Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, 1621-83

Changed sides during the English Civil War then rose to prominence under the Commonwealth and Protectorate and became a major figure in Restoration politics

Portrait of Anthony Ashley CooperBorn at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset in July 1621, Anthony Ashley Cooper was the eldest son of Sir John Cooper (d.1631) and his wife Anne Ashley (d.1628). His parents' marriage in 1616 brought together two wealthy gentry families with extensive estates in Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire but when Sir John died in 1631, Anthony was still a minor and the estate was taken over by the Court of Wards. A substantial part of his inheritance was lost through the machinations of the Court and the sale of lands to meet his father's debts. He attended Exeter College, Oxford, and Lincoln's Inn. In February 1639, he married Margaret Coventry, daughter of Lord Coventry and lived with his wife's family in London.

Changing Allegiances

On the outbreak ofther English Civil War, Cooper was reluctant to take sides and it was not until the spring of 1643 that he declared for the King. He raised a regiment of foot and a troop of horse and joined the Marquis of Hertford in the West Country. He accompanied the Earl of Carnarvon to the siege of Dorchester in August 1643 and was appointed governor of Weymouth and Portland. Prince Maurice disputed the appointment and Cooper was obliged to resign, but he was compensated by being appointed sheriff of Dorset and president of the King's council of war for the county.

Early in 1644, Cooper unexpectedly changed sides and declared for Parliament. When examined before the Committee for Both Kingdoms in London, he claimed that increasing Roman Catholic influence over the Royalist cause had prompted his defection. He became a member of the committee for Dorset and commanded a brigade of horse and foot in the county. He was active in the capture of several Royalist towns and garrisons and assisted at the relief of Colonel Blake's garrison at Taunton in December 1644. Although he continued in an administrative role, ill-health brought Cooper's military service to an end in 1645.

Commonwealth & Protectorate

During the next seven years, Cooper occupied himself with administrative affairs and his private commercial interests, which included extensive investment in sugar plantations on Barbados. He served as a Justice of the Peace in the West Country and was appointed to the committee headed by Sir Matthew Hale for reform of the law in January 1652. After receiving a formal pardon from Parliament for his support of the King, Cooper sat in the Nominated Assembly (Barebones Parliament) in July 1653 as representative for Wiltshire and was appointed to the Council of State in the same month. He sat on a number of important committees in the Assembly, including the committee for legal reform that continued the work of the Hale Commission. As a member of the moderate faction, Cooper opposed the proposal to abolish tithes and joined those who voted for the Assembly's dissolution in December 1653.

With the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate, Cooper was appointed to the Protector's Council. He was elected MP for Wiltshire in the First Protectorate Parliament and supported a proposal that Cromwell should accept the title of King in December 1654. When the proposal was withdrawn, Cooper moved into opposition on the grounds that the Protectorate government was unconstitutional and thereafter remained an uncompromising opponent of the Cromwellian régime. When Richard Cromwell was forced to resign and recall the Rump Parliament, Cooper was re-appointed to the Council of State in May 1659. Republicans suspected him of having Royalist sympathies and he was arrested in August when his friend Sir George Booth led an uprising in Cheshire, but the Council found him not guilty of any involvement in the conspiracy.

In October 1659, Army leaders expelled the Rump Parliament and replaced the Council of State with a Committee of Safety. Cooper joined with the republicans Thomas Scot, Sir Arthur Hesilrige and six others who continued to meet in secret as the rightful Council of State. They wrote to General Monck in November granting him a commission as commander-in-chief of all military units in England and Scotland and empowering him to take military action against the enemies of Parliament if necessary. In early December, Hesilrige seized Portsmouth and Cooper was involved in an attempt to seize the Tower of London. Although the attempt failed, the support of the fleet brought down the military junta and the Rump Parliament was restored a second time.

The Restoration

In 1660, with public opinion favouring the return of the monarchy, Cooper began to distance himself from his former republican allies. After Monck's arrival in London in February 1660, Cooper was foremost among those who urged him to restore the MPs excluded at Pride's Purge in 1648. With the return of the "secluded" Members, most of whom were Presbyterian in sympathy, the Long Parliament voted for its own dissolution in March 1660 and the pro-Royalist Convention Parliament was elected the following month. Although Cooper had rejected approaches by Royalists during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, he emerged as a firm supporter of the Restoration in 1660 and accompanied Charles II on his triumphal return to England.

Cooper became a major figure in Restoration politics. He opposed the Earl of Clarendon and was a member of the so-called Cabal ministry that succeeded Clarendon's administration. In 1672, he was created first Earl of Shaftesbury and appointed Lord Chancellor. However, he fell from favour over his opposition to the prospect of a Catholic succession. Associated with the early Whigs and plots against the King, Shaftesbury was charged with treason in 1681 but acquitted by a sympathetic jury. He fled to the Netherlands in 1682 and died at Amsterdam early in 1683. He was buried at Wimborne St Giles and succeeded as second Earl of Shaftesbury by his son, also named Anthony Ashley, who was born during his second marriage, to Lady Frances Cecil (d. 1652). Cooper's third wife, Margaret Spencer, outlived him and died in 1693.


Osmund Airey, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Baron Ashley and 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, DNB 1887

Tim Harris, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, Oxford DNB, 2004


Wikipedia article on Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury