Edward Hyde

Edward Hyde

Of Magdalen Hall's members in the seventeenth century, none had a more spectacular career than the Wiltshire lawyer Edward Hyde. Hyde pushed himself forward to advise Charles I in 1641, and thereafter had the ear of successive monarchs until 1667. He helped run Charles I's government in Oxford during the Civil War and shared exile with Charles II throughout the 1650s. This loyalty won him high office, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1643 and Lord Chancellor in 1658. From the latter eminent post Hyde (ennobled as earl of Clarendon in 1661) dominated Charles II's administration until pushed by an ungrateful monarch king into incongenial exile in 1667. Clarendon improved his last years by completing the history of his own times, his enduring monument.

Hyde, like others, arrived at Magdalen Hall by accident. As a younger son of a landed gentleman, obliged to follow a profession if he was to live stylishly, Edward Hyde had been intended by his father for Magdalen College. In 1622 the younger Hyde, then aged thirteen, failed to secure election to a Magdalen demyship and instead was squeezed into Magdalen Hall, an adjacent institution with which several fellows of Magdalen had connections. It was Dr John Oliver, at the time fellow and later president of Magdalen, who placed Edward Hyde. In the 1620s Magdalen Hall enjoyed an immense and not altogether explicable popularity. With over three hundred resident members, it was larger than any college, and accommodation was hard to find, so much so that the Principal, John Wilkinson, had inaugurated an ambitious building programme to which he himself contributed £3,000. John Oliver in writing to Hyde's father alluded to the throng in the Hall, but reassured him that his son occupied 'a chamber warm and convenient to study in, and, among so great a company as we are, at a reasonable price'. Evidently Dr Oliver grew fond of Hyde, speaking early of the latter's 'promising and forward ingenuity', asking him to intercede in 1641 to protect his ecclesiastical benefice in Kent and bequeathing him a packet of gold. Hyde himself may have acted from friendship in helping Dr Oliver into the deanery of Worcester in 1660. In other respects, though, the influence of Oliver and his other tutors was minimal. Oliver, for example, was sufficiently sympathetic with the ecclesiastical temper of the times to serve as Archbishop Laud's chaplain; Hyde, in contrast, regretted the effects of Laudianism on the Anglican church. More generally, Hyde confessed that he learnt little as an undergraduate, 'the discipline of that time being not so strict as it hath been since, and as it ought to be, and the custom of drinking being too much introduced and practised'. His hopes of remaining at Oxford ended when he failed to secure a fellowship at Exeter reserved for Wiltshire men, and instead he went to the bar where, by the 1630s, he had had a modest success.

Hyde was elected to Parliament in 1640 and resembled most of his colleagues in being aggrieved at Charles I's disregard for familiar legal and administrative processes and frustrated in his own hopes of lucrative office. Hyde came to prominence only as his views changed, serving as the spokesman for many others who were alarmed by the growing violence of the opposition campaign against the King. A consistent theme ran through Hyde's entire career: that the law should be observed by both King and Parliament. He had at first attacked the King for deviating from the law; now, in the Autumn of 1641, he rounded on the parliamentarians who wanted 'to alter the whole form of government, both of Church and State, and to subject both the King and people to their own lawless, arbitrary power and government'. Hyde urged the King to rally those who valued the ancient forms of government by appearing to the nation as the champion of known laws. This policy, admirable in itself and a recipe to avert civil war, rested on one miscalculation: Charles I would not play the role in which Hyde had cast him. By turns arbitrary and conciliatory, the King dissipated the good will Hyde had so laboriously created. The inconsistency and political folly of the Stuarts would be the obstacles against which Hyde constantly battled.

During the Civil War he counselled the King against letting soldiers rampage and terrorize civilians, appreciating that it was the civilians' contributions which would decide the war. Hyde, having failed to keep Charles I loyal to the balanced constitution or the privileges of the Church of England, struggled to do the same with his eldest son. Hyde, more realistic that most of the exiled royalists in the 1650s, knew that the Stuarts would not regain their throne by deals with the Scottish Presbyterians or Irish and Spanish Catholics, but only when the Protestant gentry and merchants of England, wearied of innovation, chaos and disorder, turned back to a Stuart monarchy as the best guarantee of social and political harmony. Hyde's caution was disliked by Charles II and his influence waned until the events of the Restoration in 1660 proved his calculations correct. In the 1660s Hyde's view of a monarch checked by his privy councillors irritated Charles II, as did his openly expressed disapproval at the antics of the royal court. Clarendon's power was great and vividly displayed, most conspicously in his fashionable new house in Piccadilly, at his country retreat at Cornbury near Charlbury, and in the marriage of his daughter to the king's brother and heir, James Duke of York. He blocked the advance of the thrusting young, as his own career had been thwarted in the 1630s. Worse still, he presided over a corrupt and complacent government, the inefficiency of which was starkly revealed by the naval disasters of the Dutch War. Tired of his sententiousness, needing a scapegoat to satisfy public disquiet and dazzled by the promises of others, Charles II first dismissed and then consented to the impeachment of Clarendon. Clarendon, rather than be sentenced by a rigged court, skipped overseas, leaving behind a jubilant King and courtiers. Indeed Lady Castlemaine was so delighted by the news that she rushed out into Whitehall in her nightgown to celebrate. The shabby treatment of Clarendon, connived at by Charles II, showed how little the Stuarts valued loyalty and discouraged the principled from serving them.

Statue of Edward Hyde on the Clarendon Building in Oxford

During his public career, Clarendon had retained contacts with Oxford, though with the university and county and not his old college. In the 1630s he had been one of the company of men of letters and affairs which met at Lord Falkland's house at Great Tew north of Oxford. There Hyde continued the education neglected at Magdalen Hall, imbibing through free discussion the tolerant views of Erasmus, Hooker and Grotius; there Hyde talked and argued with the more interesting Oxford dons, happy to weekend in 'a college situate in a purer air'. The war sundered this society and killed the host. However, the war did bring Hyde back to Oxford, now the headquarters of the King's army and makeshift administration. Hyde lodged in All Souls, where he had friends from the Great Tew circle among the fellows, and went to weekly meetings of the ruling junta in Oriel. In 1660 Hyde's devotion to the established church, his admiration for learning and his political weight were recognized in his choice as chancellor of the University. His tenure of that Office was not universally admired. One contemporary suggested that he showed the same imperious attitude as chancellor of the university as he did as chancellor of the kingdom, sending 'continual letters ... for degrees to be conferred on certain persons, for dispensations of terms, absence, standing, etc., as also for diplomas to be conferred on men absent or on such persons that the members of convocation never saw or heard of: which being esteemed very unreasonable, it put them often upon muttering at his proceedings'. The petty, muttering dons had their revenge, for Clarendon, on the eve of his flight, surrendered the chancellorship.

His affection for Oxfordshire had been shown in his selection of Cornbury as his rural seat, where he might recreate the atmosphere of Great Tew and receive stimulus from the university. He had planned to write his history there, but had instead to complete it at Montpellier and Rouen. His History of the Great Rebellion, the finest English history of the century, allowed Clarendon to show his continuing affection for the university, for the royalities from the work (which proved an immediate bestseller) were bequeathed to the university and used to construct the Clarendon Building in the Broad to house the printing press. It is appropriate that the building should carry a statue of Clarendon (by Francis Bird) and the press itself still bear his name.