COWPER, Sir William, 2nd Bt. (1639-1706), Hertford Castle, Herts. and Ratling Court, Kent

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



1680 - Mar. 1681
1689 - 1700

Family and Education

bap. 14 Dec. 1639, o. s. of John Cowper (d.v.p. s. of Sir William Cowper, 1st Bt., of Ratling Court, Nonington, Kent) of Hertford Castle by Martha, da. of George Hewkley, merchant, of London.  educ. G. Inn 1659.  m. lic. 8 Apr. 1664, Sarah (d. 1720), da. of Samuel Holled, merchant, of London, 4s. (2 d.v.p.).  suc. fa. 1643; gdfa. as 2nd Bt. 20 Dec. 1664.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Hertford 1679; commr. inquiry into recusancy fines, Herts. 1687–Oct. 1688.2

Commr. Greenwich Hosp. 1695; gov. Christ’s Hosp. c.1678.3


A zealous follower of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper†), to whom he may have been related, Cowper had been a strong supporter of the exclusion bill, and consistently sympathetic to Dissent. After James II’s issue of the 1687 Declaration of Indulgence he was named as a commissioner to inquire into recusancy fines, and was said to have been active in inquiring about fines levied on Dissenters; yet the degree to which he co-operated with the Court was probably very limited, for he published a tract at the Revolution (probably at the time of the elections to the Convention) in which he spat invective against ‘the late corruption of affairs’ and against those ‘small agents in every little corporation’ who had helped to invade liberty and religion. Although his anger was directed chiefly against those nominated by Hertford’s 1685 charter, by which honorary freemen had been created largely in order to exclude him from Parliament, the tone of the pamphlet betrays no sign of complicity with James’ regime. Indeed, Cowper spoke in glowing terms of the Prince of Orange’s endeavours to secure Protestantism and restore liberties, and he regarded William as providentially placed at the helm of government as a great example of ‘wisdom, justice, humanity and candour’. The tract is also indicative of Cowper’s independent Whiggery: he attacked invasions of civil rights and liberties, railed against encroachments on the right of inhabitants to vote at elections, and declared that he ‘always esteemed it more honourable to suffer, than to be a tool to any power or interest whatsoever’. This sense of virtuous independence was buttressed, and may have partly derived from, pride in his family’s achievements. His wife recalled one evening in 1700 when he ‘fell to magnify himself, boasting of the riches in his family . . . and made it out that among ’em they are possessed of £2,500 a year, besides what his sons now get’.4

Cowper was far less prominent in Parliament after the Revolution than he had been in Charles II’s reign. Classed by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) in March 1690 as a Whig, he was one of four Members sent on 5 Apr. to search the chambers of the Jacobite lawyer Richard Stafford, who had delivered a seditious libel to MPs as they waited in the lobby, and on 25 Apr., as a trustee of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury’s estate, he carried up the 2nd Earl’s estate bill, which provided for Shaftesbury’s offspring. Marked as a Court supporter by Robert Harley* in April 1691, Sir William was appointed on 2 Nov. to draft a bill to revive the Hertfordshire Highways Act. He may have expressed a special interest in the cost of the armed forces, for a week later he was named to inspect the estimate of the navy for the following year, and on 25 Nov. he seconded Paul Foley I’s* proposal that the charge of forces in Ireland should be borne by that kingdom. On 6 Jan. 1693 he presented a bill to revive the acts for the repair of Hertfordshire roads, and on 6 Mar. he reported a private estate bill, which he carried up the following day. In the spring of 1693 Grascome marked him as a placeman but not a Court supporter, but the first categorization was inaccurate and the second needs some qualification, for although concerned with Country measures, particularly those against corruption at court or at elections, his support for Revolution principles seems generally to have placed him in the Court ranks, a stance of independent Whiggery that he passed on to his son William*. In the following session Sir William was ordered on 13 Feb. 1694 to bring in the bill for raising the militia, which he presented four days later and carried up to the Lords on 16 Apr. He appears to have been most active at Westminster during the sessions either side of the 1695 general election. On 13 Nov. 1694 he seconded Hugh Boscawen I’s* motion to consider the King’s Speech, which urged the need for supply to fight the war, ‘both urging that the matters recommended to them were of importance and no time to be lost’. During this session he was included upon Henry Guy’s* list of ‘friends’, probably in connexion with the Commons’ attack upon Guy. Between December 1694 and February 1695 he was nominated to two drafting committees, and on 25 Mar. reported on the private bill of another Whig noble family with which he had been intimate, the Russells. On 23 Apr. he was the last MP to be voted on to the committee to examine Sir Thomas Cooke* about corruption by the East India Company, and four days later was named to prepare articles of impeachment against his old adversary Carmarthen, now Duke of Leeds.5

When the new Parliament met, Cowper seems to have been concerned to induct his son into committee procedure, and to mould William’s political beliefs. Father and son were named on 7 Dec. 1695 to the committee for the bill to prevent charges at elections, though Sir William alone was appointed on 4 Feb. 1696 to another bill to regulate elections, and the pair were both named on 12 Dec. 1695 to the bill to regulate the coinage, and on 17 Jan. 1696 to the debtors’ relief bill. Forecast as likely to support the Court in divisions of 31 Jan. upon the proposed council of trade, Sir William signed the Association, and in March voted with the Court for fixing the price of guineas at 22s. At the start of the next session he voted for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. On 20 Feb. 1697 he spoke against the grants of large pensions being made to courtiers, but, perhaps unwilling to give any ground to the Country Tories, included a barbed comment against their leader Hon. John Granville*. Disliking in equal proportions Court corruption and the Tories, he duly tacked on to a vote in April 1700 against exorbitant grants a clause ‘that it should be the like crime in any one who was a Privy Councillor in any reign’, which was evidently aimed at both Granville and Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* He had been listed as a Court supporter on a comparative list of the old and new Commons in September 1698, and in early 1700 as in the interest of the chancellor, Charles Montagu*, perhaps because of his activity over the coinage or his son Spencer Cowper’s* friendship with the Junto.6

The destruction of the Cowper interest at Hertford, as a result of the trial of his son for the murder of a Quaker woman, ended Sir William’s career in Parliament. In December 1700 he dodged questions about the family’s intentions to be at the next election, having found the town greatly changed ‘for the worst’. Determined to brazen out the embarrassment, he confided to his wife that, although he would much rather be at home: ‘I must thrash through, be the consequence as ’twill, to please a few friends, but believe I shall hardly be catched any more when once at liberty.’ He soon cheered up, for in late January 1701 he ‘came home full of glee with the news that Mr Filmer his antagonist for the election at Hertford was dropped down suddenly dead’. His macabre sense of humour was symptomatic of an increasing eccentricity and cantankerousness. Although he wished to go back to Hertford for the 1702 election, his wife feared the family was already ‘contemptible enough there’, and would be the subject of ridicule when it was known that he had taken over responsibility for household domestic arrangements. She lamented that he ‘restrains me in all my due privileges’ and believed that since she was given no responsibility or control over the family she had ‘been kept as a concubine not a wife’. Always cold and formal, his relationship with his wife became increasingly strained as he grew older. On 31 Jan 1702 she calculated that she had lived ‘almost 14,000 days’ with Sir William, ‘and from the bottom of my soul do believe I never past [sic] one without something to be forgiven him’. The letter he had written her in December 1700, though friendly in tone, had been addressed simply to ‘dear Cowper’, and she claimed that it was the first he had written to her in 35 years of marriage, leaving her at a loss as to know how to reply. In September 1705 she found his ‘exquisite provocations’ too much and, as she put it, ‘escaped out of gaol, for dwelling with Sir W[illiam] at Hertford castle is not living but a sort of civil death’. Although she returned, he ‘provoked and teased her with an ugly air he does not, dare not, use to the worst of servants’, and after he had picked a quarrel with her about her ‘courtesy and affability’ to people pursuing recommendations for offices, Lady Cowper confided to her commonplace book in 1706 that ‘never any two disagreed like Sir William and I. The few virtues I have he dislikes.’ She may have had good grounds for complaint, for on one occasion he called her ‘a liar and a whore, saying pride was a worse sin than either, and a chaste woman that over-valued herself was in greater fault’. Ostensibly the Cowpers shared religious preoccupations: she was described on her funeral monument as ‘a great example of industry, virtue, wisdom and piety’, and a commonplace book in which Sir William noted the births of his sons includes a number of prayers and meditations, one of which thanked God in a strongly Calvinistic tone ‘for electing us before the beginning of the world’ and for ‘the continual effects of thy gracious providence’. Yet here too, they disagreed, for Sir William was, at the very least, anticlerical. He was a ‘Protestant of the true blue’, Lady Cowper remarked when he refused to celebrate his birthday or other ‘ceremonies’, and held an almost mathematically rational view of religion, telling his wife that ‘all things hang by geometry’. Lady Cowper’s love of order and ceremony – she confessed she was ‘prone to superstitious fancies’ – seems to have particularly irritated her husband, who lectured her ‘sharply against the Church and priests’. When she complained about disobedient servants he ‘replied we might thank the Church of England for that neglect, in former days such order was observed, but laid down since that came in’; she retorted that if he went to church he ‘might meet with frequent exhortations to the performance of’ obedience, though he answered that ‘he found no body the better that went so much there, nor for making a stir against whoring, which he thought the least of sins. I could not forbear’, Lady Cowper noted, ‘to say that he ought not to reproach religion, but love the effects, which ’twas like had prevented him knowing to his last the difference between a chaste wife and a whore as he very well deserved to have done.’ Thus although the notes in Sir William’s commonplace book attacked ‘atheistical libertines’, the allegation made after his death that he was ‘an old debauchee, given to irregular pleasures, not such as the laws of nature seem to dictate’, may have had some foundation. Cowper’s freethinking also informed his political views. Lady Cowper found the conversation at Hertford Castle, where Dissenters were frequent guests,

wretched stuff, ever of one theme, election [?corranto] etc. If I talk of virtue and goodness, Sir W[illiam] calls it preaching. It grieves me I no oftener comply with his sentiments about government, being inclined to love order and obedience, I think him too much a favourer of licentious liberty.

She marvelled ‘to hear him talk how much he is for liberty of conscience and setting people at ease to do as they list, when there is not a more absolute tyrant . . . than himself’.7

In November 1706 Sir William was seized with ‘an apoplexy and dead palsy over one side, struck speechless and never spoke more’. In his last days he had not ‘shown the least fear, nor bemoaned himself as had power to do in his whole sickness’, dying with ‘courage and constancy of mind’ on the 26th. His death was regretted by his friend Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, who had helped to secure the election of Sir William’s sons at Bere Alston. Cowper’s will requested his burial at St. Michael Cornhill, London, near his ancestors, and left £12 ‘unto the poor of the town of Hertford to be distributed as I was wont to my Christmas gift’, although, to the disgust of his wife, he left nothing to Christ’s Hospital, of which he was a governor and where he had placed several children. Such parsimony can have had nothing to do with straitened circumstances, for he is known to have invested some £3,000 or so in the Bank of England during his life, and his personal estate was worth about £2,500, including land and tenements in Kent, London and Hertford, all of which passed to his eldest son, William, though debts and legacies reduced this sum to only £700. A sum of £1,000 was bequeathed to Spencer Cowper, and, mindful of the strained familial relations, Sir William charged his sons and his ‘beloved wife’ to be kind to each other.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. VCH Herts. Fams. 138; Index Lib. lxvi. 9.
  • 2. Herts. RO, Hertford bor. recs. 25/88; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 1695–6.
  • 3. Add. 10120, f. 233; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F32, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. p. 174.
  • 4. Bull. IHR, lxvi. 62; Hertford bor. recs. 23/331, The Case of the Ancient Burrough of Hertford in Relation to their Electing Burgesses, endorsed ‘Sir William Cowper’s reflections conc[erning] the charter and corporation of Hertford’; D/EP F29, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. p. 15.
  • 5. Morrice entr’ing bk. 3, p. 130; K. H. D. Haley, First Earl of Shaftesbury, 430, 614, 727; Luttrell Diary, 41; Add. 46527, f. 22.
  • 6. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 215; iii. 14.
  • 7. Panshanger mss D/EP F23, f.1, Cowper to his wife, 31 Dec. 1700; D/EP F29, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. pp. 13, 35, 53, 60, 162, 185, 195, 230; D/EP F31, pp. 133, 135, 183–4, 204; D/EP F25, commonplace bk. (unfol.); VCH Herts. Fams. 138; D. Manley, Secret Mems. (1709), 213.
  • 8. Panshanger mss D/EP F193, f. 24, William to Mary Cowper, 26 Nov. 1706; D/EP F32, pp. 1, 174; D/EP F54, Drake to William Cowper, 13 Dec. 1706; D/EP F50, acct. of personal estate; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 111; Add. 42593, f. 40; PCC 4 Poley.