Robartes, John (1606–85), 2nd Baron Robartes of Truro and 1st earl of Radnor, politician, soldier, and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born in Cornwall, the only son and heir of Richard Robartes, first Baron Robartes of Truro, and his wife, Frances (née Hender), of Bocastle, Cornwall. Educated at Exeter College, Oxford, Robartes succeeded to the barony on 19 April 1634. His first marriage was to Lucy, second daughter of Robert Rich, earl of Warwick. They had three sons, Richard, John, and Robert. The marriage aligned him with the parliamentary opposition to Charles I, and Robartes fought on the parliamentarian side during the English civil war, also serving as lord lieutenant of Cornwall (1642–5) and Devon (1644–5), and as governor of Plymouth (1644–5). By 1647 he had married again, this time to Letitia Isabella, daughter of Sir John Smith of Bidborough, Kent. They had four sons and five daughters. Noted for his presbyterian sympathies, Robartes came around to supporting the restoration of Charles II in 1660. He was appointed to the English privy council (31 May 1660) and as a treasury commissioner (19 June). On 25 July 1660 he was appointed lord deputy of Ireland, under George Monck (qv), duke of Albemarle, as lord lieutenant. However, his taking offence at being subordinated ensured that, like Albemarle, Robartes never took up his position. The commissioners for the government – Roger Boyle (qv), Charles Coote (qv), and William Bury (qv) – retained power till the swearing-in of Boyle (now earl of Orrery), Coote (now earl of Mountrath), and Maurice Eustace (qv) as lords justices on 31 December 1660. Robartes himself was appointed lord privy seal on 18 May 1661. There were later suggestions that his recall was procured by Orrery and his associates, as Robartes was allegedly unwilling to facilitate the full exclusion of catholics from the act of oblivion (CSPI, 1666–9, 545).
Throughout the 1660s Robartes was a crucial and highly respected parliamentary manager for the government. His considerable expertise and efficiency made him a valuable asset in the drafting and presentation of bills, such as the 1663 bill of indulgence, and he occasionally served as speaker of the English house of lords. Courted by George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, Robartes sat on the commission of inquiry into Irish finances (1668–9), proving hostile to the incumbent viceroy, James Butler (qv), duke of Ormond. Robartes was formally reappointed to Ireland on 3 May 1669 as lord lieutenant. A number of factors dictated the choice. It came at a time of increasing covenanter activity in Scotland, and Robartes was in a position to ensure that moderate presbyterians in Ireland remained detached from this; he conformed to the established church, but was an advocate of toleration and was markedly sympathetic to dissenters. It also arose from the pro-French and pro-catholic inclination of the government, and Charles II's wish to break his dependency on the anglican and cavalier interest. While an unpopular choice, Robartes could be seen as a compromise candidate, being a more attractive choice than Orrery, with whom he became aligned. However, Charles's precarious financial situation ensured that Robartes's instructions placed great emphasis on financial matters. This had implications for his predecessor Ormond.
Robartes arrived in Ireland on 18 September 1669, waiving the attendant ceremonials. He had a reputation as a brusque and severe, but efficient and energetic administrator, ‘a man of a morose and cynical temper, just in his administration, but vicious under the appearances of virtue’ (Burnet, History, i, 176). There were apprehensions as to his personal severity (he banned theatres in Dublin), which were compounded by his lack of personal connections in Ireland. However, in November 1669 his eldest daughter by his second marriage, Letitia Isabella, married Charles, Lord Moore, son and heir of Henry Moore, earl of Drogheda. But Robartes's personal nature and subsequent unpopularity – his inclination to follow orders to the letter, his sympathy to presbyterians, and his investigations into the Irish revenues – alienated many, and his authority was soon undermined. His vigorous attempts to investigate Ireland's finances were opposed by Ormond and the Irish council, who refused to cooperate with him. Ormond also sought to undermine Robartes in London, where his recommendations were being challenged and overturned, especially those relating to Irish finances.
During his term of office in Ireland Robartes was credited with commendable energy and concern for the public good, but his tendency to bypass the normal channels of communication with London, along with his backing of the claimants in a dispute over eight years’ worth of army arrears, saw him rebuked by the king for exceeding the limits of his instructions. Ormond had seized on this to claim that Robartes was fomenting mutiny, and was backed by Henry Bennett, earl of Arlington; the king sided with them. Robartes subsequently requested his recall in January 1670. His loss of influence was evident in his being ordered to remain in a caretaker capacity; his request to appoint a deputy was refused. He was replaced by John Berkeley (qv), Lord Berkeley of Stratton, in May 1670, pointedly avoiding the Irish nobility on his departure. On his dismissal Robartes was lauded by Oliver Plunkett (qv) for his treatment of catholics, though Plunkett later claimed to have been persecuted by him. Largely impeded by the factional politics of the court, Robartes had had too short a tenure as lord lieutenant to make an impact, and many of the issues he had been ordered to address remained problematic for his successors.
Returning to English politics, Robartes was appointed to the English privy council on 21 April 1679, and served as president from October 1679 to his retirement. In April 1679 he was appointed to the council's committee for Irish affairs, and on 23 July 1679 was created Viscount Bodmin and earl of Radnor. In May 1679, during the exclusion crisis, he was mentioned as a possible successor to Ormond again, should the latter be dismissed as lord lieutenant of Ireland. He remained loyal to the crown while on the council; on his retirement (23 August 1684) Charles personally ordered that his pension be fully maintained. Robartes died 17 July 1685, and was succeeded as earl by his grandson from his first marriage, Charles Bodvile Robartes. A laudatory pamphlet published on his death stated, without irony: ‘To this, th’ Hibernian province sets its hand, / Which thou with so much praise didst once command’ (Elegy). There are two extant portraits of Robartes: one, by Godfrey Kneller and dated 1683, is retained in Antony House, Cornwall, and the other, by an unknown artist, in the National Portrait Gallery, London.