auditor of the city of London, by his second wife, Anne, daughter of Sir William Whitmore of Apley, Shropshire. The manor of Heywood, near Maidenhead, which Sir Edmund purchased in 1627, continued in the family for more than two centuries.
Robert Sawyer was admitted on 20 June 1648 a pensioner at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was ‘chamber fellow’ of Samuel Pepys. On 16 May following he was elected the first Craven scholar. In 1652 he graduated B.A. and was elected Goche fellow. In 1654 he became Dennis fellow. In the following year he graduated M.A. and was also incorporated at Oxford. He is numbered among the benefactors to the library of Magdalene College. After leaving the university, Sawyer was called to the bar from the Inner Temple. He was treasurer of the inn from 1683 to 1688, and practised in the exchequer court and on the Oxford circuit. On 27 Nov. 1666 Pepys went to the House of Commons and heard Sawyer acting as counsel for the impeachment of John, lord Mordaunt, younger son of the first lord Peterborough, and was ‘glad to see him in so good play’ (Pepys, Diary, 1849, iii. 346). Sawyer's progress at the bar was assisted by his relationship to Francis North, baron Guilford. As early as 1661 Wood mentions him as an aspirant for parliamentary honours (Fasti Oxon. ii. 189), but he does not seem to have been elected to the House of Commons till November 1673, when he was returned for Chipping Wycombe. He became a frequent speaker, more especially on legal topics (Parl. Hist. iv. 679–80), was knighted on 17 Oct. 1677, and on 11 April 1678 was elected speaker on the proposition of secretaries Coventry and Williamson, but on 6 May resigned the office on the score of ill-health (ib. pp. 956, 969). Sawyer was sufficiently recovered to take part in a debate on 4 Nov. of the same year, when he declared himself in favour of an address to the effect ‘that the king be humbly desired to prevail with his brother to declare in open parliament whether he be a papist or no’ (ib. pp. 1030–1). He assisted in drafting the Exclusion Bill, a fact which, when acting as attorney-general to James II, he naturally did his best to conceal (Moore, Diary, 19 Dec. 1823).
On 18 July 1679 Sawyer appeared at the Old Bailey as the prosecutor of Sir George Wakeman and some Benedictine monks alleged to have been concerned in ‘the popish plot,’ but failed to get a verdict. On 14 Feb. 1681 (N.S.) he was sworn as attorney-general in the room of Sir Creswell Levinz [q. v.] In June 1681, with the help of Finch, the solicitor-general, and Jeffreys, he conducted the prosecution of Edward Fitzharris [q. v.]; and on 17 Aug. of the same year obtained the conviction of Stephen College [q. v.], the protestant joiner, though the crown witnesses were thoroughly discredited (cf. Sir John Hawles's ‘Remarks’ on these cases in State Trials; Hallam, Const. Hist. pop. edit. p. 597 n.) On 24 Nov. Sawyer prosecuted Shaftesbury before a London grand jury for treasonable association, but a bill of ignoramus was returned, when Sawyer moved that the ‘hollowing and hooping’ which followed the verdict might be recorded (cf. North's Examen, pp. 110 et seq.).
Sawyer represented the crown on 27 April 1682, the second occasion on which the case against the city of London charter was argued. He contended that the quo warranto ‘was not brought to destroy but to reform and amend the government of the city.’ On obtaining his verdict he moved, ‘contrary to what is usual in such cases, that the judgment might not be recorded’ (Burnet). Sawyer's argument (State Trials, viii. 1147–1213) was regarded by lawyers as a masterpiece (cf. note of Speaker Onslow in Burnet ii. 333; State Trials, x. 117–18). The arguments of Sawyer, with those of Finch, Pollexfen, and Treby, were published in 1690.
In 1683 and 1684 he conducted the chief prosecutions arising out of the Rye House plot, when his harshness towards Lord Russell was contrasted with the mildness of Pemberton, the presiding judge (Eachard, Hist. of Engl. 3rd ed. p. 1002). In reference to Sawyer's contention that a copy of the jury-panel was granted to Russell not of right but of privilege, Hawles remarks that ‘of all men who ever came to the bar he [Sawyer] hath laid down the most rules which depend totally upon the authority of his own saying’ (ib. p. 801). On 7 Nov. 1683 Sawyer appeared against Algernon Sidney; on 6 Feb. 1684 he prosecuted John Hampden the younger [q. v.] for misdemeanour; and on the following day obtained verdicts against Laurence Braddon [q. v.] and Hugh Speke [q. v.] on the charge of suborning witnesses to prove that Essex was murdered. On 14 June he moved the court of king's bench, presided over by Jeffreys, for execution against Sir Thomas Armstrong [q. v.], who had been outlawed, and obtained his immediate conviction, to his own subsequent undoing. In 1684 Sawyer acted as one of the counsel for the East India Company in their action against Sandys, in what was known as ‘The Great Case of Monopolies.’ He appeared against Titus Oates on 8 and 9 May 1685, and obtained his conviction for perjury. In