The Charterhouse was founded as a Carthusian monastery in 1371, on a site which began as a chapel for a burial ground during the plague (known as the Black Death) of 1348. Since then it has also served as a private mansion, boys’ school and an almshouse, which it remains to this day.  Sir Mark Warby is a High Court judge but he is also the husband of Ann Kenrick OBE who is the 33rd Master of the Charterhouse, which explains his particular interest in the legal figures historically associated with the place.

In The Thomas Sutton Lecture 2019, now available as a handsome illustrated booklet, Warby discusses six prominent lawyers associated in some way with the Charterhouse, the most famous of which is Sir (later Saint) Thomas More, a lawyer executed for treason for refusing to acknowledge the supremacy of King Henry VIII. Hence the lecture’s title. But Warby comes to More only at the end of his survey, which proceeds (antecedes?) backwards in time. He begins with Lord Browne-Wilkinson, known as “Nico”, who died as recently as 2018, after spending his last year in the infirmary at the Charterhouse.

Nico was a barrister and a judge who ended his career as the senior Law Lord in the House of Lords, whose “fierce sense of right and wrong coupled with a palpably benevolent humanity” was praised by Lord Neuberger. Warby recalls with quotations two particular cases in which those qualities were demonstrated, but there are probably many lawyers still practising today (and indeed law reporters, who have a particularly intense relationship with the wording of judgments) who will recall their own examples.

Warby’s next figure is Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough (1750-1818) who apparently features in the television series Poldark, as the judge in a fictitious case sentencing a man convicted of treason to be hanged, drawn and quartered. His severity in criminal matters was legendary. He was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench at a time when judges could be involved in politics, and he was. He defended the use of criminal libel to quell political dissent, and could be harsh and overbearing in court. But there was a warmer, kinder side to his character, at any rate when younger, and in relation to non-criminal areas of law; and he lies buried in the Charterhouse where, once, he been a pupil and later a school governor.

William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705-1793) was another Chief Justice, who developed the law of equity and commercial legal principles, and is particularly famous for declaring foreign slavery contracts unenforceable on English soil (in the case of Somersett in 1772). His connection to the Charterhouse came through his being a governor of the school.

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) appeared as a barrister in Mansfield’s court, and was a High Court judge, but is chiefly remembered for his masterly four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England. Like Ellenborough he was a pupil in the Charterhouse School, which today has a Blackstone scholarship for the children of lawyers. Warby explains why Blackstone may be more widely known and revered in the United States, where his emphasis on natural law and fundamental rights struck a chord in the forming of the new republic, though he himself (like Mansfield) was not sympathetic with the American Revolution.

After three figures from the 18th century, Warby jumps back to the 15th and 16th centuries for his final two. Edward, First Lord North (1496-1564) was a lawyer and became Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, which was a body established during the reign of Henry VIII to deal with the administration of the plunder derived from the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of the assets of the Catholic church in England. One of the monasteries was the Charterhouse, which North acquired for himself. He was, Warby notes, “a good operator” who went on to survive the “twists and turns of 16th century politics”, though entertaining Queen Elizabeth I for ten days before her coronation and on other occasions was said to have ruined him. Warby says at one point that “North was a distinguished lawyer in his way” but later admits “we can safely say he is not the most distinguished lawyer of my six”.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) is also better known for his philosophical and religious views than as a lawyer, but he came from a legal family and practised at the Bar before becoming a judge and eventually Lord Chancellor. He grew up locally and lived for a time in the monastery, without actually becoming a monk, but it was his refusal to renounce the authority of the Pope that brought him into conflict, ultimately fatal, with his king. Sympathy for his plight might be tempered by acknowledgement of his own severity in imposing the death sentence on others for religious dissent.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

From this survey of historical legal figures, Warby draws a number of observations, taking as the theme for his sermon Shakespeare’s oft-quoted call to action: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The exhortation comes from one of the Henry VI plays and is made by Dick the Butcher, a criminal and one of a band of pretenders to the throne, bent on overthrowing the establishment (or what might these days be termed the ‘elites’). Naturally the lawyers were an obstacle, with their tiresome insistence on the rule of law and fair procedure.

That’s not to say all the lawyers surveyed here were good, but they did at least share a respect for the rule of law, so that even if they supported the death penalty it was only to be applied in accordance with the law, not by discretion, caprice, or the arbitrary exercise of power. Unfortunately, as an endpiece on the history of the Charterhouse shows, not all its sometime owners enjoyed the same protection: after the dissolution of the monasteries the prior and monks were brutally executed or died in prison; and a later owner, Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk was executed for treason in 1572 and seventeen years later his son, Philip Howard, having inherited the property, died in the Tower where he too had been sent for treason.

Today the Charterhouse seems mercifully absent from the political intrigues of historical times; more in tune, perhaps, with its original function as a place of quiet worship and contemplation, offering a home to the Brothers – a group of elderly men and women who live in the almshouse, in separate flats but sharing mealtimes and many common interests. But if, at some later date, someone were to write a similar survey about lawyers associated with the place, I wonder what they will say about Sir Mark Warby himself?

Featured image: Sir Thomas More memorial, behind the Royal Courts of Justice, photographed by Pete Spiro, via Shutterstock.