Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Capel, Arthur (1610?-1649)

Date of birth 1604 in the ODNB.

CAPEL, ARTHUR, Lord Capel of Hadham (1610?–1649), royalist leader, was the only son of Sir Henry Capel of Raines Hall, Essex, by Theodosia, daughter of Sir Edward Montagu of Broughton, Northamptonshire, and sister of Henry, first earl of Manchester. He was born about 1610, and appears to have lived the life of a country gentleman until called upon to take his part in political life by being elected knight of the shire for the county of Hertford in the Short parliament, which met at Westminster on 13 April and was dissolved on 5 May 1640. When the Long parliament was summoned, in the following November, Capel was again elected for Hertfordshire, and took his seat accordingly. In the debate on grievances, in which Pym made his celebrated speech, ‘the first member that stood up … was Arthur Capel, esq., who presented a petition in the name of the freeholders [of the county of Hertford] setting forth the burdens and oppressions of the people during the long intermission of parliament in their consciences, liberties, and properties, and particularly in the heavy tax of ship-money.’ Ready as he was to join the popular party, if only real abuses could be got rid of, he was not the man to side with those who aimed at a democratic revolution, and he soon broke with the party, whose views went far beyond anything that he had contemplated at his first start. Shocked by the violence of language of the leaders, who had set themselves in furious antagonism to the court party, Capel soon threw himself into the opposite camp, and henceforth, during the long struggle, the king had no adherent more faithful and devoted to the royal cause, nor any who made more splendid sacrifices, ending at last in his death upon the scaffold. On 6 Aug. 1641 Capel was raised to the upper house by the title of Lord Capel of Hadham. During the remainder of that memorable year we lose sight of him, but when the king left London for York in January 1642, Capel accompanied his majesty, and was one of the peers who signed the declaration and profession disavowing ‘all designs of making war upon the parliament.’ In the straits to which the king was driven for want of money, Capel showed great energy in making contributions from all who could be prevailed on to subscribe, and in 1643 he was sent to Shrewsbury with the commission of lieutenant-general of Shropshire, Cheshire, and North Wales. Here he found himself opposed by Sir William Brereton, whom he held in check so effectually that, for the time, Chester was relieved, and if he had been left alone to pursue his own plans, he would in all probability have rendered more important service during the war; but when Charles determined that a council should be appointed ‘to be about’ the Prince of Wales, ‘to meet frequently at the prince's lodgings to confer with his highness,’ Capel was appointed one of the commissioners, and from that time he took small part in active hostilities. After the execution of Archbishop Laud, when the negotiations for the treaty of Uxbridge were going on (February 1645), Capel was one of the commissioners for the king, and when the negotiations came to nothing, he was ordered to raise a regiment of foot and another of horse at his own charge to attend upon the prince at Bristol. While Goring was besieging Taunton and Fairfax was making great exertions to raise the siege, Capel was sent to give his counsel. Whatever that counsel may have been, it was tendered in vain, and when Oxford surrendered to Fairfax on 22 April 1646, and the contest between the king and the parliament was virtually at an end, Capel accompanied the queen to Paris, where he remained but a very short time. He was strongly opposed to the Prince of Wales escaping to France, and, refusing to accompany his highness on the journey, retired to Jersey, where he remained till the breach between the army and the parliament revived new hopes in the more sanguine of the royalist party. He succeeded in obtaining a pass and permission to retire to his own house at Hadham after compounding for his estates. These estates had already (30 April 1643) been bestowed, by a vote of the House of Commons, upon the Earl of Essex, and a considerable portion of them were actually in the earl's hands. While the king was at Hampton Court, Capel was in frequent communication with his majesty, and was privy to the luckless flight to the Isle of Wight. For the disastrous renewal of the civil war Capel was in great measure responsible. Not a gleam of success cheered the king's party, and in June 1648 Goring, Capel, and Sir Charles Lucas found themselves with the forces at their command shut up in Colchester by Fairfax, and were summoned to surrender on the 13th of the month. The siege was prosecuted with vigour, but the town was defended with desperation. It was all in vain. On 27 Aug. the garrison surrendered at discretion, and the second civil war was at an end.

The next two months were crowded with events which hurried on the final catastrophe, and in October Capel, with his old companion in arms, Goring, earl of Norwich (Sir Charles Lucas was shot in cold blood when Colchester surrendered), were impeached on a charge of high treason and rebellion. They pleaded that Fairfax had pledged his word to give fair quarter to all prisoners who surrendered themselves into his hands, and ‘upon great debate,’ both houses called upon Fairfax to explain his meaning. Fairfax was absent, and was in no hurry to take upon himself a responsibility which the parliament were anxious to relieve themselves of; he returned no answer to the letter for months. When the answer came it was so ambiguous that in effect the explanation of his promise was left to the civil power.

In January the king was beheaded, and the House of Lords was abolished in due course. Meanwhile Capel was committed to the Tower, having been brought thither from Windsor Castle, his first place of confinement. By some means, which were never explained, he managed to provide himself with a cord and other necessary appliances, and a plan of escape was arranged for him by his friends outside. It succeeded, though attended by great difficulty, and Capel was kept in concealment in the Temple for some days. Then it was thought that he would be in greater safety if he were removed to a private house in Lambeth, and taking a boat at the Temple stairs he was rowed up the river attended by a single gentleman, who seems to have inadvertently addressed him as ‘my lord.’ The waterman thereupon followed the two to their place of hiding, and betrayed them to the government. The man received a reward of 20l. with a recommendation to the admiralty for employment, but he had to wait many months for his ‘blood money,’ which was not paid till the November after the execution. Capel was again arrested, and on Thursday, 8 March 1648–9, ‘in a thin house, hardly above sixty there,’ the question was put to the vote whether the Duke of Hamilton, the Earls of Holland and Norwich (Goring), Capel, and Sir John Owen were to live or die. Owen was spared, Goring escaped by the casting vote of Speaker Lenthall, the other three were condemned, and all were beheaded next morning. To the last Capel behaved with that magnanimity and heroism which had marked his whole career. He received the last consolations of religion at the hands of Dr. George Morley, afterwards bishop of Winchester, who wrote an account of his last hours in a letter which was published in 1654; but inasmuch as there was reason to fear that Dr. Morley's well-known opinion might expose him to insult if he showed himself before the people at the last, Capel would not allow him to be present on the scaffold. There, says Bulstrode, ‘he behaved much after the manner of a stout Roman. He had no minister with him, nor showed any sense of death approaching, but carried himself all the time … with that boldness and resolution as was to be admired. He wore a sad-coloured suit, his hat cocked up, and his cloak thrown under one arm; he looked towards the people at his first coming up, and put off his hat in manner of a salute; he had a little discourse with some gentlemen, and passed up and down in a careless posture.’ John, son of Francis Quarles the poet, seems to have been present at the execution, and wrote ‘An Elegy or Epitaph’ upon the occasion, which was printed shortly afterwards.

Capel was buried at Hadham, where may still be read the inscription on his monument: ‘Hereunder lieth interred the body of Arthur, Lord Capel, Baron of Hadham, who was murdered for his loyalty to King Charles the First, March 9th, 1648.’ Capel married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Sir Charles Morrison of Cashiobury, Hertfordshire, and by her had five sons and four daughters. At the Restoration Arthur [q.v.] , his eldest son, was created Earl of Essex, a title which had become extinct by the death of Robert Devereux, the last earl, 14 Sept. 1646. By one of those strange instances of retributive justice which are not rare in history, the son of the murdered man succeeded to the honours of him who had benefited most by the spoliation of his father's lands, and from him the present Earl of Essex is lineally descended.

[Clarendon's Hist. Rebellion; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 250, 698; Carlyle's Cromwell; Bulstrode's Memoirs; Devereux's Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex, ii. 366, 462; Sanderson's Hist. of the Reign of Charles I; Collins's Peerage of England, iii. 474; Rushworth's Historical Collections, pt. iii. vol. i. p. 21, and vol. viii. p. 1272.]

A. J.