He was the eldest son of Richard Laurence, watchmaker, of Bath, Somerset by Elizabeth, daughter of John French, clothier, of Warminster, Wiltshire, and was born on 3 April 1757. Richard Laurence was his younger brother. He was educated at Winchester School under Joseph Warton, and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, of which he was scholar. He graduated B.A. on 17 December 1777, and proceeded M.A. on 21 June 1781. On leaving the university he took chambers at the Middle Temple with the view of being called to the common-law bar, but eventually devoted himself to civil law, and having taken the degree of D.C.L. at Oxford, 19 October 1787, was admitted to the College of Advocates on 3 November 1788.
Having made himself useful to Burke in preparing the preliminary case against Warren Hastings, he was retained as counsel in 1788 by the managers of the impeachment, together with William Scott, for colleague. He took no part in the proceedings in Westminster Hall beyond attending and watching their progress, but gave advice in chambers. His practice in ecclesiastical and admiralty courts thenceforward grew rapidly. He remained on intimate terms with Burke until his death, and was his literary executor.
In 1796 he was appointed, through the interest of the Duke of Portland, regius professor of civil law at Oxford, in succession to Thomas Francis Wenman, and the same year, through the influence of Burke with Earl Fitzwilliam, entered parliament as member for Peterborough. His speeches in parliament heavy and simply followed Burke's line, except in matters of international law. In opposing the union with Ireland he insisted that Burke, had he lived, would have done so likewise. Laurence was a member of the committee appointed in 1806 to frame the articles of impeachment against Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, the last such case. He was chancellor of the diocese of Oxford and a judge of the court of admiralty of the Cinque ports. He died suddenly on 26 February 1809, while on a visit to one of his brothers at Eltham, Kent, and was buried in Eltham Church, where a marble tablet was placed to his memory. Laurence did not marry. His leisure time he spent in society—he was a member of the Eumelean Club—or in writing.
While pursuing his legal studies he wrote political ballads in aid of Charles James Fox's candidature for Westminster in 1784, and contributed to the Rolliad the advertisements and dedication, Criticisms iii. vi. vii. viii. xiii. and xiv. in the first part, vii. in the second part; Probationary Odes xvi. and xxi.; and the first of the Political Eclogues, viz. Rose, or the Complaint.
His letters to Burke were published and edited by his brother in The Epistolary Correspondence of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke and Dr. French Laurence, London, 1827. His Poetical Remains, published with those of his brother Richard (Dublin, 1872), include some odes, and a few sonnets and some translations from the Greek, Latin, and Italian. Laurence was also a frequent contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. His dabblings in theology appeared as Critical Remarks on Detached Passages of the New Testament, particularly the Revelation of St. John, Oxford, 1810, edited by his brother.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Laurence, French". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Works by French Laurence at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about French Laurence at Internet Archive
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by French Laurence
|Parliament of Great Britain|
|Member of Parliament for Peterborough
1796 – 1800
With: Lionel Damer
Parliament of the United Kingdom
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Parliament of Great Britain
|Member of Parliament for Peterborough
1801 – 1809
With: Lionel Damer to 1802
William Elliot from 1802
Marquess of Tavistock