Bankes, John (DNB00)
BANKES, Sir JOHN (1589–1644), chief justice of the common pleas, 'was born at Keswick, in Cumberland, of honest parents, who, perceiving him judicious and industrious, bestowed good breeding on him in Gray's Inn, in hope he should attain to preferment, wherein they were not deceived' (Fuller, Worthies, ed. Nichols, i. 237). His father was a merchant, and his mother, according to some authorities, Elizabeth, daughter of one Hassell, but according to Burke's 'Landed Gentry,' Bankes's mother was Jane Malton, and his grandmother Anne Hassel. Bankes was sent to a grammar school in his own county, and thence to Queen's College, Oxford, in 1604, at the ago of fifteen. Leaving the university without a degree he entered Gray's Inn as a law student in 1607; was called to the bar 30 Nov. 1614; became a bencher of the society in 1629, reader in 1631, and treasurer the next year (Dugdale, Orig. 297, 299). Meantime he had been returned to parliament in 1628 for the borough of Morpeth, and had taken part in the debate on the question of privilege arising out of the seizure of a member's goods for tonnage by order of the king (19 Feb. 1628), on which occasion he declared that 'the king's command cannot authorise any man to break the privilege' (Parl. Hist. ii. 480). He did not, however, take much part in the politics of the day.
In 1630 the king made him attorney-general to the infant Prince Charles, then Duke of Cornwall, and on the death of Attorney-general Noy, Bankes succeeded to his place, Sept. 1634. His professional reputation was very high at this moment, for one of Lord Wentworth's correspondents mentions 'how Banks, the attorney-general, hath been commended to his majesty—that he exceeds Bacon in eloquence, Chancellor Ellesmere in judgment, and William Noy in law' (Bankes, Corfe Castle, 54). His wealth appears to have grown as rapidly as his reputation, for about this time he purchased the manor of Corfe Castle, in Dorsetshire, from Lady Hatton, widow of Sir Edward Coke. That he should have been able to purchase so important a property at so comparatively early an age as 46, apparently out of the legitimate earnings of his private practice, proves the very lucrative nature of the legal profession in those days. As attorney-general it fell to his lot in 1637 to carry out the arbitrary prosecutions in the Star Chamber against Prynne, Bishop Williams, and others (State Trials, iii. 711, 771). In the same year he represented the crown in the still more important case of John Hampden, on which occasion his argument lasted for three days (ibid. 1014). The chief justiceship of the common pleas becoming vacant by the promotion of Sir Edward Lyttleton to be lord keeper was given to Sir John Bankes, 29 Jan. 1640-1 (Rymer, XX. 447). A month later, while sitting as temporary speaker of the House of Lords during the illness of the lord keeper, his friend and former client, the Earl of Strafford, was brought before him to the bar on some matter connected with his impeachment (Corfe Castle, 83). Sir John remained at his post at Westminster for some time after the king had left London, but, fearing that this might be considered as showing approval of the parliamentary cause, he soon followed the king to York. He was now admitted to the privy council, and signed the declaration made by the lords at York, in which they asserted that the king had no intention of making war on the parliament. Sir John accompanied the king to Oxford in the winter, and received from the university the honorary degree of D.C.L., 20 Dec. 1642 (Wood, Fasti, ii. 44).
Though steadily adhering to the king's cause, he incurred the royal displeasure by his caution and moderation. In a letter, dated York, May 1642, to Mr. Green, one of the members for Corfe Castle, he says: 'The king is extremely offended with me touching the militia; saith that I should have performed the part of an honest man in protesting against the illegality of the ordinance; commands me upon my allegiance yet to do it. I have told him it is not safe for me to deliver anie opinion in things which are voted in the housses.' In this and other private letters to the leaders of parliament he warmly urges the necessity of frankness and compromise on both sides with a view to an 'accommodation,' foreseeing that 'if we should have civile wars it would make us a miserable people ' (Corfe Castle, 185). His efforts to preserve the peace seem to have been appreciated by the parliament ; for, notwithstanding the prominent part he had taken in the Star Chamber prosecutions and the ship-money case, parliament requested that he might be continued in his office of chief justice (Parl. Hist. iii. 70). The king's displeasure soon passed away, and Sir John gave ample proofs of his devotion to the king by his liberal contributions to the royal treasury, and still more by the stubborn resistance offered by his castle long after all the neighbouring strongholds had fallen into the hands of parliament. The heroic defence of Corfe Castle by Lady Mary Bankes [q. v.] during nearly three years, against great odds, to which she yielded only when betrayed, is one of the brightest spots in that gloomy period. The parliament, on the other hand, had ceased to regard Sir John as a mediator, and the commons were so highly incensed against him by his charge to the grand jury at Salisbury, where several members of both houses were indicted for high treason before Bankes and three other judges, that they ordered the four judges to be impeached (Whitelocke, 78). A similar order was made the next year against the same Judges in consequence of the trial and execution of Captain Turpine at Exeter (ibid. 96). Fortunately for Sir John he was beyond the reach of the commons, but they made him feel their displeasure by ordering the forfeiture of all his property, even to his books (ibid. 177). He continued to act as privy councillor and chief justice at Oxford until his death, which occurred there 28 Dec. 1644. He was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, where there is a monument to his memory. 'It must not be forgotten that by his will he gave to the value of 30l. per annum with other emoluments to be bestowed in pious uses, and chiefly to set up a manufacture of coarse cottons in the town of Keswick' (Fuller, i. 237).
Clarendon tells us that at one time the king, being displeased with Lord-keeper Lyttleton, proposed to give the great seal to Sir John Bankes, but that the latter was not thought equal to that charge in a time of so much disorder, though otherwise he was a man of great abilities and unblemished integrity' (Clarendon, v. 209). Elsewhere the same writer speaks of him as 'a grave and a learned man in the profession of the law' (ibid. vi. 396). This estimate of him appears to be acquiesced in by all his contemporaries. His conduct as well as his letters prove him to have been moderate and cautious, but steadily loyal to the royal cause. His property was restored to his family in 1647 by parliament after considerable payments by Lady Bankes and her children (Whitelocke, 270). Sir John left a numerous family, and his descendants, who still own considerable property in the neighbourhood, represented the borough of Corfe Castle until it was disfranchised in 1832. The present head of the family lives at Kingston Lacy, not far from the ruins of their ancient castle.
[Foss's Judges of England; Biographia Britannica; Bankes's Story of Corfe Castle; Fuller's Worthies; Wood's Fasti (Bliss), ii. 44; Lloyd's Memoires of Sufferers for Charles I.]