Nugent, Thomas (d. 1715), 1st Baron Nugent of Riverston , lawyer and chief justice of the king's bench in Ireland, from Clonyn in Co. Westmeath, was the second son of Richard Nugent, 2nd earl of Westmeath (qv), and his wife, Mary (1623–72), a daughter of Sir Thomas Nugent of Moyrath, also in Co. Westmeath.
Family Richard and Mary Nugent had a large family of four sons and five daughters, and a number of children who died in infancy. The eldest son, Christopher, Baron Delvin, who predeceased his father, married a daughter of Richard Butler of Kilcash, and a younger son, William (d. 1690), represented Co. Westmeath in James II's (qv) Irish parliament of 1689. The Nugent daughters married into elite families in Irish society; one, Anne, widow of the 6th Viscount Dillon, married secondly Sir William Talbot of Carton, master of the rolls in 1689, and nephew of Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnell (qv). Thomas's father, Richard Nugent, had been actively involved in the military and political affairs of the catholic confederacy during the 1640s, being one of the commissioners delegated to negotiate a peace treaty with Ormond in 1648. Nugent came from a long line of illustrious forebears: his great-grandfather Sir Richard Nugent (qv) (1583–1642), 15th Baron Delvin, was created 1st earl of Westmeath in 1621, and his great-grandmother was a daughter of Christopher Plunkett, 9th Lord Killeen. Over the centuries, these Old English families played a important role in the Irish legal profession and, continuing in that tradition, Thomas Nugent was admitted to the Inner Temple in June 1669 and to King's Inns in November 1674.
Legal career While Nugent's name was recorded as counsel on a small number of chancery bills in 1678 and 1683, he was not a particularly prominent member of the profession until the reign of James II. When he was promoted to the judiciary in April 1686, the Irish viceroy, the 2nd earl of Clarendon (qv), maintained that he was ‘no lawyer, so will do no harm upon the account of his learning’ (Correspondence of . . . earl of Clarendon, i, 356–7). In February 1686, shortly after Clarendon's arrival in Ireland, Nugent advised the viceroy about meetings that were taking place among catholics in various counties. He reassured Clarendon that these meetings were solely for the purpose of selecting agents to send to England to petition on behalf of the old proprietors. He explained that as certain Irish lands were legally vested in the crown, it was hoped that the king would utilise these lands to greatly relieve the ‘ancient proprietors’, without disturbing the Act of Settlement. He informed the viceroy that letters had been sent to various counties to arrange meetings and collect contributions to support the selected agents. Clarendon later reported that, although Nugent and others continued to meet, the people were divided among themselves. On 27 February 1686, he wrote that he had been advised that many catholics were against the proposals, including the earl of Clanricarde (qv), who refused to allow his name to be used, commenting that the people of Leinster were ‘too hot’ and were too much dominated by Tyrconnell.
Early political career Nugent was appointed a judge of the king's bench in April 1686, following the removal of the protestant Sir Richard Reynell (qv). By the end of April, he was a member of the privy council and, as a firm supporter of Tyrconnell, he was soon engaged in political matters. In June 1686, he attempted to have the outlawries against Lord Gormanston (qv) (d. 1643) and Viscount Ikerrin reversed. In consultation with fellow lawyer Richard Nagle (qv), it was agreed that a letter from the king would be sufficient legally to reverse these outlawries. When the attorney general issued a report opposing the reversals, Nugent, Nagle and Judge Denis Daly (qv) concurred that the report was, in some measure, an attack on the king's prerogative. On 10 July 1686 Nugent notified the earl of Sunderland, secretary of state in London, of their legal opinion, and the outlawries were reversed before the end of the month.
Nugent was closely associated with Tyrconnell's policy of restoring catholics to positions of influence in local government and in the urban corporations. In June 1686 he complained to Sunderland that Clarendon was writing to the corporations, putting his own ‘exposition’ on the king's instructions. He also reassured Sunderland that it was not intended to remove men already serving in the commissions of peace, but rather to appoint an additional small number of suitably qualified catholics as justices of the peace in certain areas. In October 1686 Nugent and Tyrconnell furnished Clarendon with a list of persons they considered fit to be sheriffs for the coming year, causing Clarendon to comment that he found it strange that the two men should anticipate the representation of the judges, ‘who were the proper persons to select men suitably qualified for such employments’ (Correspondence of . . . earl of Clarendon, ii, 36).
Judge A number of controversial legal cases came before Nugent both in the king's bench and on the north-east circuit. In May 1686 Henry Aston, a protestant and son of the late Sir William Aston (d. 1670/71), a former member of the judiciary, murdered a catholic, who had reputedly insulted Aston's wife. The case came for trial before Nugent and Sir John Lyndon in the king's bench. Aston was found guilty and executed on 4 June 1686. His estate was forfeited, leaving his wife and four children in impoverished circumstances. Nugent and Lyndon made a personal plea to Clarendon to petition the king to permit Aston's estates to be restored to his wife and children; their petition was granted by James II in July 1686. Certain protestants attempted to make the trial a matter of more general political concern, by insisting that an English jury would have acquitted Aston. Clarendon, however, maintained that Aston had been accorded a fair trial and, in his opinion, was not deserving of mercy.
In a not dissimilar case, Murtagh Magennis, a catholic, killed the protestant Colonel William Hamilton in Co. Down in August 1686, coincidentally at a time when Nugent and the circuit judges were sitting at Downpatrick. Initially news reached the court that Hamilton had killed Magennis, to which Nugent reputedly responded that Hamilton would be tried before the judges left for Carrickfergus. When the true story became known, Tyrconnell immediately intervened, instructing the judges to grant bail to Magennis, whom he maintained had acted in self-defence. The judges refused and Magennis was brought to Dublin where Nugent, under pressure from Tyrconnell, granted bail. Magennis escaped to London. In light of the decision in the Aston case, many protestants began to doubt the impartiality of the law.
Early in 1686 there was growing concern about the number of cases coming before the courts of persons indicted, on questionable information, for words reputedly spoken many years earlier against James II, when duke of York. In March 1686 Nugent was directed by Clarendon to hear the case of a certain Meredith, indicted for such an offence, at the assizes at Trim. Nugent reported that he was not ready to hear the case and seemingly witnesses could not be found. These cases caused such disquiet among protestants that Clarendon was granted permission to issue a proclamation against them in July 1686. He reported, on 31 July, that Meredith's case had come before Judge Daly. Meredith was acquitted, following Daly's directions to the jury to consider well what they did, as most of those informed against were well-respected men and the prosecutions were, in the judge's opinion, malicious. Nugent issued similar directions to the jury at Drogheda, where, with only one exception, all those prosecuted were acquitted.
Early in 1687 Tyrconnell replaced Clarendon as Irish viceroy. On 21 January, shortly before Clarendon's departure, the provost of Trinity College told him of his discovery of a plot to murder Tyrconnell and informed him that Nugent had taken examinations on the matter. Nugent maintained that the examinations were all hearsay and on 25 January he brought an account of them in writing to Clarendon, concluding that there was nothing in it and that it was all a ridiculous business. Two months later, Nugent was promoted to the chief justiceship of the king's bench, following the death of the protestant judge Sir William Davis.
Later political career Although he had not been a participant in previous negotiations with the king regarding the land question, Nugent accompanied Sir Stephen Rice (qv) to London with two draft bills for the king's approval in early 1688. Throughout the discussions, Nugent was said to have been both rash and confused. Amid the political tensions of the time, the two Irish judges were mocked by a London mob carrying potatoes on sticks and shouting ‘make way for the Irish ambassadors’. On 3 April 1689 Nugent was created Baron Nugent of Riverston and the following month he took his seat in the house of lords in James II's Irish parliament. His influence may have secured the last-minute election to parliament of his brother-in-law Henry Dowdall, who had been appointed recorder of Drogheda in 1686, on a letter of recommendation from Nugent. Dowdall's election took place just one week before parliament opened on 8 May 1689, when Alderman Luke Conly, the previously elected member for Drogheda, obliged Dowdall by refusing to stand. Nugent, appointed chairman of committees in the house of lords, introduced the controversial bill designed to repeal the restoration acts of settlement and explanation, which was later passed by parliament against the interests and wishes of the king.
In July 1689 Nugent, together with lords Gormanston and Merrion, was appointed a commissioner of the treasury. It was his final public role, as he disappeared from legal and political life after the final Jacobite defeat in 1691. Although he benefited under the terms of the articles of Limerick and retained his estates, there is no evidence that he resumed his career at the bar. He appeared as a plaintiff in the chancery court on a number of occasions during the 1690s, when he was represented both by the former solicitor general Sir Toby Butler (qv) and by the catholic lawyer John Delamare, from his native Co. Westmeath.
Nugent, whose lack of legal ability was frequently remarked upon, was not a popular man. He displayed, on occasions, a certain arrogance or air of self-importance, which may have derived from his being a close adherent of Tyrconnell. In 1686 the lord chancellor, Sir Charles Porter (qv), who regarded him as a foolish and troublesome man, maintained that Nugent had his judicial robes made even before his appointment was announced by the king. When questioned about the rumoured promotion of catholics to the Irish bench, Nugent reputedly retorted: ‘that whatever is done, I am sure I shall be a judge this next term’ (Correspondence of . . . earl of Clarendon, i, 347). At the end of April 1686, when coming into the king's bench for the first time as a judge, Nugent insisted that as he had replaced Reynell, the second judge of the court, he was entitled to sit in the same place. Sir John Lyndon, a judge since 1682, would not submit, and a contest broke out which Clarendon said ‘was as brisk as if it had been two women’ (CSPD, 1686–7, 114). The matter was settled by the lord chancellor, who commented that in England there was never any such dispute, as it was well known that a new judge always took the ‘youngest’ place in the court. Even catholic contemporaries did not hold him in very high regard. Sir Richard Nagle and Sir Stephen Rice objected to Nugent's travelling to London with the draft bills in January 1688, maintaining that he ‘was good for nothing but to spoil a business’ (McGuire, 125). Though hardly an impartial critic, William King (qv), later bishop of Derry, wrote that Nugent would have destroyed the protestant interest in Ireland ‘only his weakness, not his inclination, hindered him from carrying it further’ (King, 79). King expressed incredulity that a man who had been taken so little notice of at the bar should be appointed a chief justice of the king's bench.
Thomas Nugent died in 1715. During the 1650s his family had been transplanted and granted land at Pallas in Co. Galway, which was given to Nugent when they were restored to their Co. Westmeath estates in the restoration period. He married in 1680 Marianna (1662–1735), daughter of Henry Barnewall, 2nd Viscount Barnewall of Kingsland, and the couple had two sons, Richard Hyacinth (d. 1738) and William (d. 1756), and several daughters. Although it was deemed invalid by the Williamite administration, his sons retained the title Baron Nugent of Riverston. The title was merged with the earldom of Westmeath in 1839, which had continued through Nugent's nephews, Thomas Nugent (d. 1752), the 4th earl of Westmeath, and his brother John Nugent (d. 1754), the 5th earl, sons of Sir Christopher Nugent, Baron Delvin.