POWYS, Sir Thomas (c.1649-1719), of Henley, nr. Ludlow, Salop and Lilford cum Wigsthorpe, Northants.
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Family and Education
b. c.1649, 2nd s. of Thomas Powys of Henley by his 1st w. Anne, da. of Sir Adam Littleton, 1st Bt., of Stoke St. Milborough, Salop. educ. Shrewsbury sch. 1663; Queen’s, Oxf. matric. 20 May 1664, aged 15; L. Inn 1663, called 1673, bencher 1686, treasurer 1686–7. m. (1) lic. 4 June 1685, Sarah (d. Mar. 1694), da. of Ambrose Holbech of Mollington, Oxon., 3s. 3da.; (2) 2 Oct. 1698, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Philip Meadowes of Chattisham, Suff., sis. of Philip Meadowes*, 2s. Kntd. 25 Apr. 1686.
Freeman, Ludlow 1677, Portsmouth 1700; recorder, Ludlow 1707–d.1
Attorney-gen. Denb. and Mont. 1680–6; solicitor-gen. 1686–Dec. 1687, attorney-gen. Dec. 1687–8, prime serjeant 1702–June 1713; j. Qb June 1713–Oct. 1714; King’s serjeant 1714–d.2
Writing of Powys' appointment as solicitor-general, Bishop Burnet described him as ‘a compliant, aspiring young lawyer, though in himself he was no ill-natured man’. In 1685 it had been ‘confidently said’ that he was a Catholic, but there is no evidence that he was ever other than a Protestant. As solicitor-general he gained notoriety through leading the defence in the case of Godden v. Hales, and when he was made attorney-general in 1687 critics of the government assumed that his only qualfication for promotion was a readiness to comply with royal policy. He was chief prosecuting counsel in the trial of the Seven Bishops in June 1688, where, according to a hostile observer, he ‘acted his part as fairly as his post could admit of’. Subsequently he himself confessed to Archbishop Sancroft that ‘acting in that unhappy prosecution was the most uneasy thing to me that ever in my life I was concerned in’. He did not resign, however. On 8 Sept. 1688 Lord Sunderland wrote to convey the King's wish that Powys return to London as soon as possible ‘but that you take care to secure your election either at Wales or in Wallingford’.3
Removed from office immediately after the Revolution, Powys proceeded to build up a lucrative private practice at the bar. In 1696 he acted as a defence counsel for Sir John Fenwick†, and also for Lord Ailesbury (Thomas Bruce†) and James Grahme*, who had both been arrested on suspicion of treason. Ailesbury wrote that, in his own case, Powys and the other defence counsel ‘did their part becoming great lawyers as they, besides as well wishers’. Among his other clients were Charles Duncombe*, whom he defended before Parliament in 1699 and in court the following year against charges of peculation, and Thomas Watson, the deprived bishop of St. Davids, for whom he appeared several times between 1698 and 1705. Powys was one of the counsel retained by the Old East India Company in June 1698 to argue before Parliament the case against the bill setting up the new company. He acted for Charles Montagu* in December 1698 at a hearing before the Commons committee of elections, concerning a disputed election at Westminster at which the other candidate had been Sir Henry Dutton Colt, 1st Bt.* In April 1700 he was ‘talked of’ as a possible successor to Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*).4
Powys stood for Parliament for the first time in January 1701 - as his brother said, ‘our family [have] never yet had one turn in our neighbour[ing] town of Ludlow’ - and was returned at the top of the poll after a three-cornered contest with two Tories, one of whom had accused him of not being well affected to the government. According to his brother, he ‘behaved himself exceedingly well in this ... Parliament, and with great reputation and to the satisfaction of all people’. He was forecast as likely to support the Court on 22 Feb. 1701 on the question of making good the deficiencies of public funds. His high profile and expertise as a lawyer were reflected in his parliamentary activity, many of his numerous committee appointments being to committees of address and drafting committees. On 15 Apr. he spoke in the debate on the punishment of Samuel Shepherd*, recommending impeachment. The next day he joined in calls for an address to the King critical of the late ministry, which some took to be an effort to promote himself with the new ministry. He spoke on 5 May against taking £100,000 from the civil list and applying to public uses, and on 3 June, offering advice to the House on the proceedings against the impeached Whig Lords. On the promotion of Sir Thomas Trevor* in June, Powys was one of several lawyers who allegedly ‘put in to be attorney-general’. Listed among those who had opposed making preparations for war with France, he appeared in November as a counsel in the court of King's bench against one of the Kentish Petitioners in a civil case arising out of the Commons' proceedings on the petition.5
Returned for Ludlow again at the general election in December 1701, when he also stood unsuccessfully at Cardigan Boroughs, Powys was listed as supporting the motion of 26 Feb. 1702 vindicating the Commons' impeachments of the Whig ministers. He continued to take an active part in the business of the Commons, introducing a bill in March to oblige Jews to maintain their Protestant children. He also reported the address of thanks to the Queen for her contribution of £100,000 to public uses on 31 Mar., taking the occasion to find fault with the phrase ‘unparalleled goodness’ in the address, as an implied criticism of William III.6
In June 1702 Powys was given office, as prime serjeant. He had gained a reputation in Parliament as well as in the legal profession. William Pittis' poem ‘The Patriots’ (1702), a panegyric on the leaders of the New Country Party, assigned him a place among the foremost orators in the Commons: his eloquence was held to be such that
every period falling from his tongue
reveals a knowledge like his reasons strong.
Defoe, on the other hand, satirized Powys as pompous and long-winded:
in thought profound, and in contrivance vast,
speaks best to every question when ’tis past.7
At the general election in July 1702 Powys was returned at both Truro and Ludlow, choosing to serve for the latter. On 23 Dec. he was appointed to the committee to bring in a qualification bill for MPs, and he was one of the Commons' managers at the 11 Jan. 1703 conference with the Lords over the first occasional conformity bill. In the next session, as a defence counsel for William White in the Aylesbury election case, he appeared before the Lords in December. According to Sir William Trumbull*, Powys and some other Tory MPs, including (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*, John Grobham Howe* and Henry St. John II*, had at about this time formed a ‘secret committee’ in the Commons. On 19 Jan. 1704 Powys and two other members of the ‘committee’ intervened in a debate on a report from the committee of accounts. The report contained allegations against Lord Halifax, but these were not followed up. ‘Mr [John] Howe, desiring notice might be taken how much greater moderation was now used than formerly, Sir Thomas Powys and Mr Solicitor [Harcourt] contributed to the letting it drop’. Six days later, Powys made the opening speech in a debate on the Aylesbury case in a committee of the whole, arguing that the Commons alone had the power to determine election cases.8
Powys seems to have supported the ministry after its reorganisation in 1704. In March he was forecast as a supporter of the government's actions over the Scotch Plot, and at the trial of the Jacobite David Lindsay in April he was one of the prosecuting counsel, together with the attorney- and solicitor-general. Having been listed as a probable opponent of the Tack, he was included on Robert Harley's* lobbying list and was then named among those who voted against the Tack or were absent on 28 Nov. 1704, although he was listed as a ‘Sneaker’ in 1705. He assisted in the prosecution of the Whig newsman John Tutchin in November, and in January he and Solicitor-General Harcourt appeared as counsel for John Grobham Howe in a case arising out of the Gloucestershire election of 1702. Listed as a placeman in 1705, Powys was re-elected that year for Ludlow. His attitude to the contest for the Speakership on 25 Oct. 1705 was one of neutrality: he would vote neither for the Court candidate, the Whig John Smith I, nor for the Tory candidate, William Bromley II, and withdrew from the House before the question was put, being named as absent in the list of the division. But in the debates on the regency bill in December and January he spoke on the Court side, and he voted against the ‘place clause’ on 18 Feb. 1706. In 1707 he subscribed £500 to the Bank annuity loan. On 22 Dec. 1707 he was appointed to a committee to bring in a bill to prevent bribery at elections.9
On th resignation of Harley and his friends in February 1708 Powys reverted to opposition, speaking on 9 Mar. against the cathedrals bill, which was widely recognised as a party cause. On 11 Mar. he was named to the committee to bring in a bill discharging Scotsmen of their obligations to clan chiefs in the event of a rebellion. Classed as a Tory and as a Court Tory in two lists of 1708, Powys was returned once more at Ludlow in May. He does not seem to have been as active in the new Parliament as he had been formerly, but he served on the committee appointed on 29 Jan. 1709 to prepare the bill for improving the Union (the treasons bill), and when the bill was debated on 3 Apr. 1709 he joined various ministerial spokesmen in arguing for its acceptance. In his own words he ‘appeared in Parliament for Dr S[acheverell]’, voting in 1710 against the impeachment, and on 7 May 1710 presented to the Queen an address in Sacheverell's favour from the corporation of Ludlow.10
When Robert Harley returned to power Powys expected advancement. It was said in September 1710 that he was ‘likely to be one of the commissioners of the great seal, and is hearty in the interest of the new ministry’, and there was a rumour that ‘some persons above’ had interposed to settle his difference with Humphrey Walcot* over the impending parliamentary election at Ludlow and to persuade Walcot to withdraw his candidature. Powys wrote to Harley on 16 Oct., putting forward his own claims to higher office:
If Sir Simon Harcourt should take the great seal, I hope you will not wonder at me, if I should desire to be attorney-general, which is a place I could make easy, by wholly applying myself to the execution of that office, and be thereby something freed from the constant attendance at the bar, which I have so long laboured under. I ... hope you will place this freedom of request to the claim I make of some relation, neighbourhood of birth, and above all ... of true friendship and service for you.11
Despite this appeal, Powys remained as prime serjeant. Classed as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’ of the 1710 Parliament, he was one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the first session exposed the mismanagements of the previous ministry. His activities during this session included the management of a bill to prevent bribery at elections, and he was also involved at the drafting stage of eight bills connected with supply. In the next session, in addition to similar involvement in seven more bills, Powys acted as counsel in December 1711 in the Lords for the Duke of Hamilton, who was vainly endeavouring to establish his right to sit in Parliament by virtue of a newly conferred British title. Although unsuccessful, Powys presented the Duke's case with great skill, and dealt with matters so thoroughly that Hamilton's second counsel was left with little to say. He also spoke on the Court side on 24 Jan. 1712 against the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†).12
In September 1712 Powys renewed his request to Harley, now Lord Oxford, for promotion to some greater office. He wrote:
I having some time since unfortunately, and to my very great surprise, received in the House of Commons a public disgrace from a great minister, for whom I had the greatest honour, I soon found the effect of it; for they who judge by outward signs conclude me under the disgust of the present ministry, as I have been under that of the old: and I have accordingly met with such treatment from some persons, as I should not otherwise have had. This hath made me too importunate ... that I might receive some mark of esteem from the government ... and since you were pleased, with very kind expressions, to take notice of it to my brother of the Treasury, I could not forbear giving you this trouble.
His wish was not granted immediately, and he continued his labours in the Commons and elsewhere on behalf of the government. He was one of the prosecuting counsel at the trial for libel of the Whig journalist George Ridpath in February 1713. In May he introduced into the House a bill for the better regulation of the press. Promotion eventually came in June 1713, when he was given a place as a judge of the Queen's bench, alongside his brother Sir Littleton Powys.13
Two months after the accession of George I, he was removed from the bench. In a memorandum sent to the King in August or September 1714 Lord Cowper (William *) had recommended that one of the Powys brother be dismissed. He noted,
The court in which they sat has great influence on corporations. The two brothers generally act, in those matters, in opposition to the Ch[ief] Justice [Sir Thomas Parker*] and Mr J[ustice] Eyre [Robert*], therefore it would be of greater use if any one of their places was supplied by another fit man.
Sir Littleton, the elder brother, is a man of less abilities and consequence, but blameless. Sir Thomas [is] of better abilities, but more culpable; having been attorney-general to the late King James to his abdication, and zealously instrumental in most of the steps which ruined that prince and brought those great dangers on the kingdom. Besides having from that time practised the law with great profit, he lately, when the hopes of the Pretender’s party were raised, laid down his practice of near £4,000 a year to be a judge, not worth £1,500 a year, for no visible reason; but if the Pretender had succeeded he would have made, and that very justly, a merit of this step.
Powys was, however, restored to his rank of King’s serjeant. He returned to his practice at the bar, and did not stand again. He died on 4 Apr. 1719, aged 70, and was buried at Lilford cum Wigsthorpe, where he had purchased an estate in 1711. Matthew Prior* composed a eulogistic epitaph, which described Powys as ‘a charitable patron frequenting the devotions of the church, pleading the cause and relieving the necessities of the poor’ and paid a special tribute to his skill as a lawyer: ‘nothing equalled his knowledge except his eloquence, nothing excelled both except his justice: and whether he was greater as an advocate or a judge was the only cause he left undecided’.14
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. Salop RO, Ludlow bor. recs. adm. of freemen; R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 372.
- 2. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 190; W. R. Williams, Gt. Sess. Wales, 81; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvii. 268; xxix. 137, 347.
- 3. Burnet, iii. 97, 234; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 375-6; State Trials, xi. 1102-5; xii. 183-431; Reresby Mems. ed Browning, 423-4; Ellis Corresp. ii. 3; Clarendon Corresp. ed. Singer, ii. app. xxix; CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 267.
- 4. Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vii. 123-4; State Trials, xiii. 546-649, 1062-1100; xiv. 454-62; Ailesbury Mems. 426; HMC Downshire, ii. 639; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 91-92; 1703-4, p. 456; HMC Lords, n.s. iii. 235-6; iv. 115-17; Luttrell, iv. 388, 589, 619; v. 511; Bodl. Carte 228, f. 253; Bodl. Ballard 10, f. 40.
- 5. Salop RO, Bishop mss, Sir Littleton Powys to Henry Mitton, 26 Dec. 1700, 15 Nov. 1701; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/4, James Lowther* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 1 July 1702; Luttrell, v. 112.
- 6. Cocks Diary, 261.
- 7. Luttrell, v. 187; W. Pittis, The Patriots, 11; Poems on Affairs of State, vii. 123-4.
- 8. HMC Lords, n.s. v. 259-62; HMC Downshire, ii. 817; Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 244; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 239-50.
- 9. State Trials, xiv. 987-1035, 1097-1195; HMC Lords, n.s. vi. 55-57; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 278; Luttrell, v. 512-13; Add. 4743, f. 47; Bull. IHR, xxvii. 23; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 45-46, 59, 61, 65, 67, 71, 78; P. G. M. Dickson, Financial Revol. 267.
- 10. Nicolson Diaries, 461, 494; Add. 70026, f. 163; A Coll. of the Addresses ... Presented to the Queen since the Impeachment of Rev. Henry Sacheverell, i. 23.
- 11. Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 57(4), p. 133; Add. 70263, Salwey Winnington* to Robert Harley, 25 Sept. 1710; HMC Portland, iv. 614-15.
- 12. Cobbett, vi. 1021-3; HMC Lords, n.s. ix. 173; Burnet, v. 86-87; Boyer, Pol. State, iii. 244; BL, Trumbull Add. mss 136, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull, 25 Jan. 1712.
- 13. HMC Portland, v. 220; Boyer, v. 99.
- 14. Campbell, Lives, ix. 349–50; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxxi. 9–10; Bodl. Hearne’s diaries 138, ff. 73–75.