Nicholas Nugent

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Nicholas Nugent (c. 1525–1582) was an Anglo-Irish judge, who was hanged for treason by the (British) government that appointed him. He had, before his downfall, a highly successful career, holding office as Solicitor General for Ireland, Baron of the Irish Court of Exchequer, and Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, but he was ruined by the rebellion of his nephew William Nugent, which he was accused of supporting.

Background and early career[edit]

Nicholas Nugent was born between 1525 and 1530. Like many Irish judges of the time he belonged to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the Pale. His father Sir Christopher Nugent (died 1531) was the son and heir of Richard Nugent, 4th Baron Delvin; his mother was Marian St Lawrence, daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence, 4th Baron Howth.[1] His father predeceased his grandfather and the title passed to Nicholas' elder brother Richard, who died young in 1559 leaving two sons: Christopher Nugent, the sixth Baron, and William.

Nicholas married Janet Plunket, daughter of Sir John Plunket, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and widow of Thomas Marward, titular Baron Skryne; they had one surviving son, Richard. Nicholas was given wardship of his step-daughter, who was also named Janet. The younger Janet was a considerable heiress and Nicholas wished her to marry his nephew William; the marriage took place but only after William caused a scandal by abducting her.[2]

Nicholas entered Lincoln's Inn in 1558. His future rival for judicial office, Sir Robert Dillon, was there at the same time and their lifelong enmity seems to have begun when they were students: in 1560 they were ordered to stop fighting and bound over to keep the peace.[3]

Later career[edit]

On his return to Ireland his career advanced rapidly: he was made Solicitor General for Ireland in 1565, elevated to the bench as Baron of the Exchequer, and recommended for the office of Master of the Rolls in Ireland.[4] His irascible temper, so evident when he was a student, did not improve, and in 1576 another High Court judge, Richard Talbot, sued him before the Court of Castle Chamber (the Irish equivalent of Star Chamber) for riot and unlawful assembly; the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.[5]

His career suffered a further check when he joined in the cess controversy, which involved concerted opposition by the landowning class to the taxation policies of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney. He was twice suspended from office in 1577–78 and imprisoned, but was restored to favour after making his submission. The controversy does not seem to have raised any serious question about his loyalty, no doubt because many eminent lawyers opposed the cess, and even the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Sir William Gerard, had doubts about the wisdom of Sidney's taxation policy, as ultimately did the Queen herself. Gerard thought highly of Nugent, and it was on his recommendation that he was made Chief Justice in 1580.[6] Within a year, however, the actions of his nephews brought about his downfall.

The loyalty of both his nephews to Elizabeth I was deeply suspect: Lord Delvin was to die in prison awaiting trial in 1602 and, while William was eventually pardoned, this came too late to save his uncle. Both were suspected of supporting the rebellion of James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass, and when William was exempted from the general pardon after the rebellion, he took up arms. Nicholas' lifelong enemy, Sir Robert Dillon, who had been passed over as Chief Justice in Nugent's favour, went to London and evidently persuaded the Crown to suspend Nicholas from office as a suspected traitor, an action which public opinion in Ireland attributed to Dillon's spite and envy.[7]

Trial and execution[edit]

The Lord Deputy, Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, has been described as seeing his role as Deputy "a largely military one": perhaps for this reason the unusual decision was taken to try Nugent for treason, in a trial which, according to critical historians : "had the appearance of martial law." The trial was held in Trim, rather than Dublin, allegedly for convenience, and Grey appointed a special commission to assist him, which included Sir Robert Dillon, his cousin the Chief Baron Lucas Dillon, and Richard Segrave, who had replaced Nugent at the Exchequer. In contrast to the modern view that judges should come to a case without bias, these men seem to have been chosen precisely because they knew Nugent personally. He did however have the benefit of trial by jury in the normal way.[8]

The law then required two witnesses in a treason trial, but at Nugent's trial only one witness, John Cusack, appeared to testify that Nugent knew of and encouraged William's rebellion.[9] Nugent, like all those charged with treason in Ireland until the middle of the eighteenth century, was denied the right to legal counsel,[10] but given his own legal expertise this was presunably less of a difficulty for him than it would have been for a layman, and he conducted his own defence with great spirit. He accused Robert Dillon of having bribed Cusack to commit perjury, and it seems that much of the trial was taken up by Dillon defending himself against charges of misconduct. To bolster the evidence, Grey claimed that Nicholas had privately confessed his guilt to Mr Waterhouse, a royal clerk. Whether or not the judges came to the trial with their minds made up, they seem to have had little doubt as to the verdict which the jury should bring in.

Nugent was found guilty, and hanged at Trim on 13 April.[11] There were claims that the jury were coerced by the judges; John Philipps Kenyon writes that until the 1670s it was considered quite proper for a judge to bring strong pressure on a jury to find the "right" verdict, and the practice of a judge "suggesting" that the jury bring in the required verdict continued into the 1690s.[12] Further, the jury would probably have been aware that the Crown then had the right to punish jurors for acquitting an accused person in the face of strong evidence of their guilt, as would happen to a County Kildare jury in 1586.[13]


A story quickly circulated that Robert Dillon, at the hanging, remarked: "Friend Nugent, I am even with you now for coming between me and my place (i.e Chief Justice)". Elrington Ball doubts the truth of the story, but as he remarks the fact that it was told at all is a comment on the unease which the case aroused.[14] A few years later the then Lord Deputy of Ireland recommended that only English judges be appointed in Ireland, as Irish born judges decided cases purely on family or local loyalties.[15] Roger Wilbraham, who became Solicitor General for Ireland soon after the trial, thought that Robert Dillon's conduct in particular had been disgraceful, but argued pragmatically that those like Dillon who did the Queen good service should not be "pressed hard" for anything less than a capital offence.


Elrington Ball states that Nugent's fate was unique: two men who had served as judges in Ireland, Miles Corbet and John Cook, were executed in London at the Restoration for treason against Charles I, but in no other case did the Government in Ireland execute one of its own judges.[16]

Whether Nugent was guilty of treason, or even of the lesser crime of misprison of treason, is difficult to say. The trial aroused a good deal of unease, due to the quality of the evidence and the apparent bias of the judges. The Crown had rewarded Nugent generously, and it is difficult to see what he had to gain by treason. However he and his nephew were close, and it is possible that he knew of William's plans: even if he disapproved of them, this would arguably make him guilty of misprison of treason.


  1. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p. 213
  2. ^ Ball, p.213
  3. ^ Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland- the Court of Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005 p.107
  4. ^ Ball p.213
  5. ^ Crawford p.214
  6. ^ Ball, p.146
  7. ^ Ball, p.147
  8. ^ Ball, p.147
  9. ^ Crawford, pp.237–8
  10. ^ The right was not granted in England until 1695 by the Treason Act 1695, nor Ireland until 1765, under the Treason Act (Ireland) 1765.
  11. ^ Crawford p.238
  12. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuart Constitution Cambridge University Press 2nd Edition 1986 pp.392-3; the practice of coercing juries continued for several decades afterwards.
  13. ^ Crawford p.480
  14. ^ Ball, p.147
  15. ^ Ball, p.150
  16. ^ Ball, p.147