Parliamentarians in the courts…

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Old Bailey Online (happy anniversary!) Dr Ruth Paley, editor of the Lords 1660-1832 section, shares some 18th Century criminal trials. The Victorian Commons are also blogging for the anniversary of Old Bailey online. You can read Kathryn Rix‘s blog here.

A number of those who feature in HOP’s biographies were involved in cases at the Old Bailey. Some were on the benches, for example Thomas Denman (see here for the record of his first trials in 1822), some were facing the jury, and some even appeared in the Old Bailey proceedings after their deaths. For example the MP Sir Chomely Dering was killed by Richard Thornhill after a duel in 1711. The proceedings record that a quarrel turned into a fight, and later that evening:

It appear’d that the Prisoner and the Deceased were seen in Tuttle Fields , about 12 Yards distance from one another, with Pistols in their Hands, that they advanced very boldly toward each other till they were within 4 Yards, and then fir’d at one another. That the Deceased dropt, and the Prisoner lifting up his Hands in token of Sorrow, willingly surrender’d himself, and offer’d one a Guinea, and another a Half-Guinea to go for a Surgeon.

Thornhill was found guilty of manslaughter and was branded.

However, some of the most spectacular criminal trials in the eighteenth century did not take place at the Old Bailey.  In fact they did not take place in an ordinary criminal court at all, but in the House of Lords.

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, married Mary Meredith in 1752.  The marriage was not a success.  Mary Meredith lived in terror of her volatile and unstable husband who declared that he would rather kill her than allow her to leave him.  Attempts by the family to have him declared insane were countered by threats of an action of scandalum magnatum (literally scandalising the magnates). a form of aggravated libel that was available to peers of the realm and which could result in exceptionally heavy damages. Eventually Lady Ferrers’ own family intervened.  They applied for a writ of habeas corpus to compel Ferrers to release his wife.  He refused to obey the writ – claiming that as a peer he had no obligation to do so.  The House of Lords disagreed and ordered him to obey.  Free of her violent and domineering husband, in 1758 Lady Ferrers obtained an act of parliament to allow her to live apart from her husband –under the conventions of the day, she had no grounds for a divorce.

Part of the arrangements specified in the act enabled Lady Ferrers’ maintenance to be collected by a steward, John Johnson.  The arrangement seems to have worked well for some time but on 18 January 1760 Ferrers produced a gun, forced Johnson to his knees and shot him.  Because he was a peer he had to be tried in the House of Lords rather than an ordinary court.  All he could offer in his defence was an insanity plea, which the assembled peers rejected.

Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Ferrers was still anxious to parade his special status.  A request to be executed by the traditional aristocratic method – beheading – was denied. His execution on 5 May 1760, after an impressive and theatrical procession, filled ‘every beholder with the greatest awe’.

That an aristocrat had died on the gallows was regularly held up as confirmation that all were equal under the law.  Yet elements of class justice certainly did remain. Ferrers died on a specially constructed bespoke gallows covered in black cloth; the noose was also covered with a black material, leading to the legend, often repeated to this day, that he was hanged with a silken rope.  As a convicted felon his property was forfeit to the state – but was promptly re-granted to his brother and heir, Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers.


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