LOWNDES, William (1652-1724), of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, Mdx.; Winslow and Chesham, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1695 - 1715
1715 - 1722
27 Oct. 1722 - 20 Jan. 1724

Family and Education

b. 1 Nov. 1652, yr. s. of Robert Lowndes (d. 1683) of Winslow, by Elizabeth, da. of Peter Fitzwilliams.  educ. free sch. Buckingham.  m. (1) 26 Oct. 1679, Elizabeth (d. 1680), da. of Sir Roger Harsnett of Dulwich, Kent, Treasury serjeant, 1s.; (2) 25 Nov. 1683, Jane (d. 1685), da. of Simon Hopper of Richmond, Surr., 1da. (d.v.p.); (3) 12 July 1686, Elizabeth (d. 1689), da. of Rev. Richard Martyn DD, 1s. 1da. (d.v.p.); (4) 29 Nov. 1691, Rebecca (d. 1742), da. of John Shales, auditor of Exchequer 1678–95, 7s. (5 d.v.p.) 7da. (3 d.v.p.).1

Offices Held

Clerk, Treasury c.1675, chief clerk 1689, sec. 1695–June 1711, senior sec. June 1711–d.; serjeant-at-arms, Treasury 1682; agent for taxes 1685–?89.2

Surveyor of the blowing houses, Cornw. and Devon 1679; king’s waiter, port of London 1680.3

Commr. Million Act 1694, for Greenwich Hosp. 1695–1704, taking subscriptions to land bank 1696, taking subscriptions to South Sea Co. 1711.4

Freeman, Seaford 1695.5


Lowndes occupies a position of pre-eminence in the annals of the Treasury where he was secretary for almost 30 years. An outstanding civil servant, he is justly seen by modern historians as ‘one of the stabilising factors in the financial history of the period’, and as having ‘masterminded the technical framework of the financial revolution’. He was steeped in the world of Treasury minutiae, and his financial expertise and inventiveness made him indispensable to any administration. Politics encroached rarely, if ever, upon his time-consuming and all-engrossing tasks at the Treasury, and though his political instincts might sometimes appear faintly Whiggish, servitude to the practicalities of state was his prime consideration. It was probably owing to his aloofness from party warfare that he was never mired with the taint of peculation but was respected throughout his career as a man of decency and piety. Despite being one of the most familiar government figures in the House over a long period of time, he remains a shadowy figure. On casual acquaintance he left the impression of being ‘a sociable, good companion’ and ‘an honest good Churchman’; and there were those in search of government favour, such as Lord Bellomont (Richard Coote*), who flattered him as ‘a good Englishman and a man of public spirit’. But in the midst of his work government colleagues found him somewhat exacting and with an irritating air of abstraction. Under-Secretary Vernon (James I*) once remarked,

it is a terrible thing to solicit a man that hath so many things in his head. I never yet found the happy moment when anything I could say to him made the least impression upon him. He serves very well in his own way and therefore I am one of those [who] would leave him to it.6

Lowndes’s forebears, originally from Cheshire, had been settled in the Buckinghamshire parish of Winslow since the early 16th century. The family were impoverished minor gentry and Lowndes’s formal education went no further than his attendance at a local free school. His father had avoided taking sides during the Civil War by emigrating temporarily to the American colonies, only returning after Charles I’s execution. This paternal example was not lost on his son William who all his life avoided political controversy. In 1667 Lowndes went to live in London. It is not certain when or how he initially obtained employment in the Treasury, unless it was through the offices of a relation, Thomas Lowndes, then serving as an excise clerk in the Treasury. Lowndes became a Treasury clerk in around 1675, though whether he had occupied a lowlier position before then is not known. His abilities were recognized early on and he impressed Charles II in 1676 with the thoroughness of his investigations into suspect claims for compensation by sub-farmers of the coffee duties following the King’s abortive attempt to suppress coffee-houses. He attended the Treasury Board during meetings at Newmarket and Windsor, as well as at Whitehall, and in 1677 began his long association with Parliament, liaising with the Commons clerks and himself acting as a parliamentary draftsman in Treasury-related business. Lord Treasurer Danby (Sir Thomas Osborne†) granted him a customs sinecure in 1679 along with the reversion to a minor place in the Duchy of Cornwall. From 1680 he began deputizing for his superior, Henry Guy*, the secretary to the Treasury, and it was under Guy’s patronage that in 1685 he was appointed an agent for taxes with a salary of £200.7

Guy’s incarceration in the Tower in February 1695 on charges of corruption marked the turning-point in Lowndes’s career. On the orders of the Treasury lords Lowndes immediately took over the duties of Guy’s office, but the question of who would succeed remained open for several months while he officiated as acting secretary. The choice of Lowndes to replace Guy was a direct consequence of the struggle which had broken out in the closing months of 1694 between Lord Sunderland and the Junto leaders Charles Montagu* and Hon. Thomas Wharton*. Guy was one of several allies and associates of Sunderland targeted for destruction, but despite Guy’s fall, the King’s continued backing for Sunderland had largely defused the situation by the spring of 1695. It was thus through Sunderland’s intercession that Guy continued to enjoy royal confidence, and though it was not appropriate for him to resume his office at the Treasury, he was allowed to nominate his successor. He chose Lowndes, who kissed the King’s hand for the post on 24 Apr. It was a shrewd move on Guy’s part, knowing Lowndes’s mastery in Treasury matters but almost complete lack of political backing and experience. Through him, Guy, and ultimately Sunderland, expected to maintain their influence at the Treasury, and in particular to control the disbursement of secret service money. Lowndes, finding himself the incumbent of an office requiring considerable political skill, was only too happy with an arrangement that enabled him to call upon Guy for guidance. Accordingly, he agreed that Guy should continue to have the profits of the office while restricting himself to a salary of £1,000 (later increased to £1,200), a comparatively meagre sum for such a senior position. In 1702 he explained to the public accounts committee that the arrangement was a private one which had the King’s sanction, and hoped it would be regarded ‘as a grateful and honest thing in him to make an acknowledgement to a person he had been so beholden to’.8

In the 1695 general election Lowndes entered Parliament for Seaford. The seat appears to have been made available to him by the Pelham family, and in particular by Thomas Pelham I*, a former member of the Treasury Board with whom Lowndes would have been acquainted. Lowndes’s initial difficulties of political inexperience were exemplified in the summer over the King’s desire to make a grant of crown lands in Denbighshire to his favourite, the Earl of Portland. Writing to Portland in August, Guy assured him ‘poor Mr Lowndes hath a true zeal to serve [Portland] in this matter; but doth not know which way to turn’. During the summer of 1695, however, Lowndes’s attention was increasingly absorbed in the government’s efforts to resolve the escalating coinage crisis. Although there was little doubt about the need to recoin silver specie, ministerial opinion was divided over whether there should be an accompanying devaluation. Lowndes has often been seen as the leading theoretician and exponent of devaluation, becoming embroiled in what amounted to a public controversy on the subject with the philosopher John Locke. Closer examination of Lowndes’s involvement in the deliberations that took place during the summer and autumn of 1695 suggests, however, that his contribution was rather less original than has been claimed, and that his new office possibly required him to uphold a position with which he did not wholeheartedly agree. The ‘controversy’ alleged to have existed between Locke and Lowndes was in fact little more than a polite airing of opposite views, though the accompanying outpouring of pamphlets on the issue by other authors has given the impression of a heated debate between them. A select committee on coin-clipping chaired by Francis Scobell had produced a set of resolutions outlining a scheme for recoinage on devaluationist principles, but these had been rejected in April, largely as a result of a pamphlet against devaluation by Locke. The Treasury, however, under Lord Godolphin’s (Sidney†) lead, remained disposed towards devaluation, and as the need to recoin the silver currency became urgent during the summer, Lowndes was instructed by the Treasury Board in August to prepare detailed proposals. Lowndes worked speedily, and by mid-September the manuscript of his ‘book’, his Report containing an Essay for the Amendment of the Silver Coins, was in the hands of the Treasury lords. The Report followed the Scobell committee’s resolutions, but owing to the rapid rise in the price of silver during the summer, Lowndes was forced to advocate the much higher rate of devaluation of 20 per cent as opposed to the originally proposed nine per cent. Increasing the value of the crown from 5s. to 6s. 3d., so Lowndes claimed, would bring silver money into line with the market price of bullion, discourage the practice of clipping and lead to marked improvements in domestic trade and foreign exchange. The scheme was fleshed out with historical detail to show that adjustments in the value of gold and silver had been commonplace since medieval times. Lowndes’s Report was considered by the lords justices on 26 and 27 Sept., but though impressed by his ‘ingenuity’ and scholarship, they were not all of his opinion and agreed to invite advice from other experts, most notably John Locke, Sir Christopher Wren* and (Sir) Isaac Newton*. One of the dissidents, Lord Keeper Somers (Sir John*), was on close terms with Locke, and in alerting him to Lowndes’s conclusions, remarked that ‘his reasoning does not appear’. However, Lowndes can hardly be regarded as the real originator of the devaluation scheme proposed in his Report, particularly as this hastily compiled document was in essentials similar to, and was evidently intended to amplify, the Scobell committee’s report. Indeed, Lowndes had actually expressed profound scepticism about devaluing the currency in a report on a recoinage scheme put to the Treasury in March, and Locke was later to indicate that some of Lowndes’s arguments tended to condemn devaluation rather than support it. It is more probable that Lowndes’s main priority at this time was to frame proposals that were consonant with the views of his Treasury superior Charles Montagu, who had shown much initiative in urging a reform of the coinage, or possibly those of Godolphin. On 31 Oct. the Council heard a paper from Locke exposing major weaknesses in the scheme elaborated by Lowndes and outlining another for a recoinage at the old standard. The key factor in these discussions, however, was the King who by this stage had been brought round to a Lockeian view of the problem. Lowndes was thus ordered to convert Locke’s proposals into a detailed scheme ‘according to the King’s directions’. Less than a fortnight later, however, the Council reconsidered and adopted a modified solution put forward by Montagu, though one which still maintained the existing monetary standard, and which it was agreed should be submitted to the approaching session of Parliament. It is not clear on whose initiative Lowndes’s Report was published in mid-November though it was undoubtedly intended to influence parliamentary opinion. A week or so into the new session, the Commons began considering the coinage question, but it soon became clear that Lowndes’s devaluationist notion had been ‘generally exploded’. In Holland and Flanders the ‘book’ caused such panic that one of the Bank of England’s deputies was forced to explain to Dutch financiers that ‘this scheme was the notion of one man, and would not take effect’. The publication of Locke’s Further Considerations Concerning the Raising the Value of Money towards the end of the year finally put paid to views which had come to be widely associated with Lowndes, but which now appear not to have been held by him personally. However, Lowndes’s ‘official’ views had ceased to be a consideration in the government’s recoinage programme: on 12 Dec. he was included in the committee to prepare the address reporting the Commons’ resolutions agreeing to a recoinage at the old standard.9

In January 1696 Lowndes was forecast as a likely supporter of the Court over the council of trade, and the following month was an early subscriber to the Association. In March, it appears that his thinking on the question of the value of guineas did not at first accord with that of the Court: on the 20th, in company with several other prominent office-holders, he voted with country gentlemen who considered that the rate of 22s., while in the interest of the Bank, was at odds with that ‘of the King and old England’. However, when the King made clear his preference for the 22s. rate, Lowndes supported it in the division on the 26th. Lowndes’s recorded involvement in proceedings during his first session in the House did not extend beyond committee work associated with the recoinage measures. His parliamentary work as Treasury secretary soon settled into a regular routine. His chief area of responsibility was in the ways and means committee where each year he proposed the government’s supply measures. How much of this business was conceived by Lowndes himself cannot be ascertained, though the large quantity of departmental accounts and related material among his surviving papers indicates that he had a large part in devising the annual assortment of proposed taxes in response to expenditure demands. George Stepney the diplomatist indicated the huge scope of Lowndes’s responsibilities in 1696 when he remarked to a correspondent in 1696: ‘your Lowndes and your Lockes must set their arithmetical heads to work where to find 2 millions and [a] half, whereof the last funds fall short; and 5 fresh millions, for the year ensuing, otherwise we shall have but a very bad war’. During the mid-1690s proceedings in ways and means were still often disorderly and even chaotic, with proposals for new duties just as likely to come piecemeal from the floor of the House as from the ministerial bench. What is more certain, however, is that Lowndes’s skills of draftsmanship were employed in transforming the resolutions which emerged from ways and means into the form of draft bills, supplying the proper wording and administrative detail. Some of these he presented himself. He also frequently put forward additional supplementary clauses to supply or associated bills already introduced, though not always with success. By the end of William’s reign, however, ministerial initiative had largely superseded that of backbenchers, and from this time on, Lowndes was setting out full agendas of measures in ways and means which had originated with the Treasury. His usual practice was to enlighten the House with long disquisitions on the necessity of whatever he proposed, not sparing MPs the complexities of fiscal arithmetic. An account of a debate in 1712 affords a glimpse of Lowndes’s method:

Mr Lowndes, conform[ing] to his old use and wont, made a long introduction to his speech, and at last made a proposal for a further duty to be laid on all sorts of dressed leather, and showed how easy it was to the subject, and what a certain fund it would be for people to lend money to the government and that it would require no more expense in collecting than the duty now does . . .

He would also give the Treasury’s gloss on the financial aspects of other areas of government policy, and frequently presented and explained the background to accounts and other financial papers. Apart from supply, Lowndes’s legislative preoccupations embraced a huge range of other government-orientated business, and his status as one of the government’s busiest functionaries frequently merited his appointment to non-legislative committees, such as those to prepare addresses to the crown, organize conferences with the Upper House, and to investigate various areas of mainly financial complaint or abuse. He took special interest in legislative initiatives to improve standards of regulation in the fast-developing world of commerce and for the provision of the poor. His catalogue of ‘books and writings’ at Chesham specifically mentions ‘my own manuscripts about poor settlements and rogues etc.’, and he was included on drafting committees of several bills dealing with the poor. The fact that Lowndes was never required to serve as a teller, at least when the House was not in committee, suggests that his colleagues in the Commons judged it inappropriate for him to act in a partisan manner. In theory, Lowndes’s position exposed him to a host of pleas and requests for preferment, but he seems in fact to have established a generally known reputation for aloofness on such matters: one seeker of government favour once said of him that he was ‘by nature, no promising man’.10

At the end of October 1696 Godolphin resigned as first lord of the Treasury and entrusted Lowndes with the task of conveying the news to the board, while at the same time expressing his deep gratitude for Lowndes’s support and assistance. In February 1697 Lowndes initiated a pioneering bill to modernize procedures in the Exchequer and curtail the scope for abuse by its officials. His preparation for this landmark reform went back at least to 1691 when he had made the Exchequer the subject of a detailed study. The measure seems to have been a necessary prelude for Montagu’s novel scheme for the issue of Exchequer bills to alleviate the shortage of currency. Fire gutted the Treasury chambers at Whitehall on 4–5 Jan. 1698, and for the next six weeks the board held its meetings at Lowndes’s house near Westminster Abbey. A fortnight later, he found himself in the embarrassing position of having to present details of crown grants since 1696, preparatory to the attack on Montagu, but when Montagu’s acceptance of a grant from the Irish forfeitures was debated on 16 Feb. Lowndes was particularly effective in demonstrating that no breach of trust had occurred. He was responsible for drafting a bill to lay an imposition on ‘beneficial grants’ which on 9 May he presented, and defended at second reading two days later. During this session, Lowndes also gave some airing of his interest in issues of moral reform. His disposition to see standards of correctness enforced in the realm of public finance was at least partly the product of his devout Anglicanism, and had been exemplified the previous session in his Exchequer Act and in an attempt to legislate against stockjobbers. On 9 Feb. he was included on a committee to draft an address requesting the King to take steps for the suppression of profaneness and immorality, but the doctrinal implications of the resultant bill were not to Lowndes’s liking, and he ‘enlarged’ against it on 30 Mar. Such was his display of theological reasoning that during the course of the debate Charles Montagu referred to him as Lowndes ‘the divine’. Towards the end of the session, and afterwards, he was especially preoccupied with the East India trade. The ministers, having accepted the interlopers’ tender of a loan to the Treasury of £2 million, completed the deal with the introduction of a bill to establish a new East India company. Lowndes was named to the committee drafting this measure on 26 May, and offered several more clauses to the bill during later debates. He was also responsible for drafting the instrument which was to dissolve the existing Company in three years’ time, while in July he had a leading part in the abortive negotiations to find an accommodation between the rival groups.11

Around September 1698, with the approach of the new Parliament, Lowndes was classed as a Court placeman. He spoke and voted on 18 Jan. 1699 in favour of a standing army at the third reading of the disbanding bill. In seconding the motion for 15,000 seamen on 3 Feb. he told the House that it was imperative, in view of the king of Spain’s declining health, for the nation ‘to be ready to grapple with France at sea if his death should happen’. It was considered a ‘particular compliment’ to him when on 24 Feb. it was agreed that the office of Treasury secretary should be excepted from the recently introduced place bill. In the next session, on 15 Feb. 1700, he again found himself having to defend Montagu’s acceptance of a grant from the King, showing that it had been grossly overvalued at £13,000 and yielded no more than £1,500. During the latter part of the 1699–1700 session, Lowndes seems to have played an important part in resisting a return to the long-abandoned practice of revenue farming. On 1 Mar., when Robert Harley*, then leader of the ‘Country’ party, proposed that the excise duties be farmed as an alternative to the less desirable expedient of credit funding, Lowndes ‘laid it open, what the difference was like to be between a farm and a management of commissioners, which last have always made the greatest improvement of that revenue’. Although his warnings did not forestall the passage of resolutions in favour of an excise farm, the subsequent shelving of several tenders to administer it has been attributed to Lowndes’s intervention. It was the last time that the principle of direct collection was challenged. The fruits of office and the shrewdness with which Lowndes managed his personal finances enabled him to acquire land at a steady rate throughout the 1690s in both Buckinghamshire and London. In 1692, before he even became secretary, he was able to purchase an estate at Chesham, Buckinghamshire, as well as property in St. James’s, and in 1697 he added to his country estate by purchasing the manor of Winslow. He subsequently bought property elsewhere in the county, as well as at nearby Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire, and in Chelsea. Between 1697 and 1702 he rebuilt the hall at Winslow, and in 1700 funded the renovation of Winslow parish church complete with a new vault for his family.12

Reconstruction of the ministry along Tory lines brought speculation at the end of November 1700 that Lowndes was about to be removed from his post. However, these uncertainties were dispelled by the middle of December upon Lord Godolphin’s return to the Treasury in his former capacity as first lord. In the autumn of 1701 he participated in renewed negotiations to bring together the Old and New East India companies. Though acting with Montagu, now Lord Halifax, on behalf of the New Company, he applied his skills of draftsmanship in drawing up a ‘scheme’ for a ‘treaty of union’ and was convinced it would ‘do the business’. It is interesting to note that such an astute political observer as Harley failed to discern any party colouring in Lowndes, and in his analysis of the composition of the new House in December 1701, marked him simply as ‘doubtful’. Godolphin’s removal from the Treasury at the end of December 1701 gave rise to an unfounded report soon afterwards that Lowndes was to be appointed Irish paymaster-general in place of Lord Coningsby (Thomas*). On becoming lord treasurer in 1702, Godolphin naturally ensured that Lowndes retained his post. Although Lowndes could not be faulted in his loyalty to successive ministries, it was with Godolphin that he enjoyed his longest and most successful association. From the early 1700s he was Godolphin’s personal assistant in practically every major aspect of Treasury management. The new reign and the reopening of war brought an increase in Lowndes’s already enormous workload. On one unidentifiable occasion, the obstructionism of opposition MPs provoked his wrath, and exposed the strain of overwork:

You do not know how many whole days we are hard at work; how many nights we sit up; and that for many years under such difficulties in order to raise money for the defence and security of this government against a formidable enemy. Many things happen in war by chance, and by the sole act of God, which nobody could foresee, yet these things must be presently supplied unless the Parliament would have a stop put to the whole progress of the war.

On 26 Jan. 1703 he was examined by the commission of accounts in relation to the Treasury’s complaints of continuing mismanagement at the Exchequer. Lowndes’s regulatory Act of 1696 had failed in major respects to improve observance of the ‘ancient course’ of Exchequer audit, and it is apparent that in stressing the continuing neglect of traditional procedures he was contributing to the Tory attack on Montagu, now Lord Halifax, the former chancellor and presently auditor of the receipt, as well as giving vent to his administrative frustrations. Apart from his preoccupation with supply measures, Lowndes was also involved over the years in other government measures, most notably the drafting and steering of bills concerning mutiny, the raising of militia, and the recruitment of marine and land forces. Regarding the problem of naval manpower in 1703, he had a simple and practical solution: ‘there are able-bodied men in most parishes that are troublesome and may be spared’. Being readily on hand at the Treasury, it was inevitable that Godolphin should sometimes call upon him to act as a government ‘whip’. The first important occasion he did so was in November 1703 as the government prepared to greet the second occasional conformity bill in the Commons, the lord treasurer requesting him ‘to ply his coffee house, and diffuse’. When necessary, Lowndes spoke for the government, if somewhat ponderously, on non-financial matters. In the debate on 24 Jan. 1704 concerning the case of Ashby v. White he spoke at great length in defence of the superior power of the House of Commons over the Upper House and the courts to determine electoral disputes. He concluded by asserting that

the rights of the people are safer in the hands of their representatives than any other; if they do not like them they can turn them out and choose new ones; but they cannot do so in the case of the Lords . . . I take it to be of importance to avoid all contests with the House of Lords, and with Westminster Hall, and I think you may do it by proposing and adjusting a plain declaration of your right by the law and custom of Parliament.

Although Lowndes’s speech on the Ashby v. White case had obvious Whiggish overtones, his chief priority as a government spokesman was to avert conflict between the two Houses over the issue. He was active in dragooning government forces against the Tack, late in November, and, as Godolphin told Harley on the eve of the all-important division on the 28th, ‘Mr Lowndes tells me he has done miracles’. Lowndes himself, of course, took the government line against the measure. In an analysis of the House compiled early in 1705, he was noted as a ‘High Church courtier’, an ascription which seems to fit other evidence of his devotion to the Church.13

At the opening of Parliament, on 25 Oct. 1705, he voted for the Court candidate for the Speakership. In November he was at particular pains to overcome Whig antipathy towards the ministry’s choice of John Conyers* for the money chair. In a debate on 10 Jan. 1706 concerning the regency bill, Lowndes refrained from supporting the government’s controversial clause extending full penalties of treason to the spoken word on the grounds that adequate laws for dealing with such offences already existed. When the bill was debated again on 18 Feb., he supported the Court on the ‘place clause’. Earlier in February during ways and means proceedings his proposed ‘project upon hides and tallow’ was greeted with hoots of derision and he ‘was buzzed by the landed men into his seat and silence’. Lowndes made a dismal showing in February 1708 during the parliamentary storm over glaring discrepancies between the number of troops voted for service in Spain and those actually in the peninsula at the time of the battle of Almanza. In one of the debates, possibly that on 24 Feb., it was reported that he made a long speech, ‘reckoning up the accounts at his fingers’ ends’, which ‘changed the state of the question, and threw the whole matter into perplexity and confusion . . . he spoke nothing clearly, but puzzled the audience with a multitude of incoherent words’, either by design, or because ‘he was naturally defective in the ready choice of proper and distinct terms’. The following month he spoke in support of the bill to establish the validity of the Henrician statutes of cathedral and collegiate churches, particularly with regard to the Queen’s role as visitor. Although this was a distinctly Whiggish measure, it was natural that he should promote the Court point of view. He was classed as a Whig in a list of the House compiled during the last session of the Parliament.14

Just how intimately Lowndes had become involved with, and was depended upon by, Godolphin is apparent from an occasion in August 1708 when he accompanied the lord treasurer on several visits to Sir Edward Northey* to sound him for the office of attorney-general. At the beginning of the new Parliament, John Conyers, the chairman of the supply and ways and means committees, with whom Lowndes had worked harmoniously in the transaction of money business since 1699, was not re-elected to the chair, an outcome which Hon. James Brydges* noted ‘hath almost broke his and poor Lowndes’s heart’ and inspired talk in Harleyite circles that Lowndes would soon be removed from his secretaryship. In the new session, however, Lowndes was very much involved in the ministry’s attempt to perfect a recruiting bill which sensitively comprehended the many ‘Country’ objections to the Act passed the previous session. A new bill was ordered by the House on 23 Dec. 1708, and on 4 Jan. 1709 Lowndes read a finished draft to Godolphin, Lord Somers (Sir John) and a group of MPs which the lord treasurer felt ‘can scarce fail of having a considerable effect’. He was listed as having supported the naturalization of the Palatines during February and March 1709, and the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710.15

Despite the fall of Godolphin and his ministry in the summer of 1710, Lowndes was retained in office, though his reorientation to new political masters after years of collaboration with Godolphin cannot have been easy. Moreover, his being responsible once more to a board of Treasury commissioners, after a long period of co-operation with a lord treasurer, left much less room for personal initiative. His secretarial role became much more akin to that of a senior functionary at the beck and call of the Treasury ministers. In terms of party allegiance he continued to defy easy analysis, and in the ‘Hanover list’ of the 1710 Parliament appeared as ‘doubtful’. During the 1710–11 session, he found himself very much on the defensive as Tories, including several ministerial colleagues, attempted both to draw him into their efforts to censure the old ministry’s management of the Treasury, and also to asperse his own conduct. On one occasion (probably on 10 Jan. 1711), he was placed in the awkward position of having to respond to a call from Secretary St. John (Henry II*) for a major investigation into the public debts incurred by the late administration. In explaining the accounts, Lowndes admitted there was a substantial debt but insisted that only the House of Commons itself could be held responsible in having, over the years, granted insufficient funds for supply, and that he himself was entirely free from blame. On 19 Jan. the Treasury proposal which Lowndes put forward for raising part of the supply by lottery, and secured by duties on a range of consumables such as coal and paper, was met with ‘general opposition’, Harley having promised to lay ‘agreeable’ measures. Privately, however, Lowndes had vehemently opposed the ministry’s wish to offer large cash prizes in the lottery instead of annuities as had been awarded in 1710, ‘and was with great difficulty brought to comply with it’. On 22 Jan. he was subjected to tough questioning at the select committee investigating the arrears of taxes and in particular the enormous sums still in receivers’ hands. Recent investigation had shown that the colossal sum of £35.5 million of public money was ‘still to be accounted for’. The chairman, Sir Thomas Powys, was anxious to know why the problem had arisen, observing that ‘the more [that] is given, the more the nation runs behind’. Lowndes’s explanation lasted nearly an hour. He acknowledged there was £4 million that ‘he would be hard put to account for’, but maintained that these accounting difficulties were mainly due to a deficiency in the law whereby officials were not required often enough to present their accounts, a point of view from which Powys demurred, but ‘whether there were proper officers to do it, he, Mr Lowndes, knew best’. Lowndes could none the less assure MPs that the supposed loss of land tax revenue was nowhere near ‘those many millions so much talked of’. At the end of March he was under fire again over the proposal for a tax on leather which was made the object of a concerted attack on the Court by members of the October Club. After outlining the tax on the 26th he was ‘thunderstruck’ as Tory after Tory got up to oppose it, and said that ‘as they came prepare[d] to oppose this, he hope[d] they had ready to offer the House in lieu thereof as good, valuable a fund; but they had nothing like to offer’. It was perhaps not surprising after so much Tory criticism of his fiscal handiwork that three days later he should respond indifferently to the pet Tory project for building 50 new churches in London, observing in the House ‘that if there had been any immediate necessity for building new churches, they should surely have heard of it from the Convocation then sitting, to whom the proposal of such matters particularly belonged’. It is possible, however, that he was thinking of the financial implications, since the money for such a huge project would have to be found by the Treasury. During the session, he had proved himself dutifully bound to the Tory ministry, but his appearance as a ‘worthy patriot’ in a published list of those who had assisted in exposing the previous administration’s ‘mismanagements’ belied a scrupulous caution where his former masters were concerned.16

Much to his disappointment, Lowndes was deprived of the right of bearing Lord Oxford’s (Robert Harley) patent during the latter’s swearing-in as lord treasurer which took place in June 1711. Submitting a memorandum on the subject to the Treasury, he pointed out that previously on such occasions the patent had always been borne by the secretary, as he himself had done when Godolphin was sworn in 1702. Less than a fortnight later, he was forced to swallow a more bitter pill when Oxford appointed his cousin, Thomas Harley*, to serve with Lowndes as joint or ‘junior’ secretary and thereby take a share of the financial benefits of the office. Only the previous September, some six months after Henry Guy’s death, the Queen had granted Lowndes the ‘whole’ profits of the secretary’s office, ‘he being an excellent and useful officer in his post’. It would seem that while Oxford needed Lowndes at the Treasury on account of his expertise, he wanted a dependable ally there to handle politically sensitive matters such as patronage. Oxford may also have felt that Lowndes’s position at the Treasury was too comfortably entrenched, with Lowndes’s second son William serving under him as a clerk, and a son-in-law, Thomas Jett, an auditor at the Exchequer. Over the next few years, however, Thomas Harley was often absent from London on other government business, and for the most part Lowndes was able to maintain a fairly close working relationship with the lord treasurer. Oxford’s increasing confidence in his secretary is at least partly indicated by the appointment of Lowndes’s son William as a commissioner in the lotteries held in 1711, 1712 and 1714.17

In the Commons, Lowndes was frequently confronted with the ire of Country Tories bored with the tedium of raising funds to cope with incessant wartime expenditure. On one occasion in April 1712, as essential financial business ran late into the session, MPs jeered him and told him to hasten so that they might go home. In the spring of 1713, he took part with other courtiers in defending the French commercial treaty against the Whig argument that it would ruin all other British trade and markets, and was listed as having voted on 18 June in favour of the bill for confirming the treaty’s 8th and 9th articles. During the proceedings on Richard Steele*, on 18 Mar. 1714, he was called upon by Robert Walpole II* to verify the fact that Lord Oxford had himself acted questionably in assisting with the location of documentary material for a ‘treasonable book’ justifying divine hereditary right. Lowndes, it was reported, ‘seemed not to deny the fact’. On 19 Apr. he was the key player in a piece of sheer farce resulting in the loss of a vital Irish supply measure. Just as the House was about to divide on the bill for reducing the drawback on Irish tobacco imports, Lowndes was ‘obliged to go to the house of office’. He hastened back ‘with his breeches in his hand’ only to find the division already in progress and was refused admittance. Lowndes’s enforced absence was instrumental in the vote being a tied one, whereupon by the wording of the motion, Speaker Hanmer had no option but to use his casting vote against the Court. In June Lowndes’s projected supply measures ran up against extensive obstruction. So ill-received were the resolutions reported from ways and means on the 12th that they had to be recommitted en bloc for further consideration. They were finally approved with some modification on the 22nd, enabling the necessary legislation to be brought in. While the struggle for ministerial supremacy was being played out between Oxford and Bolingbroke (Henry St. John II), Lowndes, on 8 July, disclosed to the Lords’ inquiry into the terms of the Spanish commercial treaty that he was only a ‘nominal assignee’ for the Queen’s share of the asiento contract, and that ‘persons unknown’, though widely suspected to include Bolingbroke, were the real beneficiaries. On 5 Aug., after the death of Queen Anne, Lowndes was among the appointees to the committee for drafting the Address to her successor.18

Lowndes’s lack of party allegiance continued to perplex political analysts: he was classed as a Tory in the Worsley list, but two other analysts noted him as a Whig. His retention in the office of Treasury secretary under the new Whig administration was never in question. The new first lord was his old chief, Lord Halifax, the former Charles Montagu, whose principal concern was to appoint a suitable colleague for Lowndes in place of Thomas Harley, who had been removed from office in June. Initially, Halifax thought of appointing Joseph Addison*, but, no doubt after consultation with Lowndes, the post went to the vastly more experienced John Taylor, chief clerk at the Treasury since 1695. In the election of 1715 Lowndes transferred from his old seat at Seaford to the Cornish borough of St. Mawes. Although he held the Seaford seat by right of the Pelham interest, he had steadily built up an interest of his own in the town, based on generosity and goodwill. However, the young Duke of Newcastle’s determination to reassert his family’s influence and nominate his own choice of candidates, forced Lowndes to find a seat elsewhere.19

Under the new Whig regime, Lowndes served with customary dedication. Advancing years did little to dim his mastery in financial technicalities: he was nearly 70 by the time he embarked on his last major undertaking, the measure for resettling the South Sea Company following the ‘Bubble’ of 1720. He died, in harness, on 20 Jan. 1724 and was buried at Winslow. Two days after Lowndes’s demise, Robert Walpole II, who had held him in high regard, told the House that they ‘had lost a very useful Member, and the public as able and honest a servant as ever the crown had’. Boyer’s simple obituary notice cast him as the epitome of a public servant: ‘he was consummate in all the affairs of the Treasury, and branches of the revenue, having been in that place for above forty years’. Lowndes’s part in the financial history of the period was pivotal. The passion he displayed in the Commons for facts and figures may not have endeared him to back-benchers, but his thoroughness of approach and integrity purveyed new and improving standards of order and professionalism in Treasury management. At the time of his death two of his surviving sons were embarked on Treasury careers, William who retired as chief clerk in 1759, and Charles† who rose to become secretary briefly in the mid-1760s.20

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Bucks. RO, Lowndes mss D/LO/5/12, family pedigree 1066–1868; D/LO/6/18/1, Lowndes’s family notes; DNB; S. B. Baxter, Treasury, 209; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxx), 9, 151; PRO, Lists, ‘Exchequer Offrs.’, 131.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. vii. 724; viii. 78–79.
  • 3. Ibid. v. 1285, 1288; vi. 630, 753.
  • 4. Ibid. x. 553; Add. 10120, f. 233; CJ, xii. 509; Pittis, Present Parl. 350.
  • 5. E. Suss. RO, SEA 7, Seaford ct. bk. p. 65.
  • 6. P. G. M. Dickson, Financial Revol. 58; H. Roseveare, Financial Revol. 49; Cal. Treas. Bks. and Pprs. 1697–1702, p. 434; HMC Portland, v. 99; Add. 34348, f. 51.
  • 7. Add. 5840, ff. 177–80; DNB; Lowndes mss D/LO/4/2, ‘rotuli Willelmi Lowndes’; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 614, 955, 1056, 1195; vi. 619, 846; viii. 78–79; Baxter, 236–9.
  • 8. Baxter, 200–2, 258; EHR, lxxi. 597; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/4, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 7 May 1695.
  • 9. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland mss PwA 513, Guy to Portland, 20 Aug. 1695; P. Kelly, Locke on Money, 20–32, 106–9, 140; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 160; CSP Dom. 1695, p. 71; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 530, 552; BL, Trumbull Add. mss 116, cabinet minute, 31 Oct. 1695; HMC Portland, iii. 569; Burnet, iv. 317; Locke Corresp. ed. de Beer, v. 442, 461; Add. 18759, f. 180; Stanhope mss U1590/059/4, Yard to Stanhope, 3 Dec. 1695; Lowndes mss D/LO/6/16/18, catalogue of Lowndes’s books, ‘in his closet at Westminster’.
  • 10. Horwitz, 177, 235; Amer. Hist. Rev., xlii, 35; Brooks thesis, 155; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 189, 194; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 258, 305; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/176, James Vernon I* to Duke of Shrewsbury, 25 Apr. 1699; 48/179, same to same, 20 Jan. 1707–8; Bodl. Ballard 4, f. 36; Liverpool RO, Norris mss 920 NOR 1/154, Thomas Johnson* to Richard Norris*, 12 Feb. 1701[–2]; 1/300, Nicholas Pollexfen* to [same], 18 Dec. 1706; Cocks Diary, 234, 261, 272; Sandeman Lib. Perth, Perth bor. recs. B59/34/25, George Yeaman* to William Austin, 1 Mar. 1712; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 512; Lowndes mss D/LO/6/16/19, ‘books and writings at Chesham’; Guise Mems. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, xxviii), 151.
  • 11. T 48/20, Godolphin to Lowndes, 30 Oct. 1696; T 8/6, Lowndes’s report on Exchequer practice, 1691; Stanhope mss U1590/059/6, Yard to Stanhope, 23 Feb. 1696–7; Add. 17677 RR, ff. 228, 316; Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 52; Horwitz, 229; Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/181, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 18 Jan. 1697[–8], 47/43, same to same, 12 June 1698; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 96, 242, 305; Trumbull Misc. mss 57, Sir Gilbert Dolben* to Sir William Trumbull*, 31 Mar. 1698; Jnl. Brit. Studies xvii. 11–12.
  • 12. Cam. Misc. xxix. 387, 393; Stanhope mss U1590/059/8, Yard to Stanhope, 27 Feb. 1698–9; Cocks Diary, 53, 57; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 452; E. Hughes, Studies in Admin. and Finance, 193–7; Lowndes mss D/LO/4/1–4, ‘rotuli Willelmi Lowndes’; Bucks. Recs. xi. 406–29; Add. 5840, ff. 177–78.
  • 13. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 712; HMC Cowper, ii. 410; HMC Portland, iv. 25; Ralph, Hist. Eng. ii. 1004; DZA, Bonet despatch 27 Jan./7 Feb. 1702; Cunningham, Hist. GB, i. 459–60; H. Roseveare, The Treasury, 57, 137–41; NMM, Sergison mss SER/103, f. 456; Bath mss at Longleat House, Portland misc. pprs, ff. 134–5, 209, Godolphin to Harley, [27 Nov. 1704], 9 Nov. [1703]; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 257–64, 302.
  • 14. Univ. Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Methuen–Simpson corresp. C163, Paul Methuen* to Sir William Simpson, 12 Nov. 1705; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 53, 58; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 101; Cunningham, ii. 74; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 461.
  • 15. HMC Portland, iv. 501, 511; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 57(3), p. 122; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 1192.
  • 16. Cunningham, ii. 349–51; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 5, ff. 105, 107–8; J. Carswell, S. Sea Bubble, 51; Ballard 31, ff. 89–90; Dickson, 64; Duchess of Marlborough Corresp. ii. 66; Wentworth Pprs. 189; Add. 70209, Francis Atterbury to Harley [Apr. 1711].
  • 17. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxv. 67; J. C. Sainty, Treasury Officials, 31, 137–8; Add. 70421, newsletter 9 Sept. 1710; 70155, item 33, lottery commrs.; 70070, newsletter 29 July 1714; Amer. Hist. Rev. xlii. 23; PRO, Lists, ‘Exchequer Offrs.’, 132; Boyer, Pol. State, iv. 71.
  • 18. NSA, Kreienberg despatches, 11 Apr. 1712, 15 May, 19 Mar. 1714; Cobbett, vi. 1271, 1362; Wentworth Pprs. 372, 388; H. T. Dickinson, Bolingbroke, 127.
  • 19. Add. 7121, f. 11.
  • 20. Pol. State, xxvii. 103; Sainty, Treasury Officials, 137–8.