LAURENCE, French (1757-1809), of Doctors' Commons, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



26 Oct. 1796 - 27 Feb. 1809

Family and Education

b. 3 Apr. 1757, 1st s. of Richard Laurence, watchmaker, of Bath, Som. by Elizabeth, da. of John French, clothier, of Warminster, Wilts. educ. Winchester 1769; Corpus. Oxf. 1774, BA 1777, MA 1781, DCL 1787; I. Temple 1785. unm. suc. fa. 1773.

Offices Held

Adv. Doctors’ Commons 1788; judge of ct. of admiralty, Cinque Ports 1791-d.; regius professor of civil law, Oxf. Univ. July 1796-d.; chancellor, diocese of Oxf. 1797-d.


Dr Laurence’s parents were natives of Warminster, but his father’s family came from Lancashire and his mother’s from Galway. His father was a member of the corporation of Bath, where his widowed mother later kept a boarding house. Intended for the church, Laurence, whose younger brother Richard became archbishop of Cashel, preferred legal studies and became the most eminent civilian of his day. After writing squibs for the Whigs at Sheridan’s instigation at the Westminster election of 1784 and contributing to the Rolliad, he confirmed his reputation as an invaluable partisan as chamber counsel to the prosecution in the trial of Warren Hastings. Tribute was paid him publicly by Fox on 6 June 1788 for his services, which were also engaged by the Whigs during the Regency crisis. They not only multiplied his practice in the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts, but gained him the firm friendship and ‘implied adoption’ of Burke, whom he succeeded as editor of the Annual Register and whose disciple, editor, sworn avenger and literary executor he became. In August 1791, curiously, he had thoughts of canvassing to become counsel to the East India Company; but with no more prospect of success than he had the year before, in competition with William Scott*, for the mastership of faculties in the province of Canterbury.1

Laurence acted as Burke’s intermediary with the Duke of Portland when Burke gave offence by his denunciation of the new Whigs, August 1791, and again when the duke was involved in an abortive negotiation with government in August 1792. After seven years’ membership, he resigned from the Whig Club with Burke, 28 Feb. 1793. In 1794 when Burke’s son Richard was offered a vacant seat at Malton by Earl Fitzwilliam, Burke wished Laurence to have it if Richard declined, as a reward for his services in Hastings’s trial; when Richard Burke accepted it, but died soon afterwards, Burke again pressed Laurence’s claims, in vain.2 He was disappointed, feeling that the time was now ripe for him to take a share ‘in the national counsels’. Portland, who had commissioned Laurence to publicize his differences with Fox on the expediency of reform in December 1792, subsequently offered to provide him with a seat, but he declined, preferring a ‘small place’ at Oxford. At one time he wished to be the vice-chancellor’s assessor. In 1796 Portland secured him a regius professorship worth £40 p.a. Soon afterwards Fitzwilliam, prompted by Burke, who had asked for Malton for him, 7 Jan. 1796, on the report of a vacancy, offered him a seat at Peterborough.

He had meantime been looking for one himself and accepted it, considering ‘the entrance into Parliament as the most important event of a man’s life’. He was rather disturbed at switching patrons and insisted on obtaining Portland’s blessing (which he received), but realized that his views coincided more with Fitzwilliam’s than with Portland’s; to the former he professed himself the would-be ‘inveterate enemy of innovation’, especially of parliamentary reform, a critic of the pretensions of the dissenting sects and a supporter of government against sedition. He hinted that much as he would like to give ‘an honourable assistance’ to opposition, no better administration than Pitt’s was likely to materialize at present, and although he denied himself the first rank in his profession under their auspices, he could not help regretting that Fitzwilliam and Portland had parted company as he wished to see a popular aristocratic party in power. He pledged himself to consult Burke and Fitzwilliam at every step. Fitzwilliam reminded him that he did not think present ministers the only fit ones to carry on the war with France, and asked him not to oppose the Quaker relief bill, which he had intended to do. On the eve of taking his seat he informed his patron, ‘My purpose is to place myself in some quiet corner of the House, rather on the ministerial side, and not regularly attend the ordinary business, that I may not appear a certain pledged supporter’.3

On 14 Dec. 1796, Laurence gave what he called his ‘first serious vote’, for Fox’s motion against the imperial loan: he regarded it as ‘a sort of judicial sentence ... declaratory of the doctrines of the constitution’ and added ‘I am most proud to be seen in your train ... [though] ... I may ... a little deviate’. He was soon regarded as Fitzwilliam’s mouthpiece, though he found few opportunities to speak at first. On 31 Dec. 1796 he gave notice of a portentous sounding motion on war and peace inspired by the prospect of negotiations with France: Burke approved it and Laurence reported 3 Jan. 1797, ‘I was promised 16 staunch men, if I would give a good knock both at ministry and opposition’. He wished rather to encourage ministers than otherwise, but soon found himself subject to unwelcome overtures from the ‘third party’ instigated by Sir William Pulteney* and in a disagreement on policy between Fitzwilliam and William Windham. He could not find a seconder, in any case. Disliking the Pitt-Fox confrontation, he resolved, 24 Feb. 1797, ‘to keep a check over the two contending parties’, a decision which made it virtually impossible for him to take any initiative in the House.4

Laurence followed his patron’s wishes in supporting all Whig motions critical of the government’s Irish policy and this was another field in which he had an ambition to shine. In other respects, however, he was more favourable to ministers. His first major speech was against Fox’s motion for an inquiry into the stoppage of Bank payments, 1 Mar. 1797. On 13 Mar. he opposed Harrison’s motion for economical reform, which he denied was consonant with Burke’s views, and digressed with a justification of the war against France, perhaps the burden of his frustrated motion on the subject, which had been scheduled for 6 Mar.: he hoped in vain to resurrect it. On 18 May he opposed St. John’s motion for the recall of troops from St. Domingo, as it would expose the trade of the West Indies to the enemy. This earned him Portland’s gratitude and he became chancellor of the diocese of Oxford. He opposed Sinclair’s amendment in favour of peace, 10 Nov. 1797, attempting, so he informed his patron, ‘to talk a language of vigour’. He was gratified to find that he was no longer regarded as ‘a bad brass and leaden counterfeit of poor Burke’s inimitable currency’.5 On 3 Jan. 1798, despite private reservations, he defended the assessed taxes as ‘both wise and expedient’. In April he confided to Windham that he wished to promote a loyal parliamentary association, like that of William III’s reign, drawing in the opposition: but nothing came of it. After acting as intermediary in Fitzwilliam’s acceptance of the lord lieutenancy of the West Riding, Laurence was offered judicial office, but declined it: Fitzwilliam praised his ‘sacrifice’ as ‘no slight one’, 25 Sept. 1798.6 On 31 Jan. 1799 he made a weighty speech against union with Ireland, and on 11 Feb., ‘at a hapless hour’, tried the House’s patience with a long account of the difference between the union with Scotland and this plan. Woodfall, the parliamentary reporter, who realized that the ‘gravity and weight of his manner were not extremely well calculated to captivate a popular assembly greatly made up of young auditors’, took advantage of his acquaintance to get the second speech from him, ‘drop by drop, as if it had been the distillation of vital blood’, for publication: he was aware that Laurence spoke ‘as the agent of a sorely-feeling superior’. When he next attacked the Union, he was cried down, 21 Apr. 1800. The admission of 100 Irish Members, including 20 placemen, particularly irked him: he therefore supported Grey’s motion critical of it, 25 Apr., and on 2 May ‘prayed Almighty God that it might never pass’. On 5 May he tried in vain to secure a reduction of the Irish representation. A firm friend of Catholic relief, he also complained that the Union did nothing to assist it, 23 June. On 2 Feb. 1801 he supported Grey’s amendment to the address, deprecating the prospect of a ‘rash war’ with the Baltic powers, since he doubted the validity of the right of search of neutral vessels, and indicating that he no longer agreed with Pitt’s war policy. He had already hinted at this with his vote for inquiry into the expedition to Holland, 10 Feb. 1800. Fox began to have hopes of Laurence and urged his lieutenant Grey to cultivate him.7

Laurence was in opposition to Addington’s ministry. He opposed coercion in Ireland, 12 Mar. and 27 May, and attacked the habeas corpus indemnity bill, 11 June 1801. On 4 Nov. he joined Windham and Elliot in attacking Addington’s peace preliminaries as disadvantageous and precarious. The Duchess of Devonshire’s friend James Hare* travestied this performance:

Dr Laurence to the great and natural terror of all present rose to speak at 3 o’clock and upon not being listened to said that ‘nothing earthly nor scarcely anything heavenly should’—upon which a general laugh—he then said ‘scarcely a divine revelation’, upon which so much noise that he gave up the point.

By another account, he was ‘patiently heard’. He certainly called on an unprepared prime minister to justify himself. After a further onslaught by Laurence on 19 Jan. 1802, Tierney became anxious about him: ‘Dr Laurence appears loaded up to his ugly muzzle and will I am persuaded—if the treaty does not come soon—go off at half cock and do Lord Hawkesbury a mischief’. This happened on 3 Mar. Laurence and William Elliot* were labelled ‘the two Tartars of Tibet’ by the Moniteur. He thought it ‘good for the country to have something of an opposition’, so he informed his patron, 25 Jan. 1802, and he believed it was time for ‘parties of principles, not persons’: a good reason for keeping aloof from Pitt and Fox (the latter’s visit to France disgusted him). He voted for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 31 Mar. 1802, and was a diehard opponent of the peace treaty, 14 May. He was a shareholder in and contributor to Cobbett’s Weekly Register, a sounding board for the views of the ‘war committee’, as Thomas Jones* called them.8 In December 1802 he noted sarcastically that ministers were ‘suddenly changing their pacific aspect’; but he repeatedly blamed them that session for want of military preparedness, echoing Windham’s views; voted for Patten’s censure motion, 3 June, for Fox’s of 2 Aug., and on 5 Aug. surpassed himself by proposing a solemn address in Parliament ‘to the Almighty Being’ for assistance. After acknowledging the need for martial law in Ireland, 28 July, Laurence turned against it, 5 Dec., and subsequently supported Wrottesley’s motion for an inquiry into the insurrection there, 7 Mar. 1804. By then he had approved and joined the ‘concert of opposition’ against government9 and was active in the debates on the volunteer consolidation bill, in which he seconded Windham’s attacks on the volunteers, objecting not least to the ‘democratic’ tendencies of volunteer organization. He opposed the immediate abolition of the slave trade, 7 June 1804.

He opposed Pitt’s second ministry and on 6 July 1804 joined Brooks’s Club. He was particularly critical of war with Spain, which he found unjustified by the law of nations, 12 Feb. 1805. On 26 June he was appointed to the committee to draw up Melville’s impeachment. It was in this session that he first concentrated his attention on Indian affairs, but he had lost much of his zest: writing to his patron, 31 Dec. 1805, he professed himself weary of public life and willing to give up his seat to Lord Milton, who would soon be of age.10

When the Grenville administration was formed, Windham tried to secure office for him either as King’s advocate or as judge advocate-general; but Sir John Nicholl* retained the former and Nathaniel Bond* had been earmarked for the latter appointment. Laurence did not mind the latter, as he preferred a secure office free from royal interference. Windham was in despair and suggested (4 Feb. 1806) a lordship of the Admiralty instead. Lord Grenville objected: ‘surely a civilian in full practice, and in possession of the whole business of his court, would be not a little misplaced at the board of Admiralty to the exclusion of so many of those, of all parties, who are naturally chosen for the situation’. Laurence himself jibbed at ‘a mere seat at the board’.11 When in June 1806 there was talk of Bond resigning and Windham and Fitzwilliam again pressed his claims, Lord Grenville revealed that he meant to induce Bond to stay; nor could he approve Laurence now, as he had taken ‘so very forward and strong a part in countenancing what I consider a very unjust proceeding against a most meritorious public servant’. This referred to Laurence’s repeated support for Paull’s attack on the conduct of the Marquess Wellesley in India, which culminated in his demanding an impeachment, 8 May, and stating on 20 May that ‘it was necessary that that enormous mass of corruption that had been carried on in India, should be sifted and exposed’. His obsession with Burke had induced him to see in Wellesley another Warren Hastings. In the first week of the ministry, he had absented himself from the debate on Cornwallis’s services in India, lest it come to a division; on 21 Apr. 1806 he supported the minority on Indian affairs. His pique at being excluded from judicial office may have contributed: certainly in July, by which time it was clear that Bond would not resign, he was eager to suggest new judicial offices, such as assessorships to the prize and plantation courts, which might facilitate an appointment for him. He explained to his patron, 12 July,

Were I the assessor in the supreme court, or judge of the Admiralty, I should certainly wish, during war, not to be in the House of Commons, or at least to take no busy part there; as King’s advocate, I should feel it proper to take as active a part as might be desired.

Nothing came of this and more was heard from Laurence on the need for justice to the people of India, until illness silenced him throughout the winter.12

On the fall of the Grenville ministry, Laurence rallied to opposition, 9 Apr. 1807. He offered to raise £8,000 from his investments in support of Fitzwilliam’s son in the Yorkshire election. He had been willing to give up his seat to Windham, who lacked one after the election of 1807, but his patron would not consider it, having likewise refused to do so during Laurence’s illness earlier in the year to accommodate George Ponsonby.13 Laurence defended the measures of the outgoing administration and was prominent, though not effective, in the attacks on the Copenhagen expedition and the orders in council in February and March 1808. His speech on Copenhagen was considered canting, 21 Mar., and coughed down: he said he wished ‘the conduct of ministers could be drowned for ever and blotted out of the memory of mankind by such noise as this’. He remained unrepentant, however, in his vendetta with the Marquess Wellesley, 17 June 1808. The state of his health disqualified him from the next session. He died 27 Feb. 1809. Whitbread paid tribute to him in the House on 6 Mar.

Laurence, according to Earl Fitzwilliam, had ‘a mind capable of everything’ and ‘full of rectitude, he never looked askew’. Windham’s view was that ‘Laurence was such a repository of all Burke’s history and opinions, as well as the representative of so much of his virtues and powers, that while Laurence remained we did not seem to have wholly lost Burke’. He must, however, have been a colossal bore: Pitt thought him ‘tedious and heavy in debate’ and believed that ‘a fourth part of his speech is generally well attended to’. Homer referred in February 1805 to

the darkness and turbidness of Dr Laurence, who would fairly have talked his audience to death, if they had not coughed him to silence; his expectoration ... was dreadful to the hearer, but seemed to be full of knowledge and sense and acuteness, as I have always found him whenever I have had self-command sufficient to listen.

Lord Glenbervie described him as ‘a sort of dinner bell to the great majority of the House, even of those of his own party’. Brougham stated that Laurence had ‘the very worst delivery ever witnessed’: his uncouth manner and shark’s mouth did not predispose his audience in his favour, and his ‘elaborate mirth’ was to be compared to ‘the gambling of the elephant ... it was Hemsterhuysius emerging into polished life, with the dust of many libraries upon him, to make the circle gay’. Undoubtedly, Laurence’s value to the Whigs lay in his great fund of information, on which they all drew: if they seemed to do so grudgingly, it was because (in Sir Gilbert Elliot’s view)

though a very clever man, with more information than anybody, he is not a famous articulator, and it is difficult to catch all he says. His conversation is like a learned manuscript written in a bad hand.14

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Poetical Remains (ed. Cotton), 1872, preface; Minto, i. 251; R. Laurence’s preface to his edition of Burke’s Epistolary Corresp. with French Laurence (1827); Broughton, Recollections, i. 200; Portland mss PwF6239; NLS mss 11150, f. 85.
  • 2. Portland mss PwF6240-1; Burke Corresp. vi. 418; vii. 178, 353, 553, 574; NLS mss 11138, f. 79.
  • 3. Burke Corresp. vii. 320; viii. 367; ix. 74, 77, 80; Portland mss PwF6245, 6248-9, 6251; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 6, 13 Sept.; Fitzwilliam mss, X515/4, Fitzwilliam to Laurence, Wed. [Nov.]; box 50, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 5, [19] Nov. 1796.
  • 4. Burke Corresp. ix. 228, 238, 242, 250, 252, 270, 275, 293, 296; Fitzwilliam mss, box 50, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 15, 31 Dec. 1796; box 51, same to same, 3 Jan., 31 Jan., 24 Feb., 22 Apr. 1797; Epistolary Corresp. 179. Laurence’s intended motion on war and peace is in Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F32/79 (16 pp.).
  • 5. Portland mss PwF6254, 6256; Fitzwilliam mss, box 51, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 26 Nov., 7 Dec. 1797.
  • 6. Sidmouth mss, Laurence to Addington, 16 Dec. 1797; Add. 37877, f. 302; Fitzwilliam mss, box 53 passim; box 54, Fitzwilliam to Laurence, 25 Sept. 1798.
  • 7. Auckland Jnl. iv. 89; Add. 47565, ff. 5, 16.
  • 8. Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire jnl. 5 Nov. 1801; Colchester, i. 377; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 19 Feb.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 60, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 25 Jan., 2 Mar., 25 Sept., 15 Nov.; Spencer mss, Grenville to Spencer, 5 Jan. 1802.
  • 9. Fitzwilliam mss, box 64, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 4 Feb. 1804.
  • 10. Ibid. box 67, same to same, 31 Dec. 1805.
  • 11. Add. 37847, ff. 3-5; 37883, f. 56; HMC Fortescue, viii. 12; Windham Pprs. ii. 285.
  • 12. HMC Fortescue, viii. 171-5, 179, 186; Add. 37847, f. 73; Fitzwilliam mss, box 69, Laurence to Fitzwilliam 11, [12] July 1806.
  • 13. Fitzwilliam mss, box 72, Laurence to Fitzwilliam [3 May]; Grey mss, Fitzwilliam to Howick, 7 Apr., Howick to Ponsonby, 24 Apr. 1807; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F48/18.
  • 14. Add. 37888, f. 120; Sidmouth mss, Windham to Sidmouth, 20 July 1809; Farington, iii. 14; Horner Mems. i. 285; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 170; Brougham, Hist. Sketches (ser. 2), i. 102; Minto, i. 139.