Attributed to Jonathan Richardson , 1664 - 1745
Portrait of William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, Lord Chancellor 1665 – 1723
William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, Lord Chancellor
oil on canvas
33 x 26in. (84 x 66 cm.)


Cowper, William, first Earl Cowper (1665–1723), politician and lord chancellor, was the eldest son of Sir William Cowper, second baronet (1639–1706), a whig politician and ally of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, and Sarah (1644–1720), the diarist, a daughter of Sir Samuel Holled, a London merchant . Neither the precise date nor place of Cowper's birth is known though his family was well established in Hertfordshire and Kent. His great-grandfather, also William, had earned a baronetcy, and subsequent imprisonment with his son John (Sir William's father), for his loyalty to Charles I.

William's early years were spent at Hertford Castle, the imposing family seat and political base for his father as MP for Hertford in 1679–81 and 1689–1700. For some years, from 1673, he attended a private school in St Albans. Some surviving letters to his mother show precocious intelligence, an elegant hand, and the orotund turn of phrase that would characterize his mature style. While there is no official record of his having been subsequently at Westminster School under Richard Busby (records of town pupils being incomplete), a later note of his refers to a compendium ‘By wch I learnd ye Syrian Dialect at Westmr Schoole’; there was also mention at the trial of his brother Spencer Cowper of the brothers having been at school together. William's own second son was sent to Westminster. It is only certain that he entered the Middle Temple on 8 March 1682. According to the gossip of Mrs Manley, Sir William Cowper ‘did not bestow a liberal education upon his son, but bred him to the practice of the law in that manner that is the least generous and most corrupt’. It is true that, unlike his younger brother, he was not schooled at Westminster, but his father evidently instilled in him the independent Whig sympathies that were to be the hallmark of his career. On his father’s death, he wrote that Sir William’s ‘care’ of his education had set him beyond the reach of monetary considerations, protesting (perhaps too much) that he found no consolation for the loss of his parent ‘from any increase it brings or may the sooner bring my estate’, and a letter of advice preserved by his mother exhorted him to be moderate in all things, to despise vice, and neither ‘to affect nor neglect popularity’.

Another question about Cowper's youth became notorious in the hands of a popular romancer. The story that he seduced Elizabeth Culling of Hertingfordbury Park, Hertfordshire, tricking her by a sham marriage ceremony, and having two children with her, may have originated in village gossip but it gained interest through his subsequent fame. It inspired a story, ‘Hernando and Louisa’, in Delarivier Manley's New Atlantis (1709), and the charge of bigamy insinuated by Jonathan Swift in the Examiner periodical (nos. 17, 22). Voltaire took up the story with the fanciful embellishment that Cowper wrote a treatise in favour of polygamy (‘Femme, Polygamie’ in Dictionnaire philosophique) while in Biographia Britannica, Andrew Kippis states the relationship as a fact. True or false, the story seems to have done little harm to Cowper's career. The man portrayed as a libertine appears later to have been a devoted husband. The supposed deceiver became the politician most noted among contemporaries for his probity and respect for the rules. 

According to Manley, Mrs ‘Cullen’ had been brought up in the same house as his wife, who had taught her chastity and devotion, and Cowper therefore thought it ‘would be a sort of triumph over his wife, whom he hated’, to seduce her. He persuaded her to agree to a false marriage, at which his brother Spencer Cowper allegedly presided, dressed as a priest. His new ‘bride’ became pregnant and had borne two children by 1699. Manley was not alone in thinking of Cowper as ‘Will Bigamy’. Hearne described him as having ‘very bad principles and morals, being well known to have had two wives at a time’, and a tract on bigamy in the Blenheim papers was endorsed as alluding to him. Bishop Nicolson also made a note in 1703, ‘Mr Cowper’s persuading his Mrs to think herself his other wife’. There was some factual basis to the allegations. Elizabeth Culling, whom he seems to have housed at Hertingfordbury, gave birth to two of Cowper’s illegitimate children. His natural son died in 1719, but Cowper provided a trust fund of £2,000 in his will for his daughter Mary, who married one Isaacson, a friend of Henry Grey*. Grey acted as an intermediary between the couple and Cowper, who had doubts about the suitability of the match.8

Throughout his life Cowper remained susceptible to a pretty face. He was attracted to his second wife because, he declared, she was ‘the most beautiful woman and the least conscious of it herself that ever I had met with’, and had apparently asked to see her ‘undress’ before their marriage. The wedding took place secretly in September 1706, and Cowper protested that he was not induced to the choice by any ungovernable desire; but I very coolly and deliberately thought her the fittest wife to entertain me and to live as I might when reduced to a private condition, with which a person of great estate would hardly have been contented.

Indeed, the marriage was not consummated for several months, though Cowper’s own suggestion that this experiment in celibacy was to test whether or not the marriage had been merely ‘to satisfy an ungovernable appetite’ hides more complex motives centring on his relationship with his cantankerous, and by now ill, father. Sir William had apparently been pressing him to marry a local Hertfordshire woman, but William wanted to conclude the marriage with Mary Clavering so that he could tell his father that further pressure was simply ‘too late’. To entice Mary into the match he offered her generous terms: ‘that is’, he told her,for whatever your fortune is, to lay down twice that sum in money in the hands of any friend of yours in trust, that the interest should be your jointure . . . [which was] about a third more than is usual. 

Mary was financially a woman of ‘an inconsiderable fortune’, though one report claimed that her marriage settlement was to be £2,000, but had charms of wit and conversation as well as virtue imbued by her pious father, for before she met her future husband she had copied an ‘encomium’ on Parliament in 1699 which referred to the need for MPs to reform their manners and lives. Yet despite Cowper’s profession that his ‘heart when once chosen for itself . . . will never more be guilty of wandering’, he found it difficult to lead a totally reformed life. In 1710 his wife intercepted a letter from one of his female admirers, and immediately dispatched a furious letter to her rival telling her that her husband had never thought of her ‘in the way you wish any more than if you were his grandmother’, though privately she wrote a distraught letter upbraiding Cowper for his inconstancy. ‘I now live to see that all those assurances were only to keep me silent’, she wrote, ‘for now I live to see you keep correspondence with people not at all fit for you if you design to be faithful to me.’ She suggested that they separate, an idea which Cowper himself had apparently suggested ‘several times’, but no breach occurred and thereafter the marriage seems to have settled on to a more steady and affectionate footing. The details of Cowper’s amorous intrigues warn that the life of virtue was for him as much an ideal as a reality, and that a passionate nature was hidden beneath the easy rhetoric and diffident nature. His lifestyle also casts doubt on his religiosity. Indeed, Hearne described him as ‘a man of no religion’, and Mrs Manley thought him a man who had ‘religion in pretence, none in reality’. Yet, in later life at least, Cowper was touched by a deep sense of providentialism, reflecting the strong Calvinistic beliefs of his family. Reviewing his career, he wrote that even at its height he had begged of God that he would preserve my mind from relying on the transient vanity of the world, and teach me to depend upon his providence, that I might not be lift[ed] up with the present success, nor dejected when reverse should happen . . . and I verily believe I was helped by his holy spirit from my sincere dependence upon his good providence in this present undertaking. Glory be to God who has sustained me in adversity, and carried me through the malice of my enemies.

This sense of a favoured destiny may explain his later declaration ‘that if he had happened to be at Geneva he would not have scrupled to have communicated with the Protestants there’. Although such sentiments were accompanied by a tender regard for Dissenters, he viewed the Test and Corporation Acts ‘as the main bulwark of our excellent constitution in church or state’.

There was a boldness about Cowper that denotes the natural leader. He was called to the bar on 25 May 1688. On 7 July, with little but talent and a pleasing manner to reassure her reluctant father, he married Judith (d. 1705), daughter of Sir Robert Booth, a London merchant. In November of the same year, following the landing of William of Orange, he led a party of volunteers to join the prince's army at Wallingford. Before the subsequent flight of James II made this a safer choice for an aspiring politician he thus committed himself to the principles which had led his father in 1679 to support James's exclusion while duke of York. Ever a man to seize his chance, Cowper staked his future on their adoption in what he would term ‘this happy Revolution’.

Cowper soon built up a substantial practice on the home circuit and attracted admiring notice for his handsome presence and sharp intelligence. He had a head for the law and a silver-toned voice for the jury. In 1694 he was appointed king's counsel, then significant promotion, and recorder of Colchester. By his advocacy in the court of chancery he attracted the notice of Lord Somers, who advised him to find a seat in parliament. A leading figure among the junto whigs and esteemed as the finest lawyer of his time, Somers proved to be a wise mentor. Cowper could not have found a sounder patron or model. Men boasted of the rule of law and balanced constitution. But the great issues arising out of the Nine Years' War—a degree of Anglican zeal which tested the limits of religious tolerance, the succession to the crown, and the persisting Jacobite threat—ensured that politics was a rough, unscrupulous, often corrupt, sometimes dangerous trade. It tested the nerve of combatants. It also put a premium on legal skills. Like that of Somers, Cowper's career illustrates the symbiotic relationship of law and politics in an age of revolution when the persuasive force of argument from precedent, and the certainty offered by legal definition, lent unique authority to lawyers' pronouncements. 

Cowper’s rise in the legal profession was, in his own words, ‘with the blessing of heaven on my own industry’, though his early promotion was hardly unaided by other powers. Having ‘set his love and delight on the profession of the law’, he found powerful patrons in Lady Russell and Lady Shaftesbury, who in 1689, together with his mother, influenced the Marquess of Halifax (Sir George Savile†) to persuade the King to appoint Cowper as a King’s Counsel. Sir Robert Howard* also pressed Secretary Shrewsbury on his behalf. Despite this concerted pressure, Halifax, a fitting model for Cowper’s later trimming activity, ‘found the King something difficult in respect of Mr Cowper’s age, and . . . said he would take time to think of it’; but William eventually gave his consent, albeit ‘with some unwillingness’, for he said he could only ‘justify such an irregularity’ as a compliment to the ladies. Even then, the attorney-general’s office stopped the warrant’s passage, until Lady Russell renewed her entreaties. Yet Cowper’s own actions may also have pleaded his cause. As he later wrote, he had constantly ‘adhered to that opinion for excluding a popish successor even when it was unfashionable and decried by those that were in authority’ and had been active in arms for William at the Revolution, meeting the Prince’s army at Wallingford. An account of the expedition records both his valour and his pleasure ‘in seeing the fountain of this happy revolution’, and he may also have been the author of A Poem upon his Highness the Prince of Orange’s Expedition into England, for a printed copy among his papers is endorsed as having been written ‘by WC’.7

Despite, or perhaps because of, Cowper’s later stance of embodying the politics of virtue, contemporaries were keen to play up scandal in his apparently dissolute early life, focusing particularly on stories that he had formed a bigamous marriage. Mrs Manley tells a story that there was an orphan left to his care, her fortune not large, but her person very agreeable; [Cowper] was amorous; he hated his wife, tho’ he lived civilly with her, and had the art of dissembling so natural, that it cost him nothing to appear a good husband.

Cowper’s glittering career at the bar soon brought him to the attention of Charles Montagu* and Sir John Somers*, who in January 1693 urged that the King’s Counsel be heard on the royal mines bill. Cowper was accordingly employed and in February 1693 made notes about the arguments he had used to persuade William not to agree to the measure. The account of the conference reveals Cowper’s belief in a balance between the strength of the crown and the rights of the subject, as well as contempt for the self-interest of many MPs, whose activity he had evidently been scrutinizing. ‘Those Members that were indifferent and [whom] we might hope would be influenced by reason’, he sourly observed, ‘did not think it their interest to attend it so closely’ as those who had a stake in the outcome, for there was ‘private interest fomenting at the bottom of this business’. Believing that the mines bill aimed at profit for a few individuals at the expense of the crown and the nation’s good, Cowper told the King that a great part of the strength and security of all government consists in a reverential awe towards the governor created in the minds of the people as much by those ornaments and decorations of the royal majesty as by its intrinsic power and authority. The crown ought to be shining as well as weighty. Sir, this prerogative and royal property now sought to be taken from you is one of those public fineries of the ancient English majesty which has been worn by our king as long as the crown itself.  Begging pardon for his ‘heat and eagerness’, he repeated his outrage that ‘so ancient and venerable a part of the royal English majesty’ was going to be taken away ‘for so sordid and pitiful a reason as the profit of a few projectors’. The interview reveals a number of features of Cowper’s personality and principles. Beneath the flowing, passionate rhetoric there lay a deep commitment to public interest above all petty selfish motives, and a utilitarian view of royal prerogative, with a conviction that a strong crown served the country best. The speech may also have been designed to impress the King, for Cowper was still a young, ambitious lawyer. He proudly reported to his wife in August 1693 how the lord chief justice and other prominent barristers complimented him, though he confided that ‘at bottom they mean to suppress me as civilly as they can and that the first real kindness I shall receive from any of them will be at their death; and yet I do not blame their doings, but pretensions to the contrary’. His sense of frustration at being held back by established interests in his profession, even Whig ones, led him to complain publicly that Sir George Treby* refused to accord him the usual privileges of a King’s Counsel. Yet such impatience did not alter his political leanings. In the summer of 1694 he reported to his wife ‘the good news of our getting a King’ by the death of the Queen, and, in a remark that suggests that he fully endorsed the land war, added that a prince’s power was ‘more effectual than his religion for carrying on a war, and I had rather have his armies than his prayers in a right way’.

In 1695, and again in 1698, Cowper was returned to parliament, in tandem with his father, as member for Hertford. The local family interest was damaged when Cowper's younger brother, Spencer, was tried for murder. The charge was flimsy but the death of a young woman (probably suicide) aroused local sympathy. Cowper was denigrated when he successfully resisted an application for a re-trial. In 1701 he therefore found himself a new seat, at Beeralston in Devon. Meanwhile he had been in the forefront of legal encounters. In 1696 he played a leading part in the prosecution of the conspirators in the Fenwick conspiracy against the life of the king, and, less worthily, of the nonjuring clergymen who gave them absolution on the scaffold. He was active in the parliamentary proceedings which led to the attainder of Sir John Fenwick, giving his reasons in arguments so prolix that they suggest an effort to wrap judicial murder in a cloak of legality. The same year saw him engaged in the prosecution of Captain Vaughan for levying war against the king on the high seas. Though unsuccessful, his prosecution at the sensational trial of Lord Mohun for the murder of Richard Coote further raised his profile in the fashionable world.

In October 1695 Cowper was elected for Hertford with his father, who appears to have introduced him to the ways of the House. In both this and the second session Cowper evinced a concern, shared by his father, for electoral reform. He was named on 7 Dec. 1695 to the committee for the bill to prevent election expenses, a measure which prompted his earliest recorded speech. According to his obituary, ‘the very first day he sat in the House of Commons he had occasion to speak three times, and came off with universal applause’. In what was seen as a provocative plea against a landed qualification, he argued that ‘an active industrious man who employed £5,000 in trade was every whit as fit to be a Member there as a country gentleman of £200 a year who spent all his time hawking and hunting, and was over head and ears in debt’, though Lord Norreys (Montagu Venables-Bertie*) returned the jibe by declaring ‘himself as fit to sit there as those who were used to take money for their opinion’. Cowper’s position, ironic in view of his later protestation that he wished to be thought of ‘as a country gentleman with a competent, not great but very clear estate’, may have been influenced by the nature of his own seat, a trading borough, and no doubt on account of the electoral support he had enjoyed from the Quakers at Hertford, he acted as teller on 3 Mar. 1696 in favour of the committal of the affirmation bill. He was forecast as likely to support the Court in the divisions of 31 Jan. on the council of trade, and on 13 Mar. again served as a teller, against the third reading of a private estate bill. Although this outline of his activity does not suggest unusual application, Cowper evidently made a very strong mark at Westminster, and on 5 Apr. presented one of the most important measures of the session, the Association bill, thereby establishing his Court Whig credentials. The next day he chaired the ensuing committee of the whole, and reported on the 7th, being ordered to carry the bill to the Lords the following day; on the 14th he again carried the Association to the Upper House after it had been returned with amendments. He naturally signed the Association, both at Westminster and in his county.

The conspiracy against the King provided Cowper with a chance to further both his legal and his political career. As a young King’s Counsel, whom the Earl of Ailesbury described as ‘very pert, talkative and a fop’, he was determined to play, and in some respects overplay, his part in the prosecution of the plotters. At Ailesbury’s own trial he ‘rose up with a sprightly, modish air’ and began speaking beyond his brief, for which he was reprimanded by the judge: according to the Earl, Cowper was ‘convinced of his error and asked my pardon on my going out of the court . . . [and] was ever after my friend’. This unusual mixture of zeal for a cause on the one hand, and personal diffidence and geniality on the other, was perhaps the reason for his success both at the bar and in Parliament. When MPs reassembled in November, Cowper’s desire to convict the plotters was undiminished, for he attacked Sir John Fenwick’s† defence as ‘trifling with the House’, and supported the bill against him, arguing that far from creating a bad precedent which others might later use to justify arbitrary proceedings, the attainder served ‘to protect the innocent’ because Fenwick had been heard personally as well as by his counsel. When he suggested that without the bill there would be no discovery of who else had been involved in the plot, and that a man deserved to die for his crimes unless he made a confession, Cowper’s speech was interrupted ‘by the noise of some gentlemen showing dissatisfaction at that way of arguing’. His arguments were nevertheless thought to have ‘had the greatest weight in attainting Sir John’, and on 25 Nov. he duly voted in favour of the bill. Besides the security of the state, Cowper was again involved with a bill to regulate elections, being named on 28 Oct. 1696 to prepare this measure, and with the nation’s financial crisis. In the last session, on 12 Dec. 1695, he had been appointed to the committee for the bill to regulate the coinage, and on 14 Jan. 1697 he was one of those named to draw up clauses to explain the recoinage acts. After being granted a three-week leave of absence on 5 Mar., probably to attend to legal business, he told on 15 Apr. in favour of the bill against counterfeit coin, and this activity signalled his allegiance to the chancellor, Charles Montagu*, with whose moderate Whig principles he identified. Indeed, in March 1696 Cowper had supported the Court (and Montagu) on fixing the price of guineas at 22s., and he later claimed to have proposed imposing customs duties in vindication of Montagu’s maxim of ‘raising the supplies within a year’.

The themes of anti-Jacobitism, electoral reform and the problem of the coinage also characterized Cowper’s activity in the 1697–8 session. He chaired the committee of the whole on 18 Dec. 1697 discussing the bill to prevent correspondence with King James, and reported two days later, carrying up the consequent bill to the Lords on the 21st. On 22 Jan. 1698 he was granted leave to bring in a bill to regulate elections, which he duly presented on the 25th. On 11 Apr. he took the chair of the committee of the whole which discussed the bill, and reported from it on the 19th. He also chaired, and reported from, a committee of the whole on the issue of counterfeit coin (26 Mar., 15 Apr.), and on 27 Apr. told in favour of a motion to pass the bill to prevent fraudulent currency. He had again been granted a leave of absence, on 23 Dec. 1697, during the session, but had returned by 10 Jan. 1698, when he told in favour of granting leave for a bill to restrain the wearing of silks and calicoes.

In May 1698 Cowper acted as counsel for the King in the prosecution of Peter Cook, another Jacobite involved in the Assassination Plot, before being chosen again at Hertford at the election in July. He was included upon two lists of placemen at this time, and in September a comparison of the old and new Commons classed him as a Court supporter, but he nevertheless displayed strong Country sensibilities. The notes he took of proceedings in the House in the following session reveal nothing about his own speeches, breaking off on 3 Feb. 1699 just as he himself took the floor, and therefore suggest that at this time Cowper was chiefly observing rather than participating in debates. Indeed, the jottings reveal an apparently detached impartiality, since they record the arguments made by both sides of the House without comment as to which Cowper himself believed to be the stronger. This detachment from the Court was chiefly the result of his concern about the maintenance of a standing army in peacetime, an issue over which he parted company with the ministry. He later recalled that he had supported the Junto only when they were for the ‘true interest of England’, leaving them when ‘they were for armies’, and throughout his future career he was to repeat the rhetoric of remaining faithful to his principles and to the good of the nation, no matter what the government line. He accordingly chaired the committee of supply to fund the disbandment, and his conscientiousness is evident in notes he made of the committee’s debates. Yet his identification with the Court was temporarily blurred, rather than overturned. Even during this session, when he was most alienated from the ministry, he supported the legality of Montagu’s election to the Commons. Moreover, on 6 Apr. he served as a teller in favour of the courtier William Culliford’s* election at Corfe Castle. As chairman of supply and ways and means, a responsibility he first assumed on 9 Jan. 1699, Cowper was zealous in procuring supply, and in addition to chairing, and frequently reporting from, these committees, he also told, during a debate of 25 Apr. 1699 on lotteries, against a motion to suppress the playing of basset, a card game. Such concerns do not account for all his significant activity in this session: on 14 Jan., for example, he was appointed to draft the bill to hinder Catholics from disinheriting their Protestant heirs. On 25 Mar. he took the chair of the committee on the bill to retain in prison those involved in the Assassination Plot.

In March 1699 Cowper’s credit was increased by his performance at the murder trial of Lord Mohun, when he was asked to sum up the evidence in preference to the solicitor-general, (Sir) John Hawles*, whose dullness and mumbling made him difficult to hear and understand. But just as Cowper was beginning to establish a reputation as a first-class lawyer, disaster struck. In July 1699 he had to assist his brother Spencer, who had been indicted on a murder charge which owed much to the feuds at Hertford engendered by William’s own election in 1698. Perhaps finding it prudent to adopt a lower profile, Cowper took a much less active part in the new session. Though he was appointed on 28 Nov. 1699 to draw up the Address, and two days later chaired the first sitting of the supply committee, he thereafter featured little in the records of the House, though on 26 Mar. 1700 he told in favour of an address about appointing to the commission of the peace only those ‘well affected to the King and government’, an important indication of an approach that he himself would one day employ as lord chancellor. Yet Cowper did lend his eloquent voice in support of Lord Somers, defending on 5 Dec. the latter’s commission to Captain Kidd, calling for all the papers and facts to be placed at Members’ disposal, and again two days later when he declared that just as nobody ought to be influenced by great names, so neither should there be any envy or prosecution against men because they were great; the flattering and maligning of them being equally base, and they, as well as all other people ought to have their actions weighed in equal balances.



By the end of William's reign Cowper was a leading player among the whigs. When he spoke against the impeachment of Lord Chancellor Somers in 1701 he was, in effect, endorsing the whigs' continental war policy, and defending the king. With the accession of Queen Anne, renewal of war, and ascendancy of John, duke of Marlborough, and of his formidable duchess, Sarah, Cowper stood well at court. She was his friend and active patron; he would repay the debt with steady loyalty to her and with spirited defence of the duke at his time of disgrace.

At times Cowper's political bias may have affected his legal judgment. In the important test case of Ashby v. White, 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. The House of Lords overruled a judgment of the queen's bench to the effect that no such action lay. The matter being made a question of privilege by the Commons, Cowper argued weightily, but unsuccessfully, that the jurisdiction of the house did not extend to the restraining of the action, yet seems to have weakened his case by admitting that the house was sole judge of the validity of election returns and of the right of the elector to vote. Also in 1704, reflecting the desire of tories to sniff out cases where ministers might be profiteering from war, an information was laid by the attorney-general, by order of the house, against the whig leader Lord Halifax for neglecting, as auditor of the exchequer, to transmit the imprest rolls to the king's remembrancer. Cowper was retained for Halifax's defence. The prosecution broke down owing to a piece of bad Latin in the information. An indignant house censured Cowper for his part in the affair.

In July 1702 Cowper was employed by Montagu in the latter’s dispute with Lord Carmarthen (Peregrine Osborne†) over the auditorship of the Exchequer; but Cowper’s career mirrored the Junto’s ebbing fortunes. Although he retained his seat at the 1702 election, he made little mark on the Journals in the new Parliament, and without diary evidence of his speeches it is difficult to assess his role. On 13 Feb. 1703 he voted for agreeing with the Lords’ amendments to the bill for enlarging the time for taking the oath of abjuration. In January 1704 he spoke for the Whigs in the Aylesbury election case, ‘as learned and hearty as any of the House against the said encroachments of the Lords in meddling with original causes’. Cowper contended that while the Commons must decide election returns ‘we ought not, out of zeal to our own jurisdiction, to go one step further than that known law and custom of Parliament will warrant us to do’. It was thus no violation of rights to allow an elector whose vote was refused to maintain a private action against the returning officer. He feared that the Commons was ‘seeking to reverse a legal judgment given in the subjects’ favour’. The following year, on 28 Feb. 1705, he was named as a manager of the conference with the Upper House over the writs of error issued in the case. In mid-November he was attacked by the Hertfordshire High Tory MPs Ralph Freman II and Charles Caesar, who moved for him to be sent to the Tower for having acted as counsel to Lord Halifax ‘without their leave’, even though the Queen had given him permission to do so. Seymour and the ‘other little dragons’ spewed ‘their innate venom’ against Cowper, but he ‘came off triumphantly with flying colours’. Despite their partisan assault on him, Cowper was sufficiently above party considerations himself to join Freman and Caesar on 13 Jan. 1705 on the drafting committee of a place bill, though the union of Country ideals may soon have dissolved, for William may have been the ‘Mr Cowper’ who was granted a fortnight’s leave of absence on 5 Feb. 1705, possibly on account of his still-thriving legal practice or possibly because he thought it prudent to distance himself from his unusual allies. He had certainly parted company with them earlier, over the Tack, for which he was forecast as a likely opponent. He duly voted against the bill, or was absent from the House, on 28 Nov. 1704.

Such reassurance was necessary, for on the eve of Parliament’s assembly Cowper accepted promotion to the highest legal office, rendering him incapable of sitting any longer in the Lower House, though not before he had been categorized on lists of Members as a placeman and a ‘Low Church courtier’. Rumours had circulated as early as 1701 that he would be chosen as solicitor-general, but without even filling this post he was tipped in June 1705 as the next lord keeper. Cowper himself appeared ‘indifferent’ about the job, though his mother ascribed this to a ‘diffidence within himself about accepting’, and in August she wrote that if her son gained office it would ‘happen to him without his seeking’. As his earlier electioneering showed, Cowper always preferred to be courted rather than to do the courting himself. Halifax may have appreciated this, for in mid-August he took Cowper to a Junto gathering at Boughton, from which Lady Cowper inferred that William’s promotion would follow. Certainly he returned ‘laden with caresses’, although the appointment was not formally announced until October because of opposition from the Queen. Anne preferred to find ‘a moderate Tory for this appointment’, though her scruples had eventually been overcome by Godolphin, who insisted that Cowper ‘was generally thought most proper’ for the job. Cowper was thus the first Whig to enter upon an important state office after the party’s electoral gains in the spring, and was ‘the youngest lord keeper ever known’. ‘Wearing his own hair made him appear yet more so; which the Queen observing obliged him to cut it off, telling him the world would say she had given the seals to a boy.’ It has been suggested that Somers worked closely with Godolphin and Montagu, now Lord Halifax, to promote Cowper, but at the time it was noted that ‘some suspect my Lord S[omer]s is not so hearty as he seems and that he will not be pleased to see an abler man than himself in that post’. Indeed, Cowper himself acknowledged the assistance not so much of the Junto as of Godolphin, the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) and Sarah Churchill. He wrote to Marlborough that he owed his advancement ‘to the sole favour and goodness of my lord treasurer’, and thanked the Duke for his unseen hand . . . without the concurrence of which I think I may certainly conclude it had not been. I have always to the best of my little capacity and power steadily pursued what seemed to me the true interest of England, and was consequently (without hopes of reward) as serviceable as I could to that of the present ministry when it was so plainly struck at in the last Parliament, for which reason I need not use words to assure your Grace I must continue firm to those measures to which I am obliged as well by the dictates of my own judgment as by the strongest ties of gratitude and interest. Your Grace and my lord treasurer are the only persons living I ever received any benefit from: the title of Counsel to the crown was procured for me by Sir Robert Howard* in the late reign, and continued in this as of course to me, not having forfeited so unprofitable a mark of respect only in my profession, and what ever I was else in it was wholly owing to my own industry; so that I was found free from all engagements to any one, when your Grace and lord treasurer were pleased to lift me up and make me not only faithfully and zealously but most entirely yours. And as I left a course of life tending more surely and quickly to increase my estate than the present, and have no satisfaction in the state of this, so I assure your Grace nothing in it is so valuable to me as this privilege of drawing a little nearer to these great men I have always loved and admired at a distance.

This revealing letter suggests that Cowper was no longer prepared to acknowledge the Junto as his patrons. Indeed he claimed never to have received anything from them, and that he had always been an independent Member owing allegiance only to his principles. To some extent of course, as his opposition to the standing army had made plain, this was true; but Cowper was also deliberately distancing himself from the Junto, who had after all tried to find him a replacement seat in the Commons, in order to ingratiate himself with the new dominant political power and to rank himself as a ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whig’. By 1706 it was observed that he was ‘not as tractable nor has that deference for my Lords Somers and Wharton [Hon. Thomas*] as was expected, and is very great with my lord treasurer’. The rhetoric of impartiality, selflessness and interest of the state was a piously and sincerely held political philosophy, and no doubt Cowper was ideologically close to the duumvirs’ design of non-party government for the good of the nation; but it was also a doctrine that promoted Cowper’s own interest. Even financially, Cowper’s move was less selfless than he pretended. While admitting that Cowper’s predecessors extorted huge sums, John Evelyn noted that the total value of the post was still £7,000 a year, and that Cowper had negotiated a £2,000 a year pension whenever he should be dismissed, ‘in compensation of his loss of practice’. The chancellor’s own account books confirm that the profits of the post were generally in excess of £7,000 a year, and chart his growing fortune. He had £4,000 invested in the Bank of England by 1710, and a principal capital of £27,160 two years later, which had grown to £29,100 by December 1714, besides further investments in mortgages, annuities and stocks in the Million Bank and East India Company. The letter to Marlborough is also important because Cowper’s subsequent actions do not show him to have been quite so ‘entirely’ the creature of Godolphin and Marlborough as he professed, or as Swift insinuated when he described Cowper as subservient to all their designs. In 1710 he incurred his patron Godolphin’s indignation as a result of his doubts about the sincerity of France in seeking peace, and, while defending Marlborough the following year, opposed the Duke’s design to be appointed general for life. In any case, he retained his friendship with the Junto, and Somers in particular, employing two of the former chancellor’s clerks, turning to Somers when considering how to reform Chancery, and commissioning Kneller to paint Somers’ portrait. In 1713, when political circumstances had again changed, he referred to Somers as ‘that truly great man’.

As lord keeper, Cowper gained control over ecclesiastical appointments worth less than £40 a year and became the Speaker of the House of Lords, though without a capacity to debate there until his elevation to the peerage in 1706, when he took the title of Wingham, where his family had held land since the time of his great-grandfather. Cowper also stopped the custom of receiving new year gifts from Chancery lawyers because he thought it ‘looked like insinuating themselves into the favour of the court, and that if it was not bribery it came too near it; and as lord chancellor brought the Chancery into the concisest method, by narrowing all unnecessary harangues, and had the bench like an oracle’. He was also responsible for the regulation of the commission of the peace, of which his management has been called an ‘inconspicuous’ policy to give the Whigs a preponderance without proscription for their rivals. Cowper’s career as a peer was far more important than his role as a Commoner. A steadfast supporter of the Protestant succession, he told the elector of Hanover in 1706 that it was ‘impossible to be in the true interest of England, and not to be a fast friend to that succession’. That year his assimilation at Court seemed complete when he deviated from his Country principles far enough to oppose the ‘whimsical clause’ of the regency bill which would have restricted the number of placemen in the Lower House. He played an important part in negotiating the Union with Scotland, ‘the whole weight of which arduous affair he sustained almost alone’. In 1710 he presided over the trial of Dr Sacheverell, and, at the time of the Junto’s dismissal from power, Cowper refused to be drawn by Harley to remain in his post, despite personal pleading by the Queen. Cowper believed that the new ministry would make a bad peace and weaken the Protestant succession ‘which he ever had firmly at heart’, and go ‘high with hereditary right and passive obedience’. His resignation shows his continuing loyalty to the Junto, and to Somers in particular, even though he resolved to ‘be of no party’, and he penned A Letter to Isaac Bickerstaffe in reply to Henry St. John II’s* account of the change of ministry, in which Cowper saw ‘a real conspiracy, not of the Whigs to enslave their sovereign, but of the Tories to enslave the nation’. In 1711 he supported an offensive war in Spain, and in 1714 attacked the treaty of peace and commerce with France as well as the schism bill, which he believed would introduce superstition and irreligion. George I reappointed him as lord chancellor, but by 1718 he was increasingly voting with the Tories, disgusted by the power-lust of some of his colleagues. He resigned that year partly out of fatigue, partly because of factional manoeuvres against him, and partly because of his ‘inviolable attachment to all the royal family not permitting him to act with those who had lately made an unhappy division among the King’s best friends’. He attacked the South Sea scheme, and the enemies he created in doing so accused him of Jacobitism, more as a design to blacken his credit than as an accurate description of his views, though he appears to have come to believe that Parliament was now oppressing the liberties of the subject. In his later years he therefore headed, and to some large degree organized, a cabal of discontented peers who sought to attack and embarrass the administration of the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*)


On 11 October 1705 Cowper succeeded Sir Nathan Wright as lord keeper of the great seal. Favourable words from the duchess of Marlborough may have counted for more than the proven incompetence of Wright. Cowper was ‘not only of the Whig party but of such abilities and integrity as brought new credit to it’ (King, 104), and ‘for many years considered as the man who spoke the best of any in the House of Commons’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 5.220). He insisted, as condition of acceptance, that he should have £2000 equipage money, a salary of £4000, and be raised to the peerage. John Evelyn further states that he stipulated for a pension of £2000 a year in view of his loss of practice. Though it rings true, Evelyn's statement is not confirmed by Cowper's own diary (printed in 1833) which starts at this point and provides until 1714 (after a break between 11 February 1706 and January 1709) a pithy commentary on political life. Perhaps he wrote to solace personal grief, his wife, Judith, having died on 2 April 1705, as did their only son before October of that year. Did he reckon, in vulnerable mood that, with transparency in financial matters, he could ward off the accusations of corruption which were a staple of opposition politics? His first public act was to renounce, in advance, the customary new year's gifts from chancery officials and counsel. When they arrived none the less, he refused them admittance. It made no friends among senior lawyers but enhanced his political reputation as being ‘unique in acceptance by both parties as an honest man’ (Green, 144). Cowper also enjoyed a good reputation with the queen who, though reluctant to accept him as adviser on church patronage, knew him to be devout and found him to be fair.

In April 1706 Cowper was placed on the commission for the treaty of union with Scotland. On 1 May 1707 the Act of Union came into operation. On 4 May Cowper was declared by the queen in council lord high chancellor of Great Britain. The new dignity sealed a political achievement of high importance, a triumph for common sense and realism over the historic enmities and prejudices. Alongside Lord Somers, Cowper had acted as an intermediary and thus achieved prominence in the negotiations preceding the union. Deliberations were kept secret but it may be surmised that the two men, political allies and friends, worked closely together. Cowper's acumen, patience, and good humour, capitalizing on strong political and economic arguments for union and the material inducements on offer, were exactly the qualities needed to bring about the union.

On 18 September 1706 Cowper married Mary (1685–1724), daughter of John Clavering of Chopwell, co. Durham, and his first wife, Anne Thompson [see Cowper, Mary, Countess Cowper]. The marriage was kept secret until the following February. Meanwhile, on 9 October 1706 he was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Cowper of Wingham in Kent. In his first recorded speech in the Lords (5 December 1706) he conveyed to the duke of Marlborough the thanks of the house for the victory of Ramillies. It was gratifying to the whigs, co-operating with Lord Treasurer Godolphin, to see military triumph vindicate their support for Marlborough. By 1709, however, the lord chancellor shared the tories' growing opposition and concern about Marlborough's intentions. Claims that the duke was intriguing to obtain the appointment of commander-in-chief for life prompted Cowper to declare that such a commission was unconstitutional and that he would never put the seal on it. Likewise he also expressed misgivings about the whigs' peace demands: ‘nothing but seeing such great men believe it could ever incline me to think France reduced so low as to accept such conditions’ (Private Diary, 41).

From late February 1710 Cowper presided at the trial of the high-church clergyman Henry Sacheverell in Westminster Hall. An inflammatory sermon denouncing the whigs had provoked ministers (with the exception of Cowper) to impeach Sacheverell for high crimes and misdemeanours. The lord chief justice held that the omission to specify passages invalidated the proceedings. Cowper abstained from expressing an opinion, and on the strength of a precedent from the reign of Charles I it was held immaterial. Sacheverell was found guilty, but lightly sentenced, so was seen to be vindicated and treated as a public hero. Political misjudgement by an unpopular ministry was followed by electoral defeat. Seeking a broad political base, the incoming first minister, Robert Harley, tried frantically to persuade Cowper to stay in office. But on 23 September, deaf even to Anne's pleading, he resigned since ‘to keep in when all my friends are out would be infamous’ (Private Diary, 44).

With Somers infirm Cowper became the effective leader of opposition to the tories now bent on disgracing Marlborough. He responded to Henry St John's attack on the late ministry with a heavy letter in The Tatler accusing the tories of ‘black hypocrisy and prevarication, the servile prostitution of all English principles, and malevolent ambition’ (Scarce and Valuable Tracts … Lord Somers, 2nd edn, 13.71–85). The patriotic theme recurs, as his wife would later express it: ‘he would live a freeman and an Englishman and let them [politicians] have no hold on him on any occasion’ (Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper, 147). In January 1711 he defended past conduct of the war in Spain against the tory charge that the whigs, who had held out for ‘No peace without Spain’, had deprived the earl of Peterborough of the supplies he needed for a successful campaign. In the debate on the address (7 December 1711) he supported Lord Nottingham's amending clause: 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 June 1712 during the debate on negotiations for the peace—he later called it ‘disgraceful’ (Campbell, 4.422)—the tories implied that the reluctance of the Dutch to treat was due to the intrigues of the duke of Marlborough. Cowper riposted: ‘according to our laws it can 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’. It was chivalrous—but an unsound statement of constitutional law. On other issues from this period Cowper spoke for the duke of Wharton's motion, designed to embarrass the tories over the succession issue, that a reward should be proclaimed for the apprehension of the pretender ‘dead or alive’ (8 April 1714). He also led the unsuccessful opposition to the Schism Bill for suppressing dissenters' schools and failed to get it amended in committee. But there was evidently a limit to his idea of toleration. He was, for example, strongly opposed to relief for Roman Catholics and elsewhere equated black people with ‘cattle or inanimate merchandise’.

Opposition had proved a thankless task during the tory ascendancy. However, with the death of Anne (1 August 1714) and the arrival of the elector of Hanover, the situation changed dramatically. Cowper was appointed one of the ‘lords justices’ in whom, by the terms of the Regency Act of 1706, supreme power was vested during the interregnum. He helped engineer the unceremonious exclusion from future office of Henry St John (now Viscount Bolingbroke). Naturally mild-mannered, Cowper could be ruthless in a crisis. On 21 September 1714 he was re-appointed lord chancellor at St James's and on 23 October he proceeded in state to Westminster Hall to take a second oath. It was a theatrical demonstration of the authority of his ancient office. George I treated Cowper with marked respect, the king claiming that he and the duke of Devonshire were ‘the only two [honest and disinterested] I have found in the kingdom’. Cowper took seriously his duty to ensure that the Hanoverian king should be advised about constitutional forms and political realities. He assumed that George would favour the whigs but was obliged to reassure him on a crucial point: ‘It is an old scandal now almost worn out … that they [the whigs] are against the prerogative of the crown’. While lord justice he had composed for George a short and lucid political paper, An Impartial History of Parties (first printed in Campbell, 4.424). Unusual among ministers, Cowper had no French, the language of communication with the king, so it was translated by his wife, Lady Mary, now enjoying influence as lady of the bedchamber to Caroline, princess of Wales. Cowper's recommendations, in which he urged George to avoid coalition ministries, reflected his experience of the previous reigns. Anne might have endorsed it. At the same time he suggested that the opposition should have its fair share of the subordinate places. The argument for a broad base reflects the looming Jacobite threat and the uncertain allegiance of some tories.

None the less, while Cowper might offer carrots, he also kept a stick in hand. It was by his advice, for example, that Lord Chief Justice Trevor was dismissed, in October 1714. On 21 March 1715 Cowper also read George's speech which provoked the tories by its confident expression that the king would ‘recover the reputation of this kingdom in foreign parts’. When Bolingbroke objected to the implied slur on the former monarch, Cowper replied by making a distinction between the queen and her ministry. Reflecting the new balance of power in the Lords, the address was carried by sixty-six to thirty-three. Likewise in the debate (9 July 1715) on the articles of impeachment exhibited against Robert Harley (now earl of Oxford), he argued, mindful of earlier tory tactics and impeachments, that there was sufficient ground for a charge of high treason.

To some, Cowper's approach seemed vindictive, but to him it was a policy justified in the light of the landing in Scotland in September 1715 of James Edward Stuart, the Jacobite claimant to the throne. The ensuing crisis brought out the best in Cowper as he exerted himself to infuse the king and his own colleagues on the bench with his patriotic spirit. Consequently local officials were purged, habeas corpus was suspended, and the recently created Riot Act (effective from August in the wake of earlier anti-dissenting violence) was enforced. Cowper's was a high-risk strategy since such measures led to violent antagonism. None the less it was one that the events of late 1715 fully justified. Cowper appreciated that the Jacobite rising had the potential to produce civil war, and it failed in large part only because of the Old Pretender's lack of resolve. Afterwards in March 1716 Cowper presided, as lord high steward, at the trial of the Jacobite fifth earl of Winton, the only one of the rebel lords who did not plead guilty. Winton's complicity could be proved but he sought an adjournment on the grounds that he had not had time to bring up his most important witnesses. Playing on the common Scottish expression ‘Cupar law’, Winton affected to deplore his being subjected to ‘Cowper law as we used to say in our country, hang a man first and then judge him’. Notwithstanding his complaint, Winton was found guilty and sentenced to death, before his escape to France.

In the following month Cowper argued in favour of the Septennial Bill (10 April), reviewing the corrupting and unsettling effect of the Triennial Act, and declaring that it was necessary ‘for the safety of the state’. In the absence of an official record, only phrases remain from his speeches, with contemporary opinion to recall their power. One such, in February 1718, appears to have been his championship of the Mutiny Bill, which proposed a standing army of 16,000 men and earned him Oxford's strong criticism. To Lady Cowper it was her husband's reputation for ‘honesty and plain dealing’ which proved his dominant political characteristic, often indeed to the alarm of less scrupulous colleagues who feared exposure at his hand. Mary's diary portrays the most loving of wives: ‘I would rather live with him all my life on Bread and Cheese, up three Pair of Stairs than be all the world can make me and at the same time see him suffer’ (Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper, 76). But her support sometimes outran discretion and in 1718 her position drew Cowper into the feud between the king and his son. In January of that year Cowper had opposed a projected bill for providing the king with an annuity of £100,000 with discretion to provide such a part of it as he might think fitting to the maintenance of the prince. From 1714 Cowper had been out of sympathy with the whig chieftains, notably James Stanhope (now Earl Stanhope) and Charles, second Viscount Townshend, with their international ambitions and cut-throat politics. Lady Cowper saw their deteriorating relationships in personal terms: ‘The Lords of Cabinet Council were jealous of his Great Reputation and had a mind to keep him out’ (ibid., 55). Cowper was repelled by the court's conduct and dismayed by the opening it provided for factionalism and anti-Hanoverian sentiment. He had, he believed, ‘more than ordinary reason to … be concerned … having served the crown in capital cases by which I shall be exposed to revenge in case of a re-Revolution’. His decision to resign from the lord chancellorship was not welcomed by the king, who held him in high regard and created him Viscount Fordwiche and Earl Cowper on 18 March 1718. Nevertheless on 15 April he resigned office, ostensibly on the grounds of failing health, though his own declining opinion of the king, based on opposition to George's religious toleration and policy to the royal grandchildren, was probably a more prominent factor. Cowper now retired to his estate, Cole Green near Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire, which, despite its charms, held little attraction for a man who had been at the centre of power. Cowper was soon to show himself vigorous in opposition.

In the Lords, Cowper voted with the tories in their unsuccessful opposition to Stanhope's proposed repeal of the Occasional Conformity Act (1711), which had imposed disabilities on the religious freedom of nonconformists. In February of the following year he supported Robert Walpole in the Commons in his attack on the Peerage Bill, which proposed to fix a numerical limit to the House of Lords. Cowper failed to prevent the bill, when reintroduced, from passing in the Lords, though it was thrown out by the Commons. He also opposed the bill for enabling the South Sea Company (‘contrived for treachery and destruction’) to increase its capital. On 7 April 1720, however, it passed the Lords without a division. A question addressed by Cowper to the ministry concerning an absconding cashier of the company on 23 January 1721 is the earliest recorded instance of such a demand for information.

Vigilance, public spirit, and independence of judgement characterize Cowper's later parliamentary performances in these years. His critics might see a crusty veteran, piqued by exclusion from office, but to admirers he was the elder statesman, relishing the freedom to speak his mind. His scope was wide. On 13 December 1721 he moved the repeal of certain clauses of the Quarantine Act. On 11 January 1722 he called attention to ‘the pernicious practice of building ships of force for the French’ and moved that the judges be ordered to introduce a bill to bring this to an end. One incident, on 3 February 1722, reveals the proud temper of the Lords and of Cowper's role as leader, now with the duke of Wharton as his ally. The incumbent lord chancellor, arriving two hours late for the session in the Lords, then excused himself on the ground that he had been detained by the king in council. Reviving an old custom the Lords had printed a protest, signed by Cowper, in which they affirmed that their house was ‘the greatest council in the kingdom, to which all other councils ought to give way’. On 26 October 1722 Cowper opposed the committal of the duke of Norfolk to the Tower on suspicion of treason, so prompting an innuendo that Cowper was sympathetic to Jacobitism. In the course of his examination before a committee of the House of Commons (January–February 1723) the Jacobite conspirator Christopher Layer said that he had been informed that Cowper was a member of a club of disaffected persons known as Burford's Club. Cowper felt that he had to refute Layer's suggestion publicly. He had no sympathy with Jacobitism, nor for those who used it to blacken their political enemies. Furthermore, renewed attempts within late twentieth-century Jacobite historiography to claim Cowper for the cause have since been effectively undermined (see Jones, ‘Jacobitism and the historian’). None the less, Cowper did oppose the bill of pains and penalties brought against Bishop Atterbury for his involvement in Jacobite plotting, and closed the debate with a protest against the exercise of judicial powers by parliament without formal proceeding by impeachment. In any case, ‘to make or deprive bishops is no part of the business of the state’. Completing a record of spirited opposition to an over-confident executive, on 15 May 1723 Cowper opposed Walpole's bill for ‘laying a tax on Papists’. No government, he held, ‘ever got advantage by persecuting a portion of its subjects’.

On 5 October 1723 Cowper caught a severe cold while travelling from London to Cole Green and there, five days later, he died. His wife survived him by only four months, dying on 5 February 1724. With him she was buried in St Mary's church, Hertingfordbury. The couple were survived by their four children, William (1709–1764), who inherited his father's title, Spencer Cowper (1713–1774), later dean of Durham, Sarah (1707–1758), and Anne (1710–1750). Cowper died on 10 Oct. 1723 at Colne Green, where he had built a house (begun in 1694) and laid out a park, which he directed to be kept ‘as near as may be to the condition they are in when I am absent’. His will thanked God for giving him worldly wealth and ‘for his goodness in supporting me as well against the evil consequences of my sins and follies as against the malice of my enemies and raising me to a condition much better than I have deserved’. He directed that he should be buried at Hertingfordbury ‘with as much privacy as possible, particularly without escutcheons which always cause an undecent tumult’. He left portions of £5,000 and £6,000 for his two legitimate daughters, £200 for Christ’s Hospital, and £100 for the erection of monuments to his father, to his first wife and to himself. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William, and the younger entered holy orders. His second daughter married James Edward Colleton†. His wife died only a few months later, and stated in her own will Cowper’s belief that their son was not to travel because this would involve ‘weeding the vices of foreign countries’.

During his lifetime Cowper was frequently the subject of praise as an example to other public figures. In the 1710s he had befriended the poet and librettist John Hughes, securing (1717) and later retaining for him the position of secretary to the commissions of the peace in the court of chancery. Hughes repaid Cowper's friendship with an ode in his honour. More impressive was the testimony provided in The Spectator essay attributed to Hughes (no. 467, 26 August 1712), in which Cowper, as Manilius, was singled out for his ‘courtly manners’ and ‘the undesigning Honesty by which he attained the Honours he has enjoy'd’. This man would ever be ‘the principal figure in the room’, a good listener, one ‘who knew how to appear free and open without Danger of Intrusion and to be cautious without seeming reserved’ (The Spectator, ed. D. F. Bond, 5 vols., 1965, 4.151, 154). For Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield, he was a consummate orator, while Alexander Pope hit on what many may have recognized:
Twas ‘Sir Your law’—‘Sir, your eloquence’—
Yours Cowper's manner and yours Talbot's sense

With its implication that Cowper's presence and style were more notable than his grasp of law. It is possible to point to deficiencies there, camouflaged by skill and experience in advocacy. Rather impracticable as a colleague is possibly how ministers found him. Beyond argument he was an upright man, with a sense of responsibility for the good of the state that transcended party allegiance or personal advantage. That, with his prime role in great events, led Lord Campbell in his Lives of the Lord Chancellors (1845–69) to regret that he did not draw on his experience to write, like Gilbert Burnet, a history of his times. His obituary notice (Historical Register, 1723) referred thus to his resignation in 1718: ‘By his wisdom and moderation he had gained abundance of friends to the king, kept steady many wavering minds, brought the clergy to a better temper and hindered some, hot over-zealous spirits from running things to dangerous extremes’. These words, in measure and tone so much of the temper of the calmer times he lived to see, may fairly serve as a summary of Cowper's place in history.

Cowper’s contemporary friends and admirers believed that he was ‘the most accomplished lawyer, civilian and statesman that England bore for many ages past’. He had ‘a bright, quick, penetrating genius; an exact and sound judgment’, but it was his ‘manly and flowing eloquence’ that really attracted admiration, for he had ‘a clear sonorous voice, a gracious aspect, an easy address, in a word all that’s necessary to form a complete orator’. He apparently always chose the right moment to speak, and then did so ‘from the bottom of his heart without any secret reservation’. His skilful style made him ‘much the finest speaker of all the lawyers in England’, and he became ‘highly renowned for his masterly eloquence’. Rather than weaken his powers of persuasion, his disdain for the formal etiquette normally used in the courts and his natural diffidence may have given his rhetoric even greater credibility. Certainly he was ‘considered the man who spoke the best in the House of Commons’, despite Lord Chesterfield’s subsequent assertion that Cowper often ‘hazarded’ a weak line of reasoning.

serve his country. Yet behind the rhetoric of public interest, no matter how deeply or sincerely the idea was held, there was a close identification of the nation’s good with his own actions and a hint of self-justification for a worldly success which part of him both feared and despised. Swift shrewdly, if partisanly, observed that Cowper’s ‘way of managing an argument . . . made him apt to deceive the unwary and sometimes to deceive himself’. The best example of the different levels at which his rhetoric can be taken is his far from ‘impartial history of parties’, in which he made it clear to the new Hanoverian King how valuable Cowper himself had been in former ministries, and how reliance on the Whigs alone was the only sensible course for King George to adopt. The history’s moderation lay only in its recommendation of how the Tory losers were to be treated. Indeed, some notes in Cowper’s almanac for 1714 (perhaps forming an ‘addendum’ to his impartial history) warned that the Tories wanted to abrogate the Toleration Act, make Convocation a spiritual Parliament and put the Church before the King. The documents suggest that Cowper wished his statements to be taken at face value, but that, with all the instinct and skill of a professional lawyer, he was often working to a hidden brief, however sincerely held. Yet Cowper’s ‘integrity, moderation, candour, humanity [and] disinterestedness gained him the esteem of all good men’. Certainly Arthur Maynwaring* thought he had ‘an integrity very rare in his corrupt age’, and contemporaries described him as a man of learning, meekness, humility and probity,

          By no superiors awed, no interest led,
          with him, not party, but his conscience swayed.




Geoffrey Treasure DNB

Artist biography

Richardson, Jonathan, the elder (1667–1745), portrait painter and writer, was born on 12 January 1667 in the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate, London, and baptized at St Botolph's on 17 January, the son of William Richardson (c.1620–1672), silk weaver and citizen of London, and his wife, Mary. Richardson's mother remarried, and about 1681 his stepfather apprenticed him to a scrivener. After six unhappy years he was released from his apprenticeship and began training to be a painter, for which he had a ‘strong inclination’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.23). His chosen master was the English-born portrait painter John Riley, with whom he lived until Riley's death in 1691. In early 1693 (in Lincoln's Inn chapel) he married Elizabeth Bray (c.1671–1726), a close relation of Riley's. Richardson may have taken over Riley's house and studio in Lincoln's Inn Fields, for from at least as early as 1703 (the date of the earliest extant list of occupants) until 1724 he lived in Holborn Row, Lincoln's Inn Fields. Elizabeth Richardson bore eleven children between 1694 and 1711, most of whom seem to have survived infancy; she died in January 1726. The eldest son, Jonathan Richardson the younger (1694–1771), who was born on 14 February 1694 and baptized the same day at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London, shared many of his father's literary and artistic interests. Although Horace Walpole states that he ‘painted a little’, and the sale catalogue of his collection included a few of his own drawings, Richardson the younger was raised as a gentleman, not a professional artist, and none of his works are identifiable today. His education included the acquisition of foreign and classical languages and, unlike his father, he travelled abroad (to Holland, Flanders, France, and Italy in 1716 and 1720).

Richardson the elder quickly established himself as a leading portraitist, and by 1705 was commanding prices for his pictures that were comparable to those of Sir Godfrey Kneller, the most fashionable portrait painter in England at the time. George Vertue placed Richardson, along with Kneller, Michael Dahl, and Charles Jervas, in the élite group of portraitists who led the field ‘in great business and esteem amongst people of Quality’ (Vertue, Note books, 3.138). He painted a wide range of aristocratic and professional sitters, including members of noble English and Scottish families (such as those of the first earl of Rockingham, the second earl of Oxford, the second duke of Queensberry, the first duke of Montrose, and the first duke of Roxburghe), eminent writers (including Alexander Pope, Matthew Prior, and Richard Steele), and prominent medical men such as Richard Mead, William Cheselden, and Sir Hans Sloane (whose full-length portrait by Richardson hangs in the examination schools, Oxford). Although he declined two invitations to be court painter, he executed a full-length portrait of Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1736 (now in Warwick Castle). In 1725 Richardson moved to Queen Square, Bloomsbury, where he lived for the rest of his life. After about 1730 his professional output of paintings decreased, and he gave up business entirely at the end of 1740. His students included Thomas Hudson (who married his daughter Mary), George Knapton, and the poet John Dyer.

Richardson was a productive and skilled draughtsman, especially during the last fifteen years of his life, when he executed numerous portrait drawings in two media: small lead-on-vellum studies, mainly of friends and family members; and larger chalk drawings (often on blue paper) which included many self-portraits and portraits of his eldest son. Very few of his drawings were preparatory sketches for paintings; they were finished works (sometimes derived from paintings or pencil sketches) produced for his own retention. After being preserved by his son, they were sold with Richardson the younger's drawing collection on 5 February 1772. Numerous examples survive in the British Museum and elsewhere.

Richardson also collected drawings by earlier masters and by the time of his death had amassed one of the largest and finest collections in Britain, containing nearly 5000 examples which were carefully mounted, annotated, and methodically arranged. It contained works from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, by Flemish, Dutch, British, and, above all, Italian artists. His collection was sold in 1747, and dispersed among numerous other collectors, including Thomas Hudson, the duke of Devonshire, and General John Guise. Drawings from Richardson's collection are identifiable by his distinctive collector's marks; some (including numerous examples at Christ Church, Oxford, from the Guise collection) still retain his mounts, on which he recorded attributions, shelf-marks, and observations about the drawings' provenance or significance.

Richardson was the most important and prolific English writer on art of the first half of the eighteenth century, publishing An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), Two discourses: I. An essay on the whole art of criticism as it relates to painting, and II. An argument in behalf of the science of a connoisseur (1719), and (with his son Jonathan the younger) An account of some of the statues, bas-reliefs, drawings and pictures in Italy, &c. with remarks (1722). Second editions of the first two books appeared in 1725, and a two-volume French translation of all three, with revisions and additions, was published in Amsterdam in 1728, entitled: Traité de la peinture et de la sculpture. In 1754 a second edition of An account was issued, followed by edited versions of The Works of Jonathan Richardson in 1778 and 1792. Richardson's books were widely read, and the influence of many of their central ideas can be traced in Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses.

Richardson wrote for a wide readership, at a time when middle-class as well as aristocratic English men and women were purchasing unprecedented numbers of pictures. While never belittling painting's decorative appeal and the requirement of skilled craftsmanship, he sought to educate English artists and consumers about the intellectual and instructional potential of painting. In many of its basic principles his art theory resembles that formulated in seventeenth-century academic French and Italian contexts, but Richardson used language and examples (notably Raphael's tapestry cartoons, displayed at Hampton Court) which were familiar to English readers. He also argued that portrait painting, the dominant genre practised by English artists, deserved higher esteem than its traditional placement below history painting. Richardson defended his countrymen's abilities as artists and connoisseurs against the established authority of continental taste. In doing so, he drew heavily upon the empirical philosophy of John Locke. For instance, in the first of his Two discourses he argued that anyone who could make methodical observations, compare ideas, and think rationally could learn to distinguish the quality, authorship, and originality of paintings. These principles were exemplified by An account, wherein Richardson, using notes taken by Jonathan the younger on a trip to France and Italy in 1720, disagreed with many accepted evaluations of ancient and modern artworks. Most contentiously, he pronounced Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican to be inferior to the cartoons at Hampton Court.

Throughout his life Richardson and his son Jonathan had literary interests and aspirations, which were encouraged by their friends Alexander Pope and Matthew Prior. He was particularly devoted to John Milton's Paradise Lost and, partly in response to Richard Bentley's edition of the text in 1732, published Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton's Paradise Lost in 1734, written with Richardson the younger. The intimacy and harmony with which the Richardsons lived and collaborated was frequently commented upon by contemporaries, including Pope, who called them ‘two such lovers of one another, and two such lovers of the fine arts’ (The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. G. Sherburn, 5 vols., 1956, vol. 2, pp. 140–41). The elder Richardson also wrote a copious body of poetry, selections from which were prepared for the press by Jonathan the younger and published posthumously as Morning Thoughts in 1776. Other poems, such as his lengthy ‘Hymn to God’, which he dedicated to his children in 1712, survive in manuscript.

Richardson died suddenly but peacefully in London (upon sitting down in his chair after his customary walk in St James's Park) at his home in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, on 28 May 1745. His friend Thomas Birch preached the funeral sermon, and Richardson was buried in the chancel of the church of St Michael, Wood Street, on 1 June 1745. In 1776 his son's Richardsoniana, or, Occasional Reflections on the Moral Nature of Man, was posthumously published, a volume incorporating observations from ancient and modern authors, and anecdotes about his father and other contemporaries. Richardson the younger died in London in June 1771 and was buried on 15 June in the church of St George the Martyr, London. He was unmarried.

Carol Gibson-Wood  DNB