Henry Coventry

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The Honourable Henry Coventry (1619–1686) was an English politician, who was Secretary of State for the Northern Department between 1672 and 1674 and the Southern Department between 1674 and 1680.

Origins and education

Coventry was the third son by the second marriage of Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry to Elizabeth Aldersley; he was the brother of Sir William Coventry, uncle of Sir John Coventry, and brother-in-law of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. He matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford in 1632 aged 14, and graduated the following year. Within a year he was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and he remained one until 1648. He graduated in both arts and law. He may have become Chancellor of the diocese of Llandaff as early as 1638. In 1640, he obtained leave to travel, and was abroad until just before the Restoration. He was thus absent from England during the civil wars.


By 1654, he was a captain in the Dutch army, but in contact with Charles II in his exile. During part his time abroad, he was employed as a royalist agent in Germany and Denmark, in company with Lord Wentworth, until the concert was dissolved by a violent quarrel, leading apparently to a duel. The notices of him at this date are very confused; Henry, his elder brother Francis, and his younger brother William being all attached to the exiled court and all commonly spoken of as Mr. Coventry. Before the Restoration Francis had ceased to take any active part in public affairs, and William had devoted himself more especially to the service of the Duke of York, whose secretary he continued to be while the duke held the office of Lord High Admiral.

In 1660, he returned to England with letters for Presbyterian leaders including Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, who had been married to Henry's sister Margaret. At the same time he enjoyed the patronage of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, and remained a faithful friend of Clarendon to the end.[1] In 1661, Henry became Member of Parliament (MP) for Droitwich. He remained in the service of the crown, and in September 1664 was sent as ambassador to Sweden, where he remained for the next two years, “accustoming himself to the northern ways of entertainment, and this grew upon him with age”. In 1667 he was sent, jointly with Lord Holles, as plenipotentiary to negotiate the treaty of peace with the Dutch, which, after the disgraceful summer, was finally concluded at Breda.

Fall of Clarendon

During the negotiations at Breda, he found time to write a heartfelt letter of condolence to his old friend Lord Clarendon on the death of his wife. Unlike his brother William, Henry opposed Clarendon's impeachment and banishment, and his eloquent speeches in the House of Commons in Clarendon's defence enhanced his reputation. When the King, who was determined that Clarendon must be destroyed, expressed his displeasure at having his known wishes in the matter defied, Henry with his usual frankness replied that if he could not speak his mind in Parliament, he had best not go there at all. it is to the King's credit that, despite their disagreements, he was later willing to raise Henry to high office,

Secretary of State

In 1671 he was again sent on an embassy to Sweden, and in 1672 he was appointed Secretary of State for the Northern Department, transferring to the Southern Department in 1674. In this office he continued till 1680, when his health, which was shattered by frequent attacks of gout, compelled him to retire from public life.[2] He was a capable administrator, who built up an efficient intelligence service: even the most minor complaints against the Crown, such as the "curse on the King for his bad example to other husbands", made by the wife of the town gaoler in Newcastle upon Tyne, came to his attention.

Popish Plot

During the Popish Plot, while his colleague Williamson's nerve cracked under the strain, Coventry generally maintained his composure, although he was concerned at the public hysteria: "the nation and the city are in as great a consternation as can be imagined."[3] His cynical, sceptical nature, not unlike Charles II's, disinclined him to believe in the Plot, and he was particularly wary of the notorious informer William Bedloe. He was one of the first to warn that any attempt to exclude the Duke of York from the succession might lead to civil war: "if that Prince go into another place, it must cost you a standing army to bring him back."[4]

His loyalty as a friend is demonstrated by his attitude to Clarendon: Coventry cancelled the harsh prohibition on visits by his children to Clarendon in his French exile, and may have been working towards Clarendon's eventual return from exile when the old man died in 1674. It was Coventry who organised Clarendon's unofficial funeral in Westminster Abbey.[5]


According to Gilbert Burnet, "he was a man of wit and heat, of spirit and candour. He never gave bad advices; but when the king followed the ill advices which others gave, he thought himself bound to excuse if not to justify them. For this the Duke of York commended him much. He said in that he was a pattern to all good subjects, since he defended all the king's counsels in public, even when he had blamed them most in private with the king himself." He had "an unclouded reputation" for honesty: it is to his credit that after holding public office for nearly twenty years he had not accumulated any large fortune; and though no doubt in easy circumstances, he wrote of himself as feeling straitened by the loss of his official salary on 31 December 1680. He died in London on 7 December 1686. He was never married. Writing to Sir Robert Carr on 12 September 1676, and regretting his inability to fulfil some promise relative to a vacant post, he said: "Promises are like marriages; what we tie with our tongues we cannot untie with our teeth. I have been discreet enough as to the last, but frequently a fool as to the first." Clarendon, grateful for Henry's loyalty to him at the lowest point of his career, called him "a much wiser man" than his brother William, whom Clarendon never forgave for what he saw as William's betrayal of him in 1667.


  1. Ollard, Richard Clarendon and his Friends Macmillans 1987 p.235
  2. Kenyon, J.P. Robert Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland Longmans Green and Co. 1958 p. 23
  3. Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press Reissue 2000 p.155
  4. Kenyon p.105
  5. Ollard p.346
  • Stuart Handley, ‘Coventry, Henry (1617/18–1686)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, January 2008 [1], accessed 4 January 2009.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain[https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FCoventry%2C_Henry_%281619-1686%29_%28DNB00%29 "Coventry, Henry (1619-1686)" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Parliament of England
Preceded by
Thomas Coventry
Samuel Sandys
Member of Parliament for Droitwich
with Samuel Sandys 1661-1681
Samuel Sandys 1681-1685

Succeeded by
Thomas Windsor
Samuel Sandys
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
British ambassador to Sweden
Succeeded by
Preceded by
British ambassador to Sweden
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Sir John Trevor
Secretary of State for the Northern Department
Succeeded by
Sir Joseph Williamson
Preceded by
Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington
Secretary of State for the Southern Department
Succeeded by
Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland