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Coventry, Henry (1617/18–1686), politician, was the fourth son of , being the third son born to his second wife, Elizabeth (1583–1653), daughter of John Aldersey, a London merchant, and the widow of William Pichford (d. 1609), a London grocer. Coventry matriculated from Queen's College, Oxford, on 20 April 1632, aged fourteen, and graduated BA in 1633. By 1634 he was a fellow of All Souls; he proceeded MA in 1636 and BCL in 1638. He had been admitted specially to the Inner Temple in October 1633, but his initial career prospects lay in the civil law. His father's influence procured for him the post of chancellor of Llandaff, possibly as early as 1638. Upon his father's death in January 1640 he was given leave in May to travel, initially for three years. He visited France, the Low Countries, and Italy, including a stay in 1643 at the University of Padua. Although he remained a fellow of All Souls until 1648 he did not return to England until shortly before the Restoration in 1660.

By 1654 Coventry was a captain in the Dutch army, but he was also in communication with the court of the exiled Charles II. His absence from England during the civil wars was seen as a particular advantage, the duke of Ormond proposing in February 1655 ‘can any use be made of Mr Henry Coventry, who has no dangerous marks upon him in England’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 3.12). Coventry returned to England in April 1660 in advance of the Restoration with letters for several prominent presbyterian leaders, including Anthony Ashley Cooper, the future earl of Shaftesbury, whose first wife had been Coventry's sister, Margaret (d. 1649). Despite royalist attempts to obtain for him a seat in Cornwall, Coventry was not elected to the Convention in 1660. Following the Restoration he resumed his fellowship at All Souls and in June 1660 he was appointed to local office in Worcestershire. In April 1661 he was returned to parliament for his family's traditional stronghold of Droitwich, taking over a seat from his nephew, Thomas Coventry, and being joined by his younger brother, , MP for Great Yarmouth.

Coventry was an accomplished debater and he was soon being utilized by the earl of Clarendon as a member of his ‘management committee’ (Seaward, 235) of the House of Commons. He began to accrue other honours, being named a groom of the bedchamber in January 1662, and he served as a commissioner of the Irish land settlement in 1662–3. Despite a personal visit to Zeeland in 1663 he was unable to retain his Dutch military commission. In 1664 he was listed as a court dependant and supported the repeal of the Triennial Act. In August 1664 he was appointed ambassador-extraordinary to Sweden, returning home in the summer of 1666. From March to September 1667 he served as a plenipotentiary at the congress of Breda, which concluded the Second Dutch War. In October 1667 he defended Clarendon in the Commons and sought to prevent further proceedings against the fallen minister. His support for redress of grievances over supply in the Commons in 1669 led to reports that Charles II had stripped him of his bedchamber post, but if this was the case he had been restored by February 1670. In August 1671 he embarked on a second stint as envoy-extraordinary to Sweden, successfully persuading that country's government to join an alliance against the Dutch. In July 1672 he succeeded Sir John Trevor as secretary of state for the northern department, not that his appointment prevented the loss of £3000 in the stop of the exchequer. By virtue of this promotion he lost his bedchamber post, but he also became a privy councillor and a commissioner of prizes.

As secretary Coventry played a major role in communicating information from Charles II to the Commons. He also undertook a heavy load in the management of the Commons when it met again in February 1673, for example in defending the king's declaration of indulgence of the previous year. He was well suited to this role, one commentator noting he ‘had the nice step of the house, and withal was wonderfully witty and a man of great veracity’ (R. North, The Lives of … Francis North … Dudley North … John North, ed. A. Jessop, 3 vols., 1890, 1.119). In July 1673 he became an Admiralty commissioner and also a commissioner for Tangier and in September 1674 he transferred to the secretaryship for the southern department. His role as a parliamentary manager increased over time particularly after 1674, and, although he was not close to the lord treasurer, Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, he continued to be a noted leader of the court interest in debate. In February 1677, after Coventry had defended the long prorogation of parliament, Shaftesbury noticed this by marking Coventry as ‘doubly vile’. However, Coventry's reputation as ‘the only honest minister the king had since my Lord Clarendon’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 1.488) shielded him from attack by the whig opposition. In turn he did not exert himself in defence of Danby when the latter faced impeachment in the autumn of 1678. As Coventry himself admitted he was ‘neither of a temper or condition to dissemble’ (Marshall, 69). After initial scepticism concerning the testimony of Titus Oates, Coventry came to the conclusion ‘if he be a liar … he is the greatest and adroitest I ever saw’ (ibid.), and so he became convinced of the veracity of the Popish Plot. His response to the attendant crisis was to be an early and consistent advocate of the alternatives to exclusion proposed by the crown, speaking on 22 November 1678 in favour of a proposal that a popish successor to Charles II be deprived of the right to dispense with the penal laws against Catholics.

By now Coventry was increasingly afflicted with the gout which restricted his appearances in the Commons. Nevertheless he was elected to the first Exclusion Parliament in February 1679, voting against the Exclusion Bill. He was retained in office and on the privy council when Shaftesbury and his followers were admitted to office in April 1679, although he gave up his Admiralty post in May. Re-elected to the second Exclusion Parliament in September 1679, he was laid up with gout for most of the proceedings. In February 1680 Narcissus Luttrell reported that he had been allowed to retire from the secretaryship, selling the office for £6500 to his successor, Sir Leoline Jenkins, who was appointed in April. Coventry was elected for Droitwich for the last time in February 1681, duly attending the Oxford parliament and making a plea for expedients to safeguard the protestant religion, rather than pass another exclusion bill.

Coventry retired from politics, living mainly at his house on the north-east corner of the Haymarket. He died unmarried on 7 December 1686 and was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields. His will made extensive provision for the erection of a workhouse in Droitwich, ‘that the industry of the indigent persons therein placed might make this charity comfortable to themselves and acceptable to God’ (Nash, 1.328). The chief beneficiaries of his estate were two nephews, Francis Coventry, son of his brother Francis, and Henry Frederick Thynne, younger son of his sister Mary.

Stuart Handley

Sources  

E. Rowlands, ‘Coventry, Henry’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90 · P. Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the reconstruction of the old regime, 1661–1667 (1988) · GEC, Peerage · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/385, sig. 160 · Calendar of the Clarendon state papers preserved in the Bodleian Library, ed. O. Ogle and others, 5 vols. (1869–1970) · F. A. Inderwick and R. A. Roberts, eds., A calendar of the Inner Temple records, 2 (1898) · Bishop Burnet's History · CSP dom., 1640–70 · T. Nash, Collections for the history of Worcestershire, 2 vols. (1781), vol. 1, p. 328 · M. Knights, Politics and opinion in crisis, 1678–81 (1994) · A. Marshall, Intelligence and espionage in the reign of Charles II, 1660–1685 (1994) · D. T. Witcombe, Charles II and the cavalier House of Commons, 1663–1674 (1966) · G. M. Bell, A handlist of British diplomatic representatives, 1509–1688, Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks, 16 (1990) · DNB

Archives  

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, letter-book as envoy to the Netherlands · BL, corresp. and papers · Longleat House, Wiltshire |  BL, Add. MSS 25122–25125 · BL, corresp. with Sir R. Bulstrode · BL, corresp. with Francis Parry · NL Ire., corresp. with duke of Ormond · V&A NAL, corresp. with Sidney Godolphin · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to the earl of Carlingford


Likenesses  

M. Beale, portrait, Longleat House, Wiltshire

Wealth at death  

wealthy