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Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949). The original biography was written by James McMullen Rigg in 1897.
John Scott, first Lord Eldon and Lord Chancellor, was the third son of William Scott of Newcastle-upon-Tyne by his second wife, Jane Atkinson. Eldon was born in Love Lane, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 4 June 1751. Eldon's paternal grandfather, also William Scott, was described as a yeoman of Sandgate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Eldon’s father was born in about 1696 and was apprenticed on 1 September 1716 to Thomas Brummel, a ‘hoastman’ [coal-factor] of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Scott received the freedom of the town on 25 August 1724 and was admitted to the full privileges of the ancient guild of hoastmen on 7 September. He prospered in business, became the owner of several keels and a public-house; he died on 6 November 1776.
William Scott’s first wife, Isabella Noble (married on 11 May 1730), died in January 1734, leaving a family. Scott married Jane Atkinson on 18 August 1740; she died on 16 July 1800. The couple had thirteen children, of whom six reached maturity. Of these three were sons: William (afterwards Lord Stowell); Henry (1748 to 8 December 1799) and John. The children were taught by a tutor called Warden; then they were taught by Hugh Moises at the Newcastle free grammar school, where they shared a form with Cuthbert (afterwards Lord) Collingwood. When he was Lord Chancellor, Eldon made Moises one of his chaplains.
Eldon went to Oxford in 1766. He matriculated on 15 May 1766 from University College, where he obtained a fellowship on 11 July 1767, for which his Northumbrian birth made him eligible. He graduated on 20 February 1770, proceeded to an M.A. on 13 February 1773, was appointed high steward of the university on 18 September 1801 and received the degree of D.C.L. by diploma on 15 October.
In 1771 Eldon gained the English-essay prize on The Advantages and Disadvantages of Travelling into Foreign Countries. He abandoned the idea of taking Holy Orders and, on 18 November 1772, eloped with Elizabeth Surtees, the daughter of a wealthy banker of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They were married on 19 November 1772 at Blackshiels near Edinburgh. They returned home and were soon forgiven by their parents who joined in giving them £3,000. The marriage was re-solemnised in St. Nicholas's Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on 19 January 1773.
On 28 January, Eldon was admitted to the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar on 9 February 1776, elected a bencher on 20 June 1783, and treasurer in 1797. He moved to London in 1775, finally living in Hamilton Place. Eldon devoted his days and nights to professional study which for a time seriously impaired his health. The eminent conveyancer Matthew Duane received him as a pupil without fee; Eldon mastered the technicalities of real-property law to which he added a study of common law and equity. His finances were improved on his father's death by a legacy of £1,000 and in 1781 by another £1,000 added to the settlement moneys by his father-in-law, through whose interest he obtained the general retainer of the corporation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On 13 October 1774 he received the freedom of Newcastle-on-Tyne as a hoastman's son. He supported the candidature of his friend Andrew Robinson Bowes as MP for the borough in February 1777, and represented him before the House of Commons on the petitions read on 25 April following and 18 February 1782.
On 4 June 1783 Eldon became a King's Counsel and on 16 June he became an MP for Lord Weymouth's borough of Weobley, Herefordshire, which he represented until the general election of May 1796, when he was returned for Boroughbridge, Yorkshire. His maiden speech,on the first reading of Fox's India Bill on 20 November 1783, was laboured and ineffective; his efforts on the third reading on 8 December excited the amazement of the house and the cruel mockery of Sheridan. A beginning could hardly have been less promising, but his able, independent speech in condemnation of the Westminster scrutiny was heard with respect on 9 March 1785; and, having thus shown Pitt the value of his support, he atoned for his temporary revolt by his defence of the commercial treaty with France on 21 February 1787. He had long been high in favour with Thurlow; on 1 March 1787, Eldon was appointed to the post of chancellor of the county palatine of Durham by Thurlow’s brother,Thomas, bishop of Durham.
On 5 March 1788, Eldon defended the government measure charging the East India Company with the cost of the transport of troops to the East. On 27 June 1788 he was made solicitor-general, and, apparently against his will, he was knighted. In the following winter he defended the government scheme for providing for the regency by means of a bill passed under the great seal - a solution of an unprecedented constitutional problem ridiculed by Burke as legal metaphysics, but which was probably the best that could be devised. He also drafted the bill introduced in the following spring, but abandoned on the recovery of the king.
On 23 December 1790 Eldon incurred some unmerited suspicion of corruption by maintaining that the impeachment of Warren Hastings had been nullified by the dissolution. Eldon amended Fox’s Libel Act of 1791 sufficiently as to modify its effect. In the debates on the government measures for the partial relief of Irish and Scottish Catholics, passed in 1791 and 1793, he took no part. On Thurlow's dismissal on 15 June 1792, Eldon tendered his resignation to Pitt, but eventually withdrew it and on 13 February 1793 he was appointed as attorney-general. Being thus identified with the vigorous and rigorous policy pursued by the government during the next few years, he became for the time the best hated man in England. The Traitorous Correspondence Act of 1793 (which virtually suspended mercantile relations with France), the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act (1794), the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts of 1795, and the Newspaper Proprietors' Registration Act of 1798 were his handiwork.
At the same time he made liberal use of the procedure by ex-officio information for libel, and strained the law of constructive treason to breaking-point. On 19 July 1799 Eldon succeeded Sir James Eyre as lord chief justice of the common pleas, having during the three preceding days been sworn serjeant-at-law and of the privy council and board of trade, and created Baron Eldon of Eldon, in the county of Durham, where in 1792 he had bought a fine estate. On 24 September following he took his seat, and on 27 February 1800 he made his first reported speech in the House of Lords, in support of a bill to continue the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. In the debates on the union with Ireland he was conspicuous by his silence. The measure itself he probably disapproved, and to the emancipation of the Catholic population he was as adverse as the king, though he was too sound a lawyer to countenance the king's strange delusion as to the effect of the coronation oath. On Pitt's retirement he consented to succeed Lord Loughborough on the woolsack. He believed that Addington had purposely kept him in ignorance of the true state of the king's health, and, though he received the great seal from the king in council on 14 April 1801, he regarded his tenure of it as conditional upon his recovery, and retained the chief-justiceship until 21 May, when he was succeeded by Lord Alvanley. On three occasions during this interval -- 18 April, 30 April, and 21 May -- he procured the king's signature to a commission for passing bills. On 18 or 19 April the king, by Addington's advice, authorised Eldon to open the negotiations which terminated in Addington's retirement and Pitt's return to power.
In the House of Lords, Eldon's energies were absorbed in defeating such proposals as the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of debtors and Catholics. On the collapse of the administration which followed Pitt's death, he surrendered the seals. The king parted with him with profound regret. ‘Lay them down on the sofa,’ he said, pointing to the seals, ‘for I cannot and will not take them from you. Yet I admit you cannot stay when all the rest have run away.’ His retiring pension, by previous arrangement, was fixed at £4,000.
Eldon took little part in public affairs during the shortlived administration of All the Talents. Much of his leisure was occupied with the affairs of the Princess of Wales (Caroline Amelia Elizabeth), as whose adviser he acted during the scrutiny into her conduct.
On the formation of the Portland administration in 1807 Eldon resumed the great seal, which he retained for rather more than twenty years. During a great part of this period the strength of his convictions, the dexterity and decision with which he encountered emergencies, and a veritable genius for managing men, gave him paramount influence in the cabinet. The subjugation of Napoleon was to him an end which sanctified all means. The seizure of the Danish fleet in 1807 he justified by the plea of necessity, while acknowledging that it was without colour of right; the orders in council by which the entire seaboard under the dominion or control of France was declared under blockade, to the infinite damage of neutral commerce, and also the practice of searching neutral ships for British seamen, he defended on grounds which have since been generally repudiated by publicists; and his plea for the detention of Bonaparte in 1815, that he had neither king nor country, but had constituted himself an independent belligerent, and was thus at the mercy of his captors, was perhaps more subtle than sound. Napoleon disposed of, his foreign policy was simply non-intervention. He was never an orator but the dignity of his person and the melody of his voice triumphed over the clumsy and circumlocutory character of his style.
His power of personal fascination was extraordinary. Secure in his ascendency over the king, he regarded without anxiety but not without resentment the intrigues of Canning to oust him from office during the protracted crisis of September-October 1809. In the end it was Canning who retired, while the Duke of Portland was replaced by Eldon's old associate and intimate friend, Spencer Perceval. In 1811, when the decline of the king’s health became chronic, Eldon was still on the worst of terms with the prince, whom he further embittered by adhering to the view of the procedure to constitute the regency which he had advocated in 1788. The prince's friends accordingly sought to exclude him from the council which was to be associated with the prince during the first year of the regency; and to this end the expedients by which a semblance of the royal assent had been given to bills while the king was presumably unfit to transact business in 1801 and 1804 were magnified into acts of usurpation, the responsibility for which it was sought to fix upon Eldon individually.
Eldon’s influence was paramount during the crisis which followed the assassination of Perceval, when with the skill of an old parliamentary hand he secured the failure of the overtures, which for the sake of appearances were made first to Lord Wellesley and Canning, and then to Lords Grey and Grenville; and eventually formed Lord Liverpool's durable administration. He advised the prince and supported his parental authority during the first treaty for the marriage of the Princess Charlotte, and arranged her eventual marriage with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.
He resisted the reforms of Sir Samuel Romilly as stubbornly as catholic emancipation; and, though he took no part in carrying the corn laws, he could conceive for the consequent disaffection no remedy but repression, and gave in 1817 his unqualified approval to Lord Sidmouth's circular instructing magistrates to hold to bail before indictment for libel, to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, to the revival without limit of duration of the expired Treason Act of 1796, and to the new and stringent Seditious Meetings Act. After the Peterloo affair, the Six Acts, which placed public meetings at the mercy of magistrates, authorised domiciliary visits for the seizure of arms, provided a more summary procedure in cases of seditious libel, and subjected pamphlets to the same duty as newspapers, seemed to him the only means of preserving the constitution.
On the accession of George IV the unpopularity of the administration evinced by the Cato Street conspiracy was aggravated by their treatment of the queen, the odium of which attached in an especial degree to Eldon. On moving the second reading of the bill of pains and penalties, he summed up the case for and against her with the strictest impartiality; and it was as much in her interest as in that of the king and the administration that he deprecated the abandonment of the bill after the third reading. He was now in as ill odour with the populace as in 1794; but as the leader of those who defeated Plunket's statesmanlike measure of catholic emancipation he was enthusiastically toasted by loyal church and state men.
In anticipation of his coronation and by patent dated 7 July 1821, George IV conferred on Eldon the titles of Viscount Encombe and Earl of Eldon. The patent was sealed on 9 July, and on the same day the new earl took his seat as such in the House of Lords. As he reached the summit of his honour, Eldon’s ascendency was already passing from him. The king was now swayed by Lady Conyngham, who had espoused the catholic cause. The death of the queen opened the way for Canning's return. The administration was in need of new blood; and on his return from Ireland in January 1822, where he had treated Plunket with marked distinction, the king consented to a coalition with the Grenville party, whereby catholic emancipation entered the sphere of practical politics. Eldon's clung tenaciously to the woolsack, and for the additional mortification caused by Huskisson's accession to the cabinet found some compensation in the defeat of the Unitarian Marriage Bill of 1824 and of the Catholic Relief Bills of that and the following year. When Canning succeeded Lord Liverpool as PM, Eldon deserted with the rest of the Tories on12 April 1827, and was succeeded in the following month by Lord Lyndhurst.
Mortification at his exclusion from the Duke of Wellington's administration intensified the obstinacy with which in the debates on the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828), and in the final struggle on catholic emancipation (1829), Eldon maintained what he knew to be a hopeless struggle. His resistance to the latter measure he carried to the point of seriously urging the king to withhold his assent in two private audiences, one on 28 March, and the other in April. On the accession of William IV he supported Lord Grey's amendment to the answer to the royal message (30 June 1830) with the view of postponing the dissolution.
Eldon lead the irreconcilable section of the opposition in the struggle on the parliamentary Reform Bill. After fiercely contesting the measure at every stage, he denounced the proposed creation of new peers as unconstitutional, and only withdrew his opposition when its futility was made apparent. Tithe commutation, the several reforms founded on the reports of the real property and common law commissioners and the Irish Church Temporalities Bill, also found in him a sturdy opponent (1831-1834). His great age and staunchness made him the idol of his party. Churchmen showed their gratitude by founding in 1829 the Eldon law scholarship, for which only churchmen and Oxford graduates were to be eligible. Oxford honoured her high steward hardly less than her chancellor [Wellington], though the latter was the hero of Waterloo, at the commemoration of 1834. He survived to take the oaths to Queen Victoria (21 June 1837), and died of old age at Hamilton Place on 13 January 1838, leaving £700,000. He was buried beside his wife in the graveyard of Kingston Chapel, near Encombe in the Isle of Purbeck, where in 1807 he had purchased a seat. The chapel, which he had rebuilt, contains his monument with an effigy by Chantrey.
Eldon had two sons. The elder was John (8 March 1774-24 December 1805), who on 22 August 1804 married Henrietta Elizabeth, only daughter of Sir Matthew White Ridley, bart. They had one son, John (10 December 1805-13 September 1854), who from 1821 had the title Viscount Encombe, and on his grandfather's death succeeded to the earldom and estates. The younger son was William Henry (25 February 1795-- 6 July 1832). There were also two daughters: Elizabeth (married on 27 November 1817 to George Manley Repton, youngest son of Humphry Repton. She died on 16 April 1862; Frances Jane (married on 6 April 1820 to Rev. Edward Bankes, rector of Corfe Castle).
Eldon was of middle height with regular features, keen, sparkling eyes, and luxuriant hair. To please Lady Eldon he wore his hair rather long. His constitution was as robust as his political principles; he wept easily, from genuine feeling, His political courage was undoubted; but he had little physical prowess. A single fall induced him to stop riding early in his life and though he was never happier than when among the birds at Encombe, he was so bad a shot that Lord Stowell accused him of killing nothing but time. Singularly careless of outward show, no chancellor more easily maintained the dignity of his office, none more readily threw off the cares of state.
He was ill-read, untravelled, and without either knowledge of or taste for the fine arts. Though in his own house he tolerated no politics but his own, he never allowed party spirit to mar the ease and intimacy of his social relations; and an inexhaustible fund of entertaining anecdote made him a most engaging companion. He was a most devoted husband, restricting his hospitality, and even discontinuing the levées which his predecessors had held, out of regard to Lady Eldon's wishes; and was an affectionate father and grandfather if somewhat exacting. He hardly forgave his daughter, Lady Elizabeth, for marrying without his consent, and was not satisfied until Lord Encombe had given him a life interest in the Stowell estates. He was also a good landlord, and unostentatiously charitable.
Chancery procedure had never been distinguished by its speed; and in Eldon's time a rapid and sustained increase of litigation combined with the unusually onerous nature of his political duties to render his position one of exceptional difficulty. Never were the judicial duties of the House of Lords more efficiently discharged than while he occupied the woolsack, though sometimes they involved the decision of the most intricate questions of Scottish real-property law.
Eldon was F.R.S., F.S.A., a governor of the Charterhouse, and a trustee of the British Museum.
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