John Somers, 1st Baron Somers

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John Somers, 1st Baron Somers (4 March 1651 – 26 April 1716) was an English Whig jurist and statesman. Somers first came to national attention in the trial of the Seven Bishops where he was on their defence counsel. He published tracts on political topics such as the succession to the crown, where he elaborated his Whig principles in support of the Exclusionists. He played a leading part in shaping the Revolution settlement. He was Lord High Chancellor of England under King William III and was a chief architect of the union between England and Scotland achieved in 1707 and the Protestant succession achieved in 1714. He was a leading Whig during the twenty-five years after 1688; with four colleagues he formed the Whig Junto.


  • That it hath been the constant opinion of all ages, that the Parliament of England had an unquestionable Power to Limit, Restrain and Qualify the Succession as they pleased, and that in all Ages they have put their power in practise; and that the Historian had reason for saying, That seldom or never the third Heir in a right Descent enjoy'd the Crown of England.
    • A Brief History of the Succession, Collected out of the Records and the Most Authentick Historians (1680), quoted in State Tracts: Being a Collection of Several Treatises Relating to the Government. Privately Printed in the Reign of K. Charles II. (1693), p. 397
  • The preservation of every Government depends upon an exact adherance unto its Principles, and the essential Principle of the English Monarchy, being that well proportioned distribution of Powers, whereby the Law doth at once provide for the Greatness of the King, and the Safety of the People; the Government can subsist no longer, than whilst the Monarch enjoying the Power which the Law doth give him, is enabled to perform the part it allows unto him, and the People are duly protected in their Rights and Liberties.
    • A Just and Modest Vindication of the Two Last Parliaments (1681), quoted in State Tracts: Being a Collection of Several Treatises Relating to the Government. Privately Printed in the Reign of K. Charles II. (1693), p. 178
  • [I]f they mean by these Lovers of Commonwealth Principles, Men passionately devoted to the Publick Good, and to the common Service of their Country, who believe that Kings were instituted for the good of the People, and Government ordained for the sake of those that are to be governed, and therefore complain or grieve when it is used to contrary ends, every wise and honest Man will be proud to be ranked in that number.
    • A Just and Modest Vindication of the Two Last Parliaments (1681), quoted in State Tracts: Being a Collection of Several Treatises Relating to the Government. Privately Printed in the Reign of K. Charles II. (1693), p. 184
  • An honest Jury will thankfully accept good Advice from Judges, as they are Assistants; but they are bound by their Oaths to present the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, to the best of their own, not the Judges, knowledge.
    • The Security of Englishmen's Lives, or, The Trust, Power, and Duty of the Grand Juries of England (1681), p. 32
  • Whosoever hath learnt that, the Kings of England were, ordained for the good Government of the Kingdom in the Execution of the Laws, must needs know, that the King cannot lawfully seek any other benefit in judicial proceedings, than that common Right and Justice be done to the People according to their Laws and Customs.
    • The Security of Englishmen's Lives, or, The Trust, Power, and Duty of the Grand Juries of England (1681), p. 56
  • Moreover all humane Laws were ordained for the preservation of the Innocent, and for their sakes only are punishments inflicted; that those of our own Country do solely regard this, was well understood by Fortescue, who saith. Indeed I could rather with Twenty Evildoers to escape death through pitty, than one man to be unjustly condemned. Such Blood hath cried to Heaven for Vengeance against Families and Kingdoms, and their utter destruction hath ensued. If a Criminal should be acquitted by too great lenity, caution, or otherwise, he may be reserved for future Justice from Man or God, if he doth not repent; but 'tis impossible that satisfaction or reparation should be made for innocent Bloodshed in the forms of Justice.
    • The Security of Englishmen's Lives, or, The Trust, Power, and Duty of the Grand Juries of England (1681), p. 61
  • [T]he King's going to a foreign Power, and casting himself into his hands, absolves the People from their Allegiance. He sent an Ambassador to Rome, received a Nuntio from thence, received a foreign Jurisdiction, and set up Romish Bishops in England, that the Popish Religion might intervene with the Government, thereby to subject the Nation to the Pope, as much as to a foreign Prince.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (22 January 1689), quoted in Debates of the House of Commons From the Year 1667 to the Year 1694, Volume IX (1763), p. 17
  • That King James the Second by going about to Subvert the Constitution, and by Breaking the Original Contract between King and People, and by Violating the Fundamental Laws, and Withdrawing himself out of the Kingdom, hath thereby Renounced to be a King according to the Constitution, by Avowing to Govern by a Despotick Power, unknown to the Constitution, and Inconsistent with it; he hath Renounced to be a King according to the Law, such a King as he Swore to be at his Coronation; such a King to whom the Allegiance of an English Subject is due; and hath set up another kind of Dominion, which is to all Intents an Abdication, or Abandoning of his Legal Title, as fully as if it had been done by express Words. And, my Lords, for these Reasons, the Commons do insist upon the Word Abdicated, and cannot agree to the Word Deserted.
    • Speech to the conference of Parliament (6 February 1689), quoted in David Lewis Jones, A Parliamentary History of the Glorious Revolution (1988), p. 260

Quotes about Somers[edit]

  • [T]he greatest Man in the whole Commonwealth of Letters (meaning my Lord Somers).
    • John Ayliffe, The Ancient and Present State of the University of Oxford. Part I (1714), p. 415
  • [His name is surrounded] with a mild but imperishable glory, which, in contrast to our dark ignorance respecting all the particulars and details of his life, gives the figure altogether something of the mysterious and ideal.
    • Lord Brougham, quoted in John Philipps Kenyon, Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party 1689–1720 (1977), p. 41
  • I never desire to be thought a better whig than Lord Somers, or to understand the principles of the Revolution better than those, by whom it was brought about, or to read in the Declaration of Right any mysteries unknown to those whose penetrating style has engraved in our ordinances, and in our hearts, the words and spirit of that immortal law.
  • [T]he greatest distinction which Somers acquired at the bar, previous to the Revolution, was on the trial of the Seven Bishops. The proposal, that he should be one of their counsel, rather shocked some of the Right Reverend defendants, who at last, driven to question the prerogative of the Crown when directed against the exclusive immunities of the Church, had often preached the doctrine of passive obedience, and had heard this rising young lawyer denounced as "nothing better than a Whig;" but "old Pollexfen insisted upon him, and would not be himself retained without him, representing him as the man who would take most pains, and go deepest into all that depended on precedents and records."
    • Lord Campbell, The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England: From the Earliest Times Till the Reign of King George IV. Vol. IV (1846), pp. 85-86
  • [H]e is generally acknowledged to have been a cultivated man of wide interests and an outstanding lawyer-statesman.
    • L. K. J. Glassey, Politics and the Appointment of Justices of the Peace, 1675–1720 (1979), p. 112
  • [Somers was one of the] brightest ornaments of the bar in the late seventeenth century.
    • Geoffrey Holmes, Augustan England: Professions, State and Society, 1680–1730 (1982), p. 117
  • Somers, the most distinguished Whig statesman of his generation.
    • Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne: Revised Edition (1967; rev. edn. 1987), p. 200
  • Somers, who was the leading figure in the Junto in William's reign and remained so for all but the last few years of Anne's, when his health broke down, was a man whose greatness had to be acknowledged even by the Tories. One of the most distinguished lawyers ever to sit on the Woolsack, he contributed the finest intellect in the party, and also qualities of integrity and moral strength in which some of his colleagues were at times deficient.
    • Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne: Revised Edition (1967; rev. edn. 1987), p. 239
  • [T]he greatest man among the members of the Junto, and, in some respects, the greatest man of that age, was the Lord Keeper Somers. He was equally eminent as a jurist and as a politician, as an orator and as a writer. His speeches have perished; but his State papers remain, and are models of terse, luminous, and dignified eloquence. He had left a great reputation in the House of Commons, where he had, during four years, been always heard with delight; and the Whig members still looked up to him as their leader, and still held their meetings under his roof. In the great place to which he had recently been promoted, he had so borne himself that, after a very few months, even faction and envy had ceased to murmur at his elevation. In truth, he united all the qualities of a great judge, an intellect comprehensive, quick and acute, diligence, integrity, patience, suavity. In council, the calm wisdom which he possessed in a measure rarely found among men of parts so quick and of opinions so decided as his, acquired for him the authority of an oracle.
  • [Pitt said] he saw combinations of great Lords against him but for his part he would go his own way; that he was a British subject and he knew he stood upon British ground; that he had learnt his maxims and principles under the great Lord Cobham and the disciples of the greatest lawyers, generals and patriots of King William's days: named Lord Somers and the Duke of Marlborough.
    • William Pitt's remarks to the Council (14 August 1761), quoted in The Devonshire Diary. William Cavendish, Fourth Duke of Devonshire. Memoranda on State Affairs. 1759–1762, eds. Peter D. Brown and Karl W. Schweizer (1982), p. 111
  • Somers was a statesman. He was a Whig, unwavering in his allegiance to Revolution politics. Much of the discussion of the time turned on the succession and divine right. Somers maintained that of course people could change their rulers if they were tyrannical. History supported their claim. ... In none of the tracts nor any of those utterance which have come down to us does Somers appear radical in his ideas. ... He was interested in just and modest government by King, Lords and Commons. ... In everything we know about Somers we see the statesman and the temperate supporter of a constitution which secured lives, liberties and properties, provision for common benefit, freedom for all men accused of sins against society. Such sentiments must always be an honour to the Whig tradition.
    • Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstances of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (1959), pp. 80-81
  • Dr. Bathurst always boasted with singular satisfaction, the education of so learned and eloquent a lawyer, so sincere a patriot, and so elegant a scholar, as lord Somers.
    • Thomas Warton, The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst, M.D.: Dean of Wells and President of Trinity College in Oxford (1761), pp. 81-82

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