Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Finch, Heneage (1621-1682)
FINCH, HENEAGE, first Earl of Nottingham (1621–1682), successively solicitor-general, lord keeper, and lord chancellor, was born 23 Dec. 1621, probably at Eastwell in Kent (Wood, Athenæ Oxon.), and was the eldest son of Sir Heneage Finch [q. v.], knight, recorder of London, and speaker in Charles I's first parliament, and of Frances, daughter of Sir Edmund Bell of Beaupré Hall in Norfolk. He was grandson of Elizabeth, created Countess of Winchilsea by Charles I [see under Finch, Sir Thomas], and nephew of Sir John, lord Finch [q. v.], keeper of the seals to Charles I. He was educated at Westminster School, whence he went to Christ Church, entering in the Lent term of 1635. He then joined the Inner Temple, where he soon became a distinguished student, with special proficiency in municipal law. He took no part in the troubles of the civil war, and during the usurpation conducted an extensive private practice (Collins, Peerage). Of this, however, there does not seem to be any direct evidence. By the time of the Restoration he was evidently well known, for he was returned for the Convention parliament both for Canterbury and St. Michael's in Cornwall, electing to sit for the former. In honour of the occasion he was entertained by the city at a banquet (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. 165 b). On 6 June 1660 he was made solicitor-general, and on the next day was created a baronet of Ravenstone in Buckinghamshire (Collins, Peerage). He at once became the official representative of the court and of the church in the House of Commons. In the great debate of 9 July 1660 on the future form of the church, Finch in an uncompromising speech treated the matter as not open to argument, since there was 'no law for altering government by bishops;' he jeered at 'tender consciences,' and hoped the house would not 'cant after Cromwell.' On 30 July he urged the expulsion from their livings of all ministers who had been presented without the consent of the patrons, and opposed any abatement in the articles or oaths. In the matter of the Indemnity Bill he was deputed by the commons to manage the conference between the two houses on 16 Aug., and strongly supported the exclusion from pardon of the late king's judges, a compromise which he felt to be necessary to secure the passing of the measure so warmly desired by the king and Clarendon. On 12 Sept. he spoke against the motion that the king should be desired to marry a protestant, and on 21 Nov. proposed the important constitutional change whereby the courts of wards and purveyance were abolished, and the revenue hitherto raised by them was for the future levied on the excise. It is significant of the real objects of the court that as law officer of the crown he opposed (28 Nov.) the bill brought in by Sir Matthew Hale for giving effect to the king's declaration regarding ecclesiastical affairs by embodying it in an act. And in the debate regarding the ill-conduct of the troops, on 14 Dec., he spoke against the proposal to accompany the bill of supply with a complaint of grievances (Parl. Hist. vol. iv.) He was of course one of the prosecuting counsel in the trial of the regicides in October 1660, where he is described in one account as effectually answering Cooke, the framer of the impeachment of Charles I (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. 181 b) though by the report in the state trials he appears only to have formally opened the case against the prisoner.
In April 1661 Finch was elected to Charles's second parliament, both for the university of Oxford and for Beaumaris in Anglesey, electing to sit for the former (Journals of the House of Commons, 13 May 1661). He was carried by the influence of Clarendon, whose son Laurence Hyde stood with him, of the Bishop of Oxford, and of the heads of houses, against strong opposition aroused apparently by the conduct of their former representative, Selden (Cal. State Papers, 1660-1). He appears to have disappointed his constituents by not assisting to get rid of the hearth-tax (Wood, Athenæ Oxon.) In this year also he was made treasurer and autumn reader of the Inner Temple. He chose as the subject of his lectures, which excited much attention, lasting from 4 to 17 Aug., the statute of the 39th of Elizabeth, concerning the recovery of debts of the crown, which had never previously been discussed. The favour in which he stood was shown by the presence of the king and all the great officers of state at a banquet in his honour on the 15th in the Inner Temple (ib. ; Pepys, Diary ; Dugdale, Origines Juridiciales). It is noticeable that in one matter upon which Charles seemed really bent, toleration of dissent, he certainly opposed the court. In February 1663 he was made chairman of the committee of the commons which drew up in the most uncompromising terms an address to the king praying for the withdrawal of his declaration of indulgence (Parl. Hist. vol. iv.), and in March was the representative of the house in the conference with the lords about a bill against the priests and Jesuits (Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1663-4). In October 1664 he was leading counsel for the Canary merchants in their endeavour to acquire a new charter (Evelyn, Diary, 27 Oct.) When the house met at Oxford in 1665 he again vehemently espoused the intolerant policy of the Anglican church by pressing forward the Five Mile Act ; and at the prorogation he, with Hyde, Colonel Strangways, and Sir John Birkenhead, received the honorary degree of D.C.L. (7 Nov.), having with the two latter (Commons' Journals, 31 Oct. 1665), by order of the commons, communicated to the university on 31 Oct. 1665 the thanks of the house for its 'loyalty in the late rebellion, especially in refusing to submit to the visitation of the usurped powers, and to take the solemn league and covenant' (Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1664-5). In the debate on the Five Mile Act, when Vaughan wished to add the word 'legally' to 'commissioned by him,' Finch pointed out that the addition was unnecessary, and his argument was adopted by Anglesey in the lords, where Southampton moved the same addition (Burnet, Own Time, i. 225). In the session of 1666 he spoke against the Irish Cattle Bill (Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1666-7), and in October 1667 on Clarendon's impeachment. The account is obscure, but apparently he did what he could to check the violence of the commons, insisting on sworn evidence, though willing that it should be kept secret. On 18 Feb. 1668 he did the court good service by shelving the bill for holding frequent parliaments on the ground of informal introduction (Parl. Hist.) ; and in the same month, in the celebrated Skinner controversy, he pleaded against Skinner before the lords on behalf of the East India Company (Pepys, 22 Feb. 1668). In December 1668, on the motion for impeaching the Earl of Orrery, he warned the house against acting upon 'out-of-door accusation' (Parl. Hist.) On 10 May 1670 he became attorney-general, and soon afterwards councillor to Queen Catherine. He was chamberlain of Chester from 1673 to 1676. He exercised a moderating influence in the debates on the bill for 'preventing malicious maiming,' which followed the outrage on Sir John Coventry [q. v.], and he successfully opposed the proposal for a double assessment of defaulting members of the house by the argument that by tacking it to the subsidy bill a matter affecting the commons only would come before the lords. In April 1671 he conducted with great skill the conferences between the lords and commons on the subject of the interference of the former in money bills, from which dates practically the cessation of the practice. His ability in the conduct of this matter was recognised by the formal thanks of the house. On 6 Feb. 1673 he argued in favour of the 'chancellor's writs,' the writs issued for parliamentary elections during the recess by Shaftesbury, on the ground that parliamentary privilege was then dormant, but could not make head against the determination of the house to suffer no court interference. In the great debate of 10 Feb. on the king's declaration of indulgence, while repudiating the doctrine advanced by Shaftesbury of a distinction between the exercise of the royal power in ecclesiastical and temporal affairs, he defended the legality and expediency of the declaration. 'A mathematical security,' he said, 'we cannot have ; a moral one we have from the king.' Seeing the temper of the house, however, he concluded by the illogical motion that the king be petitioned 'that it might be so no more.' In March 1673 he passionately opposed the Naturalisation of Foreigners Bill, and in October did his best in vain to combat the determination of the commons to refuse further supplies for the Dutch war (Parl. Hist.) On the dismissal of Shaftesbury, Finch became lord keeper of the seals, 9 Nov. 1673, and as such was made on 4 Jan. 1674 the unconscious mouthpiece of the first direct lie which Charles had ventured openly to tell his parliament (ib.) On 10 Jan. he was raised to the peerage as Baron Finch of Daventry, from the manor in Northamptonshire of which he was owner (Collins, Peerage). On 19 Dec. he surrendered the seals, to receive them again immediately with the higher title of lord chancellor, the office carrying with it apparently a salary of 4,000l. a year (Autobiography of Roger North, p. 165). In the same year he was made lord-lieutenant of Somersetshire. In 1675 he was, according to Burnet, one of the chief arguers for the non-resisting test (Own Time, i. 383). As lord chancellor he had at the beginning of each session to supply an elaboration of the king's speech, and this he did, 'spoiling what the king had said so well by overstraining to do it better' (Ralph). In this year he conducted the case of the lords in the great Fagg controversy. In 1677 he presided as lord high steward of England on the trial of the Earl of Pembroke for manslaughter (Wood, Athenæ Oxon.) A signal instance of the adroitness, joined, it should be said, with unimpeached probity, by which, almost alone among his contemporaries, he managed to secure at once permanence in office and freedom from parliamentary attack, occurred in the matter of Danby's impeachment. Charles, to the great anger of the commons, had given Danby a pardon in bar of the impeachment. The house appointed a committee, who demanded from Finch an explanation of the fact that the pardon bore the great seal. Finch's statement was that he neither advised, drew, nor altered it ; that the king commanded him to bring the seal from Whitehall, and being there he laid it upon the table ; thereupon his majesty commanded the seal to be taken out of the bag, which it was not in his power to hinder ; and the king wrote his name on the top of the parchment, and then directed to have it sealed, whereupon the person who usually carried the purse affixed the seal to it. He added that at the time he did not regard himself as having the custody of the seal (Parl. Hist. iv. 1114). When the case of Danby was before the lords he argued for the right of bishops to vote in trials for treason, and carried his view as to preliminaries though not as to final judgment (Burnet Own Time; Collins, Peerage). There is among Sir Charles Bunbury's manuscripts at Bury, Suffolk, a treatise on the king's power of granting pardons, ascribed with most probability to Finch (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 241 a). Some autograph notes, certainly his, on the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 belong to Alfred Morrison, esq. (ib. 9th Rep. 457 a). He conducted the examination before the privy council of the 'party' lords who came from Scotland in 1678 to complain of Lauderdale, and, though evidently holding a brief for the duke, was unable to shake their position (Burnet, Own Time, i. 420). That Finch was not above using the ordinary jargon of court flattery appears in his exclamation, when Charles tried the experiment of a newly modelled privy council, 'It looked like a thing from heaven fallen into his master's breast.' During the popish terror Finch appears to have given no offence to either side. He presided, however, as lord high steward at the trial of Lord Stafford, and his conduct formed a pleasing contrast to that which so often disgraced the courts in the latter years of Charles's reign. He showed personal courtesy to the prisoner, provided him with all proper means of defence, and pronounced sentence in a speech greatly admired at the time, 'one of the best he had ever made' (Burnet, Own Time, i. 492). He, however, gave his own vote against Stafford, and complied so far with the prevailing fashion as to assume the whole truth of the 'plot,' and even to father the absurd cry that London had been burned by the papists (ib. i. 492; State Trials). Burnet accounts for his patronage of the plot as the result of fear of parliamentary attack in consequence of his conduct in the matter of Danby's pardon (ib. ii. 261). Only one slip does Finch appear to have made in his discreet avoidance of giving offence. In 1679, on receiving Gregory, the new speaker of the house, he allowed himself to declare that the king 'always supports the creatures of his power.' Shaftesbury at once fastened on the expression; Finch was compelled to apologise, and a resolution was carried not to enter it upon the minutes of the house (Ranke, Hist. England, iv. 77). In the great question of the succession, Finch was of course against exclusion. But by Charles's command he proposed the middle and entirely impracticable scheme of 'limitations' (ib. iv. 80). On 12 May 1681 he was created Earl of Nottingham, and died 18 Dec. 1682, in the sixty-first year of his age, after a life spent in unremitting official and professional toil. He was buried at Ravenstone, near Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire, of which place he was the owner and benefactor (Collins, Peerage). He married Elizabeth Harvey, daughter of Daniel Harvey, merchant of London (probably one of the members for Surrey in the Convention parliament), by whom he had a numerous family. The eldest son, Daniel [q. v.], became second earl. Heneage, the second son [q. v.], was solicitor-general, and was created earl of Aylesford. The fifth son, Edward [q. v.], was a musical composer. Nottingham's favourite residence, Kensington House, he bought of his younger brother John [q. v.] His son Daniel [q. v.] sold it to William III.
The fact that throughout an unceasing official career of more than twenty years, in a time of passion and intrigue, Finch was never once the subject of parliamentary attack, nor ever lost the royal confidence, is a remarkable testimony both to his probity and discretion. His success in the early part of the reign arose from the fact that he was in the first place a constitutional lawyer of the highest repute, 'well versed in the laws' (Burnet, Own Time, i. 365). Dryden bears the same testimony in 'Absalom and Achitophel,' where he is described as Amri. These qualifications made him a man of extreme usefulness at a time when the constitution had to be restored after many years of dislocation. Until he finally left the house scarcely a committee of importance was formed on which he was not placed, usually as chairman. He was appointed to draw up the letter of congratulation from the commons to Charles on his arrival in England; and he had the management of almost all the important controversies which were so frequently held with the lords. His forensic eloquence is testified to on all hands ; though Burnet says he was too eloquent on the bench, in the lords, and in the commons, and calls his speaking laboured and affected. Roger North in his autobiography (p. 198) confirms this view, saying that his love of 'a handsome turn of expression gave him a character of a trifler which he did not so much deserve.' In the high-flown language of the time he was named the English Roscius and the English Cicero.
Burnet states to his credit that, though he used all the vehemence of a special pleader to justify the court before the lords, yet, as a judge, Finch carried on the high tradition of his predecessor, Shaftesbury. In his own court he could resist the strongest applications even from the king himself, though he did it nowhere else. The same historian calls him 'ill-bred, and both vain and haughty ; he had no knowledge of foreign affairs, and yet he loved to talk of them perpetually.' Burnet's last words about him are, however, a recognition of the purity and fitness of his presentations of clergymen to livings in the chancellor's gift. His portrait was painted by Lely. There is a print by Houbraken.[The chief authorities are the Journals of the House of Commons; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 66; Parliamentary History; Burnet's Own Time; Collins's Peerage.]