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The intolerant earl – from loyal servant to Tower prisoner

A week or so ago, I posted about the honourable Arthur Capell , a gentleman whose loyalty to his king, Charles I, ultimately lead to his execution. In that post I hinted  at the fate of his son and namesake, Arthur Jr. So, today I think we should spend some time with the younger Capell, a man whose entire childhood and youth was impacted by the turbulence of the English Civil War.

Other than his presence in the beautiful National Gallery portrait that originally sparked my interest in the Capell family, Arthur junior first rides into history as a terrified hostage, the Parliamentarian troops parading the sickly teenager before the besieged city of Colchester in the hope this would spur his father, Baron Capell, to give up. It didn’t. Baron Capell may not have made jokes along the lines of having the instruments required to make more sons, but no matter how distressed he was by the sight of his son, he was not about to betray his comrades.

Fortunately for our Arthur, once Thomas Fairfax realised Baron Capell was not about to give in to his paternal instincts, he had Arthur sent home to Hadham Hall and his anxious mother. Tom Fairfax was good like that: quintessentially decent, even when embroiled in a bitter siege.

The siege at Colchester ended in capitulation. Arthur’s father never came home alive. Instead, in March of 1649, his wife took delivery of her husband’s body – the head had been sewn back on after his beheading. Times of woe and misery lay ahead, and it was only through Lady Capell’s contacts within the Parliamentarian government that she managed to keep her young family more or less together. For Arthur, it must have been a confusing and frightening time. His father had died on behalf of his king, but the king was also dead, and instead the new government attempted to reshape England into a Puritan country, a place with little room for merriment and fun.

A young Charles II…

In 1651, Charles II was soundly defeated at Worcester, and it seemed the royalist cause was forever dead. Except, of course, that there were a number of people throughout England who were less than happy with Cromwell and his tame parliament. Repression does that to people – it brings out their backbone, so to speak.

Having reached the position of top dog, Oliver Cromwell did what had to be done to remain unthreatened at the top of the heap. He purged most of his potential competition, ensuring his control remained uncontested. Sound policy (from Olly’s point of view) as long as Cromwell remained hale and hearty. Thing is, you saw down all the trees that threaten to outgrow you, and one day you wake up to the fact that there are no trees around. This is what happened when Cromwell fell ill and died: there was no one to step into his shoes. The Parliamentarian faction lacked a future leader, Oliver’s son, Richard Cromwell , proving to be woefully inept.

Arthur by Peter Lely. Impressive brows…

By now, Arthur Capell was no longer a child. The sickly boy who’d been scared silly at being dragged back and forth before the walls of Colchester was now a man who embraced his father’s royalist beliefs, but who was also fervently anti-papist, no doubt a consequence of being raised under the anything but permissive religious atmosphere of Cromwell’s England.

He was also a man with a debt to collect. His father had lost his life for Charles I, and the Capell family had since then lived a borderline destitute life.  When Charles II returned to England in 1661, he went out of his way to reward men like the late Baron Capell, which in this case meant our Arthur was invested with the title of Earl of Essex, complete with substantial landholdings. The Capell family was back where it belonged—at last.

The new king needed able servants – trustworthy servants. The new earl needed purpose. A match made in heaven, one could say. Except, of course, that Charles II and Arthur had very little in common. Where Charles II was witty and expansive, a man who embraced life to the full and who had every intention of enjoying what time he had left on Earth – a fully understandable approach, given years in exile and penury – Arthur was a reserved man, very much about integrity and duty.

Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex and Elizabeth, Countess of Essex as depicted by Peter Lely

Charles was open-minded and tolerant, Arthur was selectively open-minded and not so tolerant, finding the moral lassitude at court disgusting. But he was capable and loyal, so despite Charles II finding his Earl of Essex poor company, he sent him off as ambassador to Denmark for a couple of years, and in 1672 our Arthur was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

At the time, Charles II and Arthur were having one of those rare moments when they mostly saw eye-to-eye on political issues. Arthur, for example, supported the 1672 Declaration of Indulgences, which allowed for a more tolerant approach towards dissenters. He was less happy about extending such tolerance to Catholics, but chose not to make an issue of it at the time – after all, Arthur was now to govern Ireland, a mostly Catholic part of Charles II’s realm, which made it foolish to speak out harshly against papists.

Arthur was to spend the coming five years managing Ireland. Being gifted with a head for numbers, he quickly set to work straightening the miserable finances, and despite his own religious beliefs he went out of his way to try and understand the Irish and their needs. With Arthur in office, it was pointless to try and buy plum appointments – he gave them to men of real merit. He purged the Irish administration of corruption, insisted Irish revenues should be spent on Irish issues rather than on the king’s lavish court, and in general became very respected in Ireland and just as disliked in London, where his opposition to giving away forfeited Irish estates to royal mistresses and favourites had Charles seeing red.

Obviously, the situation could not go on. Charles did not need men of integrity and convictions as much as he needed financiers – preferably men who did not question how the money was spent – and as a consequence, the Earl of Essex was relieved of his Irish position in 1677, much to the distress of the Irish. Arthur himself was less than pleased, and by his action Charles II had more or less kicked Arthur in the direction of the opposition, led by Lord Shaftesbury.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury, or Anthony to his friends, is a man whose political career is a mirror of the complexities of 17th century England. Once a Royalist, then a Parliamentarian, a trusted servant of Cromwell, a proponent of restoring the monarchy, an advocate for free trade, an outspoken defender of Protestant dissenters, a man set on building a government built on Parliament, of ensuring no Catholic would ever again sit on the English throne – well, the man clearly held varied but equally strong political beliefs at different times in his life.

Arthur and Lord Shaftesbury found common ground when it came to their opinion of papists: they didn’t like them, they didn’t trust them. None of them liked the Treaty of Dover, whereby Charles II was to receive an annual stipend from France if he attacked the Dutch. (This despite none of them knowing the truly incendiary clauses in this particular treaty, namely that Charles II promised to convert to Catholicism and return his entire kingdom to the Old Faith). Both of them were very worried about the fact that Charles II had no legitimate heirs – in fact, Lord Shaftesbury proposed that the king divorce his barren queen and marry a nice Protestant lady instead. Neither of them liked the idea of the Duke of York becoming the next king – even less when it became common knowledge the duke was a Catholic.

Initially, Arthur was wary of Shaftesbury, whom he considered too radical. Instead, he teamed up with Lord Halifax, also a man suspicious of a Catholic king, but more interested in curtailing royal power – thereby making it less important who sat on the throne – than in excluding Catholics from the line of succession. Like Halifax, Arthur was sceptical of the young and flamboyant Duke of Monmouth, while Shaftesbury was an eager proponent of forcing Charles II to legitimise this his eldest bastard son, thereby once and for all sorting the issue of succession. (As an aside, the fact that Charles II never expressed any desire or intention to do so, must, in my opinion, been taken as proof that Monmouth was, in fact, illegitimate, despite those who claim Charles II had married Monmouth’s mother secretly)

Upon his return to England, Arthur served for some time in the Treasury, but resigned his position in 1679, this time in protest at having yet another royal mistress demand a pay-out of 25 000 pounds. The king, in Arthur’s opinion, needed to economise. Charles II, unsurprisingly, did not agree.

By 1680, our Arthur had joined Lord Shaftesbury’s faction and supported the Exclusion Bill, that rather intolerant piece of legislation that had as its purpose to exclude the Duke of York, soon to be James II, from the succession. What finally drove Arthur to move from his previously moderate opposition to this radical approach is unknown, but the man had, throughout his life, expressed anti-papists sentiments, and in the general furore surrounding the Popish Plot and the utterly despicable Titus Oates, maybe he found it was time to act.

Arthur’s hitherto nice CV was to receive a couple of big inkblots over the coming year. As an example, he was an eager prosecutor of the Catholic Lords implicated in the Popish Plot (a fabrication of evidence in which Shaftesbury seems to have been implicated) and even voted for attainder of some of these men.

He did, however, regain his senses when the Irish Archbishop, Oliver Plunkett, was detained as a participant in plots against the king, and argued for the man’s innocence, even went as far as to intercede with Charles II and plead for Plunkett’s life, but was angrily informed that there was nothing the king could do to save Plunkett – it was too late, and the blame for the loss of innocent life lay squarely on Arthur and his cronies, for persecuting where there was no proof. Sadly, very true…

In 1682, Shaftesbury fled the country. After years of attempting to advance his position, of persecuting Catholics, and trying to strong-arm Charles II into either divorcing his wife or legitimising the Duke of Monmouth, Shaftesbury had acquired quite the collection of enemies, first and foremost among them the king himself – and his brother. Instead of risking a trial in England, Shaftesbury took ship to the Continent, where he soon died. In many ways a brilliant man, Shaftesbury does not come across as a likeable man, and his death in foreign lands seems like just desserts for a man responsible for so much death and persecution.

In England, Arthur found himself the leader of Shaftesbury’s previous faction, a group of men who supported the Duke of Monmouth as their future king. But where some of the members proposed action, Arthur distanced himself from some of the wilder schemes, such as the Rye House Plot in June 1683. The intention of the plot was to assassinate Charles II and his brother. Due to a change in time-schedule, the plot failed, and in a matter of weeks the leaders were rounded up and arrested – well, except for those who like the Duke of Monmouth fled to the Netherlands.


Mandatory Credit: Photo by The Art Archive/Shutterstock (5850883bb)
Engraving of Tower of London, engraving, mid 17th century (Wenzel or Wenceslas Hollar)
Art (Topography – London) – various
Artist: HOLLAR, Wenzel or Wenceslas (1607-1677, Czech)

Arthur was among the arrested and was imprisoned in the Tower. Maybe it was the sensation of déjà-vu (his father had spent his last months in the Tower before being executed), maybe he feared that a trial against him would leave his family destitute, or maybe he was plagued by guilt for having known about the planned assassination but done nothing to stop it, but whatever the case, Arthur decided to take drastic measures.

He asked the guard for a razor with which to pare his nails, and the request was granted. With the razor in hand, he retired to a closet, and that is where his servant found him, wallowing in blood and with his throat cut. Rather than facing the iniquities of a trial, Arthur Capell, Earl of Essex, had chosen to take his own life.

It is said Charles II was genuinely saddened by the news of his death. Essex might have been difficult and insubordinate, but he was also the son of a man who gave his life in service of a king – a debt that could never be repaid. Charles thought Arthur knew that. Turns out he was wrong.

So ended the life of a complicated and contradictory man, a man who was unselfish and conscientious but also intolerant and easy to mislead. Just like his father, our Arthur left behind a young family in the care of his wife (and I just had to include this portrait of his young son, Algernon). In difference to his father, he died not on behalf of the king, but in opposition to him. I dare say Arthur Sr would have been less than pleased!

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