SAWYER, Sir Robert (1633-92), of Highclere, Hants.

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



Nov. 1673 - Jan. 1679
1689 - 20 Jan. 1690
1690 - 28 July 1692

Family and Education

bap. 20 Sept. 1633, 6th but o. surv. s. of Sir Edmund Sawyer†, auditor of the Exchequer, of Heywood, White Waltham, Berks. by his 2nd w. Anne, da. of Sir William Whitmore of Apley Park, Salop.  educ. Westminster 1648; Magdalene, Camb. 1648, BA 1652, fellow 1652, MA 1655; I. Temple 1654, called 1661, bencher 1677, treasurer 1683–Oct. 1688.  m. lic. 1 July 1665, Margaret (d. 1708), da. of Ralph Suckley† of Canonbury, Mdx., 1da.  Kntd. 17 Oct. 1677.1

Offices Held

Steward of Cookham and Bray manors, Berks. 1676–d.; high steward, Maidenhead 1685–?Oct. 1688.2

KC 1677; attorney-gen. 1681–7.

Speaker of House of Commons 11 Apr.–6 May 1678.


Sawyer’s expulsion from the House in January 1690 cut little ice with his university constituents, who once more returned him at the top of the poll in the following general election. One voter indeed recorded that he had given him his support ‘from a love of justice’. There was no repeat of the previous attacks on him in the new Parliament. His name came up in evidence taken by the Lords in April 1690 of the purging of the City lieutenancy under Charles II, but no special notice was taken of it. Outside Parliament he continued to enjoy a busy legal practice, though he seems to have kept clear of cases with any direct party-political significance. Roger Kenyon* was advised to seek his opinion in an election case in 1690 but it is not known whether he gave it. Classed in Lord Carmarthen’s (Sir Thomas Osborne†) list of March 1690 as a Tory and probable supporter of the Court, he soon showed that age had not diminished his ‘diligence’ for ‘the Church’ by assiduous activity in the elections committee, and also rapidly resumed his customary prominence as a speaker. On 9 Apr. 1690 he followed Sir Thomas Clarges in moving for the committal of the bill of recognition instead of taking it directly to the third reading, as the Whigs had wanted, and on 14 Apr. contributed to the debate on the motion to exact forfeitures from those who had participated in commissions without having subscribed the oaths or the test, by proposing an instruction ‘that the forfeitures may be for public use, to satisfy public justice, and that private men may not run away with it’. Without such a provision, he asked, ‘if those go away with impunity, what can you have for caution of public security for the future?’ He twice intervened in the proceedings on the Queen’s regency bill, at the second reading on 30 Apr. and in committee the following day, using his expertise in constitutional law to meet objections. His summary was ‘that it is necessary that the government be left somewhere all agree; and I cannot think any way but by something in the Queen’s hands’. Later he was named one of the managers for a conference on the bill. When Carmarthen, under whom he had first come into public office, was attacked on 14 May and an address moved against him, Sawyer came to his defence:

This that you are moved for, an address to be made to the King, is to remove a certain enemy to King James, and a certain friend to King William. From his impeachment there was a perpetual enmity betwixt King James and him carried on in this House, by King James’s interest, for advising the King to send him beyond the sea.

His parliamentary reputation suffered as a result of Tory blunders over the bill to reverse the quo warranto against London, which, by an oversight in amending the clause confirming the present aldermen, lost an opportunity to establish a Tory majority in the court. With Sir Thomas Clarges he was at first ‘blamed’, then excused ‘because the fault might only be in their understandings’. He was included in December in what may have been a list of the Members likely to defend Carmarthen in the event of a further attack on him in the House.3

Sawyer’s passage from undeviating loyalty to Carmarthen to a position more critical of the Court is first indicated in Robert Harley’s* list of April 1691, in which he figured among the Country party supporters. It was probably given impetus by his failure in June to obtain the vacant chief justiceship of common pleas, although the King’s unwillingness to prefer him can have been no surprise: not even Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*, could believe him to be a serious candidate. However, a few days after the opening of the 1691–2 session, on 27 Oct. 1691, he seconded a call for a congratulatory address to the King for his safe return, and himself moved that the House consider the King’s Speech. He spoke very frequently in the ensuing session. In the debates on supply he showed the same scrupulousness as the Country party leaders over the estimates, especially regarding the army. As he pointed out, ‘this was a different matter from that of the fleet, for therein all agreed to have as good a fleet at sea as we can; not so for land forces’. On 18 Nov. he supported Paul Foley I in moving that estimates be examined before a sum of money was voted; the next day he was in favour of taking them ‘head by head’; on 25 Nov. he backed Sir Richard Temple’s motion for a separate committee to inquire into the Irish establishment, in reply to a suggestion from Sir Thomas Clarges for a committee to consider instead the potential contribution of the Irish revenue; and on 30 Nov. he added to the Country party’s pressure to refer the question of the number of general officers to yet another ‘particular committee’. On this same subject of finance he also spoke on 21 Nov., opposing, with Musgrave and Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt., a rider to the excise bill for taxing domestic brewing, as ‘only a pretence to make way for a general home excise’; and on 3 Dec., in a discussion of the report of the accounts commissioners, joined in the pious denunciations of secret service pensioners. He had been approached before the session by the committee of the interloping syndicate of East India merchants with an offer of a retainer, but, far from taking it up, proved a staunch parliamentary advocate of the existing company, speaking on its behalf on 13 Nov., 19 and 23 Dec. Furthermore, on 22 Jan. 1692 he spoke against giving a second reading to the East India bill, and on 6 Feb. opposed Seymour’s motion for an address. The one possible exception was on 2 Dec. 1691, when he seconded Sir Samuel Barnardiston’s proposal to set a minimum of £1,500,000 stock for a new company. He spoke several times on the treason trials bill, of which he approved, arguing repeatedly for compliance with the Lords’ amendments (31 Dec., 7 and 14 Jan.), and twice on Irish matters, on both occasions urging more lenient treatment of the defeated Catholics: on 30 Nov. he supported a Lords’ amendment to the Irish oaths bill, to permit Catholic lawyers to practise without having to swear the oath of supremacy; and later in the session, on 5 Feb., in a debate on the Irish forfeitures bill, he agreed with the committee to omit the clause ‘for forfeiting the remainders on estates tail’, it being unfair to punish those ‘who are in no fault and perhaps at that time were innocent’. On matters of supply again, he was often on his feet in the committee of ways and means. He intervened on 6 Jan. to oppose on procedural grounds the consideration of Thomas Neale’s* proposal for a salt tax before the sum left to be raised had been duly calculated; denounced six days later Paul Foley’s scheme for a loan secured by a fund paying perpetual interest, because he believed ‘the generality of the persons concerned’ too poor to be able to advance the requisite amount; and delivered three speeches in debate on the poll tax, in one of which, on 19 Jan., he warned the House not to ‘go . . . too high, for that may go near to raise a rebellion in the kingdom’. When, in a discussion of the crown’s debts to ‘the bankers’, Richard Hampden I suggested a bill to stop proceedings ‘in the courts below’, Sawyer was quickly up to declare it not only ‘irregular’ but ‘contrary to all reason and justice’. Other topics that engaged his attention were the bill for lessening the interest of money, which he opposed (8 Jan.), the bill to suppress hawkers and pedlars, which he also spoke against ‘because it would restrict trade’ (16 Jan.), the London orphans’ debt, for the payment of which he unsuccessfully proposed that the City be allowed to impose a licence for the sale of wine in taverns (29 Jan.), and the bill to confirm Cambridge University’s charter. Here, as was to be expected, he took a leading role, but unfortunately committed ‘a great blunder’. He ‘made an appropriation’ which ‘defeated the King of his first fruits and tenths’ without securing prior royal consent, and although at the report stage on 22 Feb. he endeavoured to retrieve the situation by offering an amendment to ‘save’ them, the damage had been done, and despite his pleas the bill’s opponents obtained its rejection. His last recorded speech was more successful, seconding Seymour’s call to have William Fuller, the Jacobite informant, declared an impostor and his prosecution recommended. There were further rumours in March 1692 that he would be raised to the bench, this time as lord chief baron, but again they came to nothing.4

Sawyer died of dropsy at Highclere on 28 July 1692, and was buried there, in the parish church he himself had rebuilt. His estate, valued by contemporary gossip at some £100,000, went to the family of his son-in-law Lord Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†). Bishop Burnet dismissed Sawyer as ‘a dull, hot man’, but a more balanced assessment is provided by his distant relative, Roger North, who wrote at one point that he was

a person not void of learning, but had not so much as his person and assurance promised . . . he was proud, affected and poor-spirited, and had his eye upon prosperity and success . . . but to say truth of him . . . he was a good attorney-general.

On another occasion he wrote:

He was a proper, comely gentleman, inclining to the red; a good general scholar and perhaps too much of that, in show at least, which made some account him inclined to the pedantic . . . He ended his days honourably and in peace; and his acquisitions remain in a noble family . . . and that is a fair conclusion of a man’s life; although we might see that, without such a noble support, he might have been calumniated for what was done in his time.5

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. The Gen. o.s. vi. 50; Top. and Gen. iii. 408, 410; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1192.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 26.
  • 3. Macaulay, Hist. Eng. iv. 1794–5; HMC Lords, iii. 27, 34, 52, 152, 215, 265, 267, 276–7; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 360; HMC Kenyon, 241; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 54; Grey, x. 47, 53, 100, 105, 144; Add. 42592, f. 117; Morrice ent’ring bk. 3, p. 151.
  • 4. Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 247, 374, 376; HMC Portland, iii. 468; PRO NI, De Ros mss D638/13/58, John Pulteney to Lord Coningsby (John*) 27 Oct. 1691; Luttrell Diary, 16, 26, 31, 34, 41, 50, 53, 56, 61, 88, 92, 95, 99, 112, 115, 117, 124, 129, 133, 136, 141, 148, 161, 165, 172, 175–7, 194, 200, 204; Bodl. Rawl. C.449, ff. 1–35 (21 Oct. 1691); Ballard 22, f. 24; Tanner 25, f. 10.
  • 5. Top. and Gen. iii. 408–9; Wood, Life and Times, iii. 397; Luttrell, ii. 527; Burnet, ii. 342; Lives of the Norths ed. Jessop, i. 376–9; iii. 126.