AUSTEN, Robert I (1642-96), of Heronden, Tenterden, Kent
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Family and Education
bap. 3 Aug. 1642, 2nd s. of Sir Robert Austen, 1st Bt., by his 2nd w.; bro. of Sir John Austen, 2nd Bt.* educ. G. Inn 1657. m. lic. 29 Sept. 1669, Judith (d. 1716), da. and coh. of Ralph Freke of Hannington, Wilts., 4s. 2da. suc. uncle John Austen c.1655.1
Dep. mayor, Winchelsea, and speaker of the Guestling, Cinque Ports 1668.2
Ld. of Admiralty 1691–d.3
Commr. public accts. 1691–2.
Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695, taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.4
In his later parliamentary career Austen, who was invariably known by his militia rank of colonel, typified the dutiful courtier-MP. His non-committal stance over Exclusion had cost him his seat for Winchelsea in 1681 and there were occasions subsequently when his ‘negligence’ or caution in executing government orders caused ministerial irritation. But in May 1689, shortly after regaining his seat, he sought recognition from the new regime for having lately ‘opposed the designs of popery and arbitrary power’, and for doing ‘what he could to promote the design of his present Majesty’. He petitioned the Treasury for the obsolete office of surveyor of the outports, and though the customs commissioners were instructed to consider the feasibility of reviving the office, nothing was done for him on this occasion. He was returned for Winchelsea a fifth time in 1690, as before, on the basis of personal interest, and his Whig credentials were noted in Lord Carmarthen’s (Sir Thomas Osborne†) list of the new Parliament. Disappointed of office, he was at first an open critic of the ministry, particularly on supply matters. On 27 Mar. he expressed reservations about settling the revenue on the King and Queen for life, while the next day he couched these misgivings in the language of principled objections. One of King William’s promises, he told the House, had been
to secure us, that no successor be able to bring us again into our misfortunes. The great mischief being the revenue for lives, you will never do good in an ill prince’s time – I am sure you will never tell him that he is an ill one. A Parliament will secure you from other ill persons, as well as ill kings; I mean the ministers. Granting it for life will prevent any ill ministers from being called in question, and you can never reach them. I hope the King will be as rich at the end of his time four years, as if he had the revenue for life.
He rejected, on the 31st, imputations that the Commons were obstructing progress on supply: the fault, he said lay with the King’s servants, who ‘yet do not tell us what is required’. But when management of the previous year’s money was highlighted on 1 Apr. he defended the Court unequivocally, arguing in a somewhat blinkered fashion that it was more pertinent to ensure future prospects of better management than to inquire into last year’s ‘actions’. It was no doubt for his candid opinions on supply and expenditure that he was included on the committee of 14 Apr. to prepare a bill to establish a commission of public accounts. His Whig principles were clearly advertised on the 17th when he cautioned against rejecting proposals by leading City Whigs for remodelling London’s municipal institutions, and he did not take it kindly when some Members scoffed at his suggestion that it was inadvisable to ‘anger’ City gentlemen in view of the government’s pressing need for ready cash. On the 22nd, at the second reading of the bill to reverse the quo warranto against the City, he declared that no one who had failed to acknowledge William’s government should be ‘restored’ under the bill’s provisions. He did not wholly embrace the motion of the Court manager Sir Henry Goodricke, 2nd Bt.*, on the 24th for a Commons address of thanks for the King’s solicitude towards the Church in his remodelling of the London lieutenancy. While allowing that the Anglican prelates were ‘all very good men’, he cast an oblique aspersion, observing that a generally-worded address would also include senior clerics who had ‘wept for joy’ at King James’s return to Whitehall in December 1688; ‘but as to thanking the King for any general kindness done to the Church of England, I am for it’. His Whiggish instincts led him to oppose an attempt on 26 Apr. to deprive non-jurors of their rights under habeas corpus. On 2 May, when complaint was raised against Anthony Rowe* for distributing an anti-government pamphlet, Austen was blocked by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt., in his own attempt to order a censure upon another Tory Member, Hon. John Beaumont*. During the prolonged committee discussions on the regency bill on 5 May he suggested deferral of the matter until the King had intimated how much regnal power he was prepared to relinquish while in Ireland, and that a ‘modest question’ along these lines might be put to the King. The following day, as deliberations continued, he appeared less equivocal, declaring himself unconvinced of any necessity for the King’s absence, though he thought that to ‘advise’ the King would be ‘unmannerly’ and would reduce him to the status of a ‘doge of Venice’. On 12 May he was openly critical of Tory MPs who he felt made too much of the Lords’ request to examine Sir Robert Clayton* and Sir George Treby* concerning the changes in the London lieutenancy: ‘to suppose they [the Lords] shall shock you is more than you ought to do’. During committee proceedings on the 13th concerned with maintaining ‘the peace of the nation’ he protested at Sir Edmund Jennings’* insensitivity in proposing an adjournment motion so that MPs could ‘go to dinner’, and proceeded to support the arrangements for ‘a management by council’ which, he warned, if not endorsed by the House, would ‘look ill abroad’. On 20 May he was declared in first place with 183 votes in the ballot for commissioners of public accounts, a reflection of the esteem in which Austen was held among MPs, to whom he evidently appealed widely as a man moderately critical of Court measures. Austen’s aloofness towards the Court at this juncture was additionally apparent in his refusal to co-operate in the royal initiative early in June to establish a commission of accounts, following the failure of the Commons’ bill, a commission which was to consist of the Members recently balloted. Indeed Austen’s resistance on the issue seems to have been particularly prominent. Speaker Trevor* (Sir John) reported to the King that ‘Col[onel] Austen, Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt.*, and the rest of that party [i.e. the other Whig nominees] will not act’, having been prey to ‘all imaginable misconceptions on your good intentions of that commission’.5
During the 1690–1 session Austen adopted a more pro-Court attitude. This was noticeable, for example, in supply on 9 Nov. when he answered Paul Foley’s outburst against heavy wartime expenditure with quiet moderation: ‘I believe all are unanimous that a fleet is necessary. ’Tis a great charge, and necessary it should be so.’ No doubt to the delight of Court managers, he deflected Sir Christopher Musgrave’s attempt to fluster the government with a question about the escape of French ships blockaded at Dunkirk, unnoticed by the English fleet. Austen pointed out that the French fleet’s departure had been no great secret, and had been unobserved because of its occurrence ‘on the Dutch side and not ours’. In the renewed efforts to establish a commission of public accounts Austen was once again a popular choice, taking fourth place with 129 votes in the ballot for commissioners. This time the public accounts bill passed and he was enjoined to serve. At the same time, however, he was also made a lord of the Admiralty with a salary of £1,000, thus realizing his earlier ambition to be brought into administration. Given his respectability among the Whigs, the appointment was clearly a ploy to anchor Whig support for the government. But its timing would also suggest ministers’ anxiety to prevent the accounts commission from being peopled entirely by critics of the Court. Austen’s recruitment must have seriously compromised him in the eyes of his fellow commissioners. Analysing the House in April 1691, Robert Harley* labelled him as a Court supporter. Although he was an assiduous attender at the commission’s meetings throughout the spring and summer months (despite trouble from a ‘lame hand’), the nature of his contribution to its proceedings cannot be determined, and from September until the last meeting towards the end of January 1692 his appearances became less frequent.6
When supply business opened in the next session on 9 Nov., Austen defended the government’s need for a navy of at least 30,000 men, arguing that 40,000 would be desirable. At the behest of his colleagues on the accounts commission, Sir Thomas Clarges, Paul Foley I and Robert Harley, a select committee was appointed to scrutinize the navy estimates on which he and his fellow Admiralty commissioners were necessarily included. On the 11th, in the wake of the unfolding attacks upon naval ‘mismanagements’, Austen moved that the Admiralty commissioners be allowed copies of Admiral Russell’s (Edward*) personal account of the fleet’s summer actions (presented to the Commons the previous day) to assist them in meeting the request for a statement of the orders issued to Russell. When Harley reported from the navy estimates committee on the 14th, Austen supported all the resolutions, including provision for four new fourth-rate ships at a cost of £28,864, though this final item was later dropped. On the 30th he saw no reason why the estimates for general officers should be referred to a ‘particular’ or select committee, as proposed by Clarges, rather than to the committee of the whole. He acquainted the House on 6 Dec. that the Lords had requested from the accounts commissioners a copy of their recent report to the Commons, together with their fault-finding ‘observations’. It was agreed, however, that the Lords had no right to the latter, these having been specifically ordered by the Lower House. Though in 1689 he had held £1,400 of East India stock, he spoke against the Company on 18 Dec. in the committee of the whole on the East India trade, and on the 23rd moved that the company’s proposal of a joint stock of £1,300,000 to facilitate its continued operation was ‘unsatisfactory’. That Austen’s credit among MPs had waned since his appointment to the Admiralty was apparent on 19 Jan. 1692, when an amendment was unanimously approved to the bill for the renewal of the accounts commission, omitting both himself and his Admiralty colleague Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt. In supply on the 12th he regarded with some scepticism Foley’s scheme to secure a £1,000,000 loan from the bankers, the condition for which would be the establishment of a fund to repay the debt still outstanding on account of Charles II’s stop of the Exchequer. He ventured that if the bankers had any concrete proposals in mind these should first be judged by the Treasury. Much more to his taste in ways and means was Henry Goldwell’s* proposal on 18 Jan. for excises on specific commodities, a fiscal principle to which he gave his unqualified support:
If you will reach all men and raise money by an equal tax, I know no better way . . . I find we shall try other ways till they are so oppressive that we must come to an excise at last as the equallest – that which will reach all men and no men farther than he pleases himself.
Austen was one of several Whigs who on 22 Jan. took issue with a motion not to place on record the Commons’ verdict of guilty upon the Tory Sir Basil Firebrace* for having bribed his Chippenham electors in the recent by-election. Four days later, at the second reading of the bill for a new East India Company, an issue on which there were no clear political alignments, he backed Sir Edward Seymour’s view that the measure could not be pursued until the existing company’s stock commitments had been squared. Following the Lords’ blockage of the Commons’ bill to renew the accounts commission, Austen spoke against the ‘tacking’ of a clause for this purpose to the poll bill, from which his and Rich’s names were again excluded. Since Luttrell did not record the substance of Austen’s speech, it is not clear whether he was opposing the commission itself, or less fundamentally, the ‘irregularity’ of ‘tacking’. Undaunted by the recent efforts to exclude them, Austen and Rich tried on 8 Mar. to take their places at the first meeting of the reconstituted accounts commission, justifying their continued presence on the basis of some ambiguity in the wording of the Poll Act. After discussion, however, they were denied admittance by the seven other commissioners, who minuted that they ‘could not safely with respect to the trust reposed in them . . . act with [them]’.7
In the early weeks of the 1692–3 session, Austen’s official responsibilities compelled him to defend the Admiralty against the accusations of all-round incompetence and mismanagement from Country opponents. He made a forceful intervention for the government on 21 Nov. on the subject of mercantile losses, beginning with a direct rejoinder to the suggestion that naval affairs be entrusted to a new set of Admiralty commissioners: ‘I will not confess myself so ignorant as some think me.’ He then told the House that the complaints examined in a recent select committee on merchant losses had not been properly substantiated, and that blame for the losses suffered could be apportioned to the insurers, whose willingness to underwrite ships regardless of the availability of convoys encouraged merchants to undertake hazardous voyages. On 26 Nov. he responded to a complaint of breach of privilege instigated by George Churchill*, who had been called to the Admiralty in connexion with recent remarks in the House concerning the ‘cowardice’ of a naval captain serving in the West Indies. Austen gave immediate assurances that the purpose of summoning Churchill was to ascertain if the captain concerned was a fit object for the King’s mercy. In supply on 2 Dec. he supported the government’s move to consider the ‘clause of credit’ to meet the deficiency arising from the Poll Act, before proceeding upon the army and navy estimates, while the following day he advocated the government’s line to consider the army estimates in their entirety rather than give priority to the needs of home defence, as desired by the Country party. In deliberations on the land tax on the 13th he favoured the proposal for a pound rate against a monthly assessment. On 19 Jan. 1693, at the report stage of the woollen bill, he opposed Robert Waller’s* clause to preserve the monopoly of the Hamburg Company, opposition which may well have been tinged with personal animosity towards Waller, who in November had been among those who had roundly denounced the Admiralty commissioners. Some time in January, Austen and three other prominent, mainly pro-government, Whig MPs, John Dutton Colt, Sir Ralph Dutton, 1st Bt., and Sir Thomas Pope Blount, 1st Bt., were involved in the interrogation of a Jacobite suspect at Newgate. Samuel Grascome, who reported the episode in a pamphlet, stated that there had been some attempt by two of the Members (though he avoided saying which) to suborn the man into inventing an assassination plot. On the penultimate day of the session, 13 Mar., Austen ‘was entirely for disagreeing’ with a Lords’ amendment to the privateers’ bill concerning the award of prize money, since it created a precedent for the Upper House to ‘order the manner of disposing money’.8
Thereafter, Austen made no further recorded speeches in the House. There were reports at the end of January 1694 that he and most of his colleagues were to be dropped from the Admiralty Board, but he was retained when it was eventually reconstructed in the spring. His steadfastness towards the Court was lampooned in a poetical satire upon the ‘Rose Club’ activists published in 1694. Here, he and Rich were described as ‘those two precious beagles of state . . . mightily overpaid for the prate’. However, his consistent support for the several schemes put forward for a national land bank during 1694–6 is apparent from the inclusion of his name in several published lists of subscribers. In one of these he also appears as one of the ‘present directors’. Re-elected in 1695, he was forecast in January 1696 as likely to support the Court on the proposed council of trade. He was also an early signatory to the Association. By February 1696, Austen’s infirmities were such as to prevent him from attending Admiralty business and probably also the House. He had indicated his willingness to resign in lieu of a pension, but in June, despite his declining condition, the lords justices were unwilling to replace him. A replacement had still not been found at the time of his death on 22 Aug. He was buried the following day in the family vault at Bexley. His disordered financial arrangements caused his widow and heir some vexation. Although he had provided his wife with a comfortable jointure of £450, he made no provision for his two grown-up daughters and youngest son, while his eldest son inherited an estate saddled with debts amounting to £3,000.9
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
- 1. IGI, London; Berry, Kent Fam. Peds. 350; The Gen. n.s. xxxiii. 200; Westminster Abbey Reg. (Harl. Soc. x), 286; Arch. Cant. xvii. 97; Elizabeth Freke Diary ed. Carbery, 44; PCC 262 Berkeley; Kentish MI (Tenterden) ed. Duncan, 57.
- 2. Cal. Black and White Bks. (Kent Recs. xix), 520, 521.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 225.
- 4. Add. 10120, f. 232; CJ, xii. 508.
- 5. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, p. 40; Grey, x. 16–17, 21, 23, 32, 57, 61, 72, 108–9, 124, 129, 135; Bodl. Rawl. A. 79, f. 83; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 29.
- 6. Grey, x. 168, 170; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 15; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 225; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1125; EHR, xci. 40; Some Remarks on Bill for Taking, Examining and Stating the Public Accounts of the Kingdom (1701); Harl. 1488–9, passim; HMC Portland, iii. 467.
- 7. Luttrell Diary, 10, 13, 19–20, 52, 63, 87, 92, 125, 138, 150, 157, 187; Bodl. Carte 130, f. 328; Trinity, Dublin, Clarke mss 749/13/1329, Robert Yard* to George Clarke*, 12 Nov. 1691; Add. 22185, f. 12; PRO NI, De Ros mss D636/13/93, 111, John Pulteney* to Ld. Coningsby (Thomas*), 9 Jan., 16 Feb. 1691–2; Add. 70119, Robert to Sir Edward Harley*, 9 Jan. 1691–2; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/11, Robert Yard to Alexander Stanhope, [c.12 Mar. 1692]; Harl. 1489, f. 76.
- 8. Luttrell Diary, 246–7, 261, 285, 289, 311, 375, 477; Grey, x. 272, 281; Samuel Grascome, New Court Contrivancies (1693).
- 9. Luttrell Diary, iii. 262; CSP Dom. 1694–5, p. 114; 1696, pp. 232, 299; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, v. 435; NLS, Advocates’ mss 31.1.7, ff. 95, 98–99; CJ, xii. 508; Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Yard to Stanhope, 11 Feb. 1695–6; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 339, 367; Elizabeth Freke Diary, 44.