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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury

John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury PC, KC, Irish lawyer, politician and judge known as The Lord Norbury between 1800 and 1827, is born at Beechwood, Nenagh, County Tipperary, on December 3, 1745. A greatly controversial figure in his time, he is nicknamed the “Hanging Judge” and is considered to be one of the most corrupt legal figures in Irish history. He is Chief Justice of the Common Pleas for Ireland between 1800 and 1827.

Toler is the youngest son of Daniel Toler, MP, and Letitia, daughter of Thomas Otway (1665–1724), of Lissenhall, Nenagh, County Tipperary. His elder brother Daniel Toler is also a politician, serving as High Sheriff for Tipperary and also as MP for Tipperary. The Toler family is originally from Norfolk, East Anglia, England, but settles in County Tipperary in the 17th century. He is educated at Kilkenny College and at Trinity College, Dublin.

After graduating from university Toler enters the legal profession and is called to the Irish Bar in 1770. In 1781 he is appointed a King’s Counsel. He is returned to the Parliament of Ireland for Tralee in 1773, a seat he holds until 1780, and later represents Philipstown between 1783 and 1790 and Gorey from 1790 until the Acts of Union 1800. In 1789 he is appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland, which he remains until 1798 when he is promoted to Attorney-General for Ireland and sworn of the Privy Council of Ireland. In his role as Attorney-General he is responsible for the prosecution of those involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. According to the Dictionary of National Biography “his indifference to human suffering … disgusted even those who thought the occasion called for firmness on the part of government.” In 1799, he brings forward a law which gives the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland power to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act and to impose martial law.

In 1800 Toler is appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas for Ireland and raised to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Norbury, of Ballycrenode in the County of Tipperary. His appointment to the bench is controversial and John FitzGibbon, 1st Earl of Clare, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, is said to have quipped, “Make him a bishop, or even an archbishop, but not a chief justice.” His tenure as Chief Justice lasts for 27 years, despite the fact that, the Dictionary of National Biography opines, “his scanty knowledge of the law, his gross partiality, his callousness, and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him for the position. His court was in constant uproar owing to his noisy merriment. He joked even when the life of a human being was hanging in the balance.” This earns him the nickname the “Hanging Judge.” His most famous trial is that of Irish nationalist leader Robert Emmet. He interrupts and abuses Emmet throughout the trial before sentencing him to death. In spite of this, with his strong belief in the Protestant Ascendancy, he is considered to have had great influence over the government in Ireland in the early part of the nineteenth century.

However, Toler’s position eventually becomes untenable even to his strongest supporters, especially with the British government‘s aim of establishing a better relationship with the Catholic majority. His reputation is tainted in 1822, when a letter written to him by William Saurin, the Attorney-General for Ireland, is discovered, in which Saurin urges him to use his influence with the Irish Protestant gentry which makes up local juries against the Catholics. Saurin is dismissed soon afterwards. He finds his greatest adversary in Daniel O’Connell, to whom Toler is “an especial object of abhorrence.” At O’Connell’s instigation the case of Saurin’s letter is brought before the House of Commons of the United Kingdom by Henry Brougham. Toler survives this as well as an 1825 petition drawn up by O’Connell, which calls for his removal on the grounds of him falling asleep during a murder trial and later being unable to present any account of the evidence given. However, it is not until George Canning becomes Prime Minister in 1827 that Toler, then 82, is finally induced to resign. His resignation is sweetened by him being created Viscount Glandine and Earl of Norbury, of Glandine in King’s County, in the Peerage of Ireland. Unlike the barony of Norbury these titles are created with remainder to his second son Hector John. His eldest son Daniel is then considered mentally unsound.

Toler marries Grace, daughter of Hector Graham, in 1778. They have two sons and two daughters. In 1797 Grace is raised to the Peerage of Ireland as Baroness Norwood, of Knockalton in the County of Tipperary, in honour of her husband. She dies in 1822 and is succeeded in the barony by her eldest son, Daniel. Toler survives her by nine years and dies at the age of 85 at his Dublin home at 3 Great Denmark Street on July 27, 1831. He is succeeded in the barony of Norbury by his eldest son Daniel and in the viscountcy and earldom according to the special remainder by his second son, Hector. In 1832 the latter also succeeds his elder brother in the baronies of Norwood and Norbury. He is considered to be the father of the astronomer John Brinkley.

(Pictured: John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury, coloured etching by unknown artist, early 19th century, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D9303)


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Robert King, 2nd Earl of Kingston, Acquitted of Murder

Robert King, 2nd Earl of Kingston, an Anglo-Irish peer, is acquitted of the murder of his brother-in-law, Colonel Henry Gerald FitzGerald, on May 18, 1798.

King is the eldest surviving son of Edward King, 1st Earl of Kingston, and Jane Caulfeild. From 1767 to 1768 he is educated at Eton College. He is styled Viscount Kingsborough between 1768 and 1797. He marries Caroline FitzGerald, daughter of Richard FitzGerald and Margaret King, on December 5, 1769, from whom he later separates. Together they have nine children.

King sits in the Irish House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Boyle from 1776 to 1783, and for Cork County between 1783 and 1797, and serves as a Governor of County Cork in 1789. In 1797 he succeeds to his father’s titles and assumes his seat in the Irish House of Lords. Between 1797 and his death he is Custos Rotulorum of Roscommon.

On May 18, 1798, King is tried by his peers in the Irish House of Lords after allegedly murdering Colonel Henry FitzGerald. FitzGerald is a married man who elopes with King’s daughter. With public sympathy on King’s side and with considerable publicity he is tried by his peers. An executioner stands beside King with an immense axe, painted black except for two inches of polished steel, and holds at the level of the defendant’s neck. King is acquitted as after three summonses no witnesses come forward. After a short conferee the Lords Temporal returns to the House of Commons and delivers the verdict ‘not guilty.’ The Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John FitzGibbon, 1st Earl of Clare, pronounces the verdict, breaks his wand and dismisses the assembly.

The Directory of the United Irishmen had planned to use the occasion to kill the entire government and all the lords, but one vote cast against this scheme by the informer Francis Magan causes it to be abandoned.

King dies on April 17, 1799 in Rockingham, County Roscommon.

(Pictured: “Robert King, 2nd Earl of Kingston,” pastel by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, RHA (Dublin 1739-1808))


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Execution of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, is beheaded on Tower Hill near the Tower of London on May 12, 1641.

Wentworth, is born in London on April 13, 1593, the eldest surviving son of Sir William Wentworth, a Yorkshire landowner. Educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and at the Inner Temple, he is knighted by James I in 1611. His marriage to Lady Margaret Clifford, daughter of the impoverished Francis Clifford, 4th Earl of Cumberland, establishes a link with an ancient and noble family still influential in the north.

Wentworth represents Yorkshire in the parliaments of 1614 and 1621 and Pontefract in 1624. His wife dies childless in 1622, and in February 1625 he marries Arabella Holles, daughter of John Holles, 1st Earl of Clare, a peer out of favour at court who brings Wentworth into touch with the critics of the King’s expensive and inefficient policy of war against Spain and, from 1627, against France. Along with other critics of the court he is prevented from sitting in the Parliament of 1626, and later in the year he refuses to subscribe to the forced loan imposed to pay for the war, and is for some time under arrest. Despite his record of opposition to the King’s policy, he is approached by the crown — anxious to strengthen its position in the north — with the offer of a barony in 1628. He is appointed lord president of the Council of the North and in 1629 is given a seat on the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.

Wentworth’s return to the service of the court, coming so soon after his vehement opposition to it in Parliament, startles even some of his closest friends. His conduct is no doubt partly inspired by personal ambition, though he has logical reasons for his change of front since in the summer of 1628 the King gradually abandons his war policy.

On the Privy Council Wentworth seems to advocate the paternalist government that distinguishes the early years of the King’s personal rule. As President of the Council of the North he quells all defiance of his authority and makes many enemies by his insistence on the honour due to him as the King’s representative, but his administration is on the whole just and efficient. In 1631 he is deeply distressed by the death of his much-loved wife, though he provokes scandalous rumours not long afterward by secretly marrying Elizabeth Rodes, the young daughter of a neighbouring squire, in October 1632.

The King meanwhile has appointed Wentworth Lord Deputy of Ireland. Taking up his office in the summer of 1633, he immediately sets himself to consolidate the royal authority, break the power of the dominant clique of “new English” landowners, extend English settlement, improve methods of agriculture, increase the productivity of the land, and stimulate industry and trade. His ultimate goal is to assimilate Irish law and customs to the English system and to make a prosperous Protestant Ireland into a source of revenue to the English crown.

Wentworth continues his effective and firm-handed administration of Ireland until 1639, when he is recalled to England by King Charles I. The King needs advice and support in handling a Scottish revolt precipitated by an ill-conceived attempt to enforce episcopacy on the Scots. He is created Earl of Strafford in 1640 and is expected to resolve the crisis. But his policy of making war on Scotland proves disastrous for both himself and the King. The English Parliament, called especially to vote money for the war, prove recalcitrant, and Strafford, in command of the English army, fails to prevent the Scots from overrunning the northern counties. The King, unable to pay his own troops or to buy off the Scots, is compelled by joint English and Scottish action to call a new Parliament in November 1640.

Wentworth is the chief target of attack from both nations. He is advised to leave the country, but the King relies on his help and assures him that he should not suffer in life or fortune. Detained by illness, he reaches Westminster on November 10 with the intention of impeaching the King’s opponents in Parliament for treasonable correspondence with the Scots. The leader of the House of Commons, John Pym, acts first by impeaching Wentworth before he can take his seat in the House of Lords.

Wentworth’s trial begins in March 1641. The basic accusation is that of subverting the laws and is supported by a charge that he had offered to bring over the Irish army to subdue the King’s opponents in England. More detailed charges rest on his administration in Ireland and the north. He conducts his defense with great skill, and it looks at one point as though he might be acquitted. Pym therefore introduces a bill of attainder. The Commons passes it by a large majority. The Lords, intimidated by popular rioting, pass it as well, but by a much smaller majority.

While an angry mob surges around Whitehall, Wentworth writes to the King releasing him from his promise of protection, and Charles, afraid for the safety of the Queen, gives his consent to the bill. He is executed before a crowd estimated, probably with some exaggeration, at 300,000 on May 12, 1641 (as this number is roughly the population of London at the time, the crowd is likely to have been a good deal smaller). In his last speech he once more professes his faith in “the joint and individual prosperity of the king and his people,” for which, in his view, he has always worked.

Wentworth remains an enigmatic figure in English history: ambitious, greedy for power and wealth, ruthless, and sometimes dishonest, but with a vision of benevolent authoritarian government and efficient administration to which he often gave persuasive expression. He made innumerable enemies, but his few close friends were deeply attached to him. In the last weeks of his life his dignity, eloquence, and loyalty to the King made a deep impression even on some of his enemies.