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Holt, Sir John

HOLT, SIR JOHN (1642-1710), lord chief justice of England, was born at Thame, Oxfordshire, on the 30th of December 1642. His father, Sir Thomas Holt, possessed a small patrimonial estate, but in order to supplement his income had adopted the profession of law, in which he was not very successful, although he became sergeant in 1677, and afterwards for his political services to the " Tories " was rewarded with knighthood. After attending for some years the free school of the town of Abingdon, of which his father was recorder, young Holt in his sixteenth year entered Oriel College, Oxford. He is said to have spent a very dissipated youth, and even to have been in the habit of taking purses on the highway, but after entering Gray's Inn about 1660 he applied himself with exemplary diligence to the study of law. He was called to the bar in 1663. An ardent supporter of civil and religious liberty, he distinguished himself in the state trials which were then so common by the able and courageous manner in which he supported the pleas of the defendants. In 1685-1686 he was appointed recorder of London, and about the same time he was made king's sergeant and received the honour of knighthood. His giving a decision adverse to the pretensions of the king to exercise martial law in time of peace led to his dismissal from the office of recorder, but he was continued in the office of king's sergeant in order to prevent him from becoming counsel for accused persons. Having been one of the judges who acted as assessors to the peers in the Convention parliament, he took a leading part in arranging the constitutional change by which William III. was called to the throne, and after his accession he was appointed lord chief justice of the King's Bench. His merits as a judge are the more apparent and the more remarkable when contrasted with the qualities displayed by his predecessors in office. In judicial fairness, legal knowledge and ability, clearness of statement and unbending integrity he has had few if any superiors on the English bench. Over the civil rights of his countrymen he exercised a jealous watchfulness, more especially when presiding at the trial of state prosecutions, and he was especially careful that all accused persons should be treated with fairness and respect. He is, however, best known for the firmness with which he upheld his own prerogatives in opposition to the authority of the Houses of Parliament. On several occasions his physical as well as his moral courage was tried by extreme tests. Having been requested to supply a number of police to help the soldiery in quelling a riot, he assured the messenger that if any of the people were shot he would have the soldiers hanged, and proceeding himself to the scene of riot he was successful in preventing bloodshed. While steadfast in his sympathies with the Whig party, Holt maintained on the bench entire political impartiality, and always held himself aloof from political intrigue. On the retirement of Somers from the chancellorship in 1700 he was offered the great seal, but declined it. His death took place in London on the 5th of March 1710. He was buried in the chancel of Redgrave church.

Reports of Cases determined by Sir John Holt (1681-1710) appeared at London in 1738; and The Judgments delivered in the case of Ashby v. White and others, and in the case of John Paly and others, printed from original MSS., at London (1837). See Burnet's Own Times; Taller, No. xiv. ; a Life, published in 1764; Welsby, Lives of Eminent English Judges of the i?th and 18th Centuries (1846) ; Campbell 's Lives of the Lord Chief Justices; and Foss, Lives of the Judges.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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