English lawyer and statesman
Born 1812 Died 1895
Roundell Palmer was born at Mixbury in the county of Oxford, on the 27th of November 1812. His father was rector of the parish: his grandfather and great-grandfather were merchants in the City of London, where their descendants for a long while continued to be influential people; his mother belonged to the family of Roundell, which had been settled for four centuries in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was educated at Rugby and at Winchester, and in 1830 went into residence in the university of Oxford as a scholar of Trinity College. Here he lived in intimacy with many friends, especially P. C. Claughton and Charles Wordsworth. In 1834 he took a first class in Literae Humaniores; he won the Eldon scholarship and was elected to a fellowship at Magdalen College; and after a year, spent chiefly in private tuition, partly in Lord Winchilsea's house and partly in the university, he removed to London (November 1835) and commenced reading for the bar.
He was called to the bar on the 7th of June 1837, the same day on which John Rolt (1804-1871), a man of very different antecedents, but afterwards a worthy rival of Palmer, was also called. Through his family connexions in the City of London, clients soon came to Palmer's chambers, and his business at the Chancery bar increased rapidly. Meanwhile his interests were not wholly confined to law: for some time (1840-1843) he wrote for The Times and the British Critic; he made a plunge into patristic learning, from which he soon recoiled; he was much interested in the controversies which distracted the Church on the subject of Tract 90; in the treatment of the Episcopal Church in Canada by the Canadian government and the Colonial Office; in the establishment by the crown, in conjunction with the king of Prussia, of the Jerusalem bishopric; and in the contest for the professorship of poetry at Oxford on Keble's retirement.
In 1847, and again in 1853, Palmer was returned as member of Parliament for Plymouth, as a Peelite, and in the House of Commons he took an active and independent part. He advocated the admission of Jews to parliament; he opposed Lord John Russell's measure to repel the so-called papal aggression; he opposed the admission of Dissenters into the university of Oxford; and he was hostile to the action of the government in the Crimean War. On the question of the reform of the university of Oxford, he sympathized with the reformers, but felt himself prohibited, by the oaths which he had taken, from assuming any active part. In 1855 he supported Gladstone in the efforts to bring about peace with Russia before the capture of Sebastopol; in 1856 he opposed the opening of museums on Sunday; in the following year he supported Cobden in his disapproval of the second opium war with China.
At the general election on March 1857, Palmer, finding that the independent part he had taken, especially in reference to the Chinese question, had alienated from him many of his constituents in Plymouth, abandoned the prospect of re-election for that borough, and did not seek for election elsewhere. In 1848 he married Lady Laura Waldegrave, daughter of Earl Waldegrave. In 1849 he had become a Q.C.; and in 1851 he took his seat in the Rolls Court, where he soon obtained a leading practice, and was engaged in many of the most important cases in the Court of Chancery. In July 1861 he accepted from Lord Palmerston the office of solicitor-general, a knighthood, and a safe seat for the borough of Richmond in Yorkshire, secured for him through the friendly action of Lord Zetland, and thus began the second spell of Palmer's membership of the House of Commons, which continued till his elevation to the woolsack and the peerage. In September 1863 he became attorney-general, and so continued till the government of which he was a member resigned in 1866.
The Civil War in America, and the questions which arose from the relations of Great Britain with both belligerents, rendered the duties of the law officers of the crown more than usually onerous, and Palmer was called upon to take part, as adviser of the ministry, in the courts, and in the House, in the questions which arose in respect of the Trent and the Peterhoff, the cruisers Alabama and Florida and the Alexandra, a ship which was seized by the government, and other matters. In 1865 he took a large part in the passing of the act under which all the law courts were gathered together in the Strand. In 1866 he expressed himself favourable to the making of household suffrage the basis of representation, an expression of opinion which probably influenced the Reform Bill of the following year - in the discussions on which Palmer took a prominent part, and especially in opposition to the so-called "fancy franchises" originally proposed by its authors. In the same year he took part in supporting the measure for the abolition of compulsory Church rates.
In 1868 occurred an event of great importance in his career. In April of that year Gladstone proposed his resolutions with reference to the Irish Church on which the bill for its disestablishment was subsequently based. This measure was opposed to many of the dearest beliefs and feelings of Palmer, and he evidenced his disapproval by abstaining from voting on the resolutions. At the election of November 1868 Palmer was again returned for Richmond, and Gladstone offered him the office of Lord Chancellor or the office of a lord justice with a peerage; both offers were declined by Palmer, and he assumed a position of independent opposition to the measure relative to the Irish Church. On the 22nd of March 1869 he delivered a very powerful speech against the second reading of the bill, and during its later stages exercised a considerable influence in modifying the severity of its provisions. The position of Palmer at this time was very remarkable. The foremost advocate at the bar, he was known to have declined the highest prize in the profession rather than promote a measure of which he disapproved; a very prominent member of the House of Commons, whose action had been more than usually independent of party, he had separated himself from his political friends and maintained a position as the dignified and forcible opponent of disestablishment. Without office and without combination with the Conservative Opposition, he exercised great influence within and without the walls of St Stephen's. What made his position the more remarkable was that he was frequently consulted by the government which he had declined to join, and that on some occasions they invoked the assistance which his great influence in the House enabled him to afford to them.
In 1869 he sought to modify rather than to oppose the bill for the abolition of tests in the universities. In 1870 he gave a qualified support to Gladstone's first Irish Land Act, and in the same year he supported Forster's Education Act. In 1872 he undertook the defence of his friend Lord Chancellor Hatherley, when attacked for his appointment of Sir Robert Collier to the judicial committee of the Privy Council, and, by a line of argument more ingenious than convincing, secured a majority for the government.
The treaty of Washington was the means of casting a great duty upon Palmer. After the conclusion of the Civil War in America very large claims were preferred against Great Britain for alleged breaches of her duty as a neutral power; and after long negotiations, England and the United States agreed to arbitration. Palmer, who had been advising the British government during these negotiations, and who (4th August 1871) had defended the treaty in the House of Commons, was briefed on behalf of Great Britain. In the end the Geneva tribunal made an award requiring the payment by Great Britain to the United States of a sum of about £3,000,000. To those who, in order to promote the cause of international arbitration, are desirous of acquiring a knowledge of the dangers and difficulties which beset this mode of settling disputes, the account which Palmer has left of his part in this arbitration may be commended.
In September 1872 Gladstone again offered him the great seal, which Lord Hatherley had resigned; in the same year he took up his residence in his newly erected house at Blackmoor, in the parish of Selborne, in the county of Hampshire, from which he took his new title as a peer. In the following year (1873) Lord Selborne carried through parliament the Judicature Act. The foundations of this measure were laid so long ago as February 1867, when Palmer had moved for a royal commission on the constitution of the courts, and had taken an active part in the work of that commission, of which the first report was made in 1869. The result of this act of 1873 was to effect a fundamental change in the judicature system. By the operation of the Judicature Act one supreme court with several divisions was constituted; each division could administer the whole law; the conflict of divergent systems of law was largely overcome by declaring that when they were at variance, the principles of equity should prevail over the doctrines of the common law. The details of this great change were embodied in a code of general rules prepared by a committee of judges, over which Lord Selborne for two years presided week by week, with unfaltering attention to the minutest detail. "If," wrote Lord Selborne in his memoirs, speaking of the Judicature Act of 1873, "I leave any monument behind me which will bear the test of time, it may be this."
It is impossible to separate this fusion of law and equity, this union of all the higher courts into one supreme tribunal, from the construction of a single home for this great institution; and the opening of the Royal Courts in the Strand in the year 1882, when Queen Victoria personally presided in her one supreme court, and handed over the care of the building to Lord Selborne, as her chancellor and as the head of this great body, was impressive as an outward and visible sign of the silent revolution, which owed more to Lord Selborne than to any other individual. To the student of the natural history of jurisprudence the fusion of the two systems of law and equity may well recall a similar result brought about in Imperial Rome; to the student of British institution, the supreme court, for once presided. over in person by the sovereign, could not but recall the Aula Regia, where the Norman kings sat amid their counsellors before equity had arisen to correct law, and before the separation between the three great common law courts had begun. A small incident may illustrate the novelty of the assemblage of the one great court on that day. The queen, on the prayer of the attorney-general, ordered that the proceedings of the day should be recorded, an order which caused a momentary embarrassment to the Lord Chancellor, as the court had no existing registrar, and no existing book in which the record should be made. On the occasion of the opening of the Royal Courts Lord Selborne received an earldom.
The year 1885 was marked in Lord Selborne's life by the death of his wife, and by his final separation from the party of which Gladstone was the acknowledged leader. That statesman had in the latter part of the year indicated his leaning towards the disestablishment of the Church of England, and towards Home Rule for Ireland. Both these leanings were opposed to the deepest convictions of Lord Selborne; and it was an inevitable result that when in January 1886 Gladstone resumed office as premier, Lord Selborne should not be again his chancellor: on the 30th of January in that year they parted for ever; and Lord Selborne felt that his public life, except so far as he might serve his country by voice or pen, was now over. But neither his courage nor his industry forsook him; and he found, in opposing the new views of his old colleague, ample scope for both voice and pen; and as a member of the House of Lords he continued almost to the last to take part in hearing and deciding appeals, and sometimes in the ordinary business of the House.
In addressing the electors of Midlothian in September 1885, Gladstone had suggested the severance of the Church of England from the state as a subject on which the foundation of discussion had already been laid, and he averred the existence of "a current almost throughout the civilized world, slowly setting in the direction of disestablishment." Such an utterance from such a man greatly excited the hopes of Nonconformists, who had previously published a manifesto under the title of The Case for Disestablishment. This stirring of the question deeply moved Lord Selborne, who was strongly opposed alike to disestablishment and disendowment, and in the following year, 1886, he published a work entitled A Defence of the Church of England against Disestablishment, with an introductory letter addressed to Gladstone. In the introductory letter he criticized Gladstone's pronouncement on the subject, and especially examined the allegation of a general tendency towards disestablishment in the civilized world at large, and arrived at a negative conclusion. In the body of the book the learned author treated of the history of the English Church, its endowments and the case of the advocates of disestablishment. The work is throughout characterized by an abundant supply of learning and of information as to the history and the state of the Church of England at that time, and by great dialectical acuteness. It is a powerful defence as well as a valuable summary of the history of the established Church in England.
In 1888 Lord Selborne published a second work on the Church question, entitled Ancient Facts and Fallacies concerning Churches and Tithes, in which he examined more critically than in his earlier book the developments of early ecclesiastical institutions, both on the continent of Europe and in Anglo-Saxon England, which resulted in the formation of the modern parochial system and its general endowment with tithes. A second edition of this work, embodying the result of its author's subsequent researches in the Vatican library and elsewhere, was published in the year 1892. A perusal of these books will show with how wide a range of investigation and with what care Lord Selborne prepared himself for the discussion of these ecclesiastical questions which deeply stirred him. But Lord Selborne did not carry on his opposition to Gladstone's proposals only in his library or by his pen; in the year 1886-1887 he travelled to many parts of the country, and addressed meetings in defence of the union between the Church and state and against Home Rule; and in September 1893, in his eighty-first year, he addressed a powerful speech to the House of Lords in opposition to the Home Rule Bill.
Lord Selborne's health had, with the exception of two collapses in 1883 and 1888, which appear to have been due to overwork, continued excellent till February 1895, when he was attacked by influenza. He died on the 4th of May 1895 at his seat in Hampshire, full of years and of honours.
To the subject of university education Lord Selborne at different times in his life gave much time and attention. As a fellow of Magdalen College, he had been desirous of changes which he felt himself bound by his oath from advocating; and he had taken part in the discussions on the abolition of tests in the old universities. He gave much time and attention to his duties as chairman of the second Oxford commission under the act of 1876; in 1878 he filled the office of lord rector of the university of St Andrews; and in the following year he presided over a commission on the subject of university education in London.
Lord Selborne's literary labours included the publication in 1862 of a selection of hymns, under the title of The Book of Praise, a work in which he was greatly assisted by Daniel Sedgwick (1814-1879), a bookseller and publisher in the city of London. The work was characterized by the great pains taken to ascertain the true authorship of hymns which were either anonymous or attributed to those who had not composed them, and by a like effort to exclude all variations grafted on the original language, and to give the hymns "in the genuine uncorrupted text of the authors themselves." In the course of his labours as editor of this volume he was struck by the unity which was presented by Christian hymnody, "binding together by the force of a common attraction, more powerful than all causes of difference, times ancient and modern, nations of various race and language, Churchmen and Nonconformists, Churches reformed and unreformed" (Preface). In the same field of literature Lord Selborne further laboured by the publication of another collection called The Book of Praise Hymnal; a contribution to an edition of Bishop Ken's hymns; a paper on English Church Hymnody at a Church Congress; and the article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on 'Hymns', which was republished as a separate volume in 1892.
During the last few years of his life Lord Selborne engaged in the composition, for the benefit of his children, of memorials of his own life and of the lives of many members of his family. These Memorials, Part I., Family and Personal, in 2 vols., which were published in 1896, Memorials, Part II., Personal and Political, also in 2 vols., were edited by his daughter, Lady Sophia Palmer, and published in 1898. In the years 1880-1881 Lord Selborne wrote to his son a series of letters on religious subjects, dealing in an elementary way with natural and revealed religion, the inspiration of the Bible and Biblical criticism. These were published in 1898, under the title of Letters to His Son on Religion, by Roundell, First Earl of Selborne.
In person Lord Selborne was of about the average height: his manners when among strangers were somewhat reserved; his style, both in speaking and writing, was fluent, tending to diffuseness; his oratory was marked by uniform good sense and lucidity, both of arrangement and language; and if he never reached the highest level of oratorical excellence, he never descended to what was commonplace or irrelevant. As a judge, whether in the Supreme Court or in the House of Lords, he displayed high qualities: he was patient, courteous, logical and learned, and his judgments contain many valuable expositions of the principles of law. The fusion of law and equity, the reorganization of the whole judicial system of England, and the association of all the supreme tribunals in one common home were works of no ordinary magnitude or importance, and give a character of unusual importance to his chancellorship.
That Lord Selborne was a truly religious man it is impossible to doubt: his whole life was regulated and inspired by a sense of his duty towards God and his fellowmen, and a long life spent amid the temptations of legal and public life left not the faintest stain on his memory. He was a devout member of the Church of England, to which he looked up with unstinted affection and reverence; and he found in its service and formularies an adequate satisfaction for all his religious feelings. He belonged to the High Church school, which was influenced by the teaching of Newman and Pusey and the Oxford teachers of their day; but he by no means slavishly followed them. With the later High Church movement, usually described as Ritualism, he had less sympathy. His life was prosperous, for from his first prize at the university till his acquisition of an earldom, he went on a course of almost unbroken success. He had the double dignity of having refused the highest prize in his profession for conscience' sake, and of having accepted that dignity without loss of consistency; in his life he acquired a high reputation and the sincere admiration of his fellowmen, as well as an abundant fortune and ample titular distinctions. His life was also happy, for he had pleasure in his work, he loved and was loved by his wife and children; he had a strong constitution, and retained his bodily and mental powers to the last; his faith in the religion of his youth was unshaken to the end; and he lived throughout his long life with the consciousness of rectitude. (E. F.)
Being the entry for SELBORNE, ROUNDELL PALMER, 1ST EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.