COTTON, Sir Robert (1644-1717), of Hatley St. George, Cambs.
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Family and Education
bap. 2 May 1644, 3rd s. of Sir Thomas Cotton, 2nd Bt.†, of Conington Castle, Hunts., being 1st surv. s. by his 2nd w. Alice, da. and h. of Sir John Constable of Dromanby, Yorks.; half-bro. of Sir Joseph Cotton, 3rd Bt.†, of Conington Castle. m. lic. 4 July 1663, Gertrude (d. 1701), da. of William Morice† of Werrington, Devon, 1s. d.v.p. 1da. Kntd. 3 June 1663.1
Freeman, Cambridge 1679; sheriff, Cambs. and Hunts. Jan.–Nov. 1688.2
Jt. postmaster-gen. 1691–1708.3
Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.4
In 1662 Cotton had been granted the manor of Hatley by his half-brother, and his family’s status in Cambridgeshire society provided him with the platform from which to launch his parliamentary career. Although his views on Exclusion are obscure, after the Revolution the Marquess of Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) pressed, unsuccessfully, his claims for office, and it became apparent in the Convention that Cotton shared the Toryism of his half-brother. As one modern historian has pointed out, in the early 1690s Cotton was ‘among Carmarthen’s most faithful followers’ and in 1691 he was rewarded with the profitable post of joint postmaster-general. Following this appointment, Cotton was a conspicuous supporter of the ministry in the Commons for the remainder of the 1690 Parliament, and loyalty to the Court quickly took precedence over his Toryism, so that Cotton was able to retain this place, unaffected by the vicissitudes of party conflict, until his retirement in 1708.5
Returned unopposed for Cambridgeshire in 1690, Cotton was classed as a Tory and a Court supporter in Carmarthen’s analysis of the new House. Although Cotton was active throughout the 1690 Parliament, analysis of his parliamentary activity is complicated by the failure of the Journals and some contemporaries to differentiate him from the Cheshire Member Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Bt., whose parliamentary service overlapped with that of the Cambridgeshire knight. However, the contrast between the knight’s Court Toryism and the baronet’s Country Whiggery does, in a number of cases, allow the attribution of some of these references. It seems likely, for example, that it was this Member who twice intervened in the committee of the whole on supply, on 27 Mar. 1690 urging that the committee ‘answer the King’s ends’ and settle a fund, and informing the committee, on 1 Apr., that although he was aware ‘of the treasure given, and the little effects of it’ the business of the committee was ‘to consider how this supply may be raised’. It is, however, impossible to attribute with any confidence any further parliamentary activity in this session to Cotton.6
Cotton’s continued loyalty to Carmarthen was indicated early in the 1690–1 session, when the Marquess included him upon what was probably a list of supporters drawn up in December in preparation for a parliamentary defence of his position as lord president, but, though ‘Sir Robert Cotton’ appears frequently in the Journals this session, the only appointment that can be definitely attributed to Cotton of Hatley St. George was that of 22 Oct. to draft a bill to attaint rebels, as both namesakes were included in the committee. There is, however, no mistaking the identity of the Cotton appointed joint postmaster-general on 27 Feb. 1691. The place of postmaster had previously been held by one man, but William III chose at this time to split the post between the Tory Cotton and the Whig Thomas Frankland I*, at a salary of £750 p.a. each, a compromise that was condemned by Carmarthen as ‘the most destructive method your Majesty can take’. It nevertheless seems likely, though there is no direct evidence of it, that Carmarthen had a hand in Cotton’s preferment, and the lord president’s concern for the potential difficulties consequent upon dividing the post between rival parties proved to be misguided. Upon their appointment Lord Sydney (Hon. Henry Sidney†) described Cotton and Frankland as ‘very moderate men’, and they worked well together, Cotton being the more active for the Court in the Commons and Frankland shouldering more of the administrative burden. The division of the office was maintained until 1823. Cotton and Frankland had displaced the radical Whig John Wildman†, and John Hampden† commented that Wildman’s removal was due not to ‘the least intimation of miscarriage on his part’ but rather ‘to make way for another sort of man’, more inclined to follow the Court. Cotton’s and Frankland’s previous parliamentary behaviour certainly makes such an interpretation of their appointments plausible, and within a month the new postmasters-general had refused to handle the post of the recently established commissioners of public accounts, aiding the Court campaign to harass the commission. His classification as a Court supporter by Robert Harley* in April therefore comes as little surprise.7
Cotton’s new place reinforced his previous loyalty to the ministry, and in the difficult 1691–2 session he spoke regularly in support of the ministry’s supply measures. In the committee of the whole on 9 Nov., for example, he argued against the suggestion that the naval estimates be considered by ‘a particular committee’, and when such objections were rejected Cotton was named to the committee considering these estimates. Three days later he proposed to the committee of supply ‘that the estimates for the land forces might also be referred to the committee that considered that for the fleet’, and it appears that some Members, most notably Sir Thomas Clarges, felt that Cotton’s proposal was an attempt to frustrate consideration of the naval estimates. When a committee of the whole considered the army estimates, Cotton supported the Court’s attempts to frustrate any attempts by the Commons to secure reductions. On 19 Nov. he urged the committee to ‘consider how ready the Dutch and other confederates were to assist you in a time of need, how they lent their armies and fleets to deliver you when your laws, your religion, and all were in danger’ and asked, ‘shall we be so ungrateful to leave them when they have most need of our help?’ It also seems likely that he was the Cotton who spoke on 30 Nov. in favour of continuing the general officers as they had been the previous year. It was definitely the joint postmaster-general who, on 15 Dec. 1692, argued in favour of paying Dutch troops on the Irish establishment the English rate of pay rather than the lower, Dutch rate, and given his previous advocacy of the Court case on supply it seems likely that it was he rather than the Cheshire Member who, on 2 Jan., opposed the resolution of the committee of the whole for reducing the Irish establishment. When, ten days later, the committee of supply moved to consider establishing ‘a fund for perpetual interest’ to carry on the war, he supported the measure. The 18th saw the committee of supply consider the proposal that placemen receiving over £500 p.a. should apply the surplus to the cost of the war, and Cotton’s response made his fondness for the emoluments of office clear. He contended that the sum raised by such a scheme ‘will not be very considerable’, and instead proposed that ‘all gentlemen having an estate over £500 p.a. shall contribute the same above that sum to the carrying on the war’, a suggestion he had previously made on the 11th. Cotton’s intervention in the committee of supply debate on the poll bill on the 20th would seem, however, to indicate that this advocacy of an additional financial burden upon the landed interest was merely a nervous reaction to the attack upon placemen rather than a serious proposal. During this debate Charles Montagu proposed that the poll bill should make no distinction ‘between all of the degree of a gentleman and under the degree of a peer’ and Cotton opposed this suggestion on the grounds that it would make the poll bill ‘a second land tax’, thereby demonstrating some sensitivity to the financial demands the war was making on the landed interest. Cotton’s support for the Court on supply was mirrored in other areas during this session. When, on 7 Nov., the committee of the whole considering the naval miscarriages of the previous summer was able to lay no direct charges, Cotton supported Montagu’s motion that the Speaker resume the chair, and 11 days later he backed a motion by Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II, that the Commons move into a committee of supply rather than consider the third reading of the treason trials bill. Cotton’s zealous support of the Court was also evident in his speaking for Richard Hampden I’s motion of 28 Jan. that William III be granted £30,000 p.a. from the proceeds of the sales of forfeited Irish estates to reward those who had served him in Ireland. On 15 Feb., he spoke in a similar vein against tacking the legislation to revive the commission of accounts to the poll bill. Cotton’s acquisition of office had clearly cemented his allegiance to the ministry, and his Tory feelings were only evident in this session from his telling, on 9 Feb., for an amendment to the tithe bill requiring justices to ‘execute the sentences of spiritual courts’. Although he appears to have spent most of his time in this session defending the ministry, he still found opportunities to promote local interests, telling on 8 Dec. for an amendment excluding ale brewed at Cambridge University from the double excise, and speaking on 22 Feb. in favour of the bill to confirm the university’s charter.8
Given his office, and his staunch support for the Court in the 1691–2 session, it comes as little surprise that Cotton was included on a list of Court supporters drawn up by Carmarthen during the 1692 prorogation, and in a list of placemen dating from 1692. The new session saw him continue in the same vein. On 10 Nov. he moved the Address and was presumably the Cotton appointed the same day to the committee to prepare it. This session saw him less active in matters relating to supply, though on 15 Nov. he spoke against the motion that the nation’s alliances be laid before the Commons before supply was considered, and on 13 Dec. argued that the land tax be raised by the pound rate. However, his support for the Court remained undimmed, and was shown in his contribution to the defence against Whig attacks on the management of naval affairs by Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†). When on 21 Nov. the committee of the whole considered the attack upon the Admiralty commissioners contained within the report of the committee upon the losses of merchants ships, Cotton argued that ‘it is very hard to make a vote against these gentlemen [the commissioners], who are men of credit . . . without hearing them’. It also seems likely that it was the Cambridgeshire Cotton who on 5 Dec. supported the argument by Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II, that criticisms of the Admiralty commission concerning the descent of the previous summer should not be made until the relevant papers had been considered. Cotton’s support extended to speaking, on 11 Jan., in opposition to the motion that William III be advised to appoint Admiralty commissioners ‘of known experience in maritime affairs’. Cotton’s support for the ministry was not, however, limited to this subject. It seems probable, for example, that it was he who, in a committee of the whole of 28 Nov., supported the Court line that the implementation of the treason trials bill be delayed until the end of the war, and it was certainly the joint postmaster-general who spoke in support of the army estimates for 1693 on 3 Dec. He also spoke against the triennial bill in a committee of the whole on 7 Feb., and on the 24th expressed his opposition to calling the Irish parliament. Cotton’s only deviation from his pro-Court stance came in the debate of 14 Feb. on the renewal of the commission of accounts, when he supported the measure ‘because it gives satisfaction to the nation’. That this was a rare aberration was confirmed later the same day when he spoke in favour of the Whig gentleman of the privy chamber James Honywood* in the Commons’ debate upon the disputed Essex by-election. Cotton’s official responsibilities led him to complain to the Commons on 2 Feb. about the ‘great abuse put upon the King’ by newsletter writers who had ‘counterfeited the hands of divers Members and franked letters to be sent by the post in their names’. It also seems likely that he told against a proposal to reduce the rate of flax duty (26 Jan.).9
Cotton was included upon three separate lists of placemen compiled in 1693, and in the 1693–4 session his loyalty to the ministry continued unabated, though from this time it becomes more difficult to identify his parliamentary activity. It was the Cambridgeshire knight who entered the debate upon William’s answer to the Commons’ representation upon the royal veto of the place bill, informing the House ‘the King’s answer tends to full satisfaction’, and Hon. Anchitell Grey* recorded that Cotton proceeded to ‘read each paragraph, and with strained inferences descants thereon, like a courtier’. Given this clear indication of Cotton’s continued support for the ministry, it seems likely that it was he who told on 28 Dec. against the triennial bill, spoke in defence of Lord Falkland (Anthony Carey*) on 7 Dec. when the Commons considered allegations of his misuse of monies as a lord of the Admiralty, and told on 20 Dec. against an amendment which would have committed William III to deploying in Barbados four of the 15 new regiments of foot agreed to be raised by the committee of supply. The joint postmaster-general also seems likely to have reported upon a Cambridgeshire estate bill on 5 Jan. 1694. The problems of identification continue for the 1694–5 session, but it seems likely that he told on 28 Nov. against committing the place bill, and on 16 Apr. in favour of the Speaker leaving the chair so that the glass duties could be considered.10
Cotton decided against standing for Cambridgeshire in 1695, resigning his interest to Lord Cutts (John*) and Admiral Russell (Edward*). Instead, he was returned upon the government interest for Newport, Isle of Wight, and the remainder of his parliamentary career was to remain dependent upon the interest of the crown. He was forecast as likely to support the Court in the division of 31 Jan. on the proposed council of trade. He was, however, one of a number of Tory placemen who voted against the Court in this division. This was, however, a rare lapse, as he signed the Association in February and the following month supported the Court’s motion that the price of guineas be fixed at 22s. His official responsibilities explain his appointment on 3 Apr. to draft a bill to improve the Post Office, and four days later he presented the bill. The summer saw him involved in the seizure of Jacobite correspondence relating to the Assassination Plot, and on 25 Nov. he voted for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. Mention of ‘Sir Robert Cotton’ in the Journals declines in the remainder of William’s reign, and it may be that the Cambridgeshire knight began to keep a low profile in view of the ascendancy of the Junto, though there was no move to dismiss him despite the designs of James Vernon I* upon his profitable office.11
Cotton’s election at Newport in 1698 was secured with government support, and in September he was classed as a placeman, and as a Court supporter in a comparison of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Commons. He voted, on 18 Jan. 1699, against the disbanding bill, but the only other activity in this session that can be attributed to him with certainty was his action in a complaint for breach of privilege he brought with Frankland against John Woodgate, postmaster at Canterbury, for distributing a libel on their administration of the Post Office. In the early 1690s the postmasters-general had reprimanded Woodgate for not clearing his arrears and for detaining the Dover and Deal post in Canterbury, and by 1699 such inefficiency had led to Woodgate’s dismissal. Woodgate had responded, however, by publishing a paper which claimed that he had been turned out for having discovered smugglers and a Jacobite correspondence with France. The matter came before the Commons on 22 Apr. 1699 when Woodgate’s paper was voted a ‘false, scandalous and malicious’ libel. In early 1700 an analysis of the House into interests classed Cotton as a placeman.12
Given his support for the ministry in the Commons it is surprising that there is no evidence of Cotton standing at either of the 1701 elections, but in May 1701 he attended the Commons to observe the early stages of the bill to preserve for the public the family library, established by his grandfather Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Bt.†, and now in the possession of his half-brother. On the 8th he wrote to Robert Harley to thank him for his ‘assistance to preserve a library by bill, which beside the usefulness to the public, will remain to posterity so great an honour to our family’. In February 1702 Cotton was returned to the Commons at a by-election at Truro, but appears to have made no impact on this Parliament. Following the July dissolution he and Frankland informed the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) of their intention to go ‘into the country to make us further capable of serving her Majesty and the government’, but in Cotton’s case this appears to have been limited to supporting the candidacy of John Ellis* at Harwich, as there is no record of Cotton having stood at this election.13
Cotton’s parliamentary career had ended but, despite the rumours circulating in 1702 that John Grobham Howe* was about to replace Cotton and Frankland as postmaster-general, he remained in office for a further six years. One of his more intriguing actions during this time was to write from Hatley St. George to Lord Nottingham on 20 Apr. 1704. The secretary of state’s discontent with the lack of support he had been receiving from Marlborough and Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) had brought him to the brink of resignation, and on the evening of the 20th Nottingham informed Queen Anne that he could no longer serve in the Cabinet. Cotton’s letter thanked Nottingham for his ‘many favours and particular civilities . . . which could have no foundation but in your own innate principle of virtue and integrity, and an unshaken honesty in all your actions as a minister of state, to the Church and to the crown’, and finished by expressing the ‘wish’ that Nottingham ‘continue in your present station for the public good’. Whether Cotton was acting on his own initiative, prompted by an affinity with the Tory Nottingham, in urging him to continue in office, or whether he was pressed by a more senior government official to lobby Nottingham to remain in office, is unclear. What became clear later in the year is that Cotton did not share the frustration felt by Nottingham and other High Tories at the failures in Queen Anne’s first Parliament of the occasional conformity bills, as in the autumn of 1704 Harley detailed Cotton to lobby his son-in-law Samuel Trefusis* on the forthcoming division on the Tack. Cotton remained in his place until August 1708 when he resigned in favour of Godolphin’s nephew John Evelyn II*, on the understanding that he receive £500 p.a. for the remainder of his life out of Evelyn’s salary. Cotton’s pension from the Post Office ended following the 1711 Post Office Act, and in 1712 he felt obliged to call upon his relationship with Harley, now Earl of Oxford, to request its renewal. Cotton died on 17 Sept. 1717, leaving his daughter as his heir.14
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison
- 1. F. A. Blaydes, Genealogia Bedfordensis 110; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 337; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 171; Top and Gen. iii. 40.
- 2. C. H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii. 582.
- 3. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1037; xxii. 345.
- 4. CJ, xii. 508.
- 5. VCH Cambs. v. 89–90, 107–8; A. Browning, Danby, i. 486; ii. 160.
- 6. Grey, x. 10, 32.
- 7. H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 66; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 283; H. Robinson, British Post Office, 79–80; EHR, xci. 41–43.
- 8. Grey, 162, 226; Luttrell Diary, 10, 14–15, 24, 32, 51, 66, 82, 105–6, 125, 137, 144, 159, 177–8, 187, 193, 200.
- 9. Luttrell Diary, 215, 217, 227, 229, 247, 265, 290, 295, 312, 395, 406, 421–2, 447; Grey, 294.
- 10. Grey, 353, 382.
- 11. Devonshire mss at Chatsworth House, Edward Russell* to Lady Russell, 12 Oct. 1695; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 246; Horwitz, 165; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 11 Feb. 1695–6; Add. 17677 QQ, f. 500; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 376.
- 12. HMC Astley, 93, 95; Add. 42586, ff. 184, 221, 233; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, pp. 441–2; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1376.
- 13. DNB (Sir John Cotton, 3rd Bt.); Add. 70270, Cotton to Harley, 8 May 1701; 61363, ff. 38, 40; 28889, f. 20.
- 14. W. Yorks. Archs. (Leeds), Temple Newsam mss TN/C9/241, Christopher Stockdale* to 3rd Visct. Irwin [S] (Arthur Ingram*), 28 Apr. 1702; Add. 29589, f. 414; H. Horwitz, Revolution Politicks, 197–8; Bull. IHR, xxxiv. 96; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 345; Boyer, Anne Annals, vii. 348; BL, Evelyn mss, Anne to John Evelyn II, 13 Sept. 1708; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 335, 363; Boyer, Pol. State, xiv. 303; PCC 27 Tenison.