Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Capel, Arthur (1631-1683)
CAPEL, ARTHUR, Earl of Essex (1631–1683), was born in January 1631 (information kindly given by the present Lord Essex), and was the eldest son of Arthur, lord Capel [q. v.] of Hadham, who was executed in 1649. His mother was Elizabeth Morrison. Of his early years nothing appears to be known, though from a letter of 13 June 1643 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. 143) he appears to have then been at Shrewsbury fighting for the king. It is stated by Burnet (i. 396) that his education was neglected by reason of the civil wars, but that when he reached manhood he made himself master of the Latin tongue, and learned mathematics and all the other parts of learning. From a letter in 1681 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. 451) he appears to have had some connection with Balliol College, for he then subscribed to the purchase of a large silver bowl for the common-room. His correspondence during his residence in Ireland, preserved in the ‘Essex Papers’ (Stow Collection, Brit. Mus.), is that of a man of considerable literary cultivation. The language is simple but scholarly, and the style is singularly clear, dignified, and unaffected. His letters also display an intimate knowledge of law and of constitutional questions. Chauncy (Antiquities of Hertfordshire) describes him as handsome, courteous, and temperate, a strong opponent of arbitrary power, temperate in diet, and a lover of his library. Evelyn says that ‘he is a sober, wise, judicious, and pondering person, not illiterate beyond the rate of most noblemen in this age, very well versed in English historie and affaires, industrious, frugal, methodical, and every way accomplished’ (18 April 1680). Essex was never a wealthy man; his estate had been sequestrated under the Commonwealth, and was compounded for at 4,706l. 7s. 11d. (Collins, Peerage). While lord-lieutenant of Ireland he more than once mentions the pay of his office as being of importance to his private interests (Essex Papers). And Evelyn tells us that while there he ‘considerably augmented his estate, without reproach’ (18 April 1680). At the Restoration he was made Viscount Malden and Earl of Essex (20 April 1661), with remainder first to his brother Henry [q. v.] and his male heirs, and afterwards to his younger brother Edward. The writ was issued 29 April (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 142a). Capel was custos rotulorum and lord-lieutenant of Hertfordshire from 7 July 1660 till 1672, and lord-lieutenant of Wiltshire also from 2 April 1668 till 1681. He married Elizabeth Percy, daughter of Algernon, earl of Northumberland (d. 1717), mentioned as petitioning for the death of Col. Titchbourne in 1660 (ib. v. 169), by whom he had six sons and two daughters; but only one son and one daughter, Algernon and Anne, lived to maturity (Collins, Peerage). Scarcely any facts are forthcoming regarding Essex's life from 1660 to 1669. On 7 Aug. 1660 he named, according to the iniquitous vote of the House of Lords, Sir E. Wareing as an expiatory victim for his father's death (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. 155). He was in London in September 1666 (ib. 7th Rep. 485 b), and in 1667 was in Paris, on his way home from the waters of Bourbon. He was at that time a member of the privy council. While in Paris he was consulted by the queen mother regarding the intentions of the Irish papists to put Ireland into the hands of the French when opportunity should arise, and he gave a most unflattering opinion of her political judgment (Burnet, i. 250). In 1669, when Charles was endeavouring by personal solicitation to gain the votes of the members of the House of Lords, he, with Lord Hollis, had gained the reputation of being ‘stiff and sullen men’ (ib. i. 272), and Charles always treated him with respect. Burnet states (i. 396) that he appeared early against the court. His political opinions may be in part gathered from those of his brother Henry, member for Tewkesbury, with whom he lived in entire sympathy. Henry Capel prided himself upon being descended from one who lost both life and fortune for the crown and nation; but, on the other hand, his speeches are invariably directed against every abuse of the royal power, and against all tampering with popery.
Essex's first public employment was in 1670, when Charles, desirous of making use of one whose opposition he wished to avoid (ib. i. 396), sent him as ambassador to the court of Christian V of Denmark. The governor of Croonenburg had orders to make all the ships that passed strike to him. Essex replied that the kings of England made others strike to them, but their ships struck to none. He himself regarded this as a cheap defiance, saying that he was sure the governor would not endeavour to sink a ship which brought over an ambassador. His first business on landing was to justify this behaviour to the Danes, which he did by producing, from some books upon Danish affairs lent him by Sir J. Cotton, evidence that by former treaties it had in past time been expressly stipulated that English ships of war should not strike in the Danish seas. Burnet adds to his account of this matter that his conduct was so highly rated that he was informed from court that he might expect everything he should pretend to on his return. In April 1671 we read of him as ‘of the cabinet council, and seemeth to be in very good grace’ (Hist. MSS. Comm.) Actually he was, upon the removal of the Duke of Ormonde from the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland, appointed to the post, February 1672, to his own great surprise, being sworn of the privy council of Ireland in that year. He left Holyhead on 28 June in the Norwich, but does not appear to have arrived in Dublin until 5 Aug. (Essex Papers). He continued in this employment until his recall in 1677, with but one short journey to London. Of his government Burnet speaks thus: ‘He exceeded all that had gone before him, and is still considered as a pattern to all that come after him. He studied to understand exactly well the constitution and interest of the nation. He read over all their council books, and made large abstracts out of them to guide him, so as to advance everything that had been at any time set on foot for the good of the kingdom. He made several volumes of tables of the state, and persons that were in every county and town, and got true characters of all that were capable to serve the public; and he preferred men always upon merit without any application from themselves, and watched over all about him, that there should be no bribes going among his servants’ (i. 396). This is but one among many illustrations of Burnet's most remarkable accuracy. The full, detailed, and continuous correspondence, both private and official, which can now be consulted in the ‘Essex Papers,’ bears ample testimony to the truth of every word in this quotation, which is further established by the fact that Ormonde bore honourable testimony to the integrity and ability of his government (Carte, iv. 529). He set himself vigorously to work against misgovernment, withstanding the opposition and the pretensions of Orrery, Ranelagh, and others. He managed very successfully to keep the Ulster presbyterians from following the example of their Scotch brethren, and this without violence. Indeed, he several times moderates the desires of the bishops for strong measures. And he appears to have protected the papists also, as far as English opinion would allow, though he is informed from London that he will be torn in pieces if he permits the secular priests to say mass openly. His rule over the natives was firm and mild, though the light in which the wilder portion of them were regarded is vividly shown by the following extract from this letter, dated 16 Aug. 1673: ‘And in case any should happen to be killed, if it be made apparent that he is a tory, it would be reasonable to pardon.’ He forcibly reminds Arlington of the danger that may arise from suffering the common people to know their own force. One of the main points with which he was concerned was, by drawing up new rules for the corporation, to check the turbulence of the city of Dublin. He sought to apply to Dublin the method of ‘quo warrantos’ employed by Charles in England at the end of his reign. Throughout his administration he had to struggle against the whole influence of Ranelagh, who had the receipts of the Irish revenue, on condition of paying the civil and military charges of the crown, and who, fortifying himself by the friendship of Danby and the Duchess of Portsmouth, and by his promises to Charles to provide him with money out of Irish funds, presented accounts which Essex resolutely refused to pass. Of the intrigues continually carried on against him in London he had full and timely warning from friends at court. He refused, however, in dignified language to alter his course of action on this account, and especially declined to put his dependence upon ‘little people,’ such as Chiffinch, Elliot, and the Duchess of Portsmouth, although we find him expressing pleasure that his agent, William Harbord, has, through the mediation of the Duke of Hamilton, made the latter his friend. The only request he makes for himself is that no complaints shall be permitted to be heard in England unless they have previously been notified to himself, a request immediately granted by the king. He did his utmost to stop the reckless grants of forfeited estates by the king to his courtiers and mistresses, and refused to injure his successor's interests by granting reversions. So careful was he about the purity of the administration that he was able to say, on handing over the government to Ormonde after five years, that his secretary, Allworth, was the only man, not that he had gratified, but that he requested might be gratified by his successor. His government of Ireland was in striking contrast to the general corruption of Charles's reign, which is the more remarkable as his circumstances were always straitened. The most memorable example of his fearlessness was when he successfully opposed the grant of the Phœnix Park to the Duchess of Cleveland, about which he wrote to Arlington: ‘I do desire there may not be the least grain of my concurrence in it,’ and to Charles in language almost equally strong. His official correspondence is chiefly directed to Arlington, the secretary (in whose behalf on his impeachment in 1674 he moved all his relatives and friends in the house), and, on the retirement of this minister, to Henry Coventry, a personal friend, who succeeded him. His private letters are chiefly from his brother Henry, Francis Godolphin, Lord Conway, Sir William Temple, Southwell, and William Harbord. During his administration, February 1674–5, he received a grant from the king of Essex House in the Strand, but great delay took place before the grant actually took effect, if indeed it did so at all. In 1674 it was intimated to him that he was to have the Garter, but this, too, apparently fell through. In July 1675 he made a visit to London, visited the king at Newmarket in April (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 493), and returned to Ireland in May of the next year, reaching Dublin on the 6th. During his stay in England his whole desire appears to be to get back to his post. His letters while in London show him fully alive to the intrigues which were being carried on to oust so incorruptible an officer from his place. The king himself always held him in great respect. These intrigues, based upon Charles's incessant need of money, which Ranelagh promised to supply, proved successful during the course of the next year, and on 28 April 1677 Essex acknowledges the king's letter of recall. His last few months of office were embittered by a scandalous insult to his wife from a certain Captain Brabazon, who declared her guilty of an intrigue with him. The belief is several times expressed that this was an annoyance deliberately set on foot by Danby, Ranelagh, and the Duchess of Portsmouth. Essex, by his position, was precluded from seeking personal satisfaction, but before he left was able to prove that the charge was a malicious falsehood. Upon his return to England Essex speedily identified himself with the country party, Danby's opponents, of which, along with Russell, Halifax, Shaftesbury, Buckingham, and Hollis, he became a leader in the lords, this ‘cabal’ being kept at Lord Hollis's house. He probably, however, did not take an active part in the opposition at once, for in a letter of 11 April 1678 the French ambassador omits his name from the list of the chief members of the country party (Dalrymple, Memoirs, i. 189). The leading objects of this party were the ruin of Danby, the exclusion of James, the persecution of popery, and the dissolution of the pensionary parliament. To what extent he believed in the pretended plot which raised the popish terror it is not easy to ascertain; it is, however, clear that he never expressed his disbelief in it, but, on the contrary, acted in full accord with its most violent assailers, when he joined them in pressing the king to dismiss James from the court (Collins, Peerage).
On the fall of Danby in 1679 the treasury was put in commission, and Essex was placed at its head (ib.) Along with Sunderland and Monmouth he now urged the king to try the experiment of an entire change of policy by introducing the leaders of the country party into the council. By thus acting independently of his party he appears to have incurred their jealousy. His own account to Burnet was that he hoped, by accepting office, to work the change that was now effected. The dismissal of the old council and the creation of a new one comprising the principal whigs from both houses, under the presidency of Shaftesbury, were, however, undoubtedly the results of Temple's advice. Essex was sworn a member of that council on 21 April; he declared that its creation would conciliate the parliament in its relations with the king. The whig party now was split up into two sections on the exclusion question. That led by Shaftesbury affirmed that to save England from the danger of a popish king the absolute exclusion of James was necessary; and it put forward Monmouth as its candidate for the throne. Essex, acting under the leadership of Halifax and Sunderland, proposed the scheme of limitations, whereby, when the crown should fall to him, James should be disabled from doing harm either in church or state, and these three, who formed the triumvirate, regarded the Prince of Orange, rather than Monmouth, as the natural representative of the protestant interest. Essex appears to have confined himself to treasury business, where ‘his clear, though slow sense, made him very acceptable to the king,’ and to the endeavours to regulate the expense of the court (Burnet, i. 456, 458). In the great debate which arose on the occasion of Danby's prosecution, he spoke against the right of the bishops to vote in any part of a trial for treason. On the question of the proposed dissolution of the pensionary parliament he joined Halifax in arguing that since no agreement seemed possible with the king upon the questions of the exclusion and Danby's pardon, it would be well to try whether a new parliament might not be disposed to let those matters drop. For this advice, according to Burnet (i. 469), he again incurred the anger of Shaftesbury and his party, which, however, ‘as he was not apt to be much heated,’ he bore mildly. He was evidently much trusted by Charles, who had in the previous year named him along with Halifax to discuss the grievances of the Scotch lords against Lauderdale (ib. 469). Upon the discovery of the Meal Tub plot, in which the forgers had represented Essex and Halifax as being implicated, they urged the king to summon parliament at once. Upon his refusal (ib.) Essex, with his brother, left the treasury on 19 Nov. 1679. In order, however, that this resignation might not strengthen Shaftesbury's party, a gloss was put upon his action by the statement that he ‘had the king's leave’ to resign (Ralph, 489). It is, indeed, probable that the grounds of his leaving were very different. In a letter from court of 27 Nov. 1679 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 477 b) it is said, ‘some say the E. of Essex went out on this score. The king had given Cleveland 25,000l., and she sending to him for it he denied the payment, and told the king he (the king) had often promised them not to pay money on those accounts while he was so much indebted to such as daily clamoured at their table for money; but if his Maj. would have it paid he wish't somebody else to do it, for he would not, but willingly surrender his place, at which the king replied, “I will take you at your word.”’ Another account, equally honourable to Essex, is, that Charles being anxious to gain a subsidy from Louis, ‘the niceness of touching French money is the reason that makes my Lord Essex's squeazy stomach that it can no longer digest his employment of 1st commissioner of the treasury’ (ib. 6th Rep. 741 b). He continued to sit in the council, but in spite of Charles's earnest request refused to return to the treasury (Burnet, 476). His chief desire appears to have been to return to Ireland.
The candour and good sense with which Essex advised Charles are well shown in a letter to the king of 21 July 1679, in which he urges him to disband the guards he had just raised (DALRYMPLE, Memoirs, i. 314).
In the debates in 1680 on the Exclusion Bill, Essex, whose views had undergone a great alteration, ascribed by Lingard, though without authority, to his disappointment in gaining neither the lord-treasurership nor the government of Ireland, now appeared as a strong opponent of the court, and vehemently supported Shaftesbury's action. Possibly the cause is to be found in the fact that his urgent advice to James in October to retire to Scotland had been disregarded (ib. i. 346). When the Exclusion Bill was thrown out, and Halifax again brought in the scheme of expedients, he made a motion, agreed to in a thin house, that an association should be entered into to maintain those expedients, and that some cautionary towns should be put into the hands of the associators during the king's life to make them good after his death. In March 1680–1 he is spoken of by Ormonde as furthering, with Howard, the belief in a ‘sham plot,’ in order to throw odium upon the queen and the Roman catholics generally (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 744 b). On 25 Jan. 1680–1 he took the decided step of presenting a petition, in which he was joined by fifteen other peers, praying that the choice of Oxford for the meeting of parliament might be given up. The language of the petition was unwarrantably violent, declaring, along with much that was true, that they were deprived of freedom of debate, and were exposed to the swords of papists in the king's guards. The petition, which was printed and published, was answered by Halifax in a ‘Seasonable Address’ (State Tracts, ii. 129).
In the trial of Stafford, Essex appears to have thrown aside his usual fairness of judgment, and to have voted for the condemnation. He spoke vehemently against the popish lords, saying they were worse than Danby (Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. 740). He is represented, too, as eager in the prosecution of Lady Powys, who found money for the imprisoned catholics (North, Examen, 269). On the other hand, he honourably distinguished himself in urging upon Charles the pardon of Plunket, the archbishop of Armagh, illegally condemned on account of the pretended Irish plot (which, however, he is represented as diligent in discovering, see Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 739 b), declaring from his own knowledge that the charge could not be true. It was now that Essex received a just rebuke in the king's indignant reply, ‘Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience. You might have saved him, if you would. I cannot pardon him because I dare not.’ On the occasion when, in defiance of court influence, the Middlesex grand jury refused to return a true bill against Shaftesbury, a book was published to justify their action, of which Essex was the reputed author. It probably, however, was by Somers.
In 1682 Shaftesbury suggested to his friends the advisability of taking advantage of the ferment in the city on the occasion of the contest about the sheriffs, and of making themselves masters of the Tower during the confusion. Against this wild scheme Russell and Essex protested, and Shaftesbury left the country. Essex now took his place as Monmouth's principal adviser, but insisted upon Russell and Algernon Sidney being joined with him. He appears to have fallen much under the influence of the latter, at whose suggestion it was that he consented to take Howard, who afterwards betrayed them, into their confidence in the meetings frequently held with Monmouth for consultation as to the course to be pursued; he also almost forced Russell to admit Howard (Burnet's Journal; App. to Lord John Russell's Life of Russell). At these meetings much wild talk no doubt took place as to a possible rising; but in all such designs we have the authority of Burnet (i. 540) and all probability for saying that Essex took no part. He felt things were not yet ripe, and that an ill-managed rising would be ruin to the whig cause.
Upon the discovery of the Rye House plot, Russell and others were immediately imprisoned. It was not, however, until Lord Howard had been captured that upon his information a party of horse was sent to Essex's country house at Cashiobury to arrest him. Upon his arrest he appeared dejected, and said little, but that he did not imagine any one would swear falsely against him, and made no manner of profession of duty. Sir Philip Lloyd said ‘he was in some confusion at his own house, and changed his mind three or four times, one while saying he would go on horseback, and another while that he would go in his coach’ (North, Examen, 382). He appears also to have shown much mental distress when brought before the council. He sent from the Tower a very melancholy message to his wife, and he wrote also to the Earl of Bedford to express his regret at having helped to bring danger upon his son. Shortly after the beginning of Lord Russell's trial on 13 July 1683 it was whispered in court—and the news was made use of to injure Russell—that Essex had cut his throat in the Tower (Ralph, 759; North, Examen, 400). It is impossible here to enter into the controversy as to whether this tragedy was suicide or murder. It will be found exhaustively treated in Burnet (569), in the last edition of the ‘Biographia Britannica,’ in Ralph's ‘History’ (i. 759), and in North's ‘Examen.’ The court was, of course, roundly accused of murder; the charge, however, is utterly without antecedent probability, and is unsupported by trustworthy evidence. It was difficult for those who knew Essex's ‘sober and religious deportment’ (Evelyn, 28 June 1683) to believe in the suicide theory. But the occasional melancholy of his disposition; the sleeplessness with which he was troubled in the Tower; the danger of his friends: the fact that he found himself in the very rooms from which his father had been taken to execution; the recollection of his last interview with that father; his com mendation of the action of the Earl of Northumberland, who prevented an attainder by killing himself in the Tower, to save his honour and family estates (North, Examen, 385); his sending for a razor—these and other such collateral considerations are to be borne in mind. Flippant and cruel as Charles had become, his remark, ‘My lord Essex might have tried my mercy; I owe a life to his family,’ is, if genuine, a valuable additional piece of evidence that he at least was utterly without complicity in the crime imputed to him. Essex was buried at Watford in Hertfordshire. From Evelyn we learn that he shared in the three fashionable tastes of the day. ‘No man has been more industrious than this noble lord in planting about his seate [Cashiobury], adorned with walks, ponds, and other rural excellencies; while the library is large, and very nobly furnished, and all the books richly bound and gilded; but there are no manuscripts except the parliament rolls and journals, the transcribing and binding of which cost him 500l.’ (18 April 1680). The reader should refer to Evelyn's description of the house.[The sources of information are sufficiently indicated in the text. The Essex Papers are accessible in the British Museum, and are now arranged chronologically. The letters to Essex are all originals; those from him are drafts or copies, apparently in his own hand. They form a record of daily and incessant toil.]