Robinson, Sir William (1644–1712), architect and politician, was baptised on 18 May 1644, son of Walter Robinson, of a Yorkshire family. His youth was supposedly spent working in a kitchen, but his early life remains largely obscure. Probably trained in England, he came to Ireland c.1670, possibly being clerk to the council of trade in 1670. On 7 February 1671 Robinson became surveyor general of buildings in Ireland, holding the post in tandem with that of engineer general and being appointed master of the ordnance soon after. By 1675 he had overseen numerous constructions and repairs in Dublin, such as the Royal Works, Chapelizod House, and Dublin castle. Returning to England in 1677, he married Margery Tooke of Hertfordshire (d. 1708) on 18 January, afterwards travelling in Europe on official business. Returning to Ireland before the end of the year, he drew up a report on the condition of Irish fortifications. His patent as surveyor general was renewed on 10 April 1679, with his salary doubled to £300 on the recommendation of the lord lieutenant, James Butler (qv), duke of Ormond.
Robinson was Ireland's only major resident architect in the later seventeenth century. A client of Ormond, he was well regarded by the governing elite; from 1677 he was involved with Roger Boyle (qv), earl of Orrery, in the construction of Rincurran (later Charles) fort in Kinsale. Appointed keeper of the parliament house in 1677, in 1678 he leased the grounds and gardens of Chichester House, the largely idle parliament building, though by 1700 it was apparently in an appalling condition. In 1677–8 he was adviser and contractor on the construction of Essex Bridge in Dublin, and in 1679 was involved in the rebuilding of Lismore cathedral, Co. Waterford. Specialising in the grandiose, albeit with occasional limitations, he designed the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (1680–84). The idea of an institution to accommodate old soldiers was first proposed by Arthur Forbes (qv), later earl of Granard, in the 1670s, but construction only began when Ormond was again viceroy. Inspired by Les Invalides in Paris, with which it shares certain features, and situated in a dominant position south of the River Liffey, across from the Phoenix Park, it remains ‘the largest surviving building of its period in Ireland, and the earliest secular public building in the country’ (Craig, Dublin, 59). Predating the extensive Georgian reconstruction of Dublin, the Royal Hospital is regarded as Robinson's finest achievement, though he was later accused of embezzling funds from the construction.
Robinson occupied a plethora of major and minor posts, including superintendent of fortifications (1677–1700), receiver general of the revenue (1682), first store keeper of Dublin port (1683), first store keeper of the parliament (1683), clerk of the ordnance (1684); and auditor and registrar of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (1684). While in his early career he acted as overseer for various projects, by now he was more actively involved in planning and design, though in 1682 he oversaw the construction of Ormond Bridge in Dublin. In 1684, after the destruction of Dublin castle by fire, he was involved in its rebuilding and in repairing Chapelizod House to facilitate governmental business. On 31 October 1684 his patent as surveyor general was renewed, though he now shared the post with William Molyneux (qv), who later oversaw the partial construction of Robinson's design for the courtyard of Dublin castle. Robinson left Ireland after the arrival of Richard Talbot (qv), earl of Tyrconnell, as lord deputy in 1687. While his arrest was sought in England, he may have been protected by Tyrconnell's predecessor, Henry Hyde (qv), earl of Clarendon. In 1689 he was appointed comptroller general of provisions and commissary general of pay and provisions in the Williamite army, the latter position being shared with Bartholomew van Homrigh (qv).
During the war and after, Robinson was appointed commissioner for stating of the accounts of the army (1690), commissioner for forfeited estates (1690), and commissioner for the debt of the army (1691), the latter office being shared with Molyneux. Having returned to Ireland, he resumed his post as surveyor general, being appointed deputy paymaster general of the forces in Ireland (1692), and JP for Westminster and Middlesex (March 1692). With Irish finances in a parlous condition, in August 1692 Robinson, as deputy vice-treasurer, secured an emergency loan of £30,000 for the Irish exchequer in London. In 1693 he became commissioner for stating the accounts of the army. Elected MP for Knocktopher, Co. Kilkenny (1692–3) and Wicklow town (1695–9), he served on numerous committees. While his promotions and status were attributable to Ormond influence, his elections were due to his own efforts, despite being part of the Ormond interest in parliament. In 1695 he rebuilt Dublin's Four Courts, and in parliament supported Sir Charles Porter (qv), the lord chancellor, against allegations of favouring catholics. He signed the association for the protection of William III (qv) in 1696. After 1697 he became one of the commissioners for the Ormond estates, and was also appointed governor of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (1697–1707). He resigned as surveyor general on health grounds in April 1700.
Knighted on 19 June 1702, Robinson was appointed to the Irish privy council in the same year, receiving an LLD from TCD in August 1703. In 1703–4 he designed Marsh's Library in Dublin, his last major work. MP for Dublin University 1703–12, he purchased forfeited lands in Carlow and Louth in April and June 1703. In October 1703 he was accused of fraud in parliament after allegedly misrepresenting the extent of the public debt. This arose from the broader attack on the government by the nascent opposition orchestrated by Alan Brodrick (qv); given his links to the court and his role in government, Robinson was an inevitable target. However, his perceived arrogance and partisanship also marked him out. On 16 October 1703 he narrowly avoided expulsion from parliament; a subsequent resolution stated his unfitness for public employment. Committed to Dublin castle by parliament, he was released on 27 November after the matter was investigated, having written a defence of his position while incarcerated. Despite being urged to reappoint him as deputy vice-treasurer, the lord lieutenant, James Butler (qv), 2nd duke of Ormond, did not do so; Robinson's political career was over. In 1706 he fled to England amidst allegations of defrauding the army's clothing accounts and extorting its suppliers; in 1709 he was found to have defrauded other moneys intended for maintenance purposes. In 1710 he became one of the trustees of the Ormond estates, a situation he profited from, though he does not seem to have returned to Ireland; his connections were largely severed after 1706.
Robinson, who had no children, died in October 1712, and was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. He owned residences in Carlow, Dublin, Lancashire, and Surrey, and at the time of his death was reputedly worth in excess of £50,000; the numerous versions of his will were vigorously contested. Aside from his major constructions, Robinson worked on numerous minor domestic, ecclesiastical, and military projects across the country; many more are attributed to him. He was a major and influential pioneer in the development of classical architecture in Ireland, but the true extent of his legacy remains uncertain. A portrait by Godfrey Kneller, dated 1693 and held in the Henry E. Huntingdon gallery in San Marino, is assumed to be of Robinson.