Cowper, Francis Thomas de Grey (1834–1905), 7th Earl Cowper , landowner, and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 11 June 1834 in Berkeley Square, London, eldest son of George Augustus Frederick (1806–56), 6th Earl Cowper, lord lieutenant of Kent, and his wife Anne Florence (1806–80), eldest daughter and coheiress of Thomas Philip, 2nd Earl de Grey. Both wings of the family had extensive estates throughout southern and central England (37,869 acres, worth approximately £60,400 in 1883), which Cowper inherited, making him one of the wealthiest landowners in the UK. The principal seats of the Cowpers were in Panshanger, Hertfordshire, and Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.
He attended preparatory school in Bembridge, Isle of Wight, then Harrow (1847), and on 3 June 1852 entered Christ Church, Oxford, as Viscount Fordwich. Having spent some time on the Continent (1854), he graduated (1855) with a first-class degree in law and modern history. As befitted his strong whig aristocratic pedigree, he hoped to begin a career in public service by entering the house of commons. These ambitions were thwarted on his succeeding as Earl Cowper on his father's death in 1856 and by his own poor health, which restricted his part in public affairs to local level; he served as lord lieutenant of Bedfordshire from 1861 until his death, as well as managing the vast family estates. He also spent a large amount of time throughout the 1860s restoring his house at Panshanger.
Cowper took his MA degree in 1861. His many honours and titles, given or inherited, included Baron Cowper of Wingham, prince and count of the Holy Roman Empire, DL for Kent and Nottinghamshire, JP for Hertfordshire, and honorary colonel of the Ist Volunteer Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. There were also a number of appointments to governmental and public posts, but these were normally short-lived as a result of his severe shyness and dislike of parliamentary business. As envoy extraordinary to Copenhagen (1865) Cowper received the Danish order of the Dannebrog; later that year he was created KG. He inherited in 1869 the substantial estates of his grandmother, Lady Palmerston, in England. On the recommendation of W. E. Gladstone he was appointed captain of the corps of gentlemen-at-arms (1871–4) and acted as a government spokesman for the Board of Trade in the house of lords. In August 1871 he acquired the barony of Dingwall in Scotland and the barony of Butler, an English title derived from his being heir-general to the Irish earldom of Ossory; he inherited his mother's title as Baron Lucas on her death in 1880.
Though he had been sworn of the privy council in May 1871, it was a surprise when Gladstone offered him the position of lord lieutenant of Ireland (3 May 1880) after Lord Carlingford (qv) had refused it. He was one of the least politically experienced of nineteenth-century Irish lords lieutenant, and perhaps one of the most introspective in temperament, though unfortunately destined to encounter the roughest political climate in the country since the famine. The chief secretary, W. E. Forster (qv), a member of the cabinet, felt a crushing burden of personal responsibility for the state of Ireland in the face of growing political pressure, agrarian protest, and violence. Cowper, lacking Forster's experience, judgement, and drive, and with no defined area of responsibility, could not play the part of assistant to his nominal subordinate, the chief secretary. He found that he had little to do after his formal arrival in Dublin on 27 May 1880, spent most of the summer of 1880 in England due to the death of his mother, and did not return until late September, by which time Forster's compensation for disturbance bill had been defeated in the house of lords. There was little disagreement in principle between the two men, but Cowper's views on policy tended to be slightly more sombre and repressive. He agreed with Forster that stronger measures were required to counteract the rise in agrarian violence, and together they pressed the cabinet to consider introducing extraordinary measures, including the suspension of habeas corpus, in October 1880. Gladstone and other ministers instead urged the Irish administration to use the ordinary law, but after the collapse of prosecutions against C. S. Parnell (qv) and others, and under relentless Irish party attack, two coercive measures were passed in March 1881, and a remedial land bill introduced in April. Fearful of civil war, Cowper favoured strengthening the military garrison in Ireland, together with greater use of the power to arrest without warrant. By now, however, it was observed that in a major executive decision ‘Lord Cowper contributes no opinion whatever, either for or against, and though he assists at the deliberations at the Castle . . . it is solely with his bodily presence’ (Arnold-Forster journal, 157).
His appetite for the social role of the viceroyalty was noticeably poor and drew critical comment in Dublin, though the endeavours of his wife gradually made up for his shy inactivity. The most successful series of public ceremonies undertaken by the viceregal couple, including a tour of Ulster, took place over the winter of 1881–2. By this time Cowper had contemplated resignation more than once; at last (April 1882), Forster asked him to take leave while the 5th Earl Spencer (qv) (d. 1910) came over to take charge in Dublin. Cowper, a sensitive man of considerable ability, whatever his weaknesses in the political arena, was probably as hurt by the strength of the case against him as he was convinced that the proposed arrangement could not be sustained. Like Forster, he opposed the negotiations with Parnell that led to the ‘Kilmainham treaty’, and he resigned, not without bitterness, on 29 April.
After leaving Ireland (4 May) Cowper returned mostly to local affairs in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and became (1883) high steward of Colchester, Essex. He took on a more prominent public role in 1886, after he rejected Gladstone's adoption of home rule for Ireland and, like other aristocratic whig figures, became a liberal unionist. Later that year Lord Salisbury appointed him to chair the royal commission on the operation of the 1881 and 1885 Irish land acts. Within six months, after sixty sittings, the commission reported favourably on extending the legislative experiment encouraging tenant land purchase; the recommendations were largely incorporated into the 1887 Irish land bill. Cowper was also chairman of the 1892 commission to establish a teaching university in London. A courteous and handsome man with a good knowledge of history, he continually suffered from illness in his later years, and died at Panshanger, following an operation, on 19 July 1905; he was buried in Hertingfordbury cemetery adjoining the estate.
He married (October 1870) the beautiful Katrine Cecilia, eldest daughter of William Compton, 4th marquess of Northampton, and his wife Eliza, daughter of Adm. Sir George Elliott. They had no children; his earldom and other titles therefore became extinct, with the exception of the baronies of Butler (which went into abeyance) and of Lucas and Dingwall, which passed to his nephew Auberon Thomas Herbert. His wife died 23 March 1913 and was buried with him. That he left over £1,079,000 in his will was testimony to his extraordinary personal wealth and the scale of his landed interests. Cowper's correspondence as lord lieutenant with Gladstone is in the BL.