Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Character of Sir Matthew Hale
By Gilbert Burnet (16431715)
From The Life of Sir Matthew Hale
HE had a soul enlarged and raised above that mean appetite of loving money, which is generally the root of all evil. He did not take the profits that he might have had by his practice; for in common cases, when those who came to ask his counsel gave him a piece, he used to give back the half, and so made ten shillings his fee in ordinary matters that did not require much time or study. If he saw a cause was unjust, he, for a great while, would not meddle further in it, but to give his advice that it was so. If the parties after that would go on, they were to seek another counsellor, for he would assist none in acts of injustice. If he found the cause doubtful or weak in point of law, he always advised his clients to agree their business. Yet afterwards he abated much of the scrupulosity he had about causes, that appeared at first view unjust, upon this occasion. There were two causes brought to him, which, by the ignorance of the party or their attorney, were so ill represented to him, that they seemed to be very bad; but he inquiring more narrowly into them, found they were really very good and just; so that after this, he slackened much of his former strictness of refusing to meddle in causes upon the ill circumstances that appeared in them at first.
In his pleading he abhorred those two common faults of misreciting evidences, quoting precedents or books falsely, or asserting things confidently, by which ignorant juries or weak judges are too often wrought on. He pleaded with the same sincerity that he used in the other parts of his life, and used to say:It was as great a dishonour as a man was capable of, that for a little money he was to be hired to say or do otherwise than as he thought. All this he ascribed to the immeasurable desire of heaping up wealth, which corrupted the souls of some, that seemed to be otherwise born and made for great things.
When he was a practitioner, differences were often referred to him, which he settled; but would accept of no reward for his pains, though offered by both parties together, after the agreement was made; for he said in those cases he was made a judge, and a judge ought to take no money. If they told him he lost much of his time in considering their business, and so ought to be acknowledged for it, his answer was (as one that heard it told me), Can I spend my time better than to make people friends? Must I have no time allowed me to do good in?
He was naturally a quick man; yet, by much practice on himself, he subdued that to such a degree, that he would never run suddenly into any conclusion concerning any matter of importance. Festina lente was his beloved motto, which he ordered to be engraved on the head of his staff; and he was often heard say, That he had observed many witty men run into great errors, because they did not give themselves time to think; but the heat of imagination making some notions appear in good colours to them, they, without staying till that cooled, were violently led by the impulses it made on them; whereas calm and slow men, who pass for dull in the common estimation, could search after truth, and find it out, as with more deliberation, so with greater certainty.
He laid aside the tenth penny of all he got for the poor; and took great care to be well informed of proper objects for his charities. And after he was a judge, many of the perquisites of his place, as his dividend of the Rule and Box money, were sent by him to the jails, to discharge poor prisoners, who never knew from whose hands their relief came. It is also a custom for the Marshal of the Kings Bench to present the judges of that Court with a piece of plate for a new years gift, that for the chief justice being larger than the rest. This he intended to have refused; but the other judges told him it belonged to his office, and the refusing of it would be a prejudice to his successors, so he was persuaded to take it; but he sent word to the Marshal, That, instead of plate, he should bring him the value of it in money; and when he received it, he immediately sent it to the prisons, for the relief and discharge of the poor there. He usually invited his poor neighbours to dine with him, and made them sit at table with himself; and if any of them were sick, so that they could not come, he would send meat warm to them from his table. And he did not only relieve the poor in his own parish, but sent supplies to the neighbouring parishes, as there was occasion for it; and he treated them all with the same tenderness and familiarity that became one who considered they were of the same nature as himself, and were reduced to no other necessities, but such as he himself might be brought to. But for common beggars, if any of these came to him as he was in his walks when he lived in the country, he would ask such as were capable of working why they went about so idly? If they answered, It was because they could find no work, he often sent them to some field, to gather all the stones in it and lay them on a heap; and then would pay them liberally for their pains. This being done, he used to send his carts, and caused them to be carried to such places of the highway as needed mending.
But when he was in town, he dealt his charities very liberally, even among the street beggars; and when some told him, That he thereby encouraged idleness, and that most of these were notorious cheats; he used to answer, That he believed most of them were such; but among them there were some that were great objects of charity, and pressed with grievous necessities; and that he had rather give his alms to twenty who might be perhaps rogues, than that one of the other sort should perish for want of that small relief which he gave them.
He loved building much, which he affected chiefly because it employed many poor people; but one thing was observed in all his buildings, that the changes he made in his houses were always from magnificence to usefulness; for he avoided everything that looked like pomp or vanity, even in the walls of his houses. He had good judgment in architecture, and an excellent faculty in contriving well.
He was a gentle landlord to all his tenants, and was ever ready, upon any reasonable complaints, to make abatements; for he was merciful as well as righteous. One instance of this was of a widow that lived in London, and had a small estate near his house in the country; from which her rents were ill returned to her, and at a cost, which she could not well bear; so she bemoaned herself to him; and he, according to his readiness to assist all poor people, told her, He would order his steward to take up her rents, and the returning them should cost her nothing. But after that, when there was a great falling of rents in that country so that it was necessary to make abatements to the tenant, yet he would have it lie on himself, and made the widow be paid her rent as formerly.
Another remarkable instance of his justice and goodness was, that when he found ill money had been paid into his hands, he would never suffer it to be vented again; for he thought it was no excuse for him to put false money into other peoples hands, because some had put it into his. A great heap of this he had gathered together; for many had so far abused his goodness, as to mix base money among the fees that were given him. It is like he had intended to have destroyed it; but some thieves who had observed it, broke into his chamber and stole it, thinking they had got a prize; which he used to tell with some pleasure, imagining how they found themselves deceived, when they perceived what sort of booty they had fallen on.
After he was made a judge, he would needs pay more for every purchase he made than it was worth. If it had been but a horse he had to buy, he would have out-bid the price; and when some represented to him that he made ill bargains, he said; It became judges to pay more for what they bought, than the true value, that so those with whom they dealt might not think they had any right to their favour, by having sold such things to them at an easy rate, and said it was suitable to the reputation which a judge ought to preserve, to make such bargains that the world might see they were not too well used upon some secret account.
In sum, his estate did show how little he had minded the raising a great fortune; for from a hundred pound a year he raised it not quite to nine hundred; and of this a very considerable part came in by his share of Mr. Seldens estate: yet this, considering his great practice while a counsellor, and his constant, frugal, and modest way of living, was but a small fortune. His library was valued at some thousands of pounds, and was believed to be one of the curiousest collections in Europe; so they resolved to keep this entire, for the honour of Seldens memory, and gave it to the University of Oxford; where a noble room was added to the former library for its reception, and all due respects have since been shown by that great and learned body, to those their worthy benefactors, who not only parted so generously with this great treasure, but were a little put to it how to oblige them, without crossing the will of their dead friend. Mr. Selden had once intended to give his library to that University, and had left it so by his will; but having occasion for a manuscript which belonged to their library, they asked of him a bond of a thousand pounds for its restitution: this he took so ill at their hands, that he struck out that part of his will, by which he had given them his library, and with some passion declared, they should never have it. The executors stuck at this a little; but having considered better of it, came to this conclusion; that they were to be the executors of Mr. Seldens will, and not of his passion; so they made good what he had intended in cold blood, and passed over what his passion had suggested to him.
The parting with so many excellent books would have been as uneasy to our judge as anything of that nature could be, if a pious regard to his friends memory had not prevailed over him; for he valued books and manuscripts above all things in the world. He himself had made a great and rare collection of manuscripts belonging to the law of England; he was forty years in gathering it; he himself said, it cost him about fifteen hundred pounds, and calls it in his will, a treasure worth having and keeping, and not fit for every mans view. These all he left to Lincolns Inn; and for the information of those who are curious to search into such things, there shall be a catalogue of them added at the end of this book.
By all these instances it does appear how much he was raised above the world, or the love of it. But having thus mastered things without him, his next study was to overcome his own inclinations. He was, as he said himself, naturally passionate; I add, as he said himself, for that appeared by no other evidence, save that sometimes his colour would rise a little; but he so governed himself, that those who lived long about him have told me, they never saw him disordered with anger, though he met with some trials that the nature of man is as little able to bear, as any whatsoever. There was one who did him a great injury, which it is not necessary to mention, who coming afterwards to him for his advice in the settlement of his estate, he gave it very frankly to him, but would accept of no fee for it, and thereby showed both that he could forgive as a Christian, and that he had the soul of a gentleman in him, not to take money of one that had wronged him so heinously. And when he was asked by one, How he could use a man so kindly that had wronged him so much? his answer was, He thanked God he had learned to forgive injuries. And besides the great temper he expressed in all his public employments, in his family he was a very gentle master; he was tender of all his servants, he never turned any away, except they were so faulty, that there was no hope of reclaiming them. When any of them had been long out of the way, or had neglected any part of their duty, he would not see them at their first coming home, and sometimes not till the next day; lest, when his displeasure was quick upon him, he might have chid them indecently, and when he did reprove them, he did it with that sweetness and gravity, that it appeared he was more concerned for their having done a fault, than for the offence given by it to himself. But if they became immoral or unruly, then he turned them away: for he said, He, that by his place ought to punish disorders in other people, must by no means suffer them in his own house. He advanced his servants according to the time they had been about him, and would never give occasion to envy amongst them, by raising the younger clerks above those who had been longer with him. He treated them all with great affection, rather as a friend than a master, giving them often good advice and instruction. He made those who had good places under him give some of their profits to the other servants who had nothing but their wages. When he made his will, he left legacies to every one of them; but he expressed a more particular kindness for one of them, Robert Gibbon, of the Middle Temple, Esq., in whom he had that confidence, that he left him one of his executors. I the rather mention him because of his noble gratitude to his worthy benefactor and master, for he has been so careful to preserve his memory that, as he set those on me at whose desire I undertook to write his life, so he has procured for me a great part of those memorials and informations, out of which I have composed it.
The judge was of a most tender and compassionate nature; this did eminently appear in his trying and giving sentence upon criminals, in which he was strictly careful, that not a circumstance should be neglected, which might any way clear the fact. He behaved himself with that regard to the prisoners, which became both the gravity of a judge, and the pity that was due to men, whose lives lay at stake, so that nothing of jeering or unreasonable severity ever fell from him. He also examined the witnesses in the softest manner, taking care that they should be put under no confusion, which might disorder their memory; and he summed all the evidence so equally, when he charged the jury, that the criminals themselves never complained of him. When it came to him to give sentence, he did it with that composedness and decency, and his speeches to the prisoners, directing them to prepare for death, were so weighty, so free of all affectation, and so serious and devout, that many loved to go to the trials, when he sat judge, to be edified by his speeches and behaviour in them; and used to say, they heard very few such sermons.
But though the pronouncing the sentence of death was the piece of his employment that went most against the grain with him; yet in that he could never be mollified to any tenderness which hindered justice. When he was once pressed to recommend some, whom he had condemned, to his Majestys mercy and pardon; he answered, he could not think they deserved a pardon, whom he himself had adjudged to die; so that all he would do in that kind was to give the king a true account of the circumstances of the fact; after which his Majesty was to consider whether he would interpose his mercy, or let justice take place.
His mercifulness extended even to his beasts, for when the horses that he had kept long grew old, he would not suffer them to be sold, or much wrought; but ordered his men to turn them loose on his grounds, and put them only to easy work, such as going to market, and the like: he used old dogs also with the same care; his shepherd having one that was become blind with age, he intended to have killed or lost him; but the judge coming to hear of it, made one of his servants bring him home, and fed him till he died. And he was scarce ever seen more angry than with one of his servants, for neglecting a bird that he kept, so that it died for want of food.