Cowper, Francis Thomas de Grey, seventh Earl Cowper 1834-1905, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, born in Berkeley Square, London, on 11 June 1834, was eldest son of George Augustus Frederick, sixth Earl Cowper, lord-lieutenant of Kent, and of Anne Florence, elder daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Philip, second Earl de Grey and fifth Baron Lucas. Lord Cowper's mother succeeded her father as Baroness Lucas on his death in 1859. Many of his family attained distinction. His father's mother was sister of William, second Viscount Melbourne, and married Viscount Palmerston as her second husband. His uncle was William Francis Cowper (afterwards Cowper-Temple, Baron Mount-Temple) [qv.]. His younger brother, Henry Frederick (1836-1887), well known for his humour and sagacity, was M.P. for Hertfordshire (1865-85). Three of his sisters married respectively Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert [qv.] Julian Henry Charles Fane [qv.]; and Admiral Lord Walter Kerr.
From a preparatory school at Bembridge, Viscount Fordwich (as Lord Cowper was then called) was sent to Harrow in Sept. 1847. But the strenuous and somewhat inflexible life of a public school was not altogether suited to a boy who neither was very strong nor cared for games, and was, moreover, of a sensitive temperament; and accordingly after one and a half years he was removed by his parents and placed in a private school kept by the rector of Silsoe just outside Wrest Park, which belonged to his maternal grandfather. There he read to his heart's content, and passed on to a happy university career at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1851. He did not row or play cricket at Oxford, but was addicted to riding and shooting, and such study as the House encouraged any young nobleman at that date to pursue. Early in 1855 he paid a visit to Rome with Lord Mount Edgcumbe; and, profiting by the solid historical reading which he managed to combine with social distractions there, he went in for honours on his return to the university, and obtained with ease a first class in law and history in December 1855.
He was destined for a parliamentary career; but the death of his father in 1856 deprived him of the chance of entering the House of Commons, and diverted his attention for a number of years to the less showy but useful routine of county work. In this he rendered admirable service, whether as colonel of his volunteer regiment (in which movement he was, along with Lord Elcho, afterwards Earl Wemyss, one of the original pioneers), as chairman of quarter sessions, or as lord-lieutenant of Bedfordshire—duties which he varied with sport in England and Scotland and the making of many friends. His numerous possessions also gave him wide territorial interests; for while he had inherited from his father the fine domain of Panshanger in Hertfordshire, and many titles, in 1869 he succeeded, on the death of his grandmother, Lady Palmerston, to the adjoining park and property of Brocket and a large estate in Nottinghamshire. At a later date, in 1880, the death of his own mother brought him the barony of Lucas, the Craven property in North Lancashire, a fine house in St. James's Square, and the splendid chateau of Wrest in Bedfordshire. In the comparative leisure of this part of his life he also developed the taste for reading which was his main recreation, and along with it a memory which came to be the admiration of his contemporaries. In October 1870 he married Katrine Cecilia, eldest daughter of William Compton, fourth marquis of Northampton, and of Eliza, third daughter of Admiral the Hon. Sir George Elliot, and entered upon a period of domestic and social happiness. Few men possessed greater social gifts or practised them with more unselfish enjoyment.
A liberal in politics, he was made K.G. by Lord Palmerston (5 Aug. 1865). In 1871 he accepted on the recommendation of Gladstone the household office of captain of the gentlemen-at-arms, coupled with the duty of answering for the board of trade in the House of Lords. These incongruous and rather unsatisfying responsibilities he fulfilled till the end of the session in 1873. In May 1880, on Gladstone's return to power, a larger horizon opened when he accepted the prime minister's offer of the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland, with William Edward Forster [qv.] as his chief secretary in the cabinet. Already the outlook in Ireland was clouded, and, when it was decided not to renew the Peace Preservation Act, which expired on 1 June, it speedily became worse, Parnell utilising the Land League for an agitation that speedily took effect in boycotting, in political terrorism, and presently in agrarian crime. Lord Cowper, who viewed the situation throughout with an insight and courage that were to be painfully justified by the results, was strongly in favour of an autumn session and a renewal of the Coercion Act, and Forster went over to England to press upon the cabinet the calling of parliament and the grant of extra powers. These appeals were refused by the government, and Lord Cowper, who felt more strongly on the matter than his chief secretary, and hardly thought that the latter had done full justice to his case, was only deterred from resigning by the gravity of the crisis and the persuasion of his political allies. At the beginning of the next session (Feb. 1881) the need for legislation could no longer be evaded or denied, and in March the protection of property bill and the arms bill, after parliamentary scenes of great tumult, became law. In spite of the message of peace offered by Gladstone in his land bill of the same session, the ensuing autumn showed no improvement in the condition of Ireland. Parnell and several of his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned, and the Land League was suppressed (Oct.). In the course of the winter the rift between the lord-lieutenant, who had the nominal responsibility without the power of control, and his chief secretary imperceptibly widened, although in the public interest a scrupulous silence was observed; and Lord Cowper, feeling that he could no longer remain in office with satisfaction to his conscience, insisted upon resignation, which on this occasion was accepted by Gladstone (April 1882). Lord Spencer [qv.] was appointed to succeed him, with a seat in the cabinet, the absence of which had been the chief stumbling-block to his predecessor. Then came the Kilmainham treaty and the release of Parnell, to which Lord Cowper's signature was appended under protest and when he was really functus officio. To Parnell's release Forster was not privy, and the event brought about his resignation. Lord Cowper left Dublin on 4 May, and two days later Lord Frederick Cavendish [qv.], the new chief secretary, and Mr. Burke, the permanent under-secretary, were murdered in Phenix Park (6 May 1882). The need for a strong Coercion Act, which had been so often and ineffectually pressed by the retiring viceroy, was universally admitted; and the draft bill prepared by him was accepted by the government and passed at once into law. Thus Lord Cowper had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing conceded to his successor the powers which had been persistently denied to himself.
Returning to England, he resumed the happy domestic existence, the local obligations, and the more tranquil public duties, for which two years of Irish tumult had given him if possible a greater zest. In his county he devoted himself to his functions as lord-lieutenant of Bedfordshire, and later on became chairman of the Hertfordshire county council. He was a frequent and facile contributor to the magazines: notably the Nineteenth Century, in which a number of his articles may be found between 1883 and 1887, and to The Times, which in 1885 and subsequent years printed many of his letters on public events. He spoke in the House of Lords on a great variety of subjects, but perhaps with less ease and distinction than he wrote. Among his literary contributions was the preface to the volume of Lord Melbourne's Letters edited by Mr. L. C. Sanders (1889). In 1885 he joined the Naval Volunteer Association, and spoke in the House of Lords and attended public meetings on the necessity of providing for the defence of our national harbours.
But it was when Gladstone announced his conversion to home rule and introduced the first home rule bill of 1886 that Lord Cowper's strong convictions, fortified by an exceptional experience, brought him again into the fighting line, and drew from him a series of letters and public speeches that lasted throughout the controversy, until it faded away in the defeat of the second home rule bill in 1893. He was chosen by virtue of his character quite as much as his previous official position to preside at the famous meeting at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket, London, on 14 April 1886, where he was supported on the one side by Lord Salisbury, W. H. Smith, and Mr. D. Plunket, and on the other by Lord Hartington (afterwards duke of Devonshire), George Joachim (afterwards Lord) Goschen, and the duke of Fife. In another respect his high character and personal charm enabled him to render conspicuous public service. In 1885 he presided over the Manchester Ship Canal commission. In 1886 he was asked by Lord Salisbury to undertake the chairmanship of the royal commission on the working of the Irish Land Acts of 1881 and 1885, which, after six months' hard work, reported in February 1887. He was also chairman in 1892 of the commission to create a teaching university for London.
In such capacities he continued to serve his country, although becoming, as time went on, an increasing martyr to gout, which caused him intervals of excruciating pain. Amid the ordered gardens and canals of Wrest, or in the more purely English surroundings of Panshanger, where the beauties of nature were rivalled by the masterpieces of art collected by his ancestors, he dispensed a hospitality free from ostentation, and surveyed the world with kindly but critical eye. When he passed away at Panshanger on 19 July 1905 there lingered in the minds of his contemporaries a picture of a vanishing type—the great English nobleman of high lineage and broad possessions, of chivalrous manners and noble mien, who played, without effort and with instinctive humility, an eminent part in things great and small, and moulded himself to the responsibilities of an illustrious station and name. He lies buried in Hertingfordbury churchyard outside the gates of Panshanger. A beautiful recumbent effigy was erected in the church by his widow, who survived him till 23 March 1913. There are portraits of an earlier period painted (kitcat size) by G. F. Watts, R.A., at Panshanger; by Lord Leighton, P.R.A., at Wrest Park; and by Ellis Roberts (three-quarters length) at Panshanger.
Lord Cowper left no children, and his numerous estates were divided upon his death. Of his many titles the earldom of Cowper with the viscounty of Fordwich, the barony of Cowper, and the baronetcy became extinct. He had been declared on 15 Aug. 1871 to have inherited as heir general to Thomas Butler, earl of Ossory, whose attainder of 1715 was reversed in July 1871, the English barony of Butler and the Scottish barony of Dingwall. The barony of Butler went into abeyance between Lord Cowper's sisters and their heirs. The barony of Lucas, which he derived from his mother, passed together with the Scottish barony of Dingwall to his nephew and heir-general, Auberon Thomas Herbert, son of his second sister.
Morley's Life of Gladstone, 1903, vol. iii.
Herbert Paul's History of Modern England, 1905, vols. iv. and v.
The Times, 20 July 1905 and passim.
Contributor: C. of K. [George Nathaniel Curzon]