Thomas Powys (judge)

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Thomas Powys (1649-1719) (Follower of Godfrey Kneller) Thomas Powys (1649-1719), by follower of Godfrey Kneller.jpg
Thomas Powys (1649-1719) (Follower of Godfrey Kneller)

Sir Thomas Powys (1649 – 4 April 1719), of Henley, near Ludlow, Shropshire and Lilford cum Wigsthorpe, Northamptonshire, was an English lawyer, judge and Tory politician, who sat in the English and British House of Commons between 1701 and 1713. He was Attorney General to King James II and was chief prosecutor at the trial of the Seven Bishops in June 1688. He served as Justice of the King's Bench from 1713 to 1714, but was dismissed.

House of Commons of Great Britain historic British lower house of Parliament

The House of Commons of Great Britain was the lower house of the Parliament of Great Britain between 1707 and 1801. In 1707, as a result of the Acts of Union of that year, it replaced the House of Commons of England and the third estate of the Parliament of Scotland, as one of the most significant changes brought about by the Union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Seven Bishops

The Seven Bishops were members of the Church of England tried and acquitted for seditious libel in June 1688.

Justice of the Kings Bench

Justice of the King's Bench, or Justice of the Queen's Bench during the reign of a female monarch, was a puisne judicial position within the Court of King's Bench, under the Chief Justice. The King's Bench was a court of common law which modern academics argue was founded independently in 1234, having previously been part of the curia regis. The court became a key part of the Westminster courts, along with the Exchequer of Pleas and the Court of Common Pleas ; the latter was deliberately stripped of its jurisdiction by the King's Bench and Exchequer, through the Bill of Middlesex and Writ of Quominus respectively. As a result, the courts jockeyed for power. In 1828 Henry Brougham, a Member of Parliament, complained in Parliament that as long as there were three courts unevenness was inevitable, saying that "It is not in the power of the courts, even if all were monopolies and other restrictions done away, to distribute business equally, as long as suitors are left free to choose their own tribunal", and that there would always be a favourite court, which would therefore attract the best lawyers and judges and entrench its position. The outcome was the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, under which all the central courts were made part of a single Supreme Court of Judicature. Eventually the government created a High Court of Justice under Lord Coleridge by an Order in Council of 16 December 1880. At this point, the King's Bench formally ceased to exist.


Early years

Powys was the second son of Thomas Powys of Henley Hall in Shropshire and his first wife, Anne Littleton, daughter of Sir Adam Littleton, 1st Baronet. [1] His father was serjeant-at-law and a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn. [2] He was the younger brother of Sir Littleton Powys (1648?–1732). Powys was educated at Shrewsbury School, and matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford on 20 May 1664, aged 15. [3] He was admitted at Lincoln's Inn on 19 February 1696 [4] and was called to the bar in 1673. [1]

Shropshire County of England

Shropshire is a county in England, bordering Wales to the west, Cheshire to the north, Staffordshire to the east, and Worcestershire and Herefordshire to the south. Shropshire Council was created in 2009, a unitary authority taking over from the previous county council and five district councils. The borough of Telford and Wrekin has been a separate unitary authority since 1998 but continues to be included in the ceremonial county.

Lincolns Inn one of the four Inns of Court in London, England

The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn is one of the four Inns of Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong and where they are called to the Bar. Lincoln's Inn is recognised to be one of the world's most prestigious professional bodies of judges and lawyers.

Sir Littleton Powys FRS was a Justice of the King's Bench.


Powys was chief prosecutor at the trial of the Seven Bishops. Trial of the Seven Bishops.jpg
Powys was chief prosecutor at the trial of the Seven Bishops.

Powys was attorney-general for Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire from 1680 to 1686 and was knighted on 23 April 1686. He became solicitor-general in 1686, when Heneage Finch was dismissed. Having acquiesced in the appointment of Roman Catholics to office, and argued in favour of the king's dispensing power, he was promoted to be attorney-general in December 1687, the same year that he became treasurer of Lincoln's Inn. [1]

Heneage Finch, 1st Earl of Aylesford, PC, KC was an English lawyer and statesman.

Trial of the Seven Bishops

Powys conducted the prosecution of the Seven Bishops in June 1688. The charge was seditious libel, in presenting to the King a petition against the enforcement of his second Declaration of Indulgence. The acquittal of the Bishops was a disastrous blow to the Crown's prestige, and Powys was heavily criticised for incompetence: inexplicably he forgot to adduce evidence that the Petition had ever been presented, so that the trial almost collapsed at the outset. However, given the immense public sympathy for the Bishops, and that two of the four judges directed the jury to acquit, it is unlikely that any prosecutor could have secured a conviction.

Sedition and seditious libel were criminal offences under English common law, and are still criminal offences in Canada. Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order: if the statement is in writing or some other permanent form it is seditious libel. Libel denotes a printed form of communication such as writing or drawing.

The Declaration of Indulgence or Declaration for Liberty of Conscience was a pair of proclamations made by James II of England and VII of Scotland in 1687. The Indulgence was first issued for Scotland on 12 February and then for England on 4 April 1687. It was a first step at establishing freedom of religion in the British Isles, although part of the king's intention was to promote his own minority religion, Catholicism, reviled by most of his subjects.

Parliamentary career

Powys was removed from office after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and built up a lucrative private practice at the bar. [1] He acquired a reputation for fairness, especially in defence of state prisoners, among whom was Sir John Fenwick, 3rd Baronet, and at the bar of both houses of parliament.

Sir John Fenwick, 3rd Baronet was an English Jacobite conspirator, who succeeded to the Baronetcy of Fenwick on the death of his father in 1676.

Powys was returned as Member of Parliament for Ludlow at the first general election of 1701. At the second general election of 1701 he was returned again for Ludlow, and also stood unsuccessfully at Cardigan Boroughs. After the accession of Anne, he was made Prime serjeant in June 1702. At the 1702 English general election, he was returned for both Ludlow and Truro and opted to remain at Ludlow. He was involved in Tory groupings, but by 1704 was generally supporting the Court. He was returned again at the 1705 English general election. He remained neutral over the choice of Speaker in October 1705 on the regency bill but spoke on the Court side on the Regency bill in December and January 1706 and voted against the ‘place clause’ on 18 February 1706. In 1707 he was appointed recorder of Ludlow, holding the post until 1719. When Harley resigned from the Administration in February 1708, Powys joined the opposition. He was returned as a Tory for Ludlow at the 1708 British general election. He voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacherevell in 1710, and on 7 May 1710 presented an address to the Queen from the corporation of Ludlow in favour of Dr Sacheverell. [At the 1710 British general election he was returned again for Ludlow. He was one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who exposed the mismanagements of the previous ministry. He had been agitating Lord Harley for preferment since the Tory administration was formed and was rewarded on 8 June 1713 with the post of judge of the Queen's Bench. [1] But as he and his brother, Sir Littleton Powys, too frequently formed judgments in opposition to the rest of the court, he, as the more active and able of the two, was removed, on Lord-chancellor Cowper's advice, when George I of Great Britain came to England (1714). [5] His position as King's Serjeant was restored to him after an appeal, and he held the position for the rest of his life. He did not stand for parliament. [6]

Ludlow (UK Parliament constituency) Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, 1868 onwards

Ludlow is a constituency represented in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament since 2005 by Philip Dunne, a Conservative.

Anne, Queen of Great Britain Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (1702–07); queen of Great Britain and Ireland (1707–14)

Anne was the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland between 8 March 1702 and 1 May 1707. On 1 May 1707, under the Acts of Union, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain. She continued to reign as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714.

Serjeant-at-law Member of an order of barristers at the English bar

A Serjeant-at-Law (SL), commonly known simply as a Serjeant, was a member of an order of barristers at the English and Irish bar. The position of Serjeant-at-Law, or Sergeant-Counter, was centuries old; there are writs dating to 1300 which identify them as descended from figures in France before the Norman Conquest. The Serjeants were the oldest formally created order in England, having been brought into existence as a body by Henry II. The order rose during the 16th century as a small, elite group of lawyers who took much of the work in the central common law courts. With the creation of Queen's Counsel during the reign of Elizabeth I, the order gradually began to decline, with each monarch opting to create more King's or Queen's Counsel. The Serjeants' exclusive jurisdictions were ended during the 19th century and, with the Judicature Act 1873 coming into force in 1875, it was felt that there was no need to have such figures, and no more were created. The last appointed was Nathaniel Lindley, later a Law Lord, who retired in 1905 and died in 1921. The number of Irish Serjeants-at-law was limited to three. The last appointment was A. M. Sullivan in 1912; after his 1921 relocation to the English bar he remained "Serjeant Sullivan" as a courtesy title.

Later life and legacy

Powys lived in Shropshire prior to acquiring Lilford Hall in 1711, induced to inspect it by his friend, Sir Edward Ward. Powys is buried at Achurch. [7] He died in 1719, and was buried at Lilford. He was twice married: first to Sarah, daughter of Ambrose Holbech of Mollington, Warwickshire; and secondly, to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Philip Meadows. He had issue by both; and his great-grandson Thomas Powys, was created Lord Lilford in 1797. His portrait hangs at the Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas at Austin. [6]

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Henley Hall, Shropshire

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "POWYS, Sir Thomas (c.1649-1719), of Henley, nr. Ludlow, Salop and Lilford cum Wigsthorpe, Northants". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  2. Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (Great Britain) (1907). Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (Public domain ed.). Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. pp. 97–. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  3. Foster, Joseph. "Popham-Price in Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714 pp.1181-1208". British History Online. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  4. Admissions Register VOL 1 1420-1799. The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn. 1896.
  5. Sainty, p. 36
  6. 1 2 "Sir Thomas Powys Justice of the King's Bench (1649-1719)". Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  7. Drewitt, Caroline Mary Powys (1900). Lord Lilford Thomas Littleton, fourth baron F. Z. S. president of the British ornithologists' union: A memoir by his sister (Public domain ed.). Smith, Elder, & co. pp. 3–. Retrieved 11 February 2012.


Parliament of England
Preceded by
Francis Herbert
Thomas Newport
Member of Parliament for Ludlow
With: William Gower1701
Francis Herbert 1701-1705
Acton Baldwyn 1705-1707
Succeeded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Parliament of England
Member of Parliament for Ludlow
With: Acton Baldwyn
Succeeded by
Humphrey Walcot
Acton Baldwyn


Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : "Powys, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography . London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.

  1. "Biography of Sir Thomas Powys". Retrieved 11 February 2012.