'There is,' John Lord Campbell observed in his multi-volume, Mid-Victorian Lives of the Lord Chancellors, 'no office in the history of any nation that has been filled with such a long succession of distinguished and interesting men as the office of Lord Chancellor.' A roll-call which included such illustrious history-makers as Wolsey, More, Bacon and Clarendon lent some credence to Campbell's hyperbole. But since then, things have gone rather down hill, and most recent Lord Chancellors have been woolsacked worthies rather than eminent statesmen: grave, wise, sober, learned, venerable - and unmemorable. Names like Herschell, Loreburn, Buckmaster, Finlay, Cave and Caldecot trip off the tongue with about as much familiarity as the batting order of a minor counties cricket eleven. Indeed, during the last hundred years, only two Lord Chancellors have rivalled the renown and repute of Campbell's greatest hits: W.S. Gilbert's rich comic creation in Iolanthe, a susceptible insomniac who married a fairy; and F.E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, whose appointment to the Woolsack was denounced by the Morning Post as 'carrying a joke too far'.
LRB 19 January 1984 | PDF Download