DORMER, Robert (1650-1726), of Lee Grange, Bucks. and Lincoln’s Inn Fields
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Family and Education
bap. 30 May 1650, 2nd s. of John Dormer†; bro. of Fleetwood Dormer*. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1667; L. Inn 1669, called 1675, bencher 1696, treasurer 1702. m. bef. 1692, Mary, da. of Sir Richard Blake of London, 2s. d.v.p. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. uncle Sir Fleetwood Dormer at Arle Court 1696; nephew Sir William Dormer, 2nd Bt., at Lee Grange and Purston, Northants. Mar. 1726.1
Attorney-gen. to Bp. Crewe of Durham 1676–?93; chancellor dioc. of Durham 1693–1719; serjeant-at-law 1706; j.c.p. 1706–d.2
Freeman, Chipping Wycombe 1704.3
Dormer’s father was a barrister and local landowner. As a second son Dormer was also put to the law, being appointed attorney-general to Bishop Crewe of Durham. Fortune was on his side, too, for in 1675 his elder brother, Sir John Dormer, 1st Bt., died at Leghorn, leaving an infant son, William, aged six, to inherit the family estate at Lee Grange. This child was subsequently declared a lunatic and Dormer, as his uncle and heir, successfully petitioned the crown in 1693 for a grant of the estate to save it from destruction. Meanwhile Dormer’s legal career had flourished: in 1680 he was junior counsel in the trial of Sir Thomas Gascoigne for treason and later that year of a Mr Cellier for libel. Nor did he restrict his practice to the law courts, being counsel before the Lords in 1690 for the bill against the export of bullion and appearing as counsel for parties interested in legislation and in legal disputes which came before Parliament. He was appointed chancellor of the diocese of Durham in November 1693. Dormer was at this point a Tory, apparently sending to Aylesbury to make interest for James Herbert I* in 1691 while his brother, Fleetwood, backed the Whig candidate.4
Dormer’s legal acumen propelled him into local politics as both parties in the disputed election at Buckingham in 1695 sought to retain him as counsel. In February 1698 he acted as counsel for the bill of pains and penalties against Charles Duncombe*. At the general election of 1698 he stood at Aylesbury in the Tory interest, but was defeated. However, he was returned at the by-election in February 1699, after the Commons had declared void the election of (Sir) Thomas Lee (2nd Bt.). In that election he had the support of (Sir) John Verney* (later Lord Fermanagh); however, Dormer was soon to forfeit Verney’s affection when he switched sides in the political battle, becoming a client of Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*).5
The presence in the Commons at various times of his younger brother, Fleetwood, makes it difficult to attribute the activities of ‘Mr Dormer’. However, given that important activity only occurs when Robert is in the House, most committee appointments have been attributed to him. He was accorded leave of absence on 6 Mar. 1699 upon extraordinary occasions, but was back in the Commons by 18 Apr. when he was named to a conference committee. Two days later he oversaw the ballot for commissioners of Irish forfeited estates. On the 22nd he reported Cyriac Westlyd’s estate bill. In the following 1699–1700 session he was nominated to a drafting committee for a bill to prevent gambling and duelling. His one recorded contribution to debate suggests that he was already turning away from the Tories, for on 6 Dec. 1699 in committee on the grant to Captain Kidd, he spoke ‘very strongly for the legality of the grant and answered all objections against it’, particularly the view that a felon’s goods could not be granted before conviction. An analysis of the House into ‘interests’ between January and May 1700 marked Dormer’s name with a query, as if to underline that his political views were in transition.6
By the end of 1700 Dormer was firmly in the Whig camp, Lord Cheyne (Hon. William*) averring that it was the result of ‘a friendship contracted in the last sessions, contrary to what brought him thither [to Westminster]’. Verney was appalled that his help at Aylesbury in 1698–9 was now being reciprocated by a challenge for the county, an honour Verney also coveted. However, Verney was not surprised by Dormer’s actions, thinking it
not unlikely for he is of a soaring temper, tho’ he hath the management of a good estate in Buckinghamshire by his nephew Sir William’s lunacy, yet I think he is no freeholder in this county, this he told me himself, but he hath thought of buying Dorton House [residence of Robert Dormer d.1694] and 200 or 300 acres that might be sold with it.
What irked Verney was Dormer’s supposed stance as an independent when Verney was sure that it was merely a tactic to take votes from the Tories to ensure Hon. Goodwin Wharton’s* victory. In the event Dormer was unsuccessful, although the ‘variance’ between Dormer and his brother, Fleetwood, was reportedly healed during the campaign, and he was successful at the November election for both Buckinghamshire and Northallerton, choosing to sit for the former.7
Dormer’s return was listed as a ‘gain’ by Lord Spencer (Charles*) and Robert Harley* classed him as a Whig in December 1701. He was also very active in the new Parliament, with much use being made of his legislative abilities. He was named on the 6th to draft the bills establishing a commission of accounts, to regulate the King’s bench and Fleet prisons (which he presented on 3 Feb.) and to employ the poor. On the 17th he was appointed to the drafting committee on the bill to prevent bribery and corruption at elections. On the 29th he ensured that the Earl of Peterborough was able to defend his conduct at the Malmesbury election when the House considered the matter. On 7 Feb. he spoke during the proceedings on the Maidstone election, against moves to brand the Kentish petitioner Thomas Colepeper, ‘one of the instruments in promoting the scandalous, insolent and seditious petition’. On the 24th he attended the report of the Coventry election to protest that ‘he had attended the committee and that he hoped he should never have lived so long as to see such injustice at the committee confirmed at the House’, that is the election of the Tory candidate against Henry Neale*, an acquaintance of Wharton. On 12 Mar. he seconded Lord Hartington’s motion that the statute of mortmain should be repealed so as to allow people to endow poor vicarages. On the 14th he was named to draft Edgeworth’s relief bill relating to Irish forfeited estates (Edgeworth’s wife being the heir of Sir Edward Tyrell, 1st Bt.) and on the 21st presented the Earl of Exeter’s (John Cecil†) estate bill to the Commons, reporting it on 20 Apr. At the time of his death Dormer was a lessee of the Cecils’ property in the Strand. On 16 Mar. he attempted to persuade Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, that it was unwise to promote a debate inquiring into the yield of the duties comprising the civil list. On the 20th he reported from the committee examining the petition on Holder’s escape from the Fleet, being ordered on the 28th to draft a bill summoning Holder to justice, which he presented on 8 Apr.8
Dormer was defeated for Buckinghamshire at the 1702 election. Lady Gardiner thought ‘Mr Dormer can bear an affront as ill as any man by he being accounted a high man, but his generous humours have made him many friends, but being of the party as is going down at present has been a great means of losing it’. Also rumours that he would have been made lord keeper if the King had lived were not considered helpful to his campaign. Almost immediately the search began for another seat. Initially, Aylesbury was considered but in the end he came in at a by-election for Northallerton.9
In the 1703–4 session Dormer was the sole Member ordered on 10 Jan. 1704 to prepare a bill to sell the Buckinghamshire estates of Sir Peter Tyrell, 1st Bt.†, subsequently managing it through all its stages in the House. Other legislative activity involved appointment to drafting committees on the bills to extend the time for the import of thrown silk from Italy (13 Jan.) and on the same day a bill for the relief of Captain James Roche over Irish forfeited estates, which he presented on the 24th. On 25 Jan. 1704 Dormer spoke in favour of Ashby in the Aylesbury case, arguing that the question at issue was ‘whether a freeholder or freeman, who hath a right to give his vote for his representatives in Parliament, may arbitrarily and maliciously be deprived of that privilege without any redress in any court whatsoever’. Moreover, ‘if the Lords have not a right to determine in this matter, which by writ of error is regularly brought before them, we shall be turned into a state of villeinage, and the people will be deprived of choosing their own representatives without relief’.10
In November 1704, having been listed as a probable opponent, he was one of the principal speakers against the Tack. He was also at pains to defend his brother-in-law, John Parkhurst*: when MPs inquired as to why Parkhurst had not been prosecuted according to a Commons address, Dormer ‘took that occasion to say there had been several commissioners of prizes, who were well enough known, and he saw no reason why two of them only should be obliged to make up their accounts’. By January 1705 it was clear that Dormer would make another attempt to sit for Buckinghamshire, in partnership with Sir Richard Temple, 4th Bt.* He was returned, although he took the precaution of securing a retreat at Northallerton as well. As chancellor of Durham, Dormer generally visited that city ‘twice a year, attended with a great number of horse’, and in August 1705 he attended the thanksgiving there for the Duke of Marlborough’s (John Churchill†) victory.11
Dormer was classed as a ‘Churchman’ on one list of the 1705 Parliament, but the Earl of Sunderland (Lord Spencer) classed his return as a ‘gain’. He duly voted on 25 Oct. for the Court candidate as Speaker. Next month, Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) praised his services ‘in putting an end to a contest about the chair of supply, which would perhaps have been very inconvenient’, adding ‘that the Queen would not be ungrateful’. On 11 Dec. he reported and carried to the Lords a naturalization bill. On 7 Jan. 1706 Dormer was on the deputation to present the congratulations of the House to Marlborough on the battle of Ramillies. Also during January Dormer was active in the debates over the regency bill. On the 10th he appeared to favour amending the treason laws to include writing; on the 12th and 21st he spoke against the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill; on the 15th he joined in discussions on convening Parliament on the Queen’s demise; and on the 19th he spoke on the composition of the regency.12
This proved to be the end of Dormer’s services in the Commons because in February 1706 he was made a judge, at a salary of £1,000 p.a., which he celebrated by holding a dinner on the 11th. On the bench Dormer retained his Whiggish reputation, as befitted a member of the Kit-Cat Club, and one bound to attract adverse comment from Tories after the ejection of the Whigs from office in 1710. Thus, on circuit in July he attempted to dispel rumours that Parliament would be dissolved and was criticized for extending his protection to a young kinsman who had killed a gentleman of fortune in a duel. In 1713 he gave a Whiggish charge to the Northamptonshire grand jury in which he contended ‘that which was in dispute now was whether papist or Protestant’. Not surprisingly, he was reappointed in 1714 and continued until his death, despite rumours of his retirement from the bench with a pension in December 1725. He died ‘at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields’ on 18 Sept. 1726, his only surviving son, Fleetwood, having predeceased him earlier in the year.13
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Stuart Handley
- 1. Lipscomb, Bucks. i. 415;
- 2. Hutchinson, Dur. i. 565; Sainty, Judges of Eng. 80.
- 3. Ledger Bk. of Chipping Wycombe ed. Newall, 63.
- 4. Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 93; Foss, Judges, viii. 30; HMC Lords, iii. 109, 180, 227, 452; BL, Verney mss mic. 636/45, John Verney (Ld. Fermanagh) to Sir Ralph Verney, 1st Bt.†, 14 Apr. 1691.
- 5. Verney mss mic. 636/48, John to Sir Ralph Verney, 9 Nov. 1695; 636/51, same to Ld. Cheyne, 19 Dec. 1700; Bodl. Carte 103, f. 256; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 92.
- 6. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 380.
- 7. Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 159, 162.