Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/North, Roger (1653-1734)
NORTH, ROGER (1653–1734), lawyer and historian, sixth and youngest son of Dudley, fourth baron North [q. v.], was born at Tostock in Suffolk 3 Sept. 1653. He passed his childhood for the most part in his grandfather's house at Kirtling, and at five years of age was placed under the tuition of the clergyman of the parish, Ezekiel Catchpole by name, until he was removed, with his brother Montagu, to Thetford school, of which Mr. Keen was then master. He had a pleasant recollection through life of his schooldays, and entertained great regard for his early teachers, which he has expressed in his ‘Autobiography.’ In 1666 he left school and was taken in hand by his father, in view of his entering the university with adequate preparation; and on 30 Oct. 1667 he entered at Jesus College, Cambridge, as fellow commoner under the tuition of his brother John [q. v.], who had been elected to a fellowship the year before. Young Roger seems to have gained but little from the tuition of his learned brother, except that he acquired habits of study and had the advantage of constant intercourse with the ablest men in the university. He had been early intended for the bar, where his brother Francis [q. v.] was already making his way, and in the enjoyment of a large practice. There was therefore the less need for him to proceed to a degree, and he left the university after residing two years, and entered at the Middle Temple on 21 April 1669. He contrived to live on a very small allowance from home, which kept him from indulging in the more expensive amusements of the town, and his time was fully occupied in study, while his diversions were carpentering and sailing a small yacht on the Thames and the Essex and Suffolk coast. Meanwhile as a student he was already earning a good income, and in close attendance upon his brother, who had many chances of throwing fees in his way (Autobiog. § 119). When Sir Francis was raised to the position of chief justice of the common pleas (1675), Roger North was called to the bar, and soon briefs came thickly, and his practice increased from term to term. In January 1678 occurred the great fire at the Temple which wrought such terrible destruction of the old buildings: Roger North was in his chambers at the time it broke out, and he has left us a very graphic account of its progress, of the difficulties that accompanied the rebuilding, and of the various schemes which were under discussion for dealing with the financial difficulties that arose. The Temple fire appears to have turned his thoughts to the study of architecture, which he exhibited great taste for as an art, and spared no pains to make himself a master of as a science. This year he became steward to the see of Canterbury (ib. § 140), an office which was conferred upon him by Sancroft, who had recently been consecrated to the archbishopric. On the subject of his appointment North wrote quaintly: ‘He [the archbishop] valued me for my fidelity, which he, being a most sagacious judge of persons, could not but discern and dispense with my other defects.’ Sancroft continued to repose full confidence in his steward, and consulted him on many important matters, which are mentioned in the ‘Autobiography;’ and when he felt his end approaching, and was troubled at the thought of leaving a will which would have ‘to be proved in his pretended successor's courts,’ North advised him to dispose of his property by a deed of gift, which was done accordingly. In his capacity as steward and legal adviser of the archbishop he was concerned in dealing with the abuses which had crept into the administration of Dulwich College. The result, however, was disappointing. In the reform of All Souls College, Oxford, the archbishop was more successful, and, by North's advice, the primate drew up a new body of statutes for the college and established his right to act as visitor, and the disgraceful practices where by the fellowships were openly bought and sold were effectually put a stop to. In 1682 North was made king's counsel, and shortly afterwards called to the bench of the Middle Temple. He was now in daily communication with all the great lawyers of the time, and his professional reminiscences and graphic sketches of the careers and characters of his contemporaries at the bar during this period are of the highest value and interest to the student of legal history. Sir Francis North's promotion to be keeper of the great seal brought a large increase of professional income to his brother. He was made solicitor-general to the Duke of York, 10 Jan. 1684. This appointment, and the high favour which the lord keeper enjoyed with James II, brought North into frequent communication with the court, and in January 1686 he was appointed by patent attorney-general to the queen, Mary of Modena. This was his last appointment. In the meantime he had been making money rapidly by his practice. He tells us that his highest fee never but once exceeded twenty guineas, yet his income was more than 4,000l. a year. The second Earl of Clarendon wrote of him on 18 Jan. 1689: ‘I was at the Temple with Mr. Roger North and Sir Charles Porter, who are the only two honest lawyers I have met with.’ He entered parliament as member for Dunwich in 1685, and voted against the court party on the question of the ‘dispensing power.’ Of course, he was a strong supporter of his brother Dudley's measure for putting a tax of a halfpenny a pound on tobacco and sugar, and when the house went into committee of supply on 17 Nov. 1685 he was appointed chairman. On the death of the lord keeper, Roger North seems to have been oppressed by a kind of despair. Perhaps he saw too clearly what was coming, and felt himself powerless to face the revolution which he felt was inevitable. With the accession of Jeffreys to the chancellorship, Roger North gradually found that his attendance in the court of chancery became more and more intolerable, and his practice, though still large, fell off. He was much engaged at this time, too, in the business which had been forced upon him as executor to the lord keeper, and the still more troublesome and arduous duties, which he discharged with much pains and labour, as executor of Sir Peter Lely. These latter occupied a large portion of his time for more than seven years. When the revolution came all hopes of advancement in his profession passed from him. As early as 1684 he had been talked of as likely to succeed to a judgeship; but with Jeffreys as chancellor there could be no expectation of any such career. By the accession of William of Orange he was practically shelved. He was a staunch and conscientious nonjuror, and he accepted the condition of affairs as final as far as he himself was concerned. In 1690 he purchased an estate at Rougham in Norfolk, which is still the residence of his descendants, who have inherited it in the direct line. Almost before he entered into possession of this property he found himself with six nephews and a niece, the children of his three elder brothers, more or less upon his hands. The lord keeper's sons were his wards. By the death of his eldest brother, Charles, lord North and Grey, leaving two sons and a daughter almost entirely unprovided for, it devolved upon him to see that some education and maintenance should be secured for them; and when Sir Dudley North [q. v.] died in 1691, Roger North became the guardian of the two sons, Dudley and Roger. He had his hands full of family business during the next few years. He set himself to build a new mansion on his Rougham estate, and in the meantime retained his chambers at the Temple and spent some of his time in London. Montagu North, who had been kept as a prisoner of war at Toulon for three years, was released in 1693, and from that time made his home at Rougham, and became the inseparable companion of his brother till his death in 1709. In 1696 Roger North married Mary, daughter of Sir Robert Gayer of Stoke Pogis, Buckinghamshire, a stiff and furious jacobite, who had been made a knight of the Bath in 1661 at the coronation of Charles II. With this lady he obtained a considerable accession of fortune. From the time he took up his residence at Rougham till his death he lived the life of a country gentleman, taking no part in politics, and not being even in the commission of the peace. He had, however, no lack of resources, and his time did not hang heavily on his hands. He was an accomplished and enthusiastic musician. His very interesting ‘Memoires of Musick, being some Historico-critticall Collections on that Subject 1728,’ written for his own amusement during retirement, were first made known to the world through the extracts given by Dr. Burney in the third volume of his ‘General History of Musick.’ Burney obtained the information from North's eldest son. The manuscript finally came into the possession of Robert Nelson of Lynn, through whose means it was placed at the disposal of Dr. Rimbault. The latter edited it in 1846, with elaborate notes and a brief memoir of the author. The ‘Memoires’ are both valuable and curious, giving a fair sketch of the development of music under Charles II, some account of the rise of opera in England, and biographical notes respecting John Jenkins the lutenist, Matthew Locke, Thomas Baltzar, and Sir Roger L'Estrange, who, like himself, was nicknamed ‘Roger the Fiddler.’ Among Roger North's additions and improvements at Rougham Hall was a music-gallery sixty feet long, for which he had an organ built by Father Smith. This organ is still preserved in Dereham Church. North also collected works of art, some of which are still preserved at Rougham Hall; he planted largely, bred horses, went into various agricultural experiments, got together a large collection of books, which he meant to serve as a library of reference for the clergy of the neighbourhood; he spent many hours of the day with his pen in his hand, and a large mass of his manuscripts are still preserved in the British Museum, comprising his correspondence, miscellaneous notes on questions of law, philosophy, music, architecture, and history. These are rather the jottings of a student amusing himself by putting his impressions of the moment on paper than any serious attempts at authorship. He seems to have had a certain shrinking from publicity, which grew upon him, as it is apt to grow upon a studious recluse. When White Kennett's ‘Complete History of England’ appeared in three volumes folio in 1706, Roger North was greatly disturbed by what he considered to be a perversion of the history of Charles II's reign, and he set himself to compose an elaborate ‘Apology’ for the king and a ‘Vindication’ of his brother Francis, the Lord-keeper North [q. v.], from the attacks of Kennett. This ‘Apology’ evidently occupied him for some years, but was not published till nearly seven years after his death (London, 1740). It extends over more than seven hundred pages quarto, and is entitled ‘Examen, or an Enquiry into the Credit and Veracity of a Pretended Complete History: shewing the perverse and wicked design of it, and the many fallacies and abuses of truth contained in it. Together with some Memoirs occasionally inserted, all tending to vindicate the honour of the late King Charles the Second and his happy reign from the intended Aspersions of that Foul Pen.’
It appears that the ‘Examen’ was finished before the author proceeded with the lives of his brothers, and that his life of the lord keeper was suggested by, and grew out of, his labours upon the ‘Examen.’ The life of Sir Dudley followed, naturally, as a supplement to the other; but it is difficult to understand why he should have written Dr. John North's life at all. His own ‘Autobiography’ seems to have been the last work upon which he was engaged. Whether he ever finished it, or ever intended to carry it any further than down to the death of Charles II, it is impossible to say. He clearly looked upon his own retirement from the bar as the inevitable result of the ascendency which Jeffreys had acquired over James II; and when his conscience forbade him to take the oath of allegiance at the revolution, his career was at an end. He looked upon himself from that time as a banished man.
The labour that North bestowed upon the lives of his brothers was extraordinary. The life of the lord keeper was written and rewritten again and again. Defaced though the style is by the use of some unusual words, there is a certain charm about it which few readers can resist, and the ‘Lives of the Norths’ must always remain an English classic and and a prime authority for the period with which it deals. The ‘Life of Lord-keeper North’ was first issued under Montagu North's editorship in 1742. The ‘Lives’ of Sir Dudley North and Dr. John North followed in 1744. The three lives were published together in two volumes, with notes and illustrations by Henry Roscoe, in 1826; and a complete edition of the ‘Lives of the Norths, with a Selection from the North Correspondence in the British Museum, and Roger North's Autobiography,’ was published in Bohn's ‘Standard Library,’ under the editorship of Dr. Jessopp, 3 vols. 8vo, 1890. The only work which Roger North published during his lifetime was ‘A Discourse on Fish and Fish Ponds,’ issued in quarto in 1863, and reprinted in 1713 and 1715; all the editions are scarce. His remaining work, ‘A Discourse on the Study of the Laws,’ was first published in 1824 (London, 8vo).
Roger North was held in great and increasing respect by his neighbours as an authority on questions of law, and was frequently consulted by the magnates of the county, and sometimes chosen to arbitrate when disputes arose. On one occasion he was called in to settle some difference between Sir Robert Walpole and his mother. The country people called him ‘Solomon,’ as in his early days the pamphleteers had styled him ‘Roger the Fiddler.’ He retained his vigour and brightness of intellect to the last, and one of his latest letters was written when he was nearly eighty years old, in answer to some one who had applied to him for advice as to the best course of reading for the bar. He died at Rougham on 1 March 1733–4, in his eighty-first year. By his wife, whom he appears to have survived some few years, he had a family of two sons and five daughters. He made his will in October 1730; in it he left all his papers and manuscripts to his son Montagu. The elder son, Roger, was baptised 26 Jan. 1703; from him are descended the Norths of Rougham, who are the only representatives in the male line of Dudley, fourth baron North [q. v.], by Anne Montagu. The younger son, Montagu, was born in December 1712. He entered at Jesus College, Cambridge, 26 June 1730, was elected scholar of his college, and continued to reside at the university for the next seven years. He was admitted to holy orders in 1738, became rector of Sternfield in Suffolk in 1767, and a canon of Windsor in 1775. He died in 1779. Besides the sons there were five daughters. Roger, the heir, was the only one of his generation who left issue. Sir Peter Lely's portrait (1740), which was engraved for the ‘Examen’ by George Vertue, is preserved at Rougham Hall.