Brother of Henry Capell.


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The Earl of Essex
Portrait by Peter Lely
Chief Minister of Great Britain
First Lord of the Treasury
In office
Preceded byThe Earl of Danby
Succeeded byThe Earl of Rochester
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland
In office
Preceded byThe Lord Berkeley of Stratton
Succeeded byThe Duke of Ormonde
Personal details
Bornc. 1631
Hadham Hall, Little Hadham, Hertfordshire.
Died13 July 1683
Tower of London, London, England.
SpouseLady Elizabeth Percy
ChildrenAlgernon Capell, 2nd Earl of Essex
Anne Capell, Countess of Carlisle
Parent(s)Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham
Elizabeth Morrison
ResidenceCassiobury House
Arms of Capell: Gules, a lion rampant between three cross-crosslets fitcheé or[1]

Arthur Capell, 1st Earl of Essex, PC (1631 – 13 July 1683), also spelt Capel, of Cassiobury House, Watford, Hertfordshire, was an English statesman.

Early life

He was the son of Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham (executed in 1649) by his wife Elizabeth Morrison, daughter and heiress of Sir Charles Morrison, 1st Baronet (1587–1628) of Cashiobury House, Watford, Hertfordshire. He was baptised on 2 January 1632.[2]


Arthur Capel, 1st Earl of Essex and his wife Elizabeth, Countess of Essex, by studio of Peter Lely

In June 1648, then a sickly boy of sixteen, he was taken by Lord Fairfax's soldiers from Hadham to Colchester in Essex, which town his father was defending, and was carried every day around the works with the hope of inducing Lord Capell to surrender the town.[2]

Political career

At the Restoration of the Monarchy, he was created on 20 April 1661 Viscount Malden and Earl of Essex, the latter earldom having become extinct on the death of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. It was granted with special remainder to the male issue of his father. Capell was also appointed Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and a few years later Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire.[2]

Early on he showed himself antagonistic to the court, to Roman Catholicism, and to the extension of the royal prerogative. Denzil Holles and Capell were deemed by King Charles II "stiff and sullen men," 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.[2][3]

In 1672 he was made a Privy Councillor and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It is clear that he was aligned to Charles's policy in 1672 and supported the Declaration of Indulgence especially in so far as it affected dissenters (and potentially extending this to Catholics, but this was always an ambiguous point).[4]

Essex had already developed a well-known tolerance towards and association with dissenters of all types, but subsequent events showed that this latitude did not apply to Catholics. He remained in office until 1677, and his administration was greatly commended by Burnet and James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, the former describing it "as a pattern to all that come after him". Burnet's viewpoint was not however unbiased, and whilst the administration of Essex's brother as Lord Deputy in 1696 followed such a high-minded approach, his predecessors, such as Clarendon, Tyrconnel and Ormond's own last period as viceroy could not be said to have followed Essex's model. He paid close attention to 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 exceptional independence from solicitation and influence.[3]

He proved to be a conscientious viceroy and, unlike so many other politicians of his age, he quickly showed an acumen for understanding accounts which was to lead to all kinds of challenges with the undertaking of Lord Ranelagh and his partners and with the same lord when he became vice-treasurer of Ireland in 1675.[4] His conflict with Lord Ranelagh, to whom had been assigned the Irish revenues on condition of his supplying the requirements of the crown up to 1675, and whose accounts Essex refused to pass, was in many ways the principled struggle which was ultimately to lead to his recall – it was also an early sign as to how out of step Essex's rectitude was with his contemporaries. He also strongly opposed 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.[2][3]

He immediately joined the country party and the opposition to Lord Danby's government, and on the latter's fall in 1679 was appointed a commissioner of the treasury, and the same year a member of Sir William Temple's new-modelled Council.[2][3] Essex is often looked upon as a surprise appointment to his key treasury role, but, based on his experience in Ireland and his ability to go 'toe to toe' with Danby on financial matters, it was in fact a sensible choice for Charles, and gave him the best option for balancing his financial options as the events leading to the Popish plot and Exclusion began to unfold. Essex followed the lead of Lord 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 the Duke of Monmouth as the leader of Protestantism, incurring thereby the hostility of Lord Shaftesbury, but at the same time gaining the confidence of Charles.[2]

He was appointed by Charles together with Halifax to hear the charges against the Duke of Lauderdale. In July 1679 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, 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."[2][3] This again is no surprise, for Essex's high principles and sense of personal integrity, and probably his experience of the previous seven years, had made him less pliable and tolerant of the ambiguities in royal policy that made him able to support the Stop of the Exchequer and Royal Declaration of Indulgence in early 1672.[4]

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 25 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 Lord Stafford's attainder. On the other hand, he interceded for Archbishop Plunkett, implicated in the pretended Irish Plot, but the King angrily replied that in view of Essex's closeness to Shaftesbury, Plunkett's blood was on his head: "you could have saved him but would not, I cannot save him for I dare not". Essex, 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.[2][3]

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 Cassiobury and imprisoned in the Tower.[2][3]

Rebuilds Cassiobury House

A 1707 woodcut of Cassiobury House, Watford

Between about 1677 and 1680, Arthur Capell rebuilt Cassiobury House in Watford, an ancient Tudor house inherited from his mother, Elizabeth Morrison, daughter and heiress of Sir Charles Morrison, 1st Baronet (1587–1628). At this time, Capell had moved the family seat from Hadham Hall to Cassiobury. The lavish reconstruction was undertaken by the architect, Hugh May. Capell also engaged the services of the leading wood carver of the day, Grinling Gibbons, and of the painter, Antonio Verrio, to create a sumptuous interior. This noted country house, stood for another 250 years, until 1927, when like many other British country houses, it was demolished.[5]

Marriage and children

Arthur Capell married Lady Elizabeth Percy, daughter of Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland and Lady Anne Cecil, by whom he had children:


The Earl of Essex died in the Tower of London on 13 July 1683, having been convicted of participation in the Rye House Plot against the King and his brother, and was said to have been discovered in his chamber with his throat cut[2] whilst a prisoner awaiting execution for treason.[6] According to Britton, the Earl of Essex's death, by suicide, was controversial:

Lawrence Braddon., Gent of the Middle Temple states himself 'upwards of 5 years persecuted or imprisoned for endeavouring to discover this murther the third day after the same was committed' [7] The Dictionary of National Biography entry for Braddon says:-

"When the Earl of Essex died in the Tower in 1683, Braddon adopted the belief that he had been murdered, and worked actively to collect sufficient evidence to prove the murder. He set on foot inquiries on the subject in London, and when a rumour reached him that the news of the earl's death was known at Marlborough on the very day of, if not before, the occurrence, he posted off thither. When his action became known at court, he was arrested and put under restraint. For a time he was let out on bail, but on 7 Feb. 1683–4 he was tried with Mr. Hugh Speke at the king's bench on the accusation of conspiring to spread the belief that the Earl of Essex was murdered by some persons about him, and of endeavouring to suborn witnesses to testify the same. Braddon was found guilty on all the counts, but Speke was acquitted of the latter charge. The one was fined 1,000l. and the other 2,000l., with sureties for good behaviour during their lives. Braddon remained in prison until the landing of William III, when he was liberated."

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.[2] Gilbert Burnet, who knew Essex well, accepted that his death was suicide since Essex had often spoken of suicide as an honourable course. Lord Ailesbury wrote: "The Earl asked very coldly for a razor to cut his nails, and being accustomed so to do gave no manner of suspicion. He went into a small closet," where his servant afterwards found him "dead and wallowing in blood"... the assumption being that the reason he "cutt his own throat with a knife" was because of his knowledge of the Rye House Plot. The King, who seemed genuinely distressed at the news of his death, remarked that Essex should have known that he would spare him, "for I owe him a life", Essex's father having died in the service of Charles I.


He was known as a statesman of strong and sincere patriotism, just and unselfish, conscientious and laborious in the fulfilment of public duties, and blameless in his official and private life. John 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.[2] Capel Street in Dublin's north inner city is named after him.

Further reading

See the Lives in the Dictionary of National Biography and in Biographia Britannica (Kippis), with authorities there collected; Essex's Irish correspondence is in the Stow Collection in the British Library, 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 (1815).[2]


  1. ^ Montague-Smith, P.W. (ed.), Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage, Kelly's Directories Ltd, Kingston-upon-Thames, 1968, p. 430
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Airy 1887.
  4. ^ a b c Egan, Seán. unpublished PhD thesis, 'Finance and the government of Ireland 1660–85', Trinity College Dublin, 1983; JR Jones Country and Court, London, 1978
  5. ^ Baty, Patrick. "Cassiobury, Hertfordshire". Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  6. ^ According to Britton: Cassiobury Park (p. 23)
  7. ^ The Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, Volume 06


1 Annotation

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Arthur Capel, earl of Essex, was son of Arthur, lord Capel, who was beheaded. He was a man of resolution and ability, and gained great reputation by asserting the honour of the British flag, when he was sent ambassador to Denmark. His spirited behaviour on this occasion recommended him greatly to the king, who, on his return, made him a privy-counsellor, and appointed him lord lieutenant of Ireland. He acted with singular prudence and integrity in the government of a country which had not perfectly recovered its stability, after the shocks and convulsions of a civil war, and where petty factions and jarring interests continually called for the exertion of his abilities. He was particularly careful to exculpate his character from false accusations, saying, that he "would rather suffer himself to be made a pack-horse, than bear other men's faults." He was afterwards one of the leading members of the house of lords; and was, upon the disgrace of the lord treasurer Danby, of whom he was an avowed opponent, appointed one of the new privy-council, and first commissioner of the treasury. About this time, the nation was as much intoxicated with faction, as it had been with loyalty at the Restoration; and he was named as one of the accomplices in the MealTub Plot. Upon this he threw up his place in disgust, and sided with the duke of Monmouth and the earl of Shaftesbury, though he was one of the principal persons who had contributed to their disgrace. He was afterwards accused as one of the conspirators in the Rye-House Plot, and committed to the Tower. He was found there not long after, with his throat cut in the most horrid manner. As he had been an advocate for suicide, and was subject to the spleen, it was supposed by some that he had laid violent hands upon himself: others, with less probability, supposed that he was murdered by his own servant: and others, with least of all, that he was killed by an assassin sent by the duke of York, who, together with the king, was seen at the Tower the same morning on which the murder was perpetrated. Ob. 13 July, 1683.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1779.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.