The one man in England on whom the discovery of the King's perfidy fell with the most crushing effect was the Chancellor, Lord Shaftesbury. Ashley Cooper had piqued himself on a penetration which read the characters of men around him, and on a political instinct which discerned every coming change. His self-reliance was wonderful. In mere boyhood he saved his estate from the greed of his guardians by boldly appealing in person to Noy, who was then Attorney-General. As an undergraduate at Oxford he organized a rebellion of the freshmen against the oppressive customs which were enforced by the senior men of his college, and succeeded in abolishing them. At eighteen he was a member of the Short Parliament. On the outbreak of the Civil War he took part with the King; but in the midst of the royal successes he foresaw the ruin of the royal cause, passed to the Parliament, attached himself to the fortunes of Cromwell, and became member of the Council of State. Before all things a strict Parliamentarian, however, he was alienated by Cromwell's setting up of absolute rule without Parliament; and a temporary disgrace during the last years of the Protectorate only quickened him to an active opposition which did much to bring about its fall.
His bitter invectives against the dead Protector, his intrigues with Monk, and the active part which he took, as member of the Council of State, in the King's recall, were rewarded at the Restoration with a peerage, and with promotion to a foremost share in the royal councils. Ashley was then a man of forty, and under the Commonwealth he had been, in the contemptuous phrase of Dryden when writing as a Tory, "the loudest bagpipe of the squeaking train;" but he was no sooner a minister of Charles than he flung himself into the debauchery of the Court with an ardour which surprised even his master. "You are the wickedest dog in England!" laughed Charles at some unscrupulous jest of his counsellor's. "Of a subject, Sir, I believe I am!" was the unabashed reply. But the debauchery of Ashley was simply a mask. He was in fact temperate by nature and habit, and his ill-health rendered any great excess impossible. Men soon found that the courtier who lounged in Lady Castlemaine's boudoir, or drank and jested with Sedley and Buckingham, was a diligent and able man of business. "He is a man," says the puzzled Pepys, three years after the Restoration, "of great business, and yet of pleasure and dissipation too." His rivals were as envious of the ease and mastery with which he dealt with questions of finance, as of the "nimble wit" which won the favour of the King. Even in later years his industry earned the grudging praise of his enemies.
[Authorities. - As before. Mr. Christie's "Life of Shaftesbury," a defence, and in some respects a successful defence, of that statesman's career, throws a fresh light on the policy of the Whig party during this period].
Dryden owned that as Chancellor he was "swift to despatch and easy of access," and wondered at the restless activity which "refused his age the needful hours of rest." His activity indeed was the more wonderful that his health was utterly broken. An accident in early days left behind it an abiding weakness, whose traces were seen in the furrows which seared his long pale face, in the feebleness of his health, and the nervous tremor which shook his puny frame. The " pigmy body" was "fretted to decay" by the "fiery soul" within it. But pain and weakness brought with them no sourness of spirit. Ashley was attacked more unscrupulously than any statesman save Walpole; but Burnet, who did not love him, owns that he was never bitter or angry in speaking of his assailants. Even the wit with which he crushed them was commonly good-humoured. " When will you have done preaching?" a bishop murmured testily, as Shaftesbury was speaking in the House of Peers. " When I am a bishop, my Lord! " was the laughing reply.
As a statesman Ashley not only stood high among his contemporaries from his wonderful readiness and industry, but he stood far above them in his scorn of personal profit. Even Dryden, while raking together every fault in his character, owns that his hands were clean. As a political leader his position was to modern eyes odd enough. In religion he was at best a Deist, with some fanciful notions "that after death our souls lived in stars." But Deist as he was, he remained the representative of the Presbyterian and Nonconformist party in the royal council. He was the steady and vehement advocate of toleration, but his advocacy was based on purely political grounds. He saw that persecution would fail to bring back the Dissenters to the Church, and that the effort to recall them only left the country disunited, and thus exposed English liberty to invasion from the Crown, and robbed England of all influence in Europe. The one means of uniting Churchmen and Dissidents was by a policy of toleration, but in the temper of England after the Restoration he saw no hope of obtaining toleration save from the King. Wit, debauchery, rapidity in the despatch of business, were all therefore used as a means to gain influence over the King, and to secure him as a friend in the struggle which Ashley carried on against the intolerance of Clarendon. Charles, as we have seen, had his own game to play and his own reasons for protecting Ashley during his vehement but fruitless struggle against the Test and Corporation Act, the Act of Uniformity, and the persecution of the Dissidents. Fortune at last smiled on the unscrupulous ability with which he entangled Clarendon in the embarrassments of the Dutch war of 1664, and took advantage of the alienation of the Parliament to ensure his fall.
By a yet more unscrupulous bargain Ashley had bought, as he believed, the Declaration of Indulgence, the release of the imprisoned Nonconformists, and freedom of worship for all dissidents, at the price of a consent to the second attack on Holland; and he was looked on by the public at large as the minister most responsible both for the measures he advised and the measures he had nothing to do with, But while facing the gathering storm of unpopularity Ashley learnt in a moment of drunken confidence the secret of the King's religion. He owned to a friend "his trouble at the black cloud which was gathering over England;" but, troubled as he was, he still believed himself strong enough to use Charles for his own purposes. His acceptance of the Chancellorship and of the Earldom of Shaftesbury, as well as his violent defence of the war on opening the Parliament, identified him yet more with the royal policy. It was after the opening of the Parliament, if we credit the statement of the French Ambassador, that he learnt from Arlington the secret of the Treaty of Dover. Whether this were so, or whether suspicion, as in the people at large, deepened into certainty, Shaftesbury saw he had been duped.