Cowper, William

, earl Cowper, lord high chancellor of Great Britain, was descended from an ancient family, and son to sir William Cowper, baronet, and member of parliament for the town of Hertford in the reigns of Charles II. and William III. He is supposed to have been born in the castle of Hertford, of which his family had been a considerable time in possession; but of the place or time of his birth, or where he was educated, we have not been able to obtain any certain information. It appears, however, that he made so great a proficiency in the study of the law, that, soon after he was called to the bar, he was chosen recorder of Colchester, and in the reign of king William he was appointed one of his majesty’s council. In 1695 he was chosen one of the representatives in parliament for the town of Hertford, and on the day he took his seat had occasion to speak three times, with great applause. The following year he appeared as counsel for the crown on the trials of sir William Perkins, and others, who were convicted of high treason, for being concerned in the plot to assassinate king William. He was also counsel for the crown on the trial of captain Thomas Vaughan, for high treason on the high seas; and he likewise supported in parliament the bill of attainder against sir John Fenwick. In 1704, in a speech in the house of commons, in the famous case of Ashby and White, he maintained that an action did lie at common law, for an elector who had been denied his vote for members of parliament. His reputation continuing greatly to increase, on the accession of queen Anne he was again appointed one of the counsel to the crown; and on October 11, 1705, he was constituted lord keeper of the great seal of England. A few days after, queen Anne addressed both houses of parliament in a speech, which was well received, and which was said to be written by the new lord keeper.

The following year, commissioners having been appointed for England and Scotland to treat concerning an union of the two kingdoms, they met, for the first time, at the Cockpit, Whitehall, on the 16th of April; when the lord-keeper Cowper, as one of the commissioners for England, made a speech to the lords commissioners for Scotland in favour of the measure, and attended a variety of other meetings on the same business. On July 23, he

1619, 4to. Fuller’s Abel Redivivus. Clarke’s Ecclesiastical History, p. 445. Hayley’s life of Cowper, To!. I. p. ‘2. 8vo edit. Mr. Hayley thinks it not improbable that he may have been an ancestor of the poet. | waited upon the queen at St. James’s with the articles agreed upon between the commissioners, as the terms upon which the union was to take place, and made a speech to her majesty on the occasion. The articles of union, agreed upon by the commissioners, with some few alterations, were afterwards ratified by the parliaments both of England and Scotland. The lord-keeper had a very considera^le hand in this measure, and in consideration of that, and his general merit and services, he was advanced, Nov^ 9, 1706, to the dignity of a peer, by the style and title of lord Cowper, baron Cowper of Wingham in Kent; and on May 4, 1707, her majesty in council declared him lord high chancellor of Great Britain. In 1709, in consequence of the intrigues of Harley and Mrs. Masham, the earl of Sunderland, son-in-law to the duke of Marlborough, was removed from the office of secretary of state; and it being apprehended that this event would give disgust to that great general, and perhaps induce him to quit the command of the army, a joint letter was sent to his grace by lord Cowper, the dukes of Newcastle and Devonshire, and other noblemen, in which they conjured him in the strongest terms, not to quit his command. But soon after, on the 8th of August, 1710, the earl of Godolphin being removed from the post of lord-treasurer, the other whig ministers resigned with spirit and dignity. Lord Cowper, in particular, behaved with unexampled firmness and honour, rejecting with scorn the overtures which Harley, the new favourite, made to induce him to continue. When he waited on the queen to resign, she strongly opposed his resolution, and returned the seals three times after he had laid them down. At last, when she could not prevail, she commanded him to take them ’ adding, “I beg it as a favour of you, if I may use that expression.” Cowper could not refuse to obey her commands: but, after a short pause, and taking up the seals, he said that he would not carry them out of the palace except on the promise, that the surrender of them would be accepted on the morrow: and on the following day his resignation was accepted. This singular contest between her majesty and him lasted three quarters of an hour.*


Coxe’s Life of Walpole.

Soon after the new ministry came into office, Mr. Harley being at the head of the treasury, some inquiries were | set on foot in order to criminate the late administration; and a vote of censure was passed relative to the management of the war in Spain. Lord Cowper took an active part in the debates occasioned by these inquiries, joining in several protests against the determinations of the house of peers concerning the conduct of that war. When prince Eugene was in England, he is said to have been consulted about some dangerous schemes formed by that prince and the duke of I\iarlborough. It may reasonably be questioned, whether any such schemes were ever really formed by those great men; but it is allowed on all hands, that they received no countenance or approbation from lord Cowper. The general opposition, however, which he gave to the administration of the earl of Oxford, occasioned him to be attacked by dean Swift with much virulence in the Examiner; and some reflections were thrown out against him relative to his private character, which is said to have been somewhat licentious with respect to women. In reply to Swift, his lordship wrote “A Letter to Isaac Bickerstaff, occasioned by a Letter to the Examiner,1710, which was printed in lord, Somers’s Tracts, vol. IV.

As a public man, he continued to adhere steadfastly to the whigsj and when a debate took place relative to the Catalans, on the 2d of April, 1714, it was observed by lord Cowper, and others, that the crown of Great Britain having drawn in the Catalans to declare for the house of Austria, and engaged to succour and support them, those engagements ought to have been made good and lord Cowper moved for an address to her majesty, importing, “That her majesty’s endeavours for preserving to the Catalans the full enjoyment of their liberties, having proved ineffectual, their lordships made it their humble request to her majesty, that she would be pleased to continue her interposition, in the most pressing manner, in their behalf.” An address to this purpose, though with some alterations, was afterwards agreed to; but to which the queen returned a very evasive answer. Lord Cowper strongly opposed giving any parliamentary approbation to the peace of Utrecht, and in all respects endeavoured to thwart the measures of administration, which he did, however, with more ability than success. Among other occasions, he spoke warmly against the schism bill, and joined in a protest against it, with twenty-six other peers, and five bishops; yet in ths subsequent reign, when the act was repealed, he opposed | the bill brought in on that occasion, because it contained some clauses, which in his opinion too much interfered with the test and corporation acts.

On the demise of queen Anne, lord Cowper was nominated one of the lords justices of the kingdom, till the arrival of king George I. from Hanover. On the 29th of August, 1714, he was appointed lord chancellor of Great Britain; and shortly after lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum of the county of Hertford. When a new parliament was assembled, on the 27th of March, 1715, George I. declared from the throne, “That he had ordered the lord chancellor to declare the causes of calling this parliament in his majesty’s name and words.” He then delivered his speech into lord Cowper’s hands, who read it to both houses. On the 6th of February, 1716, his lordship was appointed lord high-steward for the trial of the rebel lords; as he was also, the following year, at the trial of the earl of Oxford, to whom he behaved on that occasion with great politeness. A change taking place in the ministry in the beginning of March 1718, lord Cowper resolved to resign the great seal; but, before his resignation, the king, on account of his great merit and services, on the 18th of that month, raised him to the dignity of a viscount and earl, by the title of viscount Fordwich, in the county of Kent, and earl Cowper. The preamble to his patent was drawn up by Mr. Hughes the poet, whom he had patronized. He resigned the great seal in the month of April, and was succeeded by lord Parker.

After his resignation, lord Cowper diligently attended in the house of peers, and frequently opposed the measures of the court, particularly the peerage bill, and the famous South-sea scheme. When a motion was made, that the South-sea bill should be referred to a committee of the whole house, he observed, “That, like the Trojan horse, the bill was ushered in, and received with great pornp and acclamations of joy, but it was contrived for treachery and destruction.” He advanced a variety of arguments against the bill, but it was carried by a large majority, and was productive of great national evils. Lord Cowper also opposed a bill “for the more effectual suppressing of blasphemy and profaneness;” by which persons were to be subjected to penalties, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, or the inspiratioa of the scriptures; and by which any preachers, who should deny any of “the fundamental | articles of the Christian religion,” were to be deprived of the benefit of the act of toleration. This bill did not pass. On the 13th of December, 1721, he endeavoured to procure the repeal of so much of an act, which had passed the preceding session, relative to the plague, as gave a power to remove to a lazaretto, or pest-house, any persons whatsoever infected with the plague, or ‘healthy persons out of an infected family, from their habitations, though distant from any other dwelling; and also so much of the said act, as gave’ power for drawing lines or trenches round any city, town, or place infected: but he was unsuccessful, and indeed his conduct in this affair seems to have proceeded from too fastidious a regard for the liberty of the subject, which never could be endangered by a measure for the preservation of health. He was yet more unfortunate in signing a protest against the rejection of the bill for the better securing the freedom of election of members to serve for the commons in parliament, which was also signed by twenty-three lay-lords, and two bishops, and gave so much offence, that a vote was passed for expunging it from the Journals. Omitting the other parliamentary proceedings in which his lordship took a part, we must now advert to a circumstance in which he was personally concerned. In the year 1723, Christopher Layer, who had been convicted of high treason, underwent a long examination before a secret committee of the house of commons, relative to a conspiracy for raising the pretender to the throne; in the course of which he mentioned a club of disaffected persons, of which, he said, John Plunket had told him, that lord Cowper was one. This occasioned his lordship to remark in the house of peers, that after having on so many occasions, and in the most difficult times, given undoubted proofs of his hearty zeal and affection for the protestant succession, and of his attachment to his majesty’s person and government, he had just reason to be offended, to see his name bandied about in a list of a chimerical club of disaffected persons, printed in the report of the secret committee, on the bare hearsay of an infamous person, notoriously guilty of prevarication; and who, in the opinion even of the secret committee, “in order to magnify the number of the pretender’s friends, did, in several lists, insert the names of persons as well affected to the pretender’s service, without having the least authority for so doing:” which alone was sufficient to give | an air of fiction to the whole conspiracy. But, in justice to his own character, he thought it necessary to move, that John Plunket, from whom Layer pretended to have received the list of the club, mentioned in the report of the committee, should be immediately sent for to the bar of that house, to be there examined. This motion, alter some debate, was rejected by the majority; and it was observed by lord Townshend, that as the secret committee had declared, that they were entirely satisfied of lord Cowper’s innocence, his lordship’s reputation could not have suffered. Lord Cowper, however, thought proper to make a public declaration of his innocence, which is inserted in the Historical Register for 1723.

On the 15th of May this year, earl Cowper made a long speech in the house of peers, in opposition to the bill for inflicting pains and penalties on bishop Atterbury. He urged a variety of arguments to shew, that the evidence against the bishop was extremely insufficient; and he pointed out the danger of such a precedent, as that of inflicting pains and penalties on a man without law, and without proper evidence against him. His lordship strongly objected to the distinction that had been made in the debate, between real evidence, anci legcl evidence; and maintained, that the law required only such real and certain proof, as ought in natural justice and equity, to be received. The last public transaction, in which we find earl Cowper engaged, was opposing the bill for taxing the papists; which he represented as an impolitic and indefensible measure; and when it passed, earl Cowper, and several other lords, signed a protest against it. His lordship lived but a few months after; for he died at his seat at Colne-green, in Hertfordshire, on the 10th of October, 1723; and on the 19th of that month, he was interred in Hertingfordbury church, in the same county.

The eloquence and abilities of earl Cowper were highly celebrated ii> his own time he made a very conspicuous figure at the bar he was a distinguished member of both houses of parliament; his general character as a public man appears to have been entitled to high praise, from which, perhaps, in our days, it will be thought no deduction that he did not always act with the independence which rejects party connections and views. But in his conduct in the court of chancery he displayed great disinterestedness. He opposed the frequency and facility with which | private bills passed in parliament; and refused the new year’s gifts, which it had been customary to present to those who held the great seal. Mr. Tindal, who had an opportunity of knowing him, says that he “was eminent for his integrity in the discharge of the office of lord chancellor, which he had twice filled. There may have been chancellors of more extensive learning, but none of more knowledge in the laws of England. His judgment was quick, and yet solid. His eloquence manly, but flowing. His manner graceful and noble.” Lord Chesterfield, in his Letters to his Son, represents earl Cowper as more distinguished, as a speaker, by the elegance of his language, and the gracefulness of his manner, than by the force of his arguments; that his strength as an orator lay by no means in his reasoning, for he often hazarded very weak ones. “But such was the purity and elegancy of his style, such the propriety and charms of his elocution, and such the gracefulness of his action, that he never spoke without universal applause. The ears and the eyes gave him up the hearts and the understanding of the audience.

Earl Cowper was one of the governors of the Charterhouse, and a fellow of the royal society. He was twice married. By his first wife, Judith, who was daughter and heiress of sir Robert Booth, of London, knight, he had one son, who died young. Mary, his second wife, who did not long survive him, was daughter of John Clavering, esq. of Chopwell, in the bishopric of Durham. By this lady he had issue two sons and two daughters. His eldest son, William, succeeded him in his titles and estate; and his second son, Spencer, became dean of Durham. His eldest daughter, lady Sarah Cowper, who is said to have been “distinguished for her sense and accomplishments,” died unmarried in 1758. His. youngest, lady Anne, was married in 1731 to James Edward Colleton, esq. of Hayneshill in Berkshire, and died in 1750.

William, the second earl Cowper, was twice married; in 1732, to lady Henrietta, youngest daughter and coheir of Henry D’Auverquerque earl of Grantham; and in 1750, to lady Georgina, daughter to earl Granville, and widow of the hon. John Spencer, esq. by whom she was mother of John earl Spencer. By lady Georgina, lord Cowper had no issue; but by his first countess, who died in 1747, he was father of George Nassau, third earl Cowper, who died at Florence in 1789, and was succeeded by his son George | Augustus, who also dying in 1799, was* succeeded by Leopold Louis Francis, his brother, the present and fifth earl Cowper. 1


Biog. Brit. Collins’s Peerage by sir E. Brydges. Swift’s Works, see Index, &c. Smollet’s, Rapin’s, and other Histories of the period. Coxe’s Life of Walpole.