SOUTHWELL, Sir Robert (1635-1702), of Spring Garden, Westminster and King's Weston, Glos.

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



30 Jan. - 6 Feb. 1673
13 Feb. 1673
Mar. 1679

Family and Education

b. 31 Dec. 1635, 2nd but o. surv. s. of Robert Southwell of Kinsale, co. Cork by Helena, da. and h. of Robert Gore of Sherston, Wilts. educ. Cork 1648, Christchurch, Hants, 1650; Queen’s, Oxf. 1653; L. Inn 1654; travelled abroad (France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, German states, Netherlands) 1659-61. m. 26 Jan. 1655 (with £1,200), Elizabeth (d. 13 Jan. 1682), da. of Sir Edward Dering, 2nd Bt., of Surrenden Dering, Kent, 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da. Kntd. 21 Dec. 1665; suc. fa. 1677.1

Offices Held

Sec. of prizes 1664-7, 1672-4; clerk to the PC 1664-79; envoy to Portugal 1665-8; envoy extraordinary, Portugal 1668-9, Spanish Netherlands 1671-2, Brandenburg and Saxony 1680; commr. for excise 1671-81, customs 1689-94; sec. of state [I] 1690-1702; PC [I] ?1690-d.; commr. for public accounts [I] 1693; one of the lds. justices [I] 1693.2

Dep. v.-adm. Munster 1665, v.-adm. 1677-1701; commr. for assessment, Mdx. 1673-80, Westminster 1677-80, Glos. 1679-80, 1689-90; j.p. Mdx. and Westminster by 1680-May 1688, Oct. 1688-d.; Glos. ?1689-d.; dep. lt. Glos. 1689-94.

FRS 1663, pres. 1690-5.


Southwell came from an illegitimate branch of an old gentry family which, after producing the martyred Jesuit poet under Elizabeth, emigrated to Ireland. His father was a Protestant who defended Kinsale against the Irish rebels in the first Civil War, but was heavily fined for helping to victual Prince Rupert’s royalist fleet in 1648. He made his peace with the Protectorate, serving as commissioner of security and ‘sovereign’ of Kinsale, and received a grant of forfeited lands at the Restoration. Southwell himself, as he records in his autobiography, was sent to Queen’s, the college that was ‘then resorted to by all that were Cavaliers or of the King’s party’. From his travels he acquired fluent French and Italian, and a keen interest in art, music and literature. He helped to manage the Duke of Ormonde’s estate in county Cork for a time, but in 1665 he bought for £2,000 one of the four clerkships of the Privy Council in England, worth £450 a year. He gave evidence during the Oxford session before a committee of the House of Commons against the bill to prohibit the import of Irish cattle. Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet) first employed him as a diplomat in Portugal, where he negotiated peace with Spain, and secured payment of the remainder of Catherine of Braganza’s portion, ‘money the King never reckoned upon much’. He was rewarded for these successes with a seat on the excise board at a salary of £500 p.a., and in September 1671 he took part in the royal progress through Norfolk.3

Southwell was elected as court candidate for Penryn, probably unopposed, in 1673 during the recess, and again a fortnight later after the House had decided against the writs issued by Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury without the Speaker’s warrant. An inactive Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was appointed to 17 committees, including the committee of elections and privileges in two sessions, and made seven recorded speeches. For all his habitual tact and caution, he could not refrain from writing to the Earl of Essex of ‘the joy of this day’ on the withdrawal of the Declaration of Indulgence, which he was confident would secure the passage of the necessary supply bills. He spoke in favour of committing the impeachment of Arlington, on 23 Jan. 1674, believing, as he wrote to (Sir) Joseph Williamson that upon examination the evidence would ‘vanish and come to nothing’. In the spring session of 1675, he was appointed to the committee on the bill to disable Papists from sitting in either House of Parliament. He was listed among the King’s servants in the House and the government speakers in the autumn session, after which Sir Richard Wiseman noted that he could speak well. He was teller for the Court on supply on 10 Apr. 1677, and was marked ‘vile’ on Shaftesbury’s list. It was noted that he was silent in a crucial debate in 1678, but he continued to figure in the government list of the court party. As clerk to the Privy Council he recorded the examinations of the witnesses in the Popish Plot. On 28 Sept. 1678 he wrote to Ormonde that the Council found Tongue’s evidence ridiculous, but Oates’s deposition could not be ignored. He was also responsible for deciphering Coleman’s letters, and gave evidence at the trial.4

Southwell maintained his interest at Penryn by sending the corporation an excellent news-letter. Re-elected in March 1679, he became a moderately active Member of the first Exclusion Parliament. He was appointed to four committees and made five recorded speeches. Again classed as ‘vile’ by Shaftesbury, he had to defend himself in both Houses against a charge of suppressing part of Dugdale’s information. Speaking at the bar of the House of Commons on 28 Mar., he remarked that he could not help it if Dugdale’s evidence was contradictory and contained ‘half-answers’ to questions, and in his justification he ‘brought his entries of all the examinations before the House, when they appeared so very methodical and such that he gained great applause’. (Sir) John Maynard I declared ‘we should have been utterly in a mist, had it not been for this gentleman’s endeavours in deciphering the papers’. A vote was then passed hem. con.

that this House is fully satisfied in the integrity, diligence and faithfulness of Sir Robert Southwell ... in taking and entering the information of the witnesses touching the discovery of the treasonable Popish Plot and of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey by the Papists, and that he hath deserved very well of the King and kingdom by his pains and care taken therein.

Although he voted against exclusion, he was not blacklisted in the ‘unanimous club’. Nevertheless, he resolved not to stand again, because ‘not only inclination, but even moderation towards the Court seems to be grown matter of accusation of indifferency in religion’. Resolving ‘to look after my own occasions, which I have hitherto but too many years neglected’, he sold his place as clerk to the Council to Francis Gwyn and bought King’s Weston from the executors of Sir Humphrey Hooke. Apart from an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to Brandenburg in 1680, he divided his time for the next few years between his English and Irish estates, selling his place in the excise in February 1681 for £2,000.5

On the accession of James II Southwell emerged from retirement and obtained a letter of recommendation from the customs commissioners to his former constituency. But, as he recognized, ‘my old footing at Penryn did subsist by my station at Court and capacity then to serve them’, which he no longer possessed, and in the end he was returned in his absence for Lostwithiel ‘by favour of my Lord Bath’. He was appointed only to the committees to enable Ormonde’s grandson to make a jointure for his wife and to encourage English shipbuilding. He remained a court supporter even after the recess, writing on 18 Nov. 1685 that the disagreement between the King and the Commons was caused ‘not so much by a standing army as at those that serve and are to serve being not qualified by the Act of Test’, adding: ‘I pray God there be no misunderstanding in the matter, for never was there so great and brave a Prince, nor, I think, a more devoted Parliament’. By 1687, however, he had become alarmed at Roman Catholic claims to some of his estates in Ireland, ‘because they think witnesses and juries can now do anything,’ and he feared that the Act of Settlement would be overthrown. Against Southwell’s name in the list of replies from Gloucestershire on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws it was noted ‘as formerly, which the King knows’, and he was removed from the county bench.6

Southwell was in Ireland during the Revolution, in which he took no part, and he never stood for Parliament again. But he was appointed to the customs board by the new regime, and in May 1690 William, having been assured by Lord Halifax that Southwell was ‘weak’ but entirely trustworthy, took him on his Irish campaign as secretary of state. He organized the intelligence service to William’s satisfaction and entertained him at King’s Weston on his return. But his application for the post of secretary of the Treasury was unsuccessful, and he remained secretary for Ireland until a few weeks before his death when he was allowed to hand the post over to his son Edward. He died on 11 Sept. 1702 and was buried at King’s Weston. His son sat for Rye from 1702 to 1708, and subsequently for Tregony and Preston.7

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Basil Duke Henning


  • 1. DNB; Kent AO, U1713/A1, C13.
  • 2. DNB; Luttrell, iii. 48, 101; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 82; x. 739.
  • 3. Eg. 1632; Eg. 1634; ff. 1-8, 23-24, 40; Stoye, Eng. Travellers Abroad, 183, 333; HMC Egmont, i. 608, 615; HMC 6th Rep. 725, 736; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iii. 62; Bodl. Carte 34, f. 452v; Dering Pprs. 162; HMC Buccleuch, i. 431, 433.
  • 4. Stowe 201, f. 241; Grey, ii. 320-1; vi. 117; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. ix), 130-1; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 662; CSP Dom. 1677-8, p. 418; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 405; HMC 6th Rep. 736.
  • 5. Add. 28052, f. 73; Grey, vii. 56-8, 62-3; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 501, 506, 564, 580-1; v. 4, 10; HMC Egmont, ii. 83, 89; Eg. 1634, f. 48.
  • 6. Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 15, f. 110; Add. 11759, f. 80; CJ, x. 238; HMC Egmont, ii. 164.
  • 7. HMC Egmont Diary, i. 119; Foxcroft, Halifax, ii. 251; HMC Finch, ii. 291, 450; Luttrell, ii. 242; CSP Dom. 1702-3, p. 137.