If I Had Known That These Legs Were One Day To Carry a Chancellor, I’d Have Taken Better Care of Them

Robert Henley? Lord Northampton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Experiencing happiness and maintaining a positive outlook toward life is much easier to accomplish when one is enjoying good health. An English Lord once complained that he would have taken better care of his legs if he had known how long he was going to live. Would you please help me to find the precise quotation and a citation?

Quote Investigator: Robert Henley, Earl of Northington served as the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain in the 1760s. In 1831 his grandson published a book about his prominent ancestor. Henley who died in 1772 sometimes experienced severe fits of gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis. His grandson reported the Earl’s remark about his legs. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

When suffering from its effects, he was once overheard in the House of Lords to mutter after some painful walks between the Woolsack and the Bar, “If I had known that these legs were one day to carry a Chancellor, I’d have taken better care of them when I was a lad.”

The QI website has a separate article about the following related saying: “If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1888 Reverend Walter Baxendale published “Dictionary of Anecdote, Incident, Illustrative Fact” which included an entry about the saying: 2

EARLY indulgences, regretted.
Lord Chancellor Northington had in his youth enjoyed the pleasures of the table; but many a severe fit of the gout was the result of his early indulgences. When suffering from its effects one day he muttered, after a painful walk between the woolsack and the bar, “If I had known that these legs were one day to carry a Chancellor, I had taken better care of them when I was a lad.”—Croake James.

In 1890 a collection of “Letters of Horace Walpole” was published, and a footnote presented a variant of the quotation. The description “hard liver” referred to someone who caroused or led a wild life: 3

Lord Northington had been a very hard liver. He was a martyr to the gout; and one afternoon, as he was going downstairs out of his Court, he was heard to say to himself, “D— these legs! If I had known they were to carry a Lord Chancellor, I would have taken better care of them;” . . .

In 1931 a newspaper in Sedalia, Missouri attributed a version of the quotation to Lord Northampton: 4

Lord Northampton, a Lord Chancellor in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, was intemperate during the early part of his life. One day in his declining years as he tottered into court he was overheard to say: “Confound these legs. If I had known they were one day to carry a Lord Chancellor I would have taken better care of them.”

In 1963 Reverend A. Purnell Bailey published a sermon containing the quotation: 5

Lord Northington, while suffering from a severe attack of gout when he was prime minister of England, made a statement that will be remembered always because of its truth . . .

In the midst of the experience, he exclaimed: “If I had known these old legs would one day carry a prime minister of England, I would have taken better care of them!”

In conclusion, the remark about legs was posthumously attributed to Robert Henley in 1831 by his grandson. Henley had died decades earlier in 1772. Future researchers may discover an earlier citation. The 1931 attribution to Lord Northampton is unsupported.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro and Moi whose inquiries about a related saying led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to discussants Sam Clements, George Thompson, and Katherine Harper who located valuable citations. Additional thanks to Ralph Keyes, Nigel Rees, and Fred Shapiro for their pioneering research.)

Notes:

  1. 1831, A Memoir of the Life of Robert Henley, Earl of Northington, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain by The Right Honourable Robert Lord Henley (His Grandson), Quote Page 13, John Murray, Albemarle Street, London; Printer: C. Roworth and Sons, Bell Yard, Temple Bar, London. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  2. 1888, Dictionary of Anecdote, Incident, Illustrative Fact: Selected and Arranged for the Pulpit and the Platform by Reverend Walter Baxendale, Topic: Early, Anecdote Number 1808, Quote Page 192, Thomas Whittaker, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1890, Letters of Horace Walpole, Volume 1, Selected and Edited by Charles Duke Yonge, Footnote 1, Quote Page 259, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1931 March 13, The Sedalia Democrat, Wit and Wisdom by D. Carl Voder, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Sedalia, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1963 January 22, The Greensboro Record, Bread of Life by Rev. A. Purnell Bailey, Quote Page A12, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)