COWPER, Sir William, 2nd Bt. (1639-1706), of The Castle, Hertford.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1679

Family and Education

bap. 14 Dec. 1639, o.s. of John Cowper (d.1643) of Hertford by Martha, da. of George Hukeley, merchant, of London. educ. G. Inn 1659. m. lic. 8 Apr. 1664, Sarah (d. 3 Feb. 1720), da. of Samuel Holled, merchant, of London, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) suc. gdfa. 20 Dec. 1664.1

Offices Held

Commr. for inquiry into recusancy fines, Herts. 1687-Oct. 1688; j.p. Herts. by Apr. 1688-d., Mdx. 1689-d.; dep. lt. Herts. 1689-d.; commr. for assessment, Herts. and Mdx. 1689-90.2


Cowper’s father, the elder brother of James Cowper, died in Ely House under imprisonment as a Royalist. Little is known of Cowper’s early life; he was accepted by the Earl of Shaftesbury (Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper) as a kinsman, though no relationship can be established, and frequently visited him in the Tower in 1678 as one of his trustees. A member of the Green Ribbon Club, he stood for Hertford at the second election of 1679, probably with the support of the dissenters, since his election agent was one of the leading Quakers in the town. He was returned top of the poll, and with his colleague Sir Thomas Byde launched the Hertfordshire petition against the delays in the assembly of the second Exclusion Parliament. When it met he was moderately active, serving on five committees, of which the most important were to consider the bill regulating parliamentary elections, and to inspect the pardon given to the informer Dangerfield. He made three speeches. On 15 Dec. 1680 he denied that it was the expulsion of the Roman Catholic heir to the throne which required Sweden to keep up a standing army. ‘Unless you banish the Duke as well as the Papists’, he told the House, ‘we can have no hope of preserving the Protestant religion and the quiet of the nation’. But in view of the rejection of the exclusion bill in the Lords, he supported as ‘the next best thing’ the Association proposed by William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish. He favoured the dismissal of Lawrence Hyde I, because whoever was against exclusion was against their religion and their liberty. He was re-elected to the Oxford Parliament, in which he seconded the motion of Sir John Hotham for publishing the resolutions agreed by the House:

Let men think what they please, the weight of England is the people, and the world will find that they will sink Popery at last.

He was appointed to the committee to draw up the third exclusion bill, and back in London served on the Middlesex grand jury which indicted Danby for the Godfrey murder. He was himself indicted later in the year for reflecting on some of the Hertford magistrates, and was alleged to have said that if Parliament voted a supply, the King would bring in arbitrary government and Popery. Already a marked man, he was not deterred from standing bail for Shaftesbury; and after the Rye House Plot he was himself required to find bail of £3,000.3

Cowper probably became a Whig collaborator under James II, as he acted in the commission to inquire into recusancy fines and as a j.p. He regained his seat at the general election of 1689, and became a moderately active Member of the Convention, in which he was named to 14 committees. In the debate on the state of the nation on 28 Jan., he proposed going into grand committee. A week later he joined in the complaint about the bailing of Brent, the ‘Popish solicitor’. He was among those appointed to inquire into the authors and advisers of grievances, to examine James II’s treasury solicitors, and to consider the toleration bill. In the second session he served on the committees to inquire into the miscarriages of the war and to hear a petition from three informers. He was listed as supporting the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations, and remained a court Whig under William III. He died of apoplexy on 26 Nov. 1706, leaving an estate of £2,500 p.a. to his elder son, MP for Hertford 1695-1700 and subsequently lord chancellor. His younger son, Spencer Cowper, also served in Parliament as MP for Bere Alston and Truro before receiving a judgeship in 1727.4

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: E. R. Edwards


  • 1. VCH Herts. Fams. 138.
  • 2. Mdx. RO, MJP/CP5a; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 1695, 1983.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1677-8, p. 235; 1680-1, pp. 363, 524; July-Sept. 1683, p. 318; 1684-5, p. 39; Dom. Intell. 5 Sept. 1679; HMC Lindsey, 30; Grey, viii. 160, 162, 293; ix. 50; Somers Tracts, viii. 407; Luttrell, i. 148.
  • 4. HMC Downshire, i. 287; Grey, ix. 50; Luttrell, vi. 109, 111.