ROWNEY, Thomas (1668-1727), of St. Giles, Oxford

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 - 1722

Family and Education

bap. 31 Apr. 1668, o. surv. s. of Thomas Rowney, attorney, of St. Giles by his 2nd w. Catherine (d. 1705), da. of one Bateman.  educ. Shilton, Oxon. (Samuel Birch); St. John’s, Oxf. 1684; I. Temple 1686, called 1694.  m. lic. 27 May 1691, Elizabeth (d. 1730), da. of Edward Noel of St. Clement Danes, Mdx., 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da.  suc. fa. 1694.1

Offices Held

Sheriff, Oxon. 1691–2.

Freeman and bailiff, Oxford 1695; barge commr. Oxford 1717.2


For most of his adult life Rowney was a prominent and much-respected figure in Oxford. His position in the borough benefited substantially from his acquaintance with senior Tory politicians and university dons. Although the owner of much landed property outside Oxford, he seems to have preferred to spend most of his time within the city, where his house, extensively rebuilt and finished in 1702, was one of the finest and where, in consequence, he was more accessible to his electorate than other gentlemen who over the years shared the city’s parliamentary representation with him. The city was proud of his record as an active parliamentarian, and after his death the Oxford antiquary Thomas Hearne wrote that ‘he constantly attended in the Parliament house’. Another university acquaintance, Dr William Stratford of Christ Church, called him ‘the senator’. Rowney’s father, the son of a minor Worcestershire gentleman, had first settled in Oxford around 1650, setting up practice as an attorney. Marriage to the widow of a fellow lawyer doubtless enhanced his wealth and standing, and in due course he acquired much property in Oxford’s outlying parishes. The family may originally have had Nonconformist leanings: certainly the young Thomas Rowney was schooled at the Dissenting academy at Shilton, and it was there that he first encountered Robert Harley*, and probably another of the academy’s famous pupils, Simon Harcourt I*. Many years later, when in power, Harley would refer to him as ‘my good friend and schoolfellow, Mr Rowney’. But whatever Low Church or Dissenting sympathies were inculcated during his early years, they were overtaken by a loyal churchmanship by the time he reached maturity when he was as apt as any other Tory to speak out against ‘fanatics’. He was pricked for county sheriff in December 1691, but since he was still pursuing his legal studies at the Inner Temple was granted permission to reside ‘out of the county’. One can assume that this was at the behest of his father, who was himself too infirm for the shrieval office, yet unwilling to miss the honour done to his family. None the less, the appointment confirmed the elder Rowney’s prestige among the Oxfordshire gentry and at the same time marked out his son for a more important public role. Rowney succeeded his father in July 1694, less than two months after qualifying as a barrister.3

In the election of 1695 Rowney stood for Oxford. He was put up on the Tory or ‘Church’ slate, almost certainly at the bidding of the corporation’s high steward, the 1st Earl of Abingdon, and was elected after several weeks of bitter campaigning, during which a Whig mob once came close to attacking his house in St. Giles parish. The Earl’s need for a candidate of sound Tory credentials was particularly pressing at this particular time, as he was engaged in a struggle to prevent the Whigs under Hon. Thomas Wharton* from gaining control of the city’s representation. In Parliament, Rowney’s opposition to the Court was apparent almost from the first: he was forecast as a likely opponent in the division of 31 Jan. 1696 over the establishment of a council of trade, initially withheld his signature from the Association, voted against fixing the price of guineas at 22s. in March, and on 25 Nov. voted against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. He also established himself as a willing and active participant in proceedings and acted many times as a teller. On 4 Nov. he had told against agreeing with a supply resolution for maintaining an army of some 87,000. He told again on the 28th for disagreeing with a breach of privilege alleged by the Whig MP Sir Isaac Rebow, and once more on 15 Feb. 1697 against an adjournment motion. At the beginning of November the corporation of Oxford agreed to send a congratulatory address to King William on the peace of Ryswick. Though the task of drafting was entrusted to the Whig recorder, William Wright, an opponent of Rowney in 1695, Rowney pre-empted this by submitting a text of his own which, better suiting the Tory disposition of the corporate body, was immediately adopted ‘by a large majority’. During the 1698 session he was a zealous supporter of the Commons’ blasphemy bill. Returned again in 1698, he was identified as a Country supporter in a comparative listing of the old and new Houses, and was forecast as likely to oppose the government on the standing army. In March 1699 he managed a private estate bill concerning the sale of land from the Aldworth estate in Berkshire. In the next session he was teller four times: on 29 Feb. 1700 against including a clause to prevent the export of English coin and plate in the bill for establishing assay-masters in provincial towns; on 4 Mar. in favour of a procedural motion for the committee of the whole to further consider the bills for applying funds from forfeited estates, and for granting aid for the army and navy; and on 21 Mar. and 1 Apr. against the addition of private clauses to the same measure, since combined into a single bill.4

Rowney was returned unopposed in the first election of 1701. Early in the ensuing Parliament his name was included in a list of Court supporters expected to agree with a supply resolution to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. Even so, his Country instincts were rather more apparent on 22 Feb. when the House took note of several cases where Members were technically disqualified from sitting by virtue of the place clause in the 1694 Act for granting various duties, Rowney acting as teller against exonerating the Whig MP, Gilbert Heathcote*, which resulted in Heathcote’s expulsion. On 10 May he was teller against adjourning consideration of the disputed Lichfield election. His continuing overall hostility to Court policy is affirmed by his being ‘blacklisted’, prior to the winter general election, as an opponent of preparations for war with France. In Oxford he was forced to undergo a poll, though this merely revealed his Whig opponents in the city to be a small minority. On 19 Feb. 1703, at the third reading of the abjuration bill, he told for those who favoured an extra clause requiring office-holders not to depart from the Anglican communion, and on the 26th voted in support of the motion vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the impeachments of the four Whig lords. In the remainder of the 1701–2 Parliament he was teller on four more occasions: on 27 Feb. and 27 Apr. on procedural motions to adjourn committees, and on 14 Mar. and 16 Apr. in connexion with private relief bills arising from Irish forfeiture business.

The opening weeks of the 1702 Parliament found Rowney in an ebullient mood about the prevailing sense of unity in national affairs apparent in the progress of the war with France and in the determination to maintain the health of the Church. To Dr Arthur Charlett, master of University College, he wrote on 26 Nov.:

The Queen and her Commons have entire confidence in each other, which will be the greatest blow to France. An English queen with English admirals and generals will quickly lower his pride and ambition. The fears of the fanatics and the hypocritical reformers may be in some danger, but I don’t question the Church will flourish. The occasional bill will be read the third time on Saturday, and if the bishops will stand their ground, I hope it will pass the Royal Assent. The lower house of Convocation will upon all occasions find the House of Commons stand their friends, and the country will find those persons whom by malice have been endeavoured to be blasted in their reputations to be true Churchmen and Englishmen.

On 10 Dec. he told in favour of accepting a petition from the Merchant Taylors’ Company, and on the 19th in favour of adding a rider to the land tax bill that hospitals be taxed at the rates set in 1693. On 13 Feb. 1703 he voted against the Lords’ amendments to the bill extending the time in which the Abjuration could be taken. His importance in civic affairs in Oxford is illustrated by the corporation’s nomination of him at the beginning of June to a joint committee of university and corporation representatives for the purposes of composing ‘the present differences between them’. In mid-March 1704 Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) forecast his support in anticipation of an attack regarding the government’s handling of the Scotch Plot. He voted in favour of the Tack on 28 Nov., as predicted in a forecast compiled the previous month. Before the Parliament was dissolved he served twice as teller: on 14 Feb. 1705, against a Lords’ amendment to the bill barring from the Commons the holders of offices created since 1684; and a week later, on the 22nd, against according a third reading to a bill granting a subsidy on imported wines and imposing a duty on East India goods exported to Ireland. Apart from preparations for his own re-election at Oxford, he was also active in rounding up support at Woodstock, where the Marlboroughs were seeking to wrest one of the seats from Tory control. Meanwhile at Oxford, he and his partner Francis Norreys were faced once more with opposition from Whig corporation candidates, though as usual, when put to the test, they made a poor showing. In an analysis of the new Parliament he was described as a ‘true Churchman’, evidently on the strength of his pro-Tack stance the previous year. He voted with his party on 25 Oct. against the Court candidate for Speaker. At the second reading of the regency bill on 19 Dec. he was one of many Tories who came to the defence of Charles Caesar* after he had insinuated that Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) had been in correspondence with the Pretender during the previous reign. Rowney stressed the necessity of clearing the confusion about the words Caesar had actually uttered, before conclusions could be drawn on the import of what he had said. In June 1706, his corporation requested him to present their loyal address on the victory at Ramillies. He was a teller on 5 Feb. 1707 against the question that a Tory-inspired ‘notorious riot and tumult’ had disrupted the Coventry election. The compiler of an analysis of the House in early 1708 had no difficulty in identifying him as a Tory, and in February that year he was twice a teller: on the 5th in favour of an extra clause to a supply bill for the sale of annuities; and on the 8th against adjourning consideration of a private bill concerning Francis Annesley*, a fellow High Church Tory. In November, following his unopposed re-election, he was furious with the party leadership for issuing a general muster of Tory forces for the opening of the new Parliament, and not proceeding with the concerted plan of opposition which rank-and-file Tories had been anticipating. Unburdening his annoyance to his friend Dr George Clarke*, he wrote:

My brother, [Sir John] Walter [3rd Bt.], as well as Sir John Stonhouse [3rd Bt.] with several others [are] displeased at their journey to London . . . I believe the gentlemen will be better informed of an opposition before they will venture another such journey. Where the trouble lies I am not a judge, but am satisfied we have been made fools of.

In the first session, on 20 Jan. 1709, he was teller on the Tory side in a division concerning the disputed Abingdon election case, and on 3 Mar. against an adjournment motion. In February he notified his corporation of the impending introduction of a bill to remove the immunity of Oxford citizens from responsibility for the upkeep of highways within a mile of the city boundaries, and was doubtless involved in the proceedings which successfully halted its progress. Voting against Dr Sacheverell’s impeachment early in 1710, Rowney was among the leading town and university dignitaries who welcomed and entertained the doctor during his visit in May.5

Following his unopposed return in 1710, Rowney was dismayed to find in the midst of the Tory victory that John Smith I*, the Whig former Speaker, had been appointed to an Exchequer tellership, a perquisite which Rowney felt Smith hardly merited in view of Smith’s past insults to his good friend Harcourt and his ingratitude to Harley. In the ‘Hanover list’ of the new Parliament Rowney was classed as Tory, and after the first session was included in two other lists: as a ‘Tory patriot’, opposed to the continuance of war, and as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who in the first session had supported efforts to expose the mismanagements of the previous Whig administration. Indeed, for most of this session, he appears to have been deeply engaged in the proceedings of a committee appointed on 13 Jan. 1711 to consider and report on the problem of ‘arrears of taxes’, presenting a long and detailed report from the committee on 21 Apr.; and he may well have taken part when the report was debated on 5 May. The outcome, however, was no more than a set of anodyne resolutions which were not ordered to be notified to the tax-gathering departments concerned. On 18 Feb. 1712 he was among the MPs ordered to prepare a bill to prevent electoral bribery. Though clearly supporting the Oxford administration, his involvement in this type of initiative illustrates a continuing attachment to Country mores. He appears, however, to have eschewed membership of the backbench Tory pressure groups. In September, his name was submitted to ‘Auditor’ Harley (Edward*) as one who had failed in his promise to make a £1,000 subscription to the 1712 lottery. Given his earlier interest in moral reform issues, as seen for example in his support for the 1698 blasphemy bill, he may well have entertained second thoughts about the propriety of lotteries, particularly in view of recent instances of mismanagements by lottery officials. In addition to his parliamentary duties Rowney continued to conduct legal business for various friends and clients. In November 1712, for instance, he negotiated for Harcourt, now lord keeper, the purchase of Nuneham Courtnay, which he told his friend Dr William Stratford of Christ Church was ‘the cheapest pennyworth that was ever bought in Oxfordshire’. In the next parliamentary session he was teller for the Court side in two divisions: on 4 May 1713 in favour of a second reading of the bill suspending duties on imported French wines; and on the 21st in favour of amendments to the malt duties bill. He voted with the ministry on the 18th for the French commerce bill. His personal relations with Lord Oxford remained amicable. In August he was notified by Harcourt, now lord chancellor, that some official post was ‘designed’ for him, though there is no indication of its nature. Dr Stratford enthused to Lord Harley that ‘it cannot be placed upon an honester man’, but the initiative was never again mentioned and it would not have been uncharacteristic of Rowney to have declined any offer of office. In the general election he was returned following a poll and was in London for the formal opening of the new Parliament. The Worsley list and two other analyses of Parliament at this time note him as a Tory. One of his main preoccupations in the weeks that followed was the hearing on the disputed Woodstock election which was declared void on 16 Mar. 1714. The following day, Rowney was teller against the motion for issuing a new writ. Apologizing to Dr Charlett on 6 Apr. for his recent silence, he explained that ‘the proceedings in relation to Woodstock made me so out of humour I did not care to put pen to paper’. After Easter, he was disheartened to see evidence of escalating differences within the Tory party from the tone of a Lords debate on 5 Apr. on ‘the state of the nation’. ‘I am sorry for these differences between old friends, and shows persons employed under her Majesty have good reason for their fears, and else don’t use the Queen so well as I could wish they would.’ Despite the Queen’s death early in August, family affairs were uppermost in his mind later in the month with his only daughter’s marriage to Sir Clobery Noel, 5th Bt.†, a wealthy Leicestershire Tory. His family concerns took an unexpected turn in November, Dr Stratford informing Lord Harley that Rowney, ‘to show what an honest man can do and to set a good example to his son-in-law, has got his wife with child again’.6

Rowney sat for Oxford until 1722. He continued to enjoy the esteem of the city’s predominantly Tory corporation, declaring his constant readiness ‘to help the city in any way in his power’ and earning their lasting gratitude for his legal and other assistance, as at the time of the city riots in 1716. In August 1717 the corporation elected him to the ancient office of ‘barge commissioner’ reserved for eminent citizens. In drawing up his will in December 1721, he acknowledged ‘the trust reposed in me’ by the corporation, though ‘it was never any profit’, and made a bequest of £300 towards rebuilding the town hall. His wealth was considerable, by 1721 comprising landholdings in Berkshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and including ancestral lands at Great Hurdington in Gloucestershire where he remained a magistrate after 1714. In his last years Harcourt’s coldness towards him following the latter’s absorption into the Hanoverian Whig establishment caused him considerable bitterness. There had been an occasion in 1722 when Harcourt refused him ‘a very slight, ordinary kindness’. ‘It goes to Tom’s heart’, Dr Stratford wrote, ‘to meet with such a return to many faithful and expensive services which he has done for him for 30 years past, and in times when the Viscount very much wanted them.’ At the time of Harcourt’s death in 1727 they were still unreconciled, and matters were not improved when Rowney discovered that the former lord chancellor had named him one of his executors. When Rowney retired at the general election in March 1722, his seat was taken by his eldest son, Thomas. He was not tempted to resume his parliamentary career when a by-election offered the opportunity later in the year, even though, as Stratford wrote, ‘he may certainly have it upon holding up his finger’. In 1727 he was asked to stand for knight of the shire, but again declined. He died on 31 Aug. after suffering an apoplexy at the mayor’s feast a few days before, and in accordance with his will was buried in the parish church of St. Giles, Oxford.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. IGI, Oxon.; Hearne Colls. ix. 306; Wood, Life and Times, i. 30, 44; ii. 29, 70; Le Neve, Mon. Angl. 1680–99, p. 153; N. and Q. cxciv. 471; info. from Dr D. F. Lemmings; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxxi), 182; Hist. Reg. Chron. 1730, p. 26; PCC 61 Brook.
  • 2. Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), 257; (n.s. x), 101.
  • 3. VCH Oxon. v. 99; Hearne Colls. ix. 344; HMC Portland, vii. 56; N. and Q. cxciv. 472–3; Wood, i. 44; iii. 40, 459, 489; Add. 70419, Robert Harley to William Stratford, 23 July 1709; CSP Dom. 1691–2, p. 99.
  • 4. HMC Le Fleming, 338; Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. ii), 275; Bodl. Ballard 38, f. 186.
  • 5. Ballard 38, f. 190; Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. x), 21–22, 42, 55; Hereford and Worcester RO (Worcester, St Helen’s), Hampton mss 705:349/BA4657/iii/37, 35, Rowney to Pakington, 25 Apr., 6 May 1705; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 55; Bodl. Top. Oxon. b.82, f. 16; Boyer, Anne Annals, ix. 202.
  • 6. HMC Portland, vii. 19, 115, 144, 145, 154, 164, 181, 202, 207; Add. 70155, ff. 41–42; L. K. Davison, ‘Public Policy in Age of Econ. Expansion . . . 1690–1750’ (Harvard Univ. PhD thesis, 1990), 92–93; info. from Dr Lemmings; Ballard 38, f. 197.
  • 7. Hearne Colls. ix. 344; Oxford Council Acts (Oxford Hist. Soc. n.s. x), 100–1, 102; PCC 61 Brook; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 239; HMC Portland, vii. 321, 329, 450; Hist. Reg. Chron. 1727, p. 34; N. and Q. cxciv. 471.