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William Cowper in United Kingdom

William Cowper, 1st Earl (c. 1665-1723), lord chancellor of England, was the son of Sir William Cowper, Bart., of Ratling Court, Kent, a Whig member of parliament of some mark in the two last Stuart reigns. Educated at St Albans school, Cowper was called to the bar in 1688; having promptly given his allegiance to the prince of Orange on his landing in England, he was made recorder of Colchester in 1694, and in 1695 entered parliament as member for Hertford. He 349 enjoyed a large practice at the bar, and had the reputation of being one of the most effective parliamentary orators of his generation. He lost his seat in parliament in 1702 owing to the unpopularity caused by the trial of his brother Spencer on a charge of murder. In 1705 he was appointed lord keeper of the great seal, and took his seat on the woolsack without a peerage. In the following year he conducted the negotiations between the English and Scottish commissioners for arranging the union with Scotland. In November of the same year (1706) he succeeded to his father’s baronetcy; and on the 14th of December he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cowper of Wingham, Kent.

When the union with Scotland came into operation in May 1707 the queen in council named Cowper lord high chancellor of Great Britain, he being the first to hold this office. He presided at the trial of Dr Sacheverell in 1710, but resigned the seal when Harley and Bolingbroke took office in the same year. On the death of Queen Anne, George I. appointed Cowper one of the lords justices for governing the country during the king’s absence, and a few weeks later he again became lord chancellor. A paper which he drew up for the guidance of the new king on constitutional matters, entitled An Impartial History of Parties, marks the advance of English opinion towards party government in the modern sense. It was published by Lord Campbell in his Lives of the Lord Chancellors. Cowper supported the impeachment of Lord Oxford for high treason in 1715, and in 1716 presided as lord high steward at the trials of the peers charged with complicity in the Jacobite rising, his sentences on whom have been censured as unnecessarily severe. He warmly supported the septennial bill in the same year.

On the 18th of March 1718 he was created Viscount Fordwich and Earl Cowper, and a month later he resigned office on the plea of ill-health, but probably in reality because George I. accused him of espousing the prince of Wales’s side in his quarrel with the king. Taking the lead against his former colleagues, Cowper opposed the proposal brought forward in 1719 to limit the number of peers, and also the bill of pains and penalties against Atterbury in 1723. In his last years he was accused, but probably without reason, of active sympathy with the Jacobites. He died at his residence, Colne Green, built by himself on the site of the present mansion of Panshanger on the 10th of October 1723.

Cowper was not a great lawyer, but Burnet says that “he managed the court of chancery with impartial justice and great despatch”; the most eminent of his contemporaries agreed in extolling his oratory and his virtues. He was twice married—first, about 1686, to Judith, daughter and heiress of Sir Robert Booth, a London merchant; and secondly, in 1706, to Mary, daughter of John Clavering, of Chopwell, Durham. Swift (Examiner, xvii., xxii.) alludes to an allegation that Cowper had been guilty of bigamy, a slander for which there appears to have been no solid foundation. His younger brother, Spencer Cowper (1669-1728), was tried for the murder of Sarah Stout in 1699, but was acquitted; the lady, who had fallen in love with Cowper, having in fact committed suicide on account of his inattention. He was one of the managers of the impeachment of Sacheverell; was attorney-general to the prince of Wales (1714), chief justice of Chester (1717), and judge of the common pleas (1727). He was grandfather of William Cowper, the poet.

The 1st earl left two sons and two daughters by his second wife. The eldest son, William (1709-1764), who succeeded to the title, assumed the name of Clavering in addition to that of Cowper on the death of his maternal uncle. His wife was a daughter of the earl of Grantham, and grand-daughter of the earl of Ossory. The son of this marriage, George Nassau, 3rd Earl Cowper (1738-1789), inherited the estates of the earl of Grantham; and in 1778 he was created by the emperor Joseph II. a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The 5th earl (1778-1837) married a daughter of Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, by whom he had two sons; and his widow married as her second husband Lord Palmerston, who devised his property of Broadlands to her second son, William Francis Cowper-Temple (1811-1888), who was created Baron Mount Temple in 1880.

The elder son, George Augustus Frederick (1806-1856), 6th Earl Cowper, married Anne Florence, daughter of Thomas Philip, earl de Grey; and this lady at her father’s death became suo jure baroness Lucas of Cradwell. Francis Thomas de Grey, 7th Earl Cowper (1834-1905), in addition to the other family titles, became in 1871 10th Baron Dingwall in the peerage of Scotland, and 8th Baron Butler of Moore Park in the peerage of Ireland as heir-general of Thomas, earl of Ossory, son of the 1st duke of Ormonde; the attainder of 1715 affecting those titles having been reversed in July 1871. On the death of his mother he also inherited the barony of Lucas of Cradwell. On the death without issue in 1905 of the 7th earl, who was lord lieutenant of Ireland 1880-1882, the earldom and barony of Cowper, together with the viscountcy of Fordwich, became extinct; the barony of Butler fell into abeyance among his sisters and their heirs, and the baronies of Lucas and Dingwall devolved on his nephew, Auberon Thomas Herbert (b. 1876).

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)


Further Reading

Private Diary of Earl Cowper, edited by E. C. Hawtrey for the Roxburghe Club (Eton, 1833); The Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper, edited by the Hon. Spencer Cowper (London, 1864); Lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal (8 vols., London, 1845-1869); Edward Foss, The Judges of England (9 vols., London, 1848-1864); Gilbert Burnet, History of his Own Time (6 vols., Oxford, 1833); T. B. Howell, State Trials, vol. xii.-xv. (33 vols., London, 1809-1828); G. E. C., Complete Peerage (London, 1889).

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  • Article Name: William Cowper
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  • Description: William Cowper, 1st Earl (c. 1665-1723), lord chancellor of England, was the son of Sir William Cowper, Bart., of Ratling [...]

This entry was last updated: October 18, 2016

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