CROFT, Sir Herbert, 1st Bt. (c.1652-1720), of Croft Castle, Herefs.
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Family and Education
b. c.1652, o. s. of Herbert Croft, DD, bp. of Hereford, by Anne, da. of Jonathan Browne, dean of Hereford. educ. Magdalen Coll. Oxf. matric. 27 Apr. 1668, aged 16; M. Temple 1668. m. c.Oct. 1675, Elizabeth (d. 1709), da. of Thomas Archer† of Umberslade Hall, Tamworth, Warws., sis. of Andrew Archer*, 6s. (4 d.v.p.) 3da. cr. Bt. 18 Nov. 1671; suc. fa. 1691.1
Commr. recusants, Herefs. 1675; sheriff, Herefs. Nov. 1682; high steward, Leominster 1696–d.2
Croft’s brand of moderate Whiggism, and his equivocal relationship with the Harleys in Herefordshire, may be explained at least in part by his immediate family background as the son of a Latitudinarian bishop. A convert from Catholicism, Bishop Croft had become by the 1670s a hammerer of popery in his diocese, and a controversial advocate in print of the comprehension of Protestant Nonconformists within the Church of England. Then under James II he accepted the Declaration of Indulgence. His son was returned to the first Exclusion Parliament as a supporter of the Country party, but appears thereafter to have abated the vigour of his opposition to the Court, except when he was questioned on the repeal of the Penal Laws and Test Act, which, unlike his father, he was not prepared to countenance. He quickly accommodated himself to the Revolution, subscribing the loan to the Prince of Orange in December 1688, and promoting a loyal address from Herefordshire the following summer. But when he contested the county in 1690 against the veteran Whig Sir Edward Harley* he did so on the basis of opposing a Presbyterian interest. ‘Sir Herbert Croft and others’, reported Harley’s son, ‘say that Sir Edward Harley is very worthy, but not for the Church.’ His candidature was viewed by the Harleys and their friends as a betrayal, especially after Sir Edward had gone out of his way to recommend Croft for a militia commission. It was stated on the eve of the poll, with heavy irony, that ‘Sir Herbert is resolved to show how constant he is to his principles of honour and generosity’.3
Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) marked Croft as a Tory and probably as a Court supporter in his analysis of March 1690, and Croft was soon being described as ‘as base as a Tory’ and reported as voting ‘to the height for money’. He figured in another list of supporters drawn up by Carmarthen in December 1690, possibly in connexion with the projected attack on the Marquess in the Commons. However, by April 1691 he could be classed by Robert Harley* as a member of the Country opposition. Together with the majority of the greater gentry of Herefordshire, he warmly urged Sir Edward Harley* to stand for the vacant seat in January 1693, and the following month joined most other Herefordshire Members in voting for the triennial bill. He also adopted a strongly ‘Country’ viewpoint in the debate of 7 Dec. 1693 on the accusations of peculation against Lord Falkland (Anthony Carey*):
I am sorry to find endeavours to lessen the crime of this lord; I am sorry to find it in an English Parliament. Nothing will more corrupt and destroy us, than this of pensions. It is sufficiently made out, that this money was paid as a pension or gratuity. But I insist upon that offence, that when you had a man before you, after that to withdraw the letter, or stifle your proceeding, you cannot be too severe upon him; and I join in the motion for committing him to the Tower.
Not long afterwards a recurrence of the ill-health which in April 1691 had obliged him to resort to the waters at Tunbridge Wells, had laid him once more ‘at death’s door’. He was still ‘very weak’ in March 1694; during the summer he talked of ‘laying down’ his militia commission; and did not get up to Parliament for the beginning of the next session when, significantly perhaps, it was Robert Harley whom he asked to make his excuses at a call. In reply Harley wrote, ‘I hope we shall enjoy the benefit of your assistance against these exorbitant excises and funds, which will quickly destroy all the landed men of England.’ This appeal to Croft’s interests and instincts as a country gentleman had to compete against party loyalty. According to Grascome’s list Croft could already be reckoned a supporter of the ‘new Whig’ ministry. When he did come up to Westminster his major contribution in the House was in the proceedings over the various bribery scandals and the attempt to impeach Carmarthen, now Duke of Leeds. Elected on 23 Apr. 1695 to the secret committee to examine Sir Thomas Cooke*, Croft was appointed four days later to prepare the articles of impeachment against the Duke, and subsequently chaired the committee on the bill for the imprisonment of Cooke, Sir Basil Firebrace* and others.4
Returned again with Sir Edward Harley in 1695, Croft was classed as likely to support the Court in a forecast for the division on the proposed council of trade on 31 Jan. 1696, signed the Association promptly and in March voted for fixing the price of guineas at 22s. He retained an interest in the affairs of the East India Company, taking the chair of the committee appointed on 13 Mar. to audit the Company’s accounts. The attainder of Sir John Fenwick† the following November showed him at his most devoutly Whiggish. On 17 Nov., at the committal of the bill of attainder, he spoke ‘very zealously’ against Fenwick and the ‘plot’ that had been ‘laid for the total subversion of our constitution’. On 25 Nov. he was even more forthright. His conscience, he announced, told him to vote for the bill: ‘if there be no such rule that requires two witnesses . . . if I may go upon one witness; if I believe he speaks true, and that the person is guilty; then I am bound to act for the preservation of the nation, and our posterity’. As to the arguments in favour of requiring two witnesses, he took his stand on the supremacy of statute and the right of Parliament to hold itself unbound by precedent: he would not ‘subject the freedom of Parliaments’ to ‘the rules of inferior courts’. This speech was taken up by the Tory Lord Norreys (Montagu Venables-Bertie*), who declared that Croft
had given arguments that shook him more than all he had heard before, for he said ‘there were a great many men who, if they might proceed according to their consciences, would subvert this government, and bring in King James and arbitrary power; and that every precedent in this House is equal to a law, and will justify the like for the future’; and therefore his lordship was very unwilling to make a precedent that should justify men in such ill actions, in saying their consciences prompted them to it.
Naturally, Croft voted for the third reading. However, he was able to show some independence of the Court: on 1 Dec. he spoke against Sir Charles Sedley’s* proposal in ways and means for ‘charging the customs’, earning a compliment from John Grobham Howe*, ‘that the landed men were to be trusted, and would never abandon the interest of their country’. On 17 Mar. 1697 Croft reported from the committee to consider the deficiencies of parliamentary funds. His ‘Country’ sympathies were again evident in December 1697, when he was one of several Members ordinarily ‘firm to the government’ who appeared ‘very zealous for the question’ of disbandment, supporting Robert Harley’s motion to reduce the army establishment to the level maintained in 1680. Some clue as to the motivation behind these defections may be found in his involvement with the ‘moral reform’ lobby, understandable in one from a clerical background. But his prime allegiance was still to the ministry, according to the compiler of a comparative analysis of the old and new Commons after the 1698 election.5
Croft did not stand in 1698, nor subsequently. Poor health may have been the cause. In October and December 1700, for example, he reported himself to be ‘wholly incapacitated to ride, either by coach or horse’. For some time he remained on good terms with the Harleys. In October 1698 he sent Robert a proposal of his own for a bill to regulate the ‘affairs of the spiritual administration’, more particularly with regard to bishops’ visitations. At the general election of January 1701 he professed himself ‘entirely’ in agreement with Harley as to the county election, preferring to avoid the entanglements of faction and to leave matters to the decision of ‘the gentlemen’. He was happy with Harley’s election as Speaker of this Parliament and of its successor, writing in January 1702 to congratulate him, and to express the hope that
you will compose that diversity of opinion and party, which hath brought us almost to confusion, and which, if not redressed this session, as we now seem to be the balance of Europe, will as certainly render us the most despicable state therein. That this may prove such a healing session . . . is the devout prayer of . . . [etc.].
Although by the following March he was muttering that Harley and ‘all’ other politicians were ‘courtiers’ – ‘some that would keep and others that would have places’ – and that ‘the country will have few friends’, a disillusionment attributed by one Herefordshire source to Croft’s intention to try for Parliament again, he did not oppose the Harley family directly, either by standing himself or by backing others to stand against them. At the general election of 1702 he joined other Herefordshire Whigs in promoting the third Tory candidate, John Prise*, against the outgoing knights of the shire; while in 1705 he canvassed for the Harleys in Radnorshire but sought to make