SOUTHWELL, Edward (1671-1730), of Kings Weston, Glos. and Spring Garden, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



19 Dec. 1702 - 1708
23 Apr. - 8 Aug. 1713
1713 - 1715

Family and Education

b. 4 Sept. 1671, 2nd but o. surv. s. of Sir Robert Southwell† of Kings Weston by Elizabeth (d. 1682), da. of Sir Edward Dering, 2nd Bt.†, of Surrenden Dering, Kent.  educ. Kensington sch. 1680; Mr De Veil’s sch., Great Russell Street 1685; L. Inn 1686; Merton, Oxf. 1687.  m. (1) 29 Oct. 1703, Lady Elizabeth Cromwell (d. 1709), da. and h. of Vere Essex, 4th Earl of Ardglass [I] (d. 1687), 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da. d.v.p.; (2) 1716, Anne (d. 1717), da. of William Blathwayt*, 1s.  suc. fa. 1702.1

Offices Held

Jt. prothonotary c.p. [I] 1692–1700; clerk of PC, extraord. 1693–June 1699, ord. June 1699–d.; commr. inspecting Plymouth Dock 1694; judge of admiralty ct. and vice-adm., Munster [I] 1699–d.; jt. commr. privy seal June 1701–Apr. 1702, Apr.–Aug. 1715, Aug.–Dec. 1716; sec. of state [I] June 1702–d.; PC [I] 1702–d.; chief sec. [I] 1703–7, 1710–13; prothonotary and clerk to crown of Kb [I] 1715–17.2

MP [I] 1692–d.

FRS 1692.

Freeman, Kinsale 1692, Dublin 1703, Rye 1704, Preston 1713.3


Southwell was a particularly polished example of the class of middling administrators who, though having no particular aspiration to the highest bureaucratic offices, nevertheless served with exemplary skill and industry. He was carefully moulded for government service by his scholastically minded father, Sir Robert Southwell, whose own career thrived on administration and diplomacy, and from an early age he was allowed to act as his father’s personal assistant. Southwell thus acquired a prodigy-like understanding of his father’s official business: ‘he reads all my letters and all the answers I make’, Sir Robert told his cousin Sir William Petty when young Southwell was 13 years old, ‘and sometimes he answers some for me’. Southwell’s precocity and gifts for learning, especially in mathematics, might have led him towards an academic career, but Sir Robert’s priority was to see his son follow a path similar to his own and sustain the family’s relatively modest fortune. Though Southwell was entered at Lincoln’s Inn in April 1686, he appears to have received most of his legal training from his father. His studies at Oxford, which commenced in January the following year, were interrupted in September as a result of King James’s stormy visitation to Magdalen College. Aware that ‘Oxford is already, and is growing more, an unquiet place’, Sir Robert ordered him home. It was probably at his father’s behest that Southwell attended William of Orange during the Prince’s progress to London in late November 1688, serving for a short while in the Earl of Macclesfield’s troop. In June 1690 he joined his father in King William’s retinue in Ireland and was present during the siege of Limerick. In January 1691 he accompanied Secretary Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), his cousin (through his mother’s family), to the allied conference at The Hague, although not in any official capacity. Remaining in Holland until April, he found time to indulge his scientific curiosity and visited van Leuenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, marvelling that his host was ‘acquainted with an invisible world which other men do not see’. His interest in ‘natural philosophy’ was recognized in his early election to the Royal Society in 1692.4

In April 1693, seven months after attaining the age of 21, Southwell began a promising career in government service as a clerk extraordinary to the Privy Council, a position which he almost certainly owed to his father’s intercession with Nottingham. Although only a ‘supernumerary’ clerk with few duties to perform, he none the less became an assiduous attender of Council and related committee meetings, and set himself the task of mastering all its forms of business, hoping thereby to earn prompt promotion to the more responsible position of ordinary clerk. His commitment to the executive functions of government may be seen in his verdict upon the parliamentary proceedings of 1696: ‘Parliament is not particularly well intentioned for the King, and at bottom has a commonwealth in its head’. The death of one of the ordinary clerks in 1697 caused an unseemly struggle over the vacancy between Southwell and a fellow clerk, John Povey*. Southwell, aided by his father, claimed the position by right of his own personal diligence, maintaining that though Povey was the senior clerk extraordinary, the King was not obliged to select replacements in strict order of succession. At this particular moment, however, Povey’s claims were regarded as superior, apparently on account of the seat he had lately taken in the Commons. Under-Secretary James Vernon I* was certain that Southwell would alter his ‘notions’ when he became first in seniority ‘and then be a champion for succession which I hope nobody will oppose, he being a deserving young gentleman’. Southwell finally succeeded to an ordinary clerk’s place in mid-May 1699, an appointment which much satisfied Lord Nottingham. The possibility that he might enter the Westminster Parliament (he had sat in the Irish Commons since 1692 for Kinsale, a borough of which his father was patron) was raised in December 1700 by his cousin, the staunch Tory Lord Ashburnham (John Ashburnham†), who had thoughts of putting him forward at Hastings. The idea was dropped, however, when an anticipated vacancy failed to materialize.5

In June 1702 Southwell’s ailing father made over to him his patent office of secretary of state for Ireland, while at the same time Southwell was being promoted by Lord Ashburnham as a candidate at Rye in the impending general election. Ashburnham’s influence in the town was not complete and his electoral pretensions were resisted by the mayor, with the result that Southwell was defeated. Southwell nevertheless proceeded to dispute the return on the grounds of the mayor’s ‘illegal’ machinations, and following a hearing in the elections committee was declared elected on 19 Dec. In August 1703 he went over to Ireland, having been chosen by the new lord lieutenant, the Duke of Ormond, as his chief secretary, and served in that capacity until 1707. Southwell’s strong Anglo-Irish background, his father’s record of government service there, and his own experience of conciliar government, made him a natural choice for this important administrative role. With estates in county Down, and a seat in the Dublin parliament, he was no stranger to Ireland or Irish affairs, while personal as well as official connexions already existed between Southwell’s family and the Duke’s. Southwell maintained an orderly flow of communication between Dublin and London. His involvement in Irish parliamentary proceedings was businesslike but undistinguished. As a Court spokesman he initiated and spoke on certain financial and other government measures, but did not take the lead in organizing Court support. Although the Irish Court party contained a Whig element, requiring him to downplay his Tory views, Southwell always identified with, and remained close to, the Irish Tories. In addition to his good working relations with Ormond he enjoyed a close political and personal affinity with Nottingham, who had been restored as secretary of state in 1702, and frequently reported to him informally on Irish parliamentary and administrative affairs, even after Nottingham’s dismissal in April 1704. Writing in October 1703, Southwell spoke appreciatively of ‘the great and very kind concern your lordship has been pleased always to show for what relates to me [which] makes me both in duty and inclination accountable to your Lordship for whatever concerns me’. The same month Nottingham gave his blessing to Southwell’s marriage to an Irish heiress with an income of £2,000.6

During his early years at Westminster Southwell’s contribution to proceedings amounted to little, though he was a consistent Court supporter. He either voted against, or was absent from the division on, the Tack on 28 Nov. 1704. Returned again for Rye in the 1705 election, he divided in favour of the Court candidate for the Speakership on 25 Oct., and in an analysis of the new House of Commons was marked as a ‘Churchman’. His chief preoccupation during the session was a private bill which he undertook for his close friend Archbishop King of Dublin, for restoring the parish of Seatown to the see of Dublin. He also supervised a bill to naturalize the husband of one of his sisters. He supported the Court on 18 Feb. 1706 in the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill, and in March subscribed £1,000 to the loan to the Emperor. In January 1707 he was faced with proceedings against his return for Rye in 1705, and was actually voted out of his seat by the elections committee, but upon the report the House confirmed his election by the narrow majority of 11 votes. Archbishop King felt that this attempt to unseat Southwell represented a form of parliamentary protest at Ormond’s rule in Ireland, observing to Southwell on 1 Feb. that ‘the blow was not designed against you so much as those to whom you have a relation, and do believe that by this his Grace may be able to distinguish his friends from his enemies’. Southwell followed Ormond out of office when the Duke was dismissed at the end of April 1707, but for a while continued to serve Ormond in a private capacity. In the summer he was embittered to find the Irish committee of accounts aspersing him over his use of sums granted him ‘for parliament service’ during Ormond’s viceroyalty, and complained bitterly to Ormond: ‘by this one may see the ingratitude of the people who can question the charges of the very bills that are made for their own good, as if the offices of England were bound to do their business gratis’. Freedom from the cares of a heavy administrative load gave him the opportunity to participate more in proceedings at Westminster, and the 1707–8 session proved an especially busy one for him. In January and February 1708 he was involved in mostly low-key business, much of it relating to Ireland: the report on a private bill concerning an Irish forfeiture purchase by Francis Annesley*, an Anglo-Irish confrere; the initiation of measures to repay arrears due to surgeons and officers employed in the Williamite campaigns; and a committee on Irish estate bill procedure. He was also a teller on 25 Feb. on a supply resolution respecting Irish yarn. His recent experience as a defendant in a disputed election may well have led to his inclusion on a committee on 27 Jan. concerned with ways of concluding such cases more speedily.7

At the spring general election, however, Southwell lost his seat. In November he described himself to Archbishop King as

pretty much out of the bustling world, and being out of the House and only a petitioner, have at present little to do and I shall like a wise mariner take in that sail of a petition and lay up my bark for fairer opportunity, and at least avoid the old cross of attendance and dependence and solicitation.

The ministerial opprobrium which had settled on Ormond seems also to have extended to Southwell. His attempt in June to recover ‘extraordinary expenses’ amounting to £200 incurred while chief secretary met with a sharp reminder from the Treasury that his perquisites as Irish secretary of state were ‘very profitable’ and were more than adequate compensation for this outlay. He again offered his services at Rye in 1710, expressing the hope that none could complain ‘that where I had the misfortune of not having their approbation, I laid any difficulties in their way so as to prevent my hoping for their goodwill at another election’. The improved Tory climate did nothing to help his own chances, however, and for a second time he was defeated, failing in his later attempt to prove in the elections committee that his defeat had been effected by an illegally contrived Whig majority. In the meantime Ormond had been reappointed head of the Irish administration by the new Tory ministry, and called upon Southwell to serve him again as chief secretary. Experience in the post enabled him to play a more prominent part than before at the centre of Irish high politics, and, with party distinctions sharpened, he was now more self-consciously Tory. Ormond’s leisurely approach to administration and his frequent absences allowed Southwell a degree of independent authority, to the extent that his advice was sometimes sought by Lord Treasurer Oxford (Robert Harley*) on matters of policy and patronage.8

In December 1711 Swift reported a rumour that Southwell was soon to be created a peer, but ascertained that ‘they want him still in Parliament’. He was eventually returned at a by-election in April 1713 for the Cornish borough of Tregony which, despite the approaching general election, he accepted ‘because I had no trouble in it’. In the Commons on 18 June he voted in favour of the French commerce bill. At the election later in the summer he was elected for Preston which he had been ‘looking after’ since May with the assistance of his old friend Francis Annesley, a former MP for the borough. In September Ormond’s removal from the lord lieutenancy ended Southwell’s active administrative role in Dublin, but left him freer to continue his duties as clerk in attendance on Council. In the Irish parliament he reverted to his own borough seat of Kinsale, having sat for Trinity College, Dublin since 1703. At Westminster his tendency to vote in the ensuing Parliament alongside the Whigs stamped him as a Hanoverian Tory. On 1 Aug. 1714 he was present at the signing of the proclamation of George I at St. James’s. Under the new dynasty Southwell was continued in all his offices. Circumstances weighed against him at Preston in the 1715 election, and thereonwards he remained out of Parliament, but his continuing usefulness in government business was recognized by the new Whig ministers in appointing him to the commission to oversee the lord privy seal’s office when it stood vacant in 1715 and 1716. Southwell also brought his administrative acumen to bear in his private affairs. His father had left him a ‘moderate estate’ of some £2,000 a year, but ‘frugality’ and two advantageous marriages enabled Southwell to increase it to £6,000 by the time he died. On clearing the encumbrances upon the estate acquired on his first marriage he was still left with a net gain in property of £35,000, while his second marriage in 1717 to William Blathwayt’s only daughter brought him an additional £10,000. An interest in evangelical initiatives was expressed in his involvement in the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which he joined in 1718, and in his founding a charity school on his estate at Downpatrick in 1724. In July 1720 the office of secretary of state for Ireland was granted to him for life with reversion to his elder son Edward. His later years were dogged by ill-health, occasioned by injuries sustained in a carriage accident. He died ‘of a kindly apoplectic fit’ on 4 Dec. 1730, and was buried at Kings Weston. ‘No man led a more pleasant life,’ his cousin Lord Perceval (John†) remarked, ‘he was beloved by all his acquaintance for his cheering, obliging temper, and esteemed for his experience in business.’ His son Edward represented Bristol from 1739 until 1754.