Wednesday, 22 June 2016

22nd June 1816: The Ely Chief Justice, Edward Christian, delivers a monologue at the end of the Special Commission

The Bury and Norwich Post of 3rd July 1816 carried the full text of the Ely Chief Justice, Edward Christian's long, self-aggrandizing monologue that he delivered at the end of the Special Commission on Saturday 22nd June 1816:


After Mr. Justice Abbott and Mr. Justice Burrough had finished all the business in the Special Commission at Ely connected with the Riots, they took leave, in a very gracious manner, of Mr. Christian, the Chief Justice, who proceeded to try a poor boy of 13 years of age. He had taken a handkerchief with some money in it, from the basket of a little girl, who was sent upon an errand by her mother. He was found guilty by the Jury, and the Chief Justice then addressed the Court to the following effect:—

"Before I pronounce judgment upon this poor boy, found guilty of a trifling theft, I cannot but take this opportunity of observing to the Court, that he would have been the only prisoner we should have had for trial, if our calendar had not been filled with the recent commitments for crimes of enormous magnitude. I trust they have arisen from a transient and temporary cause, which has made a short progress into the heart of the isle: it includes a space nearly 40 miles square, containing a very numerous population. At several of my assizes I have not had a single prisoner to try, and have had the pleasure and triumph to come into the Court to charge, and at the same time to discharge the Grand Jury in white gloves, presented to me as the emblem of the innocence and purity of the Isle. Most of the unfortunate criminals, till the commission of these brutal outrages, have had the best characters, as peaceable and honest men.

“This induced one of the Learned Judges justly to observe, upon the evidence of character, ‘that former good characters ought to have less weight upon the present occasion, because the crimes we are called here to repress, have originated from some great impetus or impulse, bursting forth in a manner inconsistent with the general habits and characters of the people.’

“In my enquiries into the original cause or motive of these extraordinary crimes, I find certainly that they cannot be attributed to a spirit of disaffection to the Government prevailing in this Isle. Since I have had a knowledge of it, I have never heard that a seditious meeting, publication, or expression, has existed within that time, or ever did exist before my connection with it: all hitherto have coccurred in one sentiment of loyalty and reverence to the constitution of their country.

“The conduct of the rioters cannot be attributed to want or poverty; the prisoners were all robust men, in full health, strength, and vigour, who were receiving great wages; and any change in the price of provisions could only lessen that superfluity, which, I fear, they too frequently wasted in drunkenness.

“The great sums these deluded men levied by their shocking robberies, were not intended to afford assistance to their families; but were to be spent in liquor, and thus to be applied as fresh fuel to the flames of their fury.

“I have now had the honour of presiding here as the Chief Justice of the Isle for 16 years, and in the course of that long period, I have been called upon to pronounce judgment of death upon 16 prisoners only; four suffered the execution of their sentence, 10 were recommended to mercy by myself, and the other two, from the notoriety of their crime, would have suffered death, but by the recommendation and interference of others, they obtained from the Royal Clemency that lenity which was refused to them by myself.

“I trust I have convinced the inhabitants of this Isle, that upon my no occasion have I shrunk from a faithful discharge of my duty: they have frequently heard from this bench, that ill-timed and misplaced lenity is cruelty, and that just severity is mercy and tenderness.—All punishment of the guilty is intended for the security and protection of the innocent; and a well-measured degree of it, upon a just occasion, precludes the necessity of the infliction of it to a much greater extent in future, which the indiscreet indulgence to criminals would inevitably be found to demand.

“I most sincerely congratulate the Isle upon the great decorum, propriety, and dignity, with which every part of the solemn business of these Assizes has been conducted. Every one has been inspired with an ardent emulation to discharge his duty with fidelity upon this awful occasion. It was particularly pleasing to me to see the Judges every day escorted to and from the Court by a numerous body of independent gentleman, as civil officers, with white wands; among whom I recognized a gentleman of great property, who last year filled the office of High Sheriff for the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon. Many of them I had not the pleasure of knowing, but all equally have deserved the thanks of Isle and of their country. Before I left London I thought it my duty to assure men high in office, that for the 16 years I had presided in this Isle, I had never met with a single finding of a Grand Jury, verdict of a Petit Jury, or a commitment by a Magistrate, which had not met with my perfect approbation. To these men of high rank, and to the Learned Judges with whom I had the honour to be associated in this commission, I pledged my confident belief that each of the Judges, upon their return to London, would be able to make the same declaration.

“I have not been disappointed—all ranks, the Chief Bailiff, the Deputy Bailiff, the Magistrates, the Grand Jury, the Petit Juries, the Constables, the Officers, and I may add, the Counsel of the Court, have not only deserved my applause, but have commanded the respect and admiration of the Learned Judges with whom I have the honour to sit upon this Bench.

“It was suggested to me in London (I trust from the best of motives, though the author of the suggestion has industriously concealed his name) that it would be more conducive to the great object of the commission, and would be more respectful in me, if I declined my rotation of duty, and left the trial of all the prisoners to them. I was of a far different opinion, and no power on earth would have compelled my compliance with a wish or suggestion which I conceived so degrading to myself, and so injurious to the administration of justice in this place. It would have amounted to a confession by myself, that the present misrule was owing to the incapacity of your Chief Justice, and that he was insufficient to try such offenders in future. The senior Judge in the commission, according to the established rule, began every morning, and I have followed the other Learned Judge every day, I trust with no impediment or detriment to the public interests. By this line of conduct I have convinced the people of this Isle, and his Majesty’s Judges, that if instances of such atrocious wickedness should ever again occur, I alone am prepared, and armed with sufficient power to inflict a punishment commensurate with the enormity of the guilt.—Here I think it my duty to declare, that the Learned Judges have treated me in particular, and every one with whom they have had communications, with a courtesy and kindness equalled only by the learning and abilities, and the dignity of their characters.

“But a great responsibility now rests upon myself the Magistrates of the Isle. Every Magistrate who had an opportunity of approaching this furious mob, has shown all the discretion, firmness, I may say heroism, that men could possibly possess, in endeavouring to restrain such violent outrages.

“The melancholy and lamentable scene just now exhibited in the Court—the solemn and impressive judgement pronounced upon 24 miserable and deluded men—the awful examples which must soon be made, will, I hope, for ever extinguish all attempts to excite insurrection and rebellion within this Isle.

“I am trusted with the high, transcendent, and extraordinary powers of holding an Assize whenever and as often as I please. If, therefore, gentleman, Magistrates of the Isle, you ever apprehend and commit to your gaols, prisoners for those crimes which are most likely to be repressed by a prompt execution of the laws, upon a few days notice I shall attend you here or at Wisbech; and with the co-operation of the intelligent and discriminating Juries, and the firm and steady Civil Officers of the Isle, I am confident we shall soon restore security and tranquillity to its inhabitants.

“The Gentleman of the Isle, who with so great honour to themselves, and benefit to the country, unite in their own persons the characters of the Magistrate and the Divine, I am sure will never fail to instil into the minds of all who hear them, that the great principles of all law, equity, and good government, are to be found in the sacred code of our religion.

“A Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, in the reign of Henry VI advanced from the Bench this great and incontrovertible truth, ‘that the Scriptures are the common law, upon which all other laws are founded.’ Let it then be the duty of all us, in our respective stations, to recommend, upon all occasions, the study of that law, where we find the duty of every good subject comprised in a few words, viz. ‘to fear God and to honour the King.’

“Prisoner at the bar,

“Your commitment and imprisonment, I hope, will have taught you this useful lesson—that honesty is the best policy, and dishonesty the worst: you will pay a fine of one shilling to the King, and then be discharged.”

The Magistrates then present, thanked the Chief Justice for his Address to the Court, and requested that he would permit it to be printed.

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