1st Earl of Essex (1661-1683)
Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland (1672-1677)
Born 1632 Died 1683
Arthur Capel, English statesman, son of Arthur, 1st Baron Capel of Hadham (c. 1641), executed in 1649, and of Elizabeth, daughter and heir of Sir Charles Morrison of Cashiobury in Hertfordshire, was baptized on the 28th of January 1632. In June 1648, then a sickly boy of sixteen, he was taken by Fairfax's soldiers from Hadham to Colchester, which his father was defending, and carried every day round the works with the hope of inducing Lord Capel to surrender the place. At the restoration he was created Viscount Malden and Earl of Essex (20th of April 1661), with special remainder to the male issue of his father, and was made lord-lieutenant of Hertfordshire and a few years later of Wiltshire.1
He early showed himself antagonistic to the court, to Roman Catholicism, and to the extension of the royal prerogative, and was coupled by Charles II with Holles as "stiff and sullen men"2, who would not yield against their convictions to his solicitations. In 1669 he was sent as ambassador to King Christian V of Denmark, in which capacity he gained credit by refusing to strike his flag to the governor of Kronborg.
In 1672 he was made a Privy Councillor and Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. He remained in office till 1677, and his administration was greatly commended by Burnet and Ormonde,3 the former describing it as a "pattern to all that come after him". He identified himself with Irish interests, and took immense pains to understand the constitution and the political necessities of the country, appointing men of real merit to office, and maintaining an exceptional independence from solicitation and influence. He held a just balance between the Roman Catholics, the English Church and the Presbyterians, protecting the former as far as public opinion in England would permit, and governing the native Irish with firmness and moderation.
The purity and patriotism of his administration were in strong contrast to the hopeless corruption prevalent in that at home and naturally aroused bitter opposition, as an obstacle to the unscrupulous employment of Irish revenues for the satisfaction of the court and the king's expenses. In particular he came into conflict with Lord Ranelagh, to whom had been assigned the Irish revenues on condition of his supplying the requirements of the crown, and whose accounts Essex refused to pass. He opposed strongly the lavish gifts of forfeited estates to court favourites and mistresses, prevented the grant of Phoenix Park to the Duchess of Cleveland, and refused to encumber the administration by granting reversions. Finally the intrigues of his enemies at home, and Charles's continual demands for money, which Ranelagh undertook to satisfy, brought about his recall in April 1677.
He immediately joined the country party and the opposition to Danby's government, and on the latters fall in 1679 was appointed a commissioner of the treasury, and the same year a member of Sir William Temple's new modelled council. He followed the lead of Halifax, who advocated not the exclusion of James, but the limitation of his sovereign powers, and looked to the Prince of Orange rather than to Monmouth as the leader of Protestantism, incurring thereby the hostility of Shaftesbury, but at the same time gaining the confidence of Charles. He was appointed by Charles together with Halifax to hear the charges against Lauderdale. In July he wrote a wise and statesmanlike letter to the king, advising him to renounce his project of raising a new company of guards. Together with Halifax he urged Charles to summon the parliament, and after his refusal resigned the treasury in November, the real cause being, according to one account,4 a demand upon the treasury by the Duchess of Cleveland for £25,000, according to another the niceness of touching French money, "that makes my Lord Essex's squeasy stomach that it can no longer digest his employment".5
Subsequently his political attitude underwent a change, the exact cause of which is not clear, probably a growing conviction of the dangers threatened by a Roman Catholic sovereign of the character of James. He now, in 1680, joined Shaftesbury's party and supported the Exclusion Bill, and on its rejection by the Lords carried a motion for an association to execute the scheme of expedients promoted by Halifax. On the 25th of January 1681 at the head of fifteen peers he presented a petition to the king, couched in exaggerated language, requesting the abandonment of the session of parliament at Oxford. He was a jealous prosecutor of the Roman Catholics in the Popish Plot, and voted for Stafford's attainder, on the other hand interceding for Archbishop Plunket, implicated in the pretended Irish plot.
He, however, refused to follow Shaftesbury in his extreme courses, declined participation in the latters design to seize the Tower in 1682, and on Shaftesbury's consequent departure from England became the leader of Monmouth's faction, in which were now included Lord Russell, Algernon Sidney, and Lord Howard of Escrick.
Essex took no part in the wilder schemes of the party, but after the discovery of the Rye House Plot in June 1683, and the capture of the leaders, he was arrested at Cashiobury and imprisoned in the Tower. His spirits and fortitude appear immediately to have abandoned him, and on the 13th of July he was discovered in his chamber with his throat cut. His death was attributed, quite groundlessly, to Charles and James, and the evidence points clearly if not conclusively to suicide, his motive being possibly to prevent an attainder and preserve his estate for his family. He, was, however, undoubtedly a victim of the Stuart administration, and the antagonism and tragic end of men like Essex, deserving men, naturally devoted to the throne, constitutes a severe indictment of the Stuart rule.
He was a statesman of strong and sincere patriotism, just and unselfish, conscientious and labourious in the fulfilment of public duties, blameless in his official and private life. Evelyn describes him as "a sober, wise, judicious and pondering person, not illiterate beyond the rule of most noblemen in this age, very well versed in English history and affairs, industrious, frugal, methodical and every way accomplished"; and declares he was "much deplored, few believing he had ever harboured any seditious designs". He married Lady Elizabeth Percy, daughter of Algernon, 10th Earl of Northumberland, by whom, besides a daughter, he had an only son Algernon (1670-1710), who succeeded him as 2nd Earl of Essex.
Bibliography. See the Lives in the Dictionary of National Biography and in Biographia (Kippis), with authorities there collected; Essex's Irish correspondence is in the Stow Collection in the British Museum, Nos. 200-2 17, and selections have been published in Letters written by Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex (1770) and in the Essex Papers (Camden Society, 1890), to which can now be added the Calendars of State Papers, Domestic, which contain a large number of his letters and which strongly support the opinion of his contemporaries concerning his unselfish patriotism and industry; see also Somer's Tracts (1814), x, and for other pamphlets relating to his death the catalogue of the British Museum.
1 i.e. in the Capel line.
2 Hist. MSS. Comm. 5cr.; Duke of Beaufort's MSS. 45.
3 Life of Ormonde, by T. Carte, viii. 468 (1851), vol. iv. p. 529.
4 Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. app. 477b.
5 Ibid. 6th Rep. app. 741b.
Being the entry for ESSEX, ARTHUR CAPEL, 1ST EARL OF, in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.