The family of Cowper is an ancient and illustrious one. They trace their descent to John Cooper, of Strode, in Sussex, a gentleman of Edward IV.'s time. The third in descent from him was John Cowper, Esq., one of the sheriffs of London in 1551, and alderman of Bridge Ward. His son William, of Ratling Court, Kent, was created a baronet in 1642. This gentleman was a devoted loyalist, and served Charles I. faithfully; he was consequently subjected by the Republicans to a long and severe imprisonment, and his fate was shared by his eldest son, who died in prison. He was consequently succeeded by his grandson, Sir William Cowper.
The proceedings of James II. alienated many of the loyal followers of his royal father, and the son of the Cavalier who died in prison for the cause of King Charles I., joined the opponents of his son, and even took up arms against him for the Prince of Orange. This change of politics made Sir William Cowper many enemies, but from that time the Cowpers have been Whigs.
Sir William had two sons: William who succeeded him in the baronetcy, and Spencer Cowper, grandfather to the poet.
The elder of these sons became a most distinguished lawyer, and in 1706 was raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Cowper of Wingham, Kent. At the death of Queen Anne he was appointed one of the Lord Justices till George I. arrived. In 1717 he was created Earl.
Spencer Cowper, the grandfather of the unhappy poet, became the hero of a most unpleasant story.
The party spirit of the day was even more cruel than it generally is. The Tories were not unwilling, therefore, to believe that the brother of a potent Whig member, fast rising into practice also as a barrister on the Home Circuit, had been guilty of murder. The story was this:-
Mr. Spencer Cowper, a married man, went on the Home Circuit at the Spring Assizes of 1699, riding from London to Hertford. He was acquainted with a Quaker lady named Stout, who lived in the latter town, and who, on several occasions when he visited Hertford, had let him have a bed at her house. He had forwarded a letter to Mrs. Stout, before starting, telling her that he was coming to Hertford, and asking her to have a bed ready for him. On reaching the town he went to an inn to dress, and sent his horse by his servant to Mrs. Stout's, with a message that he would follow it in time for dinner. He kept his word, dined with Mrs. Stout and her daughter, and left them at four o'clock, arranging to return and sleep there.
He did return, supped with his hostess and her daughter, and remained talking with them till after ten, when Mrs. Stout ordered her maid, in his hearing, to prepare Mr. Cowper's bed. He made no remark on this order, but he did not afterwards go to his room. The maid waited for orders, and was wondering why he did not appear, when she heard the front door slam. She went downstairs, but could not find either Mr. Cowper or Miss Stout, and, very much surprised, she went to Mrs. Stout's bedroom (she had gone to bed previously), and told her that Mr. Cowper and Miss Stout were gone out. The mother was surprised, but she had perfect confidence in Mr. Cowper and her daughter; and she quite believed that they had for some reason gone out together, because the door, which made a loud noise in shutting, had slammed only once. Neither Miss Stout nor Mr. Cowper returned to the house all night.
The next morning the body of the daughter was brought home; it had been found floating among the stakes of a milldam on the stream called the Priory river. The neck was disfigured by swelling and blackness (according to the deposition of a medical witness). The last person who had been seen with her was Mr. Cowper, and as it was supposed that they had gone out together, a terrible suspicion fell on the young barrister.
The Quakers, the sect to which the Stouts belonged, prosecuted him for murder, and were supported by his political opponents in a most unfair manner.
The case was a very serious one; many a man at that period had been hanged on less circumstantial evidence. Mr. Cowper was saved by the maid luckily having noticed that it was a quarter to eleven or less when the door slammed; and a dozen respectable witnesses proved that he was in the Glove and Dolphin Inn before the clock struck eleven - the distance between the mill-stream and the inn being at least half an hour's walk.
But there were other circumstances that assisted in clearing Mr. Cowper. Miss Stout was hypocondriacal, perhaps even insane, and she had fallen violently in love with the young barrister. She wrote wild love letters to him, which were produced in Court. In consequence of these letters, which were shown to him by his brother Mr. William Cowper, afterwards the Lord Chancellor, the latter advised his brother not to go to Mrs. Stout's again. It would have been well with him if he had taken that prudent advice, but he swore that he only went to pay over some money he had received for her as her lawyer, to Mrs. Stout, and to excuse himself for not staying; but fearful of a scene on the young lady's part, he said nothing when his bed was ordered. As soon as he was alone with Miss Stout, however, he told her that he must go and should not return, and she was in agonies of anger and despair. He left her, and went at once to the inn, where luckily for him, people remembered the hour when he appeared Miss Stout had told several persons, who appeared as witnesses in the Court, that she meant to commit suicide to put an end to the melancholy that oppressed her. Of course she must have gone out after Mr. Cowper left her, and ended her life in the mill-dam.
A verdict of "not guilty " was returned, and Mr. Cowper was discharged; but his enemies pursued him with libels, and held him up to general execration. He how ever lived down the effects of this malice, rose in his profession, and was appointed Attorney-General to the Prince of Wales on the accession of George I. He became a judge, and was remarkable for leniency and great care in investigating the cases brought before him, showing also pity and humanity to those unfortunate men who stood before him, as he had once stood at the bar of justice.