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Notable Legal Cases

As Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield (from 1705 to 1793) presided over a number of cases about slavery in Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster, London, SW1A 2PW. As well as Parliament, it was a Court of Law. Here you can find out more about some of these cases.

Painted portrait of Lord Mansfield sitting wearing the robes and wig of Chief Justice of England
Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England © Historic England

James Somerset

Lord Mansfield lived at Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, London NW3 7JR. His most famous case was that of James Somerset.

Somerset was a runaway slave who had been recaptured and held aboard a ship bound for Jamaica. The slavery abolitionist, Granville Sharp, helped Somerset to bring his case to court. Sharp wanted to find out once and for all if slavery was legal in England.

After much delay Lord Mansfield eventually gave a carefully worded judgement. He avoided the question of whether slavery was legal in England. Instead he stated:


No master was ever allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever.

Lord Mansfield, judgement in the Somerset case.

James Somerset was freed.

Immediately afterwards the Somerset case was hailed by many as a victory. However, some slave owners ignored the ruling and continued to take Africans abroad forcibly. 

The case of James Somerset was widely reported in the press and highlighted the question of slavery and British involvement in the slave trade.

Zong case

In 1781 133 slaves on board the ship Zong on route to Jamaica were thrown overboard so that the owners could claim the insurance on them under British law.

In 1783 Olaudah Equiano heard about the massacre and that the insurers had bought a legal case against the ship's owners. It was to be heard by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield at Guildhall. Equiano told his friend, the abolitionist Granville Sharp, about the case. Sharp tried to have the ship's captain tried for murder. A re-trial was ordered by Lord Mansfield, but never took place.

The details of the massacre of the slaves shocked the public and it was a turning point in the campaign to end slavery.

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