CAVENDISH, William, Lord Cavendish (1641-1707), of Chatsworth, Derbys.

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



Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679

Family and Education

b. 25 Jan. 1641, 1st s. of William, 3rd Earl of Devonshire by Lady Elizabeth Cecil, da. of William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. educ. privately; travelled abroad (France, Italy) 1657-60. m. 26 Oct. 1662, Lady Mary Butler (d. 31 July 1710), da. of James, 1st Duke of Ormonde, 3s. 1da.; at least 1da. illegit. suc. fa. as 4th Earl of Devonshire 23 Nov. 1684, KG 3 Apr. 1689; cr. Duke of Devonshire 12 May 1694.1

Offices Held

Dep. lt. Derbys. c. Aug. 1660-80; commr. for assessment, Derbys. 1661-80, Mdx. and Westminster 1679-80, loyal and indigent officers, Derbys. 1662, capt. of militia horse ?1669-80; steward, honour of High Peak ?1684-d., Tutbury 1962-d.; ld. lt. Derbys. 1689-d., Notts. 1962-4; high steward, Kingston-upon-Thames 1689-d.; custos rot. Derbys. 1689-d.; recorder, Nottingham 1697-d.2

PC 22 Apr. 1679-31 Jan. 1680, 14 Feb. 1689-d.; ld. steward 1689-1702; commr. for reforming abuses in the army 1689; c.j. in eyre (north) 1690-d.; one of the lds. justices 1695-1701; gov. Society of Mineral and Battery Works 1696-d.3

FRS 1663-85.


Lord Cavendish’s ancestor had sat for Suffolk in two of Richard II’s Parliaments, but the real architect of the family fortunes was Sir William Cavendish, treasurer of the chamber to Henry VIII, who acquired a vast estate in the North Midlands by his marriage to ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Cavendish’s great-grandfather was created Earl of Devonshire in 1618. His father, a pupil of Hobbes, was impeached as a Royalist in 1642 and sat in the Oxford Parliament.4

Cavendish was still under age when he was nominated at a meeting of the gentry as court candidate for Derbyshire at the general election of 1661, and returned after a contest. In the first session of the Cavalier Parliament he was appointed to 15 committees, including those for the corporations and uniformity bills, and the bill of pains and penalties; but he left no trace on the records of the next four sessions, though listed as a court dependant in 1664. He served as a volunteer aboard the fleet under the Duke of York during the second Dutch war, giving the first proofs of the courage that was to stand him in good stead both in politics and private life. He was appointed to the committee of elections and privileges for the first time in 1666, but achieved no prominence in the House till the fall of Clarendon. On 13 Dec. 1667 he complained that the bill to banish the fallen minister ‘enables him to spend the estate he has gotten by our ruins in another country’, and spoke very well, in the judgment of John Milward. He was sent to ask for the Lords’ concurrence in a proclamation calling on Clarendon to give himself up, and acted as teller against the banishment bill. He was among those ordered on 23 Apr. 1668 to attend the King with the resolution of the House for the wearing of English manufactures. In the same session he acted as teller for a motion to appropriate supply to the use of the navy, the first of many such measures which he was to support. ‘A libertine both in principle and practice’ and a lover of display, he ran himself into debt, and a month after the House rose in March 1669, ‘the privilege being out, he dare not trust his creditors’. He left for France, where he was involved, not discreditably, in a brawl in a theatre with several drunken French officers. When Parliament met again in the autumn he was listed by Sir Thomas Osborne among the Members who had usually voted for supply. He was appointed, for the first time for eight years, to two important committees, those to consider prolonging the Conventicles Act and to receive information about seditious conventicles, and intervened in the debate on the impeachment of Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle), no doubt with the aim of protecting his father-in-law Ormonde from the threatened counter-attack. He was among those who spoke on 10 Jan. 1671 in favour of deferring all other business for the bill to punish the assailants of Sir John Coventry. Consequently when his brother-in-law Lord Ossory (Thomas Butler) laid down his military command in 1672, Cavendish’s application to succeed him was vetoed by the King. ‘Ambitious and resentful’, he bore a lasting grudge against those who had baulked him in the career to which his temperament was so well suited.5

Cavendish’s parliamentary activity sharply increased in the next session. On 10 Feb. 1673 he successfully moved for the reading of the resolution of 1663 against the Declaration of Indulgence. He was sent to the Lords to desire a conference on the test bill, although in private he criticized the tactics of the country party; ‘when so much money was given to buy a law against Popery, the force of the money would be stronger in order to the bringing it in than the law could be for keeping it out’. On 22 Mar. he moved for a debate on grievances, saying that ‘it was now fit to give satisfaction to the people by considering who were the King’s evil counsellors’’, and he desired that the revenue might not be ‘disposed of or managed by the lord treasurer [Thomas Clifford], a person so much suspected of Popery’. Sir William Temple reckoned him among the most violent group in the Opposition, and in the autumn he supported his friend, the Hon. William Russell, in advising a refusal of supply. Despite his suspicions of Dutch bribery among the Opposition, his speech was almost a paraphrase of Dutch propaganda;

Here is money asked of us to carry on a war we were never advised about, and what we have given is turned to raising of families, and not paying the King’s debts. There is so little fruit of the addresses of the last session that we now find greater grievances, as articles of war and martial law. The nation’s interest is laid aside for private interest.

When Parliament resumed in 1674 he acted as teller against debating the speech from the throne. He declared himself in favour of removing the Duke of Buckingham both from office and from Court, and presented a petition against the pressing of seamen. Although on the committee for the general test bill, he was prepared to consider a petition from Bernard Howard as a Papist who professed a desire to ‘live quiet’. He was also appointed to the committee on the bill to prevent illegal exactions.6

In the spring session of 1675 Cavendish again expressed dissatisfaction with the King’s opening speech, and took a leading part in the attack on ministers. He helped to draft the address for the removal of Lauderdale and to consider a bill to prevent illegal imprisonment. But, thanks to his contacts with foreign embassies, these domestic matters did not blind him to the international situation. ‘The danger of Flanders falling into French hands is what he most apprehends’, he said. ‘If one prince has been able to manage a war against Christendom with such success, we may justly apprehend it.’ He helped to plan the impeachment of Osborne (now Lord Treasurer Danby), and undertook to prove the charge of misusing secret service funds. A week later, in grand committee, he queried the official estimate of a mere two thousand British troops in French service. When the motion for a further address for their recall was lost on the chairman’s casting vote Cavendish demanded a recount, spluttering so abundantly in his indignation that Sir John Hanmer spat back at him. Challenges had been exchanged and swords all but unsheathed when Edward Seymour resumed the chair, restored order, and swept the principals off in his coach to enforce a reconciliation over dinner. Cavendish was added to the committee on the bill to hinder Papists from sitting in Parliament; but he still had Lauderdale in his sights. He seconded the proposal to invite Burnet, who had been forbidden the Court for testifying against the Scottish favourite, to preach to the House on the King’s birthday, and on 31 May he acted as teller for a second address. As soon as the session ended, Cavendish and Richard Newport, ‘brisk House of Commons men who made so bold with his Majesty in Parliament’, were in their turn forbidden the Court, and Lauderdale was brazen enough to insult Cavendish in the theatre in the King’s presence. During the summer recess public attention was redirected to the role of English mercenaries in the expansion of France by the death in action at Strasbourg of Col. John Howard, the youngest brother of the 1st Earl of Carlisle (Charles Howard). A discussion of the event between Cavendish and Sir Thomas Meres in St. James’s Park was reported to another brother, a notorious Roman Catholic, who distributed ‘a very cursed paper’ denouncing the ‘two bold and busy Members’ as ‘barbarous incendiaries’. When the House met again in the autumn Sir Trevor Williams produced a copy, and Russell moved that Seymour should again intervene to prevent a duel, though Howard was so gouty that he could not wield a pen, much less a sword. Cavendish denied the words attributed to him, though he was sorry that Howard’s brother should have died fighting against his country’s honour. Enjoined not to prosecute the quarrel he was provoked into posting up a flysheet describing Howard as a poltroon, and the House sent him to the Tower, but he was discharged two days later. Meanwhile he had moved for a debate on anticipation of revenue, and on 26 Oct. acted with Russell as teller for lodging it in the chamber of London. ‘Let those that think not this a good way propose another that’s better’, he said. The first Member named to conduct the inquiry into the assualt on the Anglican convert Luzancy, he called on Sir John Reresby to testify, and helped to draft the address complaining of the failure to apprehend the principal culprit, the Jesuit St. Germain. He was also among those appointed to consider the bill for the liberty of the subject. He took a moderate line on the revival of the differences between the Houses over the jurisdiction of the Lords, and helped to manage a conference.7

Cavendish was now recognized as one of the leaders of the Opposition, and in 1676 Sir Richard Wiseman included him among those Members he had no hopes of gaining for the Court. In another duel Lord Mohun, one of the country peers who was acting as his second, was mortally wounded. When Parliament met again, Cavendish queried the legality of the long recess, and complained that he was denied access to Shaftesbury and the other peers who had been sent to the Tower for expressing the same view, though less cautiously. He was again appointed to committees for recall from the French service, liberty of the subject, and preventing the growth of Popery. On 6 Mar. 1677 he told the House:

Parliaments have been prorogued without doing anything, and money has been refused for our better strength at sea; and now we have had a long prorogation and officers notoriously known to raise men for the French service, and much countenanced here at Court. When he considers these things he still thinks we have creatures and pensioners of France in our councils.

He helped to manage conferences on the danger from France and the naval programme, and to draft addresses promising aid for defence and urging the formation of alliances. But he was determined that the Commons should retain control of the purse-strings. ‘’Tis an ill precedent to charge the people because the King may have a war’, he said on 23 May, a few days before the session came to an abrupt end. At the next brief meeting in July he ‘modestly moved in a few words ... that they might have the order read whereby they were last adjourned’. He visited Shaftesbury in the Tower in November, and was marked ‘thrice worthy’. He seconded William Sacheverell in his attack on Seymour on 28 Jan. 1678 for his irregular adjournments, and supported the address for reducing France to her frontiers of 1659, which he helped to draw up. He acted as teller against going into committee on supply, saying

Prerogative protects us, but those abuse it who speak of it without telling us how ’tis for our safety. I am for it as it is by law, but not for prerogative to be swayed by ill counsels. I am not for the ministers having money to employ it, either for a short war, or no war. Let us be showed that a war is intended in earnest. I am sorry I cannot [but] suspect otherwise. Till that be plain, I cannot give money. Till it be showed us, I cannot give a penny.

During the spring and summer sessions Cavendish helped to draw up the address for war with France, to prepare reasons on the growth of Popery, to summarize foreign commitments, to draw up another address for the removal of counsellors, and to consider the revived bill for hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament. The speech from the throne on 18 June provoked from him the derisive suggestion that the opposition firebrand Michael Malet should be yoked with Secretary Williamson in returning thanks ‘for the gracious expressions’. More seriously, he demanded the removal of those ministers who had advised a further demand for supply. ‘Our liberality has brought upon us the fears of Popery and arbitrary power.’8

In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament, Cavendish was appointed to the committee of inquiry into the Popish Plot and to those to examine Coleman and to translate his letters. He helped to draw up reasons for belief in the plot. Nevertheless his real target was Danby, for he had been convinced by Lord Faversham and John Churchill II that it was the lord treasurer who denied him employment, whereas the Duke of York, mindful of his good conduct at the battle of Lowestoft, was disposed to grant him a command. ‘I have an extreme veneration for the Duke’, he said on 4 Nov., ‘for I think the Duke had not the least hand in the plot.’ But he recognized the force of public opinion. ‘If I had the honour to be near the Duke, I would advise him to withdraw. ... I think we cannot answer our duty to the King, nor our country, if we do not address that the Duke may be removed from the King.’ When Williamson was proved to have signed commissions to Roman Catholic officers, Cavendish declared his opinion that ‘a standing army in time of peace, whether the officers be Popish or Protestant, is illegal’. He also noted that Monmouth was described as the King’s son; ‘have we a Prince of Wales?’ he inquired ironically. He favoured the impeachment of the unfortunate secretary for his lapses, and helped to draft the address for his imprisonment. When the Lords proposed to except the Duke of York by name from the bill to exclude Papists from Parliament, Cavendish said:

I cannot agree to the Duke’s being declared a Papist by Act of Parliament till I hear the Lords’ reasons for the proviso. If we agree to the proviso, we cannot hear the Lords’ reasons. Possibly I may be convinced by the Lords, but I am not by anything I have heard yet.

He helped to draft the instructions for disbanding the army and the address on the dangers facing the nation. He was clearly familiar with the contents of the papers of Ralph Montagu before they were produced in the House, and headed the Commons delegation sent to ask the King for details of the charges against him. Responsibility for Danby’s impeachment was specially imposed on Cavendish and William Williams, and he defended their conduct in concealing the place and time of meeting from Members ‘who would come only to spy what we did’. He was among those instructed to examine the articles of impeachment. Altogether he had been a moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, in which he had been appointed to 81 committees, acted as teller in ten divisions, and made about 120 recorded speeches.9

Cavendish was re-elected unopposed to the Exclusion Parliaments. An active Member in 1679, with eight committees and 18 speeches, he was marked ‘worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. Nevertheless, from the first he showed himself, to his father’s delight, one of the most moderate of the Opposition, and was brought to Court by Ossory at the King’s request. He was anxious to find an expedient for breaking the deadlock over the speakership, and seconded Russell’s nomination of William Gregory as compromise candidate. He spoke twice in the debate occasioned by Bedloe’s evidence, and brought the King’s answer to the request of the House for entrusting the informer’s safety to Monmouth. On the humiliation of Edward Sackville for expressing disbelief in the plot, he remarked, ‘I like any opinion of the House that looks like justice, and not animosity’, but found little support. But towards Danby he was implacable. ‘It is cruelty to the public to let this pardon pass’, he said. He helped to manage a conference and to draft the summons to the fallen minster to give himself up. He acted as teller against the court candidates at Windsor, and, on the rumour that Tangier, like Dunkirk, was to be sold to the French, he moved to attach it formally to the crown. His name stood first on the committee appointed to prepare a bill to this effect. Although his popularity in the country was such that a spurious speech was published over his name, he could no longer ‘keep pace’ with the Opposition, especially after his nomination to the remodelled Privy Council. When the King reminded the House of the need to send out a fleet, Cavendish said:

I see no reason to abandon all thoughts of public safety because all things are not yet done. No man in this House can say so much of ill management, etc., as I can think. ... But, because you have not everything done on a sudden, will you put a negative on the King’s message? There is no reason for that, or why we should be ruined whilst we consider [how] to punish offenders. I have examined myself, and if I were not in the state I am, I should be of the same opinion.

On 17 May he informed the House that the King would receive their loyal address, promising to revenge his possible assassination on the Papists. He considered exclusion a desperate measure, calculated to provoke foreign interference, and voted against the bill.10

During the summer Cavendish’s military ambitions seemed at last on the point of fulfilment, for he was commissioned colonel of foot against the rebels in Scotland, an embarrassing appointment since he had publicly declared that Lauderdale’s enemies, to his personal knowledge, were ‘of as great loyalty, honour and estates as any are in that country’. He declined the offer, and in January 1680 was given leave, together with Russell, to withdraw from the Privy Council. After pointedly ignoring the Duke of York at Newmarket, he was again forbidden the King’s presence. He was among those who sought to obtain the Duke’s conviction for recusancy in June. Secretary Jenkins, however, was told that if the King persuaded Lord Devonshire to pay Cavendish’s debts and grant him a more liberal maintenance, he would ‘return to his duty ... to the King, as well as to his father’. He was less active in the second Exclusion Parliament, being appointed to only two committees and making 11 speeches. Although now a convert to exclusion, he would have nothing to do with Monmouth’s claims, and ‘took occasion sometimes to show his dislike of the violence and virulence of the prosecutors’. Speaking ‘much beyond himself’ in the debate on Halifax, he abandoned his defence of rumour as a ground for action, ‘urging it as mere nonsense that common fame should publish what counsels were clandestinely and secretly delivered’, and desiring that the address for his removal might lie upon the table ‘until fortified with better reasons’. When William Harbord and Miles Fleetwood asserted that Seymour had been guilty of malversation, Cavendish sarcastically expressed his confidence that they would not be ‘exposed’. During the attack on Laurence Hyde he inquired: ‘What becomes of liberty of speech if he may be questioned for what he does here?’ On 18 Dec. he moved, despite calls to proceed to a vote, for a numerous committee to draw up an address insisting on exclusion, to which he was appointed. ‘He inveighed against French mistresses and said he doubted of the success of their endeavours, because they ought not to prosecute any actions in themselves just by unjust means.’ Nevertheless he carried the impeachment of Lord Chief Justice Scroggs to the Lords on 5 Jan. 1681. Two days later he proposed that the House should pass a resolution declaring resistance to a Popish successor to be lawful, since he would be incapable of performing the office of a King, but was forced to agree that it would be no substitute for a statute. In the Oxford Parliament he helped to prepare for a conference on the loss of the bill of ease for dissenters and to draw up the third exclusion bill. He was willing to overlook Jenkins’s fault after he had begged the House’s pardon for refusing to carry up the impeachment of Fitzharris, and objected to explanations from Members of their change of attitude on exclusion.11

Cavendish kissed the King’s hand at Newmarket in 1681, but in other respects his life altered little. His father feared that his late hours in town might destroy him, and complained that he could not obtain a clear list of his debts, though he was in danger of arrest. He sought vainly to bring Konigsmarck to account for the murder of Thomas Thynne II. He was not involved in the Rye House Plot, and offered to help Russell to escape from Newgate by changing clothes with him. As Earl of Devonshire he led the Opposition in the Lords in 1685. He quarrelled with a courtier named Colepeper and was provoked into striking him in Whitehall, for which he was sentenced to pay a fine of £30,000. He signed the invitation to William of Orange, and took a prominent part in the Revolution. One of the leading Whig peers, though not a member of the Junto, he was created a duke in 1694. He died on 18 Aug. 1707, and was buried at All Saints, Derby. Burnet’s description has already been quoted in part. After alluding to the defects of his character, he credits him with ‘the courage of a hero, with a much greater proportion both of wit and learning than is usual in men of his birth’. His youngest son sat for Derby with two intervals from 1701 to 1742, and one of the county seats was usually at the disposal of the family throughout the 18th century.12

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: E. R. Edwards


  • 1. HMC 15TH Rep. VII, 161, 166; Pepys Diary, 11 May 1660.
  • 2. Sir Robert Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster Office Holders, 162, 170; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1509; x. 273; HMC Buccleuch, ii. 107; Manning and Bray, Surr. i. 342; Nottingham Bor. Recs. vi. 36.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1689-90, p. 97; BL Loan 16.
  • 4. Copinger, Suff. Manors, i. 60-61; Lysons, Derbys. 147-8; DNB; Cal. Comm. Adv. Money, 402.
  • 5. HMC Hastings, ii. 141; CSP Dom. 1665-6, p. 431; Grey, i. 66, 183; Milward, 165; CJ, ix. 40, 92; Burnet, ii. 91; HMC Rutland, ii. 11; CSP Ven. 1669-70, p. 72; Dering, 45; PRO31/3, bdle. 127, f. 189.
  • 6. Dering, 110, 148; CJ, ix. 265, 292; Burnet, ii. 16-17; Grey, ii. 152, 200, 247, 329, 362, 374; CSP Ven. 1673-5, p. 33; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvii), 131.
  • 7. Dering Pprs. 59, 77, 82, 89; Grey, iii. 4, 83, 120, 128-9, 291-3, 299, 316, 356; iv. 39; vii. 191; Haley, Shaftesbury, 389; Essex Pprs. 319; Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxxii), 199; Bulstrode Pprs. 302-3, 316-19; Reresby, 101.
  • 8. Browning, Danby, i. 229; HMC Rutland, ii. 34, 39; Grey, iv. 65, 101, 200, 368, 391; v. 6-7, 31, 81-82, 95, 98; CSP Dom. 1676-7, p. 564; 1677-8, pp. 149, 268; CJ, ix. 398, 418, 428, 432; HMC Portland, iii. 355.
  • 9. Browning, iii. 8; Grey, vi. 141, 218, 225, 236, 253, 347, 370; CJ, ix. 542, 561.
  • 10. Devonshire mss IH, letter of 28 Jan. 1679; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 347, 356; v. 5, 38, 98; Grey, vi. 426; vii. 2, 14, 15, 30, 54, 98, 247, 274-5; CJ, ix. 573, 588, 602.
  • 11. HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 522; v. 137, 291-2, 503, 561-2; vi. 2, 8; CSP Dom. 1679-80, p. 177; 1680-1, pp. 38-39; Grey, vii. 198; viii. 44, 90, 198, 268, 283, 308; HMC 7th Rep. 479; PRO31/3, bdle. 146, f. 26v; bdle. 147, f. 85; Exact Coll. Debates, 154, 256; CJ, ix. 683.
  • 12. Luttrell, i. 132, 174; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 161, 328; Browning, i. 374; Burnet, ii. 92, 382.