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Capel, Arthur, first Baron Capel of Hadhamlocked

  • Ronald Hutton

Arthur Capel, first Baron Capel of Hadham (1604–1649)

by Cornelius Johnson, c. 1640 [The Capel Family]

Capel, Arthur, first Baron Capel of Hadham (1604–1649), royalist army officer and politician, was born on 20 February 1604 at Hadham Hall, Hertfordshire, the only son of Sir Henry Capel (d. 1622) of Hadham Parva and Theodosia, daughter of Sir Edward Montagu of Boughton, Northamptonshire. He was baptized in Hadham Parva church on 11 March 1604. He matriculated at Queens' College, Cambridge, in the Lent term of 1619. On 28 November 1627 he married Elizabeth (1609/10–1661), the heir of Sir Charles Morrison of Cassiobury, Hertfordshire, and when he joined her estates to his own inheritance on the death of his grandfather, Arthur, in April 1632 (his father having died on 29 April 1622) he became one of the richest men in England. His lands were scattered across ten counties, and brought him a reputed annual income of £7000.

Capel carried on the life of a country gentleman for the rest of the 1630s, and avoided national affairs, perhaps in part because of a disaffection with the government of Charles I, which was so marked in his Montagu cousins. In 1639 he refused to contribute to the king's war against the Scots, and although he made no mark upon the Short Parliament of 1640, in which he represented Hertfordshire, he produced an instant impression upon the Long Parliament when it met in November. Sitting again for Hertfordshire, he became the first MP to present a petition from his shire against the policies of Charles I's personal rule. He also manifested a marked distrust of Roman Catholics, and voted for the death of Charles's principal servant, the earl of Strafford. During the same period, from November 1640 to May 1641, however, he also displayed marked hostility towards the Scottish covenanters who were the allies of the parliamentary radicals, and in particular towards their determination to convert the English church to a Scottish model. His vote against Strafford vexed his conscience ever after; he later confessed that he had given it 'out of base fear of a prevailing party' (Capel 138–9). His opposition to the personal rule had derived from a natural conservatism, which was now offended more by the king's critics. Sensing a potential ally, Charles raised him to the peerage on 5 August 1641.

Capel repaid his monarch from the Lords by opposing the militia ordinance in the crisis of the following winter, and when in May 1642 Charles began to summon his supporters to York, he was one of the first to answer the call. Parliament ordered his impeachment in July, and he subsequently provided the money to raise a hundred horse for the royal army and served himself in the king's life guard, charging with it at Edgehill. In March 1643 he was given his own military command, as lieutenant-general of north Wales, Cheshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. He had made his base at Shrewsbury by 23 March, although his commission was not signed until 4 April; his haste may have been due to a parliamentarian advance in Cheshire, the repulse of which became his first duty. Capel's qualifications for the post were wealth and loyalty, for he lacked any experience of military responsibility, and the result was disastrous. He certainly had disadvantages, for his region had been drained of manpower and money for the royal army, and parliament reinforced his local opponents twice over. On the other hand, he possessed some able officers and initially faced enemy forces in only one of the nine counties upon the resources of which he could draw. In the event, his operations were expensive, cumbersome, and predictable. His attacks on enemy strongholds were always beaten off and the parliamentarian forces ran rings round him in the field. As a result, while consistently disposing of more men than his opponents, he lost more of Cheshire and half of Shropshire. In October 1643 his army was shattered in an attack on Wem, leaving the way open for the enemy to occupy north-east Wales and encircle Chester. He was detested by the local gentry and made the subject of mocking ballads by commoners. It is not surprising that on 19 December he was replaced in his regional command by a proven soldier, although he received an official welcome upon his return to court in recognition that he had done his best and spent large quantities of his own fortune in the process. On 30 April 1643 parliament had responded to his military appointment by granting his estates to its commander-in-chief, the earl of Essex, and Capel had borrowed heavily against the remnants of his property still in royalist territory.

For the whole of 1644 Capel apparently remained in Oxford awaiting further employment, provided in February 1645 when he was made one of the commissioners sent to Uxbridge for fruitless peace negotiations. On 14 February he was given a longer-term post as one of a council of advisers to the prince of Wales, charged with the administration of the royalist west country. Capel was allotted the additional responsibility of raising and commanding a regiment of foot and one of horse as guards for the prince. Between March 1645 and March 1646 he carried out these duties diligently, until the final surrender of the western royalist army. Then he followed the prince of Wales into exile, first in Scilly and then in Jersey, where on 24 June 1646 he quit the prince's service following the decision that the boy should join the queen in France; again, Capel's suspicion of Catholics had surfaced. He wintered in the island and then returned to England, where on 13 March 1647 he petitioned the House of Lords to be allowed to compound for his estates. After a short period of house arrest, he was set at liberty.

Capel immediately returned to abetting the intrigues of the king, keeping in especially close contact with Charles I when the latter was at Hampton Court in the autumn and colluding in his decision to flee to the Isle of Wight. He was subsequently commissioned by the prince of Wales as commander-in-chief for East Anglia in the royalist risings planned for 1648, and on 9 June he joined a rendezvous of royalist rebels at Chelmsford to play this part. Three days later his forces were penned into Colchester by the main parliamentarian army, Capel himself fighting with a pike to cover the retreat into the town, and there they remained until they were finally starved into surrender on 27 August. Capel was imprisoned, first in Windsor Castle and then in the Tower of London, and in October he was impeached by parliament. His process was delayed by the events leading up to the trial and execution of Charles himself, and he used the easy terms upon which friends could visit him to obtain a rope. With this he escaped from the Tower, wading the moat once he had got over the walls, only to be betrayed by a Thames waterman who was engaged to row him from a hiding place at the Temple to one in Lambeth.

This time there was no escape. On 8 March 1649 parliament voted for Capel's death, together with that of two other royalist nobles, and he was beheaded outside Westminster Hall on the following day. He died with conspicuous courage and declined the services of a parliamentarian minister. Instead, he had received the private ministrations of the royalist George Morley, later bishop of Winchester, and confessed to him that his part in voting for the execution of Strafford had troubled him right up until this moment, when he atoned for it with an identical death. He was buried on 20 March, in the church at Hadham Parva where he had been baptized.

A collection of Capel's meditations was first published in 1654, and reveal him to have been prim, sober, and pious, with a rigid devotion to duty and a profound attachment to the Sacraments in the Anglican form. He seems to have been unusually tall, to judge both by his feat in wading the Tower moat and by a quip of his upon the Edgehill campaign, that a barn in which he had spent the night was the first bed large enough to fit him which he had found since the march began. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had five sons and four daughters, including Mary Somerset, first duchess of Beaufort; she lived until 26 January 1661 and was buried beside her husband at Hadham. She therefore survived long enough to see the Restoration, but missed (by only three months) the considerable act of reward and revenge which Charles II made to her family for the services of the martyred noble who had once been his councillor. In his coronation honours list, in April, he raised the eldest of Capel's five sons, also Arthur Capel, to the earldom of Essex, thereby granting him the title of the man to whom the Long Parliament had once awarded his father's confiscated (and now restored) estates.


  • A. Capel, Excellent contemplations, divine and moral (1683)
  • The manuscripts of the duke of Beaufort … the earl of Donoughmore, HMC, 27 (1891), 16–45
  • The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (1891–1931), vol. 1, pp. 141–58, 217, 269
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Clarendon 24–27
  • William Salt Library, Stafford, Salt MS 45
  • W. Phillips, ed., ‘The Ottley papers relating to the civil war [pt 2]’, Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 2nd ser., 7 (1895), 241–360, esp. 278–348
  • NL Wales, Llanfair-Brynodol papers, 43–54
  • NL Wales, Crosse of Shawe Hill MSS 1097–1123
  • T. W. Barlow, Cheshire: its historical and literary associations, illustrated in a series of biographical sketches, [new edn] (1855), 164–7
  • R. Clutterbuck, ed., The history and antiquities of the county of Hertford, 3 vols. (1815–27)
  • R. Hutton, The royalist war effort, 1642–1646 (1982)


  • C. Johnson, group portrait, 1640 (with his family), NPG [see illus.]
  • miniature, 1647 (after J. Hoskins?), NPG
  • oils, 1680–1700 (after H. Paert), NPG
  • miniature, 19th (after J. Hoskins), NPG
  • R. Dunkarton, mezzotint, pubd 1815, BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

approximately £7000 p.a.: Clutterbuck, ed., History and antiquities, 1.244

G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
Bodleian Library, Oxford
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Journals of the House of Lords
Historical Manuscripts Commission