See biography by R. B. O'Brien (1909).
He was the elder son of Arthur Russell of Killowen and Margaret Mullin of Belfast, born at 50 Dominic Street (nee Queen Street), Newry, County Down. The family was in moderate circumstances, their ancestors having suffered much for the Roman Catholic faith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Arthur Russell having died in 1845, the care of his large family devolved upon their talented mother and their paternal uncle, the celebrated Dr. Russell of Maynooth. Having studied at the diocesan seminary, St Malachy's College, Belfast, at a private school in Newry, and Castleknock College, Castleknock, Dublin, Ireland, Charles Russell entered the law offices of Messrs Denvir, Newry, in 1849, and of O'Rourke, McDonald & Tweed, Belfast, in 1852. Admitted a solicitor in 1854, he practiced in the county courts of Down and Antrim, and became at once the champion of the Catholics who had resisted organized attempts at proselytizing by Protestants in these counties. His success was so striking that his legal friends urged him to become a barrister in London, and in 1856 he entered at Lincoln's Inn. Having followed an extensive course by close private study under the direction of Maine, Broom, and Birkbeck, he was called to the bar in 1859. His success on the northern circuit soon recalled him to London, where he became "Queen's Counsel" in 1872, and divided the mercantile business of the circuit with Baron Herschell. The increasing demand for his services may be judged by his fees which averaged $15,000 a year from 1862-1872, $50,000 in the next decade, $80,000 in the third, and in 1893-1894, his last year of practice, reached $150,000. His knowledge of law, business, and human character, a flexible and often passionate eloquence which derived its force from intense earnestness rather than oratorical device, marvelous dexterity in extracting the truth from witnesses, and a manifest honesty of purpose gave him a power over judge and jury which made him universally regarded as the first advocate of his age.
Though in his first years in London he had been weekly correspondent of the Dublin "Nation", an advanced Nationalist organ, he entered Parliament as a Liberal being elected, after two defeats, member for Dundalk in 1880. He generally acted with the Nationalists on Irish, and always on Catholic, questions, and, when he visited the United States of America in 1883, bore a flattering introduction from Charles Stewart Parnell. Elected member of parliament for South Hackney (1885-1894), he was knighted and appointed attorney-general by Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1886, and again became attorney-general in 1892 on the return of the Liberals to power. He was a strenuous advocate of Home Rule in Parliament and on public platforms, and was leading advocate for Parnell at the Parnell Commission trial in 1888. His cross-examination of the witnesses of the "Times", and especially his exposure of Richard Piggott, the author of the forgeries, made a favorable verdict inevitable. His famous eight-day speech for the defense was his greatest forensic effort. In 1893 he represented Britain in the Bering Sea Arbitration, his speech against the United States' contentions lasting eleven days, and was appointed GCMG for his services. Made Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, 1894, he was raised to a life peerage, taking his title Baron Russell of Killowen, of Killowen in the County of Down from his native townland of Killowen. In the same year he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic to attain that office for centuries. He won speedily the public confidence and is ranked with the most illustrious of his predecessors. He revisited the United States in 1896 as the guest of the American Bar Association and delivered a notable address on arbitration. In 1899 he represented England on the Venezuelan Boundaries Commission, and displayed all his old power of separating vital points from obscuring details. The following year he was attacked while on circuit by an internal malady, and, after a few weeks' illness, died in London, after receiving the sacraments of the Catholic Church, of which he had been always a faithful and devoted member. He was survived by his widow (Ellen, daughter of Dr. Mulholland of Belfast), whom he married in 1858, and by five sons and four daughters.
The unanimous tribute paid him by the English and American Bar and by the people and journals of the most diverse political and religious views attested that, despite his masterful character as lawyer, judge, and parliamentarian, and his stalwart loyalty to his faith and country, he had attained a rare and widespread popularity. In him were blended many qualities not usually found together. With a keen and orderly mind, a resolute will, great capacity for work, and severe official dignity, he combined sensibility of temperament, a spirit of helpfulness and comradeship, and a dreamer's devotion to ideals. He was always ready to write and speak for educational, religious, and benevolent purposes, though such action was not calculated to forward his political ambitions. Devoted to his family, he crossed the continent on his first American trip to visit Mother Mary Baptist Russell of San Francisco (who, with two others of his sisters, had entered the Order of Mercy), and found time to write for his children and send them day by day an admirable account of his experiences. This "Diary of a Visit to the United States" has been since edited by his brother, Rev. Matthew Russell, S.J., and published (1910) by the U.S. Catholic Historical Society. His other published works include: "New Views of Ireland" (London, 1880); "The Christian Schools of England and Recent Legislation" (1883); his speech before the Parnell Commission (1888); essay on Lord Coleridge in the "North American Review" (1894), and on the legal profession in the "Strand Magazine" (1896); "Arbitration, its Origin, History, and Prospects" (London, 1896). He was caricatured twice by Spy.