Cox, Sir Richard (1650–1733), historian and lord chancellor of Ireland, was born 25 March 1650 in Bandon, Co. Cork, only child of Richard Cox (d. 1651), a captain in the English army, and Katherine, daughter of Walter Bird of Clonakilty, Co. Cork. His grandfather Michael had moved to Kilworth, Co. Cork, from Wiltshire at the end of the sixteenth century; however, most of the family property was lost in the 1641 rebellion. Orphaned at an early age, Richard was brought up by his mother's family and educated at schools in Bandon and Clonakilty. After working as an attorney in the manorial courts of the earls of Cork he entered Gray's Inn, London, in 1671. He was called to the bar in 1673 and admitted to King's Inns, Dublin, in 1674.
After his return to Ireland Cox practised law in Co. Cork, becoming recorder of Clonakilty (1675) and recorder of Kinsale (1681). His early career was assisted by the powerful Boyle family, particularly the 1st earl of Burlington (qv), for whom he acted as legal advisor. His appointment at Kinsale also brought him under the notice of the proprietor of the town, the diplomat and courtier Sir Robert Southwell (qv), who was to become an important friend and patron. In 1687 Cox left Ireland and settled in Bristol, close to Southwell's principal residence, where he continued to practise law. Like many other Irish protestants, he felt threatened by the appointment of the catholic earl of Tyrconnell (qv) as lord deputy, but he was not a penniless refugee. The move to Bristol appears to have been planned well in advance and was instrumental in advancing his career. Southwell introduced Cox to several influential figures, including James Butler, soon to be 2nd duke of Ormond (qv), who became Cox's most important political patron.
In the aftermath of William of Orange's (qv) seizure of power in England, Cox was active in urging the case of the Irish protestant exiles. His pamphlet Aphorisms relating to the kingdom of Ireland was presented to the members of the convention parliament which met in London in February 1689; and the first volume of Hibernia Anglicana, his history of Ireland from the Norman conquest, was published in May 1689. Both the Aphorisms and the introduction to Hibernia Anglicana urged William to complete the salvation of the protestant cause in England by reconquering Ireland; and the second volume of Hibernia Anglicana, published in February 1690, reinforced the message that control of Ireland was essential to England's security. When William embarked for Ireland in 1690, Cox accompanied the army as secretary to Southwell, who had been made secretary of state for Ireland. This gave him the opportunity to bring himself to the attention of William and he was rewarded for his services with the post of second justice of the common pleas (September 1690).
In 1690 Cox purchased an estate at Dunmanway, Co. Cork. He also acquired land in Co. Kilkenny, Co. Tipperary, and Queen's Co., and rented Sir William Temple's (qv) mansion at Palmerston near Dublin. Apart from a period in 1691 when he acted as governor of Cork, Cox's subsequent career was at the centre of Irish administration in Dublin. His political views were firmly tory, and his political and professional fortunes mirrored the fate of the tory party and, in particular, his patron Ormond. In 1692 he was made a member of the Irish privy council, and in 1695 a commissioner for forfeitures. He was removed from the privy council in 1695, a move he was later to attribute to his opposition to political concessions to presbyterians, but which also reflected the declining political fortunes of the tories. He remained a judge, however, and in 1701 was made chief justice of common pleas.
The accession of Anne in 1702 and the subsequent appointment of Ormond as lord lieutenant of Ireland heralded the high point in Cox's career. He was made lord chancellor in 1703 and twice served as a lord justice during Ormond's absence from Ireland. His close identification with Ormond (he acted as a commissioner for Ormond's Irish estates) and with tory policies brought him into conflict with the Irish whigs. When Ormond was replaced as lord lieutenant in 1707, Cox quickly followed him out of office. Notwithstanding his loyalty to Ormond and the tory cause, he did not regain the chancellorship on Ormond's return to Ireland in 1710 but accepted the lesser post of chief justice of queen's bench in July 1711. As chief justice he loyally supported the ‘high tory’ lord chancellor Constantine Phipps (qv) in his dispute with the whig-dominated Dublin corporation, and he was involved in a number of controversial cases during the politically contentious last years of Anne's reign. Cox was removed from office after the accession of George I and for a time was in danger of impeachment as a suspect Jacobite. In spite of Ormond's defection to the Pretender in 1715, nothing could be proved against Cox, and he lived out his retirement unmolested.
Before leaving Ireland in 1687, Cox had written two topographical and historical accounts of Co. Cork and had commenced work on his history of Ireland. It would appear that the publication of Hibernia Anglicana was brought forward in response to the events of 1688–9; the text of the second volume in particular shows signs of bring hurriedly compiled. Although a second edition was published in 1692, Cox never revised the text of Hibernia Anglicana, nor did he complete his account ‘to this present time’ as he had promised. The range of published and manuscript sources used in Hibernia Anglicana is impressive, if not always discriminating, and Cox succeeds in his declared aim of giving a coherent account of English involvement in Ireland, informed by his unwavering conviction of English cultural and moral superiority. Some of the historical material from Hibernia Anglicana was used again in Essay for the conversion of the Irish (1698) which attempted to convince the remains of the catholic landed élite that they should embrace protestantism in order to become full members of English society. In 1693 Cox joined the revived Dublin Philosophical Society and was reported to be working on a geographical description of Ireland, which has not survived. He did publish An inquiry into religion (1711), a contribution to contemporary philosophical debate which was passed over in silence then and since.
Cox was knighted in 1692 and created a baronet in 1706. He married (1674) Mary, daughter of John Bourne of Carbery, Co. Cork; they had at least twenty-one children, of whom five daughters and two sons survived into adulthood. The eldest son, also called Richard, predeceased Cox and the baronetcy passed to his grandson Sir Richard Cox (qv) (1702–66), who was an MP and a prominent political pamphleteer in the middle of the eighteenth century under the name ‘The Cork Surgeon’. The younger son, Michael Cox (qv) (1689–1779), was archbishop of Cashel 1754–79. Richard Cox died 3 May 1733.
A portrait of Cox, by an unknown artist, hangs in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin. There is no surviving collection of Cox's papers; however, many of his letters survive in the papers of Sir Robert Southwell (qv) and Edward Southwell (qv) (BL, Add. MSS 38153–7; TCD, MSS 1180–81). His correspondence with the 2nd duke of Ormond is calendared in Ormonde MSS, viii.