COVENTRY, Hon. Henry (c.1618-86), of Piccadilly Hall, The Haymarket, Westminster and West Bailey Lodge, Enfield, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1618, 4th s. of Sir Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry of Aylesborough, ld. keeper 1625-40, being 3rd s. by 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of John Aldersey, merchant, of London, wid. of William Pitchford, Grocer, of London; half-bro. of Thomas Coventry, 2nd Baron Coventry and bro. of John Coventry and William Coventry. educ. Queen’s, Oxf. matric. 20 Apr. 1632, aged 14, BA 1633, MA 1636, BCL 1638; I. Temple 1633; travelled abroad (Italy, France, Netherlands) 1640-Apr. 1660, Padua 1643. unm.1
Fellow of All Souls, Oxf. 1634-48, June 1660-?72; chancellor, Llandaff diocese ?1638-40; j.p. Worcs. June 1660-d.; freeman, Droitwich ?1661; asst. R. Fishing Co. 1664; commr. for encroachments, Windsor 1671, assessment, Mdx. 1673-80, Worcs. 1677-80; chief ranger, Enfield chase 1675-d.2
Capt. of ft. (Dutch army) by 1654-63.3
Groom of the bedchamber 1662-9, 1670-2; commr. for settlement [I] 1662-3; envoy extraordinary, Sweden 1664-6, 1671-2; plenip. congress of Breda 1667; sec. of state (north) 1672-4, (south) 1674-80; PC 3 July 1672-d.; commr. for prizes 1672-4, Tangier 1673-84; ld. of Admiralty 1673-9.4
Coventry was destined for the civil law, and his father’s interest procured for him a Welsh ecclesiastical office at a very early age. But he was given leave to travel on his father’s death and remained abroad throughout the Civil War and Interregnum. He obtained a commission in one of the Zeeland regiments, but from 1655 he was in touch with the exiled Court. He returned in April 1660, carrying letters from the King to Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper and Sir John Holland. Sir John Granville was asked to use his interest on Coventry’s behalf in the Cornish boroughs, since he was not comprised in the Long Parliament ordinance against the candidature of Cavaliers and their sons; but he failed to find a seat in the Convention.5
Having qualified himself for the freedom of Droitwich by the purchase of a minimum share in the salt-works from his brother-in-law Sir John Pakington, 2nd Bt., Coventry was returned for the borough at the general election of 1661, probably without a contest. He already held the promise of a place at Court, and in the Cavalier Parliament he was clearly both active and popular from the first. In the Journals he was not always distinguished from his brother William, with whom he worked closely as long as the Clarendon administration lasted. Andrew Marvell believed that ‘Hector Harry steers by Will the wit’; his bluff military manner might have been more to the taste of a House dominated by ex-soldiers in its early sessions than was his brother’s conscious intellectual superiority. Altogether he may have served on 279 committees, made 477 speeches, carried 55 bills or messages, and told in ten divisions. It was probably he who was appointed to the committee for the security bill and carried the thanks of the House for the King’s birthday sermon. Although he received no wages from his corporation, unlike his colleague Samuel Sandys II, he was named to the committee for the bill to unite two Droitwich parishes. He was also among those to whom the most important political measures of the first session were committed, those for restoring the bishops to the House of Lords, the corporations and uniformity bills, and the bill of pains and penalties. On 15 July he was sent to remind the Lords of the corporations bill, and he helped to manage the subsequent conference. He was also probably a manager of conferences on the bill of pains and penalties and the Westminster highways bill. After the recess he was added to the committee for the execution of those under attainder, and on the House’s instructions obtained from the King a promise of preferment for the chaplain. Together with Lord Falkland (Henry Carey) he was sent to the King on 5 Apr. 1662 to ask that directions should be given for the redemption of English slaves in North Africa, a charitable activity to which his brother William was particularly devoted. He probably helped to manage five more conferences before the session ended, and was named to the committee for the additional corporations bill. He was among those sent on 19 May to ask the King to give himself the trouble to hear the rival claims to the Lindsey level.6
Coventry was made a commissioner for the Irish land settlement, in which capacity he was expected to hold the balance between the three who favoured the Roman Catholics and the three who favoured the Cromwellian settlers. The position was very little to his taste, and he was recalled to Westminster for the 1663 session and replaced by (Sir) Allen Brodrick. On his arrival he wrote to Ormonde: ‘We have not, I am afraid, hitherto used the arts necessary to the keeping our House here in temper. We are upon the necessary points of revenue and the militia, but proceed in neither with the vigour and zeal as [in] the last session. ... The Declaration [of Indulgence] hath hitherto had a very bad effect in both Houses.’ A stronger Anglican than his brother, he was among those instructed to bring in a bill for the maintenance of the urban clergy, to consider a measure for hindering the growth of Popery, and to provide remedies for meetings of dissenters. He was also named to the committees to bring in a bill to restrict public office to loyalists, and to consider an estate bill promoted on Pakington’s behalf, and the bill, aimed chiefly at his brother, to regulate the sale of offices. He reported again to Ormonde at considerable length on 12 May:
I am for my own part as assiduous both at Court and in the House as I can be, and as inquisitive as my temper will give me leave; and yet I can neither tell you what the House intends nor what we at Whitehall wish they should. ... We are daily upon the King’s revenue, and pretend to great vigour in inspecting the misdemeanours of the management. A vote this day passed to pray the King not to grant a patent of the Post Office till he had received an address from the House of Commons in the behalf of some that offer a greater rent. There is a bill coming in against the sale of offices, and another to incapacitate such as have borne arms against the King, some few excepted. This day a bill was brought in against the importation of any fat cattle from Ireland, and it is after a long debate committed. What fate it will have I know not. Bills against Popery, Quakers, presbyters, conventicles, and what not; and yet the revenue and the militia where they were; only this much, there is a vote passed in order to the method of the management that the committee shall bring in a bill to appropriate each considerable expense to a particular branch of the revenue, as the customs [to] the navy and garrisons.
Coventry delivered the message from the King denouncing Sir Richard Temple as an ‘undertaker’, and he was the first Member named to the inquiry into Temple’s conduct. Both the brothers were appointed to the committee for the relief of those who had been unable to subscribe to the declaration in the Act of Uniformity, but only Coventry took part in the conference. On the other hand his brother was chiefly responsible for the bill to settle the post office and wine licences on the Duke of York; but it was Coventry who acted as teller for agreeing to a Lords’ amendment, and was sent to the Upper House to desire a conference. Both the brothers, together with Sir William Compton, attended the King to ask that horses might be freely exported to the plantations. After the prorogation he wrote apologetically to Ormonde: ‘I believe the vote concerning Irish cattle hath not come to you with any great applause. It was not to be avoided; the complaint of the fall of rents from all gentlemen whose estates lie in pastures was so great, and so many even in the House concerned, that there was no stopping it.’7
During the recess Coventry visited the Low Countries in an effort to convince the authorities in Zeeland that a commission in their forces was not incompatible with the post at Whitehall. Listed as a court dependant in 1664, he spoke for the repeal of the Triennial Act. He was named to the committees for the conventicles bill and the additional corporations bill, and helped to manage a conference on grievances against the Dutch. On 5 May he brought up to the Lords the bills to prevent the surrender of merchantmen to pirates and to facilitate the enclosure of Malvern chase, as well as a Gloucestershire estate bill, and it was probably he who acted as manager of a conference on the conventicles bill. He was absent for the next two sessions as envoy at Stockholm, in which capacity he registered considerable success at the cost of undermining his health by the heavy drinking indispensable to diplomacy in the northern capitals. In October 1666 he acted as teller for the adjournment in a supply debate, and was among those appointed to receive information on the insolence of Popish priests and Jesuits. In the following January he twice divided the House in favour of hearing the petition from the English merchants trading with France, and served on the deputation that presented a joint address on their behalf. After proposing a conference on the impeachment of Lord Mordaunt on 6 Feb. 1667, he was added to the committee of management.8
During the summer Coventry and Denzil Holles were responsible for the negotiations at Breda that ended the second Dutch war. But the fall of Clarendon and the advent of the Cabal reduced his role as government spokesman in the Commons, besides separating him politically from his brother, though without damaging their personal relationship. He spoke against the unprecedented vote of thanks for the lord chancellor’s dismissal, though he helped both to draft the address and to summarize the charges against him. He urged the House not to ‘trample’ on the fallen minister, and spoke against the proposal to demand his commitment. He might have involved himself in serious trouble when he drew his sword on Edward Seymour only just outside the precincts, but the House accepted an assurance that the quarrel was quite unconnected with Seymour’s speeches against Clarendon. ‘Scolded severely at by the King’ for his defence of the fallen minister, Coventry replied ‘that if he must not speak what he thought in this business in Parliament, he must not come thither. ... By this very business’, Samuel Pepys was told, ‘Harry Coventry hath got more fame and common esteem than any gentleman in England hath at this day.’ After the Christmas recess he was sent with Sir Robert Howard to receive the testimony of the dying Duchess of Albemarle for a private bill. He was one of four Members who thanked the King for his proclamation against conventicles, and in the debate on comprehension ‘Mr Henry Coventry said that a union was good and to be wished, but not such a union as would destroy the Church’. He spoke against expelling (Sir) William Penn from the House before anything had been proved against him. In the next session he similarly came to the defence of Sir George Carteret. After denouncing attendance at conventicles as no less a crime than ‘cozening the King’s money’, he was among those appointed to receive information about nonconformist insolence. A supporter of the Triple Alliance, he rebuked (Sir) Thomas Clifford, who had served under him in Stockholm, for undiplomatic language in describing the Swedes as a mercenary people, and his proposal to give three days to the discussion of grievances for every day spent on supply temporarily lost him his post in the bedchamber. He acted as teller against an export levy on coal on 14 Mar. 1670; but the King’s acceptance of the necessity for renewing the Conventicles Act removed one important difference between him and the Court. ‘Never was there a more merciful bill,’ he said, ‘that punishes neither with blood nor banishment a people that have punished us with both.’ He helped to prepare reasons for a conference with the Lords. In the following month he was teller for a private bill promoted by (Sir) John Heath and for the sale of fee-farm rents. In December he urged the House to provide for repayment of a debt owed by the King to William of Orange, and he was not prepared to defer supply because of the assault on his nephew Sir John Coventry, though they were personally on the best of terms, and he of course served on the bill to banish the culprits. In April 1671 he helped to manage a conference on and to prepare reasons for the additional excise, and his name appeared on both lists of the court party at this time.9
In August Coventry returned to Stockholm to persuade the Swedish government, by not entirely unmercenary methods, to join the alliance against the Dutch, and on the death of John Trevor he succeeded as secretary of state. He lost £3,000 on the Stop of the Exchequer, which his brother vainly sought to extract from the Treasury. When Parliament met again in February 1673 it fell to Coventry to propose first Job Charlton and then Edward Seymour as Speaker, and during the remaining sessions of the Cavalier Parliament he carried no less than 37 messages from the King to the Commons. On the third Dutch war he said:
It shows good prudence in the House of Commons to have refused to meddle with advising war; it is the King’s just prerogative. ... We have found the dangers of being against the King of France, therefore we joined him, and he has succeeded beyond expectation. If we had a war with France, it would give Holland much advantage both here and in the Indies, their sea monarchy. The Hollanders are more formidable to us than it was thought, if first we should not be sure of the French.
His speech was sufficiently convincing to be followed by an almost immediate grant of supply. He dutifully defended the Declaration of Indulgence, arguing that ‘either the King must have the liberty of dispensing, or else is always obliged to put the Penal Laws in execution’. Nevertheless he helped to draw up two addresses against the suspending power, and served on the committee to prevent the increase of Popery, though he did not approve of the test bill that it produced. He was even more doubtful about the bill of ease for Protestant dissenters: ‘a man would give something to get something, but would not give something to get nothing. ... If we are to increase our garrison, would not do it with those that have the plague.’ Nevertheless he was appointed to the committee, and hoped that the bill might be amended in the Lords. In the autumn session he had the odious task of informing the House that the King would not interfere with the Modena marriage. He denied that the forces in being could be termed a standing army in time of war, nor could they be a grievance because they were not unlawful.10
With the elevation of Heneage Finch to the House of Lords and in the absence of (Sir) Joseph Williamson at the conference of Cologne, Coventry became virtually leader of the House in 1674, and his name headed the Paston list. The inexperienced Sir Francis North was well content to leave the management of the court interest to him, recognizing that:
no man was ever better qualified for that post, for he was an ancient Member, and had the nice step of the House, and withal was wonderfully witty and a man of great veracity. He had never said anything in the House which afterwards proved a lie, and had that credit there that whatever he affirmed the House believed.
He was named to the committees to prevent imprisonment and illegal exactions. In the debate on the new-raised forces he reminded the House of the London apprentices’ riots before the Civil War. ‘He can remember crowns and heads of princes lost for want of guards.’ He helped to prepare for a conference with the Lords on peace with the Dutch and to inquire into imprisonment by order of the Privy Council. He spoke against the bill to give security of tenure to the judges during good behaviour, but he was the first Member appointed to the committee. He brought the debate on Samuel Pepys to an end with the dry remark that he believed ‘there are a great many more Catholics than think themselves so, if having a crucifix will make one’. Williamson was told that ‘Mr Secretary Coventry is at present somewhat ill, and ’tis no wonder, considering the vast pains he takes in the House, being like the cherubim with the flaming sword, turning it every way to defend his master’s cause’ In the spring session of 1675 he was among those to whom the bill to prevent the growth of Popery was committed. He opposed his brother’s place bill, reminding the House:
You are pleased to make use of the Privy Councillors to carry your messages to the King. Formerly they had cushions to sit on, but were thrown out of doors, and must they be thrown out of doors too? This bill is not consistent with the government, and he would lay it by.
The recall of all British subjects from French service, he observed, would subject them to the death penalty for desertion and stain the King’s honour. Moreover, it was unnecessary:
There is not one English pair of colours in Holland, and yet more men gone over into Holland by thrice the number than into France. ... More of our men have come over to Holland from the French army than we have sent into France.
His relations with the Court were unaltered by the emergence of Danby as chief minister, though their relations were never cordial, and Coventry played no part in defending him against impeachment, observing only that ‘sometimes a minister of state, in favour, carried things higher than other men have done in their place’. He was anxious to compose the dispute between the Houses over the jurisdiction of the Lords, though he helped to manage a conference about Shirley v. Fagg, and attended a conference on the Four Lawyers, after which he was among those ordered to prepare reasons. Before the autumn session Coventry and Williamson sent out a ‘government whip’ to reliable court supporters living out of London, which was heavily criticized as tending to faction. He replied with a story about a scholar from the other university who wore only one spur, believing that if his horse went on one side, the other would not be left behind. He was prepared to accept appropriation of the customs to the use of the navy, though not payment into the chamber of London, and was named to the committee for the bill. He was also among those instructed to bring in a bill of recall from French service. He had been, he claimed, as much for appeasing the differences with the Lords as any man, and was among those appointed to prepare reasons for a conference to prevent their revival.11
When Parliament met again in February 1677 it was Coventry’s first task to defend the legality of the long prorogation, and Shaftesbury marked him ‘doubly vile’. In the supply debate he challenged William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish: ‘If the King has any ministers that advise him to raise money without a Parliament, ’tis more than he knows. And there are none, and he is assured the King has no such thoughts, and that he has more understanding than to rule so. If any man knows such ministers, let them be named.’ He was named to the committees to consider the recall bill, illegal exactions, habeas corpus, and the growth of Popery. He helped to manage a conference on building warships and to draft addresses promising support against foreign enemies and urging the need for allies. Only further supply, he emphasized, would enable England to pursue an independent foreign policy: ‘the King cannot have money without us, nor we alliances without him’. Even Marvell admitted: ‘yet have we one Secretary honest and wise’, and William Sacheverell exempted him from a savage attack on the Privy Council.
I did not mean to reflect upon that gentleman, for although he has the figure of a great officer, yet in my conscience he has not the management of anything, nor has he the least influence in business. It is our misfortune, sir, that it is so, for I am persuaded he is a good Protestant and a true Englishman.
Sacheverell’s estimate was soon to be proved correct. Nevertheless at this juncture Coventry was more uneasy about the invasion of the prerogative in foreign affairs: ‘There was never such a precedent as to tell the King terms of leagues, offensive and defensive. ... He is not afraid of any counsel he has ever given the King; as a Privy Councillor he has taken his oath and as a Parliament man he has his opinion, and he is of opinion that the King is not obliged to follow either his Privy Council or Parliament.’ When the debate on the speech from the throne of 28 Jan. 1678 about the threat to Flanders was interrupted by an opposition attempt to censure Seymour for irregularly adjourning the House, Coventry exclaimed: ‘I vow to God, though I hate murder, yet I had rather be guilty of twenty murders than hinder our proceedings now’. He was named to the committee to draw up the reply, but he strongly disapproved of its terms, especially the stipulation that France must be reduced to her frontiers of 1659:
’Tis ain to make new treaties when we are put back to old ones. If the King has arms sufficient ... he will not weary of them till he has restored Christendom to such a peace.
The ignorance of protocol shown by such leading Members as Sir Thomas Littleton, 2nd Bt., justified Coventry in his reluctance to communicate diplomatic documents to 500 men. He described the efforts of the Commons to find sources for supply that would not affect their personal fortunes as ‘leaping from twig to twig’. He was named to the committee of 14 Mar. that produced an address asking for an immediate declaration of war. When the exhaustion of the continental allies became apparent, he secured a supply for disbanding the new-raised forces, with the assistance of his brother and the more reasonable Members of the Opposition.12
Coventry was not favourably impressed with Oates at first, but eventually wrote: ‘I am entirely convinced there was a most desperate design’. In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament he was appointed to the committees to inquire into the Popish Plot and to translate Coleman’s letters. He succeeded in warding off an address demanding the removal of the Duke of York from Court by proposing a measure to fine magistrates who failed to enforce the recusancy laws. On 16 Nov. he was sent to remind the Lords of the bill to exclude Papists from both Houses of Parliament, and when the Upper House added a proviso to exempt the Duke of York he warned the Commons not to jeopardize the bill by rejecting it. When Williamson was sent to the Tower for signing commissions for Roman Catholic officers, Coventry was among those ordered to draw up an address asking the King not to release his colleague. His last known appearance in the Cavalier Parliament was on 9 Dec. and, ‘having for some time been a prisoner in my chamber with gout’, he may not have heard the reading of the letter from Danby to Ralph Montagu warning him not to mention to Coventry a syllable about the money which the King had sought to obtain from France.13
Hence Coventry’s reputation remained high after the dissolution, even if Shaftesbury marked him ‘vile’. ‘Standing fair with my old borough, and not affecting to change old masters’, he was able to refuse the offer of a seat at Oxford University, and was re-elected unopposed to the three Exclusion Parliaments. In 1679 he was named to no committees, but brought six messages from the King, and made 24 speeches. His efforts to divert the attack on Danby were rather slight, but the effrontery displayed by Oates at the bar of the Commons revived all his initial distrust of a young man who had already changed his religion twice. ‘The House expects not expostulations nor answers from him, but obedience’, he said. He was retained on the remodelled Privy Council, though sceptical of the benefits to be derived by bringing in the Opposition leaders. ‘To be well heard at Court and well-spoken of in Parliament is a great good fortune, if our new ministers can acquire it’, he wrote to Ormonde. ‘But though they have as yet done neither good nor evil, I find the bare being preferred maketh some of them suspected.’ He spoke against the exclusion bill as ‘the most ruinous to law and the property of the subject imaginable. ... I never saw a lawful successor of the crown disappointed, but, first or last, he came back to the crown again.’ He argued unconvincingly that the King might still have legitimate children, or the duke revert to the religion of his baptism, and voted against the bill. Attacked by John Birch as an instrument to deceive the previous Parliament into believing that a war with France was intended, he replied that if an angel from heaven were to charge him with lying, it must be a fallen angel. Unimpressed by the evidence offered against Pepys, he wished the case to be heard at the bar of the House, not in committee. Re-elected in the autumn, he was laid up for much of the winter with gout. He sold his office to Sir Leoline Jenkins for £6,500, retiring to the sporting delights of Enfield chase, and to ‘converse with neighbours that have no more cunning than myself’. A long indisposition probably prevented him from attending the second Exclusion Parliament. His constituents remained loyal, and sent him as a private gentleman to represent them again in the Oxford Parliament, where he delivered a last appeal for an expedient to resolve the exclusion issue:
All men believe that the religion of the Duke is as fatal a thing as can be to the nation. ... If it be our opinion that excluding the Duke, etc., be the best way, this House cannot do it alone; ... we are but one of the legislative power. ... A grand committee is most proper for this debate. ... Find out a way to secure us from Popery and preserve the King’s life, be it what it will. When men press on too fast, many times they tire their horses and come late into their inn. Let a committee try expedients.
His speech was heard out patiently, but produced no effect, and he took no further part in politics. He died on 7 Dec. 1686, and was buried at St. Martin in the Fields. He left most of his property for Droitwich charities, endowing the workhouse and founding schools for both sexes.14
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: Edward Rowlands
This biography is based on D. T. Witcombe, ‘Parl. careers of Sir William and Mr Henry Coventry’ (Oxf. Univ. B. Litt. thesis, 1954).
- 1. Survey of London, xxxi. 42; W. Robinson, Hist. Enfield, i. 228; Vis. Cheshire (Harl. Soc. lix), 5; PCC 19 Dorset; CSP Dom. 1640, p. 162; Jesuit Recs. ed. Foley, vi. 623; Cal. Cl. SP, iv. 612.
- 2. Wood, Fasti, i. 500; Sel. Charters (Selden Soc. xxviii), 183; Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 923; Sir Robert Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Office Holders, 209.
- 3. Cal. Cl. SP, ii. 316; CSP Ire. 1663-5, p. 8.
- 4. Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 387; CSP Ire. 1660-2, p. 577; 1663-5, p. 64; CSP Dom. 1670, pp. 1, 88; 1671, p. 376; Bulstrode Pprs. 242; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. viii), 149.
- 5. Cal. Cl. SP, iii. 12; iv. 47, 173, 600, 607, 612, 660; v. 16.
- 6. Worcs. RO, 261/4/698, f. 29; Clarendon, Life, ii. 349; Marvell ed. Margoliouth, i. 146; CJ, viii. 261, 311, 314, 315, 390, 401, 402, 418, 423, 425.
- 7. Milward, 274; Cal. Cl. SP, v. 282, 286, 296; CSP Ire. 1663-5, pp. 48, 64; CJ, viii. 527, 532, 533; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iii. 47, 52-53, 58.
- 8. Add. 35865, f. 212; Cal. Cl. SP, v. 327; CJ, viii. 548, 562, 634, 678, 680, 685, 690; LJ, xi. 607-8; Clarendon, ii. 425; Burnet, i. 549; Milward, 79.
- 9. Milward, 95, 101, 105, 220, 279; Pepys Diary, 12 Oct., 16 Nov. 1667; Clarendon Impeachment, 45, 126; CJ, ix. 59, 61, 139, 152, 155, 233; Grey, i. 174, 186, 227; CSP Dom. 1670, pp. 1, 88; Dering, 28.
- 10. Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 1009, 1012; CJ, ix. 245, 253, 263, 264; Burnet, i. 548-9; Grey, ii. 3, 10-11, 18, 39, 43, 104, 135; Dering, 136, 160.
- 11. North, Lives, i. 119; Grey, ii. 392-3, 415, 421; iii. 45, 71, 126, 149, 361, 370; iv. 35; CJ, ix. 308, 344, 361; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. ix), 131; Dering Pprs. 65.
- 12. Grey, iv. 82-84, 126, 194, 366, 377, 385; v. 9, 43, 62-63, 68, 199; vi. 28; CJ, ix. 418, 428; Marvell, i. 195; Eg. 3345, ff. 60v, 63.
- 13. HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 267, 290, 303; Grey, vi. 134, 291, 304; CJ, ix. 560; Finch diary, 4 Nov. 1678.
- 14. Burnet, ii. 187; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 314, 325; v. 57, 393, 528; Grey, vii. 33, 41, 49, 143, 145-6, 242-3, 312; viii. 311-12; Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxxii), 251; Nash, Worcs. i. 328; VCH Worcs. iii. 88.