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  William Craven (bap. 1608, d. 1697), by Gerrit van Honthorst William Craven (bap. 1608, d. 1697), by Gerrit van Honthorst
Craven, William, earl of Craven (bap. 1608, d. 1697), army officer and royal servant, was baptized on 26 June 1608 at St Andrew Undershaft, London, the eldest son of the London alderman and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1624), daughter of another London alderman, William Whitmore. The elder William Craven, who had been knighted by James I on 26 July 1603 and served as lord mayor in 1610–11, was one of the small élite of great London financiers engaged in the lucrative business of advancing major loans to the crown. He died in 1618, leaving three sons and three daughters, including Mary, who married Thomas Coventry, later second Baron Coventry of Aylesborough, and Elizabeth, who married Percy Herbert, later second Baron Powis. Elizabeth Craven, then one of the richest widows in England, fended off a marriage proposal from Edmund Sheffield, first Baron Sheffield, in 1618, while continuing to invest her late husband's wealth. She advanced loans totalling £4360 to Lionel Cranfield, third earl of Middlesex, and in 1622 purchased Coombe Abbey from Lucy Russell, countess of Bedford, for £36,000.

Craven's mother died in 1624, leaving him in possession of the greatest part of his parents' immense fortune, which was ultimately converted into a landed estate with a rental value in excess of £10,000 per annum, valued at £250,000 shortly after its sequestration in 1652. This made Craven one of the nine wealthiest peers in England and his lands were spread over several counties, including Berkshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Sussex, and Shropshire; he also retained property in London, including East India House.

Education and early career

On 11 July 1623 Craven matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford; he did not graduate with a bachelor's degree, but was created MA on 31 August 1636. He had interrupted his studies to join the army of Maurice of Orange, in which he served with distinction. Upon returning to England he was knighted by Charles I on 4 March 1627 and created Baron Craven of Hampstead Marshall, Berkshire, eight days later, an honour for which he paid £7000. Craven also found himself named to the permanent council of war. In 1629 rumours circulated that he would soon marry Ann Cavendish, daughter of the earl of Devonshire, but in the same year he obtained leave to travel abroad in Italy and France; in November a correspondent of Thomas Hobbes reported that, although the prospective bride was willing enough, ‘because I hear nothing of him [Craven] having been in England this month, I fear his hands are already full’ (Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, 1.7). He had, in fact, gone to the Netherlands, where he fell dangerously ill (SP 84/140/45). Whether for this or some other reason the match fell through, leaving Craven a lifelong bachelor.

During the Christmas season of 1630 Craven spent £3000 freeing poor debtors from London prisons. The following August he was reported to be about to join the army of Gustavus Adolphus when he received ‘a command to the contrary’ (Gawdy MSS, 136) and a commission as an officer of the forces being raised by the marquess of Hamilton to assist in the recovery of the Palatinate. Early in 1632 he accompanied the elector palatine, Prince Frederick, as he led the English recruits from The Hague into Germany, where they linked up with the Swedes at Frankfurt am Main on 10 February. Craven witnessed Frederick's interview with the Swedish king at Höchst the following day and was wounded during the taking of Kruznach on 22 February, while fighting with a courage that led Gustavus to remark that he ‘adventured so desperately, he bid his younger brother fair play for his estate’ (DNB). Craven's offer to raise an independent force to complete the conquest of the Palatinate was, however, refused by the Swedish monarch. This campaign marked the beginning of a lifetime of devoted service to the family of the elector palatine and his wife, Elizabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of James I.

Craven returned to England by 31 August 1633, when he was named to the council in the marches of Wales. He was one of seven lords deputed to carry the canopy during the baptism of James, duke of York, during the following November. But although he had withdrawn from active campaigning, he remained a staunch supporter of the palatine's cause. In May 1633 he had engaged himself to provide security for a loan of £31,000 that Elizabeth's agent, Sir Francis Nethersole, sought to raise from two London merchants. The transaction collapsed when the lord treasurer, Portland, who disliked English involvement in the German war, persuaded Charles I to forbid it. The following March Craven's record of support for the cause of German protestantism led to his selection as one of four individuals who rode in the coach with Henrik Oxenstierne, son of the famous Swedish chancellor Axel Oxenstierne, to his first audience with the king on an embassy seeking greater English involvement in the Thirty Years' War.

Charles briefly became more receptive to schemes for military action against the Habsburgs in the autumn of 1636, after the collapse of negotiations by the earl of Arundel to secure a peaceful restoration of the Palatinate from Emperor Ferdinand II. Craven again stepped forward by offering to contribute as much as £30,000 to a plan to outfit a fleet of ships lent by the Royal Navy using contributions from English noblemen that would be placed under the command of the Elector Charles Lewis, who had succeeded his father in 1632, for use against Spanish commerce. Although this scheme briefly appeared ready to come to fruition early in the new year it soon collapsed because, as Sir Thomas Wentworth reported in March, ‘the backwardness of everybody else in following this example [by Craven] hath quite dashed his designs’ (Wentworth Woodhouse MSS, Sheffield Archives, StrP9, 421). Ralph Verney, more caustically, remarked that Craven's munificence had succeeded only in making him ‘the subject of every man's discourse’ for ‘prodigality’ and ‘folly’ (DNB).

Undeterred by these setbacks, Craven joined Charles Lewis and his brother, Prince Rupert, in June 1637 in command of a troop that landed in the Netherlands and marched up the Rhine to join a small army at Wesel. However, this combined force of about 4000 men was soon surprised and overwhelmed by the imperial general Hazfield as it attempted to reach the main Swedish army. Craven reportedly saved Rupert's life in this action, when both were taken prisoner. Although at first refusing to ransom himself so as to remain near the prince, Craven finally purchased his freedom in 1639, reportedly for £20,000, after consistently being denied access to Rupert. He returned to the court in London, where Charles Lewis was once more engaged in futile efforts to enlist military support from his British royal cousin. Toward the end of summer the prince gave up and abruptly left London, accompanied only by ‘four or five confidantes, whereof one was the Lord Craven, the constant follower of his fortunes’ (Finet, 263). The intention of travelling incognito to France was thwarted when a very large Spanish fleet was sighted as the electoral party neared the Downs and Charles Lewis, in his eagerness to see it, boarded the admiral of the English navy. This action elicited a salute, promptly answered by the Dutch fleet, which had moved into English waters to encounter its enemy, and the Spanish ships. Despite the unwelcome publicity the elector and his entourage continued on to Dover and the continent. Craven was at The Hague with Elizabeth in January 1640 and was presumably still abroad in April, when the king excused his absence from the Short Parliament.

The civil-war period and sequestration

Although Craven evidently returned to London shortly thereafter, he left again for the continent before the outbreak of the civil war, probably in February 1642, as he later claimed. He spent most of the next eighteen years with Elizabeth at The Hague, reportedly supporting her financially once she stopped receiving her pension of £10,000 a year from the English crown. He developed a particular friendship for Elizabeth's daughter Sophie, attempting to promote her marriage to Prince Charles and taking charge of the arrangements for her removal from The Hague in 1650.

Although he took no direct part in the civil war, Craven had royalist sympathies and he remained in contact with leading politicians and officers of Charles's party. On the eve of the regicide he wrote to Prince Rupert that he feared the king's fate was sealed, ‘considering what persons now rule the roost’ but hoped that ‘yet God perchance may direct you and do that which we do not deserve and make us happy in the re-establishment of the King and his’ (Hodgkin MSS, 107, 110). A few years later Charles II used Sophie as an intermediary to extract financial assistance from Craven, who ended up contributing £50,000 to the exiled monarchy and its supporters during the interregnum. Not surprisingly, this involvement with leading royalists and financial assistance to the Stuarts provoked retaliation by the Commonwealth against Craven's English properties. Some of his horses had been seized and one of his servants imprisoned by local parliamentarian troops as early as 1648. In 1650 Major Richard Falconer informed the council of state that Craven had presented a petition by several officers to Charles II, asking him to accept their services against parliament. The case was referred to the committee for compounding on 6 February 1651, when two additional witnesses testified that Craven had performed various services for the exiled king at Breda, including arranging for the care of an illegitimate daughter, though they did not specifically corroborate Falconer's testimony. A week later the county committees of Warwickshire, Shropshire, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Middlesex, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire and the authorities in London were ordered to seize his estates, although it was not until 4 March that the committee for compounding asked the council of state whether Craven's conduct actually provided legal grounds for sequestration. On 6 March parliament voted him an offender and ordered the confiscation of his properties.

The Commonwealth government, no doubt with an eye to the contribution Craven's vast wealth could make to alleviating its own financial problems, moved energetically to have the order executed. The committee for compounding proceeded within weeks to obtain accurate valuations of various clusters of manors, but nevertheless received a letter on 30 April chiding it for dilatoriness and directing it to speed up the sequestration as a matter ‘of extraordinary use and concernment to the exigencies of the State’ (Green, 438). A postscript in the hand of President Bradshaw further enjoined that the committee's agents use ‘speed and privacy till the work be done’ (ibid.). Over the next year agents appointed by various county committees proceeded, under the watchful eye of the London authorities, to survey Craven's properties and oversee the felling of standing timber on several of them.

By early summer 1652 a decision was reached to sell Craven's estate to raise money for the Commonwealth's fleet in the impending war with the Netherlands. Craven's agents fiercely contested this plan but on 4 August parliament approved a bill authorizing the sale by the narrow margin of twenty-three to twenty. The same day a commission was appointed to dispose of his properties. Unlike most royalists who had suffered similar confiscations, Craven did not attempt to repurchase his lands but instead continued to lobby to have the sequestration reversed. He had begun his campaign in June 1651 by trying to persuade parliament to reverse the vote declaring him an offender, on the grounds that it had been taken before formal charges had been drawn up, giving him no chance to mount a defence. But this and all subsequent efforts failed, even though Falconer's testimony was eventually discredited and despite the Dutch government's intercession on his behalf, after prompting by Elizabeth and Charles Lewis. In 1654 Craven's agents produced The Lord Craven's Case Briefly Stated in an effort to publicize his cause. In this he claimed always to have been defeated by narrow votes after influential figures who hoped to purchase his lands intervened against him. Although Cromwell reopened the case the properties were not restored until 1660, when a series of orders passed between March and June 1660 finally reversed the sequestration. By then the estate had undoubtedly suffered considerable damage, as indicated by John Evelyn's remark in June 1654 that he had seen Craven's house at Caversham in ruins while the nearby woods were being felled.

Craven during the Restoration

Craven soon recovered sufficiently, however, to engage in new building projects. He retained the services of Sir Balthazar Gerbier, the former architect and purchasing agent of the first duke of Buckingham, to design a new house at Hampstead Marshall, Berkshire. When Gerbier died during construction Craven switched his patronage to the much younger William Winde, who in 1682 also designed a new wing for Craven's mansion at Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire, which incorporated a superb plaster ceiling in the hall by Edward Gouge.

Meanwhile Craven continued his generosity to Elizabeth of Bohemia and her children. In 1661, after Charles II ungraciously failed to provide Elizabeth with a London residence, Craven invited her to move into his house in Drury Lane, where she lived until a few weeks before her death on 23 February 1662. He acted as the informal head of her household, escorted her to the theatre, and spent so much time in her company that he was rumoured to have secretly become her husband. During Elizabeth's funeral in Westminster Abbey he was one of the heralds who bore her crown. Her will left him her papers and collection of Stuart and palatine family portraits, which he installed in Coombe Abbey, where she had once lived when a child. Craven also remained close to Rupert and was named executor of his will in 1682. He continued to correspond with Sophie, sometimes acting as an intermediary on her behalf at the English court, for example by being entrusted in January 1666 with a memorandum concerning the proposed marriage of her daughter, the Princess Elizabeth Charlotte. In addition to political affairs he advised Sophie on paintings, including a series she wished to commission commemorating the life of her brother Rupert, in which she assured Craven that his own exploits would be represented.

During the same period Craven assumed numerous duties under the restored monarchy. His military background and political loyalty won him a series of commissions, as colonel of a regiment of foot (1 September 1662), lieutenant-general in the king's army (1667), and from 1670 commander of the Coldstream Guards. In January of the same year he was also appointed to succeed George Monck, duke of Albemarle, as lord lieutenant of Middlesex, having already been named a justice of the peace for the county. Through these various appointments Craven became closely involved in the policing of the Stuart metropolis. He played an energetic role in supervising the shutting up of infected houses and burial of victims during the great plague of 1665 and drew up notes on measures to prevent future outbreaks. He helped supervise a contingent of sailors sent to fight the fire of London and was one of four commissioners of streets and highways involved in appointing a master paviour for the capital in 1667. In March the following year Pepys went to Lincoln's Inn Fields in hope of witnessing apprentice riots that had just broken out in the western suburbs but instead found ‘the fields full of soldiers … and my Lord Craven commanding them, and riding up and down to give orders, like a madman’ (Pepys, 9.129). During 1670 Craven worked closely with the lord mayor and the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Robinson, to co-ordinate the troops around London during a period of renewed anxiety about apprentice riots and possible risings by disaffected religious minorities. The following September he was given military command of the capital during a temporary absence of the king. He was also named to a commission to assist the duke of York in ordering the army after Albemarle's death.

On 16 March 1665 Craven had been elevated to the title of Viscount Craven of Uffington, Berkshire, and earl of Craven, Yorkshire. The next year he was named to the privy council and in 1667 he was rumoured to be about to succeed Sir George Carteret as treasurer of the navy. Although this appointment never materialized he did receive a number of other administrative and honorific posts, including high steward of Cambridge University (1667) and master of Trinity House (1670). He was in addition named a proprietor of Carolina (1663), a governor of the Hudson's Bay Company (1670), and a commissioner for Tangier (1673). His interest in commercial ventures and overseas expansion is indicated by his efforts, in partnership with Rupert and Albemarle, to promote the 1668 expedition to seek a north-west passage to the Pacific, after encouraging reports had been received from French explorers in the region of the Great Lakes. His role in colonial projects, especially the Carolinas, brought him into partnership with the future whig leader Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, and his secretary, John Locke.

Despite his personal loyalty and devotion to duty, Craven does not seem to have impressed contemporaries as a man of great stature. Pepys, who regarded him as a patron, nevertheless recorded several distinctly unflattering vignettes of Craven in his Diary, presiding over ‘very confused and very ridiculous’ committee discussions, diverting his colleagues with bawdy analogies during deliberations over colonial policies and engaging in ‘silly talk’ with the duke of Albemarle (Pepys, 5.299; 6.264). Members of the electoral family also expressed reservations about their devoted servant. When he failed to persuade Charles II to invite Elizabeth to return to London in 1661, Rupert told a correspondent that ‘Craven hath not done very well in my mother's business and my brother's; she therefore is not very willing he should have the doing of anything about it till she herself be acquainted’ (Dartmouth MSS, 4). Sophie could be even more critical. She reportedly made fun of Craven behind his back in the 1650s, and when her husband, Karl Ludwig, employed him as an intermediary with Charles II in 1674 she expressed surprise that he would ‘confide serious affairs to our milord, who does not have much common sense’ (‘conferer des affaires serieuse avec nostre Mylord, qui n'a pas trop le sens commun’). She changed her mind only after recalling Craven's talent for engaging the king in light conversation, even if only about ‘a dog or a bitch’ (‘un chien ou d'une chaine’), remarking that ‘these animals are better for scratching at a door than a German sovereign’ (‘ses animaux sont plus propres pour gratter a une porte qu'un souerain d'Allemagne’; Briefwechsel, 184, 186). Although coloured by Sophie's acute sense of social superiority, these comments may also reflect a feeling that Craven's character lacked depth and gravity. Further evidence of an eccentric personality is perhaps provided by his habit of rushing out to observe fires whenever they broke out in London, no matter what time of day or night, on a horse he had trained to smell out the flames and gallop directly toward them through the capital's labyrinthine streets. It is possible, however, that this seemingly bizarre hobby was actually another example of his devotion to duty, since the crown continued to call upon his services in fighting large fires in London and he may voluntarily have involved himself in combating smaller conflagrations as well.

Craven's loyalty to the Stuarts and eclipse after 1688

Craven's personal idiosyncrasies may explain why he never gained a post of the first rank. Yet he remained a trusted servant of Charles II and his brother James, duke of York, particularly after political tensions heightened at the end of the 1670s. A slanderous paper intercepted by the government in February 1679 named him as one of James's ‘twelve disciples … [who] sit at the helm and steer him [the King] as they please’ (CSP dom., 1678–9, 68). During the Oxford session of parliament in 1681 he was again placed at the head of the troops commanding London, with instructions that should an insurrection break out he was to suppress it with as much force as necessary, ‘forbearing no act of hostility permitted by the usages of war’ (CSP dom., 1680–81, 679). Throughout the period of the exclusion crisis and its aftermath Craven was involved in investigating incendiary rumours and supervising measures to assure that any tumults in the capital would be quickly suppressed.

At James II's accession Craven was reappointed to the privy council and, in June 1685, named lieutenant-general of the king's forces. He was present at the birth of James Edward Stuart and provided a deposition in October 1688 testifying that the young prince was indeed the child born to the queen. In the same month, as England awaited the invasion of William of Orange, Craven took command of an English regiment and an Irish battalion guarding Westminster. Despite his great age he remained a loyal and energetic commander. On 11 December, after James's first flight from the capital, he wrote to William of Orange informing him that he would endeavour to preserve order in the capital, but, after the king's capture and enforced return to London, Craven continued to serve him with devotion. Craven's troops deserted him on the 19th when he tried to lead them to Rochester, for fear that they would be embarked for France. Eight days later he was in command at Whitehall as the Dutch army entered London. Refusing an order to withdraw, he prepared to mount a last-ditch defence, until James personally instructed him to capitulate.

William III promptly relieved Craven of his commands and offices, leaving him to devote the remainder of his life to private pursuits, including architectural projects and gardening at his three country seats of Hampstead Marshall, Benham, and Coombe Abbey, and his London house in Drury Lane. A beautiful engraving by I. Kip shows the first of these houses and its grounds as they looked in this period (BL, Add. MS 28676 A, fols. 248–9). He died on 9 April 1697 at his house on Drury Lane and was buried at Binley, near Coventry. Since he had no direct heirs his death extinguished his earldom but the baronial title descended to his nephew William under stipulations of a grant of 1665.

Although never a figure of the first rank, Craven had a long and distinguished career spanning more than sixty years, involving him in military and political events of prime importance in England and central Europe. A man of great physical courage and unshakeable devotion to duty, he never wavered in his adherence to the protestant religion, the English crown, and the Stuart family. In a quieter period these qualities would probably have resulted in a distinguished and successful, if fairly uneventful, career, perhaps as an officer and administrator responsible for military logistics. Instead Craven's life epitomizes the pitfalls of unbending consistency during a period as fraught with religious upheaval and cynical political manoeuvring as the seventeenth century. Although probably the most outspoken and generous aristocratic supporter of English aid for German protestantism in the 1630s, he found himself branded an enemy to the state when the godly came to power in the 1650s. The vast wealth that he had used to support the cause of the elector palatine was confiscated to help finance the war that a puritan regime had decided to wage against another Calvinist state. His second career of service to the crown after the Restoration ended in a futile effort to defend the popish James II against William of Orange, the one British monarch of the seventeenth century who fully shared his commitment to the military defence of European protestantism. Craven was at his best in situations calling for acts of courage and generosity in the service of uncomplicated moral principles and individuals to whom he had given his loyalty. Unfortunately these simple virtues repeatedly failed him amid the treacherous currents of seventeenth-century politics.

R. Malcolm Smuts


DNB · Burke, Peerage · The Lord Craven's case briefly stated out of the report: with observations upon the several parts of the same (1654) · private information (2004) [Paul Gladwish] · Briefwechsel der herzogin Sophie von Hanover, ed. E. Bodeman (Leipzig, 1885) · BL, Add. MSS 63743, 63744 · CSP dom., 1660–85 · Memoiren der herzogin Sophie, ed. A. Koecher (Leipzig, 1879) · L. Stone, The crisis of the aristocracy, 1558–1641 (1965) · S. R. Gardiner, History of England from the accession of James I to the outbreak of the civil war, 7–8 (1884) · J. Finet, Ceremonies of Charles I: the note books of John Finet, 1628–1641, ed. A. J. Loomie (1987) · Pepys, Diary · Evelyn, Diary · M. A. E. Green, ed., Calendar of the proceedings of the committee for compounding … 1643–1660, 1, PRO (1889), 438; 2 (1890), 1616–26, esp. 1617 · The manuscripts of J. Eliot Hodgkin … of Richmond, Surrey, HMC, 39 (1897) · The manuscripts of the earl of Dartmouth, 3 vols., HMC, 20 (1887–96), vol. 1 · Report on the manuscripts of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, HMC, 53 (1900) · The manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, HMC, 25 (1890) · Report on the manuscripts of the family of Gawdy, formerly of Norfolk, HMC, 11 (1885) · Seventh report, HMC, 6 (1879) · The manuscripts of the Earl Cowper, 3 vols., HMC, 23 (1888–9), vol. 2 · N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 1–2 (1857) · E. Godfrey, A sister of Prince Rupert: Elizabeth princess palatine and abbess of Hereford (1909) · The correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. N. Malcolm, 1 (1994); pbk edn (1997) · M. Prestwich, Cranfield: politics and profits under the early Stuarts (1966)


BL, papers, Add. MSS 6373, 6374; Add. MS 63743 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp.


attrib. Princess Louise, oils, 1647, NPG · line engraving, 1791, BM, NPG · G. P. Harding, ink and wash drawing (after unknown artist, 1650), NPG · G. van Honthorst, oils, unknown collection; copyprint, NPG [see illus.] · engraving, repro. in BL, Add. MS 28676 A, fol. 252 · oils, NPG