Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coningsby, Thomas (1656?-1729)

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CONINGSBY, THOMAS, Earl, (1656?–1729), born about 1656, was great-grandson of Sir Thomas Coningsby [q. v.], and the son of Humphrey Coningsby, by Lettice, eldest daughter of Sir Arthur Loftus of Rathfarnham, Ireland. Ferdinando Gorges, of Eye in Herefordshire, a merchant from Barbados, contrived to possess himself of some of the Coningsby estates, and to marry his eldest daughter Barbara to Thomas Coningsby when a lad. The marriage license was applied for to the vicar-general of the Archbishop of Canterbury on 18 Feb. 1674–5, when Coningsby was described as aged about nineteen, and Barbara Gorges was stated to be about eighteen years old (Marriage Licences, 1558–1690, Harl. Soc. xxiii. 237). The misdeeds of Ferdinando, who is sometimes styled Captain Gorges, were productive of ruinous loss to his son-in-law, from which he could never succeed in extracting himself. Coningsby entered upon parliamentary life in 1679, being returned for the borough of Leominster in Herefordshire, a constituency which he represented continuously from that time to 1710, and from 1715 until his elevation to the English peerage. He was an ardent supporter of the revolution of 1688, and throughout his life resolutely resisted, sometimes with more zeal than discretion, the aims of the Jacobite faction. He went with William III to Ireland, and was with the king when he was wounded at the battle of the Boyne. He was appointed joint receiver and paymaster-general of the forces employed in the reduction of Ireland, was (1689–90) commissioner of appeals in the excise, and from 1690 to 1692 junior of the three lordsjustices of Ireland, the treaty of Limerick, so it is said, having been arranged through his skill. His political opponents accused him of having used his position to gratify his greed. The embezzlement of stores, the appropriation of the estates of rebels, the sale of pardons, and dealings in illicit trade were among the offences imputed to him; but such charges were of slight moment so long as the royal influence was at his back. Through the king's favour he was created Baron Coningsby of Clanbrassil in Ireland on 17 April 1692, sworn as privy councillor on 13 April 1693, and pardoned under the great seal in May 1694 for any transgressions which he might have committed while in office in Ireland. He was vice-treasurer from Jan. 1692–3 until deprived of the office in 1710. From 1695 to his death he was chief steward of the city of Hereford; he fought a duel with Lord Chandos, another claimant of the post, ‘but no mischief was done.’ In April 1697 he received a grant under the privy seal of several of the crown manors in England, and in October 1698 he was created paymaster of the forces in Ireland. During Queen Anne's reign he acted consistently with the whigs, but his services received slight acknowledgment even when his friends were in office. All that Godolphin did was to write a civil letter or two complimenting Lord Coningsby on ‘his judgment and experience’ in parliamentary affairs, and it was not until October 1708 that Coningsby was sworn of Anne's privy council. He was one of the managers of Sacheverell's trial, and, like most of the prominent whigs, he lost his seat in parliament through the tory reaction which ensued. With the accession of George I he resumed his old position in public life, and once more basked in court favour. He was included in the select committee of twenty-one appointed to inquire into the negotiations for the treaty of Utrecht, and, according to Prior, was one of the three most inquisitive members of that body. As a result of their investigations, the impeachment of Bolingbroke was moved by Walpole, that of Harley by Coningsby—a family feud had long existed between the two Herefordshire families of Harley and Coningsby—and Ormonde's by Stanhope. Two years later Harley was unanimously discharged, but this concord of opinion was only obtained by Coningsby and some others withdrawing from the proceedings. For his zeal in behalf of the Hanoverian succession he was well rewarded. The lord-lieutenancy of Herefordshire was conferred on him in November 1714, and in the following month he obtained the same pre-eminency in Radnorshire. A barony in the English peerage was granted to him on 18 June 1716, and he was raised to the higher dignity of Earl Coningsby on 30 April 1719. Coningsby's later life was troubled. He was a widower, without any male heir, and with innumerable lawsuits. For some severe reflections on Lord Harcourt, the lord chancellor, in connection with these legal worries, he was committed to the Tower on 27 Feb. 1720–1. He resigned his two lord-lieutenancies in 1721, and was dismissed from the privy council Nov. 1724. After much ill-health he died at the family seat of Hampton, near Leominster, on 1 May 1729. By his first wife, Barbara Gorges, whom he married in February 1674–5, and from whom he was divorced, he had four daughters and three sons, and his grandson by this marriage succeeded to the Irish barony, but died without issue on 18 Dec. 1729. His second wife, whom he married in April 1698, was Lady Frances Jones, daughter of Richard, earl of Ranelagh, by whom he had one son, Richard, who died at Hampton on 2 April 1708 when two years old, choked by a cherrystone; and two daughters, Margaret and Frances. The second countess was buried at Hope-under-Dinmore on 23 Feb. 1714–15, aged 42; and Lord Coningsby was buried in the same church in 1729, under a handsome marble monument, on which the child's death is depicted in striking realism. The grant of his English peerage contained a remainder for the eldest daughter of his second marriage. Her issue male, John, the only child of this daughter, Margaret, countess of Coningsby, by her husband, Sir Michael Newton, died an infant, the victim of an accidental fall, said to have been caused through the fright of its nurse at seeing an ape, and on the mother's death in 1761 the title became extinct. The younger daughter of Lord Coningsby married Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, the well-known satirical poet, and was buried in the chapel of St. Erasmus, Westminster Abbey, in December 1781.

Coningsby's troubles in law arose from his purchase of the manors of Leominster and Marden. After elaborate investigations, he convinced himself that the lord's rights had in many instances been trespassed upon by the copyhold tenants. He caused ejectments to be brought against many persons for being in possession of estates as freehold which he claimed to be copyhold, and as these claims were resisted by the persons in possession, his last days were embittered by constant strife. His collections concerning Marden were printed in 1722–7 in a bulky tome, without any title-page, and with pagination of great irregularity, but were never published. When his right to the Marden property was disputed, all the copies of this work but a few were destroyed, and these now fetch a high price in the book-market. Some proofs of his irritable disposition have been already mentioned. Through his sharpness of temper he was exposed to the caustic sallies of Atterbury in the House of Lords, and to the satires of Swift and Pope in their writings. His speech to the mayor and common council of the city of Hereford in 1718 on their presumed attachment to the Pretender, a speech not infrequently mixed with oaths, is printed in Richard Johnson's ‘Ancient Customs of Hereford’ (1882), pp. 225–6. A portrait of Coningsby and his two daughters, Margaret and Frances, was painted by Kneller in 1722, and engraved by Vertue in 1723. The peer's coat-of-arms is on the left hand, and a roll of Magna Charta is in his hand. His two daughters are dressed in riding habits, and with a greyhound and King Charles's spaniel. He was also painted by Kneller singly, and there is a whole-length of him in 1709 in his robe as vice-treasurer of Ireland. Numerous letters and papers relating to him are preserved in public and private collections, but especially among the manuscripts of Lord de Ros, his descendant (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep.). and the Marquis of Ormonde and the Rev. T. W. Webb of Hardwick Vicarage, Herefordshire (ib. 7th Rep.)

[Chester's Registers of Westminster Abbey, p. 433; Robinson's Mansions of Herefordshire, 146–9; Townsend's Leominster, 134–281; Luttrell's Relation of State Affairs (1857), passim; Pope's Works (viii. ed. 1872), p. 323; Private Corresp. of Duchess of Marlborough, i. 166, 174, ii. 85, 87, 251, 389; Duncumb's Herefordshire, ii. 130–1; Swift's Works (1883), xvi. 282, 351, 353; Burke's Extinct Baronage, iii. 203–5; Case of Earl Coningsby to Five Hundreds in Hereford, passim; Doyle's Official Baronage.]

W. P. C.