COTTON, Sir Robert I (1644-1717), of Hatley St. George, Cambs.
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Family and Education
bap. 2 May 1644, 3rd s. of Sir Thomas Cotton, 2nd Bt.†, of Conington Castle, Hunts., being 1st surv. s. by 2nd w. Alice, da. and h. of Sir John Constable of Dromanby, Yorks., wid. of Edmund Anderson of Eyworth, Beds.; half-bro. of John Cotton I. m. lic. 4 July 1663, ‘aged 21’, Gertrude (d. 17 Aug. 1701), da. of William Morice I of Werrington, Devon, 1s. d.v.p. 1da. Kntd. 3 June 1663.1
Commr. for assessment, Cambs. 1664-80, 1689-90, j.p. 1672-Mar. 1688, 1689-d., commr. for recusants 1675; freeman, Cambridge 1679; dep. lt. Cambs. 1685-Mar. 1688, Oct. 1688-d.; sheriff, Cambs. and Hunts. Jan.-Nov. 1688; commr. for pontage, Cambridge 1692.2
Jt. postmaster gen. 1691-1708.3
Although Cotton settled in Cambridgeshire on his marriage, he appears, like Sir Levinus Bennet, to have taken no part in politics before the exclusion crisis. At the second election of 1679 they defeated the country candidates Gerard Russell and Edward Partherich. As ‘Mr Cotton’ he may have been moderately active, with three committees in the second Exclusion Parliament, the most important being for relief from arbitrary fines. He took no known part in the Oxford Parliament, and in James II’s Parliament he was named only to the committee on the bill for exporting leather. His answers on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws are not extant, but his attitude cannot have been satisfactory to the Government, for the King’s agents recommended his removal from local office.
After the Revolution Lord Danby (Sir Thomas Osborne) unsuccessfully recommended Cotton for employment. In the Convention he voted to agree with the Lords that the throne was not vacant. In other respects his record cannot be entirely distinguished from that of the Cheshire Member, but he was probably very active, making some 20 speeches, serving on up to 80 committees, and telling in four divisions. If so, he was appointed to the committees for securing religion, laws and liberties, to consider the suspension of habeas corpus, and to inquire into the authors and advisers of grievances. He helped to draw up the address for the suppression of the mutiny at Ipswich. The first recorded speech definitely ascribed to the Member for Cambridgeshire was on 28 Mar. 1689, when he opposed the proviso to the coronation oath to permit alterations in religion. He was named to the committees for the repeal of the Corporations Act and for the toleration bill. He wished to agree to the Lords’ amendment exempting the clergy from the new oath of allegiance, and was appointed to a small committee on 24 Apr. to search for precedents. He recommended himself to the new regime by praising the King’s leniency and serving on all the committees to naturalize his Dutch cousins and advisers. He took the chair for the bill naturalizing Auverquerque and Zuylestein, and on 29 Apr. carried it to the Upper House. On the question of exclusion from indemnity he urged specifying offenders rather than offences, which would
leave such jealousies in people as that they will not think themselves safe; it will go so large I fear it will hazard the peace and safety of the nation. The great wheels, the primum mobiles, that have gone so violently and brought us into this confusion, I move that you will proceed against them.
Cotton took the chair in the committee considering the petition of George Speke. He acted as teller for the bill for better ordering the forces on 21 May, but against the suspension of habeas corpus, which he had strongly opposed both on second and third readings:
As an Englishman, I am jealous of our liberties, and will not give my vote to betray them. ... If this was for suspicion of fact by words, or any ground of reasonable suspicion; but when the suspicion has no ground but upon private resentments, and that not so open, and not known why suspected, this alters the very reason of the law of habeas corpus.
He agreed that the verdict on Titus Oates had been illegal, but opposed ‘clogging’ the resolution with allegations of corruption. ‘Nothing will more settle the nation than a quiet, peaceable spirit among ourselves’, he told the House on 12 June, and he defended the records of (Sir) Robert Sawyer and Bishop Sprat of Rochester in the last reign. He was appointed to the committee for the bill of rights and settlement, and helped to draw up the address for leave to inspect the entries about Ireland in the Privy Council registers and to consider the charges of malversation against William Harbord.4
In the second session Cotton was named to the committees on the expenses and miscarriages of the war and for the mutiny bill. He helped to draw up the address to ask who was responsible for the appointment of Commissary Shales and to prepare a report on the state of the revenue. He spoke against reducing Princess Anne’s income, and acted as teller against the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations. He continued to defend Sawyer’s conduct, even in the trial of Sir Thomas Armstrong; ‘as Sawyer did his duty to the King, so he did to the prisoner’, he told the House on 20 Jan. 1690, though the Whigs suspected that ‘all this fencing’ was less to save Sawyer than the Hon. Heneage Finch I.5
With Thomas Frankland, Cotton became joint postmaster-general on the dismissal of John Wildman I in 1691, and as a placeman voted with the Government. He retired from office in 1708 on the grounds of age, though he did not die until 12 Sept. 1717. He seems to have been distressed for money in his last years. His daughter brought the Hatley property, on which he had erected a fine house, to her husband, Samuel Trefusis.6
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. F. A. Blaydes, Gen. Bed. 110; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster 337; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 171; Top. and Gen. iii. 40.
- 2. C. H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii. 582; iv. 19.
- 3. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1037; xxii. 345.
- 4. Browning, Danby, ii. 160; CJ, x. 49, 100, 110, 139, 151, 204; Grey, ix. 202, 212, 246, 266-7, 274, 293, 296, 361, 384.
- 5. CJ, x. 296, 329; Grey, ix. 497, 535.
- 6. Pol. State, xiv. 303; Cal. Treas. Pprs. iv. 363.