Sawyer, Robert (DNB00)

SAWYER, Sir ROBERT (1633–1692), attorney-general, born in 1633, was a younger son of Sir Edmund Sawyer (1579–1670), auditor of the city of London, by his second wife, Anne, daughter of Sir William Whitmore of Apley, Shropshire. The manor of Heywood, near Maidenhead, which Sir Edmund purchased in 1627, continued in the family for more than two centuries.

Robert Sawyer was admitted on 20 June 1648 a pensioner at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was ‘chamber fellow’ of Samuel Pepys. On 16 May following he was elected the first Craven scholar. In 1652 he graduated B.A. and was elected Goche fellow. In 1654 he became Dennis fellow. In the following year he graduated M.A. and was also incorporated at Oxford. He is numbered among the benefactors to the library of Magdalene College. After leaving the university, Sawyer was called to the bar from the Inner Temple. He was treasurer of the inn from 1683 to 1688, and practised in the exchequer court and on the Oxford circuit. On 27 Nov. 1666 Pepys went to the House of Commons and heard Sawyer acting as counsel for the impeachment of John, lord Mordaunt, younger son of the first lord Peterborough, and was ‘glad to see him in so good play’ (Pepys, Diary, 1849, iii. 346). Sawyer's progress at the bar was assisted by his relationship to Francis North, baron Guilford. As early as 1661 Wood mentions him as an aspirant for parliamentary honours (Fasti Oxon. ii. 189), but he does not seem to have been elected to the House of Commons till November 1673, when he was returned for Chipping Wycombe. He became a frequent speaker, more especially on legal topics (Parl. Hist. iv. 679–80), was knighted on 17 Oct. 1677, and on 11 April 1678 was elected speaker on the proposition of secretaries Coventry and Williamson, but on 6 May resigned the office on the score of ill-health (ib. pp. 956, 969). Sawyer was sufficiently recovered to take part in a debate on 4 Nov. of the same year, when he declared himself in favour of an address to the effect ‘that the king be humbly desired to prevail with his brother to declare in open parliament whether he be a papist or no’ (ib. pp. 1030–1). He assisted in drafting the Exclusion Bill, a fact which, when acting as attorney-general to James II, he naturally did his best to conceal (Moore, Diary, 19 Dec. 1823).

On 18 July 1679 Sawyer appeared at the Old Bailey as the prosecutor of Sir George Wakeman and some Benedictine monks alleged to have been concerned in ‘the popish plot,’ but failed to get a verdict. On 14 Feb. 1681 (N.S.) he was sworn as attorney-general in the room of Sir Creswell Levinz [q. v.] In June 1681, with the help of Finch, the solicitor-general, and Jeffreys, he conducted the prosecution of Edward Fitzharris [q. v.]; and on 17 Aug. of the same year obtained the conviction of Stephen College [q. v.], the protestant joiner, though the crown witnesses were thoroughly discredited (cf. Sir John Hawles's ‘Remarks’ on these cases in State Trials; Hallam, Const. Hist. pop. edit. p. 597 n.) On 24 Nov. Sawyer prosecuted Shaftesbury before a London grand jury for treasonable association, but a bill of ignoramus was returned, when Sawyer moved that the ‘hollowing and hooping’ which followed the verdict might be recorded (cf. North's Examen, pp. 110 et seq.).

Sawyer represented the crown on 27 April 1682, the second occasion on which the case against the city of London charter was argued. He contended that the quo warranto ‘was not brought to destroy but to reform and amend the government of the city.’ On obtaining his verdict he moved, ‘contrary to what is usual in such cases, that the judgment might not be recorded’ (Burnet). Sawyer's argument (State Trials, viii. 1147–1213) was regarded by lawyers as a masterpiece (cf. note of Speaker Onslow in Burnet ii. 333; State Trials, x. 117–18). The arguments of Sawyer, with those of Finch, Pollexfen, and Treby, were published in 1690.

In 1683 and 1684 he conducted the chief prosecutions arising out of the Rye House plot, when his harshness towards Lord Russell was contrasted with the mildness of Pemberton, the presiding judge (Eachard, Hist. of Engl. 3rd ed. p. 1002). In reference to Sawyer's contention that a copy of the jury-panel was granted to Russell not of right but of privilege, Hawles remarks that ‘of all men who ever came to the bar he [Sawyer] hath laid down the most rules which depend totally upon the authority of his own saying’ (ib. p. 801). On 7 Nov. 1683 Sawyer appeared against Algernon Sidney; on 6 Feb. 1684 he prosecuted John Hampden the younger [q. v.] for misdemeanour; and on the following day obtained verdicts against Laurence Braddon [q. v.] and Hugh Speke [q. v.] on the charge of suborning witnesses to prove that Essex was murdered. On 14 June he moved the court of king's bench, presided over by Jeffreys, for execution against Sir Thomas Armstrong [q. v.], who had been outlawed, and obtained his immediate conviction, to his own subsequent undoing. In 1684 Sawyer acted as one of the counsel for the East India Company in their action against Sandys, in what was known as ‘The Great Case of Monopolies.’ He appeared against Titus Oates on 8 and 9 May 1685, and obtained his conviction for perjury. In the following year (14 Jan.) he failed to get a verdict against Henry Booth, second lord Delamere, who was prosecuted in connection with Monmouth's rebellion.

Sawyer's ‘bias was to loyalty, which had been the character of his family’ (Roger North), but he was also firmly attached to the church, and he was not prepared to go all lengths with James II in civil matters. When the question of the dispensing power arose, he told James that ‘in point of law the power was not in the king,’ and gave written reasons for refusing to pass Sir Edward Hales's patent of dispensation. Finally, however, he deferred to the opinion of the judges and signed the patent ‘as a ministerial officer.’ When the patent for the confirmation of Obadiah Walker [q. v.], a Roman catholic, as master of University College, Oxford, was subsequently brought to him, he objected to it ‘as being against all the laws since the days of Elizabeth’ (Reresby, Memoirs, ed. Cartwright, p. 361), and ‘begged on his knees for his dismissal.’ Subsequently he refused to pass a patent to the Duke of Berwick as lieutenant and custos of the forest (Parl. Hist. v. 326 et seq.). In spite of Sawyer's resistance, James retained him in office till December 1687, employing him as attorney-general when government wished to enforce the law, and Sir Thomas Powis, who had replaced Finch as solicitor-general, when the law was to be broken (Macaulay, ii. 343). Early in 1688 Sawyer acted as counsel to the queen-dowager in her suit against Henry Hyde, second earl of Clarendon (Clarendon, Diary 23 Jan. and 10 Feb. 1688; cf. art. Catherine of Braganza).

In June 1688 Sawyer appeared as senior counsel for the seven bishops, and in Macaulay's opinion did his duty ‘ably, honestly, and zealously.’ A summary of his arguments is given by Eachard (Hist. 3rd ed. p. 1105).

Sawyer was elected to the Convention parliament for Cambridge University on 17 Jan. 1689, and took an active part in its early proceedings. He contended that James II by leaving the country had ipso facto abdicated, but that the ‘vacancy of the throne makes no dissolution of government neither in our law nor any other’ (Parl. Hist. v. 47–8); and moved that the house should vote it ‘inconsistent with a protestant government to have a popish prince’ (ib. pp. 51, 62; Macaulay, Hist. ii. 597–8). Sawyer, however, being of opinion that the Convention could not grant money, moved, on 19 Feb. 1689, ‘that the king be advised to issue out new writs to call a parliament’ (Parl. Hist. v. 119–20). On 17 June, during the debate on the heads of a bill of indemnity, he gave a full explanation of his attitude towards James II, and declared he had ‘never had a pardon, nor ever desired it’ (ib. p. 326, quoted above). But in January 1690 Sawyer was attacked by Hawles and others for his conduct in the case of Sir Thomas Armstrong. On the 20th Mrs. Matthews, Armstrong's daughter, came to the bar and testified to Sawyer's part in the prosecution, but admitted that he had denied at the time his power as attorney-general of granting a writ of error to stay the proceedings, and she was, moreover, unable to say that he had demanded execution before the judges had declared themselves. On her withdrawal Sawyer contended that he had only done his duty in putting Armstrong on trial. He then retired from the house. In the debate which followed the lawyers seem to have been divided in their opinions, but violent speeches were made against Sawyer by John Hampden the younger [q. v.] and others; and a motion was finally carried by 131 to 71 to expel him the house (Parl. Hist. v. 516–27; cf. Kennet, iii. 547; Ralph, ii. 178). Hallam applauds the decision, but Macaulay thinks that ‘calm and impartial judges’ would have decided in Sawyer's favour (Hallam, Const. Hist. pop. edit. p. 683 n.; Macaulay, iii. 528). A month later Sawyer was again returned for Cambridge University, Sir Isaac Newton being among his supporters. He took part in the debates on the Recognition Bill and on the Regency Bill in April and May 1690 (Parl. Hist. v. 582, 613, 617). In June 1691 he ‘putt in to succeed’ Pollexfen as lord chief justice, and in March of the next year was thought likely to become lord chief baron (Luttrell); but he died on 30 July 1692 in his house at Highclere, Hants. He was buried in the church which he had built there in the preceding year. By his wife Mary, daughter of Ralph Suckles of Canonbury, Middlesex, he had one daughter. She married Thomas Herbert, eighth earl of Pembroke, and died in 1706. Her second son inherited the estate in accordance with his grandfather's will. After his death in 1769 Highclere reverted to the elder branch, and finally became the property of the earls of Carnarvon .

Roger North, who often assisted him when attorney-general, describes Sawyer as ‘a proper, comely gentleman, inclining to the red; a good general scholar, and perhaps too much of that, in shew at least, which made some account him inclined to the pedantic.’ Though ‘proud, affected and poor spirited,’ he thought him on the whole an efficient law officer. In capital cases Sawyer, according to North, ‘was very careful, and used to consult at his chambers with the king's counsel,’ and in case they thought the evidence inadequate, ‘he never push'd any trial against any man.’ The whig Burnet characterises Sawyer as ‘a dull, hot man, and forward to serve all the designs of the court.’ Sir John Hawles's legal criticisms, although entitled to consideration, are those of a political opponent.

[Besides authorities cited, see Le Neve's Pedigrees of Knights (Harl. Soc.); Berry's Berkshire Genealogies; Admission List of Magdalene Coll. Cambridge, per the Rev. J. B. Pearson; Addit. MS. 5880, f. 157 (Cole); Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Luttrell's Brief Relation of State Affairs, i. 67, 368, 424, 444–6, ii. 247, 374–6; Roger North's Autobiography, ed. Jessopp, pp. 126–7, and Life of Lord-Keeper Guilford, 1742, pp. 287–8; Burnet's Hist. of his own Time (Oxford), ii. 332–3, 337–8, iii. 223; Returns Memb. Parl.; Brayley and Britten's Beauties of England, vi. 239; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England, iv. 312; State Trials, vols. vii.–xii. passim, and Parl. Hist. vols. iv. v. passim. A good summary of Sawyer's character and career is in Macaulay's History, 1858, iii. 524–8.]

G. Le G. N.