Nugent, Nicholas (d. 1582), chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland, was fifth son of Sir Christopher Nugent and his wife Marian, daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence. Educated as a lawyer, in 1564 he was appointed to a commission to hear and determine lawsuits in the Pale. On 5 December 1566 he was appointed chief solicitor to the crown, and in 1567 received a lease of land formerly attached to the monastery of Black Friars near Dublin. On 18 October 1570 he was promoted to second baron of the exchequer. Between 1567 and 1576 Nugent served on a series of government commissions, dealing with the dispute between the earls of Ormond and Desmond (1567); Connacht (1569); the shiring of the Annaly, Co. Longford, and the rating of lands in Westmeath (1570); the summoning of musters in Co. Meath (1572–4); and the discovery of unrecorded lands previously belonging to monasteries and attainted persons (1575–6). In 1572 the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), recommended his appointment as master of the rolls, without success.
In 1577 he lost favour with Fitzwilliam's successor, Sir Henry Sidney (qv), when he supported a group of prominent Palesmen who organised opposition against both the extent of the recent levies of cess in the Pale and Sidney's proposal to compound this exceptional taxation for a fixed annual payment to the crown. The Palesmen declared the composition innovative and unconstitutional, and dispatched agents to the royal court to present their case to Elizabeth. A forceful defence of his policy by Sidney led to the imprisonment of the agents for questioning the queen's prerogative. In Ireland Nugent was deprived of his office and (together with the other leaders of the ‘country cause’) imprisoned in Dublin castle, pending an acknowledgement of their fault and acceptance of the composition. The Palesmen retreated from their extreme position and a compromise was negotiated. The episode seriously undermined Sidney's policies and support, and he was recalled shortly afterwards, whereupon Nugent was appointed chief justice of the common pleas on the joint recommendation of the lord chancellor, Sir William Gerrard (qv), and the earl of Kildare (qv), who described him ‘as sober, learned and of good ability’ (CSPI, 1574–85, 172). The appointment was not universally well received: Sidney complained that he had found Nugent both arrogant and obstinate; Sir Henry Wallop (qv) alleged that Gerrard had been paid £100 for his support; and Sir Robert Dillon (qv), who had sought the office for himself, was bitterly resentful.
Nugent came under further and more serious suspicion after the outbreak of the Desmond (1579–83) and Baltinglass (1580–81) rebellions, during which Lord Deputy Grey de Wilton (qv), who suspected a widespread conspiracy, arrested many members of influential Pale families, including Nugent's nephew Lord Delvin (qv), in December 1580. In 1581 Delvin's brother William (qv) led a small group of militant young catholics in an ancillary rebellion in which Nicholas was incriminated by the evidence of one of the conspirators, John Cusack. Nugent was arrested with Edward Cusack, son and heir of Sir Thomas Cusack (qv), on 28 January 1582 and tried at Trim by a special commission composed of privy councillors and the ordinary judges, presided over by the lord deputy. The evidence against Nugent was tenuous. He had not only urged William to abandon the rebellion but had advised other young Palesmen to stay out of it. His only other contact with his nephew had been in September 1581, when he obeyed, without success, an official order to persuade William to give his eldest son as a hostage. A verdict was secured, reputedly through intimidation by Sir Robert Dillon, who was also alleged to have bribed John Cusack to bring the charge.
Nugent was hanged on Easter eve, 6 April 1582, protesting his innocence. Shortly afterwards his lands and goods were distributed to Sir Robert Dillon and Sir Edward Moore (qv). His treatment was widely regarded as unjust and the precipitate grant of his property outraged Palesmen and English administrators alike. The privy council ordered a halt to both executions and disposal of land, and Grey was ordered to extend a general pardon to the rebels. In April 1584, in tacit acknowledgement of the injustice done to Nugent, his lands were restored to his only son and heir, Richard, and his wife Ellen, daughter of Sir John Plunket (qv), chief justice of the queen's bench.