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Sutton, Robert, second Baron Lexington (1661–1723), diplomatist, was born at Averham Park, near Newark, Nottinghamshire, the only son of , and his third wife, Mary (d. 1669), the daughter of Sir Anthony St Leger. He succeeded as second baron while still a child, in October 1668, and in the following year his mother died. He held an army commission, which he resigned at the time of the Godden v. Hales case in June 1686. In the revolution of 1688 Lexington supported the cause of William of Orange and endorsed his joint rule with Mary, behaving thereafter as a court tory. In early June 1689 the king sent him on a mission to Brandenburg Prussia, where he stayed from July to November. He was charged with promoting a cordial alliance with the elector and securing closer co-operation among the northern allies. However, his task was made harder by William's unusual courtesies towards the envoy of the rival house of Hanover, and then by the breaking out of a damaging dispute over the succession to the duchy of Saxe-Lauenburgh, which threatened seriously to divide the allies. In June 1690 Lexington was made a commissioner of Admiralty. In mid-September 1691 he married Margaret (d. 1703), the daughter and heir of Sir Giles Hungerford of Coulston, Wiltshire, with a fortune said to be around £30,000.

Lexington was well regarded by the king, considered for high appointments, and on 17 March 1692 he was sworn of the privy council. In the rift between William and Princess Anne from 1692 to 1695 Lexington took the side of the king. In February 1693 he resigned his place as gentleman of horse to Anne's husband, the prince of Denmark, and a few days later was appointed William's great treasurer of the chamber, a place worth £2000 a year. In May he went as a volunteer to serve in Flanders. In early August he was sent by the king to Hamburg to join the Dutch pensionary Hop in mediating between the king of Denmark and the house of Lunenburg, which had seized the duchy of Saxe-Lauenburgh and fortified Ratzeburgh, on the Danish border. After many vexations a treaty to settle this destabilizing affair was signed, and Lexington left Hamburg in early October. Appointed a colonel of horse in January 1694, in early April he was named envoy-extraordinary to Vienna; he set off in late May and arrived in early December. Almost at once he displeased the king by making excessive claims for expenses. The Lexingtons' first child, William George, was born in Vienna in October 1697, and his godmother was the Electress Sophia of Hanover, with whom Lexington had corresponded since 1693. They remained on cordial terms until her death. Lexington was named as one of the commissaries in the negotiation of the treaty of Ryswick between May and September 1697, but to his great mortification he remained in Vienna until his final departure from his post in late December 1697. One colleague offered him advice that he may well have taken: ‘Give me leave … to preach up to you patience, perseverance, and obedience; and remember we have to do with a Prince who will go his own way. Add a bottle to your ordinary dose’ (George Stepney to Lexington, 30 Dec 1696 NS, Manners Sutton, 235). Lexington's own letters reveal a chronic kidney complaint: ‘Since my last to you, I have been like to take a journey into t'other world by a fit of the stone; but, thank God, 'tis over, at least for this bout’ (Lexington to William Blathwayt, 18 Dec 1697 NS, ibid., 324–5). Before quitting Vienna, he had made his cousin secretary of embassy, and left him in charge of affairs, though official recognition was not easily achieved. His patronage finally secured his cousin the post of ambassador to Constantinople in December 1700.

Despite prolonged ill health, Lexington managed eventually to join the king in the Netherlands late in 1698. In June 1699 he was appointed a member of the council of trade and plantations, a post from which he was dismissed in May 1702 after the accession of Queen Anne. Though still often ill, he was a diligent member of the board, explored various schemes to promote industry and help the poor, and advised strongly against the Darien scheme as destructive to both trade and peace. Around this time he was also sinking trial coalmines on his Nottinghamshire property. His bedchamber post ended in 1702 with the death of King William, which he witnessed. In April the following year his wife, Margaret, died of breast cancer.

Lexington was out of public employment for most of Anne's reign, though one extant letter shows that he was exercising local patronage, despite a grave illness, during the winter of 1702–3. In 1710 he was one of the court-supporting tory lords who unexpectedly voted for Henry Sacheverell's acquittal. His next known public employment came in September 1712, when (after a gap of ten years) he was appointed ambassador-extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Madrid, to negotiate a peace with Spain. Viscount Bolingbroke, his patron in the appointment, urged him to rely in all commercial matters upon Manuel Manasses Gilligan. Lexington arrived in Madrid on 18 October 1712, though stricken in health once more. He relied on Gilligan to deputize for him and incurred the queen's displeasure by keeping him in Madrid when Gilligan's presence in Britain was ‘of indispensable necessity’ (Bolingbroke to Lexington, 7, 12 May, 5 July 1713, BL, Add. MS 46545, fols. 5–6, 11, 15). Pleading for a speedy recall, Lexington received the queen's formal revocation of his embassy on 13 July 1713, but the negotiations stretched on. He angered Anne by meekly forwarding to the duke of Savoy a Spanish treaty draft attempting to deny him Sicily: he should have torn it up, said Bolingbroke, in the presence of the Spanish ministers.

Autumn found Lexington still in Madrid and, as Bolingbroke heard, still ‘afflicted with ye distemper which you have complain'd of ever since you was in Spain’ (Bolingbroke to Lexington, 16 Sept 1713, BL, Add. MS 46545, fol. 43r). A greater blow had fallen on him in August, when his eldest child, William, fifteen years old, died in Madrid. As protestant graves in that city were often desecrated, William's body was shipped home, concealed in a bale of cloth, and interred with his mother in the family tomb at Kelham, the parish adjoining Averham and later the family's principal seat. Lexington eventually went home only in December 1713.

Two years later he was condemned by the committee of secrecy chaired by Robert Walpole for feebly surrendering the national interest in his negotiations and for abandoning Britain's Catalan allies, but no specific charges were brought against him.

Lexington was an able diplomatist without achieving anything particularly striking, and he never quite stood in the front rank of politics. John Macky described him as ‘of good understanding, and very capable to be in the ministry; a well-bred gentleman and an agreeable companion, handsome, of a brown complexion’ (Memoirs of the Secret Services, 101). He had important connections, including the powerful duke of Shrewsbury, and his failure to reach great office may have been due partly to his persistent bouts of the stone, so familiar to his friends. Shrewsbury, writing from Paris, sent compliments from his wife, who, ‘to shew herself truly your cousin, has never had her health since she left England’ (Shrewsbury to Lexington, 10 April 1713 NS, BL, Add. MS 46545, fol. 185r). Though Lexington's public career ended on his return from Madrid, his electoral influence was still considerable and brought him personal letters from both the duke of Newcastle and the king in the election year of 1722. He was offered some new honour (unspecified in the surviving letters) but refused it, gratefully but firmly: ‘for indeed my Lord I did not think it would look well in the Eye of the World to be seeking new honours, when I am incapacitated to injoy even those that I have’ (Lexington to Newcastle, 24 May 1722, BL, Add. MS 32686, fol. 217r). Lexington died on 19 September 1723 at Averham Park and was buried in St Wilfred's Church, Kelham, where classical marble effigies of him and his wife lie, unusually, back to back. His second child, Eleanora Margaretta, had died in 1715, and his estates were devised to his surviving daughter, Bridget, the wife of John Manners, third duke of Rutland. After her death in 1734 the estate passed to her second son, Lord Robert Manners, on condition that he adopt the name and arms of Sutton.

Philip Woodfine

Sources  

DNB · N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 6 vols. (1857) · TNA: PRO, SP 104/194 · BL, Add. MSS 46557, 15572, 46525, 28900, 46538, 46542, 46545, 32686 · H. Manners Sutton, ed., The Lexington papers, or, Some account of the courts of London and Vienna at the conclusion of the seventeenth century (1851) · P. de Rapin-Thoyras, The history of England, 2nd edn, 4 vols. (1732–47) [with additional notes by N. Tindal] · Hunt. L., Huntington MS 44710 · Memoirs of the secret services of John Macky, ed. A. R. (1733) · White's directory of Nottinghamshire (1853) · B. Burke, A genealogical history of the dormant, abeyant, forfeited and extinct peerages of the British empire, new edn (1883) · GEC, Peerage · D. B. Horn, ed., British diplomatic representatives, 1689–1789, CS, 3rd ser., 46 (1932) · HoP, Commons, 1715–54

Archives  

BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 46525–46559, 53816; Egerton MS 929 · Yale U., Beinecke L., diplomatic corresp. |  BL, letters to William Blathwayt, Add. MS 9736 · BL, letters to Lord Carteret, Add. MS 22521 · BL, letters to John Ellis, Add. MSS 28882–28903 · BL, letters to George Stepney, Add. MS 7075 · CKS, corresp. with Alexander Stanhope · CKS, corresp. with Lord Stanhope · U. Nott. L., letters to earl of Portland


Likenesses  

W. Palmer, tomb effigy (with his wife), St Wilfred's Church, Kelham, Nottinghamshire