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Reference group
Cabal (act. 1667–1673), politicians, comprised five individuals prominent in the councils of Charles II. These were Thomas Clifford, first Baron Clifford of Chudleigh, Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, Henry Bennet, first earl of Arlington, and John Maitland, duke of Lauderdale. The association of all five as a single administration or ministry called the Cabal is inaccurate, but it is rooted in the realities of Restoration politics and the myth-making of historians. One source for the myth is Bishop Gilbert Burnet's remark in his memoirs that ‘this junto … being called the Cabal, it was observed that the Cabal proved a technical word, every letter in it being the first letter of those five, Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale’ (Burnet's History of my Own Time, 1.553–4). It was this ‘whimsical coincidence’, as Lord Macaulay called it (History of England, quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary), of initial letters and a common contemporary term that sealed the association in the popular mind and led to the easy acceptance of the notion of a Cabal ministry by historians trained to detect successive governmental administrations in the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century mould. This misapprehension was perhaps further encouraged by what looked like strong ministries preceding and succeeding the period of the Cabal. From the restoration of the monarchy to the summer of 1667 the lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon, had served as chief minister co-ordinating government policy and exercising a degree of parliamentary management. The appointment in 1673 of Thomas Osborne, first earl of Danby and subsequently duke of Leeds, as lord treasurer marked the beginning of another period of dominance by a single minister. Between 1667 and 1673, however, there was neither a pre-eminent minister nor a coherent team of ministers directing affairs. If anyone was shaping policy, it was the king himself.

After the fall of Clarendon in August 1667 Charles II consulted several councillors and ministers, although he rarely troubled any of them with a full disclosure of his plans and actions. He was surrounded by several contending factions and some notably experienced politicians, including such survivors of the Clarendon faction as James Butler, duke of Ormond, and was naturally obliged to take note of the views and interests of his brother and heir, James, duke of York. Yet, it seems clear that the king exploited the situation to play different ministers and factions off against each other and so maintain his own freedom of manoeuvre. As his main tool of policy formulation, Charles employed the committee for foreign affairs, a small and informal group, rather than the privy council. And the policy that absorbed his energies above all others was the pursuit of an alliance with France against the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

The minister most intimately involved in decision making in the late 1660s was the secretary of state, Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, who was described as ‘the most polite and obliging minister that the English court has’ (CSP Venice, 1671–2, 67). This assured diplomat and courtier had assiduously, if cautiously, promoted his own career and those of his clients such as Sir Joseph Williamson, William Temple, and Thomas Clifford, while subverting Clarendon's position and losing few opportunities to obstruct Buckingham. He demonstrated his willingness to put the king's goals above his own preferences when he dutifully moved from his pro-Dutch and anti-French position of 1668 to open negotiations with the French for an alliance in the following year. Arlington's client Clifford, who had distinguished himself as an enthusiastic proponent and participant in the Anglo-Dutch wars of 1665–7 and had risen quickly at court to become a treasury commissioner in 1667 and treasurer of the household in 1668, was entrusted with negotiating the secret treaty of Dover (22 May 1670) by which Charles undertook to join Louis XIV in an attack on the Netherlands, to declare himself a Roman Catholic and to work towards the recovery of England for Catholicism. In return Louis agreed to subsidize Charles once his conversion had been announced, to suspend the French shipbuilding programme and not to attack Spain. The only politicians who knew of this treaty and its explosive ‘Catholic clause’ were Clifford, Arlington, and the duke of York. In the summer of 1670 the king's boyhood friend the duke of Buckingham had been sent to France to negotiate another treaty with Louis. This public treaty, often referred to as the traité simulé, was signed by Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley Cooper, and Lauderdale in December 1670. It committed the English king to all the provisions of the earlier treaty, except the conversion to Catholicism. It was an elaborate way of justifying the imminent war and of hoodwinking some of Charles's ministers. Whether the ‘Catholic clause’ of the secret treaty was a serious plan or merely bait to win over Louis is less significant here than the simple fact that not all of the members of the supposed Cabal knew the full extent of the most crucial political decision of the era.

There are many other signs that these ministers could not and did not operate as a single team. Buckingham did not have the temperament for the business of government. He was easily distracted by his military ambitions, scandalous private life, and aristocratic disdain for other politicians. When things went wrong he lashed out: the failure of attempts to manage parliament led him to resort to wrecking tactics in 1669 and in 1673–4. Ashley Cooper, a former Cromwellian and in the 1660s chancellor of the exchequer and a treasury commissioner, joined the committee for foreign affairs in June 1669. Yet many of his attitudes stood at an angle to those of the king and Arlington. He was, for example, interested in the possibility of a royal divorce in 1670, sympathetic to the plight of nonconformists, and wary of the French alliance despite his concerns about Dutch commercial expansion. Lauderdale, Charles's effective and pragmatic viceroy in Scotland, seems to have served on the committee for foreign affairs mainly as an authoritative voice on the implications of policy in the northern kingdom. Some contemporaries perceived the ministers as falling into two rival camps. On 14 April 1670 the MP and poet Andrew Marvell wrote to his nephew William Popple that ‘the governing Cabal are Buckingham, Lauderdale, Ashly, Orery, and Trevor. Not but the other Cabal too have seemingly sometimes their turn’ (Poems and Letters, 2.371). ‘Orery’ and ‘Trevor’ were Roger Boyle, first earl of Orrery, and Sir John Trevor.

However, the five ministers traditionally regarded as the Cabal came together to sign the treaty of December 1670 and apparently acted in concert again to plan the preparatory steps for the war to which they were now committed. To ensure peace at home while fighting abroad, they advised the king to suspend the operation of the penal laws against nonconformists. The consequent declaration of indulgence recommended itself to different ministers on different grounds: it attracted Arlington and perhaps Lauderdale as a security measure, Clifford because it helped Roman Catholics, and Buckingham and Ashley because it eased the position of protestant dissenters. Another essential preparation for war, the stop of the exchequer, a moratorium on the government's repayment of loans, was promoted by Clifford, but criticized by Ashley as unfair on the merchants and injurious to trade.

All of the ministers were rewarded in 1672 with new titles or offices. But just below the surface seethed personal antagonisms and ambitions. Arlington was dismayed to see his own client Clifford move into the ambit of the duke of York and to be appointed in the summer of 1673 as lord treasurer, a position that Arlington had coveted for himself. The failure to gain a quick victory against the Dutch had thrown Charles II onto the mercy of parliament and his ministers into disarray. They cast the blame for recent policies on each other and fomented attacks on each other through parliament: Buckingham deliberately courted trouble in the hope of causing even more harm to Arlington, ‘contented to loose an eye himself to leave his enemies none’ (Christie, 2.62). Royal policy was thrown into reverse. Some ministers survived the debacle: Arlington and Lauderdale retained office. Others were driven out of office and into opposition. Ashley, now the earl of Shaftesbury, was dismissed for stirring up opposition to Lauderdale in Scotland and lobbying for the removal of the duke of York from court. At the request of parliament Buckingham was dismissed from his appointments and the royal presence. Clifford, after waiting to see what the duke of York did, followed his lead and resigned his office rather than take the new anti-Catholic test in the summer of 1673. Once he had laid down office, Clifford began to worship as a Roman Catholic, but that autumn he died in mysterious conditions at his house in Devon.

The curious name attached to these politicians deserves explanation. Derived from the word ‘cabbala’, the esoteric tradition of Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, the term ‘cabal’ was much used in the mid- and later seventeenth century. It could be a noun or a verb. It was generally used to describe a secret meeting or private intrigue. On 7 March 1657 Oliver Cromwell assured his parliament that ‘he had never been at any cabal about’ the offer of the crown (Diary of Thomas Burton, 1.382). Yet the word was also susceptible to a less sinister meaning. In the 1660s Samuel Pepys used the term interchangeably with ‘cabinet’, the king's ‘private council’, and the committee for foreign affairs: on 21 December 1667 he recorded that neither Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon nor Sir William Coventry were summoned to meetings, ‘the Caball at present being’ the king, Buckingham, George Monck, first duke of Albemarle, the lord keeper, Sir Orlando Bridgeman, and the lord privy seal, Lord Robartes (Pepys, Diary, 8.585). A letter of 1672 from Clifford to Lauderdale refers to the principal ministers as ‘the caball’ in a similar fashion (R. Hutton, ‘Thomas Clifford’, Oxford DNB). It was undoubtedly the satirists and pamphleteers who latched onto the word as a suitably loaded term: the poem On the Prorogation (late 1671) blamed the ‘cursed cabal’ for this postponement of parliament's meeting, while the verse satire The Dream of the Cabal (late 1672?) identified the usual five suspects along with Ormond, who spoke up for the king and parliament, and Charles himself (Poems on Affairs of State, 1.183, 191). The pamphlet England's Appeal from a Private Cabal at Whitehall (1673), written by Arlington's disillusioned former client Pierre Du Moulin, was a piece of Dutch propaganda designed to sap English enthusiasm for the Dutch war by portraying those behind the war as a knot of popish conspirators. Although ‘cabal’ was frequently associated with ‘Jesuits’, ‘cardinals’, and other ‘Romish’ fanatics, in time it was just as often applied to Whigs, exclusionists, sectaries, and other seditious types, as for instance in the broadside satire The Cabal (18 February 1680) or the broadside poem Stephen Colledge's Ghost to the Fanatical Cabal (1681). The term appears in other contexts, too, such as the university satires attacking John Dryden's Conquest of Granada in 1673, where although apparently innocent of any political overtone, it might just be a faint allusion to Clifford's patronage of Dryden.

John Spurr


Burnet’s History of my own time, ed. O. Airy, new edn, 2 vols. (1897–1900) · Pepys, Diary · Oxford English Dictionary Online, www.oed.com, accessed on 02 Aug 2005 · The poems and letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. H. Margoliouth, rev. P. Legouis and E. E. Duncan-Jones, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1971) · CSP Venice, 1671–2 · W. D. Christie, ed., Letters addressed from London to Sir Joseph Williamson, 2 vols., CS, new ser., 8–9 (1874) · Diary of Thomas Burton, ed. J. T. Rutt, 4 vols. (1828) · G. de F. Lord and others, eds., Poems on affairs of state: Augustan satirical verse, 1660–1714, 7 vols. (1963–75) · [P. Du Moulin], England's appeal from the private cabal at Whitehall (1673)