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date: 29 January 2023

Aislabie, Johnfree


Aislabie, Johnfree

  • Stuart Handley

Aislabie, John (1670–1742), politician, was born on 4 December 1670 and baptized three days later at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York. He was the third son, and one of the twelve children, of George Aislabie (bap. 1618–1675), the principal registrar of the archiepiscopal court of York, and his second wife, Mary (d. 1683), the eldest daughter of Sir John Mallorie of Studley Royal, near Ripon. His father was killed by Jonathan Jennings in a duel on 10 January 1675, after Jennings had called him 'the scum of the county' (Darwin, 263). He was educated at Mr Tomlinson's school in York and he then attended St John's College (1686), where he matriculated in July 1687 and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from where he graduated in law in January 1692. In 1693 the death of his elder brother, George (1669—1693), left him in possession of Studley Royal. On 2 June 1694 he married, with a portion of £5000, Anne (d. 1700), the daughter of Sir William Rawlinson of Hendon, Middlesex. They had one son, William Aislabie, and three daughters. Fortunately for his political ambitions, his wife was also the niece of the archbishop of York, John Sharp, and the interest of the church allied to that of his estate enabled him to secure election to parliament for Ripon in 1695.

No doubt because of his relationship to Archbishop Sharp, Aislabie was accounted a tory in politics, but his career was to develop in such a way as to defy consistent party labelling. He signed the Association in February 1696, but on 25 November he voted against the attainder of the Jacobite conspirator Sir John Fenwick. Tragedy struck in January 1700 when his wife and a daughter perished in a fire at his house in Red Lion Square, London, reportedly begun by a servant to conceal the theft of some jewels. His election as mayor of Ripon in 1702, while no doubt strengthening his political interest, unfortunately made him ineligible to stand for the constituency in the election of that year. Instead he made an agreement to represent Northallerton, while maintaining his interest at Ripon through the judicious dispersal of gifts to the corporation. At the 1705 election, the minor inconvenience of the mayoralty having been overcome, he was returned as MP for Ripon. By now he was an active parliamentarian, particularly over matters of trade, but he was still difficult to pin down politically. Indeed, on two extant parliamentary analyses in 1708, one listed him as a whig and the other as a tory. Such a lack of rigid party loyalty was likely to find favour from Robert Harley when the latter came to power in 1710, and on 4 October Aislabie achieved office as an Admiralty lord. However, he was one of the first to express misgivings about the direction of the ministry's policies, particularly with regard to the peace negotiations with France and the attacks on the duke of Marlborough.

On 25 April 1713 Aislabie was licensed to marry Judith (1676–1738×40), the daughter of Sir Thomas Vernon, a London merchant and MP, and the widow of Dr Stephen Waller; they had no children. In the 1713 parliamentary session Aislabie opposed the commercial treaty with France, despite which he retained office until 9 April 1714. Freed from the shackles of his position in the 1714 session, he was soon one of those leading the attack on the ministry for its perceived ambivalent attitude to the Hanoverian succession. His move into overt opposition was very timely, coming as it did just a few months before Queen Anne's death in August 1714.

Following the change of ministry on the accession of George I, Aislabie received office in October as treasurer of the navy, a post he had coveted in 1710. Further honours followed, including appointment to the privy council on 12 July 1716 and elevation to the chancellorship of the exchequer on 20 March 1718. As chancellor he was a manager of ministerial business in the Commons, a post for which he was well suited, if Arthur Onslow's assessment of him as a man of 'good understanding, no ill-speaker in parliament, and very capable of business' (Buckinghamshire MSS, 510–11) can be trusted. However, Onslow added that, in his role as chancellor, 'although he understood the business of the revenue better than any other person then employed, he was of a very little weight in the House of Commons'. Onslow's judgement may have reflected the fact that Aislabie's duties as chancellor included managing the legislation designed to reduce the national debt by grafting it on to the South Sea Company. Aislabie was involved in operating subscription lists and profited by the rise in the stock price. When the bubble burst his actions came under the close scrutiny of the Commons, and he was forced to resign on 23 January 1721 [see Promoters of the South Sea Bubble]. The report of the investigation into the South Sea Company came before the Commons on 8 March 1721. Aislabie's long defence of his conduct did not deflect the house from voting him guilty of 'most notorious, dangerous, and infamous corruption' in promoting the South Sea scheme and in profiting therefrom. He was duly expelled, ordered to be confined in the Tower, and fined £45,000. Although he defended himself before the Lords, his name was included in the legislation confiscating the estates of those deemed responsible for the bubble in order to compensate those who had lost out during the speculation. However, he was allowed to keep all the property he had possessed on 20 October 1718, namely £119,000 out of an estate estimated at £164,000. His fine had been paid off by May 1723.

Upon his release from the Tower, Aislabie retired to Studley Royal and the pursuits of a country gentleman. He had been a subscriber to John James's Theory and Practice of Gardening (1712), a translation of a French work by Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, along with several other major landowners, and began to lay out the water gardens at Studley Royal from 1718. The geometric design followed the French fashion of the period, but the adaptation of this style to the landscape, allowing for water features to be viewed from terraces, was Aislabie's. Buildings added to the garden included a Doric Temple of Hercules (later renamed the Temple of Piety by his son, William, and a cascade and fishing houses. The gardens were extended after Aislabie's death by William, who added an Ionic Temple of Fame (c. 1770). Aislabie died on 18 June 1742 and was buried in the family chapel in Ripon Minster. He was succeeded by William, who had replaced him at Ripon and continued to represent the borough for sixty years until his death in 1781.


  • K. Darwin, ‘John Aislabie (1670–1742)’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 37 (1948–51), 262–324
  • The manuscripts of the earl of Buckinghamshire, the earl of Lindsey … and James Round, HMC, 38 (1895), 510–11 [Onslow MSS]
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/719, sig. 206
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/702, sig. 129 [2nd wife's will]
  • GM, 1st ser., 12 (1742), 331
  • M. A. Newman, ‘“A mere Timon’s Villa?” Gardening, conservation and visitor management during William Aislabie’s proprietorship of Fountains Abbey, 1767–1781’, Annual Archaeological Review, 6 (1997–8)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • D. Jacques, ‘The art and sense of the Scriblerus Club in England’, Garden History, 4 (1976), 30–53
  • G. L. M. Goodfellow, ‘Colen Campbell's last years’, Burlington Magazine, 111 (1969), 184–91
  • M. Newman, The wonder of the north. Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal (2015)



  • portrait, Ripon town hall
  • portrait, Studley Royal, near Ripon
  • portrait, repro. in M. Pettman, National Portrait Gallery: complete illustrated catalogue, 1856–1679, ed. K. K. Yung (1980), 6, 707
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