The constitution, the monarchy, and Counsellor Roger Acherley

“On Wednesday [16th April] died, in an advanc’d Age, at his House in Greenwich, Roger Acherly [] of the Inner-Temple, Esq:” – London Daily Post, 21 April 1740.

The “advanc’d age” at which Roger Acherley (or Atcherley) died on this day in 1740 was about 77. He had been baptised on 23 December 1662 at Baschurch in Shropshire, the first child of John Acherley or Atcherley of Stanwardine in the Fields and his second wife, Mary Spendlove (John had already fathered 13 children by his first wife). During his long life he worked as a barrister, speculated in copper mining, became embroiled in political scheming over the succession of a reigning monarch, lost a fortune which he had invested in dodgy shares, fought a court battle over the will of his brother-in-law, and published books about political and constitutional matters.

Roger Acherley entered the Inner Temple in London, one of the four “Inns of Court,” on 6 March 1686 when he was aged about 23. It seems that he took an interest in politics (and particularly constitutional affairs) early on. On 3 April 1689, as a “young Student of the Temple,” he wrote to the Earl of Danby, then Lord President of the Council, sending him an essay entitled An expedientt to secure the certaine meeting and sitting of parliaments. In this essay, Roger proposed that if parliaments were not called regularly or allowed to sit, it should be illegal for the Crown to collect revenues granted to the monarch by parliament.

1691 was a momentous year for Roger, both professionally and personally. After five years as a student of the Inner Temple he was called to the bar on 21 June 1691. Just over seven months later, on 6 February 1691/92 (the year ended on 24 March under the Julian calendar in use at that time) he married Elizabeth Vernon at St Lawrence Jewry in London. Elizabeth, then aged about 25 and living at St Mary, Savoy in Middlesex, was a sister of Thomas Vernon who, like Roger Acherley, had studied at the Inner Temple and had also been called to the bar.

Roger and Elizabeth’s first child, Henry, was baptised at Holborn on 27 February 1694/95. The family was at that time living at Southampton Buildings in Chancery Lane. They may still have been there some six years later when Henry died. The parish register of St John’s at Hampstead, where Henry was buried on 13 February 1700/01, states that he was the son of a Mr George Acherly of St Dunstan’s: likely a reference to St Dunstan’s in the West. (Although the register named Henry’s father as George Acherly, with George replacing another name – possibly John – which was crossed out, I believe the entry does relate to Henry son of Roger.)

On the other hand they may by then have moved to Bell Yard, a street situated less than a hundred yards from the church of St Dunstan’s in the West. Certainly Roger and Elizabeth were living there in 1702 when, on 26 June, their daughter Letitia was baptised at the aforementioned church. The register records Letitia’s name as Lettis, the name of the family’s abode as Bell yeard, and Roger’s name appears to be suffixed with an abbreviation of the word Gentleman.

In 1703 Roger’s mother Mary died, most likely at home in Stanwardine in the Fields, Baschurch. She had been a widow for over 30 years, her husband having died in 1672 when Roger was only 10. In her will she left Roger some furniture and various household items plus all the timber lying on the land – and all the muck and straw! It is possible that Roger also inherited the land upon which the timber (and the muck and straw) lay. One author makes two references to “Roger Acherley, of Stanwardine in the Fields” purchasing estates in the township of Tilley in the parish of Wem, Shropshire in the early 1700s, one of those purchases being in 1708. Soon after this, in 1711, Roger also leased a copper mine at Clive in the parish of Grinshill from his brother-in-law Thomas Spendlove (also referred to by some sources as Thomas Spendiloves).

Clearly, Roger was a man of some means and this in part must have been due to a successful career as a barrister or counsellor (which included five cases before the House of Lords between 1704 and 1716). It was not long however before his fortunes took a turn for the worse. Suspecting that plans were afoot for Queen Anne to be succeeded, upon her death, by the Old Pretender James Stuart, Roger in 1712 and 1713 wrote letters to court of Hanover, and “advised the moving of the writ for bringing over the electoral prince, afterwards George II, to take his place in the House of Lords as Duke of Cambridge.”

Georg von Schutz, the Hanoverian envoy to England, did in fact demand a writ of summons for George Augustus on 12 April 1714, and Queen Anne allowed the writ to be issued, but George (who may initially have approved the request) rejected his envoy’s writ. Soon, “the intrigues in which [Acherley] indulged for the furtherance of this object were cut short by the death of Queen Anne,” on 1 August 1714. Although Roger then “pressed Barons Leibnitz and Bothmer [of Hanover] for professional advancement in recognition of his admitted services to the house of Hanover … he met with no substantial reward.” A Government appointment, which Roger is said to have expected, was not forthcoming.

In 1720, Roger was one of many who lost large amounts of money in the so-called South Sea Bubble. During that year, shares in the South Sea Company had been “talked up” to a huge extent, only for their value to collapse. Roger was forced to sell his land in Tilley to his brother-in-law Thomas Vernon and to Thomas’s cousin Bowater Vernon. If Roger had inherited the Atcherley estate at Stanwardine, perhaps he sold that too in order to cover his debts.

An opportunity to recoup his losses came about during the following year (1721), following the death of Roger’s brother-in-law Thomas Vernon. In a codicil to his will, Thomas had left his estate at Hanbury in Worcestershire to his widow and, upon her death, to his cousin Bowater Vernon. His sister Elizabeth, Roger’s wife, was excluded – but a legacy to Roger and Elizabeth’s daughter Leititia was increased from £1000 to £6000 on condition that neither Letitia nor Elizabeth challenged the will. Roger did challenge the will, and the case was heard before chancery in 1722. Eventually, on 20 November 1723, it was ruled that the codicil was valid. This judgement was upheld by the House of Lords in 1725. Roger was also unsuccessful in his attempt to claim Thomas Vernon’s unpublished law reports.

Undeterred, indeed perhaps spurred on by all the set-backs he had experienced, Roger began writing. As noted in An Atcherley Bibliography (which gives details of all of Roger’s works), his first book (The Britannic Constitution, published in 1727) has also been described as his most important. In it, Roger wrote: “Tis the Britannic Constitution that gives this kingdom a lustre above other nations as it secures to Britons, their private property, freedom and liberty, by such walls of defence as are not to be found in any other parts of the universe.”

Roger’s wife Elizabeth died in 1732 and was buried in the Temple Church. Roger joined her there eight years later following his decease. Their daughter Letitia passed away not long after her father, on 10 February 1742 at home in Greenwich.

It has been written that Roger “appears to have passed his later years as an obscure and disappointed man.” I have no doubt that he felt some disappointment regarding his failure to advance his career, his financial losses, and his unsuccessful legal actions in respect of Thomas Vernon’s will. Yet he never gave up, and through his books he successfully promoted his ideas, and ideals, regarding the constitution of his country, to a wider audience. And while he might not have been famous, to describe him as an obscure man seems rather unfair. He did after all get to present a copy of his first book to His Majesty the King.