1st Earl of Shaftesbury

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1st Earl of Shaftesbury

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Baron Ashley and 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683), was one of the most controversial and powerful English politicians of the Restoration period.

Anthony Ashley Cooper was born to wealth and comfort. In his early political career he had considerable difficulty in obtaining his seat in Parliament, and although he aligned himself with the King at the beginning of the civil war, he had similar difficulties in obtaining the powers of the posts he was appointed to in the royal forces. He was unforgiving of this lack of trust.

By 1644 Cooper had become frustrated in the royal cause, and he shifted to the parliamentary forces. Although he performed admirably in his military capacity, Parliament refused to seat him. At this juncture he withdrew from national affairs only to resurface in the Cromwellian Parliaments. He was finally admitted to Cromwell's Council of State in 1653.

By 1656 Cooper had joined the parliamentary opposition to Cromwell, and in the last years of the interregnum he moved violently from one position to another until he finally was placed on the commission to recall Prince Charles in 1660. In the spring of 1660 he received a pardon from King Charles II for his part in Cromwellian affairs. As a companion of the King and as a rising official, he was created 1st Baron Ashley in 1661, but his rise was checked by his opposition to the Earl of Clarendon and the Cavalier-Anglican party.

After the fall of Clarendon, Ashley became a member of the coalition ministry of the Cabal and worked closely with the 2d Duke of Buckingham. By 1670 Ashley had become formally estranged from the Duke of York, and he began his career as an exclusionist with attempts to legitimatize the Duke of Monmouth to deprive York of the succession. The alienation of York also led Ashley into the camp of the fervent anti-Catholics.

Ashley's progression from liberal tolerationist in the 1660s to rabid anti-Catholic in the 1670s brought him into a position of opposition to the court. Thus, although he was a member of the Cabal ministry, he was not informed of the secret Treaty of Dover of 1670. Further, though he sponsored the Dutch War, he opposed the raising of funds to support that was as his position had changed from ministership to opposition during the progress of the war. In the same vein he supported Charles's Declaration of Indulgence in Council, but he opposed it in Parliament because it offered toleration for Catholics as well as for Protestant nonconformists. Created 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, he became lord chancellor in 1672. He was dismissed from office in 1673.

During the Earl of Danby's ministry Shaftesbury's position hardened, and he shared with Buckingham the leadership in attacking the ministry. In 1677 he was imprisoned in the Tower for the violence of his statements, and he was released only upon his submission in 1678.

With the outbreak of the Popish Plot hysteria in 1678, Shaftesbury not only fanned the flames of fanaticism but also actively colluded with Titus Oakes and other informers to direct their testimony toward a more meaningful political end—the exclusion of the Duke of York from the succession. His personal role in the parliamentary leadership of the lower house and the Green Ribbon Club cannot be substantiated in any final form because his heirs destroyed much of his correspondence. All contemporary evidence, however, points toward Shaftesbury's as being the final voice in Whig circles.

By 1681 the Popish Plot had blown itself out, and reaction had set in against the Whigs over the extremity of their demands. Shaftesbury was isolated and, although the Whig sheriff of London by empaneling a Whig jury was able to save him from a trial on the charge of treason, he was forced to flee to the Continent.

Shaftesbury was an infinitely complex personality who was at one and the same time motivated by high-minded principles and base ambitions. He could show, upon occasion, selfless sacrifice and then turn to the most duplicitous and cynical actions. His principal weaknesses were his belief that what was expedient for him was moral for the nation and his necessity to destroy what he could not dominate.

Further Reading

The best and most complete biography is W.D. Christie, Life of Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury (2 vols., 1871). K. H. D. Haley, The First Earl of Shaftesbury (1968), provides new insights into both the man and the period. See also Louise Fargo Brown, The First Earl of Shaftesbury (1933). Shaftesbury's career is given considerable attention in John Pollock, The Popish Plot: A Study in the History of the Reign of Charles II (1903; new ed. 1944), and in David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (2 vols., 1934; 2d ed. 1956).

Additional Sources

Battiscombe, Georgina, Shaftesbury: the great reformer, 1801-1885, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975, 1974.

Catherwood, H. F. R. (Henry Frederick Ross), Sir, The difference between a reformer and a progressive, London: Shaftesbury Society, 1977.

Chapman, Hester W., Four fine gentlemen, London: Constable, 1977; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Finlayson, Geoffrey B. A. M., The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 1801-1885, London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

Voitle, Robert, The third Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Pollock, John Charles, Shaftesbury: the poor man's earl, London:Hodder and Stoughton, 1985. □

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