FOX, Stephen (1627-1716), of Farley, Wilts. and Whitehall.
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Family and Education
b. 27 Mar. 1627, 6th but 4th surv. s. of William Fox (d.1652) of Farley by Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Pavy of Plaitford. educ. Salisbury cathedral sch. 1633-40. m. (1) 8 Dec. 1651, Elizabeth (d. 11 Aug. 1696), da. of William Whittle of London, 7s. d.v.p. 3da.; (2) 11 July 1703, Christian (d.1718), da. of Francis Hopes, rector of Aswarby, Lincs. 1682-1705, 2s. 2da. Kntd. 1 July 1665.1
Gent. of the horse to the Prince of Wales 1646; master of the horse 1649-50; clerk of the stables 1653-4, the kitchen 1654-June 1660; clerk-comptroller of the green cloth June 1660-1, clerk 1661-78, 1679-89; paymaster of the forces 1661-76, May-Nov. 1679; commr. of the stables 1679-82, 1702; ld. of Treasury 1679-85, 1687-9, 1690-1702, first ld. 1696-7.
Freeman, Salisbury 1661; commr. for assessment, Wilts. 1661-80, 1689-90, Salisbury and Westminster 1663-80, Hants 1665-74, Som. 1673-80, Westminster 1689, highways, London and Westminster 1662; j.p. Mdx. 1680-7, ?May 1688-d., Westminster 1680-9, Wilts. by 1682-9; recorder, Boston 1682-5.2
In his own words ‘a wonderful child of providence’, Fox rose to immense wealth and public prominence from genuinely humble origins. The family status lay on the borderline between peasantry and gentry; but he received a sound general education as a chorister in Salisbury cathedral, and his elder brother John, who held a post at Court on the dean’s recommendation, brought him into the household of the royal children as supernumerary servant and play-fellow. After acting as page to Lady Stafford, the Countess of Sunderland, and the Earl of Leicester, he entered the service of Lord Percy, master of horse to the Prince of Wales, and under his ‘severe discipline’ followed the Cavalier army in 1644-5 and then went into exile in France and Jersey. When the royal stables were dispersed in 1650, Fox returned to the modest family home and married. His Wiltshire origins now stood him in good stead; first Hobbes obtained for him the post of keeper of the privy purse to the Earl of Devonshire, and then, on the earnest recommendation of Sir Edward Hyde, he was appointed to manage the meagre financial resources of the exiled Court, under the modest style of clerk of the kitchen. Hyde found him
very well qualified with languages and all other parts of clerkship, honesty and discretion that were necessary for the discharge of such a trust. ... His great industry, modesty, and prudence did very much contribute to the bringing the family [i.e. Household], which for so many years had been under no government, into very good order.
He was granted arms in 1658, and at the Restoration he was promoted to the board of green cloth and given some small Hampshire leaseholds forfeited by one of the regicides. The decisive step in his career was his nomination as paymaster to the guards in January 1661, in order to ensure that morale in this miscellaneous body was not impaired by long delays and heavy arrears.3
Fox was first returned for Salisbury on the Hyde interest in a by-election at the end of the year. Farley is only five miles from the city, but he acquired a nominal property interest by leasing a vacant plot in the Close. His election expenditure totalled £87 10s., most of which went on ‘an entertainment’ for the corporation and a donation to the municipal poor relief fund. An inactive Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was appointed to 32 committees, including the committee of elections and privileges in nine sessions, and made three recorded speeches. Outside the House his importance was drastically increased by the ‘great undertaking’ of 1662, under which he assumed personal responsibility for obtaining credit for the Pay ffice. As he might have to wait up to 14 months before the Treasury could reimburse him, he was allowed to deduct 8 per cent from the crown and 3½ per cent from the soldiers. His accounts show that up to the third Dutch war and the Stop of the Exchequer he ploughed back most of the profits into the undertaking, only diversifying into well-secured loans to fellow courtiers and the purchase of pensions and offices. Listed as a court dependant in 1664, he was knighted in the following year. In 1666 Andrew Marvell included him among the government whips:
His birth, his youth, his brokage all dispraise In vain; for always he commands who pays.
The King, Fox recorded, expressed great satisfaction at the efficiency of the Pay Office during the second Dutch war, which contrasted favourably with the chaos of naval finance under Sir George Carteret.4
It is also from Fox’s pen that we have an account of his failure to join in the attack on his patron after he had been dismissed as lord chancellor in 1667:
The King took it ill from me that I went in the Parliament for my lord chancellor against him. I took the liberty to say to his Majesty that I did know my lord chancellor so well that I could not in conscience give my vote against him; at which the King turned from me and left me to myself, saying I was an honest fellow.
He emerged unscathed from the public accounts commission at Brooke House, and was included as a dependant in both lists of government supporters in 1669-71 and the Paston list of 1673/4. His committees in this period included those to consider the bill for the sale of the fee-farm rents (5 Apr. 1670), in which he was to speculate substantially but unremuneratively, and to inquire into the condition of Ireland (20 Feb. 1674). He spoke against the impeachment of Danby on 27 Apr. 1675, acted as teller against taking Serjeant Pemberton into custody for pleading in the Lords, and was again listed among the officials in the House. His duties now included the disbursement of substantial sums ‘for secret service’, in part at least to avoid the cumbrous, antiquated, and expensive ‘course of the Exchequer’. But Danby regarded his virtual monopoly of public credit with suspicion, and during the long recess he was deprived of the paymastership and with it the ‘undertaking’; while the secret service account was transferred to the secretary to the Treasury, who was Danby’s own brother-in-law, Charles Bertie. A caustic and unreliable summary of his career up to this point appears in Flagellum Parliamentarium:
Once a link-boy; then a singing -boy at Salisbury; then a servingman; and, permitting his wife to be common beyond sea, at the Restoration was made paymaster to the Guards, where he has cheated £100,000; and is one of the green cloth.
Shaftesbury marked him ‘thrice vile’ in 1677, and he did not go into open opposition until the last days of the Cavalier Parliament. As mortgagee of Hungerford House, on which he had advanced £3,000 to the spendthrift (Sir) Edward Hungerford, he enjoyed a substantial interest in Westminster, more particularly as the property was well-situated for high-class commercial redevelopment, and he was named to the committees for bills to establish a ‘court of conscience’ for small claims (2 Apr. 1677) and to build a new church (4 May 1678). His successors in the ‘undertaking’ had soon run into difficulties, and on 30 May he was among those ordered to estimate how much pay was owing to the newly-raised forces. Although he was on both lists of the court party, he voted for Danby’s impeachment on 19 Dec., and was immediately removed from the board of green cloth ‘in as severe words as could be expressed’, though the Duke of York intervened to insist that he should retain his Whitehall lodgings, which he had rebuilt at his own expense.5
At the first general election of 1679 Fox wasreturned for Westminster after a contest, and marked ‘vile’ on Shaftesbury’s list. With the eclipse of Danby he was restored to his place in the Household, and the financial collapse of his successors in the ‘undertaking’ compelled the Government to have recourse again to his credit as paymaster. An inactive Member of the first Exclusion Parliament, he was appointed only to the committees to consider a bill for the sale of a messuage in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and to inquire into abuses and exorbitances in the Post Office. According to the official list he voted against the exclusion bill, but it is more probable that he abstained, as Roger Morrice believed. The new Parliament was eager to investigate allegations of wholesale corruption in its predecessor, but Bertie refused to co-operate, and on 23 May William Sacheverell reminded them that:
You have a Member within your walls (if you will go to it in good earnest) that can discover to whom money and pensions were paid; and if he will not, he is not fit to be here. It is Sir Stephen Fox, who, though he has delivered up the private books, yet has several books that can discover it.
He was out of the House at the time, and when he arrived he
seemed resolute, and (as they termed it) trifled with them; till [Hugh] Boscawen moved that if he would not deal more clearly a bill might be brought in to confiscate his estate and take away his life, language it seems he could not so well relish, and then [he] submitted to answer questions more readily.
He pointed out that he had long handed over his official papers, but William Garway and Sir Robert Clayton refused to believe that ‘so great a master of accounts’ had failed to keep duplicates. He was sent back to Whitehall in the custody of Sir John Hotham, 2nd Bt., Sir Robert Peyton and (Sir) John Holman to fetch his ledgers, ‘great, vast books’ as he termed them, in a fruitless attempt to curb the Commons’ appetite; but Arlington, the lord chamberlain, told them that no books might be removed or inspected without the King’s command. The House then determined to rely on his memory. A list of the Cavalier Parliament was read out to him, and he told the House of payments to 27 Members, from the then Speaker (Edward Seymour) downwards. He added that secret service expenditure had greatly increased under Danby’s administration, and that 30 other Members had been granted pensions after he had handed over to Bertie. He was blacklisted in the ‘unanimous club’, and the election expenditure revealed in his accounts failed to win him a seat in the second Exclusion Parliament, even at Cricklade, where he had acquired an interest by the purchase of Water Eaton manor for £20,000. At Court his position never stood higher, as ‘the only instrument that has kept things afloat by his credit and supplies’, and his contribution to staving off revolution can hardly be exaggerated. Any resentment that the King felt at his disclosures in the first Exclusion Parliament was quickly swallowed, and in November 1679 he was given a seat on the Treasury board, which he occupied for longer than any other contemporary except Sidney Godolphin I. He retained control of the Pay Office through his sons and kinsmen.6
By now Fox was reputedly ‘the richest commoner in the three kingdoms’. Although he disparaged the yield on land as compared with other investments, he had acquired a substantial estate in the seventies in his native county and in Somerset at a cost of some £85,000. But he never set up as a country gentleman, his busy official life making it impracticable for him to reside any further from Whitehall than Chiswick. Evelyn dined with him in 1680, and wrote:
He is believed to be worth at the least £200,000 honestly gotten, and unenvied, which is next to miracle, and that with all this he still continues as humble and ready to do a courtesy as ever he was; nay, he is very generous, and lives very honourably, of a sweet nature, wellspoken and well-bred, and so very highly in his Majesty’s esteem and useful that being long since made a knight, he is also advanced to be one of the lords commissioners of the Treasury. ... In a word, never was man more fortunate than Sir Stephen; and with all this he is an handsome person, virtuous and very religious, and for whom I have an extraordinary esteem.
By 1682 he had been able to install at least ten of his connexions in subordinate posts in the Household, besides those in the Pay Office. His works of charity were particularly notable. He built almshouses and rebuilt the parish church at Farley, and to him should be assigned most of the credit for the founding of Chelsea hospital, popularly attributed to the more glamourous figure of Nell Gwyn.7
On the accession of James II the Treasury was taken out of commission and given to Lord Rochester (Laurence Hyde). Fox had acquired his own interest at Salisbury by purchasing the lease of the nearby manor of Pitton and Farley, including his own birthplace, for £5,200, and he was returned for the city at the general election of 1685. A moderately active Member of this Parliament, he was named to seven committees, including those to examine the disbandment accounts, to recommend expunctions from the Journals, to provide carriages for the royal progresses, and to estimate the yield of a tax on new buildings. In the second session he led the revolt of the royal ‘domestics’ against the employment of Roman Catholic officers, but unlike his son he was not dismissed, though when the post of cofferer, which he deeply desired, fell in on the death of Henry Brouncker, the right of reversion which he had acquired from the previous King was not honoured. On the other hand he returned to the Treasury in January 1687 on the fall of Sunderland, and in June 1688 he was recommended for retention on the Wiltshire bench. At the Revolution he lost office for a time, but was restored to the Treasury in 1690 when King William found that he ‘must employ such as would advance money’. His political conduct in the succeeding reigns has been described as ‘habitually discreet’; he usually supported the government of the day, but abstained from controversial divisions. He died on 28 Oct. 1716, worth over £174,000, and was buried at Farley. He had survived all his numerous first family, but his two sons by his second wife had long and successful careers in both Houses of Parliament.
Fox’s career was in several respects the most remarkable of his age. In strictly financial terms he had by 1686, when his income can be assessed at £14,186, far outstripped the East India magnate, Sir John Banks. A handful of the aristocracy had larger resources, but his had been acquired within a single lifetime. It is remarkable, therefore, that he lived almost free from envy and with a reputation for integrity that recent research confirms. In this respect the simple Anglican piety of his childhood home stood him in good stead. Dr Clay suggests three factors that enabled him to mix easily with those who started far above him on the social ladder; the schooling of a gentleman, introduction at Court during the most impressionable years of his life, and the familiarity with the Continent acquired during the years of exile. Parliament was far from being the most important institution in his career, and he had no aspirations towards swaying its debates by his oratory, though he could make a serviceable contribution from time to time on supply. As a placeman his record is notable for independence; he defied the Government on three such notable occasions as the impeachments of Clarendon and Danby, and the breach of the Test Act.8
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
This biography is based on C. Clay, Public Finance and Private Wealth.
- 1. G. S. Fox-Strangways, Earl of Ilchester, Life of Henry Fox, 1st Lord Holland, 3-15.
- 2. Salisbury corp. recs. D35, f. 131; Tudor and Stuart Proclamations ed. Steele, i. 405, Mdx. RO, MJP/CP5a; WJP/CP1, 2; P. Thompson, Hist. Boston, 458.
- 3. Clarendon, Rebellion, v. 337-8; S. E. Hoskins, Chas. 11 in the Channel Is. ii. 315.
- 4. Marvell ed. Margoliouth, i. 145.
- 5. CJ, ix. 350; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 290.
- 6. CJ, ix. 629-30; Grey, vii. 317-24; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 517-18, 538.
- 7. Evelyn Diary, iv. 218-19.
- 8. Add. 28875, f. 426; Ellis Corresp. ii. 59.