SAWYER, Robert (1633-92), of Highclere, Hants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1 Nov. 1673
1689 - 20 Jan. 1690
1690 - 28 July 1692

Family and Education

bap. 20 Sept. 1633, 6th but o. surv. s. of Sir Edmund Sawyer (d.1676), auditor of the Exchequer, of Heywood, White Waltham, Berks. by 2nd w. Anne, da. of Sir William Whitmore of Apley Park, Salop. educ. Westminster 1648; Magdalene, Camb. 1648, BA 1652, MA 1655; I. Temple 1653, called 1661. m. lic. 1 July 1665, Margaret, da. of Ralph Suckley of Canonbury, Mdx., 1da. Kntd. 17 Oct. 1677.1

Offices Held

Commr. for recusants, Bucks. 1675; steward of Cookham and Bray manors, Berks. 1676-d.; bencher, I. Temple 1677, treas. 1683-8; commr. for assessment, Berks. 1677-80, Bucks., Mdx. and Rad. 1677-9, Mdx. 1689, Cambridge 1689-90, Hants and I. Temple 1690; j.p. Berks. and Hants 1678-87; dep. lt. Hants 1680-7; high steward, Maidenhead 1685-?Oct. 1688.2

KC 1677; attorney-gen. 1681-7.3

Speaker of House of Commons 11 Apr.-6 May 1678.


Sawyer’s father, of Norfolk origin, became an Exchequer official and bought a small property in Berkshire in 1623. He sat for Windsor in the following year and for Berwick in 1628 until expelled for complicity in unparliamentary taxation. Thereafter he took no part in politics, although he survived for close on half a century. His estate was for a time sequestrated by the county committee on a charge of holding correspondence with Oxford, but he contributed to parliamentary funds and never compounded. Sawyer was intended for the Church, and became a good general scholar, but pedantic and conceited. After qualifying as a barrister, he practiced chiefly in the Exchequer, as the best preparation for government service. Samuel Pepys, who had shared rooms with him at Magdalene, wrote in 1667: ‘I perceive he do very well in the world’, and in 1671 he bought Highclere from Richard Lucy. He was returned for Wycombe, ten miles from his father’s residence, at a by-election in 1673, probably without a contest, though according to some of the inhabitants his election constituted an infringement of the liberties of the borough. Their petition, however, never emerged from committee. He became a very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, serving on 126 committees, acting as teller in seven divisions, and making about 120 recorded speeches. In his first session in 1674, with the election petition still pending, he acted with the Opposition. He spoke against hearing the Duke of Buckingham’s excuses, and pronounced that any pardon procured by Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet) could not extend to acts of treason. He was appointed to the committees for the general test bill and to consider the condition of Ireland. On the collapse of the charge of Popery against Pepys, however, he said: ‘You must do something for your Member’s justification’. He took the chair in the committee to consider the practice of imprisonment by order of the Privy Council, and on 23 Feb. he was instructed to carry to the Lords the bill for the speedy relief of prisoners detained for criminal matters, which emerged from it. In the spring session of 1675 he acted as teller against the motion for the release of Sir John Pretyman, and was given special responsibility (with Sir Charles Harbord and Sir Thomas Meres) for bringing in a bill for the suppression of Popery. He was also appointed to the committees for the appropriation of the customs to the use of the navy and for hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament. He took a prominent part in the disputes between the Houses, helping to draw up reasons for three conferences and to manage two. ‘If the Lords go one step higher, there will be nothing for the Commons to do but give money’, he said on 28 May, and he moved that John Fagg I should be committed to the Tower for his compliance with the Upper House. But in the debate on Lauderdale, he declared himself satisfied with the King’s answer to the address for his dismissal. In the autumn session he was appointed to the committees to inspect dangerous books and to bring in a bill against the suspending power in religion. He was among those given special responsibility for the appropriation of the customs. He helped to draw up the bill to prevent British subjects from entering the French service, and to manage a conference. With his seat now safe, he was free to change sides, or so it was alleged. Sir John Coventry accused him of maligning William, Lord Cavendish in a coffee-house as an obstructor of supply, and he told the House that ‘if the Government be not maintained, it must drop, some time or another’. In the closing days of the session he moved for a committee to consider appeals to the House of Lords, and was among those ordered to draw up reasons for a conference to avoid the revival of differences between the two Houses.4

Sawyer’s name figured on the working lists among those ‘to be remembered’ and (Sir) Joseph Williamson included him among the government speakers. Sir Richard Wiseman in 1676 noted him as to be left wholly to the management of the lord treasurer, who was considering him for a place in the Queen’s household. Sir Francis North also reckoned him a kinsman and friend. But eventually it was through the Duke of Monmouth, to whom he was of counsel, that he entered the King’s service. He took silk in 1677, and that February took the chair of the committee of grievances. He gave short shrift to the argument of the country party that a prorogation of over a year entailed the automatic dissolution of Parliament, and was marked ‘thrice vile’ on Shaftesbury’s list. Although he considered that the recall of British subjects from the French service could have no practical effect, he was appointed to the committee for the bill, and also to those for preventing illegal exactions and assuring the liberty of the subject. In the grand committee on grievances, he was voted into the chair. On the claims of Members for wages from their constituencies, he proposed invoking the Statute of Limitations, but was appointed to the committee for the bill to indemnify the boroughs altogether. He acted as teller for granting £600,000 for building warships, and was among those ordered to bring in a bill providing for separate accounts for this fund. He also helped to draw up an address on the danger from French power and to consider the bill to prevent the growth of Popery. The Treasury sought his advice on the opposition bill to regulate abuses in the collection of hearthtax. He was on the committee which drew up the address promising to assist the King in case of war with France, though he later acted as teller for recommitting it. He spoke in favour of the Lords’ bill providing for the Protestant education of the royal children, and was appointed to the committee. He helped to manage a conference with the Lords on a general naturalization bill, acted as teller against an indemnity for former assessment commissioners, and was among those who drew up the addresses providing security for a government loan of £200,000 and recommending the speedy formation of an alliance against the French. ‘War and peace are in the King’s breast, but he never found it successful but when with the concurrence of Parliament’, he told the House, adducing as an example James I’s failure to help the Elector Palatine in the Thirty Years’ War.5

Sawyer was knighted during the recess, and continued to support the Government in the earlier sessions of 1678. He spoke in favour of establishing a land registry, presumably because William Williams had just spoken against it; their frequent and interminable forensic clashes tried the patience of both sides of the House, and on one occasion Cavendish jocularly urged the Speaker to declare them both right. But he opposed the resumption of crown lands, pointing out that the only sizable grants in the present reign had been to George Monck and Edward Montagu I. He was appointed to manage a conference on the fisheries bill, and helped to draw up the address for a declaration of war on France, later acting as teller against the Lords’ amendments. Danby, dissatisfied with the conduct of Edward Seymour as Speaker, determined to supersede him by Sawyer, but Williamson was to make it clear that this was only a temporary arrangement. Sawyer’s appointment encountered considerable opposition, and he was not a success in the chair; his kinsman Roger North admitted that he lacked spirit, and he was also short of parliamentary experience for so exacting a post. He was soon driven to feign a diplomatic illness, and retired with a generous allowance of £1,000. He continued to speak and vote for the Government and to attend meetings of the court caucus. In the debate on war with France on 25 May, he warned the House: ‘Unless there be a perfect unanimity in this vote, as it were with one soul, it will be the most unhappy thing imaginable’. Six days later a remark by Williams again brought him to his feet: ‘It is said with great assurance that the King can no more raise men than money, but ’tis the first time I ever heard so’. He was added to the managers of a conference on the Lords’ amendments to a supply bill on 27 June, and acted as teller against an amendment concerning Romney Marsh to the bill against the export of wool on 8 July.6

It was presumably at this juncture that the author of A Seasonable Argument called Sawyer ‘a lawyer of as ill reputation as his father’, and noted that he had received £1,000 for his attendance. It was added that he had been promised ‘as he insinuates’ the posts of attorney-general and Speaker. As Sir Francis North wrote: ‘his family, his profession, his education, have been always toward the King and the Church’, and his name was on both lists of the court party. But his loyalty did not extend to the Popish heir-presumptive. ‘For the Duke to depart from that religion his father signed with his blood!’ he exclaimed. He was appointed to the committees to inquire into the Popish Plot, to draw up a bill to hinder Papists from sitting in Parliament, to examine Langhorne’s papers, and to impeach Lord Arundell of Wardour. He helped to summarize Coleman’s correspondence with the French Jesuit St. Germain. He took the chair in the committee to prepare reasons for a conference on the Popish Plot. On 4 Nov. Daniel Finch wrote: ‘Sawyer pretended to speak for the Duke [of York] but whether wittingly or imprudently did him harm, and the Duke was angry with him, and apprehended he was making way to the Duke of Monmouth’s succession to the crown’. He helped to draw up addresses for the arrest of all Popish traitors, for rewards to informers, and for calling out the militia, which he supported in a speech. On the Lords’ amendment to except the Duke of York from the laws against Papists, he said: ‘I cannot think that any person ought to be exempted from the oaths, when the safety of the King, the Government, and the Protestant religion is concerned’. He was appointed to a committee to draw up reasons, and it was now presumably that Shaftesbury altered his rating to ‘worthy’. He helped to draw up further addresses for the removal of Papists from Whitehall and the apprehension of all Papists. Indignant at the King’s rejection of the militia bill, he demanded that Privy Councillors should explain how it had occurred. He was appointed to the committee for the easier conviction of Popish recusants and to the committee of secrecy, and was among those ordered to manage the impeachment of Danby, though he was sufficiently fair-minded to support the entry in the Journals of the letters of Ralph Montagu incriminating the Hon. William Russell as a French agent. His last committee in this Parliament was to prepare reasons for a conference on supply.7

It is unlikely that Sawyer’s move into opposition sprang from motives of self-interest. His rival Williams was already earmarked as the rising lawyer of the country party. The immediate effect was a setback to his career. When Sir Francis Winnington was dismissed in 1679, the lord chancellor would have preferred Sawyer to succeed him as solicitor-general, but the King chose the Hon. Heneage Finch I. On the other hand he was blacklisted in the ‘unanimous club’, and Monmouth made no real effort to press his candidacy at Cambridge University for the Exclusion Parliaments. He prosecuted Wakeman unsuccessfully at the Old Bailey in July, but soon reverted to the Court. Sir Francis North hesitated to recommend him to the King, because of ‘some former passages not fit to mention’, but asserted that he was a bold man, whose self-assurance was based on a thorough knowledge of the law, and on 14 Feb. 1681 he was sworn in as attorney-general. In this capacity he advised on the quo warranto proceedings against the corporations and led for the crown in a large number of treason trials, notably those of Fitzharris, Russell and Sir Thomas Armstrong. Burnet, who had worked for Russell’s defence, called Sawyer a dull, hot man ‘forward to serve the designs of the Court’. But the rigged elections of 1685, unprecedented since the reign of Richard II, disgusted him, although, as an assistant to the House of Lords, he was not required to stand himself. In May 1686 he resisted the King’s command to confer a benefice on a Roman Catholic priest, he would not pass the dispensation to Edward Hales I until fortified by the judges’ opinion, and on receiving Obadiah Walker’s patent he begged for dismissal upon his knees. The delay was due only to the impossibility of finding a competent law officer to take his place until Williams agreed to collaborate with the Court. Free from office, Sawyer led for the defence in the trial of the Seven Bishops in 1688. At the Revolution he seems to have attended both the Lords, as assistant, and the Commons, as an elected Member under Charles II, proposing that the Prince of Orange should be declared regent or protector for a limited term; but he was ‘baffled’ by John Maynard I.8

At the general election of 1689, Sawyer was returned for Cambridge University at the top of the poll. In the Convention, which he expected to last for only a few weeks, he was moderately active as a committeeman, being named to 26 committees; but almost as many speeches have been recorded of him, although according to Roger Morrice they were ‘not very acceptable to the House’. He was at pains to draw a distinction between throne and government:

The vacancy of the throne makes no dissolution of the government, neither in our law, or any other. If the government be fallen to the people ... people ... we have nothing to do here. We are not the people collectively; we are the representatives of the people. ... The third estate, which is the House of Commons, represents the free-holders and burgers, who are not the fourth part of the Kingdom. ...This has not only relation to ourselves, but to another nation, Scotland. ... I take the King’s departure out of the Kingdom to be an abdication of the government.

He proposed the resolution that it was inconsistent with a Protestant Government to have a Popish prince, and was appointed to the committee to draw up a list of essentials for securing religion, laws and liberties. He had little patience with mere verbal quibbling about the constitutional situation: ‘all the Lords mean by abdication you mean by desertion’. But he spoke and voted to agree with the majority in the Upper House that the throne was not vacant:

In Henry VII’s time, and Henry VIII’s, the right of the crown was declared hereditary. Can the King alter that right? Can either, or both the Houses without the King alter the fundamental constitution of the Kingdom? It will be a great injury to the successor to give away the crown from her; you’ll sully all the Prince of Orange’s glory.

Nevertheless on the following day he moved that no Papist should be capable of succeeding to the crown, and was appointed to the committee to draw up the amendments to the declaration of the rights approved during the debate. On 19 Feb. he urged that the Convention should be dissolved and a new Parliament elected: ‘the calling it one way or other alters not the case; but the single thing I insist upon is the people’s consent’. He helped to draw up the address promising support for the King, and was named to the committee for the suspension of habeas corpus, although very dubious of the principle of the bill. He defended his constituents against Maynard’s charge of disaffection. On 16 Mar. occurred the first attempt of the Whig extremists to silence and remove Sawyer from the House, in the shape of a petition from Fitzharris’s widow. But she did not inspire confidence, and Sawyer was able to dismiss it with the remark: ‘Upon examination, I find nothing but clamour in this business’. He was appointed to the committees for the repeal of the Corporations Act and for preparing reasons on the new oaths of allegiance and supremacy. It was clear that he could not expect employment from the new regime, although his position as father-in-law of the Earl of Pembroke (Thomas Herbert) sheltered him to some extent from calumny, and he obtained leave to resume his legal practice, with precedence at the bar immediately after the KCs. On 22 May he declared: ‘I believe King James’s return would be the destruction of England’. But the non-juring bishops continued to meet at his house. A new attack on his record in office was mounted by John Hawles on 17 June, and he did not speak again except in self-defence. But he was appointed to word the succession clause in the bill of rights. Although he was not named to the committee on the bill for transferring Papists’ advowsons to the universities, he attended as one of the long robe, and was voted into the chair, subsequently carrying the bill to the Lords. On 22 July he gave the House his account of the prosecution of Williams under James II for publishing a seditious libel. This, too, he survived, and helped to manage conferences on the duties on tea, coffee and chocolate and on the attainder bill. In the second session he was among those who drew up the address to inquire who had recommended Commissary Shales. It was not until after the defeat of the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations that Hawles renewed his attack. ‘How scandalous it is that a man guilty of murder should sit within these walls!’, he exclaimed, and produced a really damaging witness in the shape of Armstrong’s daughter, who deposed that Sawyer had told her: ‘Your father must die, he must die; he is an ill man’. Sawyer denied the words, and asserted that what he had done in denying the prisoner a writ of error was not only lawful, but his duty. He found unexpected support from John Smith and Sir William Whitlock; but on a division on 20 Jan. 1690 he was expelled from the House by 131 votes to 71, a large majority. His constituents, unimpressed, re-elected him a month later, but he died of dropsy on 28 July 1692. He was buried at Highclere, in the church which he had built himself. His estates went to form an appanage for a cadet branch of the Herbert family.9


Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Authors: Leonard Naylor / E. R. Edwards


  • 1. The Gen. o.s. vi. 50; Top. and Gen. iii. 408; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1192.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 26; CSP Dom. 1685, p. 132.
  • 3. Cal. Treas. Bks. vi. 312.
  • 4. G. E. Aylmer, King’s Servants, 188, 356; VCH Berks. iii. 173-4; SP29/115/274; North, Lives, i. 376-9; Pepys Diary, 6 Dec. 1667; VCH Hants, iv. 278; CJ, ix. 291, 310, 320, 321, 338, 339, 346, 352, 361, 372, 380; Grey, ii. 257, 285, 430; iii. 74, 202, 216, 308, 337-8; iv. 42, 318-19; Dering Pprs. 98.
  • 5. Browning, Danby, ii. 45-46; CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 161; Finch diary, 4 Nov. 1678; Top. and Gen. iii. 406; Grey, iv. 133, 178-9, 290, 370; CJ, ix. 387, 388, 389, 391, 394, 404, 406, 416; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 431.
  • 6. Grey, iv. 179; v. 147, 194-5, 289; vi. 44-45; CJ, ix. 452, 454, 507, 511; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 421-2; North, iii. 126; CSP Dom. 1678, pp. 106, 194; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 1323.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 161; Grey, vi. 142, 215, 251, 303, 364; CJ, ix. 530, 531, 541, 543, 549, 550, 561; HMC 13th Rep. VI, 73; Finch diary.
  • 8. Finch diary; M. Rex, Univ. Rep. 277, 279, 288; Sidney Diary, i. 33; CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 161, 1687-9, p. 380; Burnet, ii. 344; Grey, ix. 23, 328-9; R. Morrice, Entering Bk. 2, pp. 360, 397-8; Macaulay, Hist. 1244; Feiling, Tory Party, 248; Boyer, Hist. Wm. III, i. 307.
  • 9. Rex, 301-2; IHR Bull. xlix. 252-4; Feiling, 252, 263; Morrice, 2, p. 437; 3, p. 93; Grey, ix. 21-22, 27, 48, 58, 72, 86, 100, 171, 265, 328-9, 523, 532-3; CJ, x. 39, 93, 202, 204, 242, 246, 296.