COTTON, John I (1621-1702), of Conington, Hunts. and Cotton House, Westminster.
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Family and Education
b. 9 Mar. 1621, 1st s. of Sir Thomas Cotton, 2nd Bt.†, of Conington, being o.s. by 1st w. Margaret, da. of Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle, Cumb. educ. Magdalene, Camb. 1637; travelled abroad 1639-42. m. (1) 8 June 1644, Dorothy, da. and h. of Edmund Anderson of Stratton, Beds., 7s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) 20 Oct. 1658, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Thomas Honeywood of Markshall, Essex, and h. to her bro. John Lamott Honeywood, 1 surv. s. 2da. suc. fa. as 3rd Bt. 13 May 1662.1
J.p. Hunts. July 1660-Apr. 1688, Oct. 1688-d., Beds. 1680 Feb. 1688, Oct. 1688-93; commr. for assessment, Hunts. Aug. 1660-80, Westminster 1661-3, 1664-80, Huntingdon 1663-80, Beds. 1664-80, 1689-90, Hunts. and Westminster 1689; oyer and terminer, Norfolk circuit July 1660, dep. lt. Hunts. c. Aug. 1660-Mar. 1688, Oct. 1688-?96, Beds. 1670-Feb. 1688; commr. for loyal and indigent officers, Hunts. 1662, recusants 1675, col. of militia ft. by 1680-Feb. 1688.2
Cotton’s ancestor, a younger son of the Cheshire family, inherited Conington in 1460, and Thomas Cotton first sat for Huntingdonshire in 1554. Cotton’s grandfather, Sir Robert Cotton†, was the favourite antiquary of the Opposition in the early Stuart Parliaments, despite his descent from the royal house of Scotland. His father was named to the county committee in 1642-3, but concentrated on improving and extending his estate, valued shortly before his death at £3,000 p.a. Cotton took no part in the Civil War, though there can be no doubt where his sympathies lay: he was ‘devoted to the prerogative, even to slavery’, according to Burnet, and frankly told the House that there were great mistakes in his grandfather’s work. The second Lord Dartmouth called him ‘a very worthy, honest gentleman, that understood and loved the constitution of his country’. Shortly after his second marriage, he is said to have attempted suicide. Returned for Huntingdon at the general election of 1661, he was a moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, in which he was appointed to 84 committees, acted as teller in eight divisions and made seven recorded speeches. In the first session he was appointed to the committees for the security bill and the bill of pains and penalties. On 30 June 1663 he acted as teller for the bill against Quakers and other sectaries, and he objected to the Lords’ amendments to the explanatory uniformity bill of the same year. ‘Sir John Cotton, knight’ was noted as a court dependant in 1664, but this may have been due to confusion with his Cambridgeshire namesake (father of John Cotton III), who was a gentleman of the privy chamber. His devotion to the Church was recognized in his selection to ask Dr Stillingfleet to preach to the House in 1666.3
Cotton’s recorded speeches were plentifully adorned with classical tags. According to Evelyn, Cotton was only ‘a pretended great Grecian, but had by no means the parts or genius of his grandfather’; but Cotton’s letters suggest that this verdict was too harsh. On 27 Feb. 1668 he moved to raise £300,000 upon the luxury of eating and drinking, which reminded him of the decadence of Rome. But his major effort was reserved for the debate on toleration of 11 Mar. when he attacked such Presbyterian tenets as that the King was maior singulis but universo minor; that he was but minister bonorum; that he was only to command as he is good (dominium in gratia); the principle of self preservation (salus populi, suprema lex); ‘and many more such’. He served on committees considering the petitions of his college in 1669 and of Henry Williams in 1670. Sir Thomas Osborne listed him as usually voting for supply, but he was sufficiently outraged by the attack on Sir John Coventry to wish to lay aside all other business, and on 13 Feb. 1671 he moved that the preamble to the supply bill should provide for the money to be applied to maintaining the Triple Alliance. In 1673 he served on the committee that produced the test bill. But with the break-up of the Cabal, Cotton moved back to the Court. In the debate on the standing army of 7 Feb. 1674 he objected to the removal of necessary guards. He received the government whip for the autumn session of 1675, and made an important speech:
Princes may be mistaken, councils may err, but the King cannot do ill. Three things hinder supply. First, the fear that what they give may be spent in luxury. ... Secondly, the fear that Popery should be brought in; we see Papists placed in military employment. Thirdly, the fear of being governed in an arbitrary way by a standing army. But now he comes to the great point. Is really of opinion that at this time we should give the King supply for the fleet. Virgil calls us in scorn divisos orbe Britannos. Our ships are our walls, to which the King has a natural affection, and more employs his mind on than any of his predecessors. Would have us give him something now. Moves for £500,000.
Cotton served on the committee to hinder the growth of Popery, and acted as teller against the motion to adjourn debate on Shirley v. Fagg on 17 Nov. Late-night sittings had no terrors for him, as his Westminster home adjoined the two Houses. His name appears on the working lists, and Sir Richard Wiseman described him as ‘a very good man, and rarely misseth in his vote, and then by mistake only. Some person (trusty) should always sit near him.’ On the other hand the author of A Seasonable Argument called him ‘a madman who cut his own throat, and now cuts his country’s by his vote’, and Shaftesbury marked him ‘thrice vile’. He probably abandoned his residence in Huntingdonshire in 1676, when he took out a game licence for within ten miles of Stratton. In 1677 he was appointed to the committees for recalling British subjects from the French service and hindering the growth of Popery, as well as to that for the estate bill of Lord Manchester (Robert Montagu). He was marked as a court supporter in both lists of 1678, during which he was appointed to the committee to summarize the foreign commitments undertaken by the Government, and added to the committee to prevent the growth of Popery. He seems to have been unaffected by the Popish Plot agitation, except when the Lords nervously desired him to remove his coals and faggots from their cellars.4
Cotton is not known to have stood for any of the Exclusion Parliaments. In 1681 he was hoping for a peerage, but nothing came of it. Although he had left Conington to fall into decay, he was still one of the largest landowners in Huntingdonshire, for which he was returned to James II’s Parliament. He was moderately active, serving on the committee to review the accounts of the disbandment commissioners and probably on three others. But he was no less hostile to Popery than to dissent, and in 1687 offered shelter to one of the ejected fellows of Magdalen; his ‘little villa at Stratton’, during the Civil War, had sufficed to accommodate not only his own household and his father’s second family, but also his grandfather’s famous library. To the lord lieutenant’s questions on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws he replied:
With all humility and duty he answers that if he be chose (for he does not design to stand), then he will come into the House with a design to be convinced with the best argument which he hopes may be given for the repealing the laws. ... He must be of consequence for electing such Members as are of the same mind.
Cotton’s ingenious phraseology did not save him from dismissal from all local office. He took no part in the Revolution, but accepted the new regime: ‘as for the public affairs’, he wrote in 1693, ‘I desire wholly to acquiesce in God’s providence’. His ascetic life earned for him a healthy and cheerful old age, occupied by learned correspondence, the composition of Latin verse, and the writing of an autobiography which does not seem to have survived. He died on 12 Sept. 1702, aged 81, and was buried at Conington. In accordance with his desires, the Cottonian Library was sold to the nation for £4,500. His grandson was elected for Huntingdon in 1705 and for the county in 1710 as a Tory.5