Porter, Sir Charles (c.1640–1696), lord chancellor of Ireland, was born in England, son of Edmund Porter, prebendary of Norwich, and said to be descended from a long-established Cumbrian family. His mother was Mawry, daughter of Sir Charles Chibborne of Messing Hall, Essex. Porter was admitted to Middle Temple (1656) and called to the bar (1663). In 1660 he was appointed solicitor to James (qv), duke of York, a position he held till 1685. He also enjoyed a lucrative legal career in London – a fact reflected, on his appointment as lord chancellor, by the grant of a pension of £1,500 a year to compensate him for loss of earnings. In 1685, on the accession of York as James II, he entered the house of commons as MP for Tregony.
In the following year he was knighted and appointed lord chancellor of Ireland (22 March 1686) by James II shortly after the appointment of the 2nd earl of Clarendon (qv) as lord lieutenant; Clarendon's correspondence is the main source of information about Porter's first term in Ireland. He arrived in Ireland in April 1686, and it seems he immediately set about reassuring Irish protestants that James had no intention of undoing the act of settlement, which gave legal force to the protestant-dominated land settlement that followed Charles II's restoration in 1660. Clarendon remarked in his correspondence that Porter had ‘written his mind very freely’ to the king on the unrealistic expectations Irish catholics had of being restored to lost lands. Porter soon crossed swords with the main catholic leader, Richard Talbot (qv), earl of Tyrconnell, and thus ensured his first stay in Ireland was to be a short one. When Tyrconnell was in Ireland in June 1686, he accused Porter of dragging his feet over the appointment of new catholic sheriffs. Tyrconnell and his allies, Major-general Justin MacCarthy (qv) and Sir Bryan O'Neill (d. 1694), later apparently accused Porter of having accepted a £10,000 bribe from the whigs, and as a result he was removed (January 1687) on Tyrconnell's appointment as lord deputy. Years later, while under attack for his alleged leniency towards Jacobites, he was to claim that he refused a £1,500 bribe from that party to change sides. Porter's removal changed his attitude to James II, and unsurprisingly he was an early adherent of William of Orange (qv), and after the revolution entered the English house of commons for New Windsor.
As the Williamite administration was established over much of the country, he was reappointed lord chancellor by the new king in December 1690. He was also appointed a lord justice alongside Thomas Coningsby (qv), a situation that lasted till the arrival of Henry Sidney (qv) as lord lieutenant in September 1692. Theirs was to prove a controversial administration, responsible for overseeing the political and military stabilisation of the country and for implementing the terms of the articles of Limerick, of which Porter was a signatory. There were widespread complaints from the Irish protestant gentry about quartering of soldiers on their property, and corruption and alleged pro-catholic bias within the government. These issues found expression in the rebellious 1692 parliament, which was as a result prematurely prorogued by Sidney. Porter himself alleged that a minority of activist lawyers had manipulated the inexperienced parliamentarians.
Sidney's removal as lord lieutenant (1693) made Porter and Coningsby the focus of the Irish opposition's anger. The English ministry took the situation seriously enough to issue a pardon to Porter and Coningsby for any illegalities they might have committed during their wartime administration. Two Irish opposition figures, James Hamilton of Tollymore and Richard Coote (qv), earl of Bellomont, appealed to the English privy council against the proposed pardon, and articles of impeachment against Porter and Coningsby were moved in the English house of commons. The main allegations were of illegal quartering of soldiers, recruitment of catholics into the militia, embezzlement of stores and forfeitures, appointment of catholic JPs, and favouritism towards catholics in general. Porter travelled to London to give evidence before the commons, which rejected the articles, and the pardon for himself and Coningsby was formally granted in April 1694.
Porter was by now also threatened within the Irish administration by Henry Capel (qv), an English whig who had been a lord justice since 1693 and was appointed lord deputy in May 1695. Capel had been building close links with opposition figures such as Alan Brodrick (qv) and Thomas Brodrick (qv), but Porter, in his extensive correspondence with Coningsby and also the tory secretary of state, William Trumbull, expressed scepticism (unjustified, as it turned out) that Capel's new allies would deliver a compliant parliament for him. Capel for his part accused Porter of having expressed pro-catholic sentiments while in London, and Capel's ally the duke of Shrewsbury (qv), whig secretary of state, argued in the ministry against ratification of the articles of Limerick, a subject close to Porter's heart. Porter accused Capel of fomenting opposition to himself within Ireland, and Capel's own correspondence tends to support the view that he was at least partly complicit in the attack on the lord chancellor during the 1695 Irish parliamentary session.
This attack took the form of a resurrection, by the Brodrick party, of the articles of impeachment that had already been rejected in the English commons. Porter again gave evidence against the articles, which after considerable debate were rejected by 121 votes to 77 (25 October 1695). Despite this victory, Porter complained of being excluded from all major decisions by a ‘select cabinet’ of Capel and his supporters, while his own supporters were allegedly victimised. Matters soon came to a head owing to Capel's terminal illness, and his attempts to have his supporters Murrough Boyle (qv), Lord Blessington, and Brig. William Wolseley (qv) appointed lords justices after his death. In fact, three days after Capel's death on 30 May 1696, the Irish privy council elected Porter as sole lord justice by twelve votes to five. He took the oath on 2 June and remained the sole lord justice until a new commission of three lords justices was sworn in on orders from London on 29 July. The new commission consisted of Porter, Lord Drogheda, one of Porter's supporters, and Lord Mountrath (qv), who had been prominent in the Capel faction, which for its part persisted in lobbying against Porter with sympathetic English politicians such as Shrewsbury. In the event, Porter himself died, reportedly of a fit of apoplexy, at Dublin castle on 8 December 1696.
Porter's death provoked an extraordinary attack from Shrewsbury, who described it as a ‘great fortune to the king's affairs in Ireland to be rid of a man who had formed so troublesome a party in that kingdom’ (Hist. parl.: commons 1690–1715, v, 180). In fact, there is no evidence that he was anything other than a loyal servant of both James and William, and in addition the ever critical Bishop William King (qv) described him as a ‘very good friend’ of the Church of Ireland (ibid.). Porter's persistence in supporting ratification of the articles of Limerick marks him out as a significant figure. His alleged sympathy towards catholics and Jacobites has to be viewed in the context of his support for the anti-catholic legislation enacted in 1695, though at one stage he expressed reservations about disarming all catholics because of their potential as last-resort allies against the ‘Scots’ (presbyterians).
Porter married first (1666) Sarah Mitchell of Edmonton, Middlesex, and secondly (1671) Letitia Coxeter (d. 1692) of Weald Manor, Bampton, Oxfordshire. They had one son and two daughters. Although his second wife was a wealthy heiress, Porter was unable to make financial provisions for his daughters in his will. King William, who clearly felt Porter had been a successful and loyal servant, provided for the late lord chancellor's daughters, granting them a parcel of forfeited lands in Ireland. This was the only royal grant excluded from the act of resumption in 1700. Porter's elder brother, William (1633–1716), represented Newtown Limavady in the Irish house of commons (1695–9).