Nugent, Robert Craggs (1702–88), 1st Earl Nugent , poet, and politician, was born in Carlanstown, Co. Westmeath, second son of Michael Nugent (d. 1739) of Carlanstown and his wife Mary (d. 1740), fifth and youngest daughter of Robert Barnewall, 9th Lord Trimlestown. Frequently overlooked by historians, the details of Nugent's life are sparse, often merely anecdotal, and remain heavily coloured by the polemics of his own age. Among the few incontrovertible events of his early life was his conversion as a young man from catholicism's ‘dark creeds and mystic law’ to the established church. It was the subject of one of his better-known and more dramatic poems, the Ode to Pulteney (1739): ‘Restless I roam'd, when from afar / Low Hooker shines, the friendly star / Sends forth a steady ray. / Thus cheer'd and eager to pursue, / I mount, till glorious to my view, / Locke spreads the realms of day.’ Indeed, much of Nugent's private life was public property. Horace Walpole, for example, famously coined the verb ‘to nugentise’ in reference to his succession of marriages to rich widows. It is largely such detail, the hearsay of wits or foes, that survives.
Nugent's first marriage (14 July 1730) was to Lady Emilia (Estelle) Plunkett (Plunket), second daughter of Peter Plunkett, Lord Fingall. She died in childbirth (16 August 1731). The child survived to become Lt-col. Edmund (Edmond) Nugent, but died in 1771, many years before his father. Col. Nugent left two sons, Field-marshal Sir George Nugent (qv), soldier and MP, and Sir Charles Edmund Nugent, admiral of the fleet. The first of these was illegitimate, though it seems to have presented few obstacles to his advancement. Robert Nugent himself faced unsubstantiated claims of having fathered an illegitimate child (c.1730) by his first cousin, Clare Nugent. His second marriage (23 March 1736/7) was to Anne (Anna) (d. 1756), daughter of James Craggs (1657–1721), postmaster general, and sister of James Craggs (1686–1721), secretary of state. A correspondent of Alexander Pope, she was Nugent's senior, and already twice widowed by John Newsham, of Chadshunt, Warwickshire, and John Knight, of Gosfield Hall, Essex. The marriage brought little happiness and no children. It did, however, bring very extensive properties, including the parish of Gosfield, £100,000, and the parliamentary borough seat of St Mawes, Cornwall. Nugent added the name ‘Craggs’ (1736) to his own, rebuilt the Gosfield mansion house, and established an extensive park praised by Arthur Young (qv) and visited by Walpole. He subsequently sat as MP for the constituency of St Mawes (1741–54), afterwards representing Bristol (1754–74), before returning to St Mawes (1774–84).
At the time of his second marriage Nugent was also publishing poetry, including an Essay on justice (1737) and the anonymous Odes and epistles (1739). Several of his works are preserved in Robert Dodsley's A collection of poems by several hands (1748) and the periodical The new foundling hospital for wit. Several pieces are suspected of being ghost-written. The Essay on happiness (1737) for example, has been claimed as the work of the Rev. James Sterling (qv) and even the Ode to Pulteney was said to have been written by the English writer David Mallet (Malloch). Nugent's activities were increasingly political, though here, too, credit for his success is often given to others. Owning a borough in Cornwall, he became friendly with Frederick, prince of Wales, and was later made comptroller of his household (1747). The prince borrowed large sums and repaid Nugent in kind by offers of place: he was lord of the treasury (1754–9), privy councillor (1759), and president of the Board of Trade (1766–8), as well as twice vice-treasurer of Ireland (1759–65, 1770–82).
Nugent married last (1757) Elizabeth, dowager countess of Berkeley, daughter of Henry Drax of Charborough, Dorset. This brought additional wealth, and his personal fortunes increased apace. He received an LLD from Trinity (1762) and, apparently as a result of his support of the ministry, was created Baron Nugent of Carlanstown, Co. Westmeath, and Viscount Clare (1767) and subsequently Earl Nugent (1776), all Irish peerages. He and his wife later separated and he disowned Louisa, the second of their two daughters. The elder daughter, Mary-Elizabeth, married (16 April 1775) George Grenville (qv), 3rd Earl Temple and marquis of Buckingham, lord lieutenant of Ireland (1782–3, 1787–9). Nugent's earldom descended by special remainder to their younger son, Lord George Nugent Temple Grenville, poet, MP, and lord high commissioner of the Ionian Isles, though the title became extinct when he died without issue. Earl Nugent continued to publish both political tracts and poetry, including the anonymous Faith (1774), The genius of Ireland, addressed to Lord Clare (1775), Verses to the queen (1775), and Life and select poems. His ‘Epistle to Pollio, from the hills of Howth in Ireland’ was dedicated to his friend Phillip Stanhope (qv), 4th earl of Chesterfield (1773; originally dedicated to ‘Pollio’, 1740). After the publication of The traveller, by Oliver Goldsmith (qv), Nugent sought out the author. Goldsmith visited Gosfield and Nugent's home in Bath (11 North Parade) and dedicated The haunch of venison (1776) to him.
Renowned for his wit and a talented debater who never lost a strong Irish accent, Nugent seems to have worked consistently, with allies such as Edmund Burke (qv), to effect trade resolutions favourable to Ireland and, by so doing, to secure its relationship in the empire. At Westminster he strongly supported removing trade restrictions on Ireland in 1777–8. These attempts aroused great animosity in Britain and were only moderately successful. In parliament he attempted, but failed, to unite Pitt and Fox before his retirement (1784). In his last years, having been a member of the established church for half a century – he was also grand warden of Dublin's grand lodge of Free and Accepted Masons (1732) – Nugent returned to catholicism. He died 13 October 1788 at the home of a ‘General O'Donnel’ (possibly Manus O'Donnell, major-general of the Austrian army) at Rutland Square (latterly Parnell Square), Dublin. He is buried at Gosfield. At his death, Earl Nugent was one of the wealthiest men in Britain or Ireland and his personal fortune was bequeathed to his grandsons. There were two portraits by Gainsborough as of 1881: one was the property of the corporation of Bristol, the other had belonged to Field-marshal Sir George Nugent.
Writing shortly after Nugent's death, the historian Charles O'Conor (qv) of Belanagare, who claimed to have followed his long career, wrote to the historian Joseph Cooper Walker (qv) that ‘to do good, public and private, was Earl Nugent's passion through life; genius under the spur of activity supplied him with the means; he was one of the best friends to his native country that this island ever produced, and he left us a legacy in our most excellent viceroy [Buckingham] to operate as it were posthumously for the good of a people now united in a single creed of loyalty and constitutional politics’ (Letters of Charles O'Conor, 494).