishing himself as a speaker in debate, as well as in Lord Melville’s impeachment. In a forcible speech against the slave trade, 10 June 1806, he remarked that the trade, which he had long abhorred, was carried on by ‘robbery, rapine, and murder,’ which gave ‘great offence’ to some Members; ‘but as I should think it criminal to speak of such a trade otherwise than as it really is’, he wrote, ‘I shall probably use the same expressions again’.8 (He devoted his most applauded speech next session to the defence of the abolition bill.) On 26 June, he introduced a bill to amend the Bankruptcy Laws, which passed within a month: ‘It is certainly not from an abundance of leisure that I have undertaken this; for I am obliged every day to refuse to answer cases which are brought to me, because I have not time to answer them’. In an able speech on 4 July he thwarted Lord Temple’s move to dispose of Paull’s charges against Lord Wellesley’s Indian administration. But at the end of the session he recorded: ‘Very little has passed that was either very instructive or very amusing’.9 That was also true of the ‘delicate investigation’ of the Princess of Wales’s conduct in which the Prince involved him during the session.

Romilly was returned unopposed at the 1806 general election and into the new Parliament he introduced a bill to make debtors’ freehold estates liable for their simple contract debts, 28 Jan. 1807. The law required ‘great amendment’ but he realized he could move but slowly and attempt little. Even this measure was bitterly attacked. Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough wished that the judges might consider the bill before it was introduced, but Romilly firmly rejected this as unconstitutional doctrine. The bill, regarded as an assault upon the landed interest, also involved him in a quarrel with Grant, the master of the rolls, who opposed the third reading: Romilly’s reply was ‘perhaps ... more severe than it should have been’, 18 Mar. Grant wrote complaining and Romilly, ever sensitive to personal criticism, lamented, ‘he has used me most unkindly’. On quitting office with the Grenville ministry, he recorded with satisfaction ‘that I have never asked them for a single favour’. He spoke for Brand’s motion on the change of administration and attacked Lord Melville, 9 Apr. ‘My speech’, he admitted, ‘upon the whole was a very bad one, and was by no means favourably received by the House. I felt mortified and chagrined to the utmost degree ... It will be long, I think, before I shall venture to speak again.’10 On 20 Apr. however, he had the satisfaction of seeing his new debtors freehold estate bill (restricted to persons in trade) receive its third reading. A week later he recorded his decision to buy a seat in the next Parliament, unless it were unreasonably expensive, as he feared it might be. ‘This buying of seats’, he added, ‘is detestable; and yet it is almost the only way in which one in my situation, who is resolved to be an independent man, can get into Parliament.’ Henry Martin* tried to make an opening for him at Downpatrick, but without success. On 9 May ‘after almost despairing of being able to get any seat in Parliament’ he procured one through Sir Arthur Leary Piggott*. It was for Horsham, and his patron was the Duke of Norfolk. He went down the following day, coming away before the election was over. The terms on which he held the seat, which was insecure because of a disputed franchise, he set on record in a letter to Piggott (12 May): ‘If I keep the seat, either by the decision of a committee upon a petition, or by a compromise (... in which case it is understood that I am to be the Member who continues), I am to pay £2,000; if, upon a petition, I lose the seat, I am not to be at any expense’.11

Although the chancellorship seemed within his grasp whenever the Whigs should return to office, he now found it less desirable: in such troublesome times he saw little chance of being able to do any public good. He contemplated proposing reforms in the criminal law, but decided against, and on 26 Feb. 1808 was unseated on petition. ‘My absence from Parliament is not likely to be of long duration,’ he wrote. Lord Henry Petty* and Piggott had discussed with John Calcraft* the possibility of a seat at Wareham; and on 1 Apr. Romilly learned he was to have it for £2,000, Calcraft receiving a further £1,000 from an opposition fund. ‘I was staggered at the first mention of this, and stated my objections to Piggott.’ So finally, for his own peace of mind, Romilly paid the extra sum himself. He voted, however, consistently and frequently with opposition throughout the Parliament.

Regretting, during his enforced vacation, that he had done nothing to reform the criminal law, Romilly decided to attempt the repeal of statutes making simple theft a capital offence. He made a successful start with an Elizabethan law against privately stealing from the person. The consequent increase in successful prosecutions of pickpockets was used to argue that crime increased with more lenient punishments. The Lords blocked Romilly’s further measures that were passed by the Commons. Charles Williams Wynn* was sceptical of Romilly’s pretensions as a reformer of the criminal law and wrote, 22 July 1808,

He is a man of talent but seems to me to want judgment. He appears desirous of doing good, but far more so of courting popularity. He prefers gaining the credit for bringing forward a proposal himself unsuccessfully, than to share it with others and succeed, if not to the full extent of his opinions yet sufficiently to produce much practical benefit. Very little can be done by detached and separate bills introduced by him. The House is always indisposed, and I think justly so, to alteration of what has long subsisted: he possesses himself little authority upon the subject as his practice has been except for about three years during which he went the circuit confined to the court of Chancery. The only method by which his design can ever succeed would be by the appointing a committee to consider the penal laws in general and to report which among them are obsolete or unnecessarily severe, which may be repealed and which mitigated.12

In November and December 1808 Romilly was working on an improvement of the Bankruptcy Laws which he introduced early the following February. On 28 Mar., writing to John Cartwright to support public agitation for parliamentary reform, he stated the principles of his public conduct, which he had recently illustrated in castigating Lord Wellesley’s and the Duke of York’s conduct:

I shall vote and speak as I think my duty and the good of the country require, without caring whom such a conduct may please or offend. But I have a very great aversion to acting any conspicuous part, or putting myself forward in any way, out of the House, upon any public measure.

In June his threatening to oppose the attorney-general’s seditious meetings bill rendered, he thought, ‘a very essential service’ to the country, the bill being given up for the session. He also eventually opposed Curwen’s bill prohibiting the sale of seats, which he had helped to introduce, as one ‘to secure the purchase of seats exclusively to government’.

Resuming his attempts to alleviate the criminal code early in 1810, he was hindered by the priority accorded to government business and the shortness of the session. He went further than the orthodox Whigs in mitigation of the conduct of Sir Francis Burdett* and on 16 Apr. unsuccessfully moved the release of Burdett’s radical crony John Gale Jones. Despite this, according to Horner, ‘no lawyer ever stood higher than he does in the House of Commons, or more thoroughly possessed the confidence of his party’. He steadily supported sinecure reform, was outspoken against corruption and voted for parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. In opposing Perceval’s Regency resolutions, 1 Jan. 1811, he attacked Pitt, whose name had been used to justify ministerial proceedings. For this, Canning the next day delivered a studied attack on Romilly, whose answer, ‘given with much calmness and command of temper’, gained him ‘much credit’. He was adamant against a Whig alliance with Canning. The Whigs’ hopes were raised by the King’s illness, and when they drew up lists of ministers Romilly at first was proposed for attorney-general, but Piggott declining to become a judge, was marked again for solicitor-general, though a new office of assistant master of the rolls was suggested for him. All this proving visionary, he again brought in his bills to alter the criminal law and also, on the petition of the calico printers, bills to rescind the death penalty for theft from bleaching grounds. The latter measures alone passed.13

When, on 7 Mar. 1811, Michael Angelo Taylor proposed a committee to investigate Chancery delays, Romilly, knowing ‘how great an evil this is’, decided he must speak, though, practising daily in the chancellor’s court, to his diary alone could he confide his opinion of Eldon’s hesitations as the source of the trouble. Saying all possible good of the chancellor, he stated the need for an urgent but temporary remedy. On 17 May he supported Taylor’s further motion and was appointed to the committee, which he attended ‘a good deal, and suggested some things which are in the report.’ Through his efforts, a committee was also set up on building prisons, which in addition considered transportation and the hulk system (4 Mar.). He proposed another committee on transportation on 12 Feb. 1812, ascribing the increase in crime to imprisonment on the hulks, which turned those sentenced to limited terms of transportation into hardened criminals. On 13 Mar. 1812 his scrutiny of legislation in progress picked out the Stroud poor bill; in that and similar measures he found provisions ‘which make a different state of the poor laws and the criminal law in each particular parish which chooses to apply for such a bill’. He was successful in removing obnoxious clauses.14

In the autumn of 1811, with the worsening of the King’s health opening the prospect of a general election, Romilly heard that he might be proposed for Liverpool, Bristol or Middlesex. Lord Grenville and the Duke of Norfolk agreed to place their Bristol interests at his disposal. ‘Nothing can be less suited to my inclination than to engage in a contest’, Romilly told them. He wanted neither the trouble nor the expense, though he was now making £15,000 a year. He declined to contest Middlesex, commenting:

I never have made and I never will make popular applause the object of my pursuit; but yet I have always felt that, next to the satisfaction which arises from the consciousness of having faithfully discharged one’s duty, the best reward, in this life of public services is the approbation of the public.

When the Middlesex Freeholders Club offered to propose him if he would support parliamentary reform (including annual parliaments) he declined the honour without committing himself as to the condition. But Curwen’s Act made it no longer possible for him legally to buy a seat and so he had to consider coming in by popular election. To an invitation to stand for Bristol, he replied on 17 Dec. that he would not engage in a personal contest or canvass or announce himself a candidate at all before a vacancy and pointed out that he could spend only a limited amount of time on Bristol affairs—though upon investigation he decided he would be able to do them justice. Adopted by the Bristol Whig Club, on 17 Jan. 1812, he issued an address to the electors:

I am not about to commence a personal canvass for your votes. If my past conduct has in your judgement rendered me worthy ... it is unnecessary for me to go about soliciting your suffrages; and if it has not, I know of no ground upon which I could presume to make such a request ...

On 2 Apr. he reluctantly visited Bristol for a public dinner, finding the demonstrations in his honour disagreeable. In his speech, although declaring his adherence to the Whigs, he ‘touched upon no topics calculated to court popular favour’. To silence reports that he had abandoned the Catholic cause to court the Bristol electorate, he spoke on Grattan’s motion for relief on 24 Apr., but denied any connexion with religious dissenters. When Parliament was dissolved he hastened to Bristol to show himself to the electors and thank those who had promised to support him—an errand he found ‘tiresome and most fatiguing.’ In his nomination speech he declared that a Member should oppose measures of his friends of which he conscientiously disapproved. He gave up after seven days’ polling; but he was not without the prospect of a seat. The Duke of Norfolk had offered to return him without any expense beyond that of a dinner to the electors. ‘I was to vote, when in Parliament, just as I should think proper.’ Romilly accepted the offer and came in for Arundel. This was in contrast with his earlier refusal of similar offers; but in 1805 he had written that ‘a man who had already established his public character’ might thus come in ‘without reproach’: and the change in the law, and his establishing a reputation as an independent Member, made a situation that he had previously found unacceptable, ‘quite unobjectionable’. To stay out of Parliament was the alternative to the duke’s offer, ‘and I cannot think that it is my duty to decline it’.15

While Romilly was without a seat the government introduced into the Lords a bill to create a vice-chancellor, which he had opposed at the close of the previous session. He was convinced that to increase the number of Chancery judges would merely multiply appeals and make the chancellor a politician rather than a judge. Fearing that government intended to pass the bill while he was out of the way, he published a condemnatory pamphlet. When the bill finally passed, he wrote, ‘I have the satisfaction of reflecting that I have opposed this bill by every means in my power: I have voted, and spoken, and written, against it.’16

Feeling that, since going out of office,

I have been somewhat backward in proposing alterations in the law, because I have always supposed it possible that I might again be in office; and changes proposed by a person who has the support of government, or at least has not their opposition to encounter, are so much more likely to be adopted than those which come from another quarter, that I have reserved myself for that favourable season,

he determined at once to propose changes in the bankruptcy and criminal laws. He saw little hope of carrying such useful measures, but thought the discussion might do some good. On 17 Feb. 1813 he proposed three bills moderating punishments for various offences, including treason: what the Commons left was rejected by the Lords. John William Ward* complained that Romilly ‘gives us the principe, the whole principe, and nothing but the principe ... He sets about things in a foreign, and philosophical way’, which frightened the country gentlemen unnecessarily and prejudiced them against his proposals.

Romilly missed the division on Grattan’s Roman Catholic relief motion, 2 Mar. 1813, through his habit of going to bed at his usual time when a debate ran late and ‘rising next morning somewhat earlier than usual’ to ‘go down to the House to be present at the division’. During March he received several visits from John Nash, the Regent’s architect, ostensibly to enquire if Romilly would advise the Regent on the Princess of Wales, which developed into political discussions. Nash asked if he would accept the great seal if the Whigs were not in office; Romilly replied that, though not actuated by party principles, he considered ‘that no good could be done to the country’ unless Fox’s friends were in administration and that he could not join one from which they were excluded. Nash then tried to persuade him to negotiate between the Prince and the Whigs: he was ‘the link by which the Prince might be reunited with his old political friends’—but Romilly dismissed the possibility.17

The war being over, Romilly advocated international abolition of the slave trade. On 28 Nov. 1814 he attacked ministers for keeping the militia embodied. In December he suffered his ‘first alarming illness’—an attack of pneumonia; but having recovered, he renewed his attack on the continued embodiment of the militia, a question which he regarded as of great constitutional importance, 28 Feb. 1815. On 3 Mar. he voted against the corn bill as an ‘extremely injudicious and impolitic measure.’ Peace also gave him his long-awaited opportunity to try to mitigate the severity of military punishments and he proposed limiting floggings to 200 lashes, 8 Mar. When on 21 June Bennet proposed a maximum of 100, Romilly in supporting concentrated on the real question—whether there should be any maximum at all. When the government decided to oppose Buonaparte’s return, Romilly spoke and voted for maintaining peace, 6, 7, 28 Apr. Informed by a visit to the Continent and inspired by fear that foreign nations and an English king might unite against English liberties, he spoke against the peace treaty which imposed Louis XVIII on France, 20 Feb. 1816, when he also opposed the return of the Louvre’s art treasures to the countries from which they had been taken. ‘Though my speech was not a good one,’ he wrote, ‘yet ... I consider this as the most important occasion that I ever spoke on.’18 In May he was a prominent critic of the aliens bill, and championed the French Protestants.

During 1816 Romilly voted in nearly all the divisions for which lists are extant, and in 1817 he gave up much more time to Parliament than hitherto. The government’s panic repressive legislation he regarded as of greater importance than any previous subject; and the deaths of Horner and Whitbread had seriously weakened opposition, so that ‘it becomes each of us who remain to do all we can to resist the pernicious measures of government’. He did not deny ‘the existence of considerable danger’ from popular discontent, but thought the enforcement of existing laws should first be resorted to. The partial suspension of habeas corpus he regarded as a remedy ‘not at all adapted to the evil’. One small modification he did succeed in making: the Scottish law was brought into line with the much more restricted English provisions. On 25 June he moved resolutions criticizing Sidmouth’s circular to the lord lieutenants, taking

great pains to point out, at very considerable length, the mischief of allowing the executive power to assume to itself the exercise of a discretion vested by law in judicial officers; and to presume in matters, if doubtful, to solve these doubts, and pronounce what the law is.19

He supported Burdett’s motion for parliamentary reform, 20 May 1817. He also continued his campaign to modify the Bankruptcy Laws. His great exertions, which had interrupted his legal work and reduced his income, might be ascribed to ambition for the great seal—but that he no longer desired. He had no wish to exchange a life which left him ‘some leisure both for domestic and even for literary enjoyments’ for the ‘pomp and parade, and splendid restraints of office’, nor his ample income for the chancellor’s precarious riches. Moreover, he now doubted his adequacy for the office. With characteristic introspection, he wrote:

I am not qualified to discharge properly its most important duties. I have neither that knowledge in my profession, nor those gifts of nature, which such duties demand ... in strength of memory, and in the power of fixing the attention on one single object, and abstracting the mind from all other considerations, I know myself to be most lamentably and irremediably deficient.

Though these were qualities which his contemporaries thought he possessed to a high degree, he did not realize the disadvantages that they perceived in the inflexibility of his principles. He had nevertheless become avaluable adviser to the Whig leaders, and although he agreed with Brougham that the party had better manage without a nominal leader on George Ponsonby’s death in July 1817, he was himself prepared to give a lead in debate.20

In 1818 his parliamentary stature grew still more: Brougham wrote to Lambton that Romilly, ‘having given up the Rolls’, was regularly in the House ‘and takes the most warm and effectual part, speaking better than ever, and with a weight and effect which no one even of the enemy can dispute’. But the year produced two subjects of concern—the illness of his wife and the prospect of a general election. The first caused him ‘a great anxiety of mind’. For the other, though the new Duke of Norfolk could find no seat for him, he received invitations from Liverpool, Coventry, Chester, Hull, Huntingdonshire and Glamorgan (where he had property).

I had determined not to accept any of these offers, or to put myself to any expense, or to offer myself as a candidate anywhere, when on this day [8 June], a requisition was made to me by many electors of Westminster, to bring me in without trouble or expense; and I have accepted it.

This offer followed a powerful speech of his in condemnation of the expiring Parliament. Two days later, he wrote:

I am acting solely under a strong sense of duty; and those only who know how extremely disagreeable it is to me to present myself as an object of public notice, can judge what an irksome duty it is that I conceive myself to be discharging.

He was unaware that the Duke of Bedford was willing to bring him in for Tavistock.21 During the poll he took no part in the election; but at the close he felt obliged to attend to thank the electors who had placed him at the head, and had to join in a triumphal procession. On 12 July a meeting he attended of opposition Members at Brooks’s ‘determined to request Tierney to consider himself as their leader’; but Lord Grenville wrote to his brother (6 Nov. 1818) ‘I have little doubt ... [Romilly] would, in this session, have been the real ... leader of the opposition’. Charles Williams Wynn thought his weight ‘inconsiderable in the House’, but nevertheless as great as that of any opposition Member ‘except Tierney and perhaps Brougham’; Tierney described him to Earl Grey as his ‘best ally’ in the House; and Lord Holland stated that Brougham and others planned ‘to place him at the head of the party’ when Parliament met.22 Merely as Member for Westminster Romilly was in a more conspicuous situation, but less the master of his own conduct, than hitherto.

I am the servant of the people but I am determined never to be their slave [he reflected] ... No conduct can in my eyes be more criminal than that of availing oneself of the prejudiced clamours of the ignorant or misinformed, to accomplish any political purpose, however good or desirable in itself.

So, although he supported parliamentary reform to the extent of household suffrage, triennial parliaments and possibly even the ballot, he kept his distance from popular agitation.23

Romilly’s ‘reserved habits and cold demeanour’ seemed at odds with his love of humanity in general and his keenness to better the condition of mankind. But his coldness (perhaps merely the effect of ‘the commanding superiority of his mind’) masked ‘the warmest heart and the most generous emotions’.24 In controversy, he was quick-tempered and intolerant of fools. His tenacity of his opinions would have made him a difficult cabinet colleague and Williams Wynn, who thought his ‘inherent love of innovation’ would have made him a very dangerous chancellor, related that ‘he was proud of saying that there was no one opinion which he formed since he was twenty, which he had ever changed’.25 But Lord Althorp saw in his ‘good sense, coolness and discretion’ the only link to keep Whigs and Radicals united and Williams Wynn recognized that his influence out of the House made him a ‘connecting link between the Whigs, the Jacobins, and the Saints.’26 His detestation of display was to be seen in his speeches; concentrating on the point at issue, ‘he did not persuade by his rhetoric, but convinced by his logic’. ‘He was often led by the force of his feelings into something like declamation, yet he was not successful in affecting the passions.’ ‘He seemed too uneasy in his attempts to persuade himself, or rather in anticipating objection and opposition. His voice also was low and subdued ... full of little starts and catches, and breathless intervals ... he seemed painfully sincere.’

The ‘easy conversational style’ of Chancery was not always successful in the Commons, where his delivery was thought sometimes to show a ‘feebleness of voice and language’. At the bar he preferred principles to precedents, and similarly in the House would treat a subject in ‘the most extended views of its causes, consequences, and bearings’. This was perhaps due to a lack of time to work up the details of a subject, on which account, both in court and Commons, he preferred to speak in reply rather than originate a debate. He made few notes, relying on a rare quickness of apprehension and a retentive memory, which made him ‘happy and terrible in reply’. Wilberforce was surprised to find that Romilly,

though he had such an immense quantity of business, ... always seemed an idle man. If you had not known who and what he was, you would have said—‘he is a remarkably gentleman-like, pleasant man; I suppose, poor fellow, he has no business’—for he would stand at the bar of the House, and chat with you, and talk over the last novel, with which he was as well acquainted as if he had nothing else to think about.27

‘I considered him the brightest ornament of our senate’, wrote the Duke of Kent to his nephew. Lord Althorp viewed his death as ‘almost an irreparable public calamity, to us as a party ... quite irreparable.’ Lord Holland remembered

that great lawyer and philosopher was ... improving rapidly in parliamentary oratory, and yet more rapidly advancing in the estimation and confidence of the people ... His arguments against capital punishment made slow but deep impression on the public, and, though still a lawyer in the greatest practice, he was ... [in 1817-18] more nearly the leader of the Whig party in the House of Commons than any other Member.28

Morbidly inclined as a child, Romilly throughout his life was much given to introspection and self-searchings. He was ambitious—but for the public good. And the nobility of his ambitions was accompanied by doubts of his own ability and worth, which perhaps accounted for his sensitivity to criticism. In this he was rather akin to Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose disciple he had been in his youth. Unlike most English political men, he carried public opposition into private life: his zeal ate him up and he terminated a close friendship with Spencer Perceval because he objected to him as a minister. Robert Southey described him as ‘more an antique Roman, or a modern American, than an Englishman in his feelings’. In religion a deist, he found his satisfaction in a consciousness of the value of his endeavours and in family life. The death of his wife on 29 Oct. 1818 produced a physical as well as a psychological illness; the ‘iron frame both of body and mind’ cracked and, left unguarded for a moment, on 2 Nov. 1818 he cut his throat ‘while in a state of temporary mental derangement’.29

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: M. H. Port


  • 1. Patrick Medd, Romilly (1968) is the latest biography. Romilly, Mems. (2nd ed.), i. 87-8; ii. 44n., 120-1.
  • 2. Romilly, iii. 377-91.
  • 3. Ibid. ii. 115, 119, 126, 127-8, 130.
  • 4. Bentham Corresp. ed. Bowring, x. 420; Romilly, ii. 133-4.
  • 5. C. G. Oakes, Romilly (1935), 109; Minto, iii. 264; Horner Mems. i. 182-3.
  • 6. Sidmouth mss; Rose Diaries, ii. 120; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 21.
  • 7. Romilly, ii. 135.
  • 8. Ibid. 152; Speeches of Sir S. Romilly ed. Peter (1820).
  • 9. Romilly, ii. 156-7, 162.
  • 10. Ibid. 179-80, 183-5, 187, 192-3, 195, 196, 202.
  • 11. Ibid. 206-8; Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 41.
  • 12. Romilly, ii. 235, 241, 243-4; iii. 392-408; NLW mss 4814, Williams Wynn to Southey, 22 July 1808.
  • 13. Romilly, ii. 244-5, 279, 290, 293, 339-40, 355-7, 365, 369-73, 389, 391, 396; Colchester, ii. 242, 256-7, 263; Horner Mems. ii. 49; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 308; 335; Rose Diaries, ii. 475.
  • 14. Romilly, ii. 373-4, 381-4, 392, 400, iii. 5, 9, 17.
  • 15. Ibid. ii. 128, 412-17, 422-5, 429-33; iii. 4, 23-4, 32, 54-5, 57n., 72, 73; Add. 51530, Grenville to Holland, 23 Aug.; Arundel Castle mss, Romilly to Norfolk, 28 Aug. 1811; Hardy, Mems. Ld. Langdale, i. 283.
  • 16. Romilly, iii. 87.
  • 17. Ibid. 78-9, 82n., 86, 88-9, 91, 94, 95-102; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 192.
  • 18. Romilly, iii. 153-6, 220-9.
  • 19. Ibid. 277-80, 304, 310.
  • 20. Ibid. 311-12; Mem. of Sir S. Romilly (1818), 51; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 264; Buckingham, Regency, ii. 289; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 29 Jan., 1 Feb. 1816, 20 Jan. 1817; Brougham mss, Brougham to Lambton, Thurs. night [10 July 1817], Sat. [24 Jan. 1818].
  • 21. Lambton mss, Brougham to Lambton, Sat. [?Feb. 1818]; Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 200; Diary of Lady Shelley, ii. 9; Romilly, iii. 355, 357, 366n.; Oakes, 349.
  • 22. Romilly, iii. 365; Regency, ii. 84-5, 289; Holland, 265; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 29 Sept., 10 Nov.; Creevey mss, Creevey to Bennet, 30 Dec. 1818.
  • 23. Romilly, iii. 411-12; Univ. Coll. London, Bentham mss, box 132/393; Morning Chron. 6 July 1818.
  • 24. Fitzwilliam mss, box 94, Althorp to Milton, 4 Nov. 1818; Scarlett, Mem. of Ld. Abinger, 51.
  • 25. Farington, vii. 2-3, 21; viii. 59; Regency, ii. 288-9.
  • 26. Fitzwilliam mss, box 94, Althorp to Milton, 4 Nov. 1818; Regency, ii. 288-9 .
  • 27. Scarlett, 51, 52; Mem. of Sir S. Romilly (1818), 50-4; H. C. Robinson, Diary, ii. 110-11; Life of Wilberforce (1838), v. 341.
  • 28. Munster mss, Duke of Kent to Fitzclarence, 21 Nov.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 94, Althorp to Milton, 4 Nov. 1818; Holland, 256.
  • 29. Romilly, i. 11-12; ii. 235; iii. 38; Scarlett, 53; Brydges, Autobiog. ii. 280; Ward, 289; Mem. of Sir S. Romilly (1818), 30.