HALE, SIR MATTHEW (1609–1676), lord chief justice of England, was born on the 1st of November 1609 at Alderley in Gloucestershire, where his father, a retired barrister, had a small estate. His paternal grandfather was a rich clothier of Wotton-under-Edge; on his mother’s side he was connected with the noble family of the Poyntzes of Acton. Left an orphan when five years old, he was placed by his guardian under the care of the Puritan vicar of Wotton-under-Edge, with whom he remained till he attained his sixteenth year, when he entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford. At Oxford, Hale studied for several terms with a view to holy orders, but suddenly there came a change. The diligent student, at first attracted by a company of strolling players, threw aside his studies, and plunged carelessly into gay society. He soon decided to change his profession; and resolved to trail a pike as a soldier under the prince of Orange in the Low Countries. Before going abroad, however, Hale found himself obliged to proceed to London in order to give instructions for his defence in a legal action which threatened to deprive him of his patrimony. His leading counsel was the celebrated Serjeant Glanville (1586–1661), who, perceiving in the acuteness and sagacity of his youthful client a peculiar fitness for the legal profession, succeeded, with much difficulty, in inducing him to renounce his military for a legal career, and on the 8th of November 1629 Hale became a member of the honourable society of Lincoln’s Inn.
He immediately resumed his habits of intense application. The rules which he laid down for himself, and which are still extant in his handwriting, prescribe sixteen hours a day of close application, and prove, not only the great mental power, but also the extraordinary physical strength he must have possessed, and for which indeed, during his residence at the university, he had been remarkable. During the period allotted to his preliminary studies, he read over and over again all the yearbooks, reports, and law treatises in print, and at the Tower of London and other antiquarian repositories examined and carefully studied the records from the foundation of the English monarchy down to his own time. But Hale did not confine himself to law. He dedicated no small portion of his time to the study of pure mathematics, to investigations in physics and chemistry, and even to anatomy and architecture; and there can be no doubt that this varied learning enhanced considerably the value of many of his judicial decisions.
Hale was called to the bar in 1637, and almost at once found himself in full practice. Though neither a fluent speaker nor bold pleader, in a very few years he was at the head of his profession. He entered public life at perhaps the most critical period of English history. Two parties were contending in the state, and their obstinacy could not fail to produce a most direful collision. But amidst the confusion Hale steered a middle course, rising in reputation, and an object of solicitation from both parties. Taking Pomponius Atticus as his political model, he was persuaded that a man, a lawyer and a judge could best serve his country and benefit his countrymen by holding aloof from partisanship and its violent prejudices, which are so apt to distort and confuse the judgment. But he is best vindicated from the charges of selfishness and cowardice by the thoughts and meditations contained in his private diaries and papers, where the purity and honour of his motives are clearly seen. It has been said, but without certainty, that Hale was engaged as counsel for the earl of Strafford; he certainly acted for Archbishop Laud, Lord Maguire, Christopher Love, the duke of Hamilton and others. It is also said that he was ready to plead on the side of Charles I. had that monarch submitted to the court. The parliament having gained the ascendancy, Hale signed the Solemn League and Covenant, and was a member of the famous assembly of divines at Westminster in 1644; but although he would undoubtedly have preferred a Presbyterian form of church government, he had no serious objection to the system of modified Episcopacy, proposed by Usher. Consistently with his desire to remain neutral, Hale took the engagement to the Commonwealth as he had done to the king, and in 1653, already serjeant, he became a judge in the court of common pleas. Two years afterwards he sat in Cromwell’s parliament as one of the members for Gloucestershire. After the death of the protector, however, he declined to act as a judge under Richard Cromwell, although he represented Oxford in Richard’s parliament. At the Restoration in 1660 Hale was very graciously received by Charles II., and in the same year was appointed chief baron of the exchequer, and accepted, with extreme reluctance, the honour of knighthood. After holding the office of chief baron for eleven years he was raised to the higher dignity of lord chief justice, which he held till February 1676, when his failing health compelled him to resign. He retired to his native Alderley, where he died on the 25th of December of the same year. He was twice married and survived all his ten children save two.
As a judge Sir Matthew Hale discharged his duties with resolute independence and careful diligence. His sincere piety made him the intimate friend of Isaac Barrow, Archbishop Tillotson, Bishop Wilkins and Bishop Stillingfleet, as well as of the Nonconformist leader, Richard Baxter. He is chargeable, however, with the condemnation and execution of two poor women tried before him for witchcraft in 1664, a kind of judicial murder then falling under disuse. He is also reproached with having hastened the execution of a soldier for whom he had reason to believe a pardon was preparing.
Of Hale’s legal works the only two of importance are his Historia placitorum coronae, or History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736); and the History of the Common Law of England, with an Analysis of the Law, &c. (1713). Among his numerous religious writings the Contemplations, Moral and Divine, occupy the first place. Others are The Primitive Origination of Man (1677); Of the Nature of True Religion, &c. (1684); A Brief Abstract of the Christian Religion (1688). One of his most popular works is the collection of Letters of Advice to his Children and Grandchildren. He also wrote an Essay touching the Gravitation or Nongravitation of Fluid Bodies (1673); Difficiles Nugae, or Observations touching the Torricellian Experiment, &c. (1675); and a translation of the Life of Pomponius Atticus, by Cornelius Nepos (1677). His efforts in poetry were inauspicious. He left his valuable collection of MSS. and records to the library of Lincoln’s Inn. His life has been written by G. Burnet (1682); by J. B. Williams (1835); by H. Roscoe, in his Lives of Eminent Lawyers, in 1838; by Lord Campbell, in his Lives of the Chief Justices, in 1849; and by E. Foss in his Lives of the Judges (1848–1870).