Sir Charles Porter (6 September 1631 – 8 December 1696), was a flamboyant and somewhat controversial English-born politician and judge, who nonetheless enjoyed a highly successful career. He sat in the English House of Commons, and was twice Lord Chancellor of Ireland. As Chancellor, he survived an attempt by his political enemies to impeach him, and attempts to persuade the English Crown to remove him from office. In the last months of his life he was effectively head of the Irish government. In his dealings with the Irish people he was noted for tolerance in religious matters.
He was a heavy drinker and was chronically short of money. Nonetheless as a lawyer he was considered to be strictly honest, and he died a relatively poor man. Although he had his critics, he was described by his friends as "a man who had the good fortune to be universally beloved".
Porter was born in Norwich, a younger son of Edmund Porter, prebendary of Norwich and chaplain to Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry. Much of what we know of his early life comes from his own colourful later account, given to his friend Roger North, which North believed to be largely true. During the Second English Civil War, while he was an apprentice, he took part on the Royalist side in the serious rioting in Norwich in 1648. He was pursued by a troop of Parliamentary soldiers, and escaped by seizing a child and pretending to carry it to safety. He fled to Yarmouth and took ship for Amsterdam; there he first trained as a soldier, then ran a tavern. After about five years he judged it safe to return home.
He decided on a career in the law, entered Middle Temple in 1656 and was called to the Bar in 1663. His critics said that he was a poor lawyer, and his addiction to all forms of pleasure, especially drink, undoubtedly hampered his practice. On the other hand, he was a hard worker, had a good knowledge of legal procedures and was a superb orator. Early in his career he acquired the reputation of a man who had "the courage of his convictions". As counsel in Crispe v Dalmahoy  (1675), one of several controversial cases on the claims of both Houses of Parliament to act as judges, Porter insisted on his right to argue against the alleged judicial powers of the House of Commons, even on pain of imprisonment for contempt of Parliament. He attracted the favourable notice of several judges, especially Francis North, 1st Baron Guildford, who became a close friend of Porter and described him as "a man who had the good fortune to be universally loved". During the last years of Charles II, with Guildford, now Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, at the head of the judiciary, Porter was at the height of his professional success, and entered Parliament as member for Tregony in 1685.
Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Ever since the Restoration of 1660 there had been great difficulty in finding a suitable Irish Lord Chancellor: Michael Boyle, Archbishop of Armagh, held the office for twenty years simply because no professional judge of good standing was prepared to do so. Boyle, despite his lack of legal training, was a conscientious and incorruptible judge, but in old age his mental and physical powers undoubtedly declined. Despite the objections of the Lord Lieutenant, Henry Hyde, 2nd Earl of Clarendon, who was a good friend of Boyle, it was decided to replace him with Porter, who was knighted and appointed Lord Chancellor in April 1686. Clarendon, despite his initial objections to his appointment, quickly came to like and admire Porter, whom he described as that rarest of beings, an honest lawyer.
Porter soon found himself in difficulty on the issue of religion: as his later career would show he was by no means hostile to Roman Catholics, and was indeed in favour of a considerable degree of religious toleration for members of that faith. When the King first confided to Porter his plan to admit Catholics to public office, he did not object to the policy of allowing the admission of a limited number of Catholics into the Government. Porter appears to have been the only member of the Dublin administration in whom the King confided, which suggests that James initially trusted him. However Porter strongly objected to the policy of wholesale replacement of Protestant office-holders by Catholics, and this rapidly undermined his credit with James II. Porter quarreled violently with the Duke of Tyrconnel, the effective leader of the Irish Catholics, and soon to be Lord Deputy of Ireland. Tyrconnel, true to his nickname of "Lying Dick Talbot", (he was not related to Charles), falsely accused him taking bribes, and he was dismissed from office early in 1687, much to the regret of the Irish public. He demanded an interview with the King, which James grudgingly granted, and demanded to know the reason for his dismissal. James would reply only that it was entirely his own fault.
He returned to his practice at the Bar in England, but he did not flourish, and was said to have been reduced to a condition of near poverty. His fortunes were restored by the Revolution of 1688, of which he was an early and strong supporter. He was appointed King's Counsel; entered the House of Commons as member for Windsor in 1690, and late that year, after William III had overcome his opponents in Ireland, was reappointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
His second term as Chancellor, like his first, was plagued with political controversy; ironically, having been removed from office for showing a lack of favour to Roman Catholics, he was now accused of excessive sympathy to their cause. In his capacity as Lord Justice of Ireland he signed the Treaty of Limerick, which gave generous terms of surrender to the defeated Catholic supporters of James II, promising them religious tolerance, security of property and a general pardon. Porter was determined to observe the terms of the Treaty, so far as possible. This brought him into conflict with most other members of the Dublin administration, although he had a strong ally in Sir Richard Cox, himself a future Lord Chancellor. The conflict intensified after the appointment of Lord Capel as Lord Deputy. Porter's opponents were determined to have him removed, the great difficulty being that King William III thought well of him. In 1693 he was charged with maladministration before the English House of Commons. Being still a member of the House, he attended the hearing in person and secured a favourable verdict.
His enemies returned to the attack in 1695 when he was impeached by the Irish House of Commons for high crimes and misdemeanours; the articles, while including a reference to Jacobite sympathies, chiefly concerned his conduct as a judge and listed a series of alleged acts of corruption and abuse of office. Porter was permitted to speak in his own defence; his speech was generally agreed to have been a masterpiece: unfortunately no copy of it survives. We know that Porter, who prided himself on his magnanimity, promised to bear no malice against his accusers. The House of Commons rejected the charges by a large majority. Why the impeachment was brought in the first place remains something of a mystery. Suspicion naturally pointed to Capel, the Lord Deputy, who was certainly no friend of Porter's. Capel however denied that he had any part in it, and it has been argued in his defence that stirring up trouble in this way would have done him no favours with the King, who admired Porter.
On the night of his acquittal, Porter became involved in an altercation with Robert Rochfort, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a political opponent. who was evidently furious at the failure of the impeachment. Seeing the Chancellor's coach trying to pull ahead of his own, Rochfort, who had a great sense of his own dignity, jumped down and tried to physically prevent Porter's coachman from going ahead of him. Porter sensibly stayed out of this quarrel, but the following day at his request the Lords sent a protest to the Commons, who replied that no insult had been intended, and that indeed the night was so dark that Rochfort had not recognised Porter (the streets of Dublin then were notoriously dark and badly lit).
Porter tried so far as possible to counter what he regarded as Capel's aggressively Protestant policy. On the other hand, as regards appointments to high office, there may well have been faults on both sides, since it seems that Porter, no less than Capel, was anxious to secure as many important offices as possible for his friends and relatives. In 1695 Porter told Capel that he "could not bear it" if William Neave, the MP for Tulsk, a bitter political enemy who had been active in the impeachment proceedings, were appointed Second Serjeant. Capel sharply retorted that he had allowed Porter to nominate his own protege, Sir Thomas Pakenham, as Prime Serjeant, as well as allowing Porter's own brother William to take silk. As regards Neave's role in the impeachment, Capel urged Porter, normally a magnanimous man, to forgive and forget, as he had already promised to do in his speech in his own defence. Neave was duly appointed Serjeant despite Porter's protests.
On Capel's death in the spring of 1696, Porter, appointed again as Lord Justice, was briefly at the head of the Irish administration: but on 8 December 1696, on returning to his chambers after leaving Court, he collapsed and died suddenly of a stroke.
Porter married twice, but almost is known about either of his wives. He had three children:
- Frederick, who married his cousin Mary Porter, but had no children.
- Elizabeth, who married firstly Edward Devenish, and then Rev John Moore, fourth son of Henry, 3rd Earl of Drogheda and had issue by both marriages.
- Letitia, who married George Macartney; the celebrated statesman George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney, was their grandson.
His brother William followed him to Ireland, was called to the Irish Bar and became King's Counsel in 1695. They had at least one sister Elsie, who married John Miller. They were the ancestors of the Miller Baronets of County Clare.
Four years after Porter's death, Parliament passed a motion to protect the property rights of his children. This seems to confirm the general belief that Porter died in a condition of considerable poverty.
Porter's strong opinions and refusal to compromise on his principles made him numerous enemies in the political sphere; yet in private life, according to Lord Guildford, he was universally loved as a man who was witty, generous and magnanimous. His antipathy to William Neave caused some comment in a man normally very willing to forgive his political enemies. His fondness for drink undoubtedly damaged his career. However, on the whole he was a success as Lord Chancellor of Ireland - despite criticisms from his English counterpart, John Somers, 1st Baron Somers, who wrote brutally that his death was a blessing for all concerned. William III, who normally regarded his Ministers with a complete lack of human emotion, went so far as to say on Porter's death that he "was sorry for the loss of a good Chancellor". Despite his chronic need of money he prided himself on not taking bribes. The second Earl of Clarendon, who had a very low opinion of the legal profession in general, said that Porter and their mutual friend Roger North were "the only two honest lawyers I ever knew". North himself praised Porter's many good qualities, including magnaminity, self-control and the cheerfulness with which he endured misfortune.
Archbishop Michael Boyle
| Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Sir Alexander Fitton
Title last held by Sir Alexander Fitton
| Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Title next held by John Methuen
- McGrath, C. I. "Porter, Sir Charles". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22560.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- =Bagwell, Richard (1896). "Charles Porter". In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 46. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 170.
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926
- State Trials Vol. VII p.458
- O'Flanagan J. Roderick Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland London 1870
- See the sketch of Porter's character in Lord Braybrooke's edition of the Diary of Samuel Pepys
- O'Flanagan Lives of the Chancellors
- Kenyon, J.P. Robert Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland 1641–1702 Longmans Greene 1958 Reissued 1992 p.130
- Kenyon p.130
- Kenyon p.136
- Ball Judges in Ireland
- Hayton, David "Ruling Ireland 1685–1742 Politics, Politicians and Parties" Boydell Press 2004 p.57
- Judges in Ireland
- Hart, A.R. History of the King's Serjeants-at-law in Ireland Four Courts Press Dublin 2000
- Hart Irish Serjeants-at-law
- Judges in Ireland
- Hart Irish Serjeants-at-law
- Burke's Peerage 5th Edition LOndon 1838
- Journal of the House of Commons Volume 9
- Lives of the Chancellors