Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield was England’s most celebrated jurist of the 18th century… dubbed The Age of Enlightenment. He was born to Scottish nobility in 1705 and is mentioned in modern context as the originator of Lord Mansfield’s Rule… a rule of evidence that was adopted in America that bars both the husband and wife from bastardizing a child after marriage. A renowned jurist with a brilliant legal mind, who is credited with codifying, if not creating Commercial Law, and the concept of “adverse possession”… changing the notion of adverse interests from a negative to a positive one. Before such time, the title to abandoned property was forfeited by the old owner, but no new title was created in the hands of the possessor. He singlehandedly created the then novel notion of good title by possession and thereby cleared up many of England’s longstanding title issues.
Doubtlessly, Lord Mansfield’s racial sensitivity and keenest on the question of equal protection under English law was heightened in 1765. That year he and his wife Lady Elisabeth Mansfield had agreed to be guardians for their grandniece Dido Belle and Parliament debated and then passed The Regency Act of 1765. It was Lord Mansfield coming to the conclusion that the Court of the King’s Bench… England’s highest court had to address the extralegal tradition of slavery on British soil and structural racism against Afro-Englishmen and to the extent that anyone could… he knew full well how far-reaching the ramifications of such a decision.
Dido Belle was born into slavery in 1761 in Jamaica to an enslaved African woman named Maria Belle. John Lindsay… her father called her Belle and while he fully recognized his daughter, things were complicated since he was an aristocrat, a member of the Evelix branch of the Lindsay family clan and the nephew of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield of the Court of the King’s Bench… England’s highest court. At the age of twenty-four… John, a career naval officer took a calculated step of asking Lord Chief Justice Mansfield to take care of Belle at Kenwood House, after her mother died. By letter Lord Mansfield and his wife Lady Elizabeth agreed to take care of Belle, but John did not tell his uncle or aunt that Belle’s mother was African and that she was born a slave, which they found out on Christmas eve 1765.
John stood in the Great Hall… a pair of alabaster marble columns reached from a raised dias to a small palisade balcony. Under it, a plumed canopy, with red and gold drapery flowed down to frame an elegant gentleman in his late fifties sitting crossed-legged in a gilt armchair. There was a woman seated on a stool beside him. She was a handsome woman and though she was certainly not in the flush of youth… her features were so finely sculpted that one could still call her beautiful. They were John’s uncle… Lord Mansfield and his aunt, Lady Elizabeth and they were very happy to see John.
However, once Lord Mansfield knew John’s daughter was black, the mood in the room changed. And soon thereafter Lord Mansfield rescinded the couple’s offer to care for Belle… telling John that Belle living with them at Kenwood House would never work. He said that given his high office as England’s Lord Chief Justice, along with their family’s high status, there would be a huge public scandal and recrimination by the British aristocracy. “The very idea of Belle living at Kenwood House, the public gossip would be unimaginable” he said.
Undaunted, John explained hereditary slavery as being a direct attack upon the aristocracy and his daughter Belle was being robbed of her birthright and subjecthood by the Jamaican General Assembly… however, Lord Mansfield was unpersuaded. Then John said something quite special that “a man’s true nature… his character is revealed when he does what is right, even if he is alone and beyond prying eyes in a wilderness”. These were Lord Mansfield’s own words. John continued… “I will not do that which my conscience tells me is wrong to gain the huzzah of thousands or the daily praise of the papers which comes from the press, I will not avoid doing what I think is right, though it should draw on me the whole artillery”.
The young man quoting Lord Mansfield on the subject of doing the right thing was impactful. Lord Mansfield capitulated and agreed to care for Belle. And caring for Belle at Kenwood House caused Lord Mansfield to deeply consider the plight of Afro-Englishmen, whom the aristocracy was duty bound to protect, as being a suffocating and humiliating stain upon British honor. Lord Mansfield decided to use his high office to restore Belle’s birthright and subjecthood. Such a decision from his Majesty’s Court of the King’s Bench would also restore the birthright and subjecthood of all colonial born blacks suffering as slaves.
However, one should not conclude that Lord Mansfield was against slavery based upon moral grounds, rather, he was against slavery because it violated English law and he saw this extralegal institution of slavery as a cancer upon England’s rule of law and a looming threat to dynastic rule. Two facts made this plain for Lord Mansfield: first, Belle… losing her aristocratic birthright… her subjecthood and then being made a slave. This meant that commoners could and did place an aristocrat below the rule of English law.
Second, too many members of Parliament opposed enacting the Regency Act of 1765 because of Queen Charlotte’s mixed-race heritage. The Act provided that if King George III who had three young children should become unable to rule and the heir to the throne was a minor… Queen Charlotte would become Regent and wield the power of the throne. The Queen had the same mixed-race heritage as Belle and it was no secret… her wielding the power of His Majesty’s throne concerned certain members of Parliament.
Furthermore, England’s Queen Charlotte, the youngest daughter of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was derisively and publicly being referred to as a “blond mulatto”. Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry was undeniable and quite apparent. Nonetheless, King George III married Charlotte in 1761 at the age of seventeen and she gave birth the next year… Prince George IV. He was the Prince of Wales and later he did become the King of England. However, in 1765 when Parliament was debating enacting a regency bill… the Queen was being savaged in polite circles by racist comments.
The Georgian courtesans referred to her as “Queen Orangutan”… and were saying things such as “she’s small and crooked, with a true mulatto face”… “her nose is too wide, her lips too thick” and “she has a dark complexation and flared nostrils”. These unflattering comments and others were relayed back to the Queen through supplicants and by traveling and hob-knobbing in these circles… Lord Mansfield heard these virulent and mean-spirited aspersions leveled at the Queen and he did not like it.
Queen Charlotte was a direct descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, with six different lines tracing her lineage back to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a 15th century noblewoman… of mixed-race ancestry. Sousa was nine generations removed and her ancestry was traced to the 13th century ruler Alfonso III and his paramour Madragana… who was an African. Consequently, Queen Charlotte tried to live quietly… as she knew, all too many of His Majesty’s subjects equated African ancestry to any degree with being a slave. But Queen Charlotte knew also that slavery was extralegal and was wrong. She came to use her influence upon King George III to quell slavery and structural racism. She believed that structural racism had to be rendered inert… if her son George Augustus were to ever have a chance of having a successful reign as the future King of Great Britain.
Such were the circumstances, in 1765 when Lord Mansfield came to recognize and understand… that if a person of blue blood like his grandniece Belle could be made a slave in this Kingdom, a pretender to His Majesty’s throne might use Queen Charlotte’s mixed-race heritage to cause mischief or possible chaos if she were ever elevated to the post of Regent or if King George III died. Lord Mansfield knew that this was not an idle possibility, as it was common knowledge that King George III was not a well man. And it was in this context that Lord Mansfield committed himself to addressing slavery and to rally his brethren of the Court of the King’s Bench to repudiate slavery by a unanimous decision. Lord Mansfield was clear-headed on the point that English rule of law had to protect everyone… or else, English rule of law could protect no one in the Kingdom. And this was top of his mind on the afternoon when Lord Mansfield issued the writ of habeas corpus in the James Somerset case in December 1771.
The plight and concerns of two aristocrats of mixed-race ancestry framed a major problem for England’s dynastic rule during colonial times. Dido Belle, a mixed-race aristocrat was placed below English rule of law then robbed of her aristocratic birthright and made a slave. While Queen Charlotte, a mixed-race aristocrat feared structural racist practices and attitudes seeded in slavery might come to deny her son’s birthright to be England’s King.