Southwell, Sir Robert (1635–1702), diplomat, landowner, and public official, was born 31 December 1635 at Battin Warwick, on the River Bandon, near Kinsale, Co. Cork. He was the eldest son of Robert Southwell of Kinsale and his wife Helena, daughter of Robert Gore of Shereton, Wiltshire. In 1650 Robert jun. went to England, being taught by Francis Jacob, the minister at Drayton, Middlesex, before matriculating at Queen's College, Oxford (24 June 1653). He graduated from Oxford with a BA (28 June 1655), but had been admitted to Lincoln's Inn the previous year. During 1659 and 1660 he travelled on the Continent, visiting Paris, Rome, and Naples. On his return to England, he was admitted to the Philosophical Society on 7 May 1662, making him an original fellow of the Royal Society. He was elected president of the society on 1 December 1690 and retained the office until 30 November 1695.
Appointed one of four clerks of the English privy council in September 1664, on 26 January 1665 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Edward Dering (qv) of Surrenden, Kent, whom Pepys described as ‘very pretty’. That same year he was appointed deputy vice-admiral of Munster (his father being the vice-admiral), and in November he was sent as envoy to Portugal to negotiate peace between that country and Spain. On 21 December 1665 he was knighted. The mission to Portugal lasted from 1665 to 1670, during which he helped secure the desired peace and recovered a substantial part of the queen's portion still owing to England. He served as envoy on two other occasions, first (1671–2) to Brussels, and second (1680) to Berlin, where he unsuccessfully tried to persuade the elector of Brandenburg to ally with Britain against France; the elector retained his neutrality. His diplomatic work put him into debt, and in compensation he was granted (1685) a reduction of crown rent on his Irish land.
In March 1671 Southwell leased a house in London in Spring Gardens, near St Martin-in-the-Fields, renewing his lease for ninety-nine years in 1675, and although he inherited the Kinsale estate on his father's death (1677), he retained his London house and purchased King's Weston, in Gloucestershire, near Bristol, for £12,500. In December of this year he sold his clerkship of the privy council for £2,500 to reduce his debts. He was elected in 1673 and reelected in 1679 as MP for Penryn and for Lostwithiel in 1685. Despite his involvement in English affairs, he retained his interest in Ireland. He obtained passes to visit Ireland in 1671 and 1676, and a year after his father's death cooperated with the first duke of Ormond (qv), the lord lieutenant, in building a fort at Kinsale on his land, for which he received £1,041. 2s. 6d. He was also in Ireland during 1681, in which year he started building an almshouse at Kinsale, and there may have been other visits during this period, as his house near Bristol gave him easy access to a port from which he could sail to Co. Cork.
Under William III (qv), Southwell was appointed a commissioner for customs (April 1689) and secretary of state for Ireland (English warrant May 1690; Irish patent July 1690), a position he retained until his death on 11 September 1702. He accompanied William to Ireland in 1690 and wrote an account in a letter on 2 July of the battle of the Boyne. He was involved in drawing up the declaration of Finglas, which was intended, but failed, to drive a wedge between the Jacobite leaders and the common people, and by September he had returned to England. In May 1694 he was appointed vice-admiral of Munster. He was buried at Henbury, Gloucestershire, and was succeeded by his surviving son, Edward. He had four daughters.
Sir Robert is as well known for his relationship with Ormond as for his service as an official. The duke liked the elder Southwell, but after the latter's death (1677), the bond that developed between Ormond and the son became one of close friendship. Sir Robert not only kept the lord lieutenant well informed about affairs at Whitehall, a service for which the duke expressed his appreciation, but he also assisted in more personal affairs. He gave advice on the education of Thomas Butler (qv), Ormond's grandson (and from 1680 Lord Ossory (qv)), even visiting him at Oxford, and it was on his recommendation that Ossory was matched with a suitable wife. While the duke was alive Sir Robert also exerted considerable efforts to preserve Ormond's reputation for posterity. As early as October 1677 he urged the duke to employ someone to write his memoirs, suggesting a possible candidate. Nothing came of the project, but when in 1681 the earl of Anglesey (qv), the lord privy seal, printed an attack on Ormond's leadership of the royalist cause in Ireland during the 1640s, it was to Southwell that the duke turned for help to defend himself. The result was a manuscript entitled ‘Some of the earle of Angleseys errours detected, in reference to the affairs of Ireland/1682’ which was drafted by Southwell after listening to Ormond's version of events. Work continued on the document up to August 1687, both by use of the Ormond archive and further personal consultation, but it had not been completed by July 1688, when the duke died. That September Southwell sent what he called ‘Some domestick informations’ on Ormond to the 2nd duke, and this has been used by all subsequent biographers, but it is short, tends to concentrate on the personal, and was not published until 1792. When Southwell was urged to write a fuller biography in 1692 by William Moreton (qv), the protestant bishop of Kildare, he declined on the grounds that he was ‘tied to the arts of living’. Thus, in the end, his contribution to the preservation of the reputation of his friend was not substantial.