LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Chancery Suit
Family History
Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
‣ Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

On the occasion of his wife’s tragic end, Shelley went to Bath, where his children were, in order to bring them home, and place them under the tutelage and tuition of a lady whom he had chosen for that purpose, and who was every way qualified for the office; but Mr. Westbrook refused to give them up, and instituted against Shelley, a suit in Chancery, to prevent his
obtaining possession of them. The bill filed, and the answer to it, would, if they could be procured, be most interesting. I imagine Shelley refers to the document he put in, in a letter to some anonymous friend, who had, he thought, overrated its merit, for he says,—“It was a forced, unimpassioned piece of cramped and cautious argument.” But few authors are the best judges of their own compositions, and the high idea which Shelley seems to have entertained of his correspondent’s critical judgment, suggests that the arguments were strong, and carried with them conviction.

The petition presented to the court in the name of the infant plaintiffs, states the marriage at Gretna Green, in the year 1811, and that they were the issue of it; that the father had deserted his wife; that thereupon the mother returned to the house of her father with the oldest of the infants, and that the other was soon after born; that they had since that time been maintained by their mother, and her father;
and that the mother had lately died. It was then stated, that the father, since his marriage, had written and published a work, in which he blasphemously denied the truth of the Christian religion, and denied the existence of a God, the Creator of the universe; and that, since the death of his wife, he had demanded that the children should be delivered up to him, and that he intended, if he could get hold of their persons, to educate them as he thought proper. It goes on to say, that their maternal grandfather had lately transmitted £2,000, four per cents., into the names of trustees, upon trust for them, on their attaining twenty-one, or marriage with his consent; and in the meantime to apply the dividends to their maintenance and education.

This suit, unlike most of those in chancery, was not long protracted, for on the 17th March, 1817, Lord Eldon gave his judgment in writing, as appears in Reg. lib. xiii., 723. See Jacob’s Reports of Cases during the time of Lord Eldon, vol. iii., 7266:—


“I have read all the papers left with me, and all the cases cited. With respect to the question of jurisdiction, it is unnecessary for me to add to what I have already stated, that this court has such jurisdiction, until the House of Lords shall decide any dispositions have been unwarranted by the exercise of it.

“I have carefully looked through the answer of the defendant, to see whether it affects the representation made in the affidavits filed in support of the petition, and in the exhibits referred to, of the principles and conduct of life of the father in this case. I do not perceive that the answer does affect the representation, and no affidavits are filed against the petition. Upon the case as represented in the affidavits, the exhibits, and the answer, I have formed my opinion; conceiving myself, according to the practice of the court, at liberty to form it, in the case of an infant, whether the petition in its allegations and suggestions has or has not accurately pre-
sented that case to the court, and having intimated in the course of the hearing before me, that I should so form my judgment.

“There is nothing in evidence before me, sufficient to authorise me in thinking that this gentleman has changed, before he arrived at twenty-five, the principles he avowed at nineteen, and think there is ample evidence in the papers and in conduct that no such change has taken place.

“I shall studiously forbear in this case, because it is unnecessary, to state in judgment, what this court might or might not be authorised to do, in the due exercise of its jurisdiction, upon the ground of the probable effect of a father’s principles, of any nature, upon the education of his children, where such principles have not been called into activity, or manifested in such conduct in life, as this court, upon such an occasion as the present, would be bound to attend to.

“I may add, that the case differs also, unless
I misunderstand it, from any case in which such principles having been called into activity, nevertheless in the probable range and extent of their operation, did not put to hazard the happiness and welfare of those whose interests are involved upon such an occasion as the present would be bound to attend to. This is a case, in which the matter appears to me the father’s principles cannot be misunderstood; in which his conduct, which I cannot but consider as highly immoral, has been established in proof, and established as the effect of those principles; conduct, nevertheless, which he represents to himself and to others, not as conduct to be considered as immoral, but to be recommended and observed in practice, and as worthy of approbation. I consider this, therefore, as a case in which the father has demonstrated that he must and does deem it to be a matter of duty, which his principles impose on him, to recommend to those whose opinions and habits he may take upon himself to form,
that conduct, in some of the most important relations of life, as moral and virtuous, which the law calls upon me to consider as immoral and vicious,—conduct which the law animadverts upon, as inconsistent with the duties of parents in such relations of life, and which it considers as injuriously affecting both the interests of such persons, and those of the community.

“I cannot, therefore, think that I shall be justified in delivering over these children for their education, exclusively, to what is called the care, to which Mr. Shelley wishes it to be entrusted.

“If I am wrong in my judgment which I have formed in this painful case, I shall have the consolation to reflect that my judgment is not final.

“Much has been said upon the fact that these children are of tender years. I have already explained, in the course of the hearing, the grounds upon which I think that circumstance not so material as to require me to pronounce an order.


“I add, that the attention which I have been called upon to give to the consideration, how far the pecuniary interests of the children may be affected, has not been called for in vain. I should deeply regret if any act of mine materially affect their interests. But to such inter rests I cannot sacrifice what I deem to be interests of greater value and higher importance.

“In the meantime I pronounce the following order.

That order restrained the father and his agents from taking possession of the persons of the infants, or intermeddling with them till further orders; and it was referred to the Master, to enquire what would be a proper place for the maintenance and education of the infants, and also to enquire with whom, and under whose care the infants should remain during their minority, or until further order.

In consequence of this decree of the court, the girl and boy were placed under the guar-
dianship of
Miss Westbrook, and Shelley told me in 1820, that either £200 or £300 a year out of his limited income, was made over to them for the education and support of these children; such sum being deducted by his father from his annuity.

The event of this
I think they call it,”
acted as a continual canker on the mind of
Shelley, and although by authority of the solitary case of Mr. Orby Hunter, the court assumed to itself the control of a father’s authority over his children, (and the Shelley proceedings were afterwards made an additional precedent in the case of Mr. Long Wellesley,) more liberal times have come, and it has since been declared by a Lord Chancellor, that such a power shall never again be exercised. The argument of Mr. Long Wellesley, even on the admission of irreligious or immoral conduct on the part of a father, was unanswerable. He contended that it by no
means follows—such is the innate love of virtue and morality implanted in us, and a sense of the effects of a dereliction of them on their own happiness and that of others—that the worst of men would wish to bring up his children irreligiously, much less immorally. But with the exception of Shelley’s separation from—called a desertion of, his wife, and the writing and printing—for it was never published—of
Queen Mab, no act of immorality was proved against him; and, in confirmation of Byron’s opinion, that he was one of the most moral men he ever knew, I can certainly say, that as far as my experience of him goes, and it extended through his whole life, with the exception only of a very few years, both in example and moral precept, in a high sense of honour, and regard to truth, and all the qualities of a refined and perfect gentleman, no one could have been a better guide and instructor of youth.

What defence Shelley put in, we know not; but with reference to Queen Mab, from my
knowledge of his character, I should consider that, however he might have modified, and did modify his opinions, he was the last man to have recanted them, either by compulsion, or in order to carry a point. The idea that the world would have given him credit for making that recantation from interested motives, and not from conviction, would alone have been sufficient to deter him from such a step.

The poignancy of his regrets at being torn from his children, and his indignation at the tyranny of that tribunal, which he designates,—
“darkest crest!
Of that foul-knotted, many-headed worm,
Which rends its mother’s bosom—Priestly pest!
Masked resurrection of a buried form,”—
(meaning the Star-chamber,) was shewn by his tremendous curse on the Court of Chancery, and him who with “false tears,”* habitual to him,

* Pandaras. But there was such laughing, Queen Hecuba laught till her eyes ran sore.
Cressida. With millstones.*
which Shelley calls, “the millstones braining men,” delivered the judgment above quoted.

Shelley, witness this anathema, had a tremendous power of satire, and could wield the weapon at will with a lash of bronze. Our English Juvenal Churchill’s, and Byron’s satires, were mere gnat-bites compared with the scorpion stings, which, ringed with fire, he inflicted. Did he send these verses to Lord Eldon! No, he never promulgated them, and I believe he would have said, in the words that he puts into the mouth of his Prometheus,—
“It doth repent me, words are quick and vain,—
Grief for awhile is blind, and so was mine.
I wish no living thing to suffer pain.”

But besides its haughty indignation, there breathes through the poem the tenderness of a father’s love. And here I must remark, that what particularly afflicted him, was, that his children should have been placed under the guardianship of a person of mean education, and of a low condition of life, totally unequal to the
office, and who from his narrow-mindedness would, he was convinced, bring them up with a rooted hatred to their father.

After their removal, he never saw them. They were become dead to him, and he sought for that affection denied him in them, in the offspring which his second wife,—how unlike his first!—bore him. No man was fonder of his children than Shelley; he loved them to idolatry, and clung to them as part and parcel of himself. Sometimes a frightful dream came over him, that these second pledges of affection would also be wrested from him by the same ruthless and merciless fiat, and the dread of such an event would have proved an effectual barrier to his ever taking up his abode in his native land. Haunted by such frightful spectres, he wrote the lines which Mrs. Shelley has happily preserved from oblivion, inspired many years after his first misfortune, by hearing that the chancellor had thrown out some hint of that intention.


How truly affecting are these stanzas, especially where, alluding to the loss of his children, he paints the consequence that must ensue from that withdrawal from his care:—
“They have taken thy brother and sister dear,
They have made them unfit for thee;
They have withered the smile and dried the tear
That should have been sacred to me.
And they will curse my name and thee,
Because we fearless are and free.”
And in
Rosalind and Helen, he says,—
“What avail
Or prayers or tears that chace denial,
From the fierce savage, nursed in hate;
What the knit soul, that, pleading and pale,
Makes wan the quivering cheek, which late
It painted with its own delight?—
We were divided.”

No one felt more than Lord Byron, the inhuman and unchristian decree of the Court of Chancery; and speaking of the suit, he says,—“Had I been in England, I would have moved heaven and earth to have reversed such a decision.”