Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, was the most important politician in the first few years of the reign of Charles II after the 1660 Restoration. Clarendon played a leading part in the Restoration Settlement and he served Charles II as Lord Chancellor and Chief Minister until his dismissal from office.
Clarendon was born on February 18th, 1609. He was educated at home by his local vicar and then went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and then to the Middle Temple where he worked as a lawyer.
His first marriage was to Anne Ayliffe but she died of smallpox just six months into the marriage. His second marriage in 1634 was to Frances Aylesbury, the daughter of Sir Thomas Aylesbury, Master of the Mint. This moved him up the social ladder and Clarendon found employment in the government’s administration. In 1640, Clarendon became MP for Wotton Bassett in Wiltshire and he served in the Short Parliament between April and May 1640. He was elected MP for Saltash, Cornwall, in November 1640 and served in what was called the Long Parliament.
Clarendon played a major part in the passing of legislation that reduced the arbitrary power of the Crown. He also supported Common Law. At this point in his career, he could be considered to be an anti-monarchist – or at the least someone who believed in a reduction in the traditional power that monarchs held. However, in 1641, he opposed Pym’s Grand Remonstrance. Clarendon also opposed Pym’s belief that Parliament should control the army and have a veto on the appointment of ministers. These were steps too far for Clarendon.
In October 1641, Clarendon became a royal adviser but he failed to persuade Charles I that compromise with Parliament was the best way forward. However, because of his immediate past, Clarendon was never allowed into the king’s inner circle. As a result he did not know about the attempted arrest of the Five Members on January 4th, 1642.
Despite the cold approach from Charles, Clarendon was at his side when war was declared, joining him at York in May 1642. He tried to be a moderating influence on the king but failed to have any success. In February 1645, Clarendon was appointed the head of a council that was to advise the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II. When the prince went into exile, Clarendon followed him. He used his closeness to the king to try to school him in a way that Clarendon could work with.
Working on behalf of Charles, Clarendon helped to formulate the Restoration Settlement and he has to take a great deal of the credit for the success of the Restoration in 1660.
Charles II duly rewarded his loyal servant by appointing him Lord Chancellor in June 1660 and he became the Earl of Clarendon in April 1661. From 1660 to 1667, he also served as Chief Minister.
At the start of his reign, Charles tended to surround himself with older politicians – men he had known for years, including their loyal service during the Civil War. These older men looked down on the licentious behaviour of the Royal Court and both sides were bound to clash at some time in the future. Their positions were also being undermined by a new generation of younger politicians who tried to use the culture clash to their advantage.
Clarendon had no love for the lifestyle associated with Charles II when he was at court. Many viewed the Chief Minister as aloof and being too principled. After the Civil War and the Interregnum, many simply wanted to have a good time – the country had seen too many dark times between 1642 and 1660. Now the country had a king that wanted to bring more jollity to the nation and was happy for his people to know this. It clashed with Clarendon’s sense of duty.
Clarendon also faced one major problem within government. Former Royalists did not trust him as he was not seen as being ‘one of them’ as a result of his previous support for the reduction in the king’s power in 1640/41. Former Parliamentarians also did not support him as he had crossed sides in 1641. Seemingly trusted by no one, Clarendon made many enemies. Charles II also blamed him for the Crown’s shortage of money – the result of the Restoration Settlement.
In fact, Clarendon was blamed for most things that went wrong. The king’s marriage to Princess Catherine of Braganca (and their lack of children) was blamed on Clarendon, as was the sale of Dunkirk to the French. The Dutch attack up the River Medway was also his fault – even though he had campaigned against a war with the Dutch. There were those who blamed him for London’s lack of preparation for the impact of the plague in 1665. Even the Great Fire of London (1666) was blamed on him – or more especially the city’s inability to cope with it. Charles warned Clarendon that his political clout was over but he failed to listen. Whether he simply could not believe that his power base had severely eroded or whether he was too arrogant to believe that he was dispensable is difficult to know. In August 1667, Charles dismissed Clarendon and he fled abroad to avoid being impeached and the penalties that would have brought.
Clarendon died on December 9th, 1674.