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Melmoth, William, the elderlocked

  • Emma Major
  •  and Nicole Pohl

Melmoth, William, the elder (1665/6–1743), lawyer and religious writer, was admitted to Clifford's Inn on 15 April 1686 and to the Inner Temple on 30 May 1689. Nothing is known of his background beyond the fact that the Inner Temple admitted him as a gentleman. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple on 29 May 1693.

Melmoth's religious beliefs caused him some unease about taking the oaths to William and Mary on his call to the bar, and prompted him to write for advice to the clergyman and philosopher John Norris, then rector of Bremerton, Wiltshire, though at the time he knew Norris only through his work. Their brief epistolary exchange between March and May 1693 suggests that Melmoth had nonjuring sympathies; his son wrote that 'he may seem, perhaps, in his early youth, to have been inclined to give a cast of superstition to the colour of his religion' (Melmoth, Memoirs, 15–16). In one letter he asked Norris 'whether swearing allegiance to an usurper, who is established and firmly settled on the throne, is not only supporting an unjust power, but approving of all he has done, and thereby becoming particeps criminis?' (ibid., 20). However, he was sufficiently persuaded of the government's legitimacy to take the oaths. On 25 April 1699, described as 'of Middlesex' (Lincoln's Inn Admission Register, 1.356), he migrated to Lincoln's Inn. His first wife, whose maiden name was Sambroke and whose given name may have been Sarah (a William Melmoth, son of William and Sarah Melmoth, was baptized at St Andrew's, Holborn, on 17 May 1696), died about this time, reputedly leaving him some property. By 1710 he had married Catherine, daughter of Samuel Rolt of Bedford, and granddaughter, on her mother's side, of Thomas Coxe, physician-in-ordinary to Charles II. They had four daughters—Constantia, Sophia, Catherine, and Jane—and two sons: the author William Melmoth the younger (bap. 1710, d. 1799) and Thomas. Before their marriage Melmoth had to assure himself that an estate to be settled on him as part of his wife's jointure 'was so absolutely his property as to render it a sufficient security' (Melmoth, Memoirs, 44), presenting him with a clash between his love, his ambition, and his conscience.

Melmoth welcomed the accession of Queen Anne and the formation of a government with high-church sympathies, and hoped that it would prepare the way for a general reformation of manners. Melmoth viewed the stage with particular concern. In 1703 he brought playbills for a new version of The Tempest to a meeting of the SPCK, where he described them as a flaunting of God's judgment. He entered into an anonymous correspondence with Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury, in which he urged that 'nothing would soe effectively contribute to check the debauchery of the present age, as the suppressing the theatre, or at least a due regulation of it' (Melmoth, Memoirs, 53), as the stage encouraged the young into 'false notions of virtue and vice'. He wrote in a similar strain to Daniel Defoe, to whom he sent a copy of Arthur Bedford's The Evil and Danger of Stage Plays (1706). He explained to Defoe that he was not opposed to plays in principle, as they could be morally useful, but that he considered the current London theatre corrupting.

Melmoth's increasing celebrity as a chancery counsel robbed him of time for writing, and according to his son he composed The Great Importance of a Religious Life Consider'd 'every Sabbath, after joining in the sacred and established functions of the day' (Melmoth, Memoirs, 58). The treatise concentrated less on the moral decay of society than on instilling in the individual 'a serious sense of religion and a true concern for the interest of their immortal souls' (Melmoth, The Great Importance, 1849, 37). An example of a religious life was that of the nonjuring clergyman John Kettlewell; Archbishop John Sharp's words on the distinction between worldly pleasures and communion with God were also quoted with approval. Melmoth's book was published anonymously in 1711 and became extremely popular. It was translated into Welsh and French, and Melmoth added to later editions a collection of morning and evening prayers and an essay on the sacrament. Melmoth did not claim The Great Importance as his own during his lifetime; it was generally regarded as the work of John Perceval, first earl of Egmont, and listed as such by Horace Walpole in his Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England. The identity of the author was revealed by the younger William Melmoth only in 1797.

In 1719 Melmoth became a bencher of Lincoln's Inn; in the next year he was one of the leading chancery counsel, making 220 motions. Following the death of Thomas Vernon, MP for Worcestershire, in 1721, he and William Peere Williams were entrusted by Lord Chancellor Macclesfield with editing Vernon's chancery reports; Melmoth planned to publish his own reports but they remain in manuscript at the British Library. In 1730 he held the office of treasurer of Lincoln's Inn, and in 1741 he received a legacy from a friend, the tory MP John Hungerford, on the death of Hungerford's widow, towards the erection of posts and lamp irons around the inn. Melmoth's will shows that by 1742 he and his wife were living in a house in the passage between Fetter Lane and Bartlett's Buildings, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn, and that he had property elsewhere in London and a country residence at Ealing, Middlesex.

In 1743 Melmoth was 'suddenly attacked with the strangury' (Melmoth, Memoirs, 72) but he continued to work until a few days before his death on 6 April 1743. He was buried in the cloister under the chapel at Lincoln's Inn on 14 April. The Great Importance continued to sell well throughout the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. It had reached thirty editions by 1797, selling 42,000 copies between 1766 and 1784 alone, and an edition published early in the 1840s claimed that 150,000 copies had been sold in the first forty years of the nineteenth century. Charles Purton Cooper, who edited The Great Importance for an edition published in 1849, claimed that Archbishop William Howley had related that it 'had been deemed by Queen Charlotte a book proper to be used in the education of the Princesses her daughters' (Melmoth, The Great Importance, 1849, 148). Princess Sophia's copy of the 1790 edition was placed in Lincoln's Inn Library, and in 1910 was given to Lambeth Palace Library, where it remains. Melmoth's thoughts on how a Christian society could be achieved by the self-examination and self-discipline of each individual endured well beyond the controversy that had given them form.


  • W. Melmoth, Memoirs of a late eminent advocate and member of the honourable society of Lincoln's Inn (1796)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/725, sig. 125
  • A biographical history of England, from the revolution to the end of George I’s reign: being a continuation of the Rev. J. Granger’s work, ed. M. Noble, 3 vols. (1806)
  • A catalogue of the royal and noble authors of England, Scotland and Ireland … by the late Horatio Walpole, ed. T. Park, 5 vols. (1806)
  • W. T. Lowndes, The bibliographer's manual of English literature, ed. H. G. Bohn [new edn], 6 vols. (1864)
  • W. Melmoth, The letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne (1795)
  • GM, 1st ser., 67 (1797), 586–7
  • W. Melmoth, The great importance of a religious life considered, ed. C. P. Cooper, new edn (1849)
  • W. P. Baildon, ed., The records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn: the black books, 3 (1899)
  • D. Lemmings, Professors of the law (2000)
  • J. Barry, ‘Hell upon earth, or, The language of the playhouse’, Languages of witchcraft: narrative, ideology and meaning in early modern culture, ed. S. Clark (2001), 139–58
  • private information (2004) [Inner Temple; Lincoln's Inn]


  • BM, reports, Add. MS 8127


  • N. Schiavonette junior, stipple, BM, NPG; repro. in Melmoth, Memoirs

Wealth at Death

£5500—in shares and savings, plus property in London: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/725, fols. 239v–243r, sig. 125

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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