1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coventry, Sir William

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COVENTRY, SIR WILLIAM (c. 1628–1686), English statesman, son of the lord keeper, Thomas, Lord Coventry, by his second wife Elizabeth Aldersley, was born about 1628. He matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of fourteen. Owing to the outbreak of the Civil War he was obliged to quit his studies, but according to Sir John Bramston “he had a good tutor who made him a scholar, and he travelled and got the French language in good perfection.” “He was young whilst the war continued,” wrote Clarendon, “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.” Here he remained till all hopes of obtaining foreign assistance and of raising a new army had to be laid aside, when he returned to England and kept aloof from the various royalist intrigues. When, however, a new prospect of a restoration appeared in 1660, Coventry hastened to Breda, was appointed secretary to James, duke of York, lord high admiral of England, and headed the royal procession when Charles entered London in triumph.

He was returned to the Restoration parliament of 1661 for Great Yarmouth, became commissioner for the navy in May 1662 and in 1663 was made D.C.L. at Oxford. His great talents were very soon recognized in parliament, and his influence as an official was considerable. His appointment was rather that of secretary to the admiralty than of personal assistant to the duke of York,[1] and was one of large gains. Wood states that he collected a fortune of £60,000. Accusations of corruption in his naval administration, and especially during the Dutch war, were brought against him, but there is nothing to show that he ever transgressed the limits sanctioned by usage and custom in obtaining his emoluments. Pepys in his diary invariably testifies to the excellence of his administration and to his zeal for reform and economy. His ability and energy, however, did little to avert the naval collapse, owing chiefly to financial mismanagement and to the ill-advised appointments to command. Coventry denied all responsibility for the Dutch War in 1665, which Clarendon sought to place upon his shoulders, and his repudiation is supported by Pepys; it was, moreover, contrary to his well-known political opinion. The war greatly increased his influence, and shortly after the victory off Lowestoft, on the 3rd of June 1665, he was knighted and made a privy councillor (26th of June) and was subsequently admitted to the committee on foreign affairs. In 1667 he was appointed to the board of treasury to effect financial reforms. “I perceive,” writes Pepys on the 23rd of August 1667, “Sir William Coventry is the man and nothing done till he comes,” and on his removal in 1669 the duke of Albemarle, no friendly or partial critic, declares that “nothing now would be well done.” His appointment, however, came too late to ward off the naval disaster at Chatham the same year and the national bankruptcy in 1672.

Meanwhile Coventry’s rising influence had been from the first the cause of increasing jealousy to the old chancellor Clarendon, who especially disliked and discouraged the younger generation. Coventry resented this repression and thought ill of the conduct of the administration. He became the chief mover in the successful attack made upon Clarendon, but refused to take any part in his impeachment. Two days after Clarendon’s resignation (on the 31st of August), Coventry announced his intention of leaving the duke’s service and of terminating his connexion with the navy.[2] As the principal agent in effecting Clarendon’s fall he naturally acquired new power and influence, and the general opinion pointed to him as his successor as first minister of the crown. Personal merit, patriotism and conspicuous ability, however, were poor passports to place and power in Charles II.’s reign. Coventry retained merely his appointment at the treasury, and the brilliant but unscrupulous and incapable duke of Buckingham, a favourite of the king, succeeded to Lord Clarendon. The relations between the two men soon became unfriendly. Buckingham ridiculed Sir William’s steady attention to business, and was annoyed at his opposition to Clarendon’s impeachment. Coventry rapidly lost influence, was excluded from the cabinet council, and six months after Clarendon’s fall complains he has scarcely a friend at court. Finally, in March 1669, Buckingham having written a play in which Sir William was ridiculed, the latter sent him a challenge. Notice of the challenge reached the authorities through the duke’s second, and Sir William was imprisoned in the Tower on the 3rd of March and subsequently expelled from the privy council. He was superseded in the treasury on the 11th of March by Buckingham’s favourite, Sir Thomas Osborne, afterwards earl of Danby and duke of Leeds, and was at last released from the Tower on the 21st in disgrace. The real cause of his dismissal was clearly the final adoption by Charles of the policy of subservience to France and desertion of Holland and Protestant interests. Six weeks before Coventry’s fall, the conference between Charles, James, Arlington, Clifford and Arundel had taken place, which resulted a year and a half later in the disgraceful treaty of Dover. To such schemes Sir William, with his steady hostility to France and active devotion to Protestantism, was doubtless a formidable opponent. He now withdrew definitely from official life, still retaining, however, his ascendancy in the House of Commons, and leading the party which condemned and criticized the reactionary and fatal policy of the government, his credit and reputation being rather enhanced than diminished by his dismissal.[3]

In 1673 was published a pamphlet which went through five editions the same year, entitled England’s appeal from the Private Cabal at Whitehall to the Great Council of the Nation ... by a true Lover of his Country, an anonymous work universally ascribed to Sir William, which forcibly reflects his opinions on the French entanglement. In the great matter of the Indulgence, while refusing to discuss the limits of prerogative and liberty, he argued that the dispensing power of the crown could not be valid during the session of parliament, and criticized the manner of the declaration while approving its ostensible object. He supported the Test Act, but maintained a statesmanlike moderation amidst the tide of indignation rising against the government, and refused to take part in the personal attacks upon ministers, drawing upon himself the same unpopularity as his nephew Halifax incurred later. In the same year he warmly denounced the alliance with France. During the summer of 1674 he was again received at court. In 1675 he supported the bill to exclude Roman Catholics from both Houses, and also the measure to close the House of Commons to placemen; and he showed great activity in his opposition to the French connexion, especially stigmatizing the encouragement given by the government to the levying of troops for the French service. In May 1677 he voted for the Dutch alliance. Like most of his contemporaries he accepted the story of the popish plot in 1678. Coventry several times refused the highest court appointments, and he was not included in Sir W. Temple’s new-modelled council in April 1679. In the exclusion question he favoured at first a policy of limitations, and on his nephew Halifax, who on his retirement became the leader of the moderate party, he enjoined prudence and patience, and greatly regretted the violence of the opposition which eventually excited a reaction and ruined everything. He refused to stand for the new parliament, and retired to his country residence at Minster Lovell near Witney, in Oxfordshire. He died unmarried on the 23rd of June 1686, at Somerhill near Tunbridge Wells, where he had gone to take the waters, and was buried at Penshurst, where a monument was erected to his memory. In his will he ordered his funeral to be at small expense, and left £2000 to the French Protestant refugees in England, besides £3000 for the liberation of captives in Algiers. He had shortly before his death already paid for the liberation of sixty slaves. He was much beloved and respected in his family circle, his nephew, Henry Savile, alluding to him in affectionate terms as “our dearest uncle” and “incomparable friend.”

Though Sir William Coventry never filled that place in the national administration to which his merit and exceptional ability clearly entitled him, his public life together with his correspondence are sufficient to distinguish him from amongst his contemporaries as a statesman of the first rank. Lord Halifax obviously derived from his honoured mentor those principles of government which, by means of his own brilliant intellectual gifts, originality and imaginative insight, gained further force and influence. Halifax owed to him his interest in the navy and his grasp of the necessity to a country of a powerful maritime force. He drew his antagonism to France, his religious tolerance, wide religious views but firm Protestantism doubtless from the same source. Sir William was the original “Trimmer.” Writing to his nephew Viscount Weymouth, while denying the authorship of The Character of a Trimmer, he says:—“I have not been ashamed to own myself to be a trimmer ... one who would sit upright and not overturn the boat by swaying too much to either side.” He shared the Trimmer’s dislike of party, urging Halifax in the exclusion contest “not to be thrust by the opposition of his enemies into another party, but that he keep upon a national bottom which at length will prevail.” His prudence is expressed in his “perpetual unwillingness to do things which I cannot undo.” “A singular independence of spirit, a breadth of mind which refused to be contracted by party formulas, a sanity which was proof against the contagion of national delirium, were equally characteristic of uncle and nephew.”[4] Sir William Coventry’s conceptions of statesmanship, under the guiding hand of his nephew, largely inspired the future revolution settlement, and continued to be an essential condition of English political growth and progress.

Besides the tract already mentioned Coventry was the author of A Letter to Dr Burnet giving an Account of Cardinal Pool’s Secret Powers ... (1685). The Character of a Trimmer, often ascribed to him, is now known to have been written by Lord Halifax. “Notes concerning the Poor,” and an essay “concerning the decay of rents and the remedy,” are among the Malet Papers (Hist. MSS. Comm. Ser. 5th Rep. app. 320 (a)) and Add. MSS. Brit. Mus. (cal. 1882–1887); an “Essay concerning France” (4th Rep. app. 229 (b)) and a “Discourse on the Management of the Navy” (230b) are among the MSS. of the marquess of Bath, also a catalogue of his library (233(a)).

Bibliography.—No adequate life of Sir William Coventry has been written; the most satisfactory appreciation of his character and abilities is to be found in the several passages relating to him in the Life of George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, by Miss A. C. Foxcroft (1898); see also Hist. MSS. Comm. 3 and 4 Rep. (Longleat Collection), 5 Rep. (Malet Collection and see Index) now in the Brit. Mus. add. Cal. (1882–1887), Some of his papers being also at Devonshire House; MSS. of Marquis of Ormond, iii. of J. M. Heathcote and Miscellaneous Collections; Clarendon’s Life and Continuation (Oxford, 1857); Calendar of Clarendon Papers; Burnet’s Hist, of His Own Times (Oxford, 1823); Hallam’s Constitutional Hist. (1854), chap. xi.; John Evelyn’s Memoirs; Pepys’s Diary and Pepysiana (ed. H. B. Wheatley, 1903); Calendar of State Papers, Domestic; Savile Correspondence (Camden Society, 1858, vol. lxxi.); A. Grey’s Debates; Sir John Bramston’s Autobiography (Camden Soc., 1845); Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses, iv. 190; Saturday Review (Oct. 11, 1873). (P. C. Y.) 

  1. Pepysiana, by H. B. Wheatley (1903), 154.
  2. Foxcroft, Life of Sir G. Savile, i. 54.
  3. Savile Correspondence (Camden Soc.), 295.
  4. Foxcroft’s Life of Sir G. Savile, i. 36.