Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington: a Restoration Politician

Our last Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the IHR was given by Alan Marshall from Bath Spa University, and considered the political role of the important Restoration politician and key member of the CABAL ministry, Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington

This paper dealt with aspects of the political life of Sir Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, who has been frequently criticized as a statesman. It sought to investigate his political objectives, why he was involved in the world of politics and what his political methods were. It also examined how he undertook his form of politics: both at court and in the way he managed his supporters in Parliament. This was through the ideas behind some of the most significant props of his political thought and action: his attitude to power in the Restoration political world and his use of political rhetoric as part of his attitude to Parliament as well as the creation, shaping, and use of a distinctive public identity.

Arlington learnt his political trade by holding high governmental and court office: first as an ambassador in Spain, then as keeper of the privy purse, next as secretary of state in Whitehall, and finally as lord chamberlain from 1674 until his death in July 1685. Given such offices, and the fluid nature of court life, he demonstrated a remarkable degree of success in managing his position in Restoration political life. This was in spite of coming from what was generally considered to be an inopportune background (the younger son of a middling gentleman) and being saddled with a rather timorous disposition. It was argued that Arlington was a ‘politician’, at least in the sense that the Restoration polity understood the meaning of the word, and, unlike many of those who stood out for their ‘political values’ in the reign, and who consequently tended to fall by the wayside as a result, he remained a notable example of the ‘political survivor’ in the era.

Unlike a number of other key figures of the Caroline regime, Arlington has been rather overlooked by subsequent historians. This may in part be because during his own lifetime he was eclipsed by men like the earl of Danby, and by some of his own ‘creatures’, notably Thomas Clifford. He was the subject of a book-length study before the First World War by Violet Barbour, but since then has tended to be dealt with only in passing. Even Barbour seemed somewhat embarrassed by Arlington’s lack of political principle and Alan’s paper emphasized that above all Arlington was guided by expediency. In many ways this helps explain his longevity at Charles II’s court as it was a mode of operation that tuned in well with the king’s own way of behaving.

Courtliness could be both an important advantage and a problem for Arlington. When he was summoned before the House of Commons threatened with impeachment, his demeanour and careful rhetoric helped win over a potentially hostile assembly. However, when he tried the same tactic with William of Orange when sent on a diplomatic mission to the United Provinces, he failed significantly.

Alan’s paper emphasized the richness of Arlington’s character and above all the skill with which he managed the tricky by-ways of Restoration politics. Unlike many of his peers, he was still in office when he died. If Arlington has always prompted as many questions as answers, it is plain that he is a character well worth re-appraising.


Further Reading

Violet Barbour, Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, secretary of state to Charles II (1913)


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