, first earl of Rochester (bap.
, was the second son of , and Frances, née
Aylesbury (16171667), his second wife. He was born in England and baptized at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 15 March 1642, but spent much of the interregnum in exile with his family on the continent. When they returned at the Restoration Laurence, though he was only eighteen, became a member of the Convention at a by-election held in August 1660 for the borough of Newport in Cornwall. In April 1661, still under age, he was elected for the University of Oxford, from which he had received an MA the preceding February, and of which his father was chancellor and then in the heighth of his power (An Essay
, 4). In October 1661 he went with William Crofts and Sir Charles Berkeley to France to congratulate Louis XIV on the birth of the dauphin. The following May by the interest of his father [he] was made Master of the Robes to his Majesty, in whose Favour he daily improved (ibid., 4). He held the office until 1678, when he sold it to Sidney Godolphin. While he held it he was thought the smoothest man in the court (Bishop Burnet's History
, 1.474). Hyde married in 1665, before 14 June, Lady Henrietta Boyle (1645/61687), a younger daughter of , and his wife, Elizabeth Clifford, Baroness Clifford. Their only son, Henry, was to succeed both his father as earl of Rochester and his uncle as earl of Clarendon. Of their four daughters Anne was the first wife of James Butler, second duke of Ormond; Henrietta married James Scott, earl of Dalkeith; Mary became the first wife of Francis Seymour, first Lord Conway; and Catherine never married.
When parliament met in Oxford in October 1665 because of the plague in London, Hyde was appointed with three other members to give the thanks of the House of Commons to the university for its loyalty during the civil wars. Along with his brother Henry Hyde he defended their father when he was impeached in 1667, making a speech in the Commons which impressed another member with its greatness and worthiness enough to compare Hyde with Brutus. In it he assured the house that if he shall be found guilty no man shall appear more against him than I; if not, I hope everyone will be for him as much as I (HoP, Commons, 166090
, 2.629). Reflecting on the episode later, in some Meditations composed on 9 December 1675, the first anniversary of Clarendon's death, he confessed that he was too earnest and overweening in my own thoughts, in persuading him to provide for the security of his person, by going out of England and thought himself in the wrong for advising his going away (Singer, 1.64550). In Hyde's view it would have been better if Clarendon had stayed and faced his accusers, for then his innocence of their charges would have been proved. He noted that he had only seen his father twice between his exile and his death. The second of these visits was apparently to Moulins in June 1672 when he helped Clarendon with his critique of Hobbes's Leviathan
Hyde was chosen by Charles II to go as his ambassador-extraordinary to the king of Poland, John Sobieski, in June 1676. His credentials were to compliment the king on his accession and to take presents to his daughter Teresa, to whom Charles had stood as godfather by proxy. Hyde arrived on 11 August in Danzig, where he was received by the queen and presented the princess with her gifts. He then went from Danzig to Leopol in Russia where John Sobieski was based, fighting the Turks. Unfortunately when he got there the king had left the town for the camp some distance away. Hyde kept a diary of his embassy, which records his growing impatience at not being able to gain access to the king. At one stage he was so frustrated that he sent a Scot with a trumpeter to the king's camp. Much to Hyde's distress the party was set upon by Tartars, and the Scottish messenger was killed. Hyde passed the time visiting churches of various denominations, and a synagogue. He also discussed the merits of protestantism and Catholicism with Polish ministers. When one claimed to have been converted from protestantism to Catholicism because protestants were divided on the topics of predestination and the eucharist, Hyde:
told him I wished he could understand English, that I might give him a book (I meant Chillingworth) where he would see a man of our Church, of great learning and piety, of no interest nor passion, to have changed three times, and giving the reasons every time for so doing. (Singer, 1.597)
His acquaintance with such disputes was to stand him in good stead when James II tried to convert him to Catholicism. His ecumenical activities during his embassy included interceding with John Sobieski, on Charles's instructions, on behalf of Polish protestants (when he finally reached the Polish king in October). Subsequently a peace was negotiated between Poland and the Turks in which, according to Robert South, who accompanied Hyde as his chaplain, he had no small share of the management (South, 23).
Eventually, in November, Hyde left on the second stage of his mission, which was to condole with the Emperor upon the late Empress's death … but upon his coming from thence to Vienna found the Emperor married and so passed privately home and arrived at Nimeguen (Temple, 241). He then proceeded to Rotterdam where he found a commission from England appointing him as one of the mediators at the peace conference being held in Nijmegen. Not knowing whether to continue his journey home or to stay in the Netherlands, at The Hague he consulted Sir William Temple, who saw that the commission was intended:
to introduce him into those kinds of characters and employments; and so advised him to go back to Nijmegen, which he did, and made a part of the Ambassy during a short stay there, but excused himself from entering into the management of any conferences or dispatches. (ibid., 242)
Hyde stayed at the conference for two or three weeks and then went to England.
In July 1677 Temple was recalled to London by the king who briefed him on an approach to William of Orange to accept terms of peace. Temple was reluctant to take on the commission, having failed previously to persuade the prince, and, when Charles insisted that he knew nobody who could undertake the task, recommended Hyde. The latter had clearly impressed Temple with his ability on his brief visit earlier in the year, after which they became friends as well as colleagues. Significantly the duke of York was the first to respond positively to Temple's suggestion. Hyde, whose sister Anne was James's first wife, was already firmly in the duke's camp, and was to remain his stalwart supporter until the duke tested his loyalty to the limit. Since Temple remained in England until July 1678, Hyde was effectively the English ambassador to the Dutch republic from the summer of 1677 to that of 1678. His initial attempt to persuade William to accept the proposed peace terms was abortive, for instead of accepting them the prince went himself to England to marry James's daughter Mary. As a result of his visit Charles agreed to ally with the Dutch to put pressure on France to make peace. A treaty was sent over to Hyde on 23 December with instructions to urge William to accept it before parliament met on 15 January, so that the king could announce to the houses that according to their desires he has entered into an alliance with the States for the preservation of Flanders (Bodl. Oxf., MS Firth b. 1, p. 13). Hyde thus found himself as an agent of Charles II's tortuous foreign policy at this juncture. The king sought the agreement of his allies and of the Commons for an effort to force Louis XIV to accept his terms for peace, backed up by the threat that, should the French king refuse, England would declare war on France. The Anglo-Dutch treaty required the United Provinces to pressurize their Spanish allies to accept the proposed terms, while England put similar pressure on the French. Hyde, who admitted that he was a novice in these negotiations, allowed William to alter the terms of the treaty so as to relax the intensity of the Dutch pressure on Spain. It even appears that his grasp of Latin, in which language the treaty was drafted, was inadequate for the occasion (certainly when Hyde had been obliged to address John Sobieski in that language his chaplain, South, had translated a speech for him from English into Latin). At all events, when Charles received the draft thus altered in this respect, he expressed his displeasure that Hyde had exceeded his instructions, and returned the treaty for the original terms to be restored. Hyde was mortified, and tried to get the prince to make the required changes. Although the Dutch demurred treating an ally as harshly as the enemy, amendments were made which, while they did not fully restore the original clauses, were acceptable to the king and the committee of the privy council on foreign affairs. Indeed, Sir Joseph Williamson wrote on 22 January 1678 to congratulate Hyde with all my heart your happy winding up so important and so difficult a work (ibid., 107).
In addition to this treaty, Hyde was sent the draft of a defensive alliance between England and the Dutch republic which he was urged to persuade the prince and Pensionary Fagel to accept. This ran into the quagmires of the anarchic constitution of the United Provinces and of Dutch politics. The states of Holland considered it and then referred it to the towns. The fact was that Amsterdam was suspicious of Orangist intentions, especially after the marriage of William and Mary, and sought to make peace with France on much easier terms than those proposed by England. The treaty was thereby delayed until towards the end of February, when the whole diplomatic and military situation was drastically altered in favour of the French by their taking Ghent. All Hyde's diplomacy was thwarted by this development. Although he tried to keep William and Fagel interested in an Anglo-Dutch treaty against France, the anti-Orangist party in the republic proved too strong to resist its demands for peace. While Hyde continued to send letters to Williamson to inform the king and the committee on foreign affairs that a treaty with the Dutch could still be ratified, he also bypassed the privy council by writing to the earl of Danby on 26 February, informing him that the demands for peace were a torrent too great to be opposed (Bodl. Oxf., MS Clarendon 87, fol. 275). Louis XIV encouraged these demands by offering terms in mid-April which had to be accepted by 10 May. The proposals were clearly designed to appeal to the peace party in the United Provinces. Hyde was convinced they would accept. As a critic observed he was so ingenuous as to acquaint the Court that Holland absolutely desired the Peace, even upon the terms proposed by France (An Essay
, 7). When the deadline came the French demanded a response. The states general of the United Provinces accepted the proposals as far as they related to the Dutch republic, but requested an extension of the time so that the allies could consider them. The French refused, upon which the Dutch agreed to sign a separate peace. Charles, furious with the delays, called off the proposed treaty with the Dutch, prorogued parliament until October, and recalled Hyde to England, where he arrived in the middle of June. He was back in the Netherlands before the end of August. According to Temple, who had returned as ambassador to the Dutch republic, Mr Hyde arrived at the Hague from England without the least intimation given me of his journey or his errand (Temple, 3623); its purpose was in fact to try to get the Dutch to repudiate the peace treaty they had signed with France, and to join England in a declaration of war. Temple took Hyde to William immediately to break the news to him, but the prince took it very coldly. When Hyde went out to visit Princess Mary, William vented his exasperation on the English court for blowing so hot and cold. A joint declaration of war with France would have been of great moment before the Dutch made peace. As it comes now it will have no effect at all, he told Temple, tho I would not say so to Mr Hyde (ibid., 365). Consequently Mr Hyde had the mortification to return to England with the entire disappointment of the design upon which he came (ibid., 373).
What little time Hyde could devote to parliamentary affairs in the late 1670s led to his being identified as a courtier. One opposition libel claimed he had received £20,000 in perquisites, while the first earl of Shaftesbury marked him down as thrice vile in his list of MPs, the worst degree of servility to the court in that compilation. Hyde showed that he was loyal to the court when he defended the duke of York against moves to exclude him from the House of Lords. At the general election held in the spring of 1679 he was returned for the borough of Wootton Bassett, the manor of which he had purchased in 1676, allegedly for £36,000. On the fall of Danby the Treasury was put into commission, and Hyde became a commissioner. As a lord of the Treasury, and later lord treasurer, he came to be identified with reforms which have earned for him the reputation of putting the royal finances on a more professional basis. Of his work on the commission, of which he became first lord in November 1679, it was noted that he was always early plodding at the scrutiny of accounts and estimates before the other lords came (HoP, Commons, 166090
, 2.629). With Sidney Godolphin and Robert Spencer, earl of Sunderland, Hyde led the ministry which succeeded the collapse of Temple's privy council scheme in 1680. The three were immortalized as the Chits from a doggerel verse which claimed that, because of their inexperience:
Sunderland, Godolphin, Lory [Hyde's nickname]
will appear such Chits in story,
'Twill turn all Politics to jests. (J. P. Kenyon, Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, 1958, 35n.)
In the previous parliament Hyde had not spoken on the Exclusion Bill
, though he had voted against it, but in 1680 he emerged as one of the leading court speakers, contributing no fewer than fourteen speeches to the debates on exclusion. Thus on 21 October he came out in favour of such limitations as may secure the Protestant religion, and on 11 November urged that exclusion could not be made binding, for there was a loyal party which will never obey, but will think themselves bound by their oaths of allegiance and duty, to pay obedience to the Duke, if ever he should come to be King, which must occasion civil war (An Essay
, 10, 13). On 7 January 1681 the opposition passed a resolution for his removal from the king's service along with four peers, including his brother Henry, the earl of Clarendon. This incident deeply affected him, reducing him to tears. It apparently led him to resolve to lower his profile, for he did not stand for election to the third Exclusion Parliament, and apparently advised its early dissolution. By then he was in a position to assure Charles II that he could manage without parliamentary supply. Although the royal finances were taking a turn for the better largely because of a growth in overseas trade, which boosted the customs, they were also benefiting from Hyde's measures at the Treasury. Severe pruning of expenses had cut expenditure, while efforts to increase revenue, such as abandoning tax farming, were showing dividends. Every little helped, including the subsidy from Louis XIV which was seen by earlier historians as the worst act of his political life (DNB
). Hyde's prudent management of the king's finances presumably account for his being raised to the peerage as Viscount Hyde of Kenilworth in April 1681, and earl of Rochester in November 1682. His favour with Charles led Dryden to praise him in Absalom and Achitophel
as Hushai, the friend of David in distress, whose frugal care supply'd the wanting throne (part 1, lines 88897).
Rochester was even more in the favour of the duke of York, who became a leading force in the government upon his return from Scotland in spring 1682. Together they supervised church appointments through a commission for ecclesiastical promotions, and encouraged the suppression of protestant dissent. Consequently when Charles began to cool towards his brother in the summer of 1684, Rochester's interest at court also went cold. Before that James had been able to protect him from adversaries, who were numerous, for Rochester notoriously made enemies. As the earl of Dartmouth recalled:
I never knew a man that was so soon put into a passion, that was so long before he could bring himself out of it, in which he would say things that were never forgot by any body but himself; therefore he had always more enemies than he thought he had; though he had as many professedly so, as any man of his time. (Bishop Burnet's History, 1.474)
At this time they included the marquess of Halifax, who charged Rochester with peculation in the hearth tax to the tune of £40,000, even accusing him of tearing pages out of the accounts to cover his tracks. In August Rochester was removed from the Treasury commission and kicked upstairs to the post of lord president. Shortly afterwards the duke managed to obtain for him the lord lieutenancy of Ireland but Rochester never went to Dublin and early in 1685 the charges of peculation were being pressed so hard that there were rumours he would be sent to the Tower. Rochester himself meditated on the vanity of human wishes in a memoir written on the anniversary of his daughter's death in January 1686. He recorded how he had then contemplated retirement from public life because of his private affliction, not mentioning the accusations he was then facing. In the midst of his distress came the sudden and unexpected news that Charles II had died. By the favour of the duke of York, now James II, Rochester was:
immediately snatched out of these peaceable and quiet intentions and contemplations, to attend him and his service in the entering on the throne, and quickly after was translated in my own person into a more eminent and splendid station in the world than I had seen before. (Singer, 1.174)
On the accession of James, Rochester became lord treasurer and in June 1685 was made a knight of the Garter. This was the high point of his career. The defeat of the duke of Monmouth's rebellion that summer, however, marked a change in the king's attitude towards the Anglican church, of which Rochester emerged as one of the chief defenders. Rochester dated the withdrawal of the king's favour from the day of Monmouth's execution in July. Convinced that providence was on his side James demanded concessions from Anglicans to his fellow Catholics. Thus he requested parliament's approval of the continuation of commissions he had given to Catholics in the army raised to suppress the rebels. When parliament refused he prorogued it in November. Rochester's reaction to these developments can only be surmised. He was probably not in favour of the commissions to Catholics, since the earl of Sunderland chose this moment to begin his intrigue at court to undermine him. Thereafter Rochester was involved in a rearguard action to forestall his own fall from the king's grace. He apparently cultivated Catharine Sedley, the king's mistress, who was so much in the ascendant early in 1686 that James had her made countess of Dorchester. This did little to endear Rochester to the queen, who was Sunderland's main ally at court. Something of the strain Rochester was undergoing might be detected behind his extraordinary display of public drunkenness in the company of Lord Chancellor Jeffreys in February 1686, when they stripped into their shirts, and had not an accident prevented had gott upon a sign-post to drinke the King's health (The Memoirs of Sir John Reresby
, ed. A. Browning, 2nd edn, ed. M. Geiter and W. A. Speck, 1991, 411). Although Jeffreys was a notorious drunkard, Rochester, albeit a heavy drinker, was not. In the summer of 1686 he joined the commission for ecclesiastical causes, an action later laid against him by his opponents; even his brother Clarendon criticized his membership, and hoped he would not use it to harm the church. His supporters excused it on the grounds that he sought to use his membership to protect the church from greater damage. James then sought to convert Rochester to Catholicism, for which purpose a disputation was held in December between Anglican divines chosen by Rochester and Catholic priests selected by the king. Rochester professed to have been unconvinced by the arguments of the priests. James had tested his loyalty to the limit, and on 4 January 1687 he was dismissed from the treasurership. The king sweetened the pill with a pension of £4000 a year out of the Post Office and grants of land valued at £20,000. Three months later, Rochester lost his wife: Countess Henrietta died on 12 April and was buried four days later in Westminster Abbey.
Although no longer at the centre of public affairs Rochester remained a court politician. Thus that summer he went over to the Netherlands to take care of the king's interests there, and to do him all the service he could that was consistent with his honour and the Protestant Cause (An Essay
, 18). On his return he was made lord lieutenant of Hertfordshire, and in November and December put to the local gentry the three questions drawn up by James to test the attitude of his subjects to his attempt to obtain a parliament willing to repeal the Test Act
and penal laws. Indeed he allegedly put them with some acerbity, which they resented, but if this was the case their resentment does not seem to have been remembered against him after the revolution of 1688: his role in the turbulent events of 16889 was still that of a firm supporter of James II. When James learned of the imminence of a Dutch invasion he hastily abandoned his pro-Catholic and dissenter policies and turned to his former allies the Anglican tories, prominent among whom was Rochester. On his return from Salisbury in November James summoned a meeting of peers to advise him. Among them Rochester took a leading part in advocating the summoning of parliament. James initially took this advice, but then abandoned it in favour of flight to France on 11 December. That very day Rochester, with the bishop of Ely, summoned a meeting of peers to the Guildhall to fill the vacuum left by the king's departure. They hoped to use the provisional government to rally the loyalists behind an attempt to reconcile James and William, but were outmanoeuvred by the prince's supporters, who had no desire for a reconciliation. One sign of this was that Rochester had to yield the chair of their meetings to the marquess of Halifax. Another was the cold reception he received from William when his brother Clarendon took him down to Windsor to meet the prince on 16 December. James's return to London following his apprehension by fishermen in Kent temporarily raised the spirits of the loyalists and dampened those of the Williamites, but the king's second and successful attempt to reach France ended all Rochester's hopes of an accommodation between him and William. Nevertheless Rochester was still prepared to fight a rearguard action, and in the Convention was one of the chief advocates of a regency, which many suspected to be a stalking horse for the return of James.
Rochester is often labelled a high-church tory before the revolution, but his political attitude under Charles II and James II was much more that of a court politician. Tories criticized him for his membership of the commission for ecclesiastical causes, while his browbeating of the Hertfordshire gentry to support repeal of the Test Act
was scarcely a distinguishing mark of toryism. After the revolution, however, he threw in his lot with the tory party. Unlike his brother he took the oaths to the new regime and worked his way back into the favour of the new monarchs, and especially of Mary, whom he came to advise on church matters. In 1692 he was admitted to the privy council. Burnet, who claimed the credit for reconciling Rochester with the queen, asserted that he went into an interest very different from what I believed he would have pursued when he joined with the high-church tories to attack the Williamite bishops (Bishop Burnet's History
, 4.211). After Mary's death he found himself in opposition to the whig government but, again unlike Clarendon, never flirted with Jacobitism. On the contrary, Rochester suggested a form of words which allowed tories to join the associations in support of William at the time of the assassination plot. He also supported the high-church campaign for the recall of convocation in the later 1690s, insisting upon its being elected along with parliament as a condition for taking office as lord lieutenant of Ireland in December 1700. His leading role in the tory ministry which William constructed at that time was seen by one MP as making Lord Rochester now prime minister of state (Diary of Sir Richard Cocks
, 61, 72). His prominence in the ministry made him the target of a hostile pamphlet, The True Patriot Vindicated
(1701). The title was inspired by the dedication to Rochester of sermons by his chaplain, Charles Hickman, which fulsomely praised his devotion to the Church of England, concluding that he had given the world so glorious an example, both of a Patriot
and a Confessor
such as I am sure this Age cannot equal (Hickman, epistle dedicatory). The True Patriot
was a vicious satire, raking up all the charges it could against Rochester going back to Charles II's reign. When it was reprinted after his death in 1711 it prompted a riposte, An Essay towards the Life of Laurence, Earl of Rochester
. The author of this claimed that:
in the latter part of King William's reign he had also the chief direction of Scotch affairs. That Prince had a wonderful esteem for his Lordship, and even courted his friendship, giving him frequent visits at his charming seat in Petersham. (An Essay, 24)
There is no strictly contemporary evidence to support these claims. On the contrary, Rochester advocated foreign policies diametrically opposed to those of the king, which did not endear him to William. Thus he recommended the acceptance of Carlos II's will, which would have given the whole of the Spanish empire to the Bourbon claimant. Such appeasement of Louis XIV led to Rochester's dismissal from the lord lieutenancy on 25 January 1702. When William died and Anne succeeded on 8 March, however, Rochester retained the post since his commission was never superseded (bishop of Clogher to Bishop King, 12 March 1702, TCD, Lyons collection, 888). By then war had broken out, so that advocacy of appeasement was no longer feasible. Rochester did, however, on one of his rare attendances at the cabinet, promote a tory blue water policy against Marlborough's insistence on continental strategy. He had consistently advocated such a policy since 1692, and enshrined it in the preface to the first volume of his father's History of the Rebellion
which he saw through the press in 1702: this Kingdom cannot be useful to the common cause in any other way so much as at sea (p. ix). Rochester developed this argument about strategy to point a finger at Marlborough:
The perpetual jealousy that, some time or other, endeavours may be used by the increase of land forces, to advance another greatness, and another interest, will fix the genius of the nation still to depend on its greatness and its security by sea. (p. x)
He even used his influence with tories in the Commons to oppose a grant to Marlborough of £5000 from the Post Office. Rochester was perhaps relying on his relationship with Queen Anne to influence her counsels, but even though he was the queen's uncle, if there is any truth in Lady Marlborough's story that he had taken the side of his other niece, Mary, against Anne a decade earlierand Sarah's tales lost nothing in the tellingthen her decision to stick by the Marlboroughs had been effectively taken then too. At all events Anne took their side on this occasion, and in February 1703 ordered Rochester to go to Ireland. He preferred to resign the lieutenancy rather than obey.
In opposition Rochester championed high-church causes such as the occasional conformity bills. When the second and third volumes of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion
appeared in 1703 and 1704 he again used the prefaces to develop tory arguments. Thus in the second he posed the rhetorical question what can be the meaning of the several seminaries and as it were universities, set up in various parts of the kingdom … where the youth is bred up in principles directly contrary to monarchical and episcopal government? (pp. vvi). Again, in the third, he warned that there may want the concurrence of a parliament to prevent the return of the same mischievous practices, and to restrain the madness of men of the same principles in this Age, as destroyed the last (p. x). Rochester was singled out in a celebrated pamphlet, The Memorial of the Church of England
(1705), as one of the leading tories whose departures from the ministry had brought the church into danger. Although Anne in her speech from the throne at the opening of parliament in October denounced those who supported its arguments, Rochester defied her by asserting in the Lords, when she was present, that he thought the church was in danger. After a heated debate the upper house passed a resolution that those who held such views were enemies to the queen, the church, and the kingdom. It was because he feared they threatened the church that Rochester opposed both the Regency Bill
and the union with Scotland. In the first parliament of Great Britain following the union Rochester joined in the attacks on the conduct of the Admiralty under Prince George which, though justified, did much to offend the queen. Although there were rumours that he was included in Robert Harley's schemes to replace the whig ministers with tories, this was categorically denied and seems intrinsically unlikely. He did not feature in Harley's original plans which underlay the ministerial revolution of 1710, and to some extent these were blown off course by Rochester's appointment to the lord presidency of the council, since it was a bigger concession to the tories than Harley desired. How he obtained the post remains mysterious, though it does appear to have been Anne's own decision, for in mid-July she sent for him to go to court (Bromley to Grahme, 16 July 1710, Kendal RO, Levens MSS). Quite how he had come back into her favour is unknown. There was no love lost between him and Harley, and it was not until 21 September that he was appointed. In office, however, he displayed responsible statesmanship. Consequently when he died unexpectedly, in London on 2 May 1711, he was sorely missed by the queen and the prime minister. He was buried in Westminster Abbey eight days later.
W. A. Speck