COWPER, Spencer (1669-1728), of Hertingfordbury Park, Herts.; Lincoln’s Inn; and Bridge House, St. Olave’s, Southwark

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



1 Dec. 1705 - 1710
1715 - 1727

Family and Education

b. 23 Feb. 1669, 4th but 2nd. surv. s. of Sir William Cowper, 2nd Bt.*; bro. of William Cowper*.  educ. Westminster (Dr Busby); Christ’s, Camb. 1686; M. Temple 1687, called 1693, bencher 1719; L. Inn 1713, bencher 1715, treasurer 1716.  m. (1) lic. 4 Feb. 1688, Pennington (d. 1727), da. of John Goodere, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da; (2) 25 July 1728, Theodora (d. 1750), wid. of John Stepney, s.p.1

Offices Held

Clerk of the Bridge House estates, Southwark 1690–?d.2

Attorney-gen. to Prince of Wales 1714–27; KC 1715; c.j. Chester 1717–27; j.c.p. 1727–d.; serjeant-at-law 1727.

Keeper L. Inn lib. 1717, dean of chapel 1718; gov. St. Thomas’ Hosp. 1719.3


Spencer Cowper was advised as a young man to begin each day with a prayer, to ‘be humble and obedient’ to his tutor, and to ‘be courteous of gesture and affable to all men, [for] there is nothing that winneth so much with so little cost’. He was also told to delight in cleanliness, to think before he spoke, and that ‘only by a virtuous life and good actions’ might he ‘become valuable’. However, the first public notice of him came amid scandal and allegations of an indecent and murderous nature. In 1699 a rich Hertford Quaker heiress named Sarah Stout had been found floating face down in a local pond: Cowper had the misfortune to have been the last person with whom she was seen, and he was known to have been involved in her financial dealings. When local doctors concluded that she had not drowned but had been murdered, Cowper was charged with the crime. The accusation nevertheless had political connotations, since her father had ‘at all elections promoted the interest of the Cowpers to the utmost of his power; through which a great intimacy was created between the families’; Sarah Stout had fallen in love with the married Cowper, who may have acted as her tutor and who regularly visited the town for the assizes. It was later claimed by Mrs Manley that Cowper was morally weak, and ‘never saw a woman he could not have bestowed some of his favours upon’, though even she admitted that Sarah Stout was ‘the aggressor’ in the affair. It emerged during the trial, which became a cause célèbre, that she had sent him a love letter in which she proposed cohabitation, and, when he refused, had probably killed herself for unrequited love. Prosecution resulted when the Quakers, unable to accept that one of their sect had turned away from the inner spirit of God, allied with local Tories who allegedly sought revenge for the ‘feuds that have arisen at the elections’ in the town, in which Cowper’s brother and father had taken part. Describing himself at his trial as ‘of some fortune in possession . . . in a good employment, thriving in my profession, living within my income, [and] never in debt’, he defended himself and produced expert medical witnesses to prove that Stout had died from drowning. Sir William Ashurst* and Sir Thomas Lane also gave evidence on his behalf, declaring Cowper to be ‘a gentleman of singular humanity and integrity’ and ‘altogether untainted’ character, who performed his job for the corporation well. Charles Cox, MP for Southwark and Cowper’s neighbour there, also testified that he was ‘a person of integrity and worth, all the neighbours court his company’. At the original inquest Cowper had foolishly denied any knowledge of why Sarah Stout should have committed suicide, perhaps, ironically, in order to avoid scandal, and although he was acquitted of murder the trial destroyed his family’s local standing with the Quakers, and with it their electoral influence, despite Cowper’s protestation of sympathy for the sect and declaration ‘that if he ever changed his religion he said it should be for theirs’. In 1700 an appeal was lodged against his acquittal, but, under suspicious circumstances, the writ was burnt, and after the lapse of legal time-limits it became impossible to proceed with the case. The whole proceeding had stimulated great public interest, including the publication of a number of tracts, one of which was distributed to MPs, and on 13 Mar. 1701 Stout’s mother petitioned the Commons for a new writ of appeal. No action was taken, however, before the Commons was prorogued. The affair finally ended on 16 Nov. 1702, when a complaint for deprivation of justice was made to the Commons against the under-sheriff, who was believed to be Cowper’s friend, ‘but the House thought not fit to do anything thereupon’. The affair may have sent Cowper into a temporary depression, for his brother wrote in September 1701 that Spencer threatened ‘to bespeak a vessel to trip beyond seas’.4

Cowper’s first attempt to enter the Commons may have come at the Totnes election of January 1701. His brother William had initially been proposed by Lord Somers (Sir John*) and the Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*) in opposition to the outgoing Tory Members. William had, however, declined to take the election to a poll, and it may be that following this withdrawal Spencer was suggested as a possible candidate, for a week after the election Bishop Trelawny wrote that he had declined to support Bolton’s candidate as ‘I look on Cowper as a murderer’. However, the Totnes election of January 1701 was not contested and Spencer did not enter the Commons until December 1705, when he was returned for the seat at Bere Alston vacated by his brother’s appointment as lord keeper. As a lawyer, on 10 Jan. 1706 he voiced reservations in the House about the wording of the treason clauses of the regency bill. Warning that it ‘may have some ill consequences to [the] people and the constitution’, he wanted provisos included to require two witnesses and a tighter formula for prosecution for spoken and written words. Five days later he spoke on the bill’s arrangements for summoning Parliaments, but nevertheless concluded ‘for the whole bill’, and was noted as having supported the Court during February’s proceedings upon the ‘place clause’ of the bill. His legal practice thrived, and in June 1706 it was rumoured that he would be made a Queen’s Counsel, but perhaps his brother again barred his promotion, for he had to wait for this honour until after the Hanoverian succession. He was marked as a Whig on two analyses of Parliament in 1708, and on 30 Mar. successfully moved for an address for the accounts of the armed forces to be presented as part of an attempt by the ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whigs’ to bring the troops up to strength, indicating that he followed his brother’s political allegiance to Lord Godolphin (Sidney†). That month he and other lawyers looked over the archbishop of Canterbury’s copies of cathedral statutes before they were presented to the House of Commons in connexion with the cathedrals bill.5

In April 1708 William, now Lord Cowper, wrote requesting Lord Stamford’s continuing support for Spencer at Bere Alston, where he was duly re-elected in May at the general election. On 29 Jan. 1709 he was appointed to prepare a bill for improving the Union by unifying the laws for treason, and, following the failure of this bill, told on 30 Mar. for the committal of a similar measure which had been initiated in the Lords. On 5 Apr. he spoke, as Bishop Nicolson said, on the subject in favour of oyer and terminer. During this session he also supported the naturalization of the Palatines. It was the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell that allowed him to display his lawyer’s eloquence at its best. Despite his brush with the Hertford Quakers, he evidently retained his sympathy for Dissent, and on 13 Dec. 1709 seconded John Dolben’s* motion to take Sacheverell’s sermon into consideration as a libel, being duly appointed the following day to draw up the articles of impeachment. On 22 Dec. he told against granting the doctor bail. In March 1710 he was appointed to the committee to manage the ensuing trial, over which his brother, the lord chancellor, presided, and at which he spoke to the second article which accused the doctor of declaring the toleration to be unreasonable and unwarrantable. Defending the Toleration Act as ‘a legal Indulgence’ he accused Sacheverell of having represented it

as an open violence . . . Mr Cowper was far from saying that sentences ratified in Heaven could be reversed by the power of this world, but he desired to be excused from thinking any of his curses upon persons who enjoyed the toleration, meaning the Doctor’s, were ratified there; and as to any ecclesiastical censure, not ratified there, he thought it downright insolence to say there was no power on earth could reverse it.

He ‘spoke with so fine and deliberate a cadence and so soft and engaging a tone’ that one observer ‘had not time to mind the sense of his speech, only that he maintained that religion had nothing at all to do with the state’. In summing up on 10 Mar. 1710, he again attacked Sacheverell’s pedantic distinction between the legal toleration and a universal toleration, implying that the doctor had invented it since the impeachment, and

the better to enforce what he had said before, in the same elegant way of delivery repeated it, and was very smart upon the whole sermon . . . then pretended to prove the doctor had raised this late mob because this seditious libel (as he all along called the sermon) had produced an actual rebellion; and that the meeting-houses were burnt etc. at the instigation of one at the same time stickling for passive obedience; he said the doctor, for maintaining all schismatics damned, wanted to be sweetened by that gentle spirit of moderation he ridicules in his sermon and that he wanted even Christianity itself . . . and to his reflecting upon men in high stations he said his words were too big and mighty to mean any little subordinate powers.

Cowper duly voted for the impeachment, but his prominence in the prosecution caused him electoral problems at Bere Alston where his brother quarrelled with Lord Stamford, and Cowper was dropped in favour of a moderate Tory. Even before the trial, Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, who had an important electoral interest in the borough, had advised Cowper ‘to get an easy discount of a bill’ owed to one of the voters there who was a servant of Lord Stamford and who had ‘suffered for not complying with his landlord’s folly’, an indication that trouble had been brewing there for some time.6

Cowper was unable to regain his seat before 1715, and although he ‘had a great deal of wit and attempt, [and] understood well his business, [he] had not the good fortune to be born an elder brother’, and his legal career was overshadowed by that of the more illustrious William, whose scruples about nepotism actually counted against Spencer’s appointment as solicitor-general in 1716. Cowper followed his brother into opposition in 1718, and shared his hostility to the South Sea Company, but on the succession of George II was appointed justice of the common pleas. He died on 10 Dec. 1728, though the year is sometimes given in error as 1727. Ironically for a lawyer, he died intestate, and it is therefore difficult to establish how wealthy he had become, though from other sources it is known that he had possessed £4,000 of Bank of England stock in 1710, enough to qualify him as a director. His second wife left £200 for the erection of a funeral monument by Roubillac, so ‘that as long as marble can endure, his memory might be preserved, whom living she so much honoured, so tenderly loved, [and] whose loss she so deeply lamented’.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F25, Sir William Cowper’s commonplace bk., entry for birth date; VCH Herts. Fams. 145.
  • 2. Corp. London RO, Rep. 95, f. 145.
  • 3. J. Aubrey, Surr. [1719], v. 312.
  • 4. Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. ix. 115; Add. 17677 TT, f. 218; State Trials, xiii. 1109–249; CJ, xiv. 35; Post Man, 8–10 June 1699; London Post, 27–29 May 1700; HMC Portland, iii. 606; Panshanger mss D/EP F81, f. 96, William Cowper to wife, 3 Sept. 1701; D/EP F29, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. pp. 67, 71–72, 107.
  • 5. Panshanger mss D/EP F99, f. 1, Somers to [William Cowper], n.d; f. 2, William Cowper to Bolton, n.d.; ff. 4, 7, Bolton to William Cowper, 28 Dec. 1700, n.d.; f. 6, Robert Symons et al. to Bolton, 24 Dec. 1700; D/EP F31, Lady Cowper’s commonplace bk. p. 205; Devon RO, Exeter dioc. archs. Bp. Trelawny to Adn. Cook, 11, 18 Jan. [1701]; Staffs. RO, Paget mss D603/K/3/6, R. Acherley to R. Paget, 13 June 1706; Speck thesis, 221; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 458.
  • 6. Panshanger mss D/EP F100 (unfol.) Cowper to Ld. Stamford, 14 Apr. 1708; D/EP F54, f. 77, Drake to Ld. Cowper, 15 Dec. 1709; Nicolson Diaries, 494; BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 53, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull*, 14 Dec. 1709; Cobbett, vi. 825; Impartial View, 182–3, 214; Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Osborn mss box 21/22, ‘Acct. of trial of Dr. Sacheverell’, ff. 6, 18–19; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 320.
  • 7. D. Manley, Secret Mems. (1709), 227–30; VCH Herts. Fams. 145.