Dyer, Sir James

, an eminent English lawyer, was descended from an ancient and honourable family in Somersetshire, of the same family with sir Edward Dyer, the poet, who was fourth in descent from sir James Dyer’s great-grandfather. Sir James was the second son of Richard Dyer, esq. of Wincalton and Roundhill in Somersetshire, at the latter of which places he was born about the year 1512. Wood says he was a commoner of Broadgate-hall (now Pembroke college), Oxford, and that he left it, without taking a degree, probably about 1530, when he went to the Middle Temple. Here he | appears to have rendered himself conspicuous for learning anil talents, as in 1552 he performed the office of autumnal reader to that society; a distinction which was at that time conferred only upon such as were eminent in their profession. He had, on May 10 preceding, been called to the degree of serjeant at law, and in the following November his abilities were rewarded with the post of king’s Serjeant. On the meeting of the last parliament of Edward VI. 1552-3, Dyer was chosen speaker of the house of commons (that office being considered in those days as peculiarly appropriated to lawyers of eminence), and in this capacity, on Saturday afternoon, March 4, made “an ornate oration before the king.” This is the only particular concerning the speaker which occurs in the Journals of that short parliament, which sat only for one month; and the dissolution of which was quickly followed by the death of that excellent young prince; whose successor, though in most respects she pursued measures totally opposite to those of his reign, continued the royal favour to Dyer, whom, Oct. 19, 1553, she appointed one of her serjeants, In this office his name appears as one of the commissioners. on the singular trial of sir Nicholas Throckmorton; when his jury, with a freedom rarely exercised in that unhappy period, ventured to acquit the prisoner. Our author’s behaviour on that occasion is not disgraced by any servile compliances with the views of the court; yet his regard for his own character was tempered with so much discretion, as not to occasion any diminution of her majesty’s protection; for on May 20, 1557, being at that time recorder of Cambridge, and a knight, he was appointed a judge of the common pleas, whence on April 23 of the next year, he was promoted to the queen’s bench, where he sat (though of the reformed religion) during the remainder of this reign as a puisne judge.

In the first year of queen Elizabeth, on Nov. 18, 1559t, he returned to the common pleas, of which he was appointed, in the following January, chief justice, an office the functions of which he continued to exercise for more than twenty years with eminent integrity, firmness, and ability. In the course of this long period, we find him assisting at the trial of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk; on which occasion he opposed that unfortunate nobleman’s petition to have counsel assigned him; and with propriety as the rigorous complexion of the law was at that time, it having been reserved for the milder spirit of a latter age to | indulge prisoners in his unhappy situation with that privilege. In 1571- he exhibited a singular proof of probity, courage, and talents, in the spirit with which he opposed the attempts of sir John Conway to oppress a poor widow of Warwickshire (that county being included in the circuit which he usually went) by forcibly keeping possession of her farm; and in his reply to the articles preferred against him to the privy council by certain justices of the peace, whom he had severely reprehended in public at the assizes, for partiality and negligence in permitting so gross a violation of the law, and whom he had caused to be indicted for the same. This singular curiosity, which is among the Inner Temple Mss. is copied in Mr. Vaillant’s Life of sir James Dyer, prefixed to his excellent edition of the “Reports.” What was the event of the dispute, his biographer has not been able to discover; but thinks it reasonable to conclude that the firmness and ability of Dyer prevailed over the malice of his adversaries; especially as he experienced no diminution of the queen’s favour, but continued in the full exercise of his judicial functions, without any other memorable transaction that is now known, down to his death, which happened at his seat of Great Stougbton, (an estate purchased by himself), in the county of Huntingdon, March 24, 1582, at the age of seventy.

Leaving no issue by his wife Margaret, daughter of sir Maurice à Barrow, of Hampshire, and relict of the celebrated philologist sir Thomas Elyot, his estates at Stoughton and elsewhere, with his mansion-house in Charterhouse church-yard, descended to sir Richard Dyer (grandson of his elder brother John), whose grandson Ludowick, in 1653, sold Stoughton to sir Edward Coke of Derbyshire (from whom it is now, by purchase, vested in the family of Walter), and the line which, in 1627, was honoured with the title of Baronet, is now extinct, the last of the family dying in a state of extreme indigence.

Sir James Dyer was the author of a large book of Reports, which were published after his decease, and have been highly esteemed for their succinctness and solidity. They were printed in 1585, 1592, 1601, 1606, 1621, and 1672. That of 1688 is enriched by the marginal notes and references of lord chief justice Treby, and bears the following title, literally translated from the French: “Reports of several select matters and resolutions of the reverend judges and sages of the law, &c.” That eminent lawyer sir Edward Coke recommends to all students in the. | law these Reports, which he calls “The summary and fruitful observations of that famous and most reverend judge and sage of the law, sir James Dyer.” They are indeed a valuable treasure to the profession. The best edition is that by John Vaillant, esq. 1794, 3 vols. 8vo, with a life of the author from an original ms. in the Inner Temple library. He left behind him also “A Reading upon the statute of 32 Hen. VIII. cap. 1. of Wills; and upon the 34th and 35th Hen. VIII. cap. 5. for the explanation of the statute,” printed at London in 1648, 4to.

By his will he bequeathed to his nephew Richard Farwell, one of the editors of the “Reports,” all hU books of the law, “as well abridgments and reports of myne owne hand-writinge, as other of the lawe,” which expression seems to countenance the assertion of Cole (Harl. Mss. 760, p. 450,) that he made an “Abridgment of the Law,” but, as nothing of the kind has been discovered, it seems more reasonable to conclude that he wrote nothing except these “Reports,” and the “Reading,” above-mentioned. By these performances, and by the services he did his country upon the bench, he came fully up to the character which Camden has given him, of being ever distinguished by an equal and calm disposition, which rendered him in all cases a most upright judge, as his penetration and learning made him a fit interpreter of the laws of his country. “Jacobus Dierus,” says that historian, “in communi placitorum tribunali justiciarius primarius, qui animo semper placido & sereno omnes judicis asquissimi partes implevit, & juris nostri prudentiam commentariis illustravit.1


Life by Mr. Vailiant, whose accurate researches have enabled us to correct the mistakes, and supply the omissions of former biographers.