“Considering Sir Richard Lane’s spotless integrity, and his uniform adherence to his principles, – notwithstanding his comparative obscurity and his poverty, he is more to be honoured than many of his predecessors and successors who have left behind them a brilliant reputation, and ample possessions and high dignities to their posterity” — Lord John Campbell (1848 “Lives of the Lord Chancellors”, Vol 2)
Why is this quest so important to you? This is a question I have been asked quite often – and given the investment of time, energy and some money it has taken, it’s a fair question!
In the beginning, it was simple curiosity. I bought the “Lane’s Reports” book because it was so fascinatingly old. I wanted to find out what else there might be to know about it, beyond its age and the quill margin notes it contained. What could it tell me about the world it came from? Whose hands had held it long before even the earliest family I have known even existed? Or, for that matter, before most of this country existed?
When I began investigating the author, I didn’t really expect to find any trace of him. Why would I? Except for some intriguing elements in the title page, the book didn’t seem to offer any sense of importance. Many of the book’s cases seemed a bit mundane at a glance, and were generally difficult to read. But, I was curious to know what I might be able to turn up…
It turns out there are a lot of Richard Lanes in the world. I slogged through page after bleary-eyed page of them: actors, rugby players, architects, evangelists, and even a personal injury lawyer in Portland. According to Whitepages, there are 33 of them living in Colorado alone. But I wasn’t surprised. Its a very common name. Assuming there was anything to find of a random author from the 1600’s, it was going to take some serious sifting to find the man I had started thinking of as “my author”. It was time to narrow the field…
The first inkling that there was some surviving information about him leapt into my lap when I added the term “Exchequer” (from the title page) to my search for “Richard Lane”. To my surprise, on the first page there was a Wikipedia page about Richard Lane that had been created in 2011. It’s a good article – see it for yourself: Wikipedia article: Richard Lane (Barrister)
As I looked into it further, I realized the Wikipedia article seems to have been drawn largely from another result from the first page: the “Dictionary of National Biography” (63 volumes containing biographical information on 29,000 notable people of England published in 1885-1900). It is also worth reading: DNB article on Sir Richard Lane.
How wonderful to have “found” my author! And to my genuine surprise, the surviving descriptions were actually interesting. This wasn’t a dry reference to a man who lived in ye olde mother’s basement–he had served the king, and been appointed to some oddly titled offices. And he had apparently been involved in a civil war in England that I hadn’t really been aware of.
I sat back in my chair. It was actually possible to know something about my author! I was intrigued. Looking back now, I realize this was the tipping point.
Depth of character is a spellbinding quality in a person. And, I would humbly submit, character is the critical difference between a hero and a champion. A champion may simply be someone who has been blessed with the gift of great ability. The admiration we offer a champion’s ability is sincere, but it is generally what I think of as the admiration of our intellect. The admiration of our hearts is altogether different. That is something we save for our heroes – those who make choices we wish we’d have the character and courage make in the same difficult circumstances.
Our heroes are the sorts that get down on their knees in the streets of London in heels and a business skirt to cradle the head of a stranger struck by a car. They embody the best of us in their character, and we admire them even should their abilities fall short. We may reasonably ponder the character of the man whose instinct was to activate his smartphone camera in a crisis, but we don’t question that of the man who rushes forward to help. And our hearts lie especially with those who leap into the service of noble ideals when that leap places their own interests in peril.
Richard Lane seems to have been a man of that caliber. His rise from obscurity to one of the highest positions a non-royal can aspire to is a story of merit – he was no “privileged son” living a life of pre-ordained influence. His family did not have wealth or power, or much property. It appears the only advantages life provided Richard Lane were a good family name, a good mind for law, and a depth of character that would, in the end, win him the admiration of kings and contemporaries alike. Nearly 370 years after his death, the more I have learned of the man, the more I have come to admire him also.
One key resource I found regarding Richard Lane is the remarkable life’s work of an English politician, lawyer and private historian / academic of the early-mid 1800’s: Lord John Campbell. His work, “The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England”, is a stunning 8-volume masterpiece of historical biography. Of all the resources I have found regarding Sir Richard Lane, Lord Campbell’s chapter about Richard Lane appears to be the most original and comprehensive.
But even Lord Campbell was frustrated by the obscurity of Richard Lane. At the time of his writing (in the mid 1800’s) two centuries had already passed, leaving that esteemed researcher only so much information about his subject. In Lord Campbell’s own words:
“I regret that my researches respecting [Richard Lane] have not been more successful, for all that I have discovered of him is to his honour. He was a very high royalist, but sincere, firm and consistent”.
In this biographical chapter regarding Richard Lane, Lord Campbell relates that:
“Young Lane seems to have raised himself up by talent, industry and perseverance. Having never sat in parliament, nor been engaged in any great state prosecution, he had not known much celebrity…but he was known to discerning men as an admirable lawyer as well as a steady friend of the prerogative”.
Shortly after Richard Lane was made the Attorney General to the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles II), he was retained as leading counsel by King Charles I to assist Lord Strafford, a friend of the crown who was facing a politically motivated impeachment by Parliament for high treason. A conviction on this charge meant beheading.
This was a dangerous appointment for Richard Lane. And the House of Commons who brought the charges attempted to intimidate Lane and his supporting legal team. Boldly, one member of the House moved that Lane and his team should be “sent for and proceeded against” for even accepting the assignment of defending someone accused of high treason. Eventually, the objection to the appointment of the defense lawyers was dropped. Dramatically, the attempt seems to have galvanized the newly appointed lawyers. As Campbell relates, “Lane and his brethren were now more eager and determined to do their duty at every hazard”.
But Lord Strafford and Lane’s team were engaged in an uphill battle:
“During the seventeen days which the trial lasted…Lane and the other counsel were not allowed in the slightest to interfere, and the noble prisoner, unassisted, carried on against the most distinguished lawyers and statesmen of the country party, and against public prejudice and passion, that heroic struggle…which shed such a lustre on his closing scene”.
As the trial came to its dramatic last act, Strafford was grudgingly given leave to have his counsel speak on the question of whether any of his actions amounted to treason in point of law. This was notable because legal counsel was generally not allowed to speak in the proceedings – only to advise their client. The lawyer that did so exposed himself to the very real personal peril of contempt charges in a dangerous and vengeful court system. Campbell describes the scene such:
“The 17th of April, 1641, was the most memorable day in the life of Lane. The [House of] Commons resentfully refused to attend [the trial] as a body, but almost all the members of the House were present from curiosity. The Scottish and Irish Commissioners filled the galleries; the King and his family were known to be in the royal closet, the Prince occasionally showing himself and nodding to his Attorney General [Richard Lane]; the unenclosed part of Westminster Hall was filled by an immense mass of spectators from the city and from the provinces, once strongly incensed against Strafford, but now beginning to doubt his guilt, and strongly inclined to admire and pity him… “.
According to Campbell, Richard Lane, rising to address this critical moment, “…surpassed all expectations“. Deftly sidestepping the injunction to “abstain from touching on the merits of the case”, Campbell relates Lane’s argument thus:
“Lane said that it was impossible to argue the question of law without stating the facts of the case from which the question arose. Accordingly he took a short, rapid and dexterous view of the evidence adduced. Having then shown very distinctly and incontrovertibly that none of the charges amounted to treason under the statute [being claimed]…and that the Earl must be acquitted, unless he could be proved to have done an act which had been legislatively declared treason before it was committed…. He then went over all the cases supposed to be in point…showing that , in the worst of times, no man had been convicted of treason except upon a specific charge of having violated one of the express provisions of the Statute of Treasons…a statute that had been the glory of Englishmen – for which respect had been professed by our most arbitrary sovereigns – but which was now to be swept away by those who avowed themselves the champions of freedom, and the reformers of all abuses.”
“[Richard Lane] sat down amidst great applause….”.
The trial was adjourned to be continued the next day. Unfortunately for the doomed Earl, great politics were afoot, and the parliamentary forces arrayed against him recognized that it was likely the Earl would be acquitted. Overnight, his foes in Parliament changed to a new strategy in order to preempt the pending judgement.
The next day, Parliament passed a “Bill of Attainder” against Lord Strafford. This mechanism (abolished in modernity) effectively convicted the Earl of treason legislatively. But this fate was, ironically, far worse than just a conviction – in the system of hereditary titles of that time, it was the ultimate punishment – stripping him of his title of nobility (his Lordship), making him and his heirs commoners. It also stripped his family of their estates, confiscating them for the government.
In the end, the wrathful Parliament would not be denied. And in the last great betrayal, King Charles I signed the order, sealing the fate of a loyal friend who had reluctantly agreed to return to London to face Parliament’s charges only under the King’s assurances that he would be protected.
I can’t help but wonder about how this failed test of his King’s character must have affected Richard Lane, who would, a few years later, place his own future in the hands of that same unreliable monarch.
Abandoned by his King, Lord Strafford was now beyond Richard Lane’s ability to intercede. Despite the brilliant and brave defense given at his trial, Lord Strafford was executed days later. This brought to an end the defining event that would prove the fulcrum upon which the remainder of Richard Lane’s life would soon turn.
The other significant resource I found regarding Richard Lane appears in the 1845 book of an American legal scholar named John Wallace, titled “The Reporters”. Mr. Wallace’s book is an often scathing review of that category of early court “reports” (books) of which “Lane’s Reports” is an early member. Wallace was adamant about the dangers of the 1800’s legal community using these reports as sources of legal precedent without critical consideration of their reliability. He described how these legal “reports” were generally published – often on speculation by the book printers focused on making a profit. The pedigree of these books was sometimes suspect, some even containing dubious “certifications” of their origins to boost book sales.
In his analysis of Lane’s Reports, Wallace states, “This book, obviously, was a private note-book…”. His assessment is overall quite positive, in contrast to the searing dissection he wreaks upon the validity of some of the other early reports. Of “Lane’s Reports” he writes:
“It is the first volume, I believe, in a separated form of Exchequer Cases; and the germinating stock from which spring the series now so extensively known in England and the United States as The Exchequer Reports, and in both countries so much respected.”
In his analysis of the cases within the book, Mr. Wallace observes, “The first case in the book indicates an acquaintance with the learned languages and a facility in using it…”. And, regarding the important Bates Case of Impositions (which is acknowledged as a case of root legal precedent) Campbell says, “The argument on behalf of the crown in the celebrated case of Impositions is fully and very well reported, and proves the reporter perfectly understood the case”.
In his summary, Mr. Wallace, seemingly much impressed with the story of Richard Lane, borrowed a favorite quote from his own deceased brother to describe the author of “Lane’s Reports”:
“Undoubtedly, there is something very engaging in the history of a man like Lane. Every generous mind, in contemplating such characters, wherever found, will acknowledge that “the capacity thus to be loyal to dethroned Truth, to feel this enthusiasm of reverence for Right in captivity, belongs to those spirits only which Nature has touched with her most ennobling influences; that the mental ability to be thus freshly and earnestly interested in each new scene of a most discouraging strife, to rise from defeat with the flushed energy of triumph, shows a large measure of the divine power of genius, and a spirit, the fountains of whose being are copiously refreshed from the eternal sources of strength and hope.”
If it were possible to ask John Wallace whether he agreed with how I have characterized heroic actions, I believe he would. Especially striking when coming from a volume of critical review, his words evidence that he would also agree that Richard Lane met that standard.
But what about Richard Lane’s contemporaries? What can we find in the historical record that tells the story of the man from the perspective of those who knew him? Fortunately, there is a fair amount of evidence in the historical record.
The first evidence Richard Lane had earned the respect of the royals was his appointment to the office of Attorney General to the Prince of Wales (Charles II) in 1634. His evolving relevance to King Charles I is evidenced by the rapid succession of increasingly important roles granted Richard Lane in Oxford by the besieged monarch: knighthood, Lord Baron of the Exchequer Court, Sargent-at-Arms, and finally Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England.
King Charles also selected Richard Lane to be among his commissioners at the negotiations at Uxbridge in 1645 in an attempt to bring the war between the monarchy and Parliament to an end by treaty. And, as the King himself later fled Oxford in the night to escape becoming trapped there, he entrusted Richard Lane with the defense of the city, authorizing him to negotiate the surrender of the King’s forces there on honorable terms if that was possible. I have read those terms, and they are surprising in the dignity and protections they provided for those who had been loyal to the king. Clearly King Charles I had a great deal of confidence in the once obscure law professor he had elevated to be his First Lord of the Privy Council.
Two years later, after Charles I was executed, his son, King Charles II confirmed the patent of Richard Lane to be his Lord Keeper as well. The favor of King Charles II for this important advisor could not be assumed. I have discovered that the young king effectively dismissed his next Lord Keeper (Edward Herbert) after less than a year of service.
In another important reference in this project, the remarkable 1600’s journalist Jean Chevalier provides a number of rich insights into the regard his contemporaries had of Richard Lane in his article describing his funeral in St Helier.
In the last weeks of his life, Richard Lane had recently departed to rejoin King Charles, but had become grievously ill and bedridden in St Malo France. Rather than leave him there, George Cartaret (the governor of Jersey who would later be given Smith’s Island in America) and the Duke of York (Charles II’s younger brother, who would later become King James II) had him brought back to the Elizabeth Castle at St Helier to be cared for.
At his funeral procession weeks later, the same Duke of York showed his respect by escorting the body to the North end of the Castle. Accompanying the body all the way to the interment was George Carteret, who served as one of 8 pall bearers. There was no apparent reason other than respect for either man to make such clear gestures honoring his memory.
The funeral described by Chevalier was replete with honors, including the salutatory firing of 3 volleys from the funeral procession’s 80 musketeers, and the firing of 7 cannons from the Elizabeth Castle as the coffin was being lowered into the earth – into a tomb under the floor of the church.
About Richard Lane himself, Jean Chevalier relates:
“He was a man of letters and learning, and for that reason had been made Lord Keeper of the Seal by the late King, as well as for the fidelity and lively wit with which he was endowed.”
The improbability of such testaments existing about my author nearly confounds me. I had expected at best to find that he had authored other publications (I have found none) and perhaps when and where he had been born and died. I originally thought it would be interesting to visit the grave of my book’s author in Jersey (although at that time, I had yet to discover the remarkable facts I have just related – and had assumed he was buried somewhere in the old section of the local cemetery).
But when I contacted the church of St Helier to confirm that his grave could be visited, I was surprised to hear that there was no record of his ever having been buried there, despite the existence of church records dating into the 1500’s.
I had stumbled onto a mystery. I’d found a number of time-scattered shards of Richard Lane’s honorable legacy, and knew there must be more. I found in myself a growing determination to see the pieces brought together – to restore a face to this remarkable man, and to understand his striking story. It has been a once in a lifetime opportunity – how could I do otherwise? Could you have?
Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed. I admire great writing, but must approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my dependence and gratitude in the meantime for your generosity of spirit and firm critique!