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JOHN SOMERS was born, as it is supposed, in the year 1650, at White Ladies, an ancient mansion which had formerly been a monastery, in the city of Worcester. The family of Somers was respectable, and had long possessed an estate at Clifton, in the parish of Severnstoke, in Gloucestershire. Admiral Sir George Somers, who discovered the Bermudas or Somers Islands, was a branch of the same family. John Somers, the father of Lord Somers, was an attorney, and during the civil war espoused the cause of the parliament, and commanded a troop of horse under Cromwell. His zeal is said to have been such, that after in vain endeavouring to persuade the clergyman of Severnstoke to desist from haranguing in his pulpit in favour of the king, he fired a pistol over his head, the ball of which lodged in the sounding board. The mother of Lord Somers was Catherine Ceavern, a lady of a Shropshire family.
In his infancy Lord Somers was placed under the care of his aunt, Mrs. Mary Blurton, with whom he principally resided till his removal to the university. His earliest education was received at the college school. He was also for some time a pupil at a private school at Walsall, in Staffordshire. Of his character, at this time, some idea may be formed from a narrative preserved amongst the MSS. of Dr. Birch : “ The account of his behaviour at school I had many years ago from a schoolfellow. I think Walsall, in Staffordshire, was the place where they learned their grammar together. I remember well his account of Johnny Somers being a weakly boy, wearing a black cap, and never so much as looking out when they were at play,” &c.* Of the manner in
* Seward's Anecdotes, vol. ii. p. 114.
which young Somers employed his time after the conclusion of his school education, and until he went to the university, which was not until he was twenty-four year of age, no account has been given. It has been supposed by some, that he was destined by his father to his own branch of the profession, and that this period was passed in his father's office. Whatever his destination at this time may have been, his hours must have been well employed, in the acquisition of those accomplishments by which he was afterwards distinguished. In the year 1672, he formed an acquaintance with the young earl of Shrewsbury, who resided for some time at White Ladies. He had the good fortune also to attract the attention of the solicitor-general, Sir Francis Winnington; and it was probably owing to the encouragement which he received from these friends, that he formed the intention of devoting himself to the bar.
In the year 1675 Somers entered as a commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, being then in his twenty-fourth year. It does not appear that either at school or at the university, though distinguished by a quickness of parts, he exhibited any proof of those extraordinary talents which might have led to the prognostication of his future eminence. But his character, even at this early age, was such as to inspire no common respect. His father, we are told, was accustomed to visit London during the terms, and, on his way, usually left his horse at the George Inn, at Acton, where he often mentioned “his hopeful son at the Temple.” The landlord, one day, in reply to these panegyrics, said, “Why don't you let us see him, sir ? ” and accordingly Mr. Somers requested his son to accompany him as far as Acton, on his return home; but on his arrival at the George, taking the landlord aside, he said, “ I have brought him, Cobbet ; but you must not talk to him as you do to me: he will not suffer such fellows as you in his company.” *
On the 5th of May, 1676, Mr. Somers was called to the bar, though he continued to reside at the university
* Life of Lord Somers, p. 11.
for a considerable period afterwards. During this time, much of his attention must have been devoted to the study of constitutional history, of his accurate acquaintance with which he soon gave the world an opportunity of judging. His first literary performance is said to have been the report of an election case—The memorable Case of Denzil Onslow, Esq., tried at the Assizes in Surrey, July the 20th, 1681, touching his Election at Haslemere, in Surrey, wherein is much good Matter and Direction touching the due ordering of Elections for Parliament.* The next work in which Mr. Somers engaged was of greater importance, not only on account of the public interest with which the subject was regarded, but from the learning and research which it displayed. The nation was at this time distracted by the question respect. ing the exclusion of James, Duke of York, from the succession. On the one hand, the Whigs, and all those who dreaded the principles, both in politics and religion, which the duke was known to entertain, sought to exclude him from the throne; while, on the other, the king, the lovers of prerogative, and the adherents of the church of Rome, resisted, with all their energy, a measure which not only recognised a power in the country superior to that of the crown, and at variance with every notion of absolute hereditary right, but which would deprive them of a sovereign suited, in all respects, to the accomplishment of their own peculiar views. While this subject was undergoing the warmest discussion, both within and without the walls of parliament, Mr. Somers resolved to do his part towards enlightening the public mind, by a full and clear exposition of the principles by which the succession to the crown had, from the earliest periods of our history, been governed. This tract he published under the title of A brief History of the Succession, collected out of the Records and the most authentic Historians, written for the Satisfaction of the Earl of H. + A second edition appeared in 1688,
Printed in Somers's Tracts, vol. i. p. 374. ascribed by Lord Glenbervie to Lord Somers's Election Cases, vol. i. p. 341.
† Somers's Tracts, vol. xvi. p. 167. 1st ed.
and a third in 1714. The object of this treatise was to establish the authority of parliament to limit, restrain, or qualify the right to the succession; a proposition which no temperate enquirer into our constitutional history could have ventured to deny, and which has not only been repeatedly acted upon, but also fully recognised and confirmed by statute.* The exertions of the duke's party, and the artifices of the court, were successful in defeating the project of an exclusion, which at å later period was converted into the more degrading measure of an expulsion. · After this triumph, the friends of the prerogative assumed a higher tone; and upon the breaking of the Oxford parliament, a royal declaration was issued, framed by the Lord Chief Justice North t, in explanation of the causes which had led to the dissolution of the two last parliaments. In this instrument, the conduct of those who had opposed the crown, and advocated the bill of exclusion, was arraigned in terms so strong, that it was thought necessary to address a vindication of their proceedings to the nation at large. This was accomplished by the publication of a tract entitled A just and modest Vindication of the two last Parliaments. It does not appear with whom the idea of this publication originated; but it has been supposed that more than one pen was employed in its production. We are told by Burnet, that the tract was originally penned by Sidney, and that a new draught was made by Somers, which was corrected by Sir William Jones. § The fact mentioned by Lord Hardwickell, that a copy of this work, “in the hand-writing of Lord Somers,” was amongst the MSS. which were destroyed in the fire at the chambers of the Honourable C. York, can hardly be considered as disproving Burnet's account. Though the work was at the time generally attributed to Jones TT, yet there is sufficient internal evidence to prove that Somers mainly assisted in the composition of it. To vindicate the proceedings of the last two parliaments, by proving the nature and extent of the powers lodged by the constitution in the house of commons, was the design of this excellent tract; and if it should be thought, that the writer has argued in support of some privileges conferring too unlimited a power upon the commons, it must be remembered, that he wrote at a period when the representatives of the people could ill afford to relinquish any means of withstanding the arbitrary designs of the court. So broken were the spirits of the Opposition by the triumphs of the court, that this excellent publication produced very little effect. It was most creditable to Somers that, at a time when the hopes even of the brave and the good were thus depressed, he ventured to call the nation to a sense of its rights and its danger.
• 13 Eliz. c. 1. 6 Anne, c. 7. s. 1, 2.
State Tracts of Charles II. 9 Burnet's Own Times.
| State Papers, vol. ii. p. 399. Echard's Hist. of the Revolution.
The active pen of Mr. Somers was, in the course of the same year, again resumed in defence of the political rights of his countrymen. The production which he now gave to the world was entitled The Security of Englishmen's Lives ; or the Trust, Power, and Duty of the Grand Juries of England explained according to the Fundamentals of the English Government, and the Declaration of the same made in Parliament by many Statutes, published for the Prevention of Popish Designs against the Lives of many Protestant Lords and Commoners, who stand firm to the Religion and ancient Government of England. By many this tract was attributed to Lord Essex; by others to Sir William Jones; but Burnet rightly affirms that it was the production of Somers, “ who writ the best papers that came out in that time.” A copy of it in the hand-writing of Somers was destroyed with his other manuscripts.* The occasion of this tract was the celebrated attempt to procure the finding of a true bill, for high treason, against the Earl of Shaftesbury, at the Old Bailey ; when, notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of the two chief justices, Pemberton and North, and the
• Hardwicke State Papers, vol. ll. p. 399.