COTTON, Sir Robert, 1st Bt. (c.1635-1712), of Combermere, Cheshire
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. c.1635, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Cotton of Combermere (d.v.p., s. of George Cotton of Combermere), being 1st s. by his 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Sir George Calverley of Lee and coh. of her bro. Sir Hugh Calverley. educ. travelled abroad (France) 1651–5. m. c.1666, Hester (d. 1710), da. of Sir Thomas Salusbury, 2nd Bt.†, of Llewenni, Denb., and h. to her bro. Sir John Salusbury†, 5s. (4 d.v.p.) 11da. suc. gdfa. 1649; kntd. 25 June 1660; cr. Bt. 29 Mar. 1677.1
Commr. for corporations, Cheshire 1662–3, loyal and indigent officers 1662; alderman, Chester by 1664–84; freeman, Denbigh 1665, common councilman 1700–d.; steward, lordship of Denbigh 1689–1702; custos rot. Denb. June–Oct. 1689, 1699–1702.2
Cotton’s family had come to prominence in Cheshire in the 16th century and in 1649 he inherited a considerable estate which was to form a sound basis for his political aspirations. A Royalist in the 1650s, Cotton came to prominence in Cheshire politics during the Exclusion crisis as a close political ally of the radical Whig Lord Delamer (Henry Booth†). Like Delamer, Cotton proved himself to be a staunch Whig with a strong Country sensibility. His parliamentary career after the Revolution, which he welcomed with the prayer that ‘God restore us our religion, liberties and properties’, demonstrated his independent nature and one modern historian has described him as one of the dwindling number of members of ‘Shaftesbury’s Whig party’ who remained in the Commons after the Revolution and were willing to support Country measures on the floor of the House. This adherence to the Country strain of Whiggery did, on occasion, lead Whigs of a less independent nature to question his actions and opinions, but there is no suggestion that Cotton found himself being drawn into Tory circles. His experiences in the bitterly partisan politics of Cheshire had led him to identify himself as an opponent of Toryism so that, unlike some Whigs who co-operated with Tories in Country measures in the 1690s, Cotton remained loyal to the Whig party.3
Although allegations that Cotton had voted, contrary to Cheshire interests, in the Convention for raising the land tax by pound rate complicated his campaign for the county in 1690, he nevertheless defeated a Tory opponent to take Cheshire’s second seat, and in an analysis of the new Parliament Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) listed him as a Whig. Cotton’s appearances in the Journals are often impossible to disentangle from those of his namesake Sir Robert Cotton of Hatley St. George, Cambridgeshire. Both men were active Members of the 1690 Parliament, but the contrast between the Cambridgeshire knight’s Court Toryism and the Cheshire baronet’s Country Whiggery does make it possible to differentiate some of their activities. It seems likely, for example, that it was Cotton of Combermere who twice told on the Whig side in divisions upon the bill to restore the corporation of London, and that it was he who contributed to the debates upon the Abjuration in April, supporting the charges of Jacobitism, made on the 24th, against the Cheshire Tory Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Bt.*, and three days later advocating a proclamation to oblige all papists to remove out of London or ‘be convicted as traitors’.4
In 1689 Cotton had been appointed steward of the lordship of Denbigh, where he had gained extensive lands in 1684 by marriage, and his support for the Revolution was again recognized in June 1690 when William III spent a night at Combermere en route for Ireland. Although Cotton was reported to be ‘dangerously ill of a fever’ in September, he had recovered in time to attend the 1690–1 session: on 22 Oct. he was appointed, along with his namesake, to draft the bill attainting and confiscating the estates of rebels in England and Ireland. It seems likely that Cotton acted as teller three times in this session: against hearing a Tory petition alleging malpractice in the corporation of London; in favour of adjourning the debate upon this petition; and for an amendment to the bill for the speedier determination of elections, that all disputed elections heard by subsequent Parliaments should be heard at the bar. In April 1691 Cotton was classed as a Country supporter by Robert Harley*. It is possible to be more certain of his activity in the 1691–2 session. He took, for example, a keen interest in the debates of the committee of supply, and his interventions in these debates indicate his sympathy with those Whigs prepared to work with Tories in order to ensure ‘good management’. On 9 Nov. he spoke in support of Harley’s motion that the naval estimates be referred to a select committee, and three days later it seems likely that it was the Cheshire baronet who told in favour of a proposal for a bill to reduce interest rates, a Country proposal. It was definitely Cotton of Combermere who, when the army estimates came before the committee of supply on the 30th, supported Sir Thomas Clarges’ proposal that these estimates be referred to a select committee, pointing out that this would allow the members of the committee to consider ‘the condition of the nation and . . . whether [it is] able to bear such a charge’. Concerns about military expenditure again surfaced on 15 Dec. when, during consideration of the report of the committee investigating the charge of the army in Ireland for 1693, Cotton echoed the sentiments of Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt., that the number of men in each Irish company should be increased, a measure which it was thought would reduce the cost of the army in Ireland for 1692 by £100,000. This concern with the burden of taxation was again apparent on 1 Jan. 1692 when Cotton questioned whether the yield of £50,000 p.a. estimated for the inland Irish excise was realistic. Supply was not, however, the only issue in which he took an interest in this session. On 3 Dec. 1691 he spoke in favour of leaving the bill for the relief of London orphans upon the table, and on the 31st told against the Lords’ amendment to the treason trials bill, which would have ended the crown’s power of empanelling the juries of the lord steward’s court, where peers were tried when Parliament was not in session. Cotton also made known his opposition to the renewal of the charter of the East India Company, telling on 17 Dec. against the Commons’ moving two days later into a committee of the whole to consider further petitions on the East India trade, and on 6 Feb. 1692 speaking in favour of the Commons’ addressing William for the dissolution of the Company. Cotton’s Country stance in the debates over supply did not, however, indicate any weakening of his Whig loyalties. On 4 Feb., for example, he moved that a vote of thanks be sent to General Ginkel for his services in the reduction of Ireland, and five days later he told against a Lords’ amendment to the tithe bill which would have forced justices to ‘execute sentences of the spiritual courts’, thereby strengthening the power of the church relative to the authority of the state. The end of this session saw Cotton take a keen interest in the examination of the allegations of Jacobite intrigue by William Fuller. He spoke on 22 Feb. in favour of his immediate examination on oath, moving the following day that he be given a date to produce witnesses for his allegations, and on the 24th argued in favour of declaring Fuller an impostor for not having met this deadline. It can also be said with certainty that in February Cotton managed an estate bill through the Commons.5
Despite Cotton’s willingness to support Country measures in the 1691–2 session, in the summer of 1692 he was classed as a placeman and government official in two separate lists, on account of his position as steward of the lordship of Denbigh. Cotton’s equally independent line in the 1692–3 session indicates that he felt that this place had little relevance to his parliamentary conduct. On 23 Nov., for example, he was one of the Members who, in the second sitting of the committee of the whole upon ‘advice’ to the King, argued that English troops should be led by English general officers, and, when the army estimates were reviewed on 3 Dec., he argued for separate estimates for Scotland due to its ‘being an independent kingdom having a revenue of their own’, with the consequence that the Scots should ‘maintain their own troops’. The only other parliamentary actions which can be attributed with any certainty to him in this session are carrying an estate bill to the Lords (9 Jan. 1693), and tellerships in favour of granting the Tory Sir Gilbert Clarke a leave of absence (18 Feb.) and for an amendment to a game bill (23 Feb.). That Cotton’s parliamentary behaviour led him to make enemies at Westminster is indicated by the comment of one of his Cheshire friends that ‘he has enemies where he should not’, a comment which may indicate that some Whigs were unhappy with Cotton’s Country sympathies.6
Cotton’s grant of the stewardship of Denbigh meant that in November 1693 he was again included in a list of placemen. It seems likely that it was Cotton of Combermere who piloted a Welsh estate bill through the Lords in February and March 1694. He demonstrated his political independence early in the 1694–5 session when, on 22 Nov. 1694, he, along with his fellow Cheshire Member Sir John Mainwaring, 2nd Bt., spoke in defence of the prisoners in the Lancashire Plot, being one of the Members who informed the House of the ‘scandalousness of the evidence’ against the accused. He was reported in early December to be ill, but was present in the House on 12 Mar. 1695 when he took notes on the debate concerning Speaker Trevor’s acceptance of a bribe in connexion with the London orphans’ bill. It was later alleged that in the same month Cotton had opposed ‘the bill for disabling to plead at the bar such counsel as had not or would not take the oaths to the government’. A week after the final prorogation of the 1690 Parliament Cotton appeared before the Treasury lords, with a number of Welsh gentlemen including Sir William Williams, 6th Bt.*, and Sir Roger Puleston*, in opposition to the proposal to grant the lordships of Denbigh, Bromfield and Yale to the Earl of Portland. Combining his Country sensibilities and a concern to preserve his interest in Denbighshire, Cotton pointed out that a similar grant of Welsh lands by Elizabeth I to the Earl of Leicester (Sir Robert Dudley†) had caused such resentment in the principality that Leicester had eventually returned the grant of his own volition. As a result of such complaints the grant was recalled eventually in January 1696.7
Cotton’s support for independent behaviour in the 1690 Parliament meant that he found some Cheshire Whigs unwilling to countenance his re-election as knight of the shire in 1695. However, the Cheshire Whigs in general were unwilling to give him up, one declaring that although Cotton ‘might give a wrong vote, yet [he] be an honest man’, so that Cotton was returned without a poll. The only significant appointment in the 1695–6 session that can be attributed to him with any confidence came on 26 Feb. 1696, when he was named to the committee to draft a bill to improve the common at Nantwich in Cheshire in order to raise a stock to maintain the poor. The opposition Cotton had encountered in the 1695 election did not lead him to temper his independent nature. He was forecast as a likely opponent of the Court in the division of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade, and the following day received two votes in the ballot for commissioners of accounts. His continued loyalty to the new regime is evident in his prompt signing of the Association, but in March he voted against fixing the price of guineas at 22s. The summer of 1696 saw him bring to the attention of the lords justices the problems caused in Cheshire by clipped money, and it seems likely that it was he who told in favour of the motion of 3 Nov. 1696 that the report of the commissioners of accounts on the coinage be referred to a committee of the whole. The early stages of the 1696–7 session were, however, dominated by the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, and the debates revived Cotton’s memories of false accusations of his own complicity in the Monmouth rebellion. It therefore comes as no surprise that when Cotton spoke in the third reading debate of 25 Nov. he counselled caution and advocated the maintenance of due procedure. He told the House that
I do find that gentlemen do very much insist in this case, that if a gentleman does believe that Sir John Fenwick is guilty, he must give his vote for the passing of this bill. If that be so, I am glad that opinion did not take place in the last reign; if it had, I am of opinion I should not have been here now, and I believe my Lord Warrington [the former Delamer], who was very instrumental in promoting this Revolution, would not have died in his bed. My lord and I were [in 1685] accused of a crime, which I believe, if proved by two witnesses, had been treason. I have heard some gentlemen say in this House, they did believe my Lord Warrington was guilty (though he was not guilty of the fact as it had been laid) . . . Now if the same fact was treason when proved by two witnesses, and but misdemeanour when proved by one, methinks we are doing an extraordinary thing; we are going after the fact committed, to make that which is but a misdemeanour to be treason. And for these and other reasons, I can’t agree with the passing of it.
After these remarks it was inevitable that Cotton should vote against the attainder. It seems likely that it was he who told on 2 Dec. against the resolution extending the Tunnage and Poundage Act until 1706, and guided a Cheshire estate bill through the Commons in January 1697. Although problems of identification remain, it seems that his parliamentary activity was declining at this time, and it is impossible to attribute any significant activity to him in the 1697–8 session.8
Cotton’s return for Cheshire in 1698 was uncontested, though he spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to establish an interest at Denbigh Boroughs in opposition to that of the Tory Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt.* On a comparison of the old and new Commons he was classed as a member of the Country party. Cotton’s reputation as an independent Member no doubt explains his inclusion, in October 1698, on what was probably a forecast of the Members likely to oppose a standing army. His local links suggest that he was the Sir Robert Cotton who managed through the Commons between January and February 1699 the bill to establish Liverpool as a separate parish, possibly assuming this task due to the absence (on an embassy for the New East India Company) of Liverpool’s senior Member Sir William Norris.
Cotton was re-elected unopposed for Cheshire in the first 1701 election, though again failing in his attempts to gain a seat at Denbigh Boroughs. The absence of his namesake from this Parliament allows a closer examination of his parliamentary activity. On 15 Mar. he was named to draft a Cheshire estate bill, and in May reported from a committee examining allegations that brine salt producers in Cheshire were evading the salt duties. His name appeared on a list of those likely to support the Court over the ‘Great Mortgage’, which may indicate a sympathy towards the recent ministerial changes. Cotton’s most eventful contribution to the session came, however, in the debate upon the land tax bill on 2 June. His Tory opponent in Denbigh politics, Edward Brereton, complained that a number of Denbigh’s land tax commissioners had been replaced by outsiders and a servant of Cotton’s, on the advice of the baronet, who himself had been appointed custos of the county in 1699. Cotton replied sharply that the new commissioners ‘were men of account and recommended to him by men of estates’, and when the Commons rose Cotton ‘struck Brereton over the head with a little cane’, only for Brereton to respond ‘with two hard blows over the face with the head of his great cane’.9
Despite claims that Cotton had become too keen to support the Court following his appointment as custos of Denbighshire in 1699, he successfully defeated a challenge to his return for Cheshire in the second election of 1701, and was listed as a Whig by Harley. He was named on 6 Jan. 1702 to draft a bill to provide for the poor. This was, however, to be his last significant parliamentary act. Faced with a strong challenge from Cheshire’s Tories, he was defeated in the 1702 election, and left the political stage. He remained a wealthy man despite being deprived of the stewardship of Denbigh, so that he was able to give one of his daughters a portion of £6,000 on her marriage to Thomas Lewis II*. His final recorded interest in parliamentary affairs came in early 1706, when he urged Peter Legh† to have his brother Thomas II* ensure the successful passage of the Whitworth–Chester road bill. It seems that Cotton aspired to a peerage, but this desire was not satisfied and he died at his house in Westminster on 18 Dec. 1712. He was succeeded by his son Thomas. Cotton’s grandson went on to sit for Cheshire and Lostwithiel as a Whig under George II.10
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison
- 1. Ormerod, Cheshire, iii. 405, 414–15; Verney Mems. i. 502; ii. 28.
- 2. Chester RO, Chester bor. recs. assembly bks. A/B/2, ff. 137, 150; J. Williams, Recs. of Denbigh, 136, 143, 145; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 181.
- 3. A. L. Cust, Chrons. of Erthig, i. 68–69; Party and Management ed. Jones, 53.
- 4. Liverpool RO, Sir Willoughby Aston diaries, 920MD 173, 13, 14 Mar. 1690; Grey, x. 80; Bodl. Rawl. A.79, f. 87.
- 5. Morrice ent’ring bk. 3, p. 161; Chester RO, Earwaker mss CR63/2/691/88, 102, Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Bt., to Sir John Crewe, 4 Sept. 1690, 7 Jan. 1691[–2]; Luttrell Diary, 10, 52, 58, 87, 100–1, 109, 175, 177, 192, 199, 203–4.
- 6. Luttrell Diary, 252, 291, 355, 431, 444; Earwaker mss CR63/2/691/117, Aston to Crewe, 22 Feb. 1692[–3].
- 7. Bodl. Carte 130, f. 353; BL, Verney mss mic 636/48, John Verney* (Ld. Fermanagh) to Sir Ralph Verney†, 5 Dec. 1694; Cal. Treas. Bks. 1201–2; Chandler, iii. 17; Sir Willoughby Aston’s diaries, 920MD 174, 4 Oct. 1695.
- 8. Challinor thesis 187; Harley mss at Brampton Bryan bdle. 117, ballot list, 1 Feb. 1695–6.
- 9. Cocks Diary, 158; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 138.
- 10. Jnl. of the Architectural, Arch. and Hist. Soc. of Chester, o.s. i. 109–10; John Rylands Univ. Lib. Manchester, Legh of Lyme mss corresp. Cotton to [Legh], 12 Jan., 14 Feb. 1705[–6]; NRA report 16683 (Cotton mss), p.24; Wentworth Pprs. 111; Boyer, Pol. State, iv. 371; PCC 230 Barnes.