ATKYNS, Robert (1620-1710), of Lincoln's Inn and Sapperton, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. 29 Apr. 1620, 1st s. of Sir Edward Atkyns, and bro. of Edward Atkyns. educ. Hertford g.s.; Sidney Sussex, Camb. 1637; L. Inn 1638, called 1645. m. (1) Mary (d. 2 Mar. 1681), da. of Sir George Clarke, Grocer, of London and Watford, Northants., 3s. (2 d.v.p.), 1da.; (2) lic. 21 Apr. 1681, Anne, da. of Sir Thomas Dacres of Cheshunt, Herts., 2s. d.v.p. 2da. KB 23 Apr. 1661; suc. fa. 1669.1
J.p. Herts. 1646-?59, Glos. 1659-72. 1700-d., Mdx. Mar.-July 1660, 1660-72, commr. for assessment, Glos. 1657, Jan. 1660-80, Gloucester 1661-3, Mdx. 1661-80, Bristol 1663-80, Glos., Mdx. and Worcs. 1689-90, Serjeants’ Inn 1690, oyer and terminer, Oxford circuit July 1660; bencher, L. Inn 1661, reader and treas. 1664; recorder and alderman, Bristol 1662-82; commr. for corporations, Glos. 1662-3, loyal and indigent officers 1662, dep. lt. 1662-?72.2
Solicitor-gen. to Queen Catherine of Braganza 1662-72; chairman of ways and means 16 June 1663, 1 Dec. 1664, 16-19 Oct. 1665, supply committee and ways and means 9 Nov.-2 Dec. 1669, 18 Feb.-10 Nov. 1670; KC 671; receiver-gen. of law duties 1671-2; j.c.p. 15 Apr. 1672-80; chief baron of the Exchequer 1689-94.3
Speaker of House of Lords 15 Oct. 1689-93.
Atkyns came from a family which had practised the law in unbroken succession since the reign of Edward III. They became Gloucestershire landowners in the 16th century. Atkyns’s father, a leading opposition lawyer under Charles I, ‘was a person of such integrity that he resisted the many advantages and honours offered him by the chiefs of the grand rebellion’. Nevertheless he served as a judge throughout the Interregnum until the second return of the Rump, regaining his seat on the bench after the Restoration. Atkyns followed the same profession during the Civil War with success; he was assessed at £800 by the committee for the advance of money in 1647, but no proceedings were taken. He bought the Gloucestershire estate of his cousin Richard, a ruined Cavalier colonel, in 1655, and further purchases followed, including the Sapperton estate, which gave him a strong interest at Cirencester. With his father out of office he is unlikely to have stood at the general election of 1660, but in the following year he was returned for East Looe, no doubt as a court candidate, and became a very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament. Lord Wharton listed him as a friend, but he served on all the committees for the Clarendon Code. He was among those chosen to recommend expunctions from the Journal of the Long Parliament, and to manage a conference on the trial of peers under the security bill. He made one report from the grand committee of grievances and took the chair in the committee on the bill for restoring the temporal jurisdiction of the clergy. He was appointed to the committee for the bill of pains and penalties, and was one of the four Members instructed to draw up the impeachment of the master of the ballast office. On 10 July 1661 he was among those ordered to draft a proviso to the bill abolishing the High Commission, and given special responsibility for the despatch of the bill for the duchy of Cornwall leases, reporting from the committee eight days later. Meanwhile he had been elected chairman of the revenue inspection committee and of the committee for the bill to prevent the unlawful killing of deer, to which he was ordered to bring in a proviso. On 19 July he obtained leave to go into the country, but he was also instructed to bring in a gaming bill, and six days later, with five other Members, a bill for the maintenance of urban incumbents. After the summer recess he helped to manage a conference on the corporations bill, and he acted as chairman of the grand committee on the militia bill, in which capacity, he later claimed, he ‘heartily served the King’. He was among those appointed to peruse the Lords’ proviso to the bill against schismatics, to manage a conference on the bill of pains and penalties, and to prepare reasons on the bill for confirming ministers in their livings, after which he was again given leave. On his return from the country he seems to have taken charge of the bill for London and Westminster highways. He took the chair in the committee, was one of ten Members ordered to peruse the bill on 8 Apr. 1662, helped to draw up reasons, and took part in two conferences. Finally, on 16 May he was among those ordered to bring in an expedient on the militia bill. Few private Members can have worked harder than Atkyns during this session, and his appointment as solicitor-general to the Queen was no more than a just reward.4
In the second session of the Cavalier Parliament, Atkyns was elected chairman of the supply committee, though he was chiefly concerned with measures to protect the Church, to which his attachment seems to have been lukewarm at best. His was the first name on the committee appointed to bring in another bill for the maintenance of town clergy, and he was among those ordered to report on defects in the Uniformity and Corporations Acts. Most arduous was his work as chairman of the committee for hindering the growth of Popery, from which he presented five lengthy reports, and on 6 Mar. 1663 he was given special responsibility for preparing a bill, which was committed 11 days later. He was one of four Members ordered to inquire about deeds concerning tithes in the Exchequer. On the same day he attended a conference on Popish priests and Jesuits, and was among those instructed to peruse the Lords’ representations. He was chairman for a naturalization bill. He attended the conference to hear the King’s message on 2 Apr. and helped to draw up the address of thanks. Five days later he reported a series of recommendations from the committee on sumptuary laws. He was among those ordered to bring in bills improving Sunday observance and restricting office to ‘such persons as have been loyal subjects, and conformable to the Church of England’, which, if enacted, would presumably have ended his own career. On 9 May he was one of seven Members instructed to bring in provisos to the bill against Popery. In the third session, he was listed as a court dependant, and voted into the chair of the grand committee for the repeal of the triennial bill in 1664, and he was among those ordered to bring in a bill to prevent profanity. He was chairman of the supply committee in the fourth and fifth sessions, also taking the chair on the bill for regulating juries and on the game preservation bill in the Oxford session. In the next session, he was replaced as chairman of the supply committee by Robert Milward, but he was prominent in other ways. He was one of the Members ordered to bring in a bill for the encouragement of exports, and took the chair in the committee for the relief of London after the Great Fire. He helped to manage one conference on the prohibition of French imports, and to prepare reasons for another, and attended the King with the resolution of the House. He also helped to prepare reasons for conferences on the prohibition of cattle imports and on the Canary patent. He was among those instructed to bring in a bill to improve the attendance of Members and to prepare new clauses in the plague bill and the bill to encourage coinage. In the last six weeks of the session he was principally concerned with the impeachment of Lord Mordaunt. With William Prynne and John Swinfen he was ordered to search for precedents on 22 Dec. 1666, and a week later helped to manage a conference. He was among those appointed to draw up reasons for two conferences on public accounts and the poll bill in the first week of the new year. On 11 Jan. 1667 he spoke in favour of the election of the country candidate at Rye. He was appointed one of the managers of the impeachment, and delivered three reports from conferences with the Lords about procedure.5
Atkyns was an outspoken supporter of Clarendon, condemning the impeachment on legal and political grounds alike. Besides helping to prepare bills settling wine and beer measures and increasing the supply of timber, he was named to most of the politically important committees in the autumn of 1667: those to confirm freedom of speech in Parliament, investigate obstructions in public business, prevent restraints on juries, inquire into the sale of Dunkirk, report on Mordaunt’s impeachment, search for precedents for impeachment, and establish a public accounts commission. He was chairman in the committee stage on the bill to prevent abuses in granting writs of certiorari, which he carried to the Lords. He was appointed to the committee to draw up heads of the charges against Clarendon, but in the impeachment debates he condemned the hearsay evidence produced, urging ‘the shame of accusing an innocent person; and credulous persons will retain some of the accusations, though false’. ‘It is no light matter’, he said on 2 Dec. ‘to charge the Lords with obstructing justice’ because they had found the charges too vague and general to justify action. His standing in the House was unimpaired; and in the absence of Clarendon’s chief accuser Edward Seymour, Atkyns was voted into the chair of the grand committee on trade, and included among the Members appointed to draw up reasons for a conference on freedom of speech. On 15 Feb. 1668 he declared that he ‘would not have the faults of all miscarriages laid upon the scapegoat, Lord Clarendon’. He was among those ordered to attend the lord chief baron (Matthew Hale) about easing sheriffs in passing their accounts, to take the accounts of taxation voted for the war, and to report on the extent of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords over commoners. In the debate on toleration on 12 Mar., according to the prejudiced John Milward, ‘Sir Robert Atkyns spoke, but to as little purpose as any man. He spoke against atheism and vice, but nothing that did concern government. He said that the people of England were much addicted to religion, and therefore they ought to be indulged.’ He spoke ‘notably’ against (Sir) William Penn, helped to draw up his impeachment, and was ordered to attend a conference. He reported to the House on Skinner’s case on 24 Apr., and helped to manage a conference. His name was first among those ordered to amend the articles of impeachment of Henry Brouncker on 7 May.6
Atkyns was again elected chairman of the supply committee in the next session. He was among those appointed to bring in a bill to prevent abuses in parliamentary elections. He spoke several times in defence of Sir George Carteret, whose daughter had just married his son, and gave his opinion that the charges against Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle) lay within the Statute of Treason. He took the chair for the bill to prevent cloth stealing. On 28 Feb. 1670 he was appointed, with (Sir) Thomas Lee I and Sir Robert Howard, to bring in a bill to amend habeas corpus. He was appointed to the committee, and in the debate on the third reading denied the contention of Heneage Finch that the transportation of felons was according to law. He was also among those ordered to bring in a bill for the easier conviction of Popish recusants. In his last session in the Cavalier Parliament, that of 1670-1, he was replaced after a week as chairman of the supply committee by Seymour. He helped to prepare reasons for regulating juries; but he was most prominent in connexion with the assault on Sir John Coventry and the imposition of a new tax on legal proceedings. It was Atkyns who proposed ‘that we should meddle in no other business’ until the bill against Coventry’s assailants was passed. He was among those appointed to bring in the bill and to consider the Lords’ amendments. In the chair of the grand committee on the law duties he was indefatigable, and he also helped to manage a conference. In debate he expressed a wish ‘to sweeten the bill, that it may be acceptable to the people’. Thomas Clifford offered him £500 as compensation for his loss of practice while serving in Parliament, which he virtuously refused. But his appointment as receiver-general of the new tax led to his inclusion in the opposition list of court supporters and provoked a virulent though unpublished attack, in which he was sarcastically described as ‘notorious for many worthy actions. An infamous bird that betrayed his own nest, who in his reading declared that he had got £20,000 by the law tax, but leaving that is now become farmer of the law, having been long time ranger of Whetstone Park [the red-light quarter serving the inns of court]. A severe guardian of his mad wife.’ Before Parliament reassembled, Atkyns had been made a judge. He had served on 411 committees and 31 conferences, and made 91 reports, 67 of them from committees of the whole House. About 50 of his speeches were recorded in the years 1666-71.7
The turning point in Atkyns’s career seems to have been the Suffolk election case in 1674. In the appeal to Exchequer Chamber, he gave judgment for Sir Samuel Barnardiston, and henceforth he was regarded as an opponent of the Court. He may have been alarmed by the strength of the opposition to the law duties shown in the Commons. He advised the Gloucestershire electors ‘that those who took pensions were not fit to be sent up to Parliament again’, and differed violently from Chief Justice Scroggs over the admissibility of Bedloe’s information and the legality of petitioning. On 6 Feb. 1680 he was dismissed. He was returned for Middlesex with an absolute majority at the by-election caused by the expulsion of Sir Robert Peyton, but the second Exclusion Parliament had already been prorogued and he never took his seat. At the general election he was defeated both for Gloucestershire and at Bristol, much to the satisfaction of Lord Worcester (Henry Somerset), who wrote: ‘I look upon the worst of the last Members as better than he’. He was forced to resign the recordership of Bristol in 1682. Having ample private means, he did not resume private practice, though from his Gloucestershire retirement he advised the Whigs on the defence of Lord Russell (Hon. William Russell). It was now Atkyns’s turn to have his arms removed, including the sword with which he had been knighted. In a dignified letter to Secretary Jenkins, he complained that without arms it was unsafe for him to leave his house even to visit his son, ‘who serves the King with all diligence’, since his eight years on the bench exposed him to revenge from those he had tried, ‘though I hope I carried myself with due respect even to the meanest, not insulting men in misery, as the manner of some judges has been’. With unshaken confidence, he brought to the notice of the bishop of Oxford the vacancy in the living of Lower Swell, assuring the bishop that the parish would be ‘well content to have a conformable person, so he be prudent and moderate, not too rigid and severe in ceremony’. In the following year he took part in the defence of William Williams, though he had to borrow a gown to do so. Though listed among the opposition lawyers ‘considerable for parts’, he was recommended as court candidate for Bristol in April 1688. He was presented to William of Orange by Lord Macclesfield in December, and published two Whig pamphlets on constitutional aspects of the Revolution. Although he pressed his claims to a chief justiceship, and considered it ‘somewhat unnatural’ to succeed his younger brother, he was made chief baron of the Exchequer, ‘less by four or five hundred pounds by the year than what I was turned out of’. On the retirement of Lord Halifax after the recess he acted as Speaker of the House of Lords. He died after a short illness on 18 Feb. 1710, in his ninetieth year, and was buried at Sapperton.8
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxxv. 71-75, l. 239-47.
- 2. Ibid. lviii. 260; A. B. Beaven, Bristol Lists, 186, 232.
- 3. CJ, viii. 301, 453, 544, 570, 616; CSP Dom. 1661-2, p. 404; 1671, p. 222; 1671-2, p. 420; 1689-90, pp. 59, 292; Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 738.
- 4. Cal. Comm. Adv. Money, 821; CJ, viii. 261, 265, 268, 281, 299, 301, 335, 344, 353, 355, 367, 400, 401, 402; CSP Dom. July-Sept. 1683, p. 127.
- 5. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. lxxxi. 206; CJ, viii. 445, 457, 466, 467, 476, 537, 545, 582, 607, 618, 627, 628, 637, 639, 644, 660, 662, 670, 673, 681, 684, 687, 691; Milward, 60.
- 6. CJ, ix. 4, 8, 33, 52, 88, 94; Milward, 102, 136, 221-2, 259-60, 280; Clarendon Impeachment, 28-29, 97; Grey, i. 21, 79.
- 7. Grey, i. 173, 184, 237, 411; ix. 309; CJ, ix. 120, 135, 165, 189, 194; Dering, 45; Harl. 7020, f. 40.
- 8. CJ, ix. 313-14; State Trials, vi. 1074-92; xiii. 1380-1436; Grey, ix. 307-9; CSP Dom. July-Sept. 1683, pp. 402-3; Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxxv. 73; lxxxi. 206; Clarendon Corresp. ii. 228; Luttrell, vi. 547; Hist. Jnl. xv. 428; Chatsworth (Finch-Hatton) mss, 1/60, Atkyns to Halifax, 6 Apr. 1689.