Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coventry, Thomas (1578-1640)
COVENTRY, THOMAS, Lord Coventry (1578–1640), lord keeper, eldest son of Sir Thomas Coventry [q. v.], was born in 1578 at Earl's Croome, or Croome d'Abitot, Worcestershire. After a private education he was sent to Balliol College, Oxford, in Michaelmas term 1592, but took no degree, and in November 1594 entered the Inner Temple. Coke's reports mention him as an advocate in 1611. With his friends Henry Yelverton and James Whitelocke he joined the Oxford circuit; became bencher of his inn in 1614; autumn reader in 1616, and was elected treasurer for each year between 1617 and 1623. Coventry was noticed favourably by Coke, and thus incurred Bacon's enmity. In 1616 he was a candidate for the recordership of the city of London, and Bacon wrote to the king (13 Nov.): ‘The man upon whom the choice is like to fall, which is Coventry, I hold doubtful for your service; not but that he is well learned and an honest man, but he hath been, as it were, bred by Lord Coke and seasoned in his ways’ (Spedding, Life of Bacon, vi. 97). In spite of this opposition Coventry was elected recorder on 16 Nov. Four months later he obtained the solicitor-generalship (14 March 1616–17), and was knighted at the same time. He owed his preferment to the influence of friends and to his reputation as a sound lawyer whose political opinions, although not extreme, coincided in the main with those of the king's supporters. In 1620 he was M.P. for Droitwich. On 11 Jan. 1620–1 he succeeded Sir Henry Yelverton as attorney-general. Almost his first duty was to request of Bacon specific answers to the charges of corruption brought in parliament. In April 1621 he was concerned in the proceedings against Edward Floyd, a Roman catholic, who was reported to have rejoiced over the misfortunes of the elector palatine after the battle of Prague, but he deprecated the brutal sentence passed by the commons. On 1 Nov. 1625 Coventry was summoned to supply Bishop Williams's place as lord keeper of the great seal. When accepting office he thanked the Duke of Buckingham for the favour he had bestowed on him in phrases which, although courtly, showed an independence unusual in contemporary officers of the crown, and he acknowledged very modestly congratulations from Bacon (Spedding, vii. 534–5). As lord-keeper, Coventry opened the second parliament of Charles I's reign, and before the close delivered the king's reprimand of the unruly house, which declined to grant an adequate supply without redress of grievances. The commons, he said, had liberty of counsel but not of control (29 March 1626). In May he drew up the questions to be propounded to Sir John Eliot, then under arrest; his manuscript is still at the Record Office. When opening the third parliament in March 1627–8 he announced the royal threat that the prerogative of the crown would be exercised without appeal to parliament in case of further insubordination, and henceforth steadily supported the king, although he treated Buckingham without much respect. On 10 April he was created Baron Coventry of Aylesborough, Worcestershire. When Buckingham applied to him soon afterwards for the office of lord high constable, Coventry declined to grant it him, and a personal altercation ensued. Buckingham taunted Coventry with holding the lord keepership by his favour. ‘Did I conceive I held my place by your favour,’ Coventry replied, ‘I would presently unmake myself by rendering the seal to his majesty.’ It is probable that Buckingham would have driven Coventry from office and have replaced him by a more servile instrument had his attention not been absorbed in foreign affairs for the few months which elapsed before his assassination in August (Hacket, Life of Williams, ii. 19). Meanwhile Coventry was actively engaged in parliament. In the debates in the lords on the council's powers of commitment he argued that the council need not show cause (22 April 1628), and six days later, when Noy's Habeas Corpus Bill was before the commons, he told them that they must be content with the king's verbal promise to administer the existing law of the land. In the following month, when the Petition of Right was under discussion, he gave the more moderate opinion that no man ought, except in very special circumstances, to be imprisoned without cause shown. In June, when the debate was at its height, he informed Charles that a dissolution would not solve the difficulty, and persuaded him to assent to the petition in the ordinary formula. But in October Coventry complained (without taking further action) of the conduct of the judges in bailing Richard Chambers [q. v.] without the council's consent; dissented in vain from Charles I's resolution to dissolve parliament summarily in March 1628–9, and endeavoured in September to bring about a compromise on the question of bailing the seven members of parliament imprisoned by Charles since March. He suggested that security should be given for their good behaviour during the vacation, but this concession the prisoners declined. In October Coventry was ordered by Charles I to inform Sir John Walter [q. v.], the chief baron of the exchequer, that his services were no longer needed on the bench. Coventry drew up and enforced a royal proclamation in June 1632, according to which gentlemen living in the country were temporarily banished from London; sentenced Lord Audley to death after his trial by his peers in the same year (Rushworth, ii. 96); joined with Laud in bringing a charge of corruption against the Earl of Portland in the council in May 1634, and strongly opposed Portland's scheme of a Spanish alliance. A month later he announced his approval of Noy's scheme of levying shipmoney, and in June 1635 he addressed a powerful speech to the council in which he foreshadowed the danger to England of a maritime war and justified the extension of the shipmoney tax to the inland towns. ‘The dominion of the sea,’ he said, ‘as it is an ancient and undoubted right of the crown of England, so it is the best security of the land. The wooden walls are the best walls of this kingdom’ (Rushworth, ii. 294). But he said nothing as to the king's right to levy the tax, and he took no part at all in the great case of Hampden. In the Star-chamber Coventry was usually, although not invariably, on the side of clemency. In March 1626–7 he resolutely opposed the infamous doctrine that men refusing to be impressed could be hanged. He deprecated any harsh sentence on Henry Sherfield, M.P. for Salisbury, who had quarrelled with the bishop of the diocese on the question of painted windows in parish churches (February 1632–1633). In April 1635 one James Maxwell and his wife Alice stated in a petition to the king that Coventry disobeyed the crown and oppressed the subject. Maxwell was prosecuted in the Star-chamber and ordered to pay 3,000l. to Charles and the same sum to Coventry. Coventry was absent when Prynne was before the court. His royalist zeal seems to have much abated in his last years, and he withheld support from the king's resolve to enforce the payment of a loan by the city of London (June 1639). He himself lent the king 10,000l. in December, and died at Durham House in the Strand on 14 Jan. 1639–40, being buried at Croome d'Abitot. The writs summoning the Short parliament were issued before his death, and in a dying message he begged that ‘his majesty would take all distastes from the parliament summoned against April with patience and suffer it without an unkind dissolution’ (Hacket, ii. 137). Besides Durham House, Coventry rented Canonbury House, Islington.
Coventry was personally popular, and all moderate men lamented his death. Clarendon states that ‘he understood not only the whole science and mystery of the law at least equally with any man who had ever sate in that place, but had a clear conception of the whole policy of the government both of church and state. … He knew the temper, disposition, and genius of the kingdom most exactly. … He had, in the plain way of speaking and delivery, without much ornament of elocution, a strange power of making himself believed.’ Antony à Wood, Fuller, Lloyd, and his colleague on the bench, Sir George Croke, all write of him in similar terms. Whitelocke denies him ‘transcendent parts or form,’ and Pepys reports a depreciatory estimate of him. Wood attributes to Coventry a tract on ‘The Fees of all Law Offices,’ London, 8vo, n.d. Letters of Coventry are preserved in Cotton MS. Julius C. iii. f. 140, and Harl. MSS. 286, 1581, 2091. Coventry married (1) Sarah, daughter of Sir Edward Sebright of Basford, Worcestershire, and (2) Elizabeth, daughter of John Aldersey of Spurstow, Cheshire, and widow of William Pitchford. By his first wife he had a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Elizabeth. Thomas succeeded him as second Baron Coventry; married (2 April 1627) Mary (d. 18 Oct. 1634), daughter of Sir William Craven; executed the commission of array in Worcestershire in 1640; signed the engagement with the king at York in 1642; died 27 Oct. 1661, and left two sons, of whom the younger, Thomas, was created earl of Coventry on 26 April 1697. By his second wife he had four sons (John, father of Sir John Coventry [q. v.], Francis, Henry [q. v.], and William [q. v.]) and four daughters (Anne, wife of Sir William Savile, and mother of George Savile, marquis of Halifax; Mary, wife of Henry Frederick Thynne of Longleat, Wiltshire; Margaret, first wife of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury [q. v.]; and Dorothy, wife of Sir John Pakington).
A portrait by ‘Old Stone’ belonged to Sir William Coventry (Pepys, ii. 404), which is probably identical with the existing picture belonging to the Earl of Coventry at Croome Court, Worcestershire; another, by Jansen, belonged to Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and is now at Grove Park, Watford. Five engraved portraits (by Droeshout, Elstracke, Houbraken, Martin, and Vandergucht) are known.
[Foss's Judges, vi. 277; Gardiner's History of England, ii.–ix.; Forster's Sir John Eliot; Clarendon's Hist. bk. i. 45, 131; Liber Famelicus of Sir James Whitelocke (Camd. Soc.); Granger's Hist. ii. 218; Wood's Athenæ (Bliss), ii. 650–2; Fuller's Worthies; Lloyd's Worthies; Foster's Peerage; Lady Theresa Lewis's Clarendon Gallery, iii. 341–2; Cal. State Papers (Dom.), 1616–1639.]