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Sir William Lee family papers

Call Number: OSB MSS 52

Scope and Contents

The Sir William Lee Family Papers document many aspects of the personal, family, and professional life of the prominent jurist and landowner Sir William Lee and his extended family. They include extensive personal and official correspondence; records of court cases; notes on legal and Parliamentary questions; personal, financial and legal memoranda; household accounts and financial papers; and other family and personal papers.

Series I, Correspondence, includes letters by William Lee (1729-1778) describing his extensive Grand Tour, as well as letters from other Lee relatives and Lord Hardwicke. Other subjects represented in the correspondence include county politics and elections and local legal matters; news of Parliament and current events, including the Jacobite Rebellion and the War of the Austrian Succession.

The remaining series primarily document Lee family financial and legal matters and Lee's service as Chief Justice. Additional documents relating to the Jacobite Rebellion are located in Series III, Political and Governmental Papers. A catalogue of Lee's library, along with many notes by Lee on his wide reading, is located in Series V, Notes on Reading and Other Papers.


  • 1588 - 1814
  • Majority of material found within 1710 - 1754


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sir William Lee Family Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased by James Marshall Osborn from Sotheby's, 8 March 1939 (Hartwell sale); gift of James Marshall Osborn, 1967.

Box 22, Fresh Wharf Estate Papers, was purchased from Bernard Quaritch, Ltd. on the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Fund, 2002.


Organized into nine series: I. Correspondence, 1724-1797; II. Financial Papers, 1700-1796; III. Political and Governmental Papers, 1700-1770; IV. Personal and Family Papers, 1588-1796; V. Notes on Reading and Other Papers, 1750; VI. Miscellaneous Legal Papers and Documents, 1700-1770; VII. Printed Materials, 1745-1814; VIII. 2002 Addition (02.5.8), 1695-1776; IX. Oversize, 1602-1806.


17.29 Linear Feet (28 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers, most of which date from the lifetime of Sir William Lee, consist of personal and official correspondence, notes, memoranda, household accounts and financial papers, records of court cases, and other documents. Family correspondents include Lee's brothers Sir George and Thomas Lee; his brother-in-law, William Melmoth, and his son William. William's letters describe student life at Wadham College, Oxford and Clare College, Cambridge. Subsequent letters detail William's Grand Tour through continental Europe, with sojourns in Paris; several cities in Italy, including Rome; and at the imperial court of Austria-Hungary.
Other correspondents include Scroop Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater; Sir Roger Drake; and Lord Hardwicke. Hardwicke's letters concern patronage, the Marriage Act of 1753, and the trials of the Jacobite rebels, including Lords Kilmarnock, Cromarty and Balmerino. Other subjects represented in Lee's correspondence includecounty politics and elections and local legal matters; news of Parliament and current events, including the Jacobite Rebellion and the War of the Austrian Succession; and medical remedies and receipts. There are also letters from prisoners asking for pardons or commutations, and from tenants concerning estate matters.

Sir William Lee, 1688-1754

Sir William Lee was born at Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1688, the second son of Sir Thomas Lee of Hartwell, M.P. for Aylesbury. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1704, and soon after matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, but did not take a degree. He was called to the bar in 1710, was appointed Latin secretary to King George I in 1718, and ten years later was named attorney-general to Frederick Prince of Wales. In 1727 he was elected to Parliament for Chipping Wycombe through his family's interest, and served until he was appointed a puisne justice of the King's Bench in 1730.

Lee married Anne Goodwin early in his career, and the couple had one son, William (d. 1778). Anne died in 1729, and in 1733 Lee married Margaret Drake Melmoth, a widow with a fortune of 25,000 pounds. In the same year, Lee's friend and colleague Lord Hardwicke was named Chief Justice. When Hardwicke was further promoted to Lord Chancellor in February 1737, he nominated Lee as his successor. Lee became Chief Justice on June 8th, and was also knighted that day as well.

Lee served as Chief Justice until his death, and was praised for his ability and impartiality as a judge. His court ruled that women who paid parish rates were entitled to vote in elections of parish officers. Lee presided at several of the treason trials of Jacobite rebels held by the special commission at Southwark in 1746. Among his rulings was R. v. Townley, which denied the defendant the right to be treated as a prisoner of war even though he held a commission in the service of the Pretender.

Lady Margaret Lee died in 1752; Sir William Lee died at his residence in Bloomsbury Square, London, after a stroke, on April 8, 1754. He was buried in the church at Hartwell, and left his fortune, including his manor at Totteridge, Hertfordshire, to his son William.

Processing Information

The collection received preliminary processing and partial cataloging at the time of acquisition. Further organization, rehousing and description were carried out in 2010. Information included in the Description of Papers note and Collection Contents section is drawn from the original dealer description and from a preliminary list compiled by a curatorial assistant in the 1970s. Folder titles appearing in the contents list below are based on those provided at the time of acquisition or by Beinecke staff at a later date. Titles have not been verified against the contents of the folders in all cases.

Guide to the Sir William Lee Family Papers
by Diane J. Ducharme and Thanh Tran
July 2010
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.