COOPER, Sir Anthony Ashley, 2nd Bt. (1621-83), of Wimborne St. Giles, Dorset and The Close, Salisbury, Wilts.

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



Apr. 1640
7 Jan. 1660

Family and Education

b. 22 July 1621, 1st s. of Sir John Cooper, 1st Bt., of Rockbourne, Hants by 1st w. Anne, da. and h. of Sir Anthony Ashley, 1st Bt., of Wimborne St. Giles; bro. of George Cooper. educ. privately (Aaron Guerdon) 1627-37; Exeter, Oxf. 1637-8; L. Inn 1638. m. (1) 25 Feb. 1639, Margaret (d. 11 July 1649), da. of Sir Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry of Aylesborough, s.p.; (2) 15 Apr. 1650, Lady Frances Cecil (d. 31 Dec. 1652), da. of David Cecil, 3rd Earl of Exeter, 2s. (1 d.v.p.); (3) 30 Aug. 1655, (with £4,000) Margaret, da. of William Spencer, 2nd Baron Spencer, s.p. suc. fa. 23 Mar. 1631; cr. Baron Ashley 20 Apr. 1661; Earl of Shaftesbury 23 Apr. 1672.

Offices Held

Dep. lt. Dorset 1642-4, July 1660-72; sheriff, Dorset 1643, Wilts. Dec. 1646-Feb. 1648; j.p. Dorset 1643-?74, Wilts. 1646-?74, Mdx. 1653-?59; commr. for assessment, Dorset and Wilts. 1647-52, 1657, Jan. 1660-1, Mdx. 1652, Jan. 1660-1, militia, Dorset and Wilts. 1648, 1659, Mar. 1660, administering engagement, Dorset 1650; freeman, Poole 1651, Salisbury 1654; commr. for oyer and terminer, Mdx. 1653-4, Western circuit 1654-5, July 1660, scandalous ministers, Dorset, Poole and Wilts. 1654; v.-adm. Hants Apr. 1660-1; commr. for sewers, Som. Aug. 1660, highways and sewers, London and Westminster 1662. ld. lt. Dorset 1672-4; high steward, Salisbury 1672-d.; bencher, L. Inn 1673.3

Col. of ft. and capt. of horse (royalist) 1643-4; gov. Weymouth 1643; field-marshal-gen. Dorset (parliamentary) 1644; brig. 1644; col. of horse Jan.-Nov. 1660; gov. I.o.W. Feb. 1660-1.

Commr. for law reform 1652-3; judge of probate 1653-4; Councillor of State 14 July 1653-Dec. 1654, May-Oct. 1659, 2 Jan.-31 May 1660; commr. for the army (acting) Dec. 1659-Jan. 1660; PC 31 May 1660-19 May 1674, ld. pres. Apr.-Oct. 1679; commr. for trade Nov. 1660-72, plantations Dec. 1660-70; chancellor of Exchequer 1661-72; treas. of prizes 1664-7; ld. of Treasury 1667-72; commr. for union with Scotland 1670; pres. council of trade and plantations 1672-4; ld. chancellor 1672-4.

Member, Society of Mines Royal and Mineral and Battery Works 1662, gov. 1663-d.; asst. R. Adventurers into Africa by 1664-71; ld. prop. Carolina 1663-d.; member, Hudson’s Bay Co. 1668-73, dep. gov. 1673-4, committee 1674-5; sub-gov. Royal Africa Co. 1672-4, asst. 1674-7; member, Skinners’ Co. 1681-d.4

FRS 1663.



Cooper was descended on both sides from gentry families which came to the fore under the Tudors. His paternal grandfather sat for Whitchurch in 1586. His father, one of the country party in the 1628-9 Parliament, left over £35,000 debts, but even after considerable sales of land by direction of the court of wards, an enduring grievance, Cooper was enjoying an income of £2,350 p.a. before the Civil War. He was not eager to take up arms in the Civil War, and changed sides at the beginning of 1644. He was closely associated with the Government in Barebones’s Parliament and the opening months of the Protectorate, but withdrew from the Council of State at the end of 1654, on the defeat of the motion to offer Cromwell the crown, and was excluded from the 1656 session of Parliament. He took a prominent part in the overthrow of the military regime in 1659, and supported the return of the secluded Members.

Cooper never sat for his native county, where he was unpopular as a harsh and unscrupulous landlord. He controlled one seat at Poole, his father’s constituency, but he preferred to stand again as knight of the shire for Wiltshire. Though he owned two manors in the county, he visited them only to hold courts and collect rents, and when he was appointed sheriff in 1646 he had to take a house in Salisbury. Nevertheless he was probably returned unopposed. As a Privy Councillor he acted as a government spokesman in the Convention, but with an exceptionally powerful treasury bench, he was required to be no more than an active Member, serving on 45 committees and making 24 recorded speeches. He was one of the committee of seven to draw up an answer to the King’s letter on 1 May. He was named to the delegation of 12 Members sent to the King at Breda and helped to draw up their instructions. He took part in no less than ten conferences with the Lords, covering most of the principal business of the session. On 4 June he acted as one of the commissioners for administering the oath of allegiance. He spoke against the proviso to the indemnity bill aimed at compelling Edmund Prideaux to surrender the enormous profits made by his father during the Interregnum:

He was free to speak because he never received any salary; but looked upon the proviso as dangerous to the peace of the nation, saying it reached Generals [George] Monck and Montagu [Edward Montagu I] after the House had given them thanks, and thousands more.

Though closely associated with the Presbyterians, Cooper was well known to be totally devoid of any religious belief other than faith in his stars; but he found widespread support when he declared on 16 July:

Our religion was too much intermixed with interest, neither was it ripe now to handle religion. But he moved the whole committee might be adjourned for three months.

He twice acted as teller for the Government on supply, in favour of continuing the debate on tunnage and poundage on 16 July and against resuming the debate on Irish cattle five days later. On 23 July he brought a message from the King about exports of cloth. When the fate of the regicides was under discussion, Cooper signed a certificate in favour of John Hutchinson and presented the petition of George Fleetwood, who had married his brother George’s sister-in-law. He spoke against making Sir Arthur Hesilrige liable to the death penalty, saying that ‘he thought this man not considerable enough’. On 10 Sept., he was one of the Members instructed to draft an amendment to the disbanding bill. With his old enemy, Denzil Holles, he acted as teller against the Lords’ amendments to the bill for settling ministers, and on 13 Sept. he had the satisfaction of informing the House that the King had agreed to that bill and also to the abolition of his bugbear, the court of wards, which had sold two of the Cooper estates to Holles a quarter of a century before.5

Cooper was a commissioner for the trial of the regicides, and in the second session was named to the committee for the attainder of Oliver Cromwell, who had once, according to report, nearly become his father-in-law. He spoke against the court of wards (21 Nov.) and a few days later, mindful of the importance to Poole of the tobacco-pipe manufacture, moved against the export of pipeclay. When Sir Walter Erle complained of the misconduct of the militia, Cooper replied that it was not approved by the King but reprimanded. On 19 Dec. he spoke against giving public money to those—many of them Dorset electors—who had helped Charles to escape after Worcester.6

Cooper did not stand at the general election, when his parliamentary interest reached its nadir. Even at Poole his brother lost his seat, and though two of his associates were eventually declared elected there they had to endure the tribulations of a double return. On 20 Apr. 1661 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Ashley, and two days later he became chancellor of the Exchequer. For the next six years he was primarily concerned with routine financial administration, though as a west country landowner he could not avoid supporting the Irish cattle bill in the Lords in 1666. But he remained loyal to the Clarendon administration till, and even beyond, the end, twice speaking against the impeachment of the fallen lord chancellor. Through Bullen Reymes he was able to undermine the Strangways interest at Weymouth, which returned Ashley’s former ward Sir John Coventry at a by-election in 1667 and his son in 1670. But he was never a territorial magnate, and in 1670 neighbouring Downton rejected his business associate John Man and Poole gave him some offence in its choice of Thomas Trenchard I. Meanwhile his title had contributed to the initials of the Cabal, and he had become one of the makers of policy, though the religious clauses of the Treaty of Dover were concealed from him. The Stop of the Exchequer, the third Dutch war and the Declaration of Indulgence all belong to his period of power, though later he denied responsibility for all save the last. It was this that gave the occasion for his appointment as lord chancellor, for Lord Keeper Bridgman had qualms about extending the royal prerogative so far, and was otherwise ill-qualified for office in a crisis. At the same time he was advanced two steps in the peerage as Earl of Shaftesbury. His new office gave him the opportunity greatly to extend his interest. Owing to the long recess there were a number of vacant seats, and before Parliament reassembled the new lord chancellor issued on his own authority writs for at least 15 by-elections. Of the Members returned, ten were court dependants, and not more than three (Josiah Child, George Cooper and John Man) were personally associated with the lord chancellor. Unfortunately it was the last two that attracted most attention, because Giles Strangways believed, no doubt correctly, that the writs had been so timed as to ensure the defeat of his son Thomas at both Poole and Weymouth, and exaggerated estimates of the total number of seats involved were made. When the House of Commons ordered new elections to be held on the Speaker’s warrant, only three results were changed. Thomas Strangways came in by agreement at Poole, and at Dover and Wendover respectively the officials Sir Edward Spragge and Edward Backwell were unseated on petition by Thomas Papillon and Thomas Wharton, both later to be closely linked with Shaftesbury. The other by-elections for which writs were issued on the same day produced seven courtiers and at most two Shaftesburians—Sir Scrope Howe and Sir Samuel Barnardiston, both county Members.

Meanwhile, in the Lords, this error of judgment—for such it was, in view of the Commons’ jealousy of their privileges and suspicion of the executive, although the lord chancellor had ample precedent on his side—had been compounded by another, his famous delenda est Carthago speech against the Dutch. The withdrawal of the Declaration of Indulgence on 8 Mar. was a confession of the failure of Shaftesbury’s policy, though he was not actually dismissed until November. Almost at once he began to associate with the ‘Hotspurs’ of the Upper House, and on 20 Apr. 1675 he signed the protest against the non-resisting test. In October his candidate Thomas Moore was humiliatingly defeated in the Dorset by-election; but it was not through a conventional territorial interest that Shaftesbury presented a threat to the Government. His London house was suspect as a focal point of sedition and intrigue, and on 16 Feb. 1676 Secretary Williamson, disturbing a colloquy with (Sir) Edward Harley, brought him a message ‘that his Majesty thought it were much better he were at home in the country’. Far from heeding the warning, Shaftesbury took up residence at Thanet House within the jurisdiction of the corporation. Thanks to his extensive commercial interests, and the adaptability which had first won him a seat in Parliament, he talked the same language as the City magnates, and henceforward was in almost daily contact with their leaders, Sir Robert Clayton, Sir Thomas Player and Thomas Pilkington. His immediate aim was to force a dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, in which Danby had succeeded in forming a relatively stable court majority, by appealing over its head to the City and country at large. When it reassembled in 1677, Shaftesbury supported the argument that its legal existence had been automatically terminated by its long recess. He found few sympathizers in the House of Lords, which committed him to the Tower, where he remained till February 1678. Thanks to his steadfastness in imprisonment, he emerged the principal figure among the country peers, and through his influence over the Hon. William Russell he was in a good position to-coordinate opposition tactics in both Houses. Moreover, his secretary Thomas Bennett had entered the Commons, where he acted as Shaftesbury’s mouthpiece, whipping up the excitement over the Popish Plot and the revelations of Ralph Montagu.

Shaftesbury’s interest was not much in evidence at the Exclusion elections; even in the borough from which he took his title, Bennett owed his return to his own local influence, aided by a modest subvention from the county Member, Thomas Freke I. But the list of Members of the new Parliament which Shaftesbury drew up confirms Burnet’s view that his real strength lay in his profound knowledge of the political nation. His estimate of the opposition strength was over-sanguine, judged by the severe test of readiness to vote against the court in the vital division on the exclusion bill; nevertheless only 28 Members deserted the Whigs, while 18 marked as ‘base’ or ‘vile’ voted for the bill, an error of some 8 per cent. Meanwhile, in a fruitless attempt to reduce the political temperature, the King had named Shaftesbury president of the council, taking good care, however, that this hybrid body should know nothing of affairs of state. It was not consulted over the dissolution of Parliament, which it had singularly failed to control. The second general election of 1679 greatly strengthened the Whigs, and soon afterwards Shaftesbury was dismissed. Adjournment followed adjournment in the hope that the excitement would diminish; the press was muzzled, but Shaftesbury was astonishingly successful in keeping up the ferment by means of the Green Ribbon Club and its lesser brethren, the pope-burnings, the presentation of the Duke of York as a recusant, and the organization of petitions, aided by the continued reverberations of the Popish Plot. When Parliament at last met, the exclusion bill passed through the Commons without a division and was brought up to the Lords on 15 Nov. 1680. There followed the famous oratorical duel between Halifax and Shaftesbury, though the rejection of the bill was a foregone conclusion. Hitherto, Shaftesbury’s concentration on the single issue of exclusion had been a source of strength; now, faced with the impossibility of reviving the bill in the current session, a section of the more selfish and opportunist Whigs, led by Montagu and Sir William Jones, threatened defection, but were easily crushed. At the 1681 elections the Whigs were better organized than ever before, though once again Shaftesbury’s advice was ignored or rejected by the neighbouring boroughs (Downton, Christchurch and Shaftesbury). But he probably approved, if he did not originate, the instructions delivered to many Members by their constituents to reject all ‘expedients’.

The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament may have prompted Shaftesbury to consider an armed revolt; if so, the cold reception of his proposals by the more respectable Whigs, such as John Scudamore, Lord Scudamore, deterred him. The execution of Fitzharris frightened many of the Popish Plot witnesses into offering their services against Shaftesbury, and on 2 July he was arrested and his papers impounded. On 24 Nov. 1681, the Middlesex grand jury, empanelled by Pilkington as sheriff and including Barnardiston, Papillon, John Dubois and Edward Rudge returned a verdict of ignoramus. But in the following year the Whigs lost control of the City, and the day before the new Tory sheriffs were sworn in Shaftesbury went into hiding. His judgment clouded by ill health, he urged on his allies the necessity of immediate insurrection, but neither Russell and his fellow-aristocrats on the Council of Six nor his west-country associates like John Trenchard and Sir William Courtenay responded. He slipped across to Holland in a small boat; fortunately for him, Carthage was still undestroyed, and the Amsterdam patriciate accorded him sanctuary. He died there on 21 Jan. 1683.

No attempt can be made here to assess as a whole the political career of so controversial a figure. Unlike Pym, he had to contend with a government backed by foreign subsidies, and the tiny standing army of the Restoration was sufficient to limit the coercive effect of the mob. Forced to restrict himself to constitutional methods, he made important contributions to the development of Parliament, but rather outside its walls than within, skilful debater though he undoubtedly was. The Opposition could not hope to emulate the discipline of the government benches, as it had been developed by Danby. But Shaftesbury’s detailed knowledge of England and flair for publicity in all its forms enabled him to enlarge the political nation and produce the remarkable election results of 1679-81. It was not without reason that the Tory counter-attack of the ensuing years concentrated on the electorates.

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: John. P. Ferris


Factual information in this biography is based on K. H. D. Haley, The First Earl of Shaftesbury.

  • 1. Excluded.
  • 2. Double return of 23 Dec. 1640 decided in his favour.
  • 3. W. D. Christie, Life of Shaftesbury, i. pp. xxvii. liv; Hutchins, Dorset, i. 32; Hoare, Wilts. Salisbury, 445; C181/7/24; Tudor and Stuart Proclamations ed. Steele, i. 405.
  • 4. BL Loan 16; E. E. Rich, Hudson’s Bay Co. i. 85.
  • 5. Christie, p. xli; Bowman diary, ff. 51, 85v, 154v; Old Parl. Hist. xxii. 444.
  • 6. Old Parl. Hist. xxiii. 21, 32, 53, 59.