Charles, Lord Chancellor Yorke

Statut : Author / academic


Notes : Charles Yorke (1722-1771) Lord Chancellor, second son of Lord Hardwicke entered Corpus Christi College in 1739, and took his M.A. in 1749. In 1735 he was admitted to the Middle Temple and subsequently Lincoln’s Inn, and was called to the bar in 1745-6. In 1745 his “Considerations on the Law of Forfeiture for High Treason, occasioned by a Clause in the late Act for making it Treason to correspond with the Pretender’s Sons or any of their Agents”, established his reputation as a constitutional lawyer. From 1747 to 1768 he was member of parliament for Reigate, and subsequently for the university of Cambridge. He was counsel to the East India Company for many years and from 1754 solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales. In 1756 he was appointed solicitor-general under the Duke of Devonshire and continued under Pitt, resigning on Pitt’s fall in 1761. In 1762 he was appointed attorney-general by Lord Bute. As a government officer he was by no means indulgent towards political pamphleteers, notably John Wilkes. He was an important figure in moderate Whig circles, an Italian scholar who ‘trifled with the muses’ and amused himself with landscape-gardening at his villa at Highgate, entertaining Warburton, Hurd, Garrick, and other friends. In 1771 he was appointed Lord Chancellor by the king, achieving a lifelong ambition to follow his father in that office, but died within days. Written by a group of Cambridge scholars, the « Athenian Letters » were projected as an academic exercise. The « Letters » were printed for private circulation only, the first edition of 1741-1743 being limited to ten copies, and the second, which was deferred until 1781, to a hundred copies. The vogue given to historical fiction by the appearance of Barthélemy’s « Voyage du jeune Anacharsis » (1788) at length procured for it the honour of piracy (see below the letter addressed by Philip Yorke to the Abbé Barthélemy and the latter’s reply). The surreptitious edition was suppressed and superseded in 1792 by an edition furnished with a geographical index, maps, and engravings (London & Dublin, 2 vols.). New editions appeared in 1798 (London, 2 vols), in 1800 (Basel & Strasburg, 3 vols.) and 1810 (London, 2 vols.). The letters signed P. belong to Philip Yorke, while those signed C. belong to his brother, Charles Yorke. The two brothers wrote the majority of the letters ; other contributors were George Henry Rooke (1702-1754), John Green (1706?-1779), Daniel Wray (1701-1783), Henry Heaton (d. 1777), Henry Coventry (d.1752), John Lawry (d. 1773), Thomas Birch (1705-66), Samuel Salter (1710-1778), Catherine Talbot (1721-1770) and William Heberden (1710-1801). In his Mémoires the Abbé Barthélemy gives an excellent summary of this work : « Dans les Lettres Athéniennes, Cléander, agent du roi de Perse, résidant à Athènes pendant la guerre du Péloponnèse, entretient une correspondance suivie avec les ministres de ce prince, et avec differens particuliers ; il leur rend compte des événemens de cette guerre, et des divisions qui règnent parmi les peuples de la Grèce ; il décrit leurs forces de terre et de mer ; discipline militaire, politique, gouvernement, lois, mœurs, fêtes, monumens, rien n’échappe au profond observateur ; il converse avec Phidias, Aspasie, Alcibiade, Cléon, Thucydide ; il s’occupe de la philosophie des Grecs, tantôt avec Smerdis qui réside en Perse, et qui dans ses réponses lui parle de la philosophie des Mages ; tantôt avec Orsames qui voyage en Egypte, et qui dans les siennes lui parle des lois et antiquités de ce pays. Ainsi se trouvent heureusement rapprochés les principaux traits de l’histoire des Grecs, des Perses et des Egyptiens ; et ces traits, puisés dans les auteurs anciens, donnent lieu à des parallèles aussi instructifs qu’intéressans. Une parfaite exécution répond à cette belle ordonnance ». In adopting the genre of historical fiction, the authors of the “Athenian Letters” did not need to decide on those questions which concerned the historians of Greece in the same period ; however, running through the dialogue between the main character Cleander and his correspondents, themes like the opposition between Sparta and Athens, the problem of the nature of democratic government, the implicit comparison of this with English constitutional monarchy emerge, and the viewpoint of the authors can be detected. For instance when Cleander describes Athenian democracy in Letter XIII to Gobryas, the prime minister of Artaxerxes, he does so in the form of a eulogy of a moderate version of the English constitution. If the Athenians have opted for « popular » government, it remains the fact that Solon, with the aim of tempering « the inconstancy and violence of a democracy » introduced « a proper mixture of the aristocratic form » into it. Also Cleander writes that it would be desirable to compare with « thy experienced sagacity the republican government of Athens with the Persian monarchy, to discover their mutual advantages and disadvantages » and to « determine whether a constitution, blended of both, might not compose the most perfect form that human invention can ever expect to attain ». Gobryas replies (Letter XIV) that he takes too far his admiration of Athens : « neither imagine that customs which suit the level conditions of the members of a republic, would equally become the gravity and strict discipline of a monarchy ». Similarly the “Athenian Letters”, far from adhering to the long tradition of admiration for the mixed constitution of Sparta its patriotic virtue and the frugality of its citizens, tend rather to present the image of a city aiming to establish « a chimerical equality », destroying « the distinctions and necessary subordinations of society », in which literature and the arts were extinguished, a city finally in which the ideals of «action » and «utility » prevailed over those of « reason » and « instruction », which were regarded as useless objects (see Letter CXVI). This is far from the views of an author like Rollin ; but it is also close to the image of a « primitive », more or less « barbarian » Sparta, which was beginning to emerge in a number of authors in the second half of the eighteenth century as a result of the polemic directed notably against that bête noire of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Athenian Letters were dedicated by the editor “To the university of Cambridge (…) as a testimony of his sincere respect, and as a memorial of the gratitude and attachment entertained by the authors of it for that ancient and venerable seat of learning, with which they were so long and so honourably connected”.

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