MOLESWORTH, Robert (1656-1725), of Brackenstown, nr. Swords, co. Dublin, and Edlington, nr. Doncaster, Yorks.

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



1695 - 1698
1705 - 17 Jan. 1706
17 Jan. 1706 - 1708
1715 - 1722

Family and Education

b. 7 Sept. 1656, posth. and o. s. of Robert Molesworth, merchant, of Fishamble Street, Dublin by Judith, da. and coh. of John Bysse† (d. 1680), chief baron of exchequer [I] 1660–d. of Brackenstown.  educ. privately at home; Trinity, Dublin 1672, BA 1675; L. Inn 1675.  m. 16 Aug. 1676, Letitia (d. 1730), da. of Richard, 1st Baron Coote of Coloony [I], and sis. of Richard Coote*, 1st Earl of Bellomont [I], 8s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (2 d.v.p.) 5 other ch. d.v.psuc. fa. at birth; cr. Visct. Molesworth of Swords [I] 16 July 1716.1

Offices Held

Envoy extraord. to Denmark 1689–92; PC [I] 1697–Jan. 1714, Oct. 1714–d.; ld. of Trade Dec. 1714–16.2

Freeman, Merchant Venturers’ Co. 1691.3

MP [I] 1695–9, 1703–14.

FRS 1698–1715.4

Freeman, Dublin 1703.5


Although Molesworth was destined to be remembered chiefly in an Irish context as a Whig ‘patriot’ and civic humanist, the patron of the early 18th-century ‘Irish enlightenment’, his father's family had scarcely struck root there before he was born. Robert senior had followed an elder brother Guy, a professional soldier, into Charles I's Irish army, servinig until the 1st Duke of Ormonde's surrender to the parliamentary commissioners in 1647, whereupon he too had accepted the defeat of the Royalist cause and had invested in Parliament's Irish lands ‘adventure’, drawing estates of 2,500 acres in county Meath. In the meantime he had established himself in Dublin's merchant community, going on to profit from contracts awarded by the Commonwealth government. He achieved a shrewd marriage, to the daughter of another Cromwellian time-server, John Bysse, then recorder of Dublin, whose forebears had settled in Ireland a century before, thus making available to the younger Molesworth the more elongated Irish pedigree which iin due course would come to be required to satisfy his refined patriotic sensibilities. Bysse, who survived the flourish under the restored monarchy as a pillar of the Irish judiciary, may well have taken over responsibility for his orphaned grandson's upbringing. If so, his somewhat colourless character allows little to be inferred of his likely influence over Robert's intellectual development, other than perhaps in matters of religion, where after 1660 Bysse displayed a residual sympathy for the deprived Presbyterian clergy. Certainly he must be accounted an improbable source of radical inspiration. What he did most usefully provide was a second substantial inheritance, including a country seat at Brackenstown, outside Dublin, and a strong potential interest in two Irish parliamentary boroughs - Swords (in county Dublin) and Philipstown (in King's county) - to supplement Molesworth's patrimony. Together these estates gave Molesworth an annual landed income estimated at about £2,800 in 1688, a very considerable sum by Irish standards.6

For such an able young man, surprisingly little is known of Molesworth's early life. His single attempt at autobiographical recollection, in a petition to the Whig ministry in 1709 setting forth his great services to his party, went back no further than 1684, when he claimed to have begun a series of annual voyages abroad, ‘always taking Holland in my way’, probably on the pretext of visiting his brother-in-law Richard Coote, then in voluntary exile as an officer in the Dutch army. Supporting evidence exists for a journey in 1685, for which he received an official license. While in Holland

I had the honour to be well received and esteemed by the Prince of Orange, and to have his great design of coming into England communicated to me as early as to any of the noblemen and gentlemen that waited on him there ... I took many occasions of letting the Prince know that I would serve him to the hazard and loss of life and fortune, and he was pleased to believe and trust me.
     Accordingly he sent me into England about six weeks before his intended descent here, to give notice to many of the nobility and gentry to be ready. I came and was believed, and contributed as much to the unanimous rising and appearance of the nation as any gentleman in England.

As a reward, and because he could not have returned to Ireland straightaway even if he had wanted to, he was named in 1689 as envoy to Denmark, a posting for which his experience of continental travel and facility in French seemed to fit him. No evidence has been found to substantiate the claim, advanced in one modern commentary, that he had attached himself to Princess Anne’s circle and owed this appointment to her favour.7

Despite the fact that he accomplished both his immediate task of negotiating the hire of Danish troops for William’s Irish campaign and his long-term objective of restraining Denmark from any offensive alliance with the French, Molesworth’s stay at Copenhagen was unhappy. Anxiety over the course of the war, especially in Ireland where his property had been confiscated by the Jacobites and where there were reports that the Brackenstown estate was being despoiled; periodic shortages of money resulting from the unreliable nature of the English government’s remittances; and poor health, occasioned, he thought, by the severity of the Baltic climate: all these combined to depress and exasperate him. At the same time the political scene in Denmark, and in northern Europe generally, was deeply disillusioning. Everywhere, he observed, corruption and political infirmity enervated the allied cause. What was worse, the self-interest of the Scandinavian kings and German princes led them to prevaricate. ‘The confederates are so slow that I wonder at it’, he wrote in 1690. ‘They must have been eaten up by the French . . . by this time, had not our master’s successful expedition into England rescued them from eternal slavery. They in a manner deserve it who are thus deficient to themselves.’ Without King William

What would become of the liberty of Europe? . . . I see no remedy but that the Emperor and all the allies (as they order their own affairs) must have sat down quietly and submitted to the French yoke, and such conditions as he [Louis XIV] pleased to impose on them.

His most vitriolic denunciations were reserved for the Danes themselves: the fickleness of the Danish court and the influence of a ‘Frenchified’ clique of ministers, who undermined his own endeavours with intrigues and ‘tricks’, made him believe his hosts were all ‘French in their hearts’. It was indeed only to be expected that a man of his sharp tongue and melodramatic temperament, accustomed to wear his libertarian principles on his sleeve, would feel stifled in the atmosphere of a petty absolutism. There were tales of his having wilfully trespassed on a road reserved for the royal carriage, and of his having taken game without licence from a royal park. Complaints of similar lapses from diplomatic discretion reached London, where Molesworth’s conduct had already incurred criticism on administrative grounds, in particular over the defensive alliance he had negotiated in 1690, which King William had refused to sign. Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) held the opinion that Molesworth, ‘tho’ he is very desirous to serve your Majesty, yet is often too warm and passionate’. By January 1692 Molesworth’s frustration was complete. He wrote:

There seems to be a fatality in the demeanour of all those that are and ought to be the enemies of France, which hinders them from seeing and cultivating their own interest . . . I find it to be a very anxious condition to be troubled with a too public spirit, and would fain confine my cares to my own province and my small particular concerns. But ’tis in vain to resist the effects of one’s constellation. I cannot hinder myself from being concerned when things go wrong, tho’ I am convinced of the vanity and idleness of it. I think the only way for me must be to return and hide myself in my own Irish bog and mountain . . . whither whoever brings me the last word of news he shall be my mortal enemy . . . nothing prolongs a blessed life like a tranquillity of mind, a thing enjoyed nowhere in the world so generally as by the honest English yeoman who never heard of Montmellian, Great Warradin, and a hundred other flim-flams which makes the troublesome business of our lives.

He pressed for leave of absence, but although receiving permission in principle almost immediately, was not in fact allowed to set off until the summer. Ostensibly his presence was to be withdrawn ‘for a season’, an arrangement which afforded the Danes the opportunity to work out their dislike of him by withholding the usual gift to a departing diplomat. Once home, it was clear he had returned for good.8

For all his talk of retiring to Ireland, Molesworth showed no desire to cross the Irish Sea. The parliament to be convened in Dublin later in 1692 held no attractions, and he readily ‘gave away’ his interest at Swords and Philipstown. A believer in rigorous repression of the native Catholics, ‘those enemies to the repose of all English Protestants’, he had already formed the opinion that the Williamite government had missed the boat – ‘’tis determined the old brood must continue there’ – and he predicted that the forthcoming Irish parliament would be of short duration. Instead, he sought an official career in England, through patrons secured for him by his brother-in-law Bellomont: principally the Duke of Shrewsbury, but to a lesser extent Robert Harley*, who made a vain effort to recommend him to Liverpool Whigs for a by-election there in 1694. Shrewsbury, assisted by another Worcestershire connexion of Bellomont’s, Lord Keeper Somers (Sir John*), bid strongly in June 1694 for a place for Molesworth on the excise commission, praising his ‘honesty’, ‘zeal’ for King William’s government, love of business, and even his prospects of a seat in the English Parliament, though at the same time Shrewsbury was forced to concede that the Danish episode might well have prejudiced the King against ‘that same active, busy spirit’, always so ‘full of his own projects’. The response, delivered by Lord Sunderland, was that William ‘would not like’ Molesworth, ‘for what he had writ’, and that therefore the recommendation was to be abandoned. What had offended was Molesworth’s Account of Denmark . . . in the Year 1692, a philippic against the Danish monarchy which he himself admitted was written as an instrument of revenge. First published anonymously late in 1693, and sufficiently popular to warrant four more editions in two years, it provoked protests from the Danish envoy; but even more tiresome to the King than the diplomatic embarrassments were the repercussions in domestic politics, where the Account was interpreted and taken up by opponents of the Court as a warning against incipient absolutist tendencies in England, and was indeed cited as such in the Commons’ debates in January 1694 on William’s use of the royal veto. Although Molesworth seems not to have intended any slight on William himself, the enthusiasm with which he pursued his contractarian concept of government, his idealization of the rough-hewn virtue of the Roman republican tyrannicides, and above all his condemnation of clerical exponents of divine right, led him to postulate danger to the English constitution from the contagious ‘disease’ of slavery. The carriers would be the clergy. Protestant ‘priestcraft’ being in essence no different from popery, it followed that the priests, with their high-flying political theories and their monopoly over education, would, unless checked, prove willing and effective instruments of arbitrary rule. That these arguments were close to the ideas of Algernon Sidney† (another unhappy ambassador to Denmark), whom Molesworth is said to have admired, and whose praise for the Dutch republic he echoed, may have been an additional source of irritation to the King.9

Persisting in his hopes of office, partly to gratify what was, in spite of his disclaimers, a powerful personal ambition, and partly in order to repair the losses to his fortune incurred during the Irish troubles, which he alleged had deprived him of over a third of his former annual income, Molesworth now chose a parliamentary route. Before the next general election in England he grasped the chance to return to the new Irish parliament summoned by the Whig lord deputy, Lord Capell (Hon. Sir Henry Capel*). He went armed with a fulsome recommendation from Shrewsbury, who described him as one ‘ill used by some of the late ministers for being too stiff to that principle which you and I have been ready to own’, and who suggested him for a place on the Irish privy council, and then for a vacancy on the revenue commission, should Molesworth behave ‘as I have reason to hope he will’. Despite his being a parliamentary novice, his reputation was such that he was canvassed, albeit unsuccessfully, as a candidate for the speakership and when the session opened he rapidly rose to prominence. But although he supported the lord deputy’s administration, and entered into factional politics on the Whig side to the extent of telling in favour of the impeachment of the Tory lord chancellor of Ireland Sir Charles Porter*, he proved in other respects a disappointment and even something of a thorn in Capell’s flesh. A clumsy intervention on the delicate issue of the Irish house of commons’ alleged ‘sole right’ to initiate money bills, in tactless justification of a claim Capell wished to be quietly suppressed, ‘seems to have pleased nobody, neither as to the timing [of] his speech nor the contents of it’. As Capell reported to Shrewsbury: ‘I doubt it may increase the weight he lies under, and prevent . . . my readiness to concur with your grace in his service.’ Then Molesworth rashly ‘engaged himself’ in a scheme promoted by a mischief-making oppositionist ‘for taking away the right of the crown to name judges for civil bills and placing it in the freeholders of the county’. Capell wrote again: ‘I doubt, if Mr Molesworth goes on this way, it will not be in our power to serve him.’ His most significant achievement was as chairman of the committee on the state of the nation, and here too, as well as resolutions calling for anti-Catholic penal legislation and censuring Capell’s predecessors (especially Porter) for having encouraged papists, there was an embarrassing outburst of Country sentiment in the declaration that ‘the long intermission of parliaments in this kingdom has been one principal cause of the many grievances this nation has hitherto lain under’.10

This Irish apprenticeship prefigured Molesworth’s parliamentary career. Returning to England in October 1695 he obtained a seat in the Westminster Parliament through the influence of his cousin Sir John Molesworth, 2nd Bt.*, at Camelford, and voted consistently on Country Whig lines for the ministry and for his party except in questions involving the independence of Members or the liberty of the subject. Support for ministerial monetary policy was indeed to be a hallmark of Molesworth’s contribution to his first Parliament. He had already signalled his loyalty on this issue the previous year in becoming one of the founding subscribers to the Bank of England. Forecast as likely to support the Court on 31 Jan. 1696 in the divisions over the proposed council of trade, he voted with the opposition on the first resolution against permitting Members of Parliament to serve on the council, but with the Court side on a subsequent resolution to impose an abjuration oath on councillors, being accompanied on both occasions by his fellow philosophic radical Lord Ashley (Anthony*), with whom, in his early parliamentary career, he seems to have run in tandem. Probably also in January he gave another vote against administration on the treason trials bill, and he was named to the committee on 4 Feb. on another electoral reform measure, this time to impose a landed qualification on Members, even though, as he later recalled, ‘I had not a foot of land [in England] . . . myself’. On the other hand, not only did he take the Association promptly, he was listed as having voted in March in favour of fixing the price of guineas at 22s. and on 26 Mar. told for the clause setting this value, which was to be added to the bill to encourage the bringing in of plate to the Mint. This combination of Court service and the exercising of his libertarian conscience on points of principle made him an obvious choice for the Whig slate in the ballot in February for commissioners of accounts, but he polled the lowest vote of any of the principal candidates. Other legislative activity in which he was involved, in what was a particularly busy first session, included the Quakers’ affirmation bill, for which he was twice a teller, on 10 and 13 Mar., and a bill to encourage linen manufacture in Ireland, which he reported from committee on 20 Apr. and carried up to the Lords the following day. His remaining tellerships occurred on 11 Mar., in favour of an amendment to the Address, to appropriate part of the supply to the relief of distressed French Protestants, and on 23 Apr. against the bill to enforce the laws against unlicensed marriages, and for registering the births of children, a reflection no doubt of his hostility to the claims to authority of the Established Church.11

A teller on 24 Nov. 1696 with the Court Whig Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt., against a Tory amendment to the recoinage bill, Molesworth dutifully cast his vote the following day in favour of the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, and later in the session, on 5 Feb. 1697, he told for the Court in favour of going into the committee of ways and means. He still could not be prevented from voting his own way on matters which were of prime concern to him. For example, he told on 15 Jan. 1697 against adjourning consideration of the bill against East Indian cloth imports, a measure which would presumably have benefited, even if in a small way, the Irish woollen industry, and, more significantly, on 26 Jan., he joined Lord Ashley in supporting the tack of a renewed attempt to impose a landed qualification for Members onto the capitation tax bill. None the less Shrewsbury, in renewing a recommendation of Molesworth to official favour, considered that he had ‘behaved himself . . . well’ in this session and by assisting administration had laid ‘a foundation to press the King on his account’. In the summer Molesworth resumed his seat in the Irish parliament, intending to enhance his credit at court still further by constructive support for the ministry of Lord Galway and Lord Winchester (Charles Powlett I*). There he became more closely acquainted with the new lord chancellor of Ireland, John Methuen*, with whom he formed a political friendship based on a common adherence to radical Whiggism and a common interest in the writings of the new ‘Commonwealthmen’, to whom Molesworth’s Account of Denmark had been an inspiration. Like Methuen, Molesworth was henceforth numbered in the coterie of followers of Lord Sunderland. To suggest, however, that Methuen recruited him into Sunderland’s small parliamentary affinity, as one modern commentator has done, is inconsistent with the evidence, for as early as the beginning of July 1697 Sunderland, who three years before had been instrumental in blocking Molesworth’s appointment as an excise commissioner, was already endorsing a recommendation from Lord Galway that Molesworth be inserted into the Irish privy council. On the contrary, it seems more probable that the establishment of a political partnership with Methuen was facilitated by a prior relationship with Sunderland. Whatever the precise chronology, Molesworth was made an Irish privy councillor in August 1697, and when the Dublin parliament met, he was, on Methuen’s initiative, placed in the chair of the committee of privileges and elections. Among his contributions to the work of the Whig administration was the drafting of a bill for the ‘encouragement of Protestant strangers’ into Ireland, a favourite project of his for the strengthening of the Protestant interest through further plantation. This time there were no indiscretions, although on one occasion Methuen was obliged to intervene to dissuade him from raising the question of a habeas corpus bill. When he returned to England in the winter he was being talked of as a likely recipient of an Irish peerage, in order to provide a much-needed reinforcement to the Whig interest in the Irish house of lords.12

The 1697–8 session proved crucial for Molesworth, as his inability or unwillingness to avoid controversy effectively dished whatever chances remained to him of advancement under the Junto administration. Cause and effect are not easy to distinguish, however, and it may be that the ministers’ failure to provide for him provoked the very outbursts which guaranteed his continued exclusion from office. He began with an uncharacteristic association with the ‘moral reform’ lobby, being appointed on 9 Feb. to draw up an address against immorality and ‘profaneness’, the explanation for which may again be that he had refrained from prior opposition in order to work in committee against any recommendations tending to the suppression of freedom of speech. Subsequently he was twice a teller (on 24 and 30 Mar. 1698) against the blasphemy bill. Even more important to him, and indeed the one issue above all others on which he could not remain silent, was the danger to liberty posed by a standing army. This had been a principal theme of his Account of Denmark, which had argued that the continuance of arbitrary government in that country was ensured by the enfeeblement of the ancient nobility, the absence of any martial spirit among the common people (in contrast to the ‘yeomanry’ of England) and the existence of a standing army composed mainly of foreign mercenaries. Thus the debate of 8 Jan. 1698 on a Court-inspired motion for an instruction to the committee of supply to add estimates for ‘guards and garrisons’, the outcome of which would have been to increase significantly the size of military forces at the King’s disposal, threw down a challenge he could not shirk. In his own words, he ‘speeched it against a standing army’. His subsequent claim to have been influenced during the debate by the course of the arguments put forward against the motion seems implausible. A second irresistible temptation was offered on 11 Feb. by a committee report on the subsidy payable to Denmark by the terms of the 1696 treaty. Not surprisingly, Molesworth ‘took this occasion to show his resentment at what dissatisfied him in Denmark, but with an air so unbecoming one who had borne a public character, that showed rather a waspishness than gave any force to his arguments’. Old criticisms first aired in the Account were rehearsed, and particular stress was laid on the accusations that the Danes were Jacobite in their sympathies, something his private correspondence shows he had persuaded himself to believe in his envoy’s days. ‘Molesworth behaves himself with much heat against the King’s affairs’, complained Methuen, and it may have been as a result of remonstrations from Methuen and Sunderland that some attempt was made to regain lost ground: on 22 Feb. Molesworth voted with Methuen in favour of the bill of pains and penalties against Charles Duncombe*, and on 27 Apr. he told in favour of passing the bill to prevent the counterfeiting and clipping of coin. Another tellership, on 21 Jan. 1698, against an amendment to a general naturalization bill, might be regarded in the same light as an instance of support for administration, and indeed he later paraded his votes for these measures as contributions to the Whig party cause, but the nature of the amendment, designed to deprive from the benefit of the bill anyone subsequently removing from England, suggests that his interest was less ministerial than specifically Irish. A speech on 12 Feb. was certainly calculated in defence of his country’s interests as much as his party’s: a denunciation of the west country Tory lobby’s Irish woollens bill. Despite his outspokenness on the sensitive questions of the army establishment and the Danish alliance, he was still reckoned a Court party man in one retrospective analysis of the House, and until the autumn seems still to have considered himself a candidate for office, requesting at one point that he might be sent as ambassador to Constantinople. But he suffered the successive hammer-blows of first losing his parliamentary seat, after a fiasco at Camelford which he blamed on his cousin’s negligence, and then seeing both his patrons, Shrewsbury and Sunderland, edged ‘out of business’, as he put it, leaving him likewise ‘out of the rank of hopeful pretenders’.13

In January 1699 Molesworth set sail for Ireland. Taking leave of the King, ‘I found him in a disposition of doing something for an early appearer and great sufferer for his interests, and he promised me he would’, though Molesworth himself made no particular request. He was quite dispirited:

I own Ireland will be my pis aller. I shall perfectly degenerate in that soil, tho’ I could never come to bear fruit in any way. But the vast, heavy charge, which grows on me every day, calls upon me now, as the necessities of old maids does upon them. Any good lord, any! I am sure of one thing, that I shall never disoblige again, if keeping out of an English House of Commons be the way to avoid so doing.

As ever, the exact state of Molesworth’s financial health is hard to determine: he was in the habit of pleading poverty and exaggerating his troubles (complaining, for example, that he was £20,000 worse off for his self-proclaimed heroism at the Revolution), yet at the same time his passion for developing and landscaping his estates was never stinted, and between 1698 and 1700 he found the resources to purchase the manor of Edlington in south Yorkshire. Always looming, however, was the need to make provision in various ways for his large family. The acquisition of Edlington, which at the time he clearly intended to make his principal seat, was a political as well as an economic decision, giving him the base in England that he had previously lacked. His search for patrons continued. In the second general election of 1701 Sunderland tried unsuccessfully to persuade the north Midlands borough magnate, the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†), to return Molesworth on his interest, as a man of sound Whig principles and inveterate hatred for the French. Molesworth, too, sought Newcastle’s goodwill. Meanwhile, frustration turned into bitterness at the ‘ingratitude’ shown him by the great men of his party, who required ‘slaves’ to themselves rather than men of ‘independent’ virtue. For companionship, he was thrown back on a clique of cronies from the Royal Society, who were themselves for the most part landowners in Yorkshire. Among these were numbered not only Whigs, like Sidney Wortley Montagu*, but also fiery Tories like Sir Godfrey Copley, 2nd Bt.*, and in their society Molesworth himself became even more sulphurous on the subject of the Junto, ‘our false brethren and apostate Whigs’. In April 1701, for example, he wrote to Copley in support of the projected impeachments:

I am in hopes when rogues come to be punished that our poor nation may some time or other exert its ancient virtue, which was never so necessary as now, when we are to dispute for our liberty and that of the whole world. But indeed I think that bare putting evil ministers out of councils or places (if you proceed even so far) after they have grown fat with the public treasure, and letting them live with riches and affluence with their ill-gotten goods, is not enough. What statesman of fortune (or rather of no fortune, as such they were with whom you now contend) will not prove a villain till he has feathered his nest if he may hope to keep his honours and ill-gotten goods and compound at last for being turned out of play? ’Twas not for nothing that my Lords Somers and Halifax [Charles Montagu*] took their progress through the corporations last summer, and if you will but take the pains to inquire after the preamble of my Lord Halifax’s patent I believe both you and Jack [John Grobham] Howe* must agree with me that since the Creation there never was anything so insolent, arrogant and assuming; and highly dishonourable to Parliaments. It deserves in my opinion an impeachment itself, for nobody (if you will believe that preamble), nor the two Houses joined, did anything considerable to save the nation but his lordship. I saw it but t’other day, and it turned my stomach so terribly I cannot think on it with patience . . . I would fain have that upstart humbled to a degree as might prove an example to all succeeding ages, and I am sure one cannot do the nation a greater justice than by doing it . . . I am perfectly of Jack Howe’s opinion as to peace or war, both of which were equally dangerous under such cormorants as our last ministry.

So deep did his resentment run that he did not falter in his enthusiasm for the Tory opposition even though he was himself a loser, in a small way, from one of its works, the resumption of Irish forfeited estates. He had paid £730 for the sequestrated lands of Henry Luttrell, and his petition to the Commons on 20 Feb. 1702 for relief from the effects of the Resumption Act was summarily rejected.14

Deliverance from the wilderness came by an unexpected hand. In November 1702 Molesworth reported to his wife that he had been trying to pay a visit to Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†), having heard that ‘he has a great respect for me and designs me well, so that I think I should omit my duty to my family and some reasonable hopes if I abandoned . . . my design of seeing him’. There was some embarrassment in this solicitation, for, as he later admitted to the treasurer, he was ‘scarce known to you but by disservices . . . I remember the time when I wished . . . ill to your lordship and perhaps showed that I did’. But Godolphin forgave, or forgot, and to Molesworth’s immense relief he found himself taken up at last by one who could materially assist him, and who eventually began to place his sons on the ladder of preferment. His gratitude was almost embarrassingly effusive: Godolphin had, he said, rescued him from degradation:

I had . . . no party to rely on, nor any hopes of repairing my fortune by honest means, so that I even used myself as ill as my false friends had done, and abandoned my person and interests to a degree unbecoming a man of courage who had seen something of the world.

Now he would be ‘a true servant’ to this ‘potent benefactor’. The Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) seems to have presented a more forbidding aspect, but Molesworth applied himself to the Duke and received in return an army commission for his son Richard, who indeed became a favourite of the captain-general and was to distinguish himself as Marlborough’s aide-de-camp at Ramillies. Indicative of a renewed optimism was Molesworth’s decision to focus his interests in England again, after a brief reappearance in the Irish parliament in 1703, where he behaved as a sturdy Whig critic of the Tory viceroy, the 2nd Duke of Ormond, and supported ‘Country party’ agitation for a union with England as one answer to what forward ‘patriots’ saw as the emasculation of their own legislature. His conduct in Dublin showed that he had not sold his conscience, something that gave ministerial Whigs cause for concern. They were said to be hoping he would once more be posted abroad, for ‘they have tried him upon the place bill and [he] will be always thought a silly fellow by pretending to more honesty than his betters’. To reconcile his principles with attachment to the Court was not easy, but he was not the only ‘Commonwealthman’ to do so, some of them, like Molesworth himself and Charles Davenant*, motivated by the need for access to ministerial patronage; others, like his erstwhile parliamentary comrade Lord Ashley (now Earl of Shaftesbury), still largely independent. One historian has suggested that such men were able to persuade themselves that the Country campaigns of 1697–1701 had effectively purged the body politic and restored balance to the constitution, so that the threat to liberty had receded and the nation could unite under a genuinely ‘patriotic’ government. An alternative explanation is that Marlborough’s triumphs over the French gave the ministry an heroic dimension, thus enhancing its attractiveness to these proponents of national virtue. For all his suspicions of a standing army, Molesworth shared with other classical republicans an ambivalent attitude towards military glory won in a worthy cause, idealizing King William as a commander and lauding his achievement in restoring England to its former status in the forefront of European politics. On Marlborough and Godolphin, therefore, who achieved even greater continental victories, was lavished even more inflated praise.15

In the 1705 general election Molesworth was returned at Lostwithiel, partly through his cousin’s influence and partly through Godolphin’s intercession with the other local patrons, the Robartes family. By way of insurance, Molesworth also stood on the Duke of Newcastle’s interest at East Retford, a sensible precaution, even if at the poll itself this second candidature proved unsuccessful, for on the very day that he was turned out of the Lostwithiel seat on petition, 17 Jan. 1706, a petition of his own against the East Retford return was accepted by the House, so that his parliamentary service was in practice uninterrupted. His original election had been reckoned by the 3rd Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) as a gain for the Whigs, an assessment borne out on 25 Oct. 1705, when he voted for the Court candidate in the division on the Speaker. On 10 Nov. he told for the Whig side on a motion to refer to the committee a petition on the Cheshire election. Predictably, he joined the ‘whimsical’ Whig rebellion over the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill, but, doubtless for fear of alienating the treasurer on what was at that time a peculiarly delicate issue, voted for the Court in the crucial division on the clause on 18 Feb. 1706. This unusual display of tact helped to earn the appointment of his eldest son John in May to a commissionership in the stamp office. After a spell of illness in the summer, he was up early enough in the next session to be nominated on 3 Dec. 1706 to the committee to draft the Address. He told four times in this session, once, on 27 Mar. 1707, identifiably in the interest of the Court party, when he and Lord Coningsby (Thomas*) told in favour of an instruction to the committee on the salt duty bill. On the other occasions he opposed the tithes bill (1 Mar.), an issue that was always likely to spark his anticlerical prejudices; a private bill for the relief of Elizabeth Wandesford and Elizabeth Freke, fellow sufferers from the effects of the resumption of Irish forfeited estates (29 Mar.); and an address to the Queen on the Newfoundland trade (5 Apr.). In the winter of 1707–8 he drew ever closer to Godolphin, and was recognized as one of the ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whigs’ who adhered to the ministry when Tories and Junto joined to attack it. A particular service he performed for his patron was to act as intermediary with Lord Shaftesbury, whom Godolphin was seeking to draw into his Court scheme. After years of silence Molesworth resumed contact with his erstwhile friend through Shaftesbury’s protégé, Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt.*; attended a series of meetings between Cropley and Godolphin; relayed messages and reassurances; and reopened his own long-lapsed correspondence with Shaftesbury, to praise Godolphin and denounce the Junto:

The gentlemen who call themselves Whigs, I mean the vile adepts of the Kit Cat and Junto, have changed their principles so often upon the score of dominion that I doubt not your lordship will see when you come to town how little a free nation ought to rely upon them, and if a scheme could be made of laying the foundation of our future happiness on a set who have not yet bowed their knees to the Baals of either extreme ’twould be the best thing that could happen to Great Britain.

At one point, in order to demonstrate how far the lord treasurer differed from the men of party, Molesworth told Godolphin in Cropley’s hearing that ‘he had voted yesterday against him, “for”, said he, “I was for confounding your Scots privy council”. My lord replied, “see if I take it ill or no”.’ This gave Godolphin the chance to add, ‘’tis gentlemen who are true to their principles and of such integrity as to do of themselves what they think well of that I most esteem’. The Journals, however, tell a slightly different story: Molesworth was a member of the committee of 4 Mar. to draw up an address to the Queen on the projected Jacobite invasion, and twice acted as a teller on the Court side, on 8 Mar., against a Tory amendment to a resolution from ways and means, and on 22 Mar., against giving a second reading to the woollen and worsted yarn duty bill. He had also reported on 6 Feb. from the committee examining the procedure for notifying parties concerned with Irish estate bills; had been appointed on 12 Feb. to carry to the Lords a bill to pay the arrears due to surgeons who had served during the Irish campaign of the 1690s; told on 19 Feb. in favour of referring to a committee a petition of Sir Thomas Cookes Winford, 2nd Bt.*, for a bill to settle his uncle’s bequest to Worcester College, Oxford; and was a teller once more, on 27 Mar., in defence of the Irish linen industry, when he opposed a clause in the ‘two-thirds subsidies’ bill to exempt European linens from duty. Two parliamentary lists from 1708 classified him as a Whig, but he had shown in this session that his principal political loyalty was to the treasurer personally, and at the next general election he paid the price of setting himself above party faction, when he lost his seat at Retford and the Tory Robartes interest ignored Godolphin’s pleas on his behalf at Lostwithiel.16

The increasing Whig complexion of the ministry from 1708 onwards made life difficult for Molesworth. There was one manful attempt to recover lost ground with the Junto, but his letter of appeal to Lord Sunderland in 1709 turned into a lengthy litany of complaint against the injustice of his treatment, and a protestation of his devotion to principle: its peevish tone could not have been expected to succeed. Otherwise his hopes for himself and his children lay entirely with Godolphin and Marlborough, whose levees he attended and whose favour he courted however he could. Yet although desperation began to creep into his appeals, as when he wrote that ‘most people’ considered him, because he was no longer in Parliament, to be ‘inutile lignum, fitter to make a bench of than to sit upon one’, he did not desert the lord treasurer, whose interest he said he had ‘espoused . . . for life . . . upon the same conditions that one takes a wife’. ‘Never shall any man ever persuade me’, he wrote to Shaftesbury in November 1709,

that the public minister who fixes a liberty of conscience, who unites two discording nations, who promotes public registers, procures general naturalizations, encourages the increase of people, the navigation of rivers, manages the public treasure so well, restores lost credit to a miracle, loves liberty . . . provides for all the war in its distant parts . . . lives frugally but not covetously, gives not into the designs of priestcraft of any kind, can do these through any bad intention or be anything like a Tory.

Eventually he received some relief in the form of appointments for his offspring: a diplomatic posting to Tuscany for John in May 1710, and a regiment for Richard a month later. But different clouds now threatened his horizons. The Sacheverell furore stimulated to a new pitch his fears of arbitrary monarchy and the invasion of liberty and property, and the ensuing ministerial coup and political upheaval at the general election of 1710, in which to his disgust Newcastle ‘preferred two Junto men to his old friend’ and left him still without a seat, effectively destroyed his opportunities of ministerial patronage. Without much hope he applied to Robert Harley, on the foundation of their first acquaintance in politics, and in the professed belief that Harley, Shrewsbury and ‘several others’ of his old friends, now in power, must like himself be still true to their former principles: ‘I cannot be persuaded that you . . . after having rescued the nation from the tyranny of one set of men can be for subjecting it to another of priests.’ Strenuous efforts to secure the payment of his sons’ various official salaries, all heavily in arrears, foundered on Harley’s procrastination. From despair and isolation came first a powerful restatement of his political beliefs as a ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘old’ Whig, originally published in 1711 as a preface to a translation of Hotman’s Franco-Gallia, in which he defended the right of resistance, attacked standing armies and reiterated the need for annual parliaments and a landed qualification for MPs, and second his reinvolvement in practical politics in defence of the Whig cause. He had retained his seat in the Irish parliament and went over to attend its sitting in the autumn of 1711, taking a firm stand against what he saw as the arbitrary practices of the viceroy, Ormond, and more particularly of the lord chancellor, Sir Constantine Phipps. In characteristic over-reaction, he fled Ireland as soon as the session ended, to escape the vengeance of ‘the government and informers’, as he put it, only returning again when the next parliament assembled, to which he had been elected in absentia. He confessed to his wife that he was inclined to ‘think too much of the times and the present situation of affairs’, but Tory triumphalism and the wreck of his own fortunes, symbolized by the death of his ‘best friend’ Lord Godolphin, made him fear the worst: there was, he wrote, ‘a most dismal cloud hanging over our heads, which, when it breaks, will sweep away multitudes’. In the Irish parliament of November–December 1713, and at meetings of the Irish privy council, he was a vociferous critic of Lord Chancellor Phipps, and a resolute defender of Whig interests, even to the embarrassment of his former patron Shrewsbury, Ormond’s successor as lord lieutenant, whom Harley had despatched to Dublin to pursue a moderate policy and to achieve if possible a compromise between the warring parties. The climax came when Molesworth gave way to temptation and offered a mordant observation on the arrival in the viceregal presence chamber in Dublin Castle of a deputation from the lower house of the Irish convocation. He then found himself the object of protests from convocation itself and from the Irish house of lords, and of an informal campaign by Harley’s Irish advisers to have him deprived of his privy council seat, to which the first minister acceded as soon as parliament in Dublin was prorogued.17

Molesworth’s courageous stand in the Irish parliament against the Tory administration, his status as a minor ‘martyr’, and the close connexions he had recently re-established with the leading Irish Whigs proved sufficient to prevail with George I’s Whig ministers in London to forget past differences and give him a place on the Board of Trade, and also to provide for his sons, although not until he had been provoked to harangue Sunderland once more with complaints that Hanoverian Tories were being preferred while his family was used as ‘cruelly’ by his own party as ever it had been by the previous ministry. By 1718 he was in opposition again, and what was now a heightened sensitivity to Irish constitutional grievances kept him in estrangement from administration: he spoke powerfully in both the Irish and British parliaments against the subordination of the Irish legislature, denounced the declaratory bill of 1719/20, and procured a pamphlet against it from the pen of his fellow countryman John Toland. ‘My truest patron’ was how Toland described him, even if Molesworth was more generous with advice and encouragement than with cash. Subsequently his personal losses in the South Sea Bubble sharpened the edge of his criticism of the ministers, and returned his attention to the subject of ‘corruption’.18

Leaving the Westminster Parliament in 1722, Molesworth devoted his retirement to the architectural and horticultural pursuits which had always been an expression of his passion for ‘improvement’. His last effort at authorship, the Considerations for Promoting Agriculture (1723), blended this theme with political objectives to produce a more practical brand of Irish patriotism. So far had his understanding of his role as an Anglo-Irish landowner matured since the 1690s, when he had regarded himself as a colonial Englishman and had advocated extensive Protestant immigration, that he now recognized some community of interest even with the ‘popish natives’, who might be brought to civility and civic virtue by economic reconstruction and Protestant example, and in return Swift dedicated to him the fifth of the Drapier’s Letters as a progenitor of economic patriotism. Molesworth died at Brackenstown early in the morning of 23 May 1725, and was buried nearby at Swords, even though he had in his will requested interment at Edlington ‘without pomp or escutcheons’, but nevertheless in a specially constructed vault ‘in the chapel of the lord of the manor’. He left not only the country estates in England and Ireland (bearing a charge of over £5,000 in legacies to his younger sons), but considerable urban property in Dublin, which he had been active in developing. There were two small bequests to the Established Church in Ireland, including £50 towards the erection of a church at Philipstown. They probably reflected his appreciation of the political dividends to be gained in Ireland from the promotion of state Protestantism, rather than any weakening in his lifelong antipathy to the clergy.19

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. J. T. Gilbert, Hist. Dublin, i. 58; F. E. Ball, Judges in Ire. (1927), i. 344; DNB; Lodge, Peerage of Ire. (1754), iii. 208–10; Add. 61639, f. 4.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1697, p. 284; 1702–3, p. 144; Hayton thesis, 250; SP63/362/10; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 395; xxx. 471.
  • 3. Rutland mss at Belvoir Castle, Letters and Pprs. 20, list of freemen of Merchant Venturers’ Co.
  • 4. M. W. Hunter, R. Soc. and Fellows, 154.
  • 5. Cal. Ancient Recs. Dublin ed. Gilbert, vi. 297.
  • 6. C. Robbins, 18th-Cent. Commonwealthman, 91-98, 147; 18th-Cent. Ire. ii. 97-102; iii. 123-4; Lodge, 206-7; K. S. Bottigheimer, Eng. Money and Irish Land, 207; HMC 2nd Rep. 246; HMC Var. viii. 230; T. C. Barnard, Cromwellian Ire. 88.
  • 7. Add. 61639, f. 3; CSP Dom. 1685, p. 441; Correspondentie ed. Japikse, ser. 1, ii. 83; Danish Force in Ire. ed. Danaher and Simms (Irish Mss Commn.), 6.
  • 8. Danish Force in Ire. 10–11; J. G. Simms, Jacobite Ire. 136; Add. 61639, ff. 3–4, 83–84; 34095, ff. 78, 94, 134, 177, 220, 268, 299, 352, 368; 36662, ff. 15–16, 129, 153, 199, 263–4, 290, 310–11, 364, 380; 37407, f. 6; 33057, f. 312; HMC Var. viii. 215–16; [W. King] Animadversions on a Pretended Acct. of Denmark (1694), preface; HMC Finch, ii. 304, 399; HMC Portland, iii. 496.
  • 9. Add. 36662, ff. 193, 239–40; HMC Var. viii. 217; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 127, 140, 216; HMC Portland, viii. 43; CSP Dom. 1694–5, pp. 180, 182–3; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1238, Sunderland to Portland, 13 July 1694; J. P. Kenyon, Sunderland, 265; [R. Molesworth] Acct. of Denmark . . . (1694), esp. preface and pp. 75, 223, 258; L. G. Schwoerer, No Standing Armies!, 174; Sloane 3828, ff. 172–5; DNB; J. Scott, Algernon Sidney and Restoration Crisis, 246; Biog. Dict. Brit. Radicals in 17th Cent. ed. Greaves and Zaller, ii. 243.
  • 10. Add. 61639, f. 4; 28879, f. 98; HMC Var. viii. 217; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 97, 211, 222–3, 225; Shrewsbury Corresp. 102; CJ Ire. ii. 676, 682, 706.
  • 11. CJ Ire. ii. 711; CSP Dom. 1694–5, pp. 182–3; HMC Var. viii. 217; DZA, Bonet despatch 6/16 July 1694; Horwitz, 165; B. Rand, Shaftesbury, 392; Add. 61639, f. 4; HMC Kenyon, 399.
  • 12. Past and Present, 128, p. 70; Horwitz, 189, 216; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 518, 534, 567; J. Duke-Evans, ‘Pol. Theory and Practice of Eng. Commonwealthsmen 1695–1725’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1980), 25; Schwoerer, 174–5; Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1262, Sunderland to Portland, 9 July [1697]; CSP Dom. 1697, pp. 259, 272, 275, 284, 529; HMC Downshire, i. 758.
  • 13. Acct. of Denmark, preface and pp. 78, 86, 94, 267–8; Horwitz, 229; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 23, 83; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/77, James Vernon I* to Shrewsbury, 8 Jan. 1697[–8]; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 9, 18–19; Add. 36662, f. 380; 61653, f. 23; 61639, f. 4; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Copley mss, Molesworth to Copley, 25 Aug. 1698; HMC Var. viii. 219.
  • 14. CSP Dom. 1699, p. 36; HMC Var. viii. 219, 221, 224–5, 228–30; HMC Portland, ii. 180–1; Sheffield Archs. Copley mss CD473, f. 4, Molesworth to Copley, 23 May 1695; CD75, Copley’s marr. settlement, 30 May 1700; Thoresby Letters (Thoresby Soc. xxi), 146–7, 175; Thoresby Diary ed. Hunter, i. 373, 413–14, 459; ii. 6; Thoresby Letters ed. Hunter, i. 443–5; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Copley mss, Molesworth to Copley, 10 Nov. 1698, 29 Jan., 7 Mar. 1699, 19 Feb., 29 Mar., 19 Apr. 1701; CJ, xiii. 394, 751.
  • 15. HMC Var. viii. 227, 229–31, 233, 237; Add. 61118, ff. 83–84; 34095, ff. 78, 333; Univ. of Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Methuen–Simpson corresp. C163, Sir William Simpson to John Methuen, 18 Jan. 1703–4, 27 Mar., 17 July 1705; G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Q. Anne, ii. 131; HMC Portland, iv. 310; CSP Dom. 1703–4, p. 150; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1702–7, p. 195; Duke-Evans, 89–92; Acct. of Denmark, preface.
  • 16. Methuen–Simpson corresp. C163, Simpson to Methuen, 5 June 1705, 15 Jan. 1706; HMC Var. viii. 233–4; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 585; Speck thesis, 190–4; Rand, 383–5, 389–93; PRO, 30/24/20/342–6, 352–7; 30/24/21/17–18, 341–2; 30/24/22/4/292, 307; HMC Portland, iii. 204; iv. 485.
  • 17. HMC Var. viii. 240–2, 244, 254–6, 259–65; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1 (1881), 44; Wentworth Pprs. 87; Add. 61118, ff. 111–12, 116–20; 61639, ff. 3–4; 61291, ff. 179–82; 60583, Joshua Dawson to Edward Southwell*, 18 Dec. 1713; 47087, f. 45; 70266–7, list of Whig PCs [I], [1713]; PRO 30/24/21/101; Camb. Univ. Lib. Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss 610, Molesworth to Marlborough, 9 June 1710; 618, Adam de Cardonnel* to Robert Walpole II*, 26 June 1710; HMC Portland, iv. 612–13; v. 82, 113, 151, 371; R. Molesworth, Principles of a Real Whig . . . (1775); Hayton thesis, 280, 334; Analecta Hibernica, xxx. 111, 115–16, 131; C. S. King, A Great Abp. of Dublin, 163–4, 168–9; HMC 2nd Rep. 246; J. G. Simms, War and Pol. in Ire. 278–80; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, ii. 4–5; Boyer, Pol. State, v. 345–7.
  • 18. Boyer, vii. 33–35; Add. 61639, ff. 76, 120–1; 4465, ff. 21, 27; Party and Management. ed. C. Jones, 51; HMC Stuart, v. 187; vii. 570, 574; HMC Portland, v. 570; Steele Corresp. 339; HMC 7th Rep. 683; F. G. James, Ire. in Empire 1688–1770, p. 109; Parl. Pol. and People ed. O’Brien, 17, 19–20, 26; HMC Var. viii. 283–5; Simms, War and Pol. in Ire. 45.
  • 19. H. M. Colvin, Biog. Dict. Brit. Architects, 324–5; R. Loeber, Biog. Dict. Architects in Ire. 54–55; M. Craig, Dublin 1660–1860, pp. 106–8; Swift Works ed. Davis, x. 81–94; An Elegy on . . . Robert, Lord Visct. Molesworth . . . [1725]; PCC 239 Plymouth.