COTTON, Sir John, 4th Bt. (c.1680-1731), of Conington Castle, Hunts. and Stratton Park, nr. Biggleswade, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. c.1680, 1st s. of John Cotton (d.v.p, 1st surv. s. of Sir John Cotton, 3rd Bt.†, of Cotton House, Westminster and Stratton Park) by Frances, da. of Sir George Downing, 1st Bt., of East Hatley, Cambs. m. 4 July 1708 (with £6,000), Elizabeth, da. of Hon. James Herbert*, 2da. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1681, gdfa. as 4th Bt. 12 Sept. 1702.1
Cotton was descended from the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Bt.†, whose great library of manuscripts at Cotton House, situated between the House of Commons and the Painted Chamber, had been used by Members throughout the 17th century, and especially during the early Stuart Parliaments, as an archive of historical and parliamentary precedents. Indeed, Speaker Harley (Robert*) described it in 1701 as ‘the repository of the records that preserved our liberties’, the occasion for this tribute being a request from Cotton’s grandfather, the 3rd Baronet, conveyed to the Commons by the Speaker, for a bill to settle the library ‘inalienably’ on the public. Despite strenuous opposition from some members of the family, whose ‘private interests’ would naturally have been compromised by the loss of an asset valued at some £15,000, and who represented the baronet as ‘old, capricious and unsteady in his resolutions’, the library, though not the house itself, was duly placed by statute in the hands of trustees ‘for the benefit of the public’. The house formed part of Cotton’s substantial but disputed inheritance. He had an income from property variously estimated at between £4,000 and £9,000 a year. The ancestral seat of Conington Castle had, however, fallen into dilapidation, and he later pulled down part of the castle and converted what remained into a more modest dwelling. Other property, including lands worth a reputed £8,000 p.a. left under the will of the 2nd baronet, became the subject of litigation, initiated by the 3rd baronet’s younger children, which continued until at least 1710.2
Cotton’s grandfather was a staunch Anglican and in politics a practitioner of the doctrines of passive obedience: ‘a very worthy, honest gentleman that understood and loved the constitution of his country’. A Court loyalist during the 1670s, and a Member of James II’s Parliament, he gave succour in 1687 to one of the ejected fellows of Magdalen, Oxford, and despite carefully equivocal replies to the King’s questions on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws, was dismissed from his local offices in 1688. The Revolution he accepted fatalistically, writing that, ‘as for public affairs, I desire wholly to acquiesce in God’s providence’, though he took no further part in political life. His children seem to have reacted more strongly. A daughter Mary, briefly married before her death in 1714 to a Jacobite physician, was said to be ‘as good a Jacobite’ as her husband, while a younger son, Robert, of Steeple Gidding in Huntingdonshire, became a non-juror and later participated more actively in the Jacobite cause. Out in the Fifteen, he was captured at Preston and later escaped to France, where he was a pillar of the community of exiled non-jurors at Angers. How much of this advanced loyalism rubbed off on the 4th baronet is unclear. His relations with his impoverished Jacobite kinsmen seem, in this period at least, to have been confined to crossing swords with them in various lawsuits over family property, while his connexions on his mother’s side were countervailingly Whiggish. Certainly he espoused the Tory interest when he contested a parliamentary seat in 1705, invited to put up at Huntingdon by a faction among the freemen there, and successful, despite the fact that he was opposed by two Whigs, in an election marred by wholesale bribery on both sides. Marked as a ‘High Church courtier’ in an analysis of the new Parliament, he voted against the Court candidate in the division on the Speaker, 25 Oct. 1705. Also returned to the 1705 Parliament was Sir John Cotton, 2nd Bt., and either may have been the Member granted a fortnight’s leave of absence on 9 Jan. 1706. At the hearing of a petition against him by the defeated Whig candidate, although Cotton’s witnesses testified to bribery by the Whigs the elections committee declared against him, and on 22 Jan. he was unseated by the House. Later that year he agreed to the sale of Cotton House, to be taken into public hands along with the library, settling on a compromise price of £4,800 for the freehold. Evidently the fabric was in ill repair, and this, coupled with Cotton’s determination to drive a hard bargain, hints at financial problems, the existence of which was confirmed during the negotiations in 1708 for Cotton’s marriage to a granddaughter of the Duke of Leeds (Sir Thomas Osborne†). Inquiries elicited the information that there was an encumbrance of £4,000 charged upon Cotton’s estate by his grandfather, and a current mortgage of £2,500. Leeds therefore proposed a provision of £2,000 a year for the eldest son of the marriage and £1,000 each for any younger children, and in return the bride’s portion was to be settled at £6,000. However, playing on the Duke’s affection for the 3rd baronet, Cotton succeeded in reducing this to £1,800 for the heir, clear of all taxes, out of which £800 would come to the bride as her jointure with no further settlement for younger children, and the marriage duly took place at Leeds’s house at Wimbledon, Surrey, in July 1708. Three days afterwards, the young couple were presented to Queen Anne. In the 1708 election Cotton had decided not to put himself forward as a candidate, but in the more favourable circumstances of 1710 his brother Thomas stood for the borough of Huntingdon, possibly with the backing of the Jacobite Lady Sandwich, while he himself mounted a late and, probably for that reason, unsuccessful challenge for the county. He petitioned, but on the death of one of the newly elected Members withdrew his petition and was returned unopposed at the by-election. Given leave of absence for three weeks on 9 Apr. 1711 because his wife was ill, he proved in general an inactive Member, and his only recorded vote was on 18 June 1713 in favour of the French commerce bill. No speech of his is recorded. At the general election of 1713 he stood down in favour of Lady Sandwich’s son, Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Edward Richard Montagu*).3
Cotton died on 5 Feb. 1731, at a house in North Street, Red Lion Square, Middlesex, owned by a ‘Mr Hanbury’, a Bedfordshire neighbour, and was buried close by in Lamb’s Conduit Fields. Besides personal bequests amounting to over £4,000 in money, he left lands in Bedfordshire for various charitable purposes, including the establishment of charity schools at Biggleswade and Holme, to teach poor children reading, writing, arithmetic and the ‘principles of the Christian religion as practised in the Church of England’. The bulk of his property went to his cousin John, son of uncle Robert of Steeple Gidding, who inherited the baronetcy. Father and son were both in France at the time but had come back to reside in England by 1742. However, either John or his son went abroad again subsequently and took part in Charles Edward Stuart’s abortive expedition from Dunkirk in 1744.4
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / D. W. Hayton
- 1. F. A. Blaydes, Genealogia Bedfordiensis, 110–11; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxx), 228; Beds. N. and Q. i. 217.
- 2. Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 79–80; K. M. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 48–83; Lib. Chron. xl. 208; HMC 5th Rep. 383; Cocks Diary, 84; Ballard 38, f. 131; Statutes, vii. 642–3; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Leeds mss, B. Osborne to Ld. Danby, 11 June  (ex inf. Dr C. Jones): VCH Hunts. ii. 145; Cambs. RO (Huntingdon), Cotton of Conington mss Con2/1/1, 5/3/1–15.
- 3. HMC Kenyon, 454; Cotton of Conington mss Con2/4/5/1; VCH Hunts. 59–60; H. Broxap, Later Non-Jurors, 86, 88, 146–223, 230–1; Boyer, Pol. State, x. 543; Wren Soc. xi. 48–59; Egerton 3385B, ff. 113, 122, 124; A. Browning, Danby, i. 56; Add. 28041, ff. 15, 17; Add. 70201, E. Lawrence to Robert Harley, 8 Aug. 1710; 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 23 Nov. 1710.
- 4. Gent. Mag. 1731, p. 82; Boyer, xli. 213; DNB (Cotton, Sir Richard); Cotton of Conington mss Con2/1/4, 2/4/5/2; Broxap, 230–1; SP 34/36, p. 37; E. Cruickshanks, Pol. Untouchables, 57–58; VCH Hunts. ii. 59–60, 117.