Sir William Gascoigne - Encyclopedia

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SIR WILLIAM GASCOIGNE (c. 1350-1419), chief justice of England in the reign of Henry IV. Both history and tradition testify to the fact that he was one of the great lawyers who in times of doubt and danger have asserted the principle that the head of the state is subject to law, and that the traditional practice of public officers, or the expressed voice of the nation in parliament, and not the will of the monarch or any part of the legislature, must guide the tribunals of the country. He was a descendant of an ancient Yorkshire family. The date of his birth is uncertain, but it appears from the year-books that he practised as an advocate in the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. On the banishment of Henry of Lancaster Gascoigne was appointed one of his attorneys, and soon after Henry's accession to the throne was made chief justice of the court of king's bench. After the suppression of the rising in the north in 1405, Henry eagerly pressed the chief justice to pronounce sentence upon Scrope, the archbishop of York, and the earl marshal Thomas Mowbray, who had been implicated in the revolt. This he absolutely refused to do, asserting the right of the prisoners to be tried by their peers. Although both were afterwards executed, the chief justice had no part in the transaction. It has been very much doubted, however, whether Gascoigne could have displayed such independence of action without prompt punishment or removal from office following. The oft-told tale of his committing the prince of Wales to prison must also be regarded as unauthentic, though it is both picturesque and characteristic. The judge had directed the punishment of one of the prince's riotous companions, and the prince, who was present and enraged at the sentence, struck or grossly insulted the judge. Gascoigne immediately committed him to prison, using firm and forcible language, which brought him to a more reasonable mood, and secured his voluntary obedience to the sentence. The king is said to have approved of the act, but there appears to be good ground for the supposition that Gascoigne was removed from his post or resigned soon after the accession of Henry V. He died in 1419, and was buried in the parish church of Harewood in Yorkshire. Some biographies of the judge have stated that he died in 1412, but this is clearly disproved by Foss in his Lives of the Judges; and although it is clear that Gascoigne did not hold office long under Henry V., it is not absolutely impossible that the scene in the fifth act of the second part of Shakespeare's Henry IV. has some historical basis, and that the judge's resignation was voluntary.

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