‘A Mere Lawyer? No, Sir’: Lord Mansfield 1705-1793

Stephen Usherwood introduces a remarkable advocate in politics as well as in his practice; Lord Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice for thirty-two years.

Please note: this article is from a 1978 issue of History Today, and its language contains outdated terms and descriptions. Articles in our archive remain as they were first printed, and do not reflect the current values of the magazine.

Boswell, talking to Dr Johnson in 1772, suggested that the Lord Chief Justice of England, William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, was ‘not a mere lawyer’. The Doctor replied: ‘No, sir... when he first came to London, “he drank champagne with the wits,” as Prior says. He was the friend of Pope.’ Later, the judge’s name again cropped up. Boswell reminded his friend that ‘the landlord at Ellon in Scotland said that he heard he was the greatest man in England - next to Lord Mansfield’.

‘Ay, Sir,’ said Johnson, ‘the exception defined the idea. A Scotchman could go no farther.’ This conversation took place in the spring of 1775, and yet, two centuries later, it would be hard to find a man so highly regarded by his contemporaries whose memory has been more neglected, except by lawyers.

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