1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Essex, Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of

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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 latter’s 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 laborious 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.[1] 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 Dict. of Nat. Biography and in Biographia Britannica (Kippis), with authorities there collected; Essex’s Irish correspondence is in the Stow Collection in the British Museum, Nos. 200–217, 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 Somers Tracts (1813), x., and for other pamphlets relating to his death the catalogue of the British Museum.

  1. Diary and Corresp. (1850), ii. 141, 178.