Lowther, Sir John, first Viscount Lonsdale 1655-1700, eldest son of Colonel John Lowther, of Hackthorp (d. 1667), by his wife Elizabeth, daughter and coheir of Sir Henry Bellingham, was a grandson of Sir John Lowther (d. 1675), thirtieth knight of the old Westmoreland family in an almost direct line, who was created a baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I in 1640, was a member of the convention of 1660, and whose portrait was painted by Lely and engraved by Browne (Bromley, p. 128). His grandfather's brother was Sir Christopher Lowther (created baronet 1642, d. 1644), founder of the Whitehaven branch of the family. Sir Christopher's son, Sir John Lowther (d. 1706), besides the confirmation of his title to the lands of the dissolved monastery of St. Bees, secured additional grants of land from Charles II in 1666 and 1678, developed the great mineral wealth of the district, formed the present harbour of Whitehaven, to the wharves of which countless sacks of his coal were borne on the backs of small Galloway ponies, was commissioner of the admiralty 1689-96, and died very wealthy in January 1705-6, leaving his property to his son, Sir James, on whose death in 1755 it passed to James Lowther, first earl of Lonsdale [qv.]. Macaulay confuses Sir John of Whitehaven with his cousin of Lowther, the subject of the present memoir (Hutchinson, Cumberland, 1794, ii. 49).
The latter matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen, on 12 July 1670, but appears to have taken no degree; he was called to the bar from the Inner Temple in 1677, having succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his grandfather in 1675. He represented the shire of Westmoreland from 1676 until 1696. Though a moderate cavalier by tradition, he joined the country party, voted for the Test and Corporation Acts, and was a strong advocate of the Exclusion Bill. On the accession of James II he shared the feeling of reaction in favour of royalty, but before the end of 1685 joined Sir Edward Seymour in demanding an inquiry into abuses. In 1685 also he asked the house what precautions England was taking against the growing power of France, and his remarks, which fell flat at the time, caused Barillon to deplore the neglect of Louis XIV to take a few members of parliament into his pay. The Duke of Somerset, when disgraced at court for refusing to introduce the popish nuncio, D'Adda, into Windsor in August 1687, seems to have found a sympathetic reception at Lowther Hall, where he and his host doubtless concerted some measures in the interest of the Prince of Orange (Lonsdale, Memoirs). Lowther showed himself well prepared in October of the next year, when, on learning that a ship was expected at Workington with arms and ammunition for the popish garrison at Carlisle, he armed his tenants, marched down to the harbour, and forced the vessel to surrender. The town of Carlisle was thus secured for William, and the north-west road effectually barred against James. On the prince's landing in Torbay in November, Lowther was able to secure Cumberland and Westmoreland for him without difficulty. He was made vice-chamberlain of William III's household and a privy councillor in February 1688-9, and was shortly afterwards named lord-lieutenant for Westmoreland, while his cousin, Sir John of Whitehaven, became one of the commissioners for executing the office of lord high admiral (Luttrell, i. 507; Hatton Corresp., Camden Soc., i. 68). The integrity of the constitution and the established church being assured, Lowther became a mild supporter of the prerogative, gravitated towards the tories, and was regarded with favour by William. On the prorogation of 1689 he was commissioned by 150 tory members, who held a grand dinner at the Apollo Tavern in Fleet Street, to convey their thanks and felicitations to the king, and when, at the beginning of 1690, Halifax laid down the privy seal, and the Marquis of Caermarthen [see Osborne, Thomas, Duke of Leeds] became chief minister, Lowther was appointed first lord of the treasury in the new administration, in which the tories slightly predominated, and was entrusted with the management of the House of Commons. In March 1690 he took a leading part in the important debate concerning the settlement of the revenue, demanding, but without success, the same terms that had been granted to James II; he obtained, however, a compromise, which was moderately satisfactory to all parties, with the probable exception of the king (Commons' Journals, 28 March 1690). He came in for a large share of the abuse which the whigs levelled at Caermarthen, whom he defended in the debate on 14 May, saying that if industry and dexterity of management could expiate, he had done as much as man can do (Parl. Hist. v. 647). With Caermarthen, in fact, he agreed on political matters as nearly as a very cunning statesman and a very honest country gentleman could be expected to do (Macaulay). On William's setting out for Ireland in June (1690), Lowther was accordingly one of the council of nine appointed to advise Mary (Ralph, Hist. ii. 225), but in the autumn session of parliament he was replaced by Lord Godolphin as first lord of the treasury, a post for which he had from the first been conspicuously unfitted, being scrupulous and unready, with a temper the reverse of callous. A squib at this time, deriding the dull, insipid stream of his set speeches, made up of whipt cream, describes him asRich in words as he is poor in sense,An empty piece of misplaced Eloquence,With a soft voice and a mosstrooper's smileThe widgeon fain the commons would beguile.(State Poems, ii. 211.)He retained his post as lord commissioner of the treasury (Luttrell, ii. 129), but seems to have taken little part in the administration, and in December retired in disgust into the country. In April 1691 he gave an illustration of his hasty temper by accepting a challenge from a Newcastle custom-house officer named Brabant, whom he had dismissed. He was badly wounded in the duel that followed (ib. ii. 210). In July he was on the board which examined Dartmouth, and in October he was, in his own words, severely baited in the house on account of the two lucrative places that he held in the treasury and the household. As a courtier and placeman, who was also regarded as a deserter from the country party, he was exposed to reproaches which he had not the adroitness to parry. On this occasion he completely lost his head, almost fainted on the floor of the house, and talked wildly about righting himself in another place (Commons' Journals, 3 Dec. 1691; Macaulay). The country gentlemen's exasperation against Lowther, who, in addition to his places, had just received a special douceur of two thousand guineas from the king, was not entirely without justification; but the situation was aggravated by the presence in the forefront of Lowther's tormentors, of his Westmoreland neighbour, the notoriously corruptible Sir Christopher Musgrave [qv.]. In 1692 he was succeeded by Sir Henry Capel at the treasury board, which he resigned very willingly, leaving his department in the same state of inefficiency, confusion, and insolvency in which he had found it (see Cal. State Papers, Treasury Prefaces). About the same time it was rumoured that he had been offered and had refused a peerage. In November 1692, when the tide was turning against his party, he bravely defended Nottingham, and in January 1693 he strenuously opposed the Triennial Bill, though he had thus to dissent from his old patron Caermarthen. The same month he resigned his vice-chamberlain's gold key, and for the next three years he took little part in politics.
He had in 1685 taken down old Lowther Hall and rebuilt it on a large scale. He now devoted himself to adorning the interior, and called in Verrio to paint the ceilings; he also laid out gardens with elaborate care, and indulged his taste for rural elegance, improving the aspect of the whole country by those extensive plantations, which he nurtured with the tenderest care (Neale, Seats, 1822, vol. v.). He also rebuilt the rectory and church of Lowther (ib.). Lowther Hall was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1720.
In June 1694 he was succeeded as lord-lieutenant by the Earl of Carlisle, and in May 1696 he was created a peer as Baron Lowther and Viscount Lonsdale, taking his title from the small town of Kirby Lonsdale in Westmoreland (Magna Britannia, 1731, p. 21). In March 1699, at the earnest request of William, he accepted the appointment of lord privy seal. He joined with Wharton in leading the peers' resistance to the Resumption Bill of 1700, and in July of that year was appointed one of the lords justices to govern the kingdom during the king's absence, but he died on the 10th of the same month. He was buried in Lowther Church, where a monument was set up to his memory (Le Neve, Mon. Angl. ii. 3). An unsigned portrait is at Longleat.
Lowther was married on 3 Dec. 1674 in Westminster Abbey to Katherine (d. January 1712), daughter of Sir Henry Frederic Thynne, bart., of Kempsford, Gloucestershire (Collect. Topog. et Geneal. vii. 165). The eldest son Richard died in 1713, and was succeeded as third viscount by his only brother Henry Lowther d. 1751. The latter was a lord of the bedchamber, constable of the Tower (1726), lord privy seal (1733-5), and died unmarried on 6 March 1751 (Gent. Mag. 1751, p. 140). Walpole describes him as a great disputant, a great refiner and no great genius (Memoirs of George II). Thomas Story [qv.], the quaker, visited him at Lowther Hall in 1739, and had agreeable conversation with him on a People of late appearing in this nation to which the name of Methodists is given (Story, Life, 1747, fol. p. 741). He bequeathed his real estate to Sir James [qv.], who also succeeded to the baronetcy but not to the viscountcy, which thus became extinct; Sir James was, however, afterwards created first Earl Lonsdale.
Lonsdale left some brief memoirs of his time, which were printed in 1808 for private circulation under the title of Memoirs of the Reign of James II. Macaulay made frequent reference to them in his History, and in 1857 they were reprinted in Bohn's Standard Library, together with Carrel's History of the Counter-Revolution, and Fox's James II.
Ferguson's Cumberland and Westmoreland M.P.'s, 1871, pp. 54-78, 401
Sanford and Townsend's Governing Families of England, i. 54-65
Nicholson and Burn's Westmoreland and Cumberland, i. 432-7
Ord's Hist. of Cleveland, 1846, p. 387
Luttrell's Brief Relation, vols. i. ii. iii. passim
Burnet's Own Time, iv. 86
Fleming Papers, Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. vii. passim
Ranke's Hist. of England, iv. 236, v. 34, vi. 256
Cartwright's Diary (Camd. Soc.)
Jewitt and Hall's Stately Homes of England, ii. 295.
Contributor: T. S. [Thomas Seccombe]