Edward Willes (1702–1768)

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Edward Willes (1702 – June 1768) was an English-born judge in eighteenth-century Ireland, who became Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.


He was the son of Edward Willes senior, and was born on the Willes family estate at Newbold Comyn, near Leamington. He married Mary Denny of Norfolk and had three children, two sons and a daughter. Sir John Willes, the long-serving Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, was his second cousin and encouraged him in his choice of a legal career.[1] Sir John Willes was the father of that Sir Edward Willes who was Solicitor-General and judge of the Court of King's Bench.


He was called to the Bar in 1727, became a serjeant-at-law in 1740 and King's Serjeant in 1747; subsequently he became Attorney-General for the Duchy of Lancaster and Recorder of Coventry. In 1757 he was sent to Ireland as Chief Baron of the Exchequer, no doubt partly through his cousin Sir John's influence.

He acquired a reputation as an exceptionally hard-working and conscientious judge, who damaged his health by overwork. He was also an acute and intelligent observer of Irish life, recording his impressions of social and economic conditions and of the Irish legal system in a series of unpublished maunscripts, and also in his letters to Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick, which have been published.[2] He was particularly concerned by the perennial difficulty of finding enough judges to go on assize, and was unhappy at the usual remedy of appointing the Serjeants-at-law and Law Officers as temporary judges; in his view sch temporary judges lacked independence and did not have the authority to challenge powerful local interests.[3]

Willes's health soon began to fail, probably due largely to overwork; in 1766 he retired to England and died at Newbold Comyn in 1768.


Elrington Ball praises Willes as a good lawyer, and as a man who was honest, highly intelligent, a natural scholar and a much-loved figure in private life .[4] Hart gives a similar verdict, stating that Willes was an intelligent and sensitive man and an acute observer of Irish society and politics.[5]

Against his many good qualities must be set his severity towards Roman Catholics and his determination to resist any reform of the Penal laws; an attitude which was fully shared by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John, Lord Bowes, who made the notorious remark that "the law did not admit that a single Roman Catholic existed in Ireland". Willes wrote to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the 4th Duke of Bedford, who favoured relaxation of the Penal laws, that he was opposed to any "toleration of that religion which it has been the general policy of England and of Ireland to persecute and depress. "[6]

Sir Edward Willes (1723–1787)[edit]

The Chief Baron should not be confused with his younger cousin Sir Edward Willes, son of Sir John Willes. The younger Edward was a member of the House of Commons successively for Old Sarum, Aylesbury and Leominster from 1747 to 1768. He became Solicitor-General in 1766; two years later he was appointed a judge of the Court of King's Bench and held that office until his death in January 1787.[7]


  1. ^ "An Irish Chief Baron of the Last Century" The Irish Monthly Vol. 19 (1891)
  2. ^ Edited by James Kelly Aberystwyth 1990
  3. ^ Hart A.R. A History of the King's Serjeant at Law in Ireland Four Courts Press 2000
  4. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926
  5. ^ A History of the King's Serjeant at law in Ireland, above
  6. ^ Letter to John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, quoted by Ball, above: Bedford as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland has proposed relaxing the Penal Laws.
  7. ^ Namier, Lewis and Brooke John, The House of Commons 1754-1790 Secker and Warburg 1964