Banbury Peerage Case

The Banbury Peerage Case

Since the reign of Edward III. the family of Knollys has been distinguished in the annals of the kingdom. In those days Sir Robert Knollys, one of the companions of the Black Prince, not only proved himself a gallant soldier, but fought to such good purpose that he enriched himself with spoils, and was elevated to the distinction of the Blue Ribbon of the Garter. His heirs continued to enjoy the royal favour throughout successive reigns; and Sir Francis Knollys, one of his descendants, who likewise was a garter-knight in the earlier part of the sixteenth century, espoused Catherine Cary, a grand-daughter of the Earl of Wiltshire, and a grand-niece of Queen Anne Boleyn. Two sons were born of this marriage, and were named Henry and William respectively. Henry died before his father, and William, who was born in 1547, succeeded to the family honours in 1596. He had worn them for seven years, when King James created him Baron Knollys of Grays, in Oxfordshire, in 1603. Sixteen years afterwards, King James further showed his royal favour towards him by creating him Baron Wallingford, and King Charles made him Earl of Banbury in 1626. He was married twice during his long life—first to Dorothy, widow of Lord Chandos, and daughter of Lord Bray, but by her he had no children; and secondly, and in the same year that his first wife died, to Lady Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. The couple were not well-assorted, the earl verging on three-score years, while the lady had not seen her twentieth summer on the day of her nuptials. Still their married life was happy, and her youth gladdened the old man's heart, as is proved by his settlement upon her, in 1629, of Caversham, in Berkshire, and by his constituting her his sole executrix. In the settlement, moreover, he makes mention of "the love and affection which he beareth unto the said Lady Elizabeth his wife, having always been a good and loving wife;" and in the will he calls her his "dearly-beloved wife Elizabeth, Countess of Banbury." Lord Banbury died on the 25th of May 1632, having at least reached the age of eighty-five.

No inquiry was made immediately after his death as to the lands of which he died seised; but about eleven months afterwards, a commission was issued to the feodor and deputy-escheator of Oxfordshire, pursuant to which an inquisition was taken on the 11th of April 1633, at Burford, when the jury found that Elizabeth, his wife, survived him; that the earl had died without heirs-male of his body, and that his heirs were certain persons who were specified. Notwithstanding this decision there appears to have been little doubt that about the 10th of April 1627, the countess had been delivered of a son, who was baptized as Edward, and that on the 3d of January 1631, she had given birth to another son, who received the name of Nicholas. Both of these children were living when the inquisition was made. The first was born when the Earl of Banbury was in his eightieth year, and his wife between forty and forty-one years of age, and the second came into the world almost when his father was about to leave it, and when the countess was between forty and forty-five. Within five weeks after the death of the earl, her ladyship married Lord Vaux of Harrowden, who had been on terms of intimate friendship with the family during the deceased nobleman's lifetime, and it was plainly said that the children of Lady Banbury were the issue of Lord Vaux, and not of the earl.

On the 9th of February 1640-41, a bill was filed in Chancery by Edward, the eldest son, described as "Edward, Earl of Banbury, an infant," by William, Earl of Salisbury, his guardian, and brother-in-law of the Countess of Banbury. Witnesses were examined in the cause; but after a century and a-half their evidence was rejected in 1809 by the House of Lords. There was, however, a more rapid and satisfactory means of procedure. A writ was issued in 1641, directing the escheator of Berkshire "to inquire after the death of William, Earl of Banbury;" and the consequence was that a jury, which held an inquisition at Abingdon, found, with other matters, "that Edward, now Earl of Banbury, is, and at the time of the earl's decease was, his son and next heir." The young man, therefore, assumed the title, and set out on a foreign tour. He was killed during the next year near Calais, while he was yet a minor. His brother Nicholas, then about fifteen years of age, at once assumed the title. In the same year Lord Vaux settled Harrowden and his other estates upon him. His mother, the Countess of Banbury, died on the 17th of April 1658, at the age of seventy-three, and Lord Vaux departed this life on the 8th of September 1661, aged seventy-four. Meantime Nicholas had taken his seat in the House of Lords, and occupied it without question for a couple of years. The Convention Parliament having been dissolved, however, he was not summoned to that which followed it, and in order to prove his right to the peerage petitioned the Crown for his writ. This petition was heard by the Committee for Privileges, which ultimately decided that "Nicholas, Earl of Banbury, is a legitimate person."

At his death he left one son, Charles, who assumed the title of Earl of Banbury, and who petitioned the House of Lords to take his case into consideration. After thirty years' delay, occasioned by the disturbed state of the times, the so-called Lord Banbury having accidentally killed his brother-in-law in a duel, was indicted as "Charles Knollys, Esq.," to answer for the crime on the 7th of November 1692. He appealed to the House of Lords, and demanded a trial by his peers: it was therefore necessary to re-open the whole case. After a patient investigation, his petition to the House of Lords was dismissed, and it was resolved that he had no right to the earldom of Banbury. He was consequently removed to Newgate.

When he was placed before the judges, and was called upon to plead, he admitted that he was the person indicted, but pleaded a misnomer in abatement—or, in other words, that he was the Earl of Banbury. The pleas occupied, subsequently, more than a year, during which time the prisoner was admitted to bail. At last the House of Lords interfered, and called upon the Attorney-General to produce "an account in writing of the proceedings in the Court of King's Bench against the person who claims the title of the Earl of Banbury." The Attorney-General acted up to his instructions, and Lord Chief-Justice Holt was heard by the Lords on the subject. Parliament, however, was prorogued soon afterwards, and no decision was arrived at in the matter. Meantime, the Court of King's Bench proceeded to act as if no interference had been made, and quashed the indictment on the ground that the prisoner was erroneously styled "Charles Knollys" instead of "The Earl of Banbury."

When the Lords reassembled on the 27th of November 1694 they were very wroth, but, after an angry debate, the affair was adjourned, and nothing more was heard of the Banbury Peerage until the beginning of 1698, when Charles Banbury again petitioned the king, and the petition was once more referred to the House of Lords. Lord Chief-Justice Holt was summoned before the committee, and in answer to inquiries as to the motives which had actuated the judges of the King's Bench, replied, "I acknowledge the thing; there was such a plea and such a replication. I gave my judgment according to my conscience. We are trusted with the law. We are to be protected, not arraigned, and are not to give reasons for our judgment; therefore I desire to be excused giving any." Mr. Justice Eyre maintained the same dignified tone, and at length the House of Lords abandoned its fruitless struggle with the common-law Judges. The petition of Lord Banbury was subsequently laid before the Privy Council, when the sudden death of Queen Anne once more put an end to the proceedings.

When the Hanoverian princes came to the throne, Lord Banbury again tempted fate by a new petition to the Crown. Sir Philip York, the then Attorney-General, investigated the whole of the past proceedings from 1600 up to his time, and made a full report to the king, but no definite decision was given. In 1740, the claimant Charles, so-called Earl of Banbury, died in France. During his lifetime he had never ceased to bear the title he had presented five petitions to the Crown, demanding the acknowledgment of his rights, and neither he nor any of his family, during the eighty years which had elapsed from the first preferment of the claim, had ever relinquished an iota of their pretensions.

At his death Charles, the third assumed Earl of Banbury, left a son called Charles, who adopted the title, and, dying in 1771, bequeathed it to his son William, who bore it until his decease in 1776. He was, in turn, succeeded by his brother Thomas, at whose death, in 1793, it devolved upon his eldest son, William Knollys, then called Viscount Wallingford, who immediately assumed the title of Earl of Banbury, and in 1806 presented a formal petition to the Crown—a petition which was in due course referred to the Attorney-General, and was by his advice transferred to the House of Lords.

Until 1806, when the claim was renewed, the pretenders to the Banbury honours had not only styled themselves earls in all legal documents, but they had been so described in the proceedings which had taken place, and in the commissions which they had held; and while their wives had been styled Countesses of Banbury, their children had borne those collateral titles which would have been given by courtesy to the sons and daughters of the Earls of Banbury. But, although there had thus been an uninterrupted usage of the title for upwards of 180 years, when William Knollys succeeded his father a new system was practised. His father, the deceased earl, had held a commission in the third regiment of foot, and during his father's lifetime he had been styled in his own major-general's commission, "William Knollys, commonly called Viscount Wallingford." But on his father's decease, and the consequent descent of his father's claims, the title of earl was refused to him, and therefore it was that he presented his petition.

The case remained in the House of Lords for nearly six years. On the 30th of May 1808 it was brought on for hearing before the Committee for Privileges, when Sir Samuel Romilly, Mr. Gaselee, and Mr. Hargrave, appeared for the petitioner, and the Crown was represented by the Attorney-General and a junior counsel. A great mass of documentary and genealogical evidence was produced; but after a most painstaking investigation, Lords Erskine, Ellenborough, Eldon, and Redesdale came to the conclusion that Nicholas Vaux, the petitioner, had not  made out his claim to the Earldom of Banbury, and the House of Lords, on the 11th of March 1813, endorsed their decision.