BENNET, Sir Henry (1618-85).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



June 1661 - 14 Mar. 1665

Family and Education

bap. 6 Sept. 1618, 2nd s. of Sir John Bennet of Dawley, Harlington, Mdx. by Dorothy, da. of Sir John Crofts of Little Saxham, Suff.; bro. of Sir John Bennet. educ. Westminster; Christ Church, Oxf. 1635, BA 1639, MA 1642, DCL 1663. m. 16 Apr. 1666, Isabella, da. of Lodewyk van Nassau, Lord of Beverweerd, 1da. Kntd. by 23 Dec. 1656; cr. Baron Arlington 14 Mar. 1665, Earl of Arlington 22 Apr. 1672; KG 15 June 1672.

Offices Held

Student of Christ Church 1636-48; commr. for assessment, Mdx. 1661-5, Westminster 1663-5, loyal and indigent officers, London and Westminster 1662; j.p. Berks., Bucks., Hants, Kent, Mdx., Oxon., Surr. and Westminster 1662-?d., Thetford 1668, 1670; freeman, Portsmouth 1665; gov. Charterhouse 1667; steward, Norwich Cathedral 1668; alderman, Thetford by 1669-d.; high steward, Wallingford 1670-d.; Kingston-upon-Thames 1683-d.; custos rot. and ld. lt. Suff. 1681-d.1

Secretary to the Duke of York 1648-57; gent. of the privy chamber 1656-61; agent and resident, Madrid 1657-61; keeper of the privy purse 1661-2; PC 15 Oct. 1662-d.; sec. of state (south) 1662-74; asst. R. Adventurers into Africa by 1664-7, 1669-71, R. Fishing Co. 1664, R. Africa Co. 1673; comptroller of prizes 1664-7; postmaster-gen. 1667-77; commr. for trade 1668-72; ambassador extraordinary, France and the United Provinces June-July 1672; ld. of Admiralty 1673-9; ld. chamberlain 1674-d.; ld. steward to Queen Catherine of Braganza 1680-d.; commr. for Tangier 1680-4.2


Bennet was educated for the Church, though at Oxford he appears to have occupied himself chiefly in the study of Latin poetry and the composition of English verse. In 1643 he entered the service of the secretary of state, George Digby (later 2nd Earl of Bristol). Although a civilian, he took part in a Cavalier attack on the quarters of Sir William Waller I in 1644, receiving a conspicuous wound on the nose. He was in exile throughout the Interregnum, and in 1656 was appointed envoy to the King of Spain, then at war with the Protector. Spain proved to be Bennet’s spiritual home; Spanish magnificence, Spanish punctilio, Spanish lethargy, the Spanish religion, all appealed to him. He became a good linguist and a supple but dignified courtier. He was at his post at the time of the Restoration, and his old friend Daniel O’Neill obtained permission for him to return, too late to take part in the general election of 1661. Clarendon, however, on the King’s instructions found a vacancy for him at Callington on the interest of John Coryton I when (Sir) Allen Brodrick chose to sit for Orford, and he had taken his seat by 21 June. His political methods were those of the backstairs, and he was not a conspicuous Member of the House. As a committeeman he was moderately active, being named to 28 committees, and he is unlikely to have spoken, since even in the Privy Council he confined himself to a whispered sneer. Doubts about his religion were already in the air, chiefly owing to his continued association with Bristol, an avowed Roman Catholic convert since 1657, and he was not appointed to any of the committees for the Clarendon Code. On 4 July, however, he was named to the committee for pains and penalties against the regicides, and he was one of the Members ordered to bring in a bill for a duty on stamped paper. His first attempt, in conjunction with Bristol, to undermine the lord chancellor’s position by thwarting the Portuguese marriage, was a failure, but in August he was made keeper of the privy purse, a public slight to Clarendon, to whom he was already a declared enemy. After the summer recess he was appointed to the committees for the restoration of two dukedoms, no doubt the most important business of the session in the Castilian scale of values, as well as to consider ways of relieving suffering loyalists, and the Lords’ proviso to the militia bill. His appointment as ambassador to France, warmly supported by Lady Castlemaine, was vetoed by Clarendon, acting on a hint from Louis XIV, who had no wish for a suspected Spanish pensioner at his Court, but he was promised the Post Office as compensation. Clarendon, however, refused to alter the existing arrangements, which the King in a passion termed an affront. In turn, he obliged Clarendon’s friend Sir Edward Nicholas to resign as secretary of state, and on 15 Oct. 1662 Bennet took his place. His promotion was soon followed by the issue of the first Declaration of Indulgence, which he drafted.3

Bennet sat in the Commons as one of the principal ministers of state for three sessions, and was employed on 11 messages between the King and the House. His was the first name on the committee appointed to bring in a bill on 21 Feb. 1663 for wearing English manufactures. Although one of the Members who voted against debating the Declaration, he was appointed, perhaps rather cynically, to the committee to which it gave rise for hindering the growth of Popery. More to his taste must have been the message entrusted to him and three other Privy Councillors (Sir William Compton, Sir Charles Berkeley I, and Sir George Carteret) on 12 May ‘that no grant be passed or contract made of or touching the Post Office’ until a parliamentary committee of investigation should have reported; but the King had already decided to appoint Daniel O’Neill to the coveted post. Bennet was also named to the committees on the sale of offices and the relief of Cavaliers. Although always suspicious of the House of Commons, he began to build up a following there through Thomas Clifford, and on 8 Apr. 1664 he was able to assert that he had never seen the temper of the House so good in any degree since their first meeting. In this session he was of course marked as a court dependant, and chosen to carry to the King the resolutions on trade with Scotland and Ireland, and evidence of Dutch depredations on English commerce. This matter loomed larger in the next session, when Clifford and Bennet’s ally William Coventry took the lead in urging war with the Dutch. Bennet brought a message from the King on this subject on 24 Nov., and on the following day he was one of the 12 Members sent to thank the King for defending the nation from the Dutch. His last committee was for the estate bill promoted by his brother-in-law Sir Robert Carr.4

When Parliament met again Bennet took his seat in the Upper House as Lord Arlington, not much regretted by his constituents who complained of his neglect. He is probably the only secretary of state to have married an enemy alien in the middle of a hard-fought war; but his choice was politically sound, for she was not only an impeccable Protestant but sister-in-law to Thomas Butler, through whom Arlington formed an invaluable reinsurance with the Church party. The marriage contract affords impressive testimony to the rewards of office, for Arlington could guarantee that in five years’ time he would be in receipt of a net £4,000 p.a. ‘from his estates alone’. He was of course one of the architects of the fall of Clarendon and of the Triple Alliance, but he and Clifford were the only members of the ministry to be fully informed of the secret Treaty of Dover. His reward was the betrothal of his only daughter and heir to the King’s favourite bastard, the future Duke of Grafton. He was sent with the Duke of Buckingham to persuade William of Orange to ask for peace in 1672, but his patronizing manner was counterproductive. On his return he found that he had been outstripped in the royal favour by Clifford, who was bolder as well as more energetic. His position was further shaken by the defection of his former clerk, Pierre du Moulin, who produced with inside knowledge England’s Appeal, a devastating attack on the Government’s policy. When the Commons turned on the surviving ministers of the Cabal in 1674, it was expected that Arlington, whose reputation for courage did not stand high despite his well-advertised war wound, would prove their easiest victim. However, the impeachment was ineptly handled by Gilbert Gerard II and Arlington had many friends, or at least followers, in the House, notably Sir Thomas Littleton, 2nd Bt., while Ossory, though no longer a Member, stood in the lobby soliciting votes. At the bar Arlington defended himself with firmness and skill, and it was his friends, confident of an acquittal, who pressed for the charges to be referred to a committee. On 17 Feb. 1674 Thomas Crouch asked for fresh instructions in terms that clearly indicated a total lack of evidence, and little further headway was made before the prorogation. During the recess ‘Arlington was able to retire uncensured to the less influential but safer post of Lord Chamberlain’. The rise of Danby, as Ruvigny reported, was accompanied by the abasement of Arlington, and henceforth his participation in the government was nominal. He occupied himself chiefly with his Suffolk estate. He voted for the acquittal of Lord Stafford and against Exclusion in 1680. Arlington was confirmed as Lord Chamberlain in 1685, and attended the coronation, but died on 25 July. He was formally received into the Church of Rome on his deathbed. ‘Arlington’s conscience’, concludes his biographer, ‘could have accommodated itself easily to the necessity of bowing in the House of Rimmon, though for a lifetime’.5

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: John. P. Ferris


This biography is based on V. Barbour, Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington.

  • 1. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 359; CSP Dom. 1666-7, p. 442; 1667-8, pp. 446, 476; 1685, pp. 260, 303; Manning and Bray, Surr. i. 342.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1672, p. 263; 1672-3, p. 437; 1684-5, p. 130; Cal. Treas. Bks. vii. 1252-3.
  • 3. Clarendon, Life, ii. 199-200, 210; A. Hamilton, Grammont Mems. 143; SP29/115/21; CJ, viii. 309.
  • 4. Grey, ii. 295; Arlington Letters, ii. 19; CJ, viii. 544, 560.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1664-5, p. 257; Arlington Letters, ii. 198; K. H. D. Haley, William III and Eng. Opp. 7, 15, 26, 42; D. T. Witcombe, Cavalier House of Commons, 154-5.