John Willes (judge)

For other people named John Willes, see John Willes (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with James Shaw Willes.
Sir John Willes by Thomas Hudson.

Sir John Willes PC KC (29 November 1685  15 December 1761) was an English lawyer and judge who was the longest-serving Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas since the 15th century. He was also a Member of Parliament.


He was born at Bishop's Itchington in Warwickshire; his father, the Reverend John Willes, vicar of the parish, was a younger son of the long-established Willes family of Newbold Comyn. Dr. Edward Willes, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was his brother. Their mother was Anne (or Mary) Walker, daughter of Sir William Walker, who was three times Mayor of Oxford between 1674 and 1685.

Willes was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and Trinity College, Oxford, and was also elected a fellow of All Souls. While he was a student at Oxford he got into serious trouble for publishing pamphlets about the Government which were arguably seditious, and was threatened with prosecution as a result. His career was saved by the intervention of John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, who pleaded for clemency. Granville often said in later years that he had made Willes a judge by saving him from the pillory. Willes joined Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar in 1713; in 1719 he became a King's Counsel, and in 1726 he was appointed a judge on the Chester circuit.

He had meanwhile entered Parliament as MP for Launceston in 1722, and subsequently also represented Weymouth and Melcombe Regis and West Looe. In 1734 he was appointed Attorney General, and knighted. In 1735 he purchased the manor of Astrop, Kings Sutton, Northamptonshire where he built a new mansion Astrop House, (now a Grade II* listed building).[1][2] In 1737 he was elevated to become Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, the third most senior judge in the English legal system as it then existed, and held this post until his death in 1761; at the same time he was appointed to the Privy Council.

By his wife Margaret Brewster he had four sons and four daughters. He is also reputed to have had numerous illegitimate children, none of whom he acknowledged or made any provision for. Of his children John (1721–1784) was a Member of Parliament; Edward (1723–1787) followed his father to the Bar and in due course became Attorney General and a judge of the Court of King's Bench. Sir John also encouraged his younger cousin Edward of Newbold Comyn to become a barrister: Edward went on to have a distinguished career, ending as Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.

In character Sir John was described by Horace Walpole as a man of open character, sharp intelligence and "strong passions which could not be concealed", He was notorious for gambling and womanising; when objections were made to his promotion on the grounds of his debauched life, Sir Robert Walpole reportedly joked that he had always understood that such conduct was an essential qualification for high judicial office. William Hogarth portrayed him unflaterrngly in a number of cartoons. He was notably severe towards all legal practitioners, especially attorneys, who appeared in his court.


  1. "Maurice Willes". The Telegraph. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
  2. "Astrop House, King's Sutton". British Listed Buildings. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Alexander Pendarves
John Freind
Member of Parliament

for Launceston
with Alexander Pendarves 1724-1725
John Freind 1725-1726


Succeeded by
Henry Vane
John Freind
Preceded by
William Betts
Sir James Thornhill
Thomas Pearse
John Ward
Member of Parliament

for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis
with William Betts
Sir James Thornhill
Thomas Pearse 1726-1727
Edward Tucker 1727


Succeeded by
William Bett
Sir James Thornhill
Edward Tucker
Thomas Pearse
Preceded by
Sir John Trelawny
Edward Trelawny
Member of Parliament

for West Looe
with Edward Trelawny 1727-1733
Thomas Walker 1733-1734
Edward Trelawny 1734-1735
John Owen 1735-1737


Succeeded by
John Owen
Sir John Strange
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Philip Yorke
Succeeded by
Sir Dudley Ryder
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Reeve
Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Pratt
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