William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper

William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper

William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, FRS (c. 1665 – October 10, 1723), Lord Chancellor of England, was the son of Sir William Cowper, 2nd Baronet, 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. He 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 Cowper 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 December 14 1706 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 March 18, 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 near Panshanger on 10 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, in 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. Spencer 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 great uncle of William Cowper, the poet.

The 1st Earl left two sons and two daughters by his second wife, the elder of whom inherited his titles.


See "Private Diary of Earl Cowper", edited by EC 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); TB Howell, "State Trials", vol. xii.-xv. (33 vols, London, 1809-1828); GEC, "Complete Peerage" (London, 1889).


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