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SIR WILLIAM COVENTRY (c. 1628-1686)

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Originally appearing in Volume V07, Page 343 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SIR WILLIAM COVENTRY (c. 1628-1686), English statesman, son of the lord. keeper, Thomas, Lord Coventry, by his second r Hacket's Life of Bishop Williams, ii. 19. 2 Rushworth (168o), part ii. vol. i. 294. 3 Ath. Oxon. ii. 65o. ' There is an adverse opinion also expressed in Pepys's Diary, August 26, 1666, probably based on little real knowledge.wife Elizabeth Aldersley, was born about 1628. He matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, at the age of fourteen. Owing to the outbreak of the Civil War he was obliged to quit his studies, but according to Sir John Bramston " he had a good tutor who made him a scholar, and he travelled and got the French language in good perfection." " He was young whilst the war continued," wrote Clarendon, " yet he had put himself before the end of it into the army and had the command of a foot company and shortly after travelled into France." Here he remained till all hopes of obtaining foreign assistance and of raising a new army had to be laid aside, when he returned to England and kept aloof from the various royalist intrigues. When, however, a new prospect of a restoration appeared in 166o, Coventry hastened to Breda, was appointed secretary to James, duke of York, lord high admiral of England, and headed the royal procession when Charles entered London in triumph. He was returned to the Restoration parliament of 1661 for Great Yarmouth, became commissioner for the navy in May 1662 and in 1663 was made D.C.L. at Oxford. His great talents were very soon recognized in parliament, and his influence as an official was considerable. His appointment was rather that of secretary to the admiralty than of personal assistant to the duke of York,5 and was one of large gains. Wood states that he collected a fortune of £6o,000. Accusations of corruption in his naval administration, and especially during the Dutch war, were brought against him, but there is nothing to show that he ever transgressed the limits sanctioned by usage and custom in obtaining his emoluments. Pepys in his diary invariably testifies to the excellence of his administration and to his zeal for reform and economy. His ability and energy, however, did little to avert thelnaval collapse, owing chiefly to financial mismanagement and to the ill-advised appointments to command. Coventry denied all responsibility for the Dutch War in 1665, which Clarendon sought to place upon his shoulders, and his repudiation is supported by Pepys; it was, moreover, contrary to his well-known political opinion. The war greatly increased his influence, and shortly after the victory off Lowestoft, on the 3rd of June 1665, he was knighted and made a privy councillor (26th of June) and was subsequently admitted to the committee on foreign affairs. In 1667 he was appointed to the board of treasury to effect financial reforms. " I perceive," writes Pepys on the 23rd of August 1667, " Sir William Coventry is the man and nothing done till he comes," and on his removal in 1669 the duke of Albemarle, no friendly or partial critic, declares that " nothing now would be well done." His appointment, however, came too late to ward off the naval disaster at Chatham the same year and the national bankruptcy in 1672. Meanwhile Coventry's rising influence had been from the first the cause of increasing jealousy to the old chancellor Clarendon, who especially disliked and discouraged the younger generation. Coventry resented this repression and thought ill of the conduct of the administration. He became the chief mover in the successful attack made upon Clarendon, but refused to take any part it, his impeachment. Two days after Clarendon's resignation (on the 31st of August), Coventry announced his intention of leaving the duke's service and of terminating his connexion with the navy.6 As the principal agent in effecting Clarendon's fall he naturally acquired new power and influence, and the general opinion pointed to him as his successor as first minister of the crown. Personal merit, patriotism and conspicuous ability, however, were poor passports to place and power in Charles II.'s reign. Coventry retained merely his appointment at the treasury, and the brilliant but unscrupulous and incapable duke of Buckingham, a favourite of the king, succeeded to Lord Clarendon. The relations between the two men soon became unfriendly. Buckingham ridiculed Sir William's steady attention to business, and was annoyed at his opposition to Clarendon's impeachment. Coventry rapidly lost influence, was excluded from the cabinet council, and six months after Clarendon's fall complains he has scarcely a friend at court. Finally, in March 6 Pepysiana, by H. B. Wheatley (1903), 154. 6 Foxcroft, Life of Sir G. Savile, i. 54. 1669, Buckingham having written a play in which Sir William was ridiculed, the latter sent him a challenge. Notice of the challenge reached the authorities through the duke's second, and Sir William was imprisoned in the Tower on the 3rd of March and subsequently expelled from the privy council. He was superseded in the treasury on the r 1th of March by Buckingham's favourite, Sir Thomas Osborne, afterwards earl of Danby and duke of Leeds, and was at last released from the Tower on the 21st in disgrace. The real cause of his dismissal was clearly the final adoption by Charles of the policy of subservience to France and desertion of Holland and Protestant interests. Six weeks before Coventry's fall, the conference between Charles, James, Arlington, Clifford and Arundel had taken place, which resulted a year and a half later in the disgraceful treaty of Dover. To such schemes Sir William, with his steady hostility to France and active devotion to Protestantism, was doubtless a formidable opponent. He now withdrew definitely from official life, still retaining, however, his ascendancy in the House of Commons, and leading the party which condemned and criticized the reactionary and fatal policy of the government, his credit and reputation being rather enhanced than diminished by his dismissal.' In 1673 was published a pamphlet which went through five editions the same year, entitled England's appeal from the Private Cabal at Whitehall to the Great Council of the Nation .. . by a true Lover of his Country, an anonymous work universally ascribed to Sir William, which forcibly reflects his opinions on the French entanglement. In the great matter of the Indulgence, while refusing to discuss the limits of prerogative and liberty, he argued that the dispensing power of the crown could not be valid during the session of parliament, and criticized the manner of the declaration while approving its ostensible object.•. He sup-ported the Test Act, but maintained a statesmanlike moderation amidst the tide of indignation rising against the government, and refused to take part in the personal attacks upon ministers, drawing upon himself the same unpopularity as his nephew Halifax incurred later. In the same year he warmly denounced the alliance with France. During the summer of 1674 he was again received at court. In 1675 he supported the bill to exclude Roman Catholics from both Houses, and also the measure to close the House of Commons to placemen; and he showed great activity in his opposition to the French connexion, especially stigmatizing the encouragement given by the government to the levying of troops for the French service. In May 1677 he voted for the Dutch alliance. Like most of his contemporaries he accepted the story of the popish plot in 1678. Coventry several times refused the highest court appointments, and he was not included in Sir W. Temple's new-modelled council in April 1679. In the exclusion question he favoured at first a policy of limitations, and on his nephew Halifax, who on his retirement became the leader of the moderate party, he enjoined prudence and patience, and greatly regretted the violence of the opposition which eventually excited a reaction and ruined everything. He refused to stand for the new parliament, and retired to his country residence at Minster Lovell near Witney, in Oxfordshire. He died unmarried on the 23rd of June 1686, at Somerhill near Tunbridge Wells, where he had gone to take the waters, and was buried at Penshurst, where a monument was erected to his memory. In his will he ordered his funeral to be at small expense, and left £2000 to the French Protestant refugees in England, besides £3000 for the liberation of captives in Algiers. He had shortly before his death already paid for the liberation of sixty slaves. He was much beloved and respected in his family circle, his nephew, Henry Savile, alluding to him in affectionate terms as " our dearest uncle " and " incomparable friend." Though Sir William Coventry never filled that place in the national administration to which his merit and exceptional ability clearly entitled him, his public life together with his correspondence are sufficient to distinguish him from amongst his contemporaries as a statesman of the first rank. Lord Halifax obviously derived from his honoured mentor those principles of government which, by means of his own brilliant ' Savile Correspondence (Camden Soc.), 295. intellectual gifts, originality and imaginative insight, gained further force and influence. Halifax owed to him his interest in the navy and his grasp of the necessity to a country of a powerful maritime force. He drew his antagonism to France, his religious tolerance, wide'religious views but firm Protestantism doubtless from the same source. Sir William was the original "Trimmer." Writing to his nephew Viscount Weymouth, while denying the authorship of The Character of a Trimmer, he says:—" I have not been ashamed to own myself to be a trimmer . . . one who would sit upright and not overturn the boat by swaying too much to either side." He shared the Trimmer's dislike of party, urging Halifax in the exclusion contest " not to be thrust by the opposition of his enemies into another party, but that he keep upon a national bottom which at length will prevail." His. prudence is expressed in his "perpetual unwillingness to do things which I cannot undo." " A singular independence of spirit, a breadth of mind which refused to be contracted by party formulas, a sanity which was proof against the contagion of national delirium, were equally characteristic of uncle and nephew." 2 Sir William Coventry's conceptions of statesmanship, under the guiding hand of his nephew, largely inspired the future revolution settlement, and continued to be an essential condition of English political growth and progress. Besides the tract already mentioned Coventry was the author of A Letter to Dr Burnet giving an Account of Cardinal Pool's Secret Powers . . . (1685). The Character of a Trimmer, often ascribed to him, is now known to have been written by Lord Halifax. " Notes concerning the Poor," and an essay" concerning the decay of rents and the remedy," are among the Malet Papers (Hist. MSS. Comm. See. 5th Rep. app. 320 (a)) and Add. MSS. Brit. Mus. (cal. 1882–1887); an " Essay concerning France " (4th Rep. app. 229 (b)) and a "Discourse on the Management of the Navy " (23ob) are among the MSS. of the marquess of Bath, also a catalogue of his library (233(a)), COVENT'RY, a municipal, county and parliamentary borough of Warwickshire, England; 94 M. N.W. from London by the London & North Western railway. Pop. (1901) 69,978. The Coventry canal communicates with the Trent and Mersey and Birmingham canals, and the midland system generally. Coventry stands on a gentle eminence, with higher ground lying to the west, and is watered by the Sherbourne and the Radford Brook, feeders of the Avon, which unite within the town. Of its ancient fortifications two gates and some portions of the wall are still extant, and several of the older streets are picturesque from the number of half-timbered houses projecting over the footways. The most remarkable buildings are the churches; of these the oldest are St Michael's, one of the finest specimens of Perpendicular architecture in England, with a beautiful steeple rising to a height of 303 ft.; Holy Trinity church, a cruciform structure with a lofty steeple at the intersection ; and St John's, or Bablake church, which is nearly a parallelogram on the ground plan, but cruciform in the clerestory with a central tower. Christ church dates only from 1832, but it is attached to the ancient spire of the Grey Friars' church. Of secular buildings the most interesting is St Mary's hall, erected by the united gilds in the early part of the 15th century. The principal chamber, ' Foxcroft's Life of Sir G. Savile, i. 36. situated above a fine crypt, is 76 ft. long, 30 ft. wide and 34 ft. high; its roof is of carved oak, and in the north end there is a large window of old stained glass, with a curious piece of tapestry beneath nearly as old as the building. In the treasury is preserved a valuable collection of ancient muniments. A statue of Sir Thomas White, lord mayor of London (1532-1533), founder of St John's College, Oxford, was erected in 1883. The cemetery, laid out by Sir Joseph Paxton, the architect and landscape gardener, and enlarged in 1887, is particularly beautiful. The educational institutions include a well-endowed free grammar school, founded in the reign of Elizabeth, in modern buildings (1885), a technical school, school of art, endowed charity schools, and a county reformatory for girls; and among the charitable foundations, which are numerous and valuable, Bond's hospital for old men and Ford's hospital for old women are remarkable as fine specimens of ancient timber work. Swanswell and Spenser Parks were opened in 1883, and a recreation ground in 1880. Coventry was formerly noted for its woollens, and subsequently acquired such a reputation for its dyeing that the expression " as true as Coventry blue " became proverbial. Existing industries are the making of motor cars, cycles and their accessories, for which Coventry is one of the chief centres in Great Britain; sewing machines are also produced; and carpet-weaving and dyeing, art metal working and watch making are carried on. An ancient fair is held in Whit-week. A county of itself till 1843, the town became a county borough in 1888. The corporation consists of a mayor, 10 aldermen and 30 councillors. The parliamentary borough returns one member. In 1894 a suffragan bishopric of Coventry was established under the see of Worcester, but no longer exists. Area, 4149 acres. The village which afterwards became important as Coventry (Coventreu, Coventre) owed its existence to the foundation of a Benedictine monastery by Earl Leofric and his wife Godgyfu, the famous Lady Godiva (q.v.), in 1043. The manor, which in ,o66 belonged to the latter, descended to the earls of Chester and to Robert de Montalt, and from him passed to Isabella queen of Edward II. and the crown. Ranulf, earl of Chester, granted the earliest extant charter to the town in 1153, by which his burgesses were to hold of him in free burgage as they held of his father, and to have their portmote. This, with further privileges, was confirmed by Henry II. in 1177, and by nearly every succeeding sovereign until the 17th century. In 1345 Edward III. gave Coventry a corporation, mayor and bailiffs empowered to hold pleas and keep the town prison. Edward the Black Prince granted the mayor and bailiffs the right to hold the town in fee farm of £So and to build a wall. In 1452 Henry VI. formed the city and surrounding hamlets into a county, and James I. incorporated Coventry in 1622. It first sent two representatives to parliament •in 1295, but the returns were irregular. The prior's market on Fridays was probably of Saxon origin; a second market was granted in 1348, while fairs, still held, were obtained in 12 17 for the octave of Holy Trinity, and in 1348 and in 1442 for eight days from the Friday after Corpus Christi. As early as 1216 Coventry was important for its trade in wool, cloth and caps, its gilds later being particularly numerous and wealthy. In 1568 Flemish weavers introduced new methods, but the trade was destroyed in the wars of the 17th century. During the middle of the 16th century there was a flourishing manufacture of blue thread, but this decayed before 1581; in the 18th century the manufacture of ribbon was introduced. The popular phrase " to send to Coventry " (i.e. to refuse to associate with a person) is of uncertain derivation. The New English Dictionary selects the period of the Civil War of the 17th century as that in which the origin of the phrase is probably to be found. Clarendon (History of the Great Rebellion, 1647) states that the citizens of Birmingham rose against certain small parties of the king's supporters, and sent the prisoners they captured to Coventry, which was then strongly parliamentarian. See Victoria County History, Warwick; William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Coventre, illustrated from records (Coventry, 1765).
End of Article: SIR WILLIAM COVENTRY (c. 1628-1686)
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