Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowper, William (d.1723)

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COWPER, WILLIAM, first Earl Cowper (d. 1723), first lord chancellor of Great Britain, grandson of Sir William Cowper, created a baronet for his royalist devotion 4 March 1642, was eldest son of Sir William Cowper, bart., a whig politician, who was concerned with Shaftesbury in indicting the Duke of York as a popish recusant in 1680, and who represented Hertford in parliament in 1679–81 and 1689–1700, and died in 1706. His mother was Sarah, daughter of Sir Samuel Holled, a London merchant. The date and place of Cowper's birth are unknown. After spending some years at a private school in St. Albans, he entered the Middle Temple on 8 March 1681–1682. A circumstantial statement is made in the ‘Biographia Britannica’ (Kippis, iv. 389 note), to the effect that he seduced a certain Miss Elizabeth Culling of Hertingfordbury Park, Hertfordshire, and it is suggested that he did so by means of a sham marriage ceremony, and had two children by her. This story, which may have originated in mere local gossip, is probably the foundation of the novelette of ‘Hernando and Louisa’ in Mrs. Manley's ‘Secret Memoirs from the New Atalantis’ (1709), and of the charge of bigamy insinuated by Swift in the ‘Examiner’ (Nos. 17 and 22), and retailed as matter of common notoriety by Voltaire (Dict. Phil. art. ‘Femme Polygamie’), with the substantial addition that Cowper was the author of a treatise in favour of polygamy. Shortly before his call to the bar, which took place on 25 May 1688, Cowper married Judith, daughter of Sir Robert Booth, a London merchant. He attached himself to the home circuit, and soon obtained considerable practice. On the landing of the Prince of Orange in November, he rode with a company of about thirty volunteers from London to Wallingford, near Oxford, where he joined the prince's forces, with which he returned to London. In 1694 he was appointed king's counsel, and about the same time recorder of Colchester. The following year, and again in 1698, he was returned to parliament as junior member for Hertford. The obituary notice in the ‘Chronological Diary’ states that ‘the very first day he sat in the House of Commons he had occasion to speak three times, and came off with universal applause,’ and Burnet (Own Time, orig. ed., ii. 426) observes, under date 1705, that ‘he had for many years been considered as the man who spoke the best of any in the House of Commons.’ In 1695–6 he played a subordinate part in the prosecution of the conspirators against the life of the king, and of the nonjuring clergymen who gave them absolution on the scaffold. In the same year he was also engaged in a piracy case, and in the prosecution of Captain Vaughan for levying war against the king on the high seas, and took an active part in the parliamentary proceedings which issued in the attainder of Sir John Fenwick, speaking more than once, and giving his reasons for voting in favour of that judicial murder at considerable length. He was appointed king's counsel 8 March 1698–9. In 1699 he appeared for the prosecution at the trial of Lord Mohun for the murder of Richard Coote, killed in an affair of honour by the Earl of Warwick, and in a forgery case, and in the following year he successfully resisted an application for a new trial of his brother, Spencer Cowper [q. v.] In 1700–1 he was returned to parliament as junior member for Beeralston in Devonshire. He spoke against the motion for the impeachment of Lord Somers in 1701. On the accession of Anne in the following year his patent of counsel to the crown was renewed. In 1704 the celebrated case of Ashby v. White, in which an elector sued the returning officer for the borough of Aylesbury for damages for having refused to receive his vote at the general election of 1700, occasioned a serious conflict between the two houses of parliament. The House of Peers having overruled a judgment of the queen's bench to the effect that no such action lay, the matter was forthwith made a question of privilege by the House of Commons. Cowper argued elaborately but unsuccessfully that the jurisdiction of the house did not extend to the restraining of the action, but as he admitted that the house was the sole judge of the validity of election returns, and of the right of the elector to vote, it is difficult to understand his position. In the summer of this year (1704) an information was laid by the attorney-general, by order of the House of Commons, against Lord Halifax for neglecting, as auditor of the exchequer, to transmit the imprest rolls half-yearly to the king's remembrancer, pursuant to the statute 8 & 9 Will. III, c. 28, s. 8, and Cowper was one of the counsel retained for the defence.

The prosecution broke down owing to a piece of bad Latin in the information. The house (18 Nov.) censured Cowper for the part he had taken in the matter. On 11 Oct. 1705 he succeeded Sir Nathan Wright as lord keeper, the appointment being, in part at least, due to the influence of the Duchess of Marlborough. He would not, however, accept office except upon the understanding that he should have 2,000l. equipage money, a salary of 4,000l., and be raised to the peerage at the next promotion. Evelyn's statement that he bargained for a pension of 2,000l. per annum on dismissal is not confirmed by Cowper's ‘Diary.’ He was sworn of the privy council the same day, and took his seat on the woolsack on the 25th. His first public act of importance was to announce his intention of declining the new year's gifts which his predecessors had been in the habit of receiving from the officials attached to and the counsel practising in the court of chancery. Not being taken at his word, he refused admittance to all such as presented them selves with the usual offerings on new year's day. His example was not followed by the chiefs of the other courts, and he suffered a certain loss of popularity with them. He was placed on the commission for the treaty of union on 10 April 1706, and opened the negotiations at the Cockpit on the 16th. The Scotch commissioners sat apart from the English, the interchange of views being effected by writing, the lord keeper and the lord chancellor of Scotland acting as intermediaries. Hence Cowper figures more prominently in the history of the negotiations than any other English commissioner. As, however, the deliberations on either side were kept strictly secret, it is impossible to say how far his influence extended in the shaping of the treaty, which Burnet attributes mainly to Lord Somers. On 23 July Cowper delivered to the queen a draft of the treaty, which, with slight alterations, was subsequently ratified by both parliaments. His first wife had died before he received the seal. In September 1706 he married Mary, daughter of John Clavering of Chopwell, in the bishopric of Durham, the marriage, however, being kept secret until 25 Feb. 1706–7. On 9 Nov. 1706 he was raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Cowper of Wingham in Kent. His first reported utterance in the House of Lords is a brief but extremely graceful speech (entered in the Journal 5 Dec. 1706), in which he conveys to the Duke of Marlborough the thanks of the house for the victory of Ramillies. On 4 May 1707, the Act of Union having come into operation on the first of the month, he was declared by the queen in council lord high chancellor of Great Britain. The intrigues of the Duke of Marlborough in 1709 to obtain the appointment of commander-in-chief for life met with determined opposition from Cowper, who declared that he would never put the seal to the commission. In 1710 Cowper presided at the trial of Dr. Sacheverell in Westminster Hall. The proceedings began on 27 Feb. and occupied three weeks. The lord chief justice and chief baron and ten puisne judges were unanimous in holding that the omission to specify passages on which the charge was based invalidated the proceedings. Cowper abstained from any public expression either of assent or dissent, and on the strength of an old precedent in the reign of Charles I, it was held immaterial. Cowper voted for Sacheverell's condemnation. The excitement caused by the trial led to the defeat of the whigs in the autumn, and the expulsion of their leaders from the cabinet. Harley was anxious that Cowper should continue in office, and repeatedly pressed him to do so, and the queen would hardly accept his surrender of the seal. He resigned, however, on 23 Sept. Cowper now devoted himself with energy to the business of opposition. St. John having attacked the late ministry in a letter to the ‘Examiner,’ he replied by a long letter in the ‘Tatler,’ a somewhat ponderous, affair, in which he denounces ‘the black hypocrisy and prevarication, the servile prostitution of all English principles, and malevolent ambition’ characteristic of the other party. Both letters are printed in the ‘Somers Tracts’ (ed. Scott), xiii. 71–85. In the debate of 11 and 12 Jan. 1711 on the conduct of the war in Spain, in which the late ministry were accused of having left the Earl of Peterborough without adequate means to prosecute the war with vigour, Cowper took a leading part, though it is impossible to gather from the report how far his defence was effective. The vote of censure was carried by a substantial majority. In the debate on the address (7 Dec. 1711) he supported the Earl of Nottingham's amendment that a clause should be inserted to the effect ‘that no peace could be safe or honourable to Great Britain or Europe if Spain and the West Indies were allotted to any branch of the house of Bourbon.’ In the debate on the negotiations for peace in June 1712, the Earl of Strafford insinuating that the backwardness of the Dutch was due to the intrigues of the Duke of Marlborough, Cowper replied with much animation that ‘according to our laws it could never be suggested as a crime in the meanest subject, much less in a member of that august assembly, to hold correspondence with our allies.’ This deliverance appears to have been effective at the time, but it cannot be regarded as enunciating a sound principle of constitutional law. A motion was made (17 March 1714) ‘for an account of the instances which had been made for restoring to the Catalans their ancient privileges and the letters relating thereto.’ This, as also a further motion on the same subject on the 31st, received Cowper's support. He spoke in favour of the Earl of Wharton's motion that a reward should be proclaimed for the apprehension of the Pretender, dead or alive (8 April 1714), and led the opposition to the second reading of the bill for suppressing schools kept by dissenters (June), but was beaten, and attempted, without success, to amend it in committee. At this time he was much courted by Harley, now earl of Oxford. On the death of the queen Cowper was appointed by the elector of Hanover one of ‘the lords justices’ in whom, by the statute 6 Anne, c. 41, ss. 10, 11, and 12, the supreme power was vested during the interregnum. Almost the first act of the lords justices was to give a broad hint to Bolingbroke by appointing Addison their secretary and directing the postmaster-general to forward to him all letters addressed to the secretary of state. This not sufficing, they (3 Aug.) dismissed Bolingbroke from his office by the summary process of taking the seal from him, turning him out, and locking the doors. On 21 Sept. Cowper was reappointed lord chancellor of Great Britain at St. James's, taking the oath the next day, and on 23 Oct. he went in state to Westminster Hall and again took the oath there. While still lord justice he had composed for the benefit of the new king a brief political tract which he entitled ‘An impartial History of Parties,’ and of which a French translation by Lady Cowper was presented to the Hanoverian minister, Count Bernstorff (24 Oct. 1714), and by him laid before the king. In this memoir he traces the history of the whig and tory parties from their origin to the date of writing, defines their respective principles as dispassionately as could reasonably be expected, and with great clearness and condensation describes the existing posture of affairs and suggests the propriety of avoiding coalition cabinets while admitting the opposition to a fair share in the subordinate places. The history was first printed by Lord Campbell as an appendix to his life of Cowper in the fourth volume of his ‘Lives of the Chancellors.’ Trevor, the lord chief justice of the king's bench, one of the twelve peers created in 1712, was, by Cowper's advice, removed from his office, being succeeded by Sir Peter King. Certain minor changes in the constitution of the judicial bench were also made. On 21 March 1715 he read the king's speech, and on the following day he took part in the debate raised by Trevor and Bolingbroke on the lords' address. Exception being taken to an expression of confidence that the king would ‘recover the reputation of this kingdom in foreign parts,’ Cowper replied by drawing a distinction between the queen and her ministry, and the address was carried by sixty-six to thirty-three. He spoke in the debate on the articles of impeachment exhibited against the Earl of Oxford on 9 July 1715, arguing against Trevor that they were sufficient to ground a charge of high treason. On the outbreak of the rebellion of 1715 Cowper exerted himself to infuse some of his own spirit into the king and his colleagues on the bench. Probably it was at his suggestion that the Riot Act, which had not been in force since the reign of Elizabeth, was in that year re-enacted, strengthened, and made perpetual. Cowper presided as high-steward at the trial of Lord Winton, the only one of the rebel lords who did not plead guilty, in March 1716. Winton's complicity in the rebellion was clearly proved, but he made persistent efforts to obtain an adjournment on the alleged ground that he had not had time to bring up his most important witnesses, deprecating with some wit being subjected to ‘Cowper law as we used to say in our country, hang a man first and then judge him,’ a play upon the common Scotch expression ‘Cupar law’ and the name of the lord chancellor. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. In the debate on the Septennial Bill (10 April) Cowper spoke at length, reviewing the history of the Triennial Act, and giving an unqualified support to the measure. Cowper made what appears to have been a powerful speech in favour of the Mutiny Bill, which proposed to establish a standing army of sixteen thousand men, and was violently opposed by Oxford in February 1718. On 18 March he was created Viscount Fordwiche and Earl Cowper in the peerage of Great Britain. On 15 April he resigned office, the ostensible reason being failing health. The true cause is probably to be sought either in intrigues in the royal household or in the jealousy of other members of the cabinet, combined with the opposition which he had offered in the preceding January to a projected bill for providing the king with an annuity of 100,000l., with an absolute discretion to assign such portion thereof as he might think proper to the maintenance of the Prince of Wales. Cowper was a small patron of literature. He had been the correspondent and host of the poet, John Hughes, and in November 1717 appointed him secretary to the commission for appointing justices of the peace, and on his resignation he wrote to his successor, Lord Parker, begging him to continue Hughes in that office, a request with which Parker complied. This elicited a brief ode in honour of Cowper from the grateful poet (Works, ii. ode xx.). Cowper voted with the tories in the successful opposition which they offered to the repeal of the ‘act for preserving the protestant religion’ (10 Anne c. 6, which imposed disabilities on papists), and the more obnoxious clauses of the Test and Corporation Acts, proposed by Lord Stanhope in December 1718. He opposed the Peerage Bill, which proposed to fix a numerical limit to the house of peers, on its introduction in February 1719. The bill was dropped owing to the excitement which it created in the country, but was reintroduced in November, when Cowper again opposed it. Having passed the House of Lords with celerity, it was thrown out by the commons. Cowper also opposed the bill for enabling the South Sea Company to increase their capital. The bill, however, passed the house of peers without a division (7 April 1720). A question addressed by Cowper to the ministry concerning an absconding cashier of the South Sea Company on 23 Jan. 1721 appears to be the earliest recorded instance of a public interpellation of ministers. On 13 Dec. he moved the repeal of certain clauses of the Quarantine Act; on 11 Jan. 1722 he called attention to ‘the pernicious practice of building ships of force for the French,’ and moved that the judges should be ordered to introduce a bill to put an end to it. On 3 Feb., the lord chancellor being two hours late and the lord chief justice, who was commissioned to take his place on the woolsack in his absence, not being present, Cowper moved that the house proceed to elect a speaker ad interim. The lord chancellor then arriving excused himself on the ground that he had been detained by the king in council at St. James's. This excuse the lords refused to accept, and entered a lengthy protest in the journal of the house (signed by Cowper) in which they affirmed that the house was ‘the greatest council in the kingdom, to which all other councils ought to give way.’ On 26 Oct. Cowper opposed the committal of the Duke of Norfolk to the Tower on suspicion of treason. An assertion by the Jacobite conspirator Layer, in the course of his examination before a committee of the House of Commons in January and February 1723, that he had been informed that Cowper was a member of a club of disaffected persons known as Burford's Club, elicited from Cowper a public declaration of the entire groundlessness of the charge. The bill of pains and penalties against Atterbury was earnestly opposed by Cowper, who closed the debate with a solemn protest against the exercise of judicial powers by parliament without the formal proceeding by impeachment (15 May 1723). He also opposed Walpole's bill for ‘laying a tax upon papists’ (20 May). On 5 Oct. 1723 he took a severe cold while travelling from London to his seat in Hertfordshire, of which he died five days later. He was buried in Hertingfordbury church. Ambrose Philips celebrated his virtues in an ode styled by courtesy ‘Pindaric’ (Chalmers, English Poets, xiii. 121). The Duke of Wharton in the ‘True Briton’ (No. 40) magnified his genius and extolled his virtue in terms of the most extravagant eulogy. Pope (Imitations of Horace, epist. ii. bk. ii.) and Lord Chesterfield agree in describing him as a consummate orator. His person was handsome, his voice melodious, his elocution perfect, his style pure and nervous, his manner engaging. On the other hand, in logical faculty and grasp of legal science he was deficient. Steele dedicated the third volume of the ‘Tatler’ to him, and an enthusiastic panegyric upon him under the name of ‘Manilius,’ written by his humble friend Hughes at the time when there was least to expect from his patronage (1712), fills one number of the ‘Spectator’ (No. 467). He was F.R.S., governor of the Charterhouse, and lord-lieutenant of Herefordshire 1700–2 and 1714–22. By his first wife he had one son only, who died in boyhood; by his second wife he had two sons (William, who succeeded to the title, and Spencer [q. v.], who took holy orders and became dean of Durham) and two daughters. Two of his speeches in passing sentence on the rebel lords were printed in pamphlet form in 1715 (Brit. Mus. Cat.), and a few of his letters will be found in ‘Letters by several Eminent Persons,’ London, 1772, 8vo (Brit. Mus. Cat.), and in the ‘Correspondence of John Hughes,’ Dublin, 1773, 12mo (Brit. Mus. Cat.), others in Addit. MSS. 20103, ff. 7–33, and 22221, f. 256.

[Cowper's Private Diary (printed in 1833 and presented to the Roxburghe Club by Ed. Craven Hawtrey) covers the period from 1705 to 1714; it consists chiefly of brief minutes of cabinet councils and jottings of private conversations with politicians; it becomes very slight and fragmentary after his surrender of the seal. Lady Cowper's Diary (edited by the Hon. Spencer Cowper, London, 1864, 8vo) begins where her husband's leaves off, but is only continuous for two years [see Cowper, Mary, 1685–1724]. Other sources of information are: the obituary notice in the Chronological Diary, appended to the Historical Register for the year 1723; Berry's County Genealogies (Hertfordshire), p. 168; Clarke's Life of James II, ii. 590; Rapin (Tindall), 2nd edit. ii. 713; Lists of Members of Parl. (Official Return of), i. 542, 547, 559, 566, 574, 581, 586, 594, 600, ii. 2; Clutterbuck's Hertfordshire, ii. 192; Burnet's Own Time (Oxford ed.), iv. 480 note, v. 220, 248, 299, vi. 11 note, 31 note, 76 note; Additional Annotations, p. 145; Howell's State Trials, xii. 1446–7, xiii. 123, 199, 219, 246, 272, 274, 422, 465, 471, 494–5, 498–9, 501–2, 504–5, 509–12, 515, 521, 555, 623, 742–44, 1035, 1055, 1091, 1198, xv. 466–7, 847, 893, 1046–1195; Luttrell's Relation of State Affairs, iv. v. vi.; Parl. Hist. v. 1227, vi. 279–85, 546, 826, 887, 961–5, 1039, 1060, 1146, 1256, 1330, 1331, 1337–1338, 1351–5, 1364; vii. 42–6, 104, 111, 224, 305, 541, 569, 591–4, 606–24, 641, 709, 894, 933, 939, 960, viii. 44, 203, 334, 347, 363; Lords' Journ. xviii. 177; Coxe's Sir R. Walpole, ii.; Despatch of Lord Townshend to Secretary Stanhope, 2 Nov. 1716; Evelyn's Diary, ad fin.; Chron. Reg. appended to Hist. Reg. (1717), p. 46, (1718) p. 11; Voltaire's Dict. Phil. ‘Affirmation par serment;’ Welsby's Lives of Eminent Judges; Foss's Lives of the Judges; Collins's Peerage (Brydges), iv.]

J. M. R.