Sunday, September 20, 2015

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon: from Commoner to Chief Minister

By Cryssa Bazos

Few commoners experienced the meteoric rise in power and influence that Edward Hyde saw. In his career, he had been named Chancellor and advisor to King Charles II, elevated to the peerage as Earl of Clarendon and grandfather to not one but two reigning monarchs, Queen Mary II (1689 to 1694) and Queen Anne (1702 to 1707). He was at heart a historian and a prolific writer; his writings formed a foundation for our understanding of the English Civil War. His most notable history was the History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. But with any unprecedented rise, one must be mindful of the sudden drop.

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon
by Adriaen Hanneman;
National Portrait Gallery; NPG 773
Edward Hyde was born in 1609 to a respectable middle-class family of politicians and lawyers from Wiltshire. He continued the family calling and studied law at Oxford, where upon the completion of his studies, he was admitted into the Middle Temple. In the years leading up to the civil war, he was elected to Parliament and spoke up for moderate reform. When the lines were finally drawn, his loyalty aligned him with King Charles I.

During the first Civil War, Hyde was named to the King’s Privy Counsel and given the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1645, with episodes of plague and an encroaching enemy threatening them, the King appointed Hyde as the Prince of Wales’ guardian (the future Charles II), to see his son and heir safely to the west. This was the beginning of a trusted and close advisory relationship between Hyde and Charles II. Together with Richard Fanshawe, the Prince’s secretary, the party fled to Cornwall, and Hyde continued on to Jersey with the Prince. Following the execution of Charles I, Hyde fled to the Continent with his wife and children.

Charles II (de Champaigne)
by Philippe de Champaigne; Licensed under
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Hyde was a staunch Royalist and Anglican, firm in his opposition to the Crown’s enemies. When Charles II sought an alliance with the Presbyterian Scots to win back his throne, Hyde did not support the young King’s choice of bedfellows, nor did he accompany him to Scotland. His reservations proved to be astute. Charles had been little more than a royal prisoner, and by the time he had seized some measure of control over his campaign, it was too late to stop the Cromwellian tide. With the King’s defeat at Worcester, on September 3, 1651, and the Prince of Wales' subsequent narrow escape to the Continent, the Royalist cause was left in shambles.

Over the next eight years, Hyde became a trusted advisor to the King in exile. In much the same way that Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, groomed a network of spies and intelligence that spread beyond England, Hyde performed a similar service for Charles, though to a lesser extent. To be fair, Thurloe retained complete control of his operation, whereas Hyde had to manoeuvre around rival Royalist factions who resented a commoner’s proximity to the King and who were desperate to deliver the crown to Charles. Hyde was caught between the Queen mother’s people (Henrietta was a great meddler in her son’s affairs) and the faction led by Prince Rupert, with both rival groups actively trying to discredit him. This would become routine even during the Restoration.

In November 1653, responding to an increasingly dysfunctional Parliament back in England, Hyde encouraged the formation of the Sealed Knot, which became the official Royalist organization to restore Charles to the throne. Its founding members were John Belasyse, Richard Willis, William Compton, Henry Hastings, John Russell and Edward Villiers. Reports and instructions were passed through Hyde. The group’s mandate was very much a reflection of Hyde’s moderate policies and at odds with the more action orientated Royalist factions. In the end, the Protectorate proved unsustainable. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the disposition of his heir, Richard, the monarchy was restored.

A few months after the Restoration, the Hyde family were at the centre of a royal scandal. Hyde’s eldest daughter, Anne, had entered into a secret liaison with the King’s brother, James, the Duke of York, and had become pregnant. Anne Hyde claimed that James had promised her marriage, though he initially denied it. The couple secretly married on September 3, 1660, causing a major scandal when it was finally discovered. Hyde was horrified. Though Anne was his favourite daughter, a father’s affection did not blind Hyde to the loss of opportunity for England. James was as an asset to England and should have been an instrument to solidify foreign alliances. The scandal gave Hyde’s critics the opportunity to accuse him of orchestrating the affair.

Peter Lely [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Initially, Hyde profited from his daughter’s marriage. Within a year, he became the 1st Earl of Clarendon. Over the next few years, Anne would give birth to daughters Mary and Anne, who would one-day reign as Queens of England. But in the meanwhile, his enemies were looking for ways to remove him from Royal favour.

On July 10, 1663, Hyde was impeached of high treason in the House of Lords. The articles ranged from the political—profiting from policies to the disadvantage of the nation; to the absurd: promoting Charles’s marriage to a barren Queen; to the ridiculous: encouraging Popery (oddly enough, he has been incorrectly credited with the religiously intolerant Clarendon Code which did not favour Catholics). After four days of deliberation, the impeachment was dismissed.

Rather than this eliminating his political problems, it galvanized his detractors and made them more determined to oust him from his position. Concerted rumours of his impending retirement together with his attempt to curtail Charles’s merry court succeeded in eroding his position. In August 1667, the privy seals were taken from him, and the King’s favourite mistress, Barbara Villiers, jeered at him as he left.

Plans to once again impeach Hyde over the second Dutch War reached him in time and he fled to France before they could arrest him. After his departure, an Act of Banishment was passed against him in November 1667. Sadly, he was never allowed to return to see his children and died in France on December 9, 1674.

From commoner to Chancellor to Chief Minister and finally to banished exile, Edward Hyde worked relentlessly to represent the Crown until the rival factions succeeded in bringing him low. In the end, history would remember him as a scholar, historian and grandfather of Queens.


Historical Inquiries Respecting the Character of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Lord Chancellor of England, by George Agar Ellis

Diary of Samuel Pepys

Royalist Agents, Conspirators and Spies: Their Role in the British Civil Wars, 1640-1660, by Geoffrey Smith.

Royalist Conspiracy, by David Underdown


Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. For more stories about that period, visit her blog.


  1. Fascinating history. Given the times, he didn't do so badly. A natural death, even in exsile, was an achievement!

  2. Wow that was very interesting I enjoyed that, but I never knew that Edward hyde wrote books ill have to add him to my book list when I make it for the winter for this year on my kindle

  3. Thank you for your comments. You can find his writings in Google books.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.