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The Earl of Mansfield

Jean-Baptiste van Loo - William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield - Google Art Project.jpg
Portrait of Mansfield by Jean-Baptiste van Loo
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench
In office
8 November 1756 – 4 June 1788
Prime Minister The Duke of Newcastle
Preceded by Sir Dudley Ryder
Succeeded by Lord Kenyon
Lord Speaker
In office
February 1783 – 23 December 1783
Prime Minister The Duke of Portland
Preceded by The Lord Thurlow as Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by The Lord Thurlow as Lord Chancellor
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
5 April 1757 – 8 April 1757
Prime Minister The Duke of Newcastle
Preceded by Henry Bilson Legge
Succeeded by Henry Bilson Legge
Attorney General for England and Wales
In office
6 March 1754 – 8 November 1756
Prime Minister The Duke of Newcastle
Preceded by Sir Dudley Ryder
Succeeded by Sir Robert Henley
Solicitor General for England and Wales
In office
15 December 1742 – 6 March 1754
Prime Minister The Earl of Wilmington
Preceded by Sir John Strange
Succeeded by Sir Richard Lloyd
Personal details
Born (1705-03-02)2 March 1705
Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland
Died 20 March 1793(1793-03-20) (aged 88)
Kenwood House
Resting place Westminster Abbey
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Finch
Residence Kenwood House
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, PC, SL (2 March 1705 – 20 March 1793) was a British barrister, politician and judge noted for his reform of English law. Born to Scottish nobility, he was educated in Perth, Scotland, before moving to London at the age of 13 to take up a place at Westminster School. He was accepted into Christ Church, Oxford, in May 1723, and graduated four years later. Returning to London from Oxford, he was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn on 23 November 1730, and quickly gained a reputation as an excellent barrister.

He became involved in politics in 1742, beginning with his election as a Member of Parliament for Boroughbridge, now in North Yorkshire, and appointment as Solicitor General. In the absence of a strong Attorney General, he became the main spokesman for the government in the House of Commons, and was noted for his "great powers of eloquence" and described as "beyond comparison the best speaker" in the House of Commons. With the promotion of Sir Dudley Ryder to Lord Chief Justice in 1754, he became Attorney General, and when Ryder unexpectedly died several months later, he took his place as Chief Justice.

As the most powerful British jurist of the century, Mansfield's decisions reflected the Age of Enlightenment and moved the country onto the path to abolishing slavery. He advanced commercial law in ways that helped establish the nation as world leader in industry, finance and trade. He modernised both English law and the English courts system; he rationalized the system for submitting motions and reformed the way judgments were delivered to reduce expense for the parties. For his work in Carter v Boehm and Pillans v Van Mierop, he has been called the founder of English commercial law. He is perhaps now best known for his judgment in Somersett's Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (legislation) in England, and therefore was not binding in law; this judgement did not, however, outlaw the slave trade. However, historians note that Mansfield's ruling in the Somersett case only made it illegal to transport a slave out of England against his will, and did not comment on the institution of slavery itself.

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