COWPER, William (1665-1723), of Hertford Castle and Colne Green, Hertingfordbury, Herts. and Ratling Court, Kent
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 24 June 1665, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir William Cowper, 2nd Bt.*; bro. of Spencer Cowper*. educ. St. Albans sch. 1672; M. Temple 1682, called 1688. m. (1) 9 July 1686, Judith Booth (d. 1705), da. of Sir Robert Booth of London, 1s. d.v.p.; (2) settlement 10 Sept. 1706, Mary (d. 1724), da. and coh. of John Clavering of Chopwell, co. Dur., 2s. 2da.; 1s. (d.v.p.) 1da. illegit. by Elizabeth Culling. suc. fa. as 3rd Bt. 26 Nov. 1706; cr. Lord Cowper of Wingham, Kent, 14 Dec. 1706, Earl Cowper 18 Mar. 1718.1
KC 1689; ld. keeper and PC 11 Oct. 1705, ld. chanc. 4 May 1707–23 Sept. 1710, 21 Sept. 1714–Apr. 1718; ld. justice Aug.–Sept. 1714.
Chairman of supply and ways and means 1699.
Commr. union with Scotland 1706, trade and plantations 1707; trustee, poor Palatines 1709.2
Gov. Charterhouse by 1710.3
Ld. lt. Herts. 1710–12, 1714–d.; recorder, Colchester 1714–?d.4
Cowper’s contemporary friends and admirers believed that he was ‘the most accomplished lawyer, civilian and statesman that England bore for many ages past’. He had ‘a bright, quick, penetrating genius; an exact and sound judgment’, but it was his ‘manly and flowing eloquence’ that really attracted admiration, for he had ‘a clear sonorous voice, a gracious aspect, an easy address, in a word all that’s necessary to form a complete orator’. He apparently always chose the right moment to speak, and then did so ‘from the bottom of his heart without any secret reservation’. His skilful style made him ‘much the finest speaker of all the lawyers in England’, and he became ‘highly renowned for his masterly eloquence’. Rather than weaken his powers of persuasion, his disdain for the formal etiquette normally used in the courts and his natural diffidence may have given his rhetoric even greater credibility. Certainly he was ‘considered the man who spoke the best in the House of Commons’, despite Lord Chesterfield’s subsequent assertion that Cowper often ‘hazarded’ a weak line of reasoning.5
According to the gossip of Mrs Manley, Sir William Cowper ‘did not bestow a liberal education upon his son, but bred him to the practice of the law in that manner that is the least generous and most corrupt’. It is true that, unlike his younger brother, he was not schooled at Westminster, but his father evidently instilled in him the independent Whig sympathies that were to be the hallmark of his career. On his father’s death, he wrote that Sir William’s ‘care’ of his education had set him beyond the reach of monetary considerations, protesting (perhaps too much) that he found no consolation for the loss of his parent ‘from any increase it brings or may the sooner bring my estate’, and a letter of advice preserved by his mother exhorted him to be moderate in all things, to despise vice, and neither ‘to affect nor neglect popularity’.6
Cowper’s rise in the legal profession was, in his own words, ‘with the blessing of heaven on my own industry’, though his early promotion was hardly unaided by other powers. Having ‘set his love and delight on the profession of the law’, he found powerful patrons in Lady Russell and Lady Shaftesbury, who in 1689, together with his mother, influenced the Marquess of Halifax (Sir George Savile†) to persuade the King to appoint Cowper as a King’s Counsel. Sir Robert Howard* also pressed Secretary Shrewsbury on his behalf. Despite this concerted pressure, Halifax, a fitting model for Cowper’s later trimming activity, ‘found the King something difficult in respect of Mr Cowper’s age, and . . . said he would take time to think of it’; but William eventually gave his consent, albeit ‘with some unwillingness’, for he said he could only ‘justify such an irregularity’ as a compliment to the ladies. Even then, the attorney-general’s office stopped the warrant’s passage, until Lady Russell renewed her entreaties. Yet Cowper’s own actions may also have pleaded his cause. As he later wrote, he had constantly ‘adhered to that opinion for excluding a popish successor even when it was unfashionable and decried by those that were in authority’ and had been active in arms for William at the Revolution, meeting the Prince’s army at Wallingford. An account of the expedition records both his valour and his pleasure ‘in seeing the fountain of this happy revolution’, and he may also have been the author of A Poem upon his Highness the Prince of Orange’s Expedition into England, for a printed copy among his papers is endorsed as having been written ‘by WC’.7
Despite, or perhaps because of, Cowper’s later stance of embodying the politics of virtue, contemporaries were keen to play up scandal in his apparently dissolute early life, focusing particularly on stories that he had formed a bigamous marriage. Mrs Manley tells a story that
there was an orphan left to his care, her fortune not large, but her person very agreeable; [Cowper] was amorous; he hated his wife, tho’ he lived civilly with her, and had the art of dissembling so natural, that it cost him nothing to appear a good husband.
According to Manley, Mrs ‘Cullen’ had been brought up in the same house as his wife, who had taught her chastity and devotion, and Cowper therefore thought it ‘would be a sort of triumph over his wife, whom he hated’, to seduce her. He persuaded her to agree to a false marriage, at which his brother Spencer Cowper allegedly presided, dressed as a priest. His new ‘bride’ became pregnant and had borne two children by 1699. Manley was not alone in thinking of Cowper as ‘Will Bigamy’. Hearne described him as having ‘very bad principles and morals, being well known to have had two wives at a time’, and a tract on bigamy in the Blenheim papers was endorsed as alluding to him. Bishop Nicolson also made a note in 1703, ‘Mr Cowper’s persuading his Mrs to think herself his other wife’. There was some factual basis to the allegations. Elizabeth Culling, whom he seems to have housed at Hertingfordbury, gave birth to two of Cowper’s illegitimate children. His natural son died in 1719, but Cowper provided a trust fund of £2,000 in his will for his daughter Mary, who married one Isaacson, a friend of Henry Grey*. Grey acted as an intermediary between the couple and Cowper, who had doubts about the suitability of the match.8
Throughout his life Cowper remained susceptible to a pretty face. He was attracted to his second wife because, he declared, she was ‘the most beautiful woman and the least conscious of it herself that ever I had met with’, and had apparently asked to see her ‘undress’ before their marriage. The wedding took place secretly in September 1706, and Cowper protested that he
was not induced to the choice by any ungovernable desire; but I very coolly and deliberately thought her the fittest wife to entertain me and to live as I might when reduced to a private condition, with which a person of great estate would hardly have been contented.
Indeed, the marriage was not consummated for several months, though Cowper’s own suggestion that this experiment in celibacy was to test whether or not the marriage had been merely ‘to satisfy an ungovernable appetite’ hides more complex motives centring on his relationship with his cantankerous, and by now ill, father. Sir William had apparently been pressing him to marry a local Hertfordshire woman, but William wanted to conclude the marriage with Mary Clavering so that he could tell his father that further pressure was simply ‘too late’. To entice Mary into the match he offered her generous terms: ‘that is’, he told her,
for whatever your fortune is, to lay down twice that sum in money in the hands of any friend of yours in trust, that the interest should be your jointure . . . [which was] about a third more than is usual.
Mary was financially a woman of ‘an inconsiderable fortune’, though one report claimed that her marriage settlement was to be £2,000, but had charms of wit and conversation as well as virtue imbued by her pious father, for before she met her future husband she had copied an ‘encomium’ on Parliament in 1699 which referred to the need for MPs to reform their manners and lives.9
Yet despite Cowper’s profession that his ‘heart when once chosen for itself . . . will never more be guilty of wandering’, he found it difficult to lead a totally reformed life. In 1710 his wife intercepted a letter from one of his female admirers, and immediately dispatched a furious letter to her rival telling her that her husband had never thought of her ‘in the way you wish any more than if you were his grandmother’, though privately she wrote a distraught letter upbraiding Cowper for his inconstancy. ‘I now live to see that all those assurances were only to keep me silent’, she wrote, ‘for now I live to see you keep correspondence with people not at all fit for you if you design to be faithful to me.’ She suggested that they separate, an idea which Cowper himself had apparently suggested ‘several times’, but no breach occurred and thereafter the marriage seems to have settled on to a more steady and affectionate footing. The details of Cowper’s amorous intrigues warn that the life of virtue was for him as much an ideal as a reality, and that a passionate nature was hidden beneath the easy rhetoric and diffident nature. His lifestyle also casts doubt on his religiosity. Indeed, Hearne described him as ‘a man of no religion’, and Mrs Manley thought him a man who had ‘religion in pretence, none in reality’. Yet, in later life at least, Cowper was touched by a deep sense of providentialism, reflecting the strong Calvinistic beliefs of his family. Reviewing his career, he wrote that even at its height he had
begged of God that he would preserve my mind from relying on the transient vanity of the world, and teach me to depend upon his providence, that I might not be lift[ed] up with the present success, nor dejected when reverse should happen . . . and I verily believe I was helped by his holy spirit from my sincere dependence upon his good providence in this present undertaking. Glory be to God who has sustained me in adversity, and carried me through the malice of my enemies.
This sense of a favoured destiny may explain his later declaration ‘that if he had happened to be at Geneva he would not have scrupled to have communicated with the Protestants there’. Although such sentiments were accompanied by a tender regard for Dissenters, he viewed the Test and Corporation Acts ‘as the main bulwark of our excellent constitution in church or state’.10
Cowper’s glittering career at the bar soon brought him to the attention of Charles Montagu* and Sir John Somers*, who in January 1693 urged that the King’s Counsel be heard on the royal mines bill. Cowper was accordingly employed and in February 1693 made notes about the arguments he had used to persuade William not to agree to the measure. The account of the conference reveals Cowper’s belief in a balance between the strength of the crown and the rights of the subject, as well as contempt for the self-interest of many MPs, whose activity he had evidently been scrutinizing. ‘Those Members that were indifferent and [whom] we might hope would be influenced by reason’, he sourly observed, ‘did not think it their interest to attend it so closely’ as those who had a stake in the outcome, for there was ‘private interest fomenting at the bottom of this business’. Believing that the mines bill aimed at profit for a few individuals at the expense of the crown and the nation’s good, Cowper told the King that
a great part of the strength and security of all government consists in a reverential awe towards the governor created in the minds of the people as much by those ornaments and decorations of the royal majesty as by its intrinsic power and authority. The crown ought to be shining as well as weighty. Sir, this prerogative and royal property now sought to be taken from you is one of those public fineries of the ancient English majesty which has been worn by our king as long as the crown itself.
Begging pardon for his ‘heat and eagerness’, he repeated his outrage that ‘so ancient and venerable a part of the royal English majesty’ was going to be taken away ‘for so sordid and pitiful a reason as the profit of a few projectors’. The interview reveals a number of features of Cowper’s personality and principles. Beneath the flowing, passionate rhetoric there lay a deep commitment to public interest above all petty selfish motives, and a utilitarian view of royal prerogative, with a conviction that a strong crown served the country best. The speech may also have been designed to impress the King, for Cowper was still a young, ambitious lawyer. He proudly reported to his wife in August 1693 how the lord chief justice and other prominent barristers complimented him, though he confided that ‘at bottom they mean to suppress me as civilly as they can and that the first real kindness I shall receive from any of them will be at their death; and yet I do not blame their doings, but pretensions to the contrary’. His sense of frustration at being held back by established interests in his profession, even Whig ones, led him to complain publicly that Sir George Treby* refused to accord him the usual privileges of a King’s Counsel. Yet such impatience did not alter his political leanings. In the summer of 1694 he reported to his wife ‘the good news of our getting a King’ by the death of the Queen, and, in a remark that suggests that he fully endorsed the land war, added that a prince’s power was ‘more effectual than his religion for carrying on a war, and I had rather have his armies than his prayers in a right way’.11
In October 1695 Cowper was elected for Hertford with his father, who appears to have introduced him to the ways of the House. In both this and the second session Cowper evinced a concern, shared by his father, for electoral reform. He was named on 7 Dec. 1695 to the committee for the bill to prevent election expenses, a measure which prompted his earliest recorded speech. According to his obituary, ‘the very first day he sat in the House of Commons he had occasion to speak three times, and came off with universal applause’. In what was seen as a provocative plea against a landed qualification, he argued that ‘an active industrious man who employed £5,000 in trade was every whit as fit to be a Member there as a country gentleman of £200 a year who spent all his time hawking and hunting, and was over head and ears in debt’, though Lord Norreys (Montagu Venables-Bertie*) returned the jibe by declaring ‘himself as fit to sit there as those who were used to take money for their opinion’. Cowper’s position, ironic in view of his later protestation that he wished to be thought of ‘as a country gentleman with a competent, not great but very clear estate’, may have been influenced by the nature of his own seat, a trading borough, and no doubt on account of the electoral support he had enjoyed from the Quakers at Hertford, he acted as teller on 3 Mar. 1696 in favour of the committal of the affirmation bill. He was forecast as likely to support the Court in the divisions of 31 Jan. on the council of trade, and on 13 Mar. again served as a teller, against the third reading of a private estate bill. Although this outline of his activity does not suggest unusual application, Cowper evidently made a very strong mark at Westminster, and on 5 Apr. presented one of the most important measures of the session, the Association bill, thereby establishing his Court Whig credentials. The next day he chaired the ensuing committee of the whole, and reported on the 7th, being ordered to carry the bill to the Lords the following day; on the 14th he again carried the Association to the Upper House after it had been returned with amendments. He naturally signed the Association, both at Westminster and in his county.12
The conspiracy against the King provided Cowper with a chance to further both his legal and his political career. As a young King’s Counsel, whom the Earl of Ailesbury described as ‘very pert, talkative and a fop’, he was determined to play, and in some respects overplay, his part in the prosecution of the plotters. At Ailesbury’s own trial he ‘rose up with a sprightly, modish air’ and began speaking beyond his brief, for which he was reprimanded by the judge: according to the Earl, Cowper was ‘convinced of his error and asked my pardon on my going out of the court . . . [and] was ever after my friend’. This unusual mixture of zeal for a cause on the one hand, and personal diffidence and geniality on the other, was perhaps the reason for his success both at the bar and in Parliament. When MPs reassembled in November, Cowper’s desire to convict the plotters was undiminished, for he attacked Sir John Fenwick’s† defence as ‘trifling with the House’, and supported the bill against him, arguing that far from creating a bad precedent which others might later use to justify arbitrary proceedings, the attainder served ‘to protect the innocent’ because Fenwick had been heard personally as well as by his counsel. When he suggested that without the bill there would be no discovery of who else had been involved in the plot, and that a man deserved to die for his crimes unless he made a confession, Cowper’s speech was interrupted ‘by the noise of some gentlemen showing dissatisfaction at that way of arguing’. His arguments were nevertheless thought to have ‘had the greatest weight in attainting Sir John’, and on 25 Nov. he duly voted in favour of the bill. Besides the security of the state, Cowper was again involved with a bill to regulate elections, being named on 28 Oct. 1696 to prepare this measure, and with the nation’s financial crisis. In the last session, on 12 Dec. 1695, he had been appointed to the committee for the bill to regulate the coinage, and on 14 Jan. 1697 he was one of those named to draw up clauses to explain the recoinage acts. After being granted a three-week leave of absence on 5 Mar., probably to attend to legal business, he told on 15 Apr. in favour of the bill against counterfeit coin, and this activity signalled his allegiance to the chancellor, Charles Montagu*, with whose moderate Whig principles he identified. Indeed, in March 1696 Cowper had supported the Court (and Montagu) on fixing the price of guineas at 22s., and he later claimed to have proposed imposing customs duties in vindication of Montagu’s maxim of ‘raising the supplies within a year’.13
The themes of anti-Jacobitism, electoral reform and the problem of the coinage also characterized Cowper’s activity in the 1697–8 session. He chaired the committee of the whole on 18 Dec. 1697 discussing the bill to prevent correspondence with King James, and reported two days later, carrying up the consequent bill to the Lords on the 21st. On 22 Jan. 1698 he was granted leave to bring in a bill to regulate elections, which he duly presented on the 25th. On 11 Apr. he took the chair of the committee of the whole which discussed the bill, and reported from it on the 19th. He also chaired, and reported from, a committee of the whole on the issue of counterfeit coin (26 Mar., 15 Apr.), and on 27 Apr. told in favour of a motion to pass the bill to prevent fraudulent currency. He had again been granted a leave of absence, on 23 Dec. 1697, during the session, but had returned by 10 Jan. 1698, when he told in favour of granting leave for a bill to restrain the wearing of silks and calicoes.
In May 1698 Cowper acted as counsel for the King in the prosecution of Peter Cook, another Jacobite involved in the Assassination Plot, before being chosen again at Hertford at the election in July. He was included upon two lists of placemen at this time, and in September a comparison of the old and new Commons classed him as a Court supporter, but he nevertheless displayed strong Country sensibilities. The notes he took of proceedings in the House in the following session reveal nothing about his own speeches, breaking off on 3 Feb. 1699 just as he himself took the floor, and therefore suggest that at this time Cowper was chiefly observing rather than participating in debates. Indeed, the jottings reveal an apparently detached impartiality, since they record the arguments made by both sides of the House without comment as to which Cowper himself believed to be the stronger. This detachment from the Court was chiefly the result of his concern about the maintenance of a standing army in peacetime, an issue over which he parted company with the ministry. He later recalled that he had supported the Junto only when they were for the ‘true interest of England’, leaving them when ‘they were for armies’, and throughout his future career he was to repeat the rhetoric of remaining faithful to his principles and to the good of the nation, no matter what the government line. He accordingly chaired the committee of supply to fund the disbandment, and his conscientiousness is evident in notes he made of the committee’s debates. Yet his identification with the Court was temporarily blurred, rather than overturned. Even during this session, when he was most alienated from the ministry, he supported the legality of Montagu’s election to the Commons. Moreover, on 6 Apr. he served as a teller in favour of the courtier William Culliford’s* election at Corfe Castle. As chairman of supply and ways and means, a responsibility he first assumed on 9 Jan. 1699, Cowper was zealous in procuring supply, and in addition to chairing, and frequently reporting from, these committees, he also told, during a debate of 25 Apr. 1699 on lotteries, against a motion to suppress the playing of basset, a card game. Such concerns do not account for all his significant activity in this session: on 14 Jan., for example, he was appointed to draft the bill to hinder Catholics from disinheriting their Protestant heirs. On 25 Mar. he took the chair of the committee on the bill to retain in prison those involved in the Assassination Plot.14
In March 1699 Cowper’s credit was increased by his performance at the murder trial of Lord Mohun, when he was asked to sum up the evidence in preference to the solicitor-general, (Sir) John Hawles*, whose dullness and mumbling made him difficult to hear and understand. But just as Cowper was beginning to establish a reputation as a first-class lawyer, disaster struck. In July 1699 he had to assist his brother Spencer, who had been indicted on a murder charge which owed much to the feuds at Hertford engendered by William’s own election in 1698. Perhaps finding it prudent to adopt a lower profile, Cowper took a much less active part in the new session. Though he was appointed on 28 Nov. 1699 to draw up the Address, and two days later chaired the first sitting of the supply committee, he thereafter featured little in the records of the House, though on 26 Mar. 1700 he told in favour of an address about appointing to the commission of the peace only those ‘well affected to the King and government’, an important indication of an approach that he himself would one day employ as lord chancellor. Yet Cowper did lend his eloquent voice in support of Lord Somers, defending on 5 Dec. the latter’s commission to Captain Kidd, calling for all the papers and facts to be placed at Members’ disposal, and again two days later when he declared that just
as nobody ought to be influenced by great names, so neither should there be any envy or prosecution against men because they were great; the flattering and maligning of them being equally base, and they, as well as all other people ought to have their actions weighed in equal balances.
He spoke ‘likewise very well to the legality of the patent’.15
The full text of the wide-ranging speech was recorded in shorthand and transcribed with secret pride by his mother, and is one of the best examples of Cowper’s powers as a public speaker. He saw ‘a cloud’ hanging over the reputations of some of the Junto
and all arising from an action which to the best of my understanding was attended with all the care and caution that could be, both in the rise and progress of it, and it is justifiable by the strictest sense of the law. Nay, I will say further, I believe it was done with a good and honourable intention.
He argued ‘how little was affected by this grant that is thought to be such an invasion of property’, and, speaking from ‘notes of authority’ in his hand, proceeded with an analysis of the intricate legal aspects of the case, concluding with a statement of his own political philosophy:
I have often observed in my own reflections (and there are abundance of examples of it) that the liberties of a people have been as often endangered and ruined by an injudicious and intemperate way of asserting them, as by adulation or the most sterile compliances in the world . . . if this doctrine should prevail upon the king’s grants which is now contended for, ’twould be the greatest blow to property that can be imagined . . . Gentlemen do not see how far the consequences of such proceedings will carry them, while they think to assert the liberties of their country by arguments and constructions which are not to be justified upon a foot of right reason. However some gentlemen may flatter themselves and decry others, I can truly say that I have nothing mercenary about me . . . I will not by any reproaches be induced to be against the Court, yet when I have but suspected them I have gone from them, nor valued their discipline on the other hand; and while I do so I think myself in a better way to contribute towards preserving the liberties of England, than if I should be always running upon the ministry.
This somewhat priggish speech is a clear enunciation of Cowper’s belief in the virtue of independent Whiggery in the pursuit of the interest of the nation. For the moment, England’s interest, a vague concept that he never elucidated, lay primarily with the Junto. Yet ironically, Cowper’s speech may not have been in Somers’ interest, for Burnet believed that it initiated a damaging debate rather than allowing the House to move to a swift vote. On 11 Apr. James Vernon I* again reported that Cowper ‘made a very handsome defence of my Lord, and gave very genteel and satisfactory answers to everything that had been alleged’. This support of the lord chancellor, together with his earlier adherence to the chancellor of the Exchequer, explains his categorization in early 1700 as belonging to the Montagu interest, and suggests that his difference with the ministry over the army had not permanently or deeply affected his loyalties. His only other recorded speech of the session related to a point of law rather than party, and indeed to the supremacy of law over party. Still interested in the proper determination of elections, his opinion prevailed on 9 Jan. 1700 when the House considered the election at Dartmouth, where the mayor had died on the eve of the poll. Cowper ‘thought there was not ground enough for a new writ’, and that it was up to the sheriff to make a return ‘or to show why none could be made by certifying it into Chancery’.16
Cowper faced the prospect of losing his seat at the general election because his family’s interest at Hertford had been undermined by the trial of his brother. Although in December 1700 Sir William Cowper assured William Monson* that both his sons would be present at the election, he found the chances of success there virtually negligible. Somers therefore wrote to the Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*) to secure a seat for Cowper at Totnes. Despite Bolton’s recommendation that he should ride post haste to canvass the electorate personally, Cowper replied that
if want of exercise had not made it impossible for me to perform such a journey in that manner . . . I fear my presence there would add nothing to what your power and interest has done for me in that place, especially being hindered by the Act of Parliament from using the only means a stranger can on a sudden recommend himself by,
though he was willing to have it made known that he would ‘be a benefactor to the town as soon as I safely may’. This letter suggests on the one hand a desire to remain within the letter of the law, and on the other, a wish to go against its spirit in order to procure his return, and may hint that Cowper did not think a seat at Westminster at this time to be worthy of superhuman effort, and perhaps also that such unseemly electioneering was unworthy of him. Certainly his protestation to Somers that the poor state of his health rendered impracticable such energetic electioneering seems a feeble excuse, and it is significant that he also failed to attend later polls. But despite failing to secure the seat, he was not out of the House for long, winning a by-election on 7 Mar. 1701 at Bere Alston on the recommendation of Lord Stamford and Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.* A letter from Drake informed Cowper that
the same consideration which induced my Lord Stamford to recommend you at Bere Alston, to wit, your integrity and great abilities for the service of his government and the saving poor England, obliges me to serve you likewise with all my little interest in that borough . . . I am heartily sorry the House of Commons should be so long without your assistance in this needful time.
No significant activity in the 1701 session can be ascribed to Cowper with any certainty because of the presence in the House of other kinsmen. Yet the diary of Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, shows William to have been a frequent and effective speaker on behalf of the Junto, and Somers in particular. On 28 Mar. he again defended the commission to Kidd, citing the precedent of the Roman Caesar who had used a privately armed fleet to capture pirates: ‘this, says he, Caesar did when a public man and nobody questioned him for it . . . Mr Cowper spoke very finely about piracy and the distinction between the rules of law in piracy and felony’. On 16 Apr. he spoke in favour of the wording of an address relating to the preservation of trade and commerce, which opponents said would lead to war, and on 17 May clarified a procedural point during a debate on the Old East India Company, though he professed not to have intended to speak. On 26 May he defended his electoral patron Lord Stamford against accusations about the management of the duchy of Lancaster’s woods, and again ‘spoke finely . . . a great deal very well’, so much so that even a political opponent of equal rhetorical skill, Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, ‘commended his great parts and oratory and said [Cowper] could make a bad cause a good one, and that he hoped he would not take it ill if he showed how he came to espouse my Lord’s cause viz. to express his gratitude for bringing him into the House’. Seymour no doubt enjoyed emphasizing how Cowper, the man of independent virtue, was pleading a cause out of self-interest.17
Stamford must have been sufficiently impressed by his client’s performance to recommend him at the second election of 1701, which was enough to secure Cowper’s return without any opposition, ‘tho’ he never appeared in person but made his application to the town by proxy’. Cowper was listed with the Whigs on Harley’s analysis of the new Parliament. Cocks recorded another ‘finely’ worded speech on 10 Feb. 1702, arguing that the failure of oaths to ensure certain behaviour in the past should not prevent their present use. For the remainder of the session, following the King’s death early in March, he was largely concerned with the abjuration bill. Once more to the admiration of Cocks, he opposed a motion on 2 May for the employment only of English officers in the army, pointing out that ‘we should take it unkindly if we should hear that the Dutch had made such an order in relation to the English and that we had reason to expect the same from the Dutch if we made such an address; he finely exposed the question’.18
In July 1702 Cowper was employed by Montagu in the latter’s dispute with Lord Carmarthen (Peregrine Osborne†) over the auditorship of the Exchequer; but Cowper’s career mirrored the Junto’s ebbing fortunes. Although he retained his seat at the 1702 election, he made little mark on the Journals in the new Parliament, and without diary evidence of his speeches it is difficult to assess his role. On 13 Feb. 1703 he voted for agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill for enlarging the time for taking the oath of abjuration. In January 1704 he spoke for the Whigs in the Aylesbury election case, ‘as learned and hearty as any of the House against the said encroachments of the Lords in meddling with original causes’. Cowper contended that while the Commons must decide election returns ‘we ought not, out of zeal to our own jurisdiction, to go one step further than that known law and custom of Parliament will warrant us to do’. It was thus no violation of rights to allow an elector whose vote was refused to maintain a private action against the returning officer. He feared that the Commons was ‘seeking to reverse a legal judgment given in the subjects’ favour’. The following year, on 28 Feb. 1705, he was named as a manager of the conference with the Upper House over the writs of error issued in the case. In mid-November he was attacked by the Hertfordshire High Tory MPs Ralph Freman II and Charles Caesar, who moved for him to be sent to the Tower for having acted as counsel to Lord Halifax ‘without their leave’, even though the Queen had given him permission to do so. Seymour and the ‘other little dragons’ spewed ‘their innate venom’ against Cowper, but he ‘came off triumphantly with flying colours’. Despite their partisan assault on him, Cowper was sufficiently above party considerations himself to join Freman and Caesar on 13 Jan. 1705 on the drafting committee of a place bill, though the union of Country ideals may soon have dissolved, for William may have been the ‘Mr Cowper’ who was granted a fortnight’s leave of absence on 5 Feb. 1705, possibly on account of his still-thriving legal practice or possibly because he thought it prudent to distance himself from his unusual allies. He had certainly parted company with them earlier, over the Tack, for which he was forecast as a likely opponent. He duly voted against the bill, or was absent from the House, on 28 Nov. 1704.19
Having been chosen again for Bere Alston in 1705, Cowper wrote a letter in which he not only agreed to pay £15 towards election expenses but also tried to reassure his patron, Drake, that he would not be corrupted by any place he might be given:
I am sure my resolution is sincere and firm not to depart in the least from acting by those true English principles which you have always approved, either in regard to their power or prevalency or any sort or party of men whatsoever of a contrary opinion or for any offers whatsoever that have been made or may be made to try my constancy in that particular.
Such reassurance was necessary, for on the eve of Parliament’s assembly Cowper accepted promotion to the highest legal office, rendering him incapable of sitting any longer in the Lower House, though not before he had been categorized on lists of Members as a placeman and a ‘Low Church courtier’. Rumours had circulated as early as 1701 that he would be chosen as solicitor-general, but without even filling this post he was tipped in June 1705 as the next lord keeper. Cowper himself appeared ‘indifferent’ about the job, though his mother ascribed this to a ‘diffidence within himself about accepting’, and in August she wrote that if her son gained office it would ‘happen to him without his seeking’. As his earlier electioneering showed, Cowper always preferred to be courted rather than to do the courting himself. Halifax may have appreciated this, for in mid-August he took Cowper to a Junto gathering at Boughton, from which Lady Cowper inferred that William’s promotion would follow. Certainly he returned ‘laden with caresses’, although the appointment was not formally announced until October because of opposition from the Queen. Anne preferred to find ‘a moderate Tory for this appointment’, though her scruples had eventually been overcome by Godolphin, who insisted that Cowper ‘was generally thought most proper’ for the job. Cowper was thus the first Whig to enter upon an important state office after the party’s electoral gains in the spring, and was ‘the youngest lord keeper ever known’. ‘Wearing his own hair made him appear yet more so; which the Queen observing obliged him to cut it off, telling him the world would say she had given the seals to a boy.’ It has been suggested that Somers worked closely with Godolphin and Montagu, now Lord Halifax, to promote Cowper, but at the time it was noted that ‘some suspect my Lord S[omer]s is not so hearty as he seems and that he will not be pleased to see an abler man than himself in that post’. Indeed, Cowper himself acknowledged the assistance not so much of the Junto as of Godolphin, the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) and Sarah Churchill. He wrote to Marlborough that he owed his advancement ‘to the sole favour and goodness of my lord treasurer’, and thanked the Duke for his
unseen hand . . . without the concurrence of which I think I may certainly conclude it had not been. I have always to the best of my little capacity and power steadily pursued what seemed to me the true interest of England, and was consequently (without hopes of reward) as serviceable as I could to that of the present ministry when it was so plainly struck at in the last Parliament, for which reason I need not use words to assure your Grace I must continue firm to those measures to which I am obliged as well by the dictates of my own judgment as by the strongest ties of gratitude and interest. Your Grace and my lord treasurer are the only persons living I ever received any benefit from: the title of Counsel to the crown was procured for me by Sir Robert Howard* in the late reign, and continued in this as of course to me, not having forfeited so unprofitable a mark of respect only in my profession, and what ever I was else in it was wholly owing to my own industry; so that I was found free from all engagements to any one, when your Grace and lord treasurer were pleased to lift me up and make me not only faithfully and zealously but most entirely yours. And as I left a course of life tending more surely and quickly to increase my estate than the present, and have no satisfaction in the state of this, so I assure your Grace nothing in it is so valuable to me as this privilege of drawing a little nearer to these great men I have always loved and admired at a distance.
This revealing letter suggests that Cowper was no longer prepared to acknowledge the Junto as his patrons. Indeed he claimed never to have received anything from them, and that he had always been an independent Member owing allegiance only to his principles. To some extent of course, as his opposition to the standing army had made plain, this was true; but Cowper was also deliberately distancing himself from the Junto, who had after all tried to find him a replacement seat in the Commons, in order to ingratiate himself with the new dominant political power and to rank himself as a ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whig’. By 1706 it was observed that he was ‘not as tractable nor has that deference for my Lords Somers and Wharton [Hon. Thomas*] as was expected, and is very great with my lord treasurer’. The rhetoric of impartiality, selflessness and interest of the state was a piously and sincerely held political philosophy, and no doubt Cowper was ideologically close to the duumvirs’ design of non-party government for the good of the nation; but it was also a doctrine that promoted Cowper’s own interest. Even financially, Cowper’s move was less selfless than he pretended. While admitting that Cowper’s predecessors extorted huge sums, John Evelyn noted that the total value of the post was still £7,000 a year, and that Cowper had negotiated a £2,000 a year pension whenever he should be dismissed, ‘in compensation of his loss of practice’. The chancellor’s own account books confirm that the profits of the post were generally in excess of £7,000 a year, and chart his growing fortune. He had £4,000 invested in the Bank of England by 1710, and a principal capital of £27,160 two years later, which had grown to £29,100 by December 1714, besides further investments in mortgages, annuities and stocks in the Million Bank and East India Company. The letter to Marlborough is also important because Cowper’s subsequent actions do not show him to have been quite so ‘entirely’ the creature of Godolphin and Marlborough as he professed, or as Swift insinuated when he described Cowper as subservient to all their designs. In 1710 he incurred his patron Godolphin’s indignation as a result of his doubts about the sincerity of France in seeking peace, and, while defending Marlborough the following year, opposed the Duke’s design to be appointed general for life. In any case, he retained his friendship with the Junto, and Somers in particular, employing two of the former chancellor’s clerks, turning to Somers when considering how to reform Chancery, and commissioning Kneller to paint Somers’ portrait. In 1713, when political circumstances had again changed, he referred to Somers as ‘that truly great man’.20
As lord keeper, Cowper gained control over ecclesiastical appointments worth less than £40 a year and became the Speaker of the House of Lords, though without a capacity to debate there until his elevation to the peerage in 1706, when he took the title of Wingham, where his family had held land since the time of his great-grandfather. Cowper also stopped the custom of receiving new year gifts from Chancery lawyers because he thought it ‘looked like insinuating themselves into the favour of the court, and that if it was not bribery it came too near it; and as lord chancellor brought the Chancery into the concisest method, by narrowing all unnecessary harangues, and had the bench like an oracle’. He was also responsible for the regulation of the commission of the peace, of which his management has been called an ‘inconspicuous’ policy to give the Whigs a preponderance without proscription for their rivals. Cowper’s career as a peer was far more important than his role as a Commoner. A steadfast supporter of the Protestant succession, he told the elector of Hanover in 1706 that it was ‘impossible to be in the true interest of England, and not to be a fast friend to that succession’. That year his assimilation at Court seemed complete when he deviated from his Country principles far enough to oppose the ‘whimsical clause’ of the regency bill which would have restricted the number of placemen in the Lower House. He played an important part in negotiating the Union with Scotland, ‘the whole weight of which arduous affair he sustained almost alone’. In 1710 he presided over the trial of Dr Sacheverell, and, at the time of the Junto’s dismissal from power, Cowper refused to be drawn by Harley to remain in his post, despite personal pleading by the Queen. Cowper believed that the new ministry would make a bad peace and weaken the Protestant succession ‘which he ever had firmly at heart’, and go ‘high with hereditary right and passive obedience’. His resignation shows his continuing loyalty to the Junto, and to Somers in particular, even though he resolved to ‘be of no party’, and he penned A Letter to Isaac Bickerstaffe in reply to Henry St. John II’s* account of the change of ministry, in which Cowper saw ‘a real conspiracy, not of the Whigs to enslave their sovereign, but of the Tories to enslave the nation’. In 1711 he supported an offensive war in Spain, and in 1714 attacked the treaty of peace and commerce with France as well as the schism bill, which he believed would introduce superstition and irreligion. George I reappointed him as lord chancellor, but by 1718 he was increasingly voting with the Tories, disgusted by the power-lust of some of his colleagues. He resigned that year partly out of fatigue, partly because of factional manoeuvres against him, and partly because of his ‘inviolable attachment to all the royal family not permitting him to act with those who had lately made an unhappy division among the King’s best friends’. He attacked the South Sea scheme, and the enemies he created in doing so accused him of Jacobitism, more as a design to blacken his credit than as an accurate description of his views, though he appears to have come to believe that Parliament was now oppressing the liberties of the subject. In his later years he therefore headed, and to some large degree organized, a cabal of discontented peers who sought to attack and embarrass the administration of the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*).21
Cowper died on 10 Oct. 1723 at Colne Green, where he had built a house (begun in 1694) and laid out a park, which he directed to be kept ‘as near as may be to the condition they are in when I am absent’. His will thanked God for giving him worldly wealth and ‘for his goodness in supporting me as well against the evil consequences of my sins and follies as against the malice of my enemies and raising me to a condition much better than I have deserved’. He directed that he should be buried at Hertingfordbury ‘with as much privacy as possible, particularly without escutcheons which always cause an undecent tumult’. He left portions of £5,000 and £6,000 for his two legitimate daughters, £200 for Christ’s Hospital, and £100 for the erection of monuments to his father, to his first wife and to himself. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William, and the younger entered holy orders. His second daughter married James Edward Colleton†. His wife died only a few months later, and stated in her own will Cowper’s belief that their son was not to travel because this would involve ‘weeding the vices of foreign countries’.22
Cowper always justified his actions on the grounds that he was giving impartial advice to serve his country. Yet behind the rhetoric of public interest, no matter how deeply or sincerely the idea was held, there was a close identification of the nation’s good with his own actions and a hint of self-justification for a worldly success which part of him both feared and despised. Swift shrewdly, if partisanly, observed that Cowper’s ‘way of managing an argument . . . made him apt to deceive the unwary and sometimes to deceive himself’. The best example of the different levels at which his rhetoric can be taken is his far from ‘impartial history of parties’, in which he made it clear to the new Hanoverian King how valuable Cowper himself had been in former ministries, and how reliance on the Whigs alone was the only sensible course for King George to adopt. The history’s moderation lay only in its recommendation of how the Tory losers were to be treated. Indeed, some notes in Cowper’s almanac for 1714 (perhaps forming an ‘addendum’ to his impartial history) warned that the Tories wanted to abrogate the Toleration Act, make Convocation a spiritual Parliament and put the Church before the King. The documents suggest that Cowper wished his statements to be taken at face value, but that, with all the instinct and skill of a professional lawyer, he was often working to a hidden brief, however sincerely held. Yet Cowper’s ‘integrity, moderation, candour, humanity [and] disinterestedness gained him the esteem of all good men’. Certainly Arthur Maynwaring* thought he had ‘an integrity very rare in his corrupt age’, and contemporaries described him as a man of learning, meekness, humility and probity,
By no superiors awed, no interest led,
with him, not party, but his conscience swayed.23
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Mark Knights
- 1. Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F25, Sir William Cowper’s commonplace bk.; D/EP F213, mar. settlement; Campbell, Lives, iv. 259; VCH Herts. Fams. 138–9.
- 2. Post Boy, 30 June–2 July 1709.
- 3. Al. Carth. 71.
- 4. Panshanger mss D/EP F179, f. 1, Sir Isaac Rebow* to William Cowper, 3 Nov. 1714.
- 5. Hist. Reg. Chron. 1723, p. 43; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/8, James Lowther* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 11 Oct. 1705; D/EP F34, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. p. 20; Cunningham, Hist. GB, i. 458; Campbell, 262; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 444.
- 6. D. Manley, Secret Mems. (1709), 213; Panshanger mss D/EP F37, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk., pp. 49–53; D/EP F193, f. 24, William to Mary Cowper, 26 Nov. 1706.
- 7. Foxcroft, Halifax, ii. 215; Letters of Lady Russell, 195–9; Stowe 222, f. 380; Campbell, 265.
- 8. Manley, 214–44; Examiner, 4 Jan. 1710; Add. 61360, ff. 174–81; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 200; Panshanger mss, D/EP F85, ff. 57–8, William Culling to Cowper, n.d.; f. 61, Mary Culling to same, 20 July [–]; ff. 57, 71–72, Grey Neville to same, 16 July, 1 Sept. 1720; Foss, Judges, viii. 26; PCC 108 Bolton.
- 9. Panshanger mss D/EP F193, ff.1–2, 7, 9, Cowper to Mary Clavering, n.d, 19 Sept. 1706; BL, Verney mss M636/53, R. Palmer to Ld. Fermanagh (John Verney*), 19 Nov. 1706; DNB; Manley, 246; Add. 17677 BBB, f. 38; Stowe 747, f. 138.
- 10. Panshanger mss D/EP F37, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. f. 143; D/EP F59, f. 6, Mary to William Cowper, n.d.; Burnet, v. 225; Campbell, 394.