This post is part of an ongoing series looking at novels and other books of the long eighteenth century which mention Lord Mansfield, or have characters named Mansfield. The title of Jane Austen's third novel Mansfield Park is thought by many to be an allusion to Lord Mansfield and the Somerset case. Click here for an explanation of how I'm exploring this question. If you want a backgrounder on Somerset v Stewart, Dr. Dominique Bouchard gives a fascinating lecture on the the case here.
The European Magazine, London Review, the Scots Magazine, and Walker's Hibernian Magazine all printed a brief biography with a collection of anecdotes. It appears to be the same article. No mention of the Somerset case.
The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1793 also describes the contents of his will, which mentions the now-famous Dido, as does the Edinburgh Magazine and the Gentleman's Magazine. Dido was referred to as a "free black," not as a family member.
Other newspaper articles did not delve into Mansfield's legal accomplishments, but gave brief biographies, praised his public and private character, discussed his will and the size of his estate, and explained who would inherit his titles. Follow up articles gave details of his final illness and his funeral.
The following anecdotes appeared repeatedly throughout the 19th century in various joke books and books of anecdotes. The first one refers to the habit of British juries of deliberately setting the value of stolen goods artificially low, so that the accused person would escape being transported or hanged, since the existing laws of the country were so strict. These might all be simply jokes set in courtroom situations to which Lord Mansfield's name has been attached, and have no resemblance to anything he actually said. Let's assume, for example, that he never addressed a Jewish defendant in the way that he is supposed to have done in the "Jew's Son-in-Law" below right. However, this hilarious bit of banter (eyeroll) was reproduced up to the beginning of the 20th century.
My point is, this is how Lord Mansfield was talked about, thought of, remembered, during the 19th century. The anecdotes go to illustrate his wisdom and humor. I found no anecdotes referencing Somerset v. Stewart.
- Lord Mansfield being willing to save a man that had stole a watch, desired the jury to value it at ten-pence; upon which, the prosecutor cries out, “Ten-pence, my lord! Why the very fashion of it cost me five pounds.” Oh,” says his lordship, “we must not hang a man for fashion’s sake.”[I am not sure about the first meaning of the word "fashion" in the anecdote, but the point is, the anecdote is not about abolition.]
- “When this Sagacious Nobleman [Lord Mansfield] was on the circuit, a woman was indicted for witchcraft. The inhabitants of the place were exasperated against her, and among other proofs of her being a witch, they deposed that she had been seen walking in the air with her feet upwards. His lordship heard the evidence with great patience and tranquility... [and ruled]: “Admitting that this woman has walked in the air, as you have said, with her feet upwards, she was born in England as well as yourselves; she, consequently, can only be judged by the laws of the country: now, as I know not of any law that forbids walking in the air with the feet upwards, we all have a right to do so with impunity. I see, therefore, no reason for this prosecution; and the poor woman may return home when she pleases, either walking in the air, or on earth, as she finds most convenient.”
- “The late Lord Mansfield, no less eminent for his great acquirements than the acuteness of his understanding, was once asked by a country gentleman, whether he should take upon himself the office of a justice of peace, as he was conscious of his want of legal knowledge? “My good friend,” replied this sagacious lawyer, “you have good sense, honesty, and coolness of temper; these qualities will enable you to judge rightly; but withhold your reasons of decision, for they may be disputable.”
- A man was brought before Lord Mansfield, when on the home circuit, charged with stealing a silver ladle; and in the course of the evidence, the counsel for the Crown was rather severe upon the prisoner for being an attorney. “Come, come,” said his lordship, in a whisper to the counsel, “don’t exaggerate matters; if the fellow had been an attorney, you may depend on it he would have stolen the bowl as well as the ladle.”
Lord Mansfield was also referenced in history and in fiction for his connection to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. A London mob invaded his home because he was thought to be sympathetic to Roman Catholics. The "In Our Time" BBC podcast discusses the Gordon Riots and here is a post at Regency History.
- In Maria Edgeworth’s 1817 novel Harrington, set in the time of the riots, Lord Mansfield is mentioned: “Monday morning Mr. Strachan was insulted; Lord Mansfield treated it as a slight irregularity.—Monday evening Lord Mansfield himself was insulted by the mob; they pulled down his house, and burnt his furniture.”
- Charles DIckens's 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge portrays the Gordon RIots: "the mob gathering round Lord Mansfield’s house, had called on those within to open the door, and receiving no reply (for Lord and Lady Mansfield were at that moment escaping by the backway), forced an entrance according to their usual custom [and destroyed] the rarest collection of manuscripts ever possessed by any one private person in the world, and worse than all, because nothing could replace this loss, the great Law Library, on almost every page of which were notes in the Judge’s own hand, of inestimable value,—being the results of the study and experience of his whole life. That while they were howling and exulting round the fire, a troop of soldiers, with a magistrate among them, came up, and being too late (for the mischief was by that time done), began to disperse the crowd."
- The Gordon Riots are also dramatized in the tale, The Rival Apprentices(1880). “At about twelve o’clock at night, another desperate gang attacked the house of Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, in Bloomsbury-square. Having broken open the doors and windows, they flung the superb furniture into the street, and kindled fires to destroy it. They then went to his library and destroyed thousands of volumes, together with many valuable manuscripts, papers, and deeds. The rich wearing apparel and splendid pictures they wantonly burnt. As for the wine in the cellars, they rank till they were nearly raving mad. Lord and Lady Mansfield had no means of defending themselves against such a mob of dissolute maniacs. They made their escape, therefore, through a back door a few minutes before the rioters broke in, and were admitted by a gentleman to his house in Lincoln’s Inn.”
- The Vagabond: or, Practical Infidelity (1800) by George Walker is an anti-radical parody, in which the narrator is himself is involved in urging on the mob during the Gordon Riots. “The division under our direction proceeded to Lord Mansfield’s; and there liberty and rational principles received a complete triumph over all regular order. The musty records of precedents, cases and law, made a fire to warm the people they had so long enslaved; I own I wished to have preserved several works of curiosity and art, but Stupeo would not suffer a thing to be taken. –‘Let them all perish together, said he… an you not perceive that the destruction of property must be the grand aim; from those who have little we must take that little, and the hoards of affluence must be utterly destroyed. As long as one single cart-load of property remains in any country there will be no genuine equality.'”
In the minds of the middling class, the riots represented a fearful collapse of law and order, and the possibility of violent mob rule. Lord Mansfield's lost library, including his mementos of his friends Pope and Swift, was a terrible blow for him, but he declined to ask for public compensation for it.