Alexander Fitton

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Sir Alexander Fitton (1630? – 1698) sometimes known by his disputed Jacobite title Baron Gawsworth, was an Irish barrister and judge, who became Lord Chancellor of Ireland, despite having spent many years in prison for forgery and criminal libel.[1]

Family and early career[edit]

Fitton was the second son of William Fitton of Awrice (Awne), County Limerick and his wife Eva Trevor, daughter of Sir Edward Trevor of Brynkynallt, Chirk, Denbighshire and Rostrevor, County Down, and his second wife Rose Ussher. [2] He was the great-grandson of Sir Edward Fitton, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. The Irish Fittons were a junior branch of the Fittons of Gawsworth Old Hall, Cheshire; a lawsuit over the rightful ownership of Gawsworth was to pre-occupy Alexander for most of his life. His mother's family gained the title Viscount Dungannon. He married Anne Joliffe, daughter and heiress of Thomas Joliffe of Cofton, Worcestershire, and they had one surviving daughter.[3] She is said to have been a considerable heiress, and as a result of the fortune she brought him Alexander was soon able to pay off the mortgage on the family estates, which he inherited on the death of his brother Edward. Anne died in 1687, and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.[4]

He entered Gray's Inn in 1654 and the Inner Temple in 1655; he was called to the Bar in 1662.[5] Since he almost immediately became embroiled in the Gawsworth inheritance claim, it is unclear if he ever practised as a barrister, which later led to questions about his suitability for judicial office, quite apart from the obvious objection that he had a criminal conviction.

Gawsworth inheritance claim[edit]

Sir Edward Fitton, 2nd Baronet, of Gawsworth, died in 1643 without issue; he had seven sisters, but the nearest male Fitton heir was Alexander's father William. In 1641 Edward made a settlement creating an entail in favour of William and his male heirs, subject to the right of his widow Felicia to reside at Gawsworth for her lifetime.[6] This was done against the violent protests of Charles Gerard, son of Edward's eldest sister Penelope, who was the nearest heir by blood. After Edward's death the Gerards tried to hold Gawsworth by force; but the fortunes of the English Civil War turned in the Fitton family's favour: as a staunch Royalist Gerard's own estates were forfeited and he left England about 1645, leaving the Fittons in possession until the Restoration.[7]

Gawsworth Old Hall, which Fitton spent much of his life trying to prove his right to own.

By 1662 Gerard, now Baron Gerard of Brandon, had recovered his other estates and was in high favour at Court. Inevitably, he laid claim to Gawsworth, bringing a lawsuit in the Court of Chancery in which he exhibited a will supposedly made by Sir Edward Fitton just before his death bequeathing the property to Gerard. [8]Alexander Fitton, rather than simply relying on the entail by which he succeeded as his father's heir, produced a deed which on the face of it made the settlement on his father irrevocable. Gerard then dramatically produced a notorious forger, Abraham Granger, who testified that he had forged the deed on Fitton's behalf. [9]The Court ordered a jury to find the facts: they found that the deed was indeed a forgery, and while Fitton managed to get a second hearing before a Cheshire jury, the result was the same. Lord Gerard duly took possession of Gawsworth.[10]

Which party (if either) was legally or morally in the right it is now difficult to say: it is suspicious that both parties were relying on documents whose very existence had been previously unknown, and it is quite possible that both the will and the deed were forged.[11] Fitton proceeded to make a serious mistake in publishing a pamphlet directly accusing Gerard of winning the case by bribing and threatening witnesses, and including what purported to be Granger's confession that he had committed perjury.[12]Fitton was perhaps unaware that to libel a peer was scandalum magnatum, a criminal offence. The House of Lords took a serious view of the matter: Fitton was fined £500 and committed to the King's Bench Prison until if ever he produced Granger to confirm his story.[13] Given Granger's character, it is hardly surprising that Fitton never did produce him, and he might well have remained in prison for life. As it was (though accounts differ) he may still have been in prison in 1687. The petition to the House of Commons of England in 1668 mentioned in Pepys' Diary[14] came to nothing, as did an attempt to prosecute Gerard's witnesses for perjury. The disgrace of Gerard, now Earl of Macclesfield, who supported the Exclusion Bill and was later suspected of complicity in the Monmouth Rebellion, encouraged Fitton to make one last effort to recover Gawsworth; somewhat surprisingly his case was dismissed for undue delay. The affair however caused the new King James II to look favourably on Fitton.

Charles Gerard, 1st Earl of Macclesfield, Fitton's cousin and lifelong enemy

Lord Chancellor of Ireland[edit]

In 1687 the Irish Lord Chancellor Sir Charles Porter expressed reservations about the King's policy of religious toleration and was dismissed; while Richard Nagle, the Attorney General for Ireland, a Roman Catholic, put forward his own claim to the office, James was persuaded that Fitton, a Protestant, would be a better choice. Fitton thought it advisable to convert to Catholicism. As Lord Chancellor he was accused of ignorance, prejudice and bias against Protestants, although some historians have questioned the accuracy of these charges.[15] When James II arrived in Ireland Fitton presided over the Patriot Parliament of 1689; he was given a barony and chose the title Baron Fitton of Gawsworth. When James fled Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne Fitton was appointed Lord Justice of Ireland and acted on behalf of the King in his absence; the following year he joined James in France, although it is unclear if any proceedings were pending against him. He died at St. Germain in 1698.


Fitton was judged harshly both by contemporaries and by later historians, especially Thomas Macaulay, who dismissed Fitton as a "pettifogger" without legal ability or commonsense, and unfit by reason of his imprisonment for libel and the charge of forgery to hold any office.[16] William King, Archbishop of Dublin , who knew him personally, said that Fitton could not understand the merits of any difficult case, and so decided them all on the basis of his own prejudices.[17] However O'Flanagan writing in 1870 took a more charitable view, stating that he had examined Fitton's decrees and found in them no evidence of ignorance or incapacity; on the contrary, they appeared to be the work of an experienced equity judge.[18] On the accusation of forgery, the safest view is that Gerard and Fitton were both guilty of it; Elrington Ball remarks that "bad as Fitton's character may have been, it can scarcely have been worse than that of Lord Gerard".[19]


  1. ^ Blacker, Beaver Henry Alexander Fitton" Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol. 19 p.80
  2. ^ Blacker p.80
  3. ^ Blacker p.80
  4. ^ Blacker p.80
  5. ^ Blacker p.80
  6. ^ Blacker p.80
  7. ^ Blacker p.80
  8. ^ Blacker p.80
  9. ^ Blacker p.80
  10. ^ Blacker p.80
  11. ^ See F. Elrington Ball The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926
  12. ^ See Diary of Samuel Pepys 21 February 1668
  13. ^ Blacker p.80
  14. ^ Diary 21 February 1668
  15. ^ O'Flanagan, J. Roderick Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of Ireland 2 volumes London 1870
  16. ^ Macaulay History of England Volume 3 pages 102–103
  17. ^ Blacker p.80
  18. ^ O'Flanagan Lives of the Lord Chancellors
  19. ^ Ball Judges in Ireland Volume 1 page 303
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Charles Porter
Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Succeeded by
In commission

Title next held by Sir Charles Porter