CAPEL, Hon. Henry (1638-96), of Kew, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679
1690 - 11 Apr. 1692

Family and Education

bap. 6 Mar. 1638, 3rd s. of Arthur Capel, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham (d. 1649), by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of Sir Charles Morrison, 1st Bt., of Cassiobury, Herts.; bro. of Arthur, 1st Earl of Essex. m. settlement 16 Feb. 1659, Dorothy (d. 7 June 1721), da. and coh. of Richard Bennet of Chancery Lane, London and Kew, s.p. KB 23 Apr. 1661; cr. Baron Capell of Tewkesbury 11 Apr. 1692.

Offices Held

Commr. for assessment, Glos. and Surr. Aug. 1660-80, Glos., Herts. and Surr. 1689-90, Cumb. 1690; dep. lt. Glos. c. Aug. 1660-?81; commr. for loyal and indigent officers, Surr. 1662; feodary of Ogmore, Glam. 1662-92; j.p. Surr. 1672-81; commr. for recusants, Glos. and Surr. 1675; chief steward, manor of Richmond 1689-?92; high steward, Tewkesbury by 1695-d.1

PC [I] 1673-85, 1693-d.; first ld. of Admiralty 1679-80; PC 21 Apr. 1679-31 Jan. 1680, 14 Feb. 1689-d.; ld. of Treasury 1689-90; gov. Society of Mineral and Battery Works 1689-d.; member, Society of Mines Royal 1690; one of the lds. justices [I] 1693-5; ld. dep. [I] 1695-d.


The fortunes of the Capel family were made by Sir William Capel, a younger son from Suffolk, who became a London Draper. He was elected for the city in 1491, 1512 and 1515, twice served as lord mayor, and acquired considerable landed property in Essex and Hertfordshire. Capel’s father was returned for the latter county in both elections of 1640 as a supporter of the popular party. But he was raised to the peerage in 1641 and, after fighting for the King in both wars, beheaded in 1649 as one of the commanders of the Colchester garrison, his executors later compounding at £4,706 17s.11d.2

Capel inherited the manor of Tewkesbury Barton from his paternal grandmother, and was returned for the borough, apparently unopposed, at the general election of 1660, in flagrant violation of the final ordinance of the Long Parliament forbidding the return of Cavaliers’ sons. An inactive Member of the Convention he was named to the committee for the militia bill and three others of little significance. At the Restoration his eldest brother was made lord lieutenant of Hertfordshire and created Earl of Essex, while Capel himself, after re-election, was made a knight of the Bath for the coronation. But neither brother was prominent in politics under the Clarendon administration and the Cabal. On 15 June 1661 Capel acted as teller against a proviso to the bill confirming the Act of Indemnity, but he took no part in the Clarendon Code, except by twice helping to consider additional corporations bills. On 3 May 1662 he opposed the adjournment of the debate on the militia bill. He was listed as a court dependant in 1664, though probably only as the friend and brother-in-law of Lord Cornbury (Henry Hyde). His most important committees during this period were to consider the prohibition of cattle imports (20 Oct. 1665), to inquire into the insolence of Popish priests and Jesuits (20 Oct. 1666), and to hear the petition from the merchants trading with France (17 Jan. 1667). He was one of the delegation which presented the petition to the King. He took no part in the proceedings against Clarendon, though in 1668 he was among those who considered restraints on jurors and presented an address for wearing English manufactures. Sir Thomas Osborne included him in 1669 among the Members to be engaged for the Court by the Duke of York, but the evidence of the Journals suggests that he seldom attended the next two sessions. His chief interest at this time was his notable garden at Kew, the nucleus of the Royal Botanic Garden, from which he produced, according to Evelyn, ‘the choicest fruit of any plantation in England, as he is the most industrious and understanding in it’.3

It was probably the drift towards Popery, as evidenced by the third Dutch war, the Declaration of Indulgence, and the Duke of York’s conversion, that stimulated Capel into an active political role. He also gained prestige by the appointment of his brother as lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1672. On 18 Mar. 1673 he helped to draw up the address on the condition of Ireland; but his first recorded speech, in the autumn session, shows that he was moving towards opposition. He would vote no further supply for the war, though he would not expressly refuse it, trusting that the King would redress their grievances:

If this war was for the maintenance of the Crown and nation, would venture all he has, life and fortune, for it. He is descended from one that lost his life for maintaining of both. Would know how we came into this war before we give money to it.

In the debate on grievances which followed he made the first of many attacks on the standing army:

You have been told how difficult it is for armies and properties to stand together. Is not of that opinion that they are a security to us at home; knows nothing of affairs abroad. Our security is the militia, that will defend us and never conquer us. Our defence abroad is our ships. ... Moves to vote this army a grievance. Is indifferent whether this army be disbanded now or after the war. Abroad they are of little use, and at home wholly useless.

Capel’s motion was accepted, and he was named to the committee to draft an address accordingly. His activity did not go unnoticed, and in December Sir William Temple wrote to Essex that his brother was now

much more known in the nation than you left him, and much more considered at Court as well as in the country since the last session, though in different kinds. I think your lordship need not trouble yourself much about it, but leave him to his good senses and his good stars. He is yet very young in the busy world, and must have many such heats and colds as these before he is at his journey’s end.

During the attack on the Cabal in the next session the Essex group, headed by Capel and William Harbord, defended Arlington. Capel spoke against an address for his dismissal, acted as teller against a motion for candles, and proposed a vote on impeachment, which was bound to be rejected. He was named to the committees to consider the habeas corpus bill and the general test bill, and to inquire into allegations of parliamentary corruption. On 7 Feb. 1674 he declared that he was ‘happy to harangue against a standing army, which he is satisfied is of no great use in war or peace’, but demanded the disbandment of the new-raised forces only. This line displeased the extremists, but proved acceptable to the House. He was added to the committee to draw up the articles of Arlington’s impeachment, and appointed to those to consider the Scottish army law, illegal exactions, and the condition of Ireland.4

At the opening of the spring session of 1675 Capel acted as teller against adjourning the debate on the vote of thanks for the speech from the throne. But he voted for the first article of the impeachment of Osborne (now Lord Treasurer Danby). He was named to the committees to bring in a bill appropriating the customs to the use of the navy and to consider an explanatory bill against Popery. He helped to prepare reasons on the Four Lawyers’ case, and was sent to the Lords to desire a conference. On 4 June he said:

you are told not to send them to the Tower because of the Lords’ order. He thinks our privilege, as well as our property, involved in this matter. If we have no satisfaction from this conference, then shall be as forward as any man to send them to the Tower but he would waive it for the present.

It was reported that the court defeat on supply on 19 Oct. was due to the Essex group led by Capel and William Harbord. On 21 Oct. he was again appointed to the committee for an appropriations bill, but on the next day he spoke against setting a precedent by lodging the funds in the chamber of London instead of the Exchequer, describing it as ‘a blow to the best of Governments’. He feared that it would lead to a distinction between trusting the King, ‘whom we ought to trust’, and trusting the City. Perhaps because of speeches such as this, Capel’s name appears on the working lists as to be influenced by his brother and on the list of government speakers. Nevertheless it was the Essex group that was given the credit for the defeat of the supply resolution. Capel was named to the committees for the bills to prevent illegal exactions, to extend habeas corpus, and to recall British subjects from the French service, and his was the first name on the committee to consider relieving Sir Edmund Jennings of his duties as sheriff. Sir Richard Wiseman reported that Capel ‘was a very ill man the last session, and spoiled Sir Francis Russell and some others’, including Sir Rowland Berkeley and William Banks I.5

After the long prorogation Capel was hot for war with France, and was marked ‘worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. On 28 Mar. 1677 he urged an address promising assistance in such a war, and was placed on the committee to prepare it. He acted unsuccessfully as teller against a perpetual ban on the import of Irish cattle. On 11 Apr. he spoke of his hope that the King would be pressed to form an alliance against France, and helped to prepare an address. After the adjournment on 29 Jan. 1678 he seconded the motion of Lord Cavendish (William Cavendish) against any treaty that failed to reduce France to the boundaries set by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, and was again named to the committee to prepare an address. On supply he proposed a compromise sum of £800,000 to support a war with France, and on 14 Mar. helped prepare another address for a declaration of war. But his old fear of the connexion of an army with Popery persisted.

This is a great army now raising, and to be employed against the French King. ... The muster-master must obey the law, and no man to be [en]listed, without having taken the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and the Tests against Popery. ... We are under great jealousies, and have great reason for it.

He was named to the committee to summarize foreign commitments and spoke against those ministers who had advised the King’s answer to the recent addresses of the Commons:

I will pay the ministers all respect without doors. ... But within these walls we may speak our thoughts. ... I move that you will put the question for the removal of the ministers, and I will give my affirmative.

He was among those entrusted with drafting the address for the removal, and preparing reasons for a conference on disbanding the army.6

In the final session of the Cavalier Parliament, Capel was named to almost all the committees concerned with the Popish Plot, including that to translate Coleman’s letters. He twice interrogated Coleman and reported the results to the House. On 4 Nov. 1678, in the debate on the motion of Lord Russell (Hon. William Russell) for removing the Duke of York from the King’s person and councils, Capel took a more moderate and cautious stance.

The Duke has made the advance to the Parliament by his behaviour in informing the Lords he will retire, etc. Let us not cast him out of our arms. It is entirely necessary that we be unanimous. If we once divide, we give him all the advantage against us imaginable. I have great respect for his person. His father, with my father, suffered in the rebellion, but if I cannot separate my interest from his person, I must divide from him. We all agree as to making such laws, that should the Duke be King, it might not be in his power to prejudice the Protestant religion. I move, therefore, not to lose the fruit of this debate; and as you have been told he has removed himself from the King’s councils, you may agree to that and as for removing him from the King’s person, adjourn that debate to another time.

The debate was, in fact, adjourned. Throughout the remainder of the session Capel continued to speak out against standing armies and the danger of Popery. When the House was informed that orders had been given for the seizure of the papers of Ralph Montagu*, Capel was among those sent to the King to desire details of his offence. He seconded the motion of Sir John Lowther III to send for the papers immediately, and assisted Harbord in fetching them from their place of concealment. When they were read to the House, sufficient evidence was obtained of the negotiations with France to enable Capel to impeach the lord treasurer at the bar of the Lords. A moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he had been named to 178 committees, acted as teller on nine occasions, and made 59 recorded speeches.7

Capel was re-elected to the three Exclusion Parliaments, and again marked ‘worthy’ by Shaftesbury. He approved the drafting of an address on the right of the Commons to choose their Speaker, and served on the delegation that presented it. He was appointed to the committee on matters depending in the last Parliament and the secret committee on the Popish Plot, and helped to draft the address asking the King to entrust the informer Bedloe to the care of the Duke of Monmouth. He spoke four times against Danby’s pardon, and was among those ordered to prepare an address and manage a conference on the subject. He reported from the committee which inspected the Lords’ Journals on 24 Mar. 1679. His appointment to the remodelled Privy Council did not preclude his continued involvement in arrangements for the trial of Danby and the Popish lords. On 27 Apr. he moved a resolution ‘that the Papists have had all their encouragement from the Duke’s being a Papist’, but he both spoke and voted against exclusion.

I do agree that laws made to declare the succession are to be obeyed when made, but they are not yet made. ... The safest way to preserve us is not to take away the duke’s right to the crown. Should you take it away, do you not put all the Protestant princes upon it to preserve his right? If he has his right, they can have no pretence on his behalf. But parliamentarily, this day’s consideration is to take care of the life of the King. Therefore I move not to close the debate, but appoint a bill be drawn that there may be a Parliament every three years, and a Parliament in being at the demise of the King. A few days will pass it and bind us in all the security imaginable against the consequences we apprehend.

As first lord of the Admiralty he insisted on the appointment of the venal Harbord as secretary, while he himself undertook the thankless task of coaxing a grant for the fleet out of a hostile House. When he alleged that every man cried out, ‘Let us have a fleet’, his voice was drowned in shouts of ‘No’, and it proved impossible even to fix a day for a debate on supply. A very active Member of the first Exclusion Parliament, he had been appointed to 23 committees and made 15 speeches.8

Capel’s first period of service at the Council board was short and stormy. After the autumn election, in which according to Harbord he was sure of election for Tewkesbury and Breconshire, and perhaps also for Shoreham, he asked who had advised the prorogation of the new Parliament, but was abruptly silenced by the King. He again tried to raise the matter in November, together with his brother, Lord Russell, and Lord Cavendish (William Cavendish). Finally on 31 Jan. 1680 in obedience to Shaftesbury’s instructions, he asked leave to withdraw, which the King granted ‘with all my heart’. By now a convert to exclusion, he became ‘the instrument to beget correspondence’ between Sunderland and the Duchess of Portsmouth on the one hand, and Shaftesbury and the chief managers of the Commons on the other.9

When the second Exclusion Parliament at last met, Capel followed the opposition line. On 26 Oct. he delivered a long and eloquent speech, in the course of which he attributed all the grievances of the nation to France and Popery, referred favourably to Protestant dissenters, and called for consideration ‘of the prevention of Popery and a Popish successor’. On the next day he was named to the committees to inquire into abhorring and to draw up an address for preserving the Protestant religion. After recanting his views on exclusion, he was appointed to the committee to bring in the bill:

I have formerly given some proof that I have been for moderation, and (God willing) shall always be for it when it may do some good. In the last two Parliaments I did so argue for moderation that many of my friends told me that I had deserted the true interest of my King and country. ... I am of opinion this is a case in which there is no room for moderation, if by moderation be meant the making of any other law for the security of our religion. Because ... all other bills that can be desired, without this bill, will not prove effectual, but will leave us in the unhappy condition of contesting with a Popish successor during this King’s life and with the power of a Popish king hereafter.

Four days later he spoke in favour of comprehension, saying ‘We are now to enlarge the Church as far as we can and make the pale of the Church as wide as we can; we need help against the Papists’, and he was named to the committee to repeal the Elizabethan law against Protestant dissenters. Ormonde had evidence, in the shape of a letter from Capel to his colleague Sir Francis Russell, that he was the chief promoter of belief in an Irish plot, and he was one of the managers of a conference on the subject. He helped to draw up the answer to the King’s message insisting on the legal succession. In an impassioned speech on the following day he declared that exclusion was the only means of protecting posterity from Popery, slavery and bloodshed, concluding with the prediction that ‘the English are of a quiet nature, but should we be so unfortunate as to have a Popish King, it would bring us all into confusion and blood. If this bill pass not, all the nation will be in blood.’ He regarded exclusion as the prime business of the House, and when the King broached the subject of aid for Tangier Capel’s position was that ‘we will support him when we are safe, but till then, no money’. He helped to prepare the address for the removal of Lord Halifax (Sir George Savile), whom he regarded as chiefly responsible for the defeat of exclusion in the Lords. He attacked Lord Chief Justice Scroggs for his dismissal of the Middlesex grand jury before they could present the Duke of York for recusancy, and was named to the committee of inquiry into the proceedings of the judges. He was among those ordered to draw up the impeachment of Edward Seymour, who had argued for ‘expedients’ to avoid exclusion. He supported the resolution that ‘all considerable Papists be banished from England’, and on 6 Jan. 1681, after reaffirming his belief in the Irish plot, was named to the committee to draw up reasons. On the next day he inquired into why the Lords had produced no alternative to exclusion, and attacked Halifax as an enemy to King and country. Again very active, he had been named to 21 committees and made 23 speeches.10

Capel was returned unopposed at the general election of 1681. During the brief Oxford Parliament he was named only to the committee of elections and privileges. On 25 Mar. he asked why the Lords had taken no action on the Commons’ bill repealing the Elizabethan law against Protestant dissenters, and rebuked Sir Leoline Jenkins for his refusal to carry Fitzharris’s impeachment to the Lords. He was becoming repetitious, however, and Anchitell Grey abruptly terminated his account of another speech because it was ‘mostly what he had said in the last Parliament’.11

After the Rye House Plot, Essex was arrested and cut his throat in the Tower. It was rumoured that a warrant would be issued for Capel, but he hastened to present his duty to the Duke of York and no action was taken against him. Like his sister-in-law, he gave no countenance to the absurd story put about by the Whigs that his brother had been murdered. Richard Coote believed that in consequence he was ‘like to be laid aside’ at Tewkesbury, and he did not stand in 1685. During the Revolution he came in to William at Berwick St. Leonard on 3 Dec. 1688 together with his brother-in-law, now 2nd Earl of Clarendon, who described Capel, Harbord and Sir John Hotham as demanding the cancellation of James II’s election writs, ‘fearing, as I have reason to believe, that they could not get into the House of Commons’. At the meeting of Members of Charles II’s Parliaments he helped to draft the address to the Prince for new writs. This gave him time to secure the Percy interest at Cockermouth through his sister-in-law, Lady Essex, the sister of the 5th Earl of Northumberland.12

Capel was a very active Member of the Convention, in which he was named to 61 committees and made more than 50 recorded speeches. On the opening day of the session he urged a speedy debate on the state of the nation, declaring, contrary to the opinion of (Sir) Thomas Clarges, that ‘we are a full House’. He was appointed to the committee to bring in a list of essentials for securing religion, the laws and liberty. On 28 Jan. he urged the House to vote that the throne was vacant, and was named to the committee to prepare reasons for a constitutional conference, which he helped to manage. He was among those appointed to amend the Lords’ version of the declaration of rights. As first lord of the Treasury and a Privy Councillor he carried several messages to and from the King, who said privately that ‘Sir Henry Capel was weak, but he believed he would not rob him’. In the debate on the Corporations Act he declared that though he would ‘live and die for the Church of England’, he favoured removing the sacramental Test for officeholders. He chaired the committee reversing Russell’s attainder, reporting to the House on 15 Mar. He also chaired the committee for the Lords’ bill for the naturalization of Prince George of Denmark, carrying it to the Upper House on 28 Mar. In the debate on the establishment of the succession, on 8 May, Capel opposed the proviso of Charles Godolphin that nothing in the bill should prejudice the hereditary succession, saying that ‘either a foreign minister is in it, or a stratagem from France’. He was not on the committee for the toleration bill, but was named to that appointed to manage the conference with the Lords on the bill. On 1 June he was named to the committee to inquire into the delays in the relief of Londonderry, one object of which was to fasten the responsibility on Halifax, and eventually drove him to resign. Lord Cornbury Edward Hyde) found his uncle ‘very warm’ against Halifax during the debate in the committee of the whole House on the state of the nation on 3 Aug. William told Halifax that ‘he did not intend to show any countenance to Sir Henry Capel, and seemed to say that whatever happened he should not continue in his employment’. After the recess Capel was ordered to bring in an account of the charges of the war during the past year. The first Member appointed to prepare the bill for restoring and confirming corporations, he supported the disabling clause, and on 10 Jan. 1690 urged its retention in the bill. On 16 Jan., on the motion to commit the indemnity bill to a committee of the whole House, Capel said that:

If we go so fast on with the indemnity, and leave the pains and penalties [bill] asleep, it will go slowly on. ... You may incorporate them into the same bill, and I hope we shall be unanimous.

The motion was defeated and the bill of pains and penalties was given its second reading.13

When the Convention was dissolved William kept his promise to Halifax by dismissing Capel from the Treasury. Nevertheless he regained his Tewkesbury seat at the general election, and sat as a court Whig both in the Commons and after his elevation to the peerage. He was made lord deputy of Ireland in 1695, and died there on 30 May 1696. He was buried at Little Hadham. His property descended to his nephew, the 2nd Earl of Essex.

Lord Dartmouth described Capel as ‘a very weak, formal, conceited man; had no other merit than being a violent party man’, and Burnet wrote that he was ‘naturally a vain, as well as a weak man ... set on to anything that gained him applause’. Certainly he became ‘a violent party man’, though his shift to a passionate espousal of exclusion was shared by many moderates. He spoke frequently and often at great length, and though the quality of his oratory was not outstanding, on several occasions he seems to have influenced the decisions of the House. His stance was essentially negative: he feared Popery and standing armies, and accordingly he opposed those ministers who, he thought, did not share those fears.14

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Basil Duke Henning


  • 1. R. Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Official Lists, 228; Foxcroft, Halifax, ii. 230; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 627; 1682-3; CSP Dom. 1694-5, p. 462.
  • 2. Copinger, Suff. Manors, i. 227; VCH Herts. Fams. 83-84, 94-95; Keeler, Long Parl. 126.
  • 3. VCH Glos. viii. 136; Cal. Cl. SP, v. 366-9; CJ, viii. 685; ix. 87; Evelyn Diary, iv. 144.
  • 4. Grey, ii. 204, 218, 324, 394; CJ, ix. 286, 295, 307; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvii), 154.
  • 5. CJ, ix. 315, 354; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc.ser. 3, xxiv), 6; Grey, iii. 250, 362; iv. 25; HMC Hastings, ii. 383.
  • 6. Grey, iv. 312, 346-7; v. 31, 134, 177, 179, 241-2, 357-8; CJ, ix. 408, 424, 428, 477.
  • 7. CJ, ix. 524, 534, 559, 562; Grey, vi. 147-8, 281-2, 345-7; HMC Lords, i. 85.
  • 8. Grey, vi. 423; vii. 88-89, 95, 135-6, 149, 252-3, 276; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 356, 505; CJ, ix. 574, 584.
  • 9. Sidney Diary, i. 79; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 545; v. 238, 312, 561; HMC 7th Rep. 476; Burnet, ii. 249.
  • 10. Grey, vii. 360-2, 398-9, 423, 455-7; viii. 13, 55-56, 280-1; CJ, ix. 645, 647, 648, 655; HMC Ormonde, n.s. v. 302, 328; Faithful Reg. 28-29; Jones, First Whigs, 139; Exact Coll. Debates, 289; HMC 12th Rep. IX, 112.
  • 11. Prot. Intell. 15 Feb. 1681; Grey, viii. 302, 307, 328.
  • 12. Luttrell, i