Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/North, Francis (1637-1685)
NORTH, FRANCIS, Lord Guilford (1637–1685), lord chancellor, born at Kirtling in Cambridgeshire in 1637, was baptised on 2 Nov. in the parish church there. He was the third son of Dudley, fourth baron North [q. v.], by Anne, daughter and coheiress of Sir Charles Montagu [q. v.] of the Boughton family. His first schoolmaster was a Mr. Willis of Isleworth, a sour fanatic; himself a rigid presbyterian, his wife a furious independent. The boy imbibed under such influences a strong dislike to the country ways of his early teachers. He seems to have been moved from one school to another, all of the same type, till he was at last sent to be ‘finished’ under Dr. Stevens, a sturdy royalist, who was head master of the then famous grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds. Here he gave proof of his great abilities, and was remarkable for his studious habits. On 8 June 1653, being then in his sixteenth year, he was admitted at St. John's College, Cambridge, as a fellow commoner. He took no degree at the university, and, as he had early been intended for the profession of the law, he entered at the Middle Temple on 27 Nov. 1655. Chaloner Chute [q. v.], the speaker of the House of Commons in the Long parliament, was treasurer of the inn this year, and, inasmuch as he had married Lady Dacres, the young man's aunt, he gave him back the fees for admission, in happy augury of his future success at the bar.
From the first North gave himself up to hard and unremitting study. He knew that his father was a needy man, burdened with a large family, and with very small chance of being able to provide for them all, and he had made up his mind to carve out a career for himself if it could be done. His brother gives an elaborate account of his habits and industry during these early years. Long before he was called to the bar, and while a mere student of his inn, his grandfather, the third Lord North, with whom he was a great favourite, made him steward of his various manors in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere, and this office brought him in a substantial income. The young man kept the courts in person, dispensing with any deputy, and, while taking all the fees he could get, availed himself of the opportunities afforded him to become acquainted with the procedure of the courts baron and leet, which stood him in good stead as time went on. He was called to the bar on 28 June 1661. Up to this time his allowance from home had never exceeded 80l. a year. This was now curtailed by his father, who was somewhat pinched for money; but it is clear that North had managed to get into practice very early, and when the attorney-general Sir Geoffrey Palmer took him up very warmly, and began to throw business into his way, his success was assured, and the more so as he speedily justified all the expectations that had been formed of him by his friends. His first great case was when, in the absence of the attorney-general, he was called upon to argue in the House of Lords for the King v. Holles and others. He acquitted himself so well that he at once rose into favour with the court. He was appointed king's counsel, and when the benchers of his inn demurred to elect him into their body, the king overruled their objection by a significant hint, the force of which they could well understand. This was in 1668. Before this North had kept the Norfolk circuit, and had made his way steadily. He became chairman of the commission for the drainage of the fens through family interest, and was made judge of the royal franchise of the Isle of Ely about 1670. When Sir Geoffrey Palmer died, Sir Edward Turner, speaker of the House of Commons, became solicitor-general; but on Palmer's promotion to the chief baronry of the exchequer in the following year, North succeeded him as solicitor-general on 20 May 1671. At the same time he received the honour of knighthood; he was then in his thirty-fourth year. Shortly after he was appointed autumn reader at the Middle Temple, and on the ‘grand day’ the usual feast was celebrated with such profusion, and at so huge an expense, that the public readings in the inns of court were discontinued from that time, and the banqueting has ever since been commuted for a fine. Though North's practice was large and his gains considerable, he had up to this time amassed but little, and when he set himself to find a wife whose fortune might help towards his advancement he experienced some difficulty. At length, however, through the good offices of his mother, he succeeded in winning an heiress, Lady Frances Pope, one of the daughters and coheiresses of the Earl of Downe, with a fortune of 14,000l. The marriage took place on 5 March 1672, and was a very happy one. He took a large house in Chancery Lane, and here he appears to have had gatherings of artists, musicians, and other men of culture, who were glad of so pleasant a place of meeting. In 1673 he entered parliament as member for King's Lynn, after a memorable contest, in which the bribing and treating on both sides were more than usually flagrant. On 12 Nov. of this year he succeeded Sir Heneage Finch [q. v.] as attorney-general, and a question was raised whether it was not necessary that he should vacate his seat in the House of Commons. A notice was given upon the question, but it was allowed to drop. All this time he was practising at Westminster Hall, and his brother tells us he was making as much as 7,000l. a year, an exceptionally large income in those days. In January 1675 Vaughan, the chief justice of the common pleas, died, and North was at once raised to the bench, and held the office of chief justice during the next eight years. The court of common pleas had of late suffered greatly from the competition for business which had been going on with the other courts. By dexterous management the new chief justice greatly increased the popularity of his court, but this did not prevent the serjeants from organising a kind of mutiny against his rule when he allowed his brother Roger to make certain motions before him, which the serjeants resented as an infringement of their monopoly. The farce of the Dumb Day is well described by Roger North. The submission of the serjeants was complete when the chief justice showed that he was not to be outwitted. On being raised to the bench North for some years ‘rode the western circuit,’ and was extremely popular among the Devonshire gentlemen, who were chiefly cavaliers and royalists. Latterly he changed to the northern circuit, and the account of his intercourse with the local magnates and of the state of society in the north at this period is one of the most curious and amusing episodes in the narrative of his life drawn up long afterwards by his brother Roger.
When Lord Halifax in 1679 made the experiment of putting the government of the country into the hands of a council of thirty, who were in effect to represent the administration pretty much as the privy council had represented it in Queen Elizabeth's reign, Sir Francis was included among the thirty; and when this council was dissolved he was admitted into the cabinet. When in the December of this year the king resolved to issue a proclamation against ‘tumultuous petitions,’ Sir Cresswell Levinz [q. v.], as attorney-general, was ordered to draft it. He hesitated to make himself responsible for such a document, and consented only on the condition that the chief justice of the common pleas should dictate the substance. The result was that the new parliament ordered an impeachment against North to be prepared; but the house was dissolved in the following January, and nothing more was heard of it. During the popular madness of the ‘popish plot’ the attitude of the chief justice was that of most men who believed Titus Oates and his associates to be a band of scoundrels, and the plot a villainous fabrication, but who saw that the lower and middle classes were too violently frenzied to be safely reasoned with or controlled. When things took a new turn, and Stephen College [q. v.], the protestant joiner, was put upon his trial for treason at Oxford in August 1681, and Titus Oates and some of his strongest adherents were found to give conflicting evidence, the chief justice took a strong part against College, and the man was hanged with the usual horrors, mainly in consequence of the bias which the judges had exhibited at the trial. This is the one blot on North's career, for which little or no excuse can be found.
The chancellor, Lord Nottingham (Heneage Finch), died on 18 Dec. 1682. Chief-justice North had frequently taken his place as speaker at the House of Lords during his long illness, and two days after his death succeeded him as keeper of the great seal. Though he had thus attained the highest position in the realm after the sovereign, the lord keeper found little happiness in his exalted position, and there is little doubt that he spoke no more than the truth when he more than once assured his brother Roger that he was never a happy man after he had the seal entrusted to him. The notorious Jeffreys had succeeded him as chief justice, and did his best to irritate and worry him on every occasion that offered itself. North was raised to the peerage as Baron Guilford on 27 Sept. 1683. His health seems already to have begun to fail, though he continued to discharge the duties of his high position with exemplary diligence and zeal, and to the end was a faithful and unwavering servant and friend to Charles II, who appears to have leant upon him more and more as his own end approached. But North lived in evil days, and perhaps never in our annals was there such rancorous animosity among placemen; never were party spirit and political rivalry so fierce and sordid.
Charles II died on 6 Feb. 1685. At this time the lord keeper was very ill, but he took a leading part in the coronation of James II on 23 April. After this he became worse, and proposed to resign the seal, as he had talked of doing more than once before; but in this he was overruled. During the summer term he continued to sit in Westminster Hall; but it was evident that he was a dying man. Permission was given him to retire to his seat at Wroxton, Oxfordshire, taking the seal with him, and attended by the officers of the court. Here he kept up great state and profuse hospitality, his brothers Dudley and Roger being always at his side, and present at his death-bed.
At the end of August he made his will, and he died in his forty-eighth year on 5 Sept. 1685. The next day his brothers, who were the executors, accompanied by the officials, rode to Windsor, and delivered up the great seal into the hands of James II, who straightway entrusted it to Jeffreys, with the style of lord high chancellor of England.
The lord keeper was buried at Wroxton on 9 Sept. beside his wife, who had died nearly seven years before him (15 Nov. 1678). By the death of her mother, the Countess of Downe, her ladyship had inherited the Wroxton estate, which passed to her husband and his descendants. She had borne him five children, of whom three survived their father. Francis, the elder son, succeeded to the peerage as second Baron Guilford, and was father of Francis, first earl of Guilford [q. v.] Charles, the other son, and a daughter Anne appear to have been always sickly and of weak constitution, and both died young and unmarried.
The lord keeper was a staunch and uncompromising royalist through evil report and good report, at a time when the courtiers who were sincere supporters of the crown were few, and when the several factions hated one another with the most acrimonious rancour. Scarcely less fierce has been the animosity exhibited towards his memory by those politicians of the present century who have inherited the prejudices and the personal rivalries of the days of Charles II. Perhaps in all our literature there is not a more venomous piece of writing than the sketch of the lordkeeper's character and career which Lord Campbell has given in his ‘Lives of the Lord Chancellors.’ North was clearly a man of vast knowledge and wide culture, an accomplished musician, a friend and patron of artists, and especially of Sir Peter Lely, whom he befriended in many ways. He was greatly interested in the progress of natural science, though he refused to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, whose meetings he could not possibly have attended regularly. As a lawyer he was held in great respect; nor did any of his contemporaries venture to dispute the technical ability and legality of his decisions. If there had been ground for setting aside any of those decisions, we should have heard of it long ago. He died in the prime of life, at one of the most critical moments of our history. He lived in an age when social and political morality were at a deplorably low level—an age when a miserable mediocrity of talent in church and state, in literature and art, made it a matter of chance or chicane who should rise to the surface, or who should keep his place when he won it. There was no career for an enthusiast or a hero, and the worst that can be said of the Lord-keeper Guilford is that he was neither the one nor the other.
A portrait ad vivum was engraved by D. Loggan, and was re-engraved by G. Vertue for the ‘Lives of the Norths.’
[The sources for Lord Guilford's life are to be found mainly in Roger North's elaborate Examen, published in 4to, 1740, and in the Lives published in the same form in the same year [see North, Roger, 1653–1734]. Burnet (Hist. of his Own Time, iii. 83) speaks of him with some bitterness. On the other hand Sir John Dalrymple, in the preface to the second volume of his Memoirs, remarks that he was ‘one of the very few virtuous characters to be found in the reign of Charles II.’ There is an excellent summary of his character in Roscoe's Lives of Eminent Lawyers, p. 110. Foss's account of him (Lives of the Judges of England) is as impartial and trustworthy as usual.]