COVENTRY, Sir John (c.1636-85), of Mere, Wilts. and Suffolk Street, Westminster.
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Family and Education
b. c.1636, o.s. of Hon. John Coventry of Barton, Pitminster, Som. by Elizabeth, da. and coh. of John Colles of Barton, wid. of Herbert Dodington† of Breamore, Hants. educ. travelled abroad (France, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Low Countries) 1655-9; Padua 1659; Queen’s, Oxf. 1660. unm. suc. fa. 1652; KB 23 Apr. 1661.1
Commr. for sewers, Som. Dec. 1660, assessment, Som. and Wilts. 1661-80; j.p. Wilts. 1667-70, Som. 1668-70; dep. lt. Wilts. 1668-75; bailiff of Burley Walk, New Forest 1674-d.; freeman, Lymington 1679.2
Coventry’s father, a younger son of the lord keeper, sat for Evesham in the Long Parliament and fought for the King in the Civil War. He was one of the leaders of the western association in 1650 and took some part in helping Charles II to escape after Worcester, but died of drink a few months later. Coventry’s aunt, Lady Savile, engaged as tutor an impoverished Cavalier, Edward Sherburne, eminently suitable in every respect but religion. When William Coventry appealed against the decimation of his nephew’s estate in 1656, the Somerset commissioners agreed that Sherburne’s pupil was under age, but alleged that he ‘lives beyond seas, and is suspected to be brought up in the Popish religion’. Their suspicions were well-founded, for in his will dated 7 Apr. 1667 he declared himself ‘a true son of the Church of Rome, and so have been several years’. Nevertheless they were prepared to discharge the estate (valued at £3,000 p.a.) if he were ‘taken into the tuition of some honest and well-affected person’. Coventry accordingly became the ward of his uncle Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, whose politics he followed, and in 1662 he was described as ‘loyal and orthodox; a very hopeful man’. At the Weymouth by-election of 1667, the full weight of the court interest was put behind him. His former guardian, now chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote to the corporation in his support and Bullen Reymes used his influence with the mayor (whose mother was his business partner) while Sir Roger Cuttance, flag captain to the Earl of Sandwich (Edward Montagu I), accused his opponents of provoking disorder. On the other side, the canvassers ‘did not say Sir John Coventry will swear a thousand oaths in an hour, or rant, or be drunk, and that he is a courtier’; but the electorate were left to draw their own conclusions from these careful negatives. However, with the returning officer on his side, Coventry was safe, and on 8 Feb. he was allowed to take his seat on the merits of the return. On 20 Nov. the committee of elections reported him duly elected and the House accepted this recommendation.3
A moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, Coventry was named to 87 committees, seldom failing to give his attention to such subjects as the export of beer, the import of brandy, and the adulteration of wines. His hereditary weakness did not render him incapable as teller in nine divisions (usually with a leading member of the country party as colleague), and he took part in five conferences with the lords. A follower of Ormonde, he was teller for the motion to impeach his rival Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle). On the other hand he was in favour of proceeding with the charges against Sir George Carteret. Sir Thomas Osborne included him among those to be gained for the Court by the Duke of York. Despite his conversion, he was one of six Members instructed on 8 Mar. 1670 to bring in a bill against recusants, and received an anonymous letter threatening to pistol him unless he desisted. In the same session he took part in a conference on the conventicles bill, to which his opposition was sufficiently marked to cause his exclusion from the commission of the peace. He was prominent, and perhaps obstructive, in the supply debates in the autumn. He served on the committee to consider the debts of the navy, and the day before the House adjourned for Christmas he moved for a tax on theatres. ‘Sir John Berkenhead to excuse them said they had been of great service to the King, upon which Sir John Coventry desired that gentleman to explain whether he meant the men or women players.’ The implication that Charles’s appreciation of Nell Gwyn and her colleagues extended beyond the purely aesthetic infuriated Coventry’s ‘dearly beloved friend’ Monmouth, who was naturally concerned to prove that his father begat no children outside the nuptial bond. An ambush, consisting of gentlemen of Monmouth’s troop in the guards, was set for Coventry as soon as Parliament adjourned, and when he returned from the tavern at two in the morning his assailants seized him and cut his nose to the bone. The damage was not permanent, and Coventry had the uncommon satisfaction of giving his name to the Act that was passed against nose-slitting.4
Henceforward, Coventry was a somewhat erratic member of the Opposition. Although not a few of his 29 recorded speeches contain sensible remarks, pithily expressed, he was a political lightweight, and his tongue would never earn him so much fame as his nose. On 3 Mar. 1671, and again two years later, he was one of the Members appointed to manage a conference with the Lords on the growth of Popery, a subject of which he had a great deal more personal knowledge than his colleagues could have suspected. In the 1673 session he raised the question of grievances, and proposed that no supply be granted till the bill against Popery was passed. He was also teller against the Court on two election petitions. At this juncture Charles found it expedient to be reconciled with him, perhaps as a friendly gesture from one crypto-Catholic to another, for in the recess rumours about Coventry’s religion began to circulate, and there was talk of obliging him to take the Test.5
Coventry’s response was to increase his activity and hostility in the 1674 session. ‘The French league is so infamous that we cannot name it without odium’, he proclaimed. He attacked Buckingham as one who ‘has made it his business to sow dissension between the King and this House’, and, though he was too contemptible to be worth impeaching, desired that he might ‘be removed from the King’s person for ever’. He was one of the five Members charged with procuring evidence against Arlington, and three days later he was teller for the address demanding the secretary of state’s removal.6
Shortly before the spring session of 1675, Coventry’s uncle Henry Coventry—‘most of the House know our relation, and that we live well together’—drafted a frank letter recommending him to marry to clear the debts he had accumulated, in spite of his ample fortune, and to choose as his bride
a Protestant and of Protestant relations, for silencing your enemies and satisfying your friends in their jealousies, which have risen partly by your conversation and familiarity with those of a contrary religion, and partly from your difficulty in receiving the sacrament upon the last Act of Parliament.
Coventry’s intemperate habits disqualified him from marriage, his debts from the more heroic step of proclaiming his change of faith, and he had to fall back on the difficult course of dissimulation. Presumably he took the oath against transubstantiation under the Test Act. On 23 Apr. he moved the address for the dismissal of Lauderdale, pointing out ‘that we are not so much looking into Scotland but our own safety’. He spoke in favour of Danby’s impeachment, in spite of a well-grounded distrust of the process—‘we have not had good success in them hitherto’—and undertook to prove malversation in the Exchequer. But his accusation that the lord treasurer had improperly interfered in Irish affairs misfired when William Harbord, on whom Coventry had relied for proof, denied all knowledge of it. He was one of the Members charged with preparing an address for the recall of English subjects from French service, with the bill for appropriating the customs to the use of the navy, and—inevitably—with measures for suppressing Popery. The King showed his renewed displeasure by silently refusing to approve his nomination as deputy lieutenant of Wiltshire.7
In the autumn session of, 1675 Coventry condemned the ‘affront’ given to William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish, by Thomas Howard; not without reference to his own misadventure he added, ‘some course must be taken, or we shall be hectored by every life-guardsman, and be obliged to fight him’. He seconded the motion for an inquiry into the bribery of Members and the despatch of letters to secure the attendance of the court party, and was named to the inquiry into the release of priests and Jesuits. In short, he played his full part in the unruliness of the session, which resulted in an exceptionally lengthy recess. When Parliament reassembled, he refused to join his former guardian, now Earl of Shaftesbury, in declaring it automatically dissolved by the length of the recess, but declared ‘we have sat so long the people are weary of us’, and seconded the motion for an address to the King requesting a dissolution. He did not fail to get his name on the usual committee for the suppression of Popery, but was otherwise not very active in the 1677 session. Shaftesbury marked his nephew as ‘thrice worthy’ at this time. In the earlier sessions of 1678 there is also little recorded of him, except an attempt to base a charge of breach of privilege on another unfortunate clash with the military, involving his servant and a Captain Arundell, which ended rather ignominiously with the Speaker administering a reproof to Coventry for casting a slur on a Member’s family.8
But with the Popish Plot disclosures in the autumn, Coventry’s activity reached a new climax, no doubt in self-defence. He was named to the committee of inquiry, and helped to manage the conference with the Lords on this ‘damnable and hellish plot’. He was particularly concerned with Coleman’s letters, declaring that ‘whoever is against printing them, has either taken money for his vote, or is popishly affected’. On 6 Nov. 1678 he was among those Members who presented an address to the King to this effect. He was one of the committee of seven charged with searching the lodgings of a French Papist employed on the London Gazette, though his attack on Secretary Williamson in this connexion was so clumsy that he had to apologize instead to Williamson’s colleague, his own uncle. On the next day, however, he went further still, in a speech worthy of the new Whigs:
We talk of Popery, and the heir of the Crown protects Papists. I move for the business of the day, about removing the Duke from the King’s presence and councils.9
Whatever the rumours about Coventry’s religion, his reputation as a martyr was unaffected, and he was returned for Weymouth in all three Exclusion Parliaments. It is significant that Shaftesbury did not include his nephew among his ‘worthy men’, but he was marked as a supporter on Huntingdon’s list, and voted for the first exclusion bill. He sat on eight committees in 1679, but made no speeches. On 4 Apr. he was ordered to bring in a clause to prevent any of the royal family from marrying Papists, and on 24 May to draw up an answer to the Upper House on the trials of Danby and the five Popish lords. For the second Exclusion Parliament, he was returned at the top of the poll. He was described rather absurdly by the French ambassador at this time as ‘one of the most considerable Members, an enemy of the Court and even more of Monmouth’. On 25 Feb. 1680
Sir John Coventry was so unfortunately drunk that at a great coffee house in the City he publicly spoke very rude and barbarous words reflecting on his Highness ... that the Duke was a Papist and a traitor, and that he would prove him one.
The duke wisely decided to overlook the transgression. When Parliament met, Coventry again became very active over the Popish Plot. He was named to the committee to receive information and the committee of ten which examined Sheridan’s papers, as well as to the committee of elections and privileges. He was defeated at Lymington in 1681, but retained his seat at Weymouth, though he left no trace in the records of the Oxford Parliament.10
A man with Coventry’s weaknesses was not likely to be trusted with any Whig secrets in the years that followed. Nevertheless, he came under suspicion in 1683, and in September he was brought to make decent apologies to the King and Duke of York, and sufficient promises for the future. It seems probable that his health was now giving way under the influence of his excesses. At the time of Monmouth’s landing in the west he was at Bath, showing no disposition to join his former friend in rebellion, and on 14 Nov. 1685 he died, leaving his ailing uncle, Sir William, to tackle such awkward testamentary dispositions as a legacy of £100 to the English College at Rome and an injunction to ‘bury me in the first Catholic church they can find’. It was suggested that Sir William’s headaches were ‘increased by disentangling the snarled accounts of Sir John’s officers’.11
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. Gentry of Staffs. (Staffs. Rec. Soc. ser. 4, ii), 8; Procs. Som. Antiq. and Nat. Hist. Soc. lxxvii. 110; Cal. Cl. SP, ii. 131; Hoare, Wilts. Mere, 25; Wood, Fasti, ii. 31.
- 2. C181/7/26; CSP Dom. 1675-6, p. 161; 1684-5, p. 127; HMC 3rd Rep. 94; Q. Sess. Recs. (Som. Rec. Soc. xxxiv), p. xi; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 477; E. King, Old Times Revisited, 191.