Rebel, Rebel: from student layabout to pillar of society

Away from home for the first time, it did not take an Oxford fresher long to opt for the delights of city life over his studies. He was mesmerised by the theatre, spent all his money on clothes and all his time hanging out with friends. Sport was another great love and essays, well, forget it! Is this a student of today? No, our fresher is none other than Matthew Hale, born in 1609.

In the Old Library I came across “The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt.” by the Reverend Gilbert Burnett (London, 1682). More a hagiography than a biography, this book nonetheless contains fascinating insights into Hale’s life and turbulent times.

Matthew Hale was a survivor. He was born into an upwardly-mobile, middle-class Gloucestershire family (his grandfather had been a prosperous wool merchant and his father was a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn).  However, his troubles came early: by the age of three he had lost his mother and his father died two years later. He was taken into his mother’s family and brought up by Anthony Kingscot, a devout Puritan, who educated him for the Church. But when the seventeen year-old Hale went up to Magdalen Hall Oxford, his new-found freedom and the pleasures of that sophisticated city put paid to all thoughts of the Church!

“The Stage Players coming thither, he was so much corrupted by seeing many Playes, that he almost wholly forsook his studies,” Burnett tells us disapprovingly and continues, “The corruption of a Young Man’s mind in one particular, generally draws on a great many more after it, so he being now taken off from following his Studies … set himself to many of the vanities incident to Youth … He loved fine Clothes, and delighted much in Company: and being of a strong robust Body, he was a great Master at all those Exercises that required much strength.”

Youthful exuberance soon led Hale into trouble. “He also learned to Fence, and handle his weapons, in which he became so expert, that he worsted many of the Masters of those Arts: but as he was exercising of himself in them, an Instance appeared … One of his Masters told him he could teach him no more, for he was better at his own Trade than himself was. This Mr. Hale lookt on as flattery; so to make the Master discover himself, he promised him the House he lived in, for he was his Tenant, if he could hit him a blow on the Head: and bad him do his best, for he would be as good as his word: so after a little Engagement, his Master being really Superiour to him, hit him on the Head, and he performed his promise; for he gave him the House freely.” I wonder what his guardian thought of that?

Hale left Oxford after three years, with his mind fixed on becoming a soldier in the Prince of Orange’s army in the Netherlands (so much for a costly Oxford education!). But fate intervened: a family law case took him to London and he was persuaded to follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. At the tender age of twenty he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 8th November 1629 to study law. He still enjoyed nights out on the town with his mates … until one fateful evening of binge drinking when a friend collapsed and was believed dead. Deeply shocked, Hale rushed into another room “and shuting, the door fell on his Knees, and prayed earnestly to God … and he vowed to God, that he would never again keep Company in that manner, nor drink a health while he lived: His friend recovered, and he most religiously observed his vow, till his Dying day.” This was a turning point in Hale’s life. From then on he channelled his prodigious energies into his career and the study of law, mathematics, theology and the classics.

He was called to the Bar in 1636, during the period of turbulence leading to the Civil War. Hale had sympathies for both sides (he was a natural conservative with a Puritan upbringing) and his reputation for integrity enabled him to steer a safe course through these troubled times. He started off supporting the Royalists, however, subsequently Oliver Cromwell made him Justice of the Pleas and he served in both Oliver and Richard Cromwell’s Parliaments. His career prospered. He was noted for his incorruptibility and his willingness to make politically unpopular decisions which upheld the law. At the Restoration he was made Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer “managing the Court, and all Proceedings in it, with singular Justice.”

The next upheaval came in 1666. Hale again took a prominent role as “one of the principal Judges that sate in Cliffords-Inn, about setling the difference between Landlord and Tenant, after the Dreadful Fire of London.” According to his biographer, “the sudden and quiet Building of the City, which is justly to be reckoned one of the Wonders of the Age, is in no small Measure due to the great care, which he … used.” Among all the judges, it was the polymath Hale who first “contrived the Rules, upon which he and the rest proceeded afterwards; in which his readiness at Arithmetick, and his skill in Architecture were of great use to him.”

Hale continued to rise and was made Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1671. He retired due to ill health in February 1676 and died ten months later on Christmas day 1676. Always his own man, the student rebel had reached a position of high office. It had been a remarkable life.


Burnett, Gilbert: The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt. (London, 1682).

For details of Hale’s achievements and legal writings, take a look at the Wikipedia article.

All images (except the image of Burnett’s book) are from Google Images.


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