Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coventry, William

COVENTRY, Sir WILLIAM (1628?–1686), politician, born about 1628, was fourth son of Thomas, lord Coventry [q. v.], by his second wife, Elizabeth Aldersey. He became a gentleman-commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, in 1642, but left the university without taking a degree. ‘He was young,’ writes Clarendon in his autobiography (1759, ii. 348), ‘whilst the war continued; yet he had put himself before the end of it into the army, and had the command of a foot company, and shortly after travelled into France, where he remained whilst there was any hope of getting another army for the king, or that either of the other crowns would engage in his quarrel. But when all thoughts of that were desperate, he returned into England, where he remained for many years without the least correspondence with any of his friends beyond the seas.’ On 22 June 1652 Hyde wrote to Secretary Nicholas that Coventry ‘had good parts, but was void of religion.’ Just before the Restoration he went to the Hague and visited the royal princes, to whom he was already personally known (1660). To James, duke of York, he offered his services, and he was straightway appointed the duke's private secretary. On returning to England he was elected to the parliament which met in May 1661 as M.P. for Great Yarmouth, and when the Duke of York became general-at-sea, Coventry was largely concerned in the administration of the navy, and in 1662 was appointed a commissioner at 300l. a year. He thus came into business relations with Pepys, who quickly became warmly attached to him, and Coventry is continually mentioned in the ‘Diary.’ Reports were soon disseminated that Coventry was ‘feathering his nest’ by a sale of offices, and quarrels with his fellowcommissioner, Sir George Carteret, whose directions he claimed to have faithfully followed, were perpetual. He admitted subsequently that, like everybody else, he did make money by selling offices (Pepys, 28 Oct. 1667). In October 1662 Coventry was made a commissioner for the government of Tangier. He was created D.C.L. at Oxford 28 Sept. 1663, together with Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington (Wood, Fasti (Bliss), ii. 275), and was knighted and sworn of the privy council 26 June 1665. In the course of the Dutch war charges of corruption in connection with the commissariat were again brought against Coventry, but he denied them vehemently in letters to the king, and subsequently took active measures to reduce the expenditure of his department. Meanwhile Coventry was distinguishing himself as a speaker in the House of Commons. Burnet describes him about 1665 as 'a man of great actions and eminent virtues, the best speaker in the house, and capable of braving the chief ministry.' He attached himself to Bennet, afterwards Earl of Arlington, and made very fierce attacks on Clarendon's administration. He denied any kind of responsibility for the declaration of war with the Dutch in Feb. 1664–5, but during that and two following sessions he and his brother Henry [q. v.] practically led the house. Marvell, writing in 1667, says:—

All the two Coventries their generals choose;
For one had much, the other nought to lose.
Not better choice all accidents could hit,
While hector Harry steers by Will the wit.

Coventry's speeches in the House of Commons immediately contributed to Clarendon's fall in 1667, but when the change of government took place at the end of August, he remained in the subordinate office of a commissionership of the treasury, to which he had been appointed in the preceding June. The Duke of York resented Coventry's attitude to Clarendon, and told him so (30 Aug. 1667). Three days later Coventry resolved to leave the duke's service. He declared that this step was nowise connected with his attitude to Clarendon. Coventry told Pepys at the time that he regarded Clarendon as an incapable minister, but that he had no wish to seek political advancement by identifying himself with any faction (28 Oct. 1667). Coventry's frankness and independence had raised up many enemies, and in March 1668–9 he was informed that the Duke of Buckingham and Sir Robert Howard were contemplating a caricature of him on the stage. He thereupon sent a challenge to the duke. As soon as the fact came to the king's knowledge, Coventry was sent to the Tower. He was at the same time excluded from the privy council and the treasury, but this indignity was doubtless cast upon him by the influence of his political rivals—‘to make way for the lord Clifford's greatness and the designs of the cabal.’ His friends visited him in the Tower in large numbers. On 9 March he petitioned for the royal pardon, and on 20 March he was released. Coventry remained in parliament till 1679 when he finally retired to a country house at Minster Lovell, near Witney, Oxfordshire, interesting himself in local affairs and entertaining friends from Oxford. He tried to reduce the expenses attaching to the office of sheriff of the county from 600l. to 60l., and drew up regulations for the purpose. No offer of posts at court could draw him back to public life, although Temple and Burnet concur in stating that at one time almost any office was at his disposal. He died unmarried at Somerhill, near Tunbridge Wells, 23 June 1686, and was buried at Penshurst. He bequeathed 2,000l. to French protestants expelled from France, and 3,000l. for the redemption of captives in Algiers. Burnet and Temple credit Coventry with the highest political ability, and Clarendon, who naturally writes of him with acerbity, does not deny it. Evelyn calls him 'a wise and witty gentleman.'

Coventry's political views are defined in The Character of a Trimmer, which came out in 1688 with a title-page ascribing it to 'the Honourable Sir W. C.' It was printed from a copy found among Coventry's papers, but the author was George Savile, Marquis of Halifax [q. v.], Coventry's nephew. This is a vindication of the presence of a middle political party, unconnected with either of the two recognised parties in parliamentary warfare. ‘The second edition, carefully corrected and cleared from the Errors of the first Impression,’ was issued in 1689, and bore the name of ‘The Honourable Sir W. Coventry’ on the title-page. The third edition (1697) is described as ‘By the Honourable Sir W. Coventry, Corrected and Amended by a Person of Honour.’ The advertisement here states ‘that it is the production of Sir William Coventry's Contemplation, who was universally reputed as an acute Statesman, an accomplisht Gentleman, a great Schollar, and a true Englishman, and stands obliged to the great care of the late [George Savile] M[arquis] of Hallifax [he died 1695], who thought it worthy of a strict and nice perusal, and with his own Pen delivered it from innumerable Mistakes and Errors that stuff'd and crowded the former Edition.’ Had the marquis lived, the public would have seen it ‘revised with a second Inspection and published by his particular order.’ In a letter to a nephew, Thomas Thynne (preserved at Longleat), Coventry denied the authorship, although he admitted himself to be a Trimmer, a title which he defines as 'one who would sit upright and not overturn the boat by swaying too much on either side.' But the contrary statement in the book itself discredits Macaulay's statement that Halifax. The work appeared in Halifax's Miscellanies (1704), and was reprinted separately in 1833.

Coventry also printed England's Appeal from the Private Cabal at White-hall to the Great Council of the Nation, the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, by a True Lover of his Country, anno 1673; and A Letter Written to Dr. Burnet, giving an Account of Cardinal Pool's [i.e. Pole's] Secret Papers, 1685—a reprint of some letters by Pole, found by Coventry, and correcting some statements in Burnet's History of the Reformation.

Many of his papers are among the Ashburnham MSS. and Longleat MSS., among the latter being a catalogue of his own and his brother Henry's libraries, which were sold 9 May 1687. Coventry told Pepys that he invariably kept a journal.

[Pepys's Diary, passim; Evelyn's Diary; Burnet's own Time; Wood's Athenæ (Bliss), iv. 190; Macaulay's Hist. i. 244; Clarendon's Autobiography; Clarendon State Papers; Hist. MSS. Comm. Rep. iv. v. vi.; Christie's Shaftesbury, i. 21.]

S. L. L.