COWPER, Hon. Edward Spencer (1779-1823), of Digswell, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1802 - Jan. 1817

Family and Education

b. 16 July 1779, at Florence, 3rd s. of George Nassau Clavering Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper, by Anna, da. of Charles Gore of Southampton and Florence. educ. Kensington 1789-91; Charterhouse 1794-6; St. John’s, Camb. 1796-8; M. Temple 1797; European tour 1801-2. m. 23 May 1808, Catherine, da. of Thomas March Phillipps of Garendon Park, Leics., s.p.

Offices Held

Capt. Hertford vols. 1803-8.


Cowper’s father, the connoisseur 3rd Earl, resided most of his life at Florence, being ‘the first Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in the Cowper family’1 and, on that account, a constant butt of Horace Walpole’s ridicule. After his death in 1789 his three sons came to England to be educated; Edward, the youngest, to whom his elder cousin Henry Cowper acted ‘the part of a father’, resided at Digswell, provided for him by his brother Peter, Lord Cowper. In 1802 he was returned unopposed for Hertford, which his father had represented before leaving England and where the family retained an interest.

‘As I did not wish to be considered one of those Members whose mouths were to be hermetically sealed’, he informed his brother, ‘I determined to break the ice the first convenient opportunity’: his was ‘the first oratorical maidenhead lost this Parliament’. He spoke for about ten minutes in favour of the inquiry into naval abuses, 14 Dec. 1802, ‘with very little hesitation and without betraying any great symptoms of being in a funk’. Lady Melbourne assured Lord Cowper that the speech was received with

great encomiums from all parties; they say his manner was uncommonly pleasing and gentlemanlike, and the matter very sensible and well expressed. I wish I had not to add that he spoke with great approbation of the present ministry and concluded with promises of support; indeed this seems to have been his principal reason for speaking as there was no question before the House.

Fox reported, 1 Jan. 1803, ‘There have been two young speakers, Kinnaird and Lord Cowper’s brother, by what I hear the latter the most promising’.2

Unless he was the ‘Mr Cooper’ who in a speech of 10 May 1803 was critical of the effects of long delays in the hearing of election petitions, Cowper did not again feature as an orator. He voted with the minority for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s finances, 4 Mar. 1803. On 3 June he supported Pitt’s question for the orders of the day and on 8 Mar. 1804 was listed as one of Pitt’s friends who stayed away on the previous night’s divisions on the Irish government’s handling of Emmet’s rising.3 He joined Pitt and Fox in the divisions of 15 Mar., 12, 16, 23 and 25 Apr. 1804 and, after his return to power, applied to Pitt (28 July) to succeed the Hon. Henry Wellesley to a seat at the Treasury board, which he described as being ‘very much my wish and object to obtain’.4 He did not obtain it, but was listed a supporter of Pitt, 1804-5, although he voted for the censure of Melville, 8 Apr., was proposed by Whitbread for a select committee to investigate the charges against him, 25 Apr., and further voted for Melville’s criminal prosecution, 12 June 1805.

Cowper was reported to be one of those Pittites disgruntled at their exclusion from the Grenville ministry in February 1806.5 He went on to vote against them on Ellenborough’s seat in the cabinet, 3 Mar., against the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and on the Hampshire petition, 13 Feb. 1807. A contest had threatened him at the election of 1806, but had come to nothing. Nevertheless, he was listed a ‘staunch friend’ to the ministry’s abolition of the slave trade and on 9 Apr. 1807 he voted for Brand’s motion against their successors: he was a supporter of Catholic relief. His brother’s marriage to Lord Melbourne’s daughter Emily in 1805 had further drawn him into the Whig orbit. On 26 June 1807 he voted with them against the address, and on 29 Apr. and 5 May 1808 against the inadequate grant for Catholic priests’ education at Maynooth College. It was probably he, rather than Edward Synge Cooper who voted with opposition on the Duke of York’s question, 17 Mar. 1809, and on ministerial corruption, 25 Apr. His further votes with the Whigs on the address, 23 Jan., and on the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan., 5 and 30 Mar. 1810, made them ‘hopeful’ of him. He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. On 1 Jan. 1811 he was in the opposition majority on the Regency, but absent on 21 Jan., and his only known vote for the rest of that Parliament was in favour of Catholic relief, 24 Apr. 1812. He survived a contest directed against him at the ensuing election, but was ill received on the hustings.6

Cowper was not listed as a supporter of theirs by Liverpool’s government. He voted for Catholic relief throughout in 1813 and for Christian missions to India, 22 June 1813. (In 1806, as an East India Company stockholder, he was entitled to three votes for the directorate.) Afterwards he sank without trace, except for a grant of leave of absence for ill health, 22 May 1815. Early in 1817 he vacated his seat, letting in his ministerial opponent of 1812, Viscount Cranborne. He died at Nice, ‘where he had gone for the recovery of his health’, 1 Feb. 1823, He left a connoisseur’s collection of drawings and engravings.7

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. M. L. Boyle, Biog. Cat. of the Portraits at Panshanger, 308, 334, 404. Shortly before his death Earl Cowper wrote to the King asking to be made a duke or marquess and minister to Tuscany, ‘as it is impossible for me after 30 years’ residence in Italy to live out of it’, Geo. III Corresp. i. 531.
  • 2. Herts RO, Spencer Cowper mss, box 49, Cowper to Earl Cowper, 19 Dec.; box 13, Lady Melbourne to same, 21 Dec. 1802; Fox Corresp. iii. 209.
  • 3. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 8 Mar. 1804.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/126, f. 180.
  • 5. D. M. Stuart, Dearest Bess, 137.
  • 6. Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 187, 189.
  • 7. Gent. Mag. (1823), i. 281; PCC 269 Richards.