ROBERTS, Sir Thomas, 4th Bt. (1658-1706), of Glassenbury, Kent
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Family and Education
b. 2 Dec. 1658, o. s. Sir Howland Roberts, 3rd Bt., of Glassenbury by Bridget, da. of Sir Robert Jocelyn of Hyde Hall, Sawbridgeworth, Herts. educ. private tutor (Rev. Thomas Brand); St. Catharine’s, Camb. 1674. m. 31 May 1683, Jane (d. 1692), da. and coh. of Sir John Beale, 1st Bt., of Maidstone, Kent, 4s. (2 d.v.p.), 3 da. (2 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 4th Bt. 30 Nov. 1661.1
Commr. inquiry into recusancy fines, Kent, 1688.2
The Roberts family had been settled at Glassenbury since Henry I’s reign. The 1st baronet served as sheriff in 1622 and the second was implicated in the Kentish rising of 1648, but despite evidence of his having mobilized Royalists he was adjudged within the Act of Indemnity. Roberts succeeded his father in infancy, being left in the care of his mother, Lady Bridget, who was given ample powers and financial incentive by her husband’s will to remain at Glassenbury in order to care for her children. In fact the house (which had its own chapel) became a haven for moderate Dissenting divines unable to conform to the Church of England after 1662. One such, Thomas Brand, was engaged as tutor and many others paid extensive visits to Glassenbury, including Edmund Trench (who married Roberts’ sister, Bridget) and Joseph Boyse, later a Presbyterian minister in Dublin. Meanwhile, Lady Roberts’ brother, Robert, employed another ejected minister, Andrew Cater, as his chaplain at Hyde Hall. The influence of this upbringing on Roberts himself was to produce a man of exceptional piety, unwilling to discriminate against those of tender conscience who could not join the Established Church. No doubt his sympathy with moderate Dissenters made him seem politically unreliable to the Restoration regime, until, that is, James II reversed royal strategy and sought an alliance with Nonconformists. Roberts appears to have been a willing ‘collaborator’, becoming a deputy-lieutenant and j.p. in February 1688, and receiving a pardon in July for acting without having taken the oath of allegiance. Later that month he was nominated to the local commission inquiring into fines levied on recusants and Dissenters, a sure sign of his commitment against persecution. Despite his active support for James II’s religious policies, he obviously felt no inhibitions about switching allegiance to the Prince of Orange, as he was an active participant on the Whig side in the county election to the Convention. Indeed, from the reports of Sir John Knatchbull, 2nd Bt.*, he would seem to have been a key player, being involved in discussions with Hon. Sir Vere Fane*, Sir Stephen Lennard, 2nd Bt.*, and Sir Edward Dering, 3rd Bt.†, as to who should join Knatchbull if Sir William Twisden, 3rd Bt.*, refused to subscribe to the association promising to defend the Prince. At the next shire election in 1690 it would seem that by virtue of his religious views Roberts held an independent position in local Whig ranks, for Knatchbull described how he himself joined ‘Sir Vere Fane’s party and Sir Thomas Roberts’.3
According to Robert Harley*, at the county by-election of November 1691 ‘Sir Thomas Roberts [was] set up by the country gentlemen, Mr. Robert Smith by the courtiers’. After Roberts’ victory, Harley amended his analysis of April 1691 describing the new Member as a Country supporter. On 3 Dec. 1692 he acted as a teller in favour of giving a second reading to a bill preventing fraudulent sales by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the export of rabbit and hare skins. In March 1693, a Tonbridge coach was attacked by six men, who subsequently apologized to a gentleman they had shot in the arm, claiming that Roberts had been their intended target, he having booked a place in the coach only to change his mind and travel instead on horseback. No motive was offered, although there may have been a connexion with Roberts’ activities as a magistrate. In the following session, on 2 Jan. 1694, he acted as a teller in favour of the Speaker leaving the Chair so that the House could proceed with the committee stage of the treason trials bill, but the motion was lost by two votes. On 23 Feb. he received leave of absence to go into the country to recover his health. He was briefly absent again in February 1695. Samuel Grascome’s analysis of Members in the spring of 1693 (later extended to 1695) classed him as a Court supporter.4
Returned again in 1695, in partnership with another Whig, Hon. Philip Sydney*, Roberts supported the Court on the major issues of this Parliament. He was forecast as likely to support the Court on 31 Jan. 1696 over the proposed council of trade, signed the Association in February, and in late March voted for fixing the price of guineas at 22s., despite having been given leave of absence on 16 Mar. for an indefinite period. In the following session, on 25 Nov. 1696, he voted for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, and again missed part of the session, receiving leave of absence on 1 Feb. 1697 for two weeks. Roberts was more active in the 1697–8 session. Of particular note was his appointment on 9 Feb. 1698 to draft an address for suppressing immorality and profaneness, a nomination consistent with his known reputation as a godly magistrate. On 25 Mar., he reported from the committee on a bill to enable the bishop of Chichester to make leases on houses in Chancery Lane. Roberts received leave of absence on 16 Apr. for three weeks, but had apparently returned to Westminster by late May when he was named to an inquiry committee. A comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments compiled around September, classed him as a Court supporter. Thereafter, although not a candidate in the county election of 1698, he remained politically active in the Whig cause. On 4 July 1701 he was one of the Kentish gentry reported to be planning to meet at Rochester bridge the following day to honour the recently released Kentish Petitioners. In the heightened political atmosphere of the county, several Whiggish London newspapers printed confirmations on 4–6 Dec. 1701 that Roberts was a candidate for the county election scheduled for the 10th, but he in fact withdrew before the poll. At the 1702 election he secured his return for Maidstone in alliance with another Whig, Sir Robert Marsham, 5th Bt.*, only for the Commons to declare the election void and refuse to issue a new writ.5
In the week preceding the poll, the Earl of Winchilsea noted that ‘Roberts is much a stranger to the town and must come in on no other merit than being a Dissenter’. Some historians have taken this comment at face value, but it seems probable that Roberts was an archetypal ‘middle way’ Protestant, for whom church organization mattered less than genuine religious belief, and for whom taking the sacrament at any place of worship was more than a political act of occasional conformity. Thus, the publisher John Dunton recorded in 1704 how Roberts prepared for the sacrament ‘by fasting and prayer, and holy exercises, the week before’. There can be no doubt, however, concerning Roberts’ espousal of religious toleration, or even equality for Nonconformists. Dunton praised him for paying ‘deference and respect to all that bear the image of Christ, under what denomination soever they pass; and [he] has a most particular zeal against all severities and persecution upon the account of religion’. If Roberts affected intolerance, one may imagine it took place in the secular arena as part of his duties as a magistrate. Thus, Jabez Earle, in dedicating to Roberts the printed version of a sermon preached on 26 July 1704 to the London and Westminster societies for the reformation of manners, wrote: ‘you are none of those from whom justice against profane wretches must be extorted by a violent impunity through a multitude of shifts and evasions’. However, in the same piece Earle seems to suggest that Roberts was Anglican, for he also wrote: ‘you are so indifferent about matters of doubtful disputation, and that your zeal for the Church does not burn up your charity for modest and peaceable Dissenters’, presumably people like Earle himself.6
Roberts contested Maidstone in November 1704, following the eventual decision of the House to issue a new writ. Perhaps the furore over the Tack and the occasional conformity bill counted against him, and following his defeat he did not contest the general election in 1705. This was to be his last opportunity of regaining his parliamentary seat, for he died on 20 or 26 Nov. 1706. In his will he confirmed his marriage settlement, which had entailed most of his estates on his eldest son, taking care that failing further male heirs the property should pass to a younger son, Walter, and then to his own brother, Jocelyn, a London merchant, and finally to Samuel Roberts, son of John Roberts of Tilehurst, Sussex.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. W. Tarbutt, Annals of Cranbrook Church, 28–29, 48; Berry, Kent Gens. 177.
- 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 208.
- 3. Hasted, Kent, vii. 94; Cal. Comm. Comp. 2602; PCC 42 Laud; Tarbutt, 48–51, 53; Calamy Revised ed. Matthews, 105; Arch. Cant. xiv. 209–11; Duckett, Penal Laws and Test Act (1882), 360; CSP Dom. 1687–9, p. 228; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 208; Add. 33923, ff. 457, 480.
- 4. Add. 70270, Robert to Elizabeth Harley, 17 Nov. 1691; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 54.
- 5. Add. 70081, newsletter 16 Nov. 1695; 57861, f. 69; Past and Present, cxxviii. 83, 90; Post Man, 4–6 Dec. 1701; Flying Post, 4–6 Dec. 1701; Sevenoaks Pub. Lib. Polhill-Drabble mss U1007/C13/6, Thompson to David Polhill*, 8 Dec. 1701.
- 6. Add. 29588, f. 93v.; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 107; J. T. Spivey, ‘Middle Way Men: Edmund Calamy and the Crisis of Moderate Nonconformity, 1688–1732’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil thesis 1986), 329–31; J. Dunton, Life and Errors, 351–2; J. Earle, Sermon Preached to Socs. for Reformation of Manners in Cities of London and Westminster; Tarbutt, 29.
- 7. Add. 42587, f. 113; Tarbutt, 28–29; PCC 44 Poley.