ASHLEY, Anthony, Lord Ashley (1671-1713), of Wimborne St. Giles, Dorset

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



21 May 1695 - 1698

Family and Education

b. 26 Feb. 1671, 1st s. of Anthony Ashley Cooper†, 2nd Earl of Shaftesbury, by Lady Dorothy, da. of John Manners†, 8th Earl of Rutland; bro. of Hon. Maurice Ashley*.  educ. privately (Elizabeth Birch) 1675–9; Clapham sch. 1680; Winchester 1683–6; travelled abroad (France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland) 1686–9.  m. 29 Aug. 1709 (with £3,000), Jane (d. 1721), da. of Thomas Ewer of Bushey Hall and the Leas, Watford, Herts., 1s.  suc. fa. as 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury 2 Nov. 1699.

Offices Held

V.-adm. Dorset 1701–2.


Ashley was placed under the guardianship of his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper†) in whose London house he was born, and hence at an early age came under the influence of the latter’s close friend and secretary John Locke, the philosopher. Locke chose Ashley’s first governess, the daughter of the prominent Nonconformist minister Samuel Birch, and on the death of her father in 1679, he appears to have followed her to a school in Clapham. He was then sent to Winchester where he suffered from the taunts of his schoolfellows on account of the first Earl’s politics. In 1686 he started a European tour in the company of his tutor Daniel Denoue and Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt.*, who became his lifelong friend. At least one permanent strand in his political thinking, hatred of France, was already clearly developed by this time, when in a letter to his father in May 1689, while on his return to England, he rejoiced in ‘our late purge from those promoters of the interest that was to have enslaved us to the horridest of all religions and to the service of the usurpations and treacheries of that neighbouring crown that has aimed so long at the subjection of all Europe’. He refused offers to stand for Weymouth and for various Wiltshire boroughs in the 1690 election, explaining to Sir John Morton*, who had invited him to stand for Weymouth, that he as yet lacked the sufficient skills for political office and would gain ‘greater experience by still looking on’. Indeed, he even journeyed to Wiltshire ‘to prevent some gentlemen who were about to have promoted my interest there’, arguing that the local gentry did not know him well enough.1

Ashley spent the next few years in study, and was also occupied with the family’s estates and its interests in the Carolinas, where the 1st Earl had been a lord proprietor. It seems that Ashley inherited the proprietorship from his grandfather and was actively involved in meetings concerning the governance of the colony. However, he declined to become governor when the post was offered to him in 1695, and his inherited proprietorship was taken over by his brother, Maurice. During these years he remained on close and friendly terms with Locke, and he continued Locke’s pension of £100 p.a. initiated by his grandfather. Looking back on the early 1690s he viewed ‘two parties equally pretending service to the crown and government and equal merit in the Revolution’. However, the corrupt proceedings of Henry Guy*, Speaker Trevor and the Duke of Leeds (Sir Thomas Osborne†) convinced him of the merits of the Whigs. Two months after Trevor’s expulsion 1695 Ashley entered the Commons for Poole on his family’s interest at a by-election following the death of Sir John Trenchard. He was returned again at the general election held shortly afterwards.2

Ashley has been seen as ‘that archetypal country Whig’, and his short career in the Commons bears testimony to this interpretation. On 26 Nov. 1695 he made his maiden speech on the Country Whig bill to reform treason trials, when he was so overcome by nerves he broke down. The House, after giving him time to recover, urged him to continue, whereupon he said:

If I, Sir, who rise only to speak my opinion on the bill now depending, am so confounded that I am unable to express the least of what I proposed to say, what must the condition of that man be who is pleading for his life, without assistance and under apprehension of being deprived of it?

Whether a premeditated oratorical device or not, this made a considerable impression upon the House. He was forecast as doubtful for the divisions of 31 Jan. 1696 over the proposed council of trade, he voted against the resolution barring Members of Parliament from being appointed to the new council, which the government favoured as a wrecking amendment, but he did support the Court motion for an abjuration oath for those chosen, an example of his willingness to take an independent line on matters, as one later encomium put it, ‘when he apprehended it might in any way be beneficial to his country’. A document entitled ‘some amendments proposed by Lord Ashley’ in the papers of Sir William Williams demonstrates his role in supporting the Welshman’s parliamentary qualifications bill, particularly in stipulating that the property qualification relate to real estate and that residency in a county, or near to a borough, also be a prerequisite for membership of the Commons. Commenting on legislative proposals was a regular activity as he seems to have done the same with Locke’s ideas on the recoinage and on the Licensing Act. However, his espousal of ‘Country’ measures drew the wrath of the Court, as he wrote to Thomas Stringer on 15 Feb. 1696:

You could, I believe, scarcely imagine with yourself . . . who they are that are condemned for flying in the face of government as they call it, by being for such things as these are, and pressing such hard things on the prerogative or court. In short, you would hardly believe that your poor friend that now writes to you has sentence (and bitter sentence too) every day pressing upon him for going, as you may be sure he goes, and ever will go, on such occasions as these, whatever party it be that is in or out at Court, that is in possession of the places, and afraid of losing their daily bread by not being servile enough, or that are out of places, and think, by crossing the Court and siding with good and popular things against it, to get into those places of profit and management.

He was listed as voting against the Court on fixing the price of guineas at 22s., but this was challenged by another writer. He had, of course, signed the Association.3

In the next session Ashley continued his independent line by voting on 26 Jan. 1697 in favour of tacking Williams’ qualification bill, which had been rejected by the Lords, to the capitation bill. He received leave of absence for a week on 22 Feb. James Vernon I* summed up the Court’s attitude to his behaviour when he wrote to Shrewsbury on 17 Feb. 1698: ‘I know not what my Lord Ashley’s party is, or how far they have authorized him to make any proposals in their names, but I see there is but one sort of men the King can with safety depend upon, and many factions and interests are concurring to divide and pull them to pieces.’ Unsurprisingly, he was classed as a member of the Country party in an analysis of about September 1698. Looking back on his time in the Commons, as recounted by his own son, Ashley explained his aims:

the independent manner of acting my father observed himself he strove to increase in others . . . as he was sensible that independency is the essence of freedom. Several gentlemen in the House . . . formed a little society by the name of the Independent Club of which he was a member and had the chief hand in setting up (or in projecting) but this club was [of] no long duration.

However, by April 1698 his disillusionment was palpable as he wrote to Locke: ‘I think it would have been altogether as well for my country and mankind, if I had done nothing, so fruitless have my endeavours been, and so little profit arisen from these years I have entirely given from myself to the public.’ Even worse, his doctor later attributed his asthma to this period in the Commons: ‘when in that House, he constantly attended the service of the House by day, and was late at night at the committees in a close room, with a crowd of people, where he was often carried into an eagerness of dispute, he contracted such a weakness of lungs, as to bring on a convulsive asthma’. Poor health gave him the ideal excuse to refuse to stand at the 1698 election. Indeed, following the death of his mother in June 1698, Ashley left for Holland, spending most of his time in Rotterdam with his friend Benjamin Furly, a Quaker merchant, and only returning to England in the following May. He re-entered Parliament as a peer, having succeeded his father in November 1699. Henceforth Shaftesbury’s role was confined to the Lords, to electioneering in Wiltshire and Dorset, and, of course, to the publication of tracts dealing with political themes. He died at Naples from the effects of his asthma on 4 Feb. 1713, and his embalmed body was returned for burial in St. Giles’s church, where an inscription was set up to his memory.4

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Paula Watson / Henry Lancaster


Unless otherwise stated this biography is based on R. Voitle, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and B. Rand, Shaftesbury Letters.

  • 1. PRO 30/24/22/2/108–9.
  • 2. A. Salley, Narratives of Early Carolina, 296, 307; L. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, 131.
  • 3. Party and Management ed. C. Jones, 44; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 966; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 165, 189; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 11 Feb. 1696; NLW, Canon Trevor Owen mss 202; Klein, 136.
  • 4. VernonShrewsbury Letters, i. 189; ii. 15; PRO 30/24/21/222; Locke Corresp. vi. 369–70.