After John Michael Wright, 1617 - 1694
Portrait of Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of England 1609 - 1676
Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of England
oil on canvas
127 x 101.60 cm. (50 x 40 in. )


Hale, Sir Mathew (1609–1676), judge and writer, was born on 1 November 1609 at Alderley, Gloucestershire, only child of Robert Hale (1563?–1614), barrister, and Joan Poyntz (1577–1612) of Alderley. He normally signed himself as Mathew Hale; contemporaries in general referred to him as Hales. Hale was inclined to play down his social origins, but he inherited an income of at least £100, probably ultimately derived from his paternal grandfather, a clothier of Wotton under Edge. His father had described himself as ‘plebeian’ on his matriculation at Oxford's Broadgates Hall; after he went to Lincoln's Inn, a conscientious scruple about the tricks expected of a courtroom advocate restricted him to a mere ‘chamber practice’, but Robert Hale was prosperous enough to erect a modern house at Alderley, suitable for a minor gentleman. Hale's parents were both dead within five years of his birth, and Hale was educated by one Antony Kingscot, of Kingscot, Gloucestershire, a puritan kinsman on his father's side, in spite of some objections raised by his maternal uncle. A godly education led to matriculation at Magdalen Hall, Oxford (20 October 1626), where his youthful tutor was Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600–1658), later a noted presbyterian preacher. In early 1629 Hale may have considered a spell as a soldier in Flanders, where Sedgwick became chaplain to the famous puritan warrior Horace Vere, but in the event he entered Lincoln's Inn on 18 May 1629, where he rapidly acquired some useful contacts. There is a story that his aptitude was spotted by the barrister John Glanville (1586–1641) in the course of a professional consultation (Burnet, 9–10). While Hale was still a student, he was referred to as ‘young Noy’ because of his closeness to William Noy (d. 1634), the former constitutionalist turned loyal attorney-general. Noy had a reputation as a pioneering legal antiquary, and he no doubt shaped Hale's subsequent commitment to the study of medieval manuscripts. At some time in the later 1630s this influence was reinforced by friendship with John Selden (1588–1654), the lawyer, antiquary, and orientalist who was the greatest influence upon Hale's legal and religious thinking.

Early career

Hale was called to the bar in 1636 after the usual seven years of training. He would no doubt have gained prominence in any circumstances, but his professional progress was much accelerated by England's political troubles. In 1641 he was assigned to the defence of the ship money judge Sir John Bramston. In the course of the next decade he acted for a varied group of political defendants, including the twelve bishops impeached by the Commons, Archbishop Laud himself, the Irish papist rebel Connor McGuire, the duke of Hamilton, and the presbyterian minister Christopher Love. He was later said to have written the very effective speech in Laud's defence delivered by his senior colleague John Herne (State trials, 4.577); he certainly found ingenious arguments for Hamilton and Love, with whom he probably had more sympathy. Counsel for the defence in treason trials were in principle selected by the court, so the role in itself reveals nothing about his sympathies, but though he once appeared against the leveller John Lilburne, he never prosecuted royalists.

Although Hale's private papers show that his understanding of the constitution was broadly royalist, he stayed in London in the civil wars and seems to have been respected by all parties. It has usually been thought significant that he later produced some political ‘Observations’ to accompany his Life and Death of T. Pomponius Atticus (a translation from a Latin work by Nepos). These ‘Observations’ side with Atticus in his decision to adopt a strictly private life in troubled times, largely because they express a confidence that ‘factions in a state never long hold their ground’ (Works, 1.460). At all events, Hale made some compromises; according to Anthony Wood, he took the solemn league and covenant (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.1091). From the re-opening of the courts to the protectorate, he had an extensive practice in king's bench; this was presumably the source of £4200 dispensed on land in 1648, the year he was elected a bencher of his inn. His professional activities were unaffected by the regicide and he certainly took the engagement, but the pattern of his subsequent behaviour suggests a pragmatic conservative position. In December 1650 he took part in a public debate on elections for the London corporation, defending an electorate confined to liverymen against supporters of a freeman franchise whose spokesman was the leveller John Wildman. He was the best-known member of the so-called Hale commission to consider law reform that met on a fortnightly basis from January 1652 until some time in late summer. Hale chaired the first two meetings, but thereafter became an irregular attender. The commission's minutes show that his influence was used in a conservative direction: he opposed the innovation of a land register, and even defended benefit of clergy on the grounds that it was ‘in the parent's power to breed his child to read’ (Cromartie, 71). Hale later not implausibly maintained that he had been deliberately obstructive, on the grounds that ‘that which wise and honest men do now desire, they did then industriously decline’ (F. Hargrave, A Collection of Tracts Relative to the Law of England, 1787, 274).

Public career, 1654–1660

Cromwell appointed Hale a justice of the court of common pleas in January 1654 as part of a reshuffle of the judges that was apparently meant to reassure conservative opinion. Thereafter Hale's behaviour suggested a qualified support for the protector. In early 1654 Hale is said to have told the council that English fundamental law demanded monarchy. That autumn he sat as a member for Gloucestershire in the first of the protectorate parliaments, where he argued that ‘the government should be in the parliament and a single person, limited and restrained as the parliament should think fit’ (Diary of Thomas Burton, 1.xxxii). There is, however, no evidence that he continued to sit after Cromwell had purged the assembly by asking for an oath of recognition. Hale's subsequent behaviour was confusing; he did not sit in Cromwell's second parliament of 1656–7, but was admired by Major-General Whalley, who never knew ‘any at their own cost more willing to serve the present government than he’ (Thurloe, 4.686). His biographer Gilbert Burnet says that Hale refused to play a part in the trial of the royalist Penruddock, and that his scruples led him, after a period of hesitation, to stop presiding over criminal cases (Burnet, 40, 45–6), but Burnet had an interest in minimizing the degree of Hale's collaboration. We can be sure, however, that Hale refused to accept any office from Richard and that his exercise of his profession was restricted to chamber practice until the king's return. It was noted that he kept the title serjeant, granted by Oliver.

Hale sat for Oxford University in Richard Cromwell's parliament and for Gloucestershire (again) in the Convention. He seems to have played no significant part in the former, but was one of the leading members of the latter until he was named chief baron of the exchequer in November 1660. Throughout this period he would have been seen by his contemporaries as in a loose sense ‘presbyterian’—that is, as someone who was royalist, but favoured the adoption of restrictions upon the power of monarchy and bishops. His personal opinions are known from a private memorandum in which he ‘feared the detestation of the latter extreme under which we last smarted … will carry us over to the former extreme’ (Williams, 63); he certainly showed a reckless disregard for altering political circumstances by defending the right of the regicide Edmund Ludlow to occupy a seat in parliament (later, however, he sat on the commission that tried the regicides). In Burnet's History of my Own Time Hale is said to have argued for a settlement based on the Isle of Wight negotiations of 1648 (Bishop Burnet's History, 1.160). Hale's final act as a member of the Commons was to bring in a bill that would enact the compromise church settlement of the Worcester House declaration. One motive for appointing him chief baron was probably to remove him from the house.

Public career, 1660–1676

Hale was knighted in 1661. After the Restoration, he enjoyed virtually universal reverence but there are signs that royalist Anglicans were suspicious of what they perceived as pro-puritan and anti-government bias. In contrast to his colleague, the peppery Chief Justice Sir John Kelyng, Hale was certainly consistently relaxed when national security was thought to be threatened. In Tonge's case (1662) he was one of only two judges to refuse to convict a radical puritan printer; in Messenger's case (1668), which arose from an apprentice riot with an anti-government tinge, he was the only judge to oppose the decision to treat the rioters as traitors. In Hopkin Hugett's case (1666), in which he was for once a part of the majority, he treated the death of a member of a press-gang as merely manslaughter. Unlike Kelyng, he took a restrictive view of the use of martial law and he disliked the practice of fining juries. King Charles himself believed that ‘his servants were sure to be cast on any trial that was heard before him: not that he thought the judge was possibly to be bribed: but that his integrity might be too scrupulous’ (Essays of John Dryden, 2.69), though Charles, with his usual political astuteness, took care to appear unruffled by such behaviour. The tory historian Roger North made detailed criticisms, but even North admitted that ‘when Hales was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, by means of his great learning, even against his inclination, he did the Crown more justice than any others, in that court, had done with all their good will’ (North, 61). In May 1671 Charles made Hale the chief justice of king's bench, an appropriate appointment for someone who was writing a great digest of criminal law, but one that necessarily involved him in numerous politically sensitive cases. The government was probably particularly enraged by his reasoning in Thomas v. Sorrell (1674), a suit about the limits to the prerogative of dispensation, and in Barnardiston v. Soame(1674), a suit arising from the sheriff's conduct in a bitterly contested by-election. Hale survived an attempt to sack him in December 1672, perhaps on the grounds of refusal to endorse the royal declaration of indulgence, and he eventually retired, pleading ill health, in February 1676. Charles magnanimously insisted on paying him his salary as a pension.

Judicial conduct

Hale was a dominant figure on the bench for almost twenty years. His style in that capacity was vividly described by his enemy North. He took seriously his educational role and did his best to make the court's proceedings intelligible to students. Although he had no time for oratory and was happy to pause to search for the right word, he sometimes uttered ‘sentences heroic’ (North, 62). He held and expressed a conventional faith in the prescriptive wisdom of the law, but was prepared to countenance reform, so long as it was guided by the judges. He drafted a number of bills with this in mind, including, it was said, the Statute of Frauds of 1677 (Simpson, 602–4). He also devised the effective ‘fire court’ that was set up in 1667 by parliamentary statute to assist the rebuilding of London. The court showed a pragmatic willingness to disregard the rights of property owners so as to expedite the work of reconstruction. With equal pragmatism he fostered the exchequer's role as a court of equity. For obvious self-interested reasons, the exchequer had long assisted royal debtors by granting equitable remedies to help them to recover their own debts, but it was only in 1649 that the claim to be a debtor of the state became a legal fiction. Hale let this fiction be, and in so doing he helped to create a national equitable jurisdiction to supplement the court of chancery. He showed a similar freedom from merely legalistic prejudice in his attitude to other legal systems. He was not above defending the encroachments of common lawyers on the church courts and on the Admiralty, but he accepted the legitimacy of non-common-law jurisdictions, even when their activities were demonstrably neither based on statute nor immemorial. In 1670, in King v. Standish, he decisively rejected Coke's assertion that the medieval offence of praemunire (improperly resorting to a foreign jurisdiction) could be committed by a litigant who made appeal to the lord chancellor.

Hale's personal fame and his authorship of the standard English criminal law textbook have tended to draw disproportionate attention to probably quite commonplace opinions. Thus one of his final judgments, in R. v. Taylor (1676), established that an act of blasphemy was a common-law offence, but this development was unsurprising, given that the church now lacked an appropriate way to punish such offences. The cautionary words in Hale's textbook about crediting rape accusations were often quoted by judges in the twentieth century; together with his view that wives could not complain of rape, because a wife had ‘given up herself in this kind to her husband, which she cannot retract’ (M. Hale, Historia placitorum coronae, 1.629), they have given him an unfair reputation as a misogynist. The best-known single episode Hale was connected with was undoubtedly the witchcraft trial over which he presided at Bury St Edmunds assizes in 1662. Like many liberal protestants of his time Hale saw the existence of witches as evidence for Christianity, if only as showing the inadequacy of a materialistic atheism. He none the less conducted the proceedings in an admirably scientific spirit. The future chief justice John Kelyng was very sceptical and thought the evidence was insufficient, but he may have been influenced by prejudice against the victims, who were puritan. The court was understandably reluctant to believe that children from three separate families could have colluded to accuse two innocent old women, so the women were duly convicted and executed. An eighteenth-century story claimed that Hale later changed his mind; if so, this would explain the curious fact that none of his subsequent writings makes any reference to the episode, even when firsthand knowledge of occult phenomena was clearly relevant to his purposes.

Major legal writings

Hale's generation at the inns of court was probably more erudite than those that followed and preceded it. Unlike their post-revolutionary successors, they benefited from a professional culture that integrated ‘readings’ at the inns (the delivery of lectures about statutes) into the normal pattern of professional advancement; unlike their predecessors, they profited from the steadily rising standard of antiquarian investigation. Like his early mentor Noy, Hale was committed to research in legal manuscripts. He bequeathed his great collection to Lincoln's Inn as ‘a treasure worth the having and keeping’; but he wished to confine the fruits of such research to trained professionals, and indeed to fellow members of the inn. It is revealing of his attitudes that he thought the manuscripts were ‘a treasure … not fit for every man's view’, and the terms of his will forbade their publication (Williams, 347). These attitudes extended to his own professional writings; they delayed, and in consequence muted, the influence of his most important works. His purely professional writings are erudite, clear, and exhaustive in their treatment of an extraordinary range of questions, but only a short essay in praise of common law (a preface to Chief Justice Rolle'sAbridgement) was printed in his lifetime. He himself produced a manuscript ‘Abridgement’, the so-called ‘Black book of the new law’, but it has never been seriously studied.

Aside from his judicial contribution, Hale's influence on the course of legal history has rested upon two substantial achievements: his unfinished Historia placitorum coronae, and hisHistory and Analysis of the Common Laws of England. Neither was printed for a generation after his death in 1676, although the History, at least, was probably quite widely circulated. The Historia placitorum coronae was printed in an edition by Sollom Emlyn in 1736 and was the main authority on English criminal law for a century thereafter (it is occasionally confused with a much sketchier notebook on the subject, published in 1678 as Pleas of the Crown, or, A Methodical Summary of the Principal Matters Relating to that Subject). Stephen believed that the work displayed ‘a depth of thought and comprehensiveness of design which puts it in quite a different category from Coke's Institutes’ (J. F. Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England, 1883, 2.211). According to Gilbert Burnet, Hale started it before the regicide, suspending work during the interregnum; he was certainly still adding new material in the months of illness following his retirement. Like the Historia, the History is a history in the seventeenth-century sense—a comprehensive treatment of its topic, though much of its length is taken up with the story of the law's development. It is notable for a Burkean account of the wisdom of a customary law, and for a temperate defence of the system's continuity across the Norman conquest. The Analysis at its conclusion is a complete taxonomy of matters handled by the common law; it was borrowed by William Blackstone with minimal modification and therefore provides the structure of Blackstone's Commentaries.

Other legal/historical treatises

Hale also produced a number of detailed treatments of legal/historical questions, most of them printed in the 1790s by the great antiquarian barrister Francis Hargrave. His intellectual response to the English civil war was to compose three separate drafts of a work about the king's prerogative, which is the nearest thing we have to a statement of the English constitution from a legalistic royalist perspective. Comparison of the first two drafts, composed at some time in the 1640s, with a more polished but unfinished version that dates from some time after 1660, confirms Hale's essential consistency of outlook. If published in the seventeenth century, this work would surely have become the main authority upon the subject, but in spite of some preliminary work by Hargrave, no edition appeared until 1975, by which time it had dwindled to a curiosity. Hale's masterly account accepted the fact of constitutional change (though he believed that English law survived the Norman conquest, he indicated that he thought the Saxon monarchy had been elective). He considered that royal power had been fixed, by statute and by custom, and therefore denied the existence of a residual prerogative that might entitle Charles I to override the laws. He none the less endorsed by implication the royalist position of 1642, partly because the course of English history had shown that kings could be restrained without the use of force.

Hale's other professional essays included discussions of law reform, the customs, the powers of the court of the marches, and the relationship between king's bench and common pleas, but his most elaborate and impressive works concerned the jurisdictions of the Admiralty and of the House of Lords. His treatise on the former almost certainly arose from the vigorous rearguard action conducted in the early 1670s by the civilian Sir Leoline Jenkins. As might have been expected, Hale defended the Admiralty's right to exist while justifying the common law's removal of virtually all its commercial jurisdiction. His treatment of the latter, The Jurisdiction of the Lords House, was prompted by the friction between the two houses over Skinner's case (1669) and Shirley v. Fagg (1675)—cases concerned, respectively, with the claim of the peers to original jurisdiction and with their right to entertain appeals from chancery. Hale's subtle and learned argument depended on detecting the operation of a royal council in the precedents brought forward by the Lords. This council (which included the king's judges) was part of the Lords, but was by no means identical with it. He did not believe that the house possessed an intrinsic jurisdiction and he feared the constitutional consequences if such a claim were generally accepted. These works have barely been more influential than the doomed treatise on prerogative, though Hargrave ensured that all except the Admiralty treatise at least became available in print. The pattern of late publication dictating practical irrelevance was completed by an interesting fragment: about 1672 Hale saw a copy of Hobbes's Dialogue between a Common Lawyer and a Student, of the Common Laws of England (judges had the responsibility of licensing legal works for publication) and he was stimulated to compose some brief but suggestive ‘Reflections’ upon its ideas, defending common law's prescriptive wisdom. They have been much admired by recent scholars, but they remained unpublished until 1921.

Personal characteristics

Hale's standing among his contemporaries was derived from his integrity as much as from his learning, and his integrity was seen as founded upon an attractive mixture of puritan manners and rational religion. Even as lord chief justice his behaviour took lack of pretension to the verge of eccentricity. He favoured cheap, drab clothing, adopted a deliberate manner of speech, and lived with ostentatious modesty at Acton, Middlesex. Unlike his mentor, the gregarious Selden, Hale had no interest at all in sociable eating and drinking. He regretted some youthful visits to the theatre, but his only self-indulgence later in life was an immoderate use of pipe tobacco. It was highly characteristic that when he was knight of the shire he needed to be lent the sword required.

About 1640 Hale married his first wife, Anne Moore (1621–1658?), granddaughter of Sir Francis Moore, the noted Jacobean law reporter, and also Geoffrey Palmer's niece by marriage. There were ten children of this first marriage, of whom six survived to early adult life; Hale's enemies said that he was ‘a great cuckold’ whose sons died ‘in the sink of debauchery’ (Brief Lives, 1.278; North, 62). On 18 October 1667 his second marriage, to Anne Bishop (d. 1694), who was apparently a household servant, embarrassed his friends and much amused his critics. It seems most unlikely, however, that he ‘said there was no wisdom below the girdle’, as Roger North maliciously alleged, if only because the reported remark was uncharacteristically pithy (North, 62). Together with Hale's attitude to witchcraft and to rape, these oddities have given some support to accusations of misogyny. The accusations seem anachronistic; his dealings with women in fact suggest the rather ponderous kindness that typified his conduct generally. He named his wife as an executor, allowed her to control the upbringing of his orphan grandchildren, and left her books about divinity, so he can hardly have lacked confidence in her capacities; the generous tributes in his will suggest that the marriage was also an emotional success.

All sources uninfected by tory animus agree about Hale's charm of character. About 1646 the barrister John Maynard was asked the difference between a just man and a good one. He replied:

‘I'll tell you the difference presently: Serjeant Rolle is a just man and Matthew Hale is a good man’ … For Serjeant Rolle was just, but by nature penurious … Matthew Hale was not only just, but wonderfully charitable and openhanded, and did not sound a trumpet neither, as the hypocrites do. (Brief Lives, 2.203–4)

Hale was not just a charitable man; he took an interest in social problems. A Discourse Touching Provisions for the Poor (written in 1659 and posthumously printed) elaborates and costs a detailed scheme for county workhouses. He disapproved of any sport involving killing animals for pleasure, refused to accept the most trivial gifts from litigants before him, and had to overcome his squeamishness when punishing capital crimes.


Hale and others would have attributed these virtues to his religion. By his own account he had had a religious conversion at the age of twenty-five or twenty-six (c.1635); his hagiographer Burnet says this was a reaction to witnessing a friend collapse in a student drinking session. About 1638 Hale gave an account of his religious views, published by Richard Baxter as A Discourse of the Knowledge of God and of Ourselves (1688). The autodidact Baxter was much impressed by the work's scholastic learning, but it is probably most valuable as a statement of the Calvinist position, as understood by a conventional but highly intelligent layman. Hale was close to the learned Calvinist Archbishop Ussher during the interregnum, when the latter had a post as the Lincoln's Inn preacher. Hale defended rule by bishops on pragmatic and secular grounds, but hoped to establish a ‘moderate episcopacy’ (rule by bishops with assistance from their clergy) along the lines that Ussher advocated; he was therefore disappointed by the rigid Restoration settlement and would have preferred a more inclusive church.

By 1660 Hale had moved to an Arminian theology, but this did not diminish his sympathy with English puritans; he even disliked church music and he sympathized with puritan complaints that apparently innocent ceremonial practice could be the occasion of idolatry. Together with his mode of speech and dress, such attitudes suggested a principled old-fashioned puritanism, but some allowance should be made for an innocent love of singularity. His eccentric insistence on standing up in church for every Bible reading (not just, as the rubric dictated, for the gospel), was not a puritan habit, although it is easy to see that puritans might find the idea appealing. For a number of years he wrote an annual poem in honour of Christmas day, and he was happy to defend the wealth of diocesan bishops as an effective stimulus to learning. He had a conventional terror of antinomianism and saw the fragmentation of English religion during the interregnum as showing the practical wisdom of uniformity. An undiscriminating toleration was sure, in his opinion, to lead to popery or anarchy.

As might have been expected, the libertarian character of Hale's judicial practice became particularly noticeable in cases affecting the treatment of nonconformity. In Exeter in 1664 he refused to treat a silent Quaker meeting as a conventicle, on the grounds that only seditious conventicles were outlawed by the wording of the statute. After he moved to Acton, Middlesex, in 1667, he struck up an intimate friendship with his presbyterian neighbour Richard Baxter, another puritan who had rejected the predestinarian rigour of Calvinist doctrine. Although their conversations in general avoided politically treacherous topics, Hale did reveal his deep regret about the Restoration Act of Uniformity. In January 1668 he drew up a draft Comprehension Bill based on negotiations between moderate presbyterians led by Baxter and the lord keeper Sir Orlando Bridgeman, but the militantly Anglican behaviour of the parliament that met in February discouraged its proponents from taking the scheme any further. Baxter exaggerated how far Bridgeman had accepted his proposals, but he did extort the valuable concession that ministers without episcopal orders need not be re-ordained. When Baxter was next arrested, in 1669, Hale probably influenced the court of common pleas, which discovered a number of technical excuses for ordering his release. On at least one other occasion he himself discovered some technical grounds for freeing a dissenter and he rejected urgings to imprison the Quaker George Fox. Hale remained on very friendly terms with Baxter, consulting him about predestination, and left him 40s. as a token of esteem; the will significantly coupled Baxter with the established church's minister at home in Gloucestershire.

Religious writings

Hale was a fluent writer who liked to do his thinking pen in hand, and some of his religious works were written as a kind of exercise to concentrate his thoughts on Sunday evening (he had a puritan regard for the Sabbath's sanctity). These writings had the clarity and taxonomic flair of his professional output, but the circumstances of their composition encouraged his extreme prolixity. A selection of his short devotional essays, the Contemplations Moral and Divine, was published anonymously in 1676 by his son-in-law Edward Stephens, apparently with his tacit acquiescence, and a number of similar writings were subsequently posthumously printed. Hale also wrote apologetic works on a much larger scale, apparently for his private edification, including an unfinished treatise entitled ‘De Deo’ that extends over five closely written folio volumes. ‘De Deo’ was shown to Baxter, but is clearly quite unpublishable in its surviving form. Hale took more pains about the presentation of his most celebrated religious treatise, The Primitive Origination of Mankind, Considered and Examined According to the Light of Nature (1677), which seems to have been written in the early 1660s, although he had revised it with a view to publication during the period before his death. A German translation was published in 1683. The Primitive Origination argues for the creation of the human race by an intelligent agent; its arguments touch on numerous topics, including the impossibility of an infinite succession, the character of time and space, the demographic tendencies of modern England and of ancient Israel, and the unlikelihood of spontaneous generation in anything more complex than a mouse. Hale also composed a number of drafts of a sequel about the ‘secondary origination’ of the individual soul. As he discusses sexual reproduction and a number of very heterodox ideas, this work was partly composed in a barbarous Latin. It would have concluded by treating of supernatural regeneration.

Hale's writings about Christianity suggest a not unusual drift towards a broadly ethical religion. Perhaps under Selden's influence, he moved from an infralapsarian Calvinism during the 1630s to a basically Arminian position; like many Arminians, he was inclined to cover this shift in doctrine with professions of indifference to theological aridities. By the later 1660s he expected virtuous pagans to be saved. His writings show no interest in ecclesiology or in the nature of the sacraments, and he regarded Roman Catholics as victims of a clerical confidence trick. Most of these views were typical of the non-Laudian divines since known as latitudinarian. Among this varied group Hale is said to have known Tillotson, Stillingfleet, and Barrow (Burnet, 74), though his religious standpoint was probably closest to Tillotson's brand of post-puritan rationalism. After his comprehension scheme of 1668 Hale certainly became a friend of John Wilkins, the bishop of Chester; something of what they might have had in common can be encapsulated by the fact that Wilkins, who had married Cromwell's daughter, was Tillotson's father-in-law.

Scientific writings

Hale chose to present his works of natural philosophy as a busy professional's hobby, but they reflect the principal concerns of his religious writings and show an impressive level of acquaintance with recent literature. His serious apologetic writings on the origination of mankind lean heavily on scientific detail. In youth (no doubt at Oxford) he had been interested in such questions, but his renewed attention to natural-philosophical enquiry appears to date from about the time of the Restoration. His basic position had certainly been formed when he wrote the Primitive Origination in the early 1660s. Hale occasionally performed experiments, particularly with magnets, but he seems to have regarded as his primary role the solution of phenomena presented in the existing literature. Like Newton he disliked hypotheses—the habit, stemming from Descartes, of suggesting mechanistic explanations of all phenomena. His interests therefore centred on those well-known features of the natural world (magnets, plants, animals, and gravity) that seemed most difficult to understand in mechanistic terms. On the other hand, he was distrustful of a naturalistic teleology, exemplified for him by Henry More; both mechanism and teleology excluded God from nature. Drawing upon the thinking of the chemist J. B. van Helmont, Hale tried to avoid both extremes by reference to the concept of a ‘ferment’. These active principles within the world were ranged upon a spectrum, running from flames and magnets to the animal (and perhaps the human) soul; they could not themselves be explained except as motions obedient to a divine command.

In his last years Hale ventured to apply this theory in three short publications. The first, An essay, touching the gravitation and non-gravitation of fluid bodies, and the reasons thereof (1673), explained the supposed phenomenon that fluid bodies do not gravitate (that water at the bottom of the sea is not significantly pressed upon by water higher up). It was followed by Difficiles nugae, or, Observations Touching the Torricellian Experiment (1674; 2nd edn, 1675), a pamphlet concerned with Boyle's claim that the ‘spring of the air’ (a fluid) holds up the column of mercury within a primitive barometer. A reply by Henry More, Remarks upon Two Late Ingenious Discourses (1676), evoked a further pamphlet,Observations Touching the Principles of Natural Motion (1677), which discusses rarefaction and condensation, the ability of a given piece of matter to fill a greater or a lesser space. Though he disclaimed appeals to final causes, these writings in practice defended the principles he would have learned at Oxford, and his most significant debts, after Helmont, were to Honoratus Fabri and Francis Linus, two broadly Aristotelian Jesuits. Although the pamphlets were anonymous, their authorship appears to have been well known, a fact that may have helped diminish their impact; respect for the chief justice, by muffling criticism, may also have denied him the attention arising from polemical exchanges. Hale died at Alderley on Christmas day 1676, and was buried in Alderley churchyard, having left instructions that he should not be buried in the church—that being a place for the living, not the dead.

Posthumous reputation

Hale left a place in national memory as the type of the virtuous lawyer and the incorruptible judge. This image was cemented by Gilbert Burnet's hagiography, The Life and Death of Sir Matthew Hale (1682), a book that soon achieved a classic status. The date of this work's composition at a period of royalist reaction made Burnet relatively reticent about his hero's brand of politics. The balance was somewhat redressed by Baxter's remarks in his Additional Notes on the Life and Death of Sir Matthew Hale (1682), which stressed Hale's sympathy for the dissenters, and by the account of their friendship in the posthumous Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696). There were more critical voices, suspicious of Hale's ‘presbyterianism’, most notably Anthony Wood in Athenae Oxonienses and Roger North in his life of his brother, Lord Guilford, but their snipings have the shrillness of the consciously perverse. During the eighteenth century Hale ceased to be regarded as the property of any particular party. Even Jacobites were anxious to maintain that Hale would have supported their position. Samuel Johnson recommended Burnet's Life, and the edition of Works Moral and Divine published by Thomas Thirlwall in 1805 contains a dedication to Lord Eldon.

Hale has continuously enjoyed the reverence of lawyers as the greatest Stuart jurist after Coke, and treatments of his place in legal history have virtually always been tinged with piety. In non-professional eyes Hale's reputation has been less consistent. Down to the early nineteenth century, his short religious tracts were recommended as edifying reading, no doubt because the point about these works was not their content but their authorship. Since then, the fact that such a man was also an exemplary protestant Christian has lost apologetic usefulness. During the twentieth century the best-known episode in Hale's career was undoubtedly his role in trying witches. This has usually been treated, given Hale's learning and his character, as a striking indication of the blindness of his age, although a more recent tradition has traced the aberration to his own misogyny. In Arthur Miller's playThe Crucible, the clerical expert on witchcraft is called Hale.

Alan Cromartie DNB

Artist biography

 John Michael Wright, (bap. 1617, d. 1694), painter, was baptized as Mighell Wryghtt in St Bride's, Fleet Street, London, on 25 May 1617. His father was James Wright, later described as a tailor and citizen of London. Little is known of Wright's early life, and the accounts of the principal informants—Bainbrigge Buckeridge, Thomas Hearne, and George Vertue—tend to be contradictory. However, two consistent themes are lent credibility by later events in his life: a Scottish connection and an adherence to what Hearne calls ‘the Romish religion’.

The first unambiguous Scottish link was the nineteen-year-old Wright's apprenticeship to the Scottish portrait painter George Jamesone in Edinburgh on 6 April 1636. The reasons for this quite unusual step may have been familial or even religious, but two other factors may have played a part: plague was rampant in London at the time, and Jamesone had by this date established a not inconsiderable reputation. The apprenticeship was entered into for five years, but the increasing political turmoil may have shortened its duration (Jamesone was imprisoned during the latter half of 1639). In these years Wright is likely to have lodged in his master's premises, which were in a tenement on the north side of the High Street, near the Netherbow Gate. There is no evidence of independent work by Wright at this time, but his earliest known painting, a little portrait of Robert Bruce, second earl of Elgin and Ailesbury, painted in Rome in the early 1640s (priv. coll.), is modest and still quite provincial.

It is possible that it was during this Scottish sojourn that Wright met, or even married, the wife who was described some thirty years later as being ‘related to the most noble and distinguished families of Scotland’. The identity of this wife, to whom he was certainly married by 1656, and with whom he had at least one child, a son called Thomas, remains a mystery.

Wright probably arrived in Rome during 1642, when, in the company of a scholar of Scottish descent, James Alban Gibbes, a Mr Wright signed the pilgrim book of the English College. There are no details of his further training as a painter while in Rome, but his repertory of skills and his knowledge must have increased enormously, so much so that in 1648 he became a member of the Academy of St Luke (where he was designated inglese). Other foreign members at this time included painters of such supreme quality as Nicolas Poussin and Velázquez. On 10 February of the same year Wright was also elected a member of the Congregazione dei Virtuosi, having been proposed by a Pietro Ferreri. This was a charitable organization concerned with promoting religion by means of the arts. It also organized an annual exhibition in the Pantheon, where Wright must have measured himself against the best painters working in the city.

During his more than ten years in Rome, Wright built up a substantial collection of books, prints, and drawings (including some attributed to Raphael, Correggio, and Titian) and acquired some forty paintings, perhaps as a dealer as much as a collector. It is interesting that in his list of Wright's graphic art, Richard Symonds, amateur and royalist, is careful to designate Wright as Scotus. Wright also became what Hearne termed ‘a bare antiquarie’ (which might suggest a dealer whose knowledge lacked profundity) and ‘very well versed in the Latin tongue … and a great master of Italian and French’ (Reliquiae, 344).

It was presumably accomplishments of this sort that led during the early 1650s to Wright's undertaking antiquarian duties for Archduke Leopold William of Austria, currently governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Although the published sources refer to this phase in Wright's life, it is documented only by a passport, issued to ‘Juan Miguel Rita, pintor Ingles’, enabling him to travel to England to purchase paintings, medals, and antiquities. The passport, dated 22 May 1655, is signed by Leopold at Brussels, so Wright was probably there at this time. It is also the earliest evidence that Wright had taken the additional Christian name of John, presumably to mark his commitment to Roman Catholicism.

If Wright went to England on behalf of the archduke shortly afterwards, this is not recorded. However, he did enter the country, through Dover, on 9 April 1656, and three days later had taken lodgings in London with a Mrs Johnson in Weld Street in the parish of St Giles. According to his registration he had left his family in Italy, where he shortly intended to return. It is also noted that he had practised painting in France and ‘other parts’—presumably the Netherlands. Since leaving Scotland, therefore, he had furnished himself with a variety of experience far wider than that of any other painter working in Britain during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Wright did not return to Italy, and was in due course joined by his family in Cromwellian England. It was soon evident that, despite his Catholicism, he was able to operate on both sides of the political divide. In 1658 he painted a small, allegorical portrait of the protector's daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Claypole (NPG), while in the following year he painted Colonel John Russell (Ham House, Surrey), who was active in the ‘Sealed Knot’ conspiracy to restore the monarchy. The latter is perhaps his masterpiece, the kind of painting that allowed John Evelyn to describe him as ‘the famous Painter Mr Write’ (Evelyn, 3.113). The signatures on these paintings continue Wright's use of his two Christian names, but he was not always consistent in this.

During the 1660s Wright appears to have had financial problems—he seems never to have been a good businessman—for he was granted the royal privilege of disposing of his collection of old master paintings by means of a lottery. Fourteen of these paintings were in the event acquired by the king. Two public events significantly affected Wright's career at this stage: the plague of 1665 and the great fire of London in 1666. The plague brought normal life to a halt, and Wright sought work in the country, something he was always willing to consider. It was at this time that he painted at least three members of the Arundell of Wardour family. The aftermath of the fire brought Wright a singular benefit. In 1670 he won a commission from the aldermen of the City to paint twenty-two full-length portraits of the judges who had unravelled the many disputes over property boundaries caused by the devastation of the fire. These portraits were seen hanging in the Guildhall in 1673 by John Evelyn, who attested that they were good likenesses, though he now thought less of Wright as an artist. Their condition deteriorated disastrously over the years, and only two remain in the Guildhall Art Gallery and Library. The remainder have been dispersed or destroyed. In 1668 he painted the first poet laureate, John Dryden; the portrait, which was previously incorrectly catalogued, was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2009.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Wright had received some royal patronage—notably to paint an allegorical ceiling for the king's bedchamber in Whitehall Palace (Nottingham Castle Museum)—but he was not granted a royal office, which he must have desired. The position of king's painter during the 1660s was the preserve of Sir Peter Lely. However, in 1673 Wright was granted the office of picture drawer in ordinary and thereafter frequently signed his paintings, rather grandiloquently, Pictor Regius. One of the earliest to be signed in this way was a group portrait from 1673 of Sir Robert Vyner and his wife with two of their children (NPG). Compositionally it is close to Lely, but it has none of that painter's suave glamour, which must have been far more in accord with courtly taste. Samuel Pepys, immediately after an appreciative visit to Lely's studio, remarked: ‘Thence to Wright's the painter's: but Lord, the difference that is between their two works’ (Pepys, 3.113). Pepys, however, was not a good judge of painting. Wright's portrait has a plain and sympathetic realism, and contains a carefully observed, atmospheric landscape which was unusual in English painting at this time.

Wright's evident concern with his social status was marked by a curious episode in 1676. On 3 March someone signing herself Marie L[ady] of Hermistan, and evidently a Catholic, dispatched a letter from London to Cosimo (III) de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, pleading that he should attempt to persuade the king to grant Wright a baronetcy. Wright, with the miniaturist Samuel Cooper, had met Cosimo when he visited London in 1669; and Cosimo had subsequently called on Wright at his studio, where he commissioned a portrait of the duke of Albemarle. Wright may also by this time have painted his state portrait of Charles II (Royal Collection), so that the time for such a plea might have seemed ripe. Nothing, however, materialized. The identity of the writer, whose letter contains the only known reference to Wright's wife, remains obscure.

As harassment of Catholics again intensified, Wright spent more time working in the country. His six family portraits for Sir Walter Bagot of Blithfield in Staffordshire occasioned a series of letters from Wright to his patron, written in 1676 and 1677, which give much information about his prices and methods as well as conveying a strong impression of Wright's personality, which must have been lively and engaging.

The following year, 1678, brought the public hysteria generated by Titus Oates's Popish Plot, and Wright removed himself to Dublin, where, still calling himself Pictor Regius, he painted the rather French-looking portrait The Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Talbot (NG Ire.). Here he also painted his two famous full-lengths of Celtic chieftains in exotic costume, the Sir Neil O'Neill (Tate Collection) and the Lord Mungo Murray (Scot. NPG).

The accession in 1685 of Charles II's brother James, an avowed Catholic, brought Wright's last great chance of significant royal favour. Hearne reports that the new king had ‘a particular fondness for him’ and that this led to Wright's appointment as steward to the earl of Castlemaine, who was sent out to Rome on an embassy to the pope, Innocent XI, at the beginning of 1686. The embassy had a number of specific tasks, but was mainly intended to follow precedent and to demonstrate that England could become a major player on the Catholic side in the conflicts of continental Europe: the conversion of England was to be seen as a possibility. Wright's knowledge of Rome, and of the Italian language, must have played a part in this appointment. His precise role seems to have been to co-ordinate the production of a number of elaborately carved coaches and all the attendant costumes and decorations that made up the vast procession which eventually made its way to an audience with the pope in January 1687. He also oversaw the great banquet for more than 1000 guests, the tables replete with intricate sugar sculptures, which followed in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilij. The banqueting room bore at its head a large state portrait, which an engraving depicts as having precisely the same form as Wright's earlier state portrait of Charles II.

The pope, however, was unimpressed, having no desire to see the status quo in England upset. While still in Rome, Wright published an illustrated account of the embassy in Italian, dedicated to the duchess of Modena. Shortly after his return to England in October 1687, he published an English version, dedicated this time to the duchess's daughter, Queen Mary.

With the revolution of 1688 and the expulsion of the king, Wright's career was virtually at an end. He now suffered relative poverty, although he remained in good spirits until early in 1694, when his health deteriorated. He made his will in March, leaving his house in the parish of St Paul's to his niece Katherine Vaux. His pictures, drawings, prints, and books he left to his nephew Michael Wright, also a painter. However, a codicil declared that his books should be sold on behalf of his son, Thomas, who was still abroad. These books were auctioned at Wright's house in James Street (‘over against Hart Street end’) on 4 June. Death was not long delayed, and on 1 August the burial of John Michael Wright, the name he had fashioned for himself, was recorded at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

The account of Wright's funeral by Thomas Hearne describes the painter as he was in his prime: ‘He was of middle stature, free and open, and innocently merry in his conversation … of great plainness and simplicity, and of a very easy temper’ (Reliquiae, 346).

Duncan Thomson  DNB