William Whitshed

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William Whitshed (1679–1727)[1] was an Irish politician and judge who held office as Solicitor-General and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; just before his death he moved to become Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas. He became the Member of Parliament for Wicklow County in 1703, and was appointed as Solicitor-General in 1709; he was Lord Chief Justice 1714-1727. He is principally remembered for the hatred he aroused in Jonathan Swift, who among many other insults called him a "vile and profligate villain", and compared him to William Scroggs, the English Chief Justice of the 1670s, who was notorious for corruption. These attacks were the result of the trial of Edward Waters, Swift's publisher, for seditious libel, where Whitshed's conduct of the trial was widely condemned as improper,[2] and of Whitshed's unsuccessful efforts to have another printer indicted for publication of The Drapier Letters.[3]

Background and early career[edit]

He was born in Dublin to a long established family of Dublin merchants who also took part in politics; his father Thomas Whitshed sat in the Irish House of Commons as member for Carysfort and was also a practicing barrister.[4] His mother was Mary Quin, daughter of an alderman of Dublin. His grandfather had committed suicide, a fact which Swift and other enemies later seized on to ridicule him. He entered Middle Temple in 1694 and was called to the Irish Bar. He did not have any great reputation as a lawyer or politician and his rapid rise to power caused some surprise;[5] in particular, his elevation to the office of Lord Chief Justice when he was little more than 35 years old was most unusual, if not unprecedented. Ball attributes his rise to his family's wealth and political connections, and the friendship of William King, Archbishop of Dublin, who had considerable but not unlimited influence over judicial appointments.

Conflict with Swift[edit]

Whitshed's ambition was by no means satisfied: he hoped with Archbishop King's support to become Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and it may have been this ambition which led him into the conflict with Jonathan Swift which greatly harmed his reputation. In 1720 he presided at the trial of Edward Waters for seditious libel, in that he had printed Swift's pamphlet On the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture. The result was something of an embarrassment since while Waters was found guilty, this was only after the jury had tried nine times to bring in a verdict of not guilty. Swift, quite unperturbed, contented himself with satirising Whitshed and Godfrey Boate, the junior judge at the trial.[6]

In 1724 the Crown moved against Swift again. John Harding, printer of the Drapier Letters was arrested and efforts were made to apprehend "Drapier" (although there was very little doubt in Government circles as to his real identity). Whitshed was pressed into service to attempt to persuade a grand jury to find that the Drapier Letters were seditious.[7] This time the result was complete failure: although Whitshed spared no efforts, interviewing the jurors individually, they refused to give the required verdict.[8] Swift, now enraged, attacked Whitshed in a series of verses, notably Verses Occasioned by Whitshed's motto on his Coach with a venom which few judges have ever had to endure. Swift's friends joined the battle and even painful details like the suicide of Whitshed's grandfather were brought up.[9] The Government, embarrassed by the whole affair and conscious that public opinion was on Swift's side, did little to protect their Chief Justice.

Last years[edit]

Whitshed's hopes of becoming Lord Chancellor were never realised: his patron Archbishop King was steadily losing influence to Hugh Boulter, Archbishop of Armagh, who was not a supporter of Whitshed. In 1726 he asked to be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland); the following year it was decided to make him Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas but he died suddenly, aged only 48. He had no children.[10]

While Swift's hatred of him is quite understandable, Ball notes that Whitshed was generally well-liked.[11]


  1. ^ F. Elrington Ball (2005). The Judges in Ireland, 1221–1921. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  2. ^ Ball p.96
  3. ^ Ball pp.103-5
  4. ^ Ball p.189
  5. ^ Ball p.81
  6. ^ Sir Walter Scott Life of Jonathan Swift Vol.1 Edinburgh 1814 pp.281-2
  7. ^ Scott pp.281-2
  8. ^ Ball pp.103-5
  9. ^ Ball pp.103-5
  10. ^ Ball p.189
  11. ^ Ball p.81
Parliament of Ireland
Preceded by
John Price
Richard Edwards
Member of Parliament for Wicklow County
With: Richard Edwards 1703–1713
John Allen 1713–1714
Succeeded by
Henry Percy
Robert Allen
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Forster
Solicitor-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
Francis Bernard
Preceded by
Sir Richard Cox
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench for Ireland
Succeeded by
John Rogerson
Preceded by
Thomas Wyndham
Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas
Succeeded by
James Reynolds