Jones, Richard (1641–1712), 1st earl of Ranelagh , tax farmer, politician, and architect, was born 8 February 1641 in the house of his uncle, Viscount Dungarvan, in Long Acre, London, the only son of Arthur Jones and Katherine Jones (qv), the fifth daughter of Richard Boyle (qv), the great earl of Cork. Arthur Jones (1670), 2nd Viscount Ranelagh , politician and soldier, was the eldest son and heir of Roger Jones (qv), 1st Viscount Ranelagh, of Durhamstown, Co. Meath, soldier and politician, and his first wife, Frances, daughter of Gerald (or Garret) Moore (qv), 1st Viscount Drogheda, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Sir Henry Colley. His grandfather was Archbishop Thomas Jones (qv); his father was joint lord president of Connacht from 1630 to his death. Arthur Jones sat in the English house of commons for Weobley, 1640–44, while the marquess of Ormond (qv) appointed him a trustee for the ‘49 officers of the royalist army in Ireland in 1652. He was appointed to the Irish privy council in 1660 and died 7 January 1670.
Richard Jones was tutored by John Milton, a friend of his mother, and attended Oxford University in 1656 but did not matriculate. He travelled in France, Switzerland, and Italy (1657–60), and in 1663 was one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of London. In 1661 he was returned for Co. Roscommon to the Irish house of commons where, despite his youth, he led the opposition to the land settlement in 1663 and 1665. He spoke for the New English and Cromwellian interest which was suspicious of the lord lieutenant, the duke of Ormond, and was appointed governor of Roscommon castle in 1661. More significantly, his accommodation to the Irish government was marked by his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer and privy councillor in 1668. He succeeded his father as 3rd Viscount Ranelagh in January 1670 and inherited his modest Irish estate. Appointed to the newly created Irish council of trade in May 1670, he moved to London, where, before the end of the year, he was made a gentleman of the privy chamber. He made important allies in parliament, including Edward Seymour, speaker of the English house of commons, and at court, notably the duchess of Portsmouth. Above all, Charles II was susceptible to the power and charm of his conversation, and was attracted by his schemes for relieving his money problems.
In 1671 Ranelagh made a proposal to Charles, amounting to the effective privatisation of the Irish exchequer. This ‘undertaking’ by Ranelagh and eight subordinate partners was accepted by the king in September 1671, though it related to the period June 1670 to December 1675. Its provisions, which allowed the undertakers to receive all Irish revenue and pay all Irish charges, included payment of a fixed sum of £80,000 to the king for the right to collect all Irish arrears. In return for a payment of £10,000 annually to the king, Ranelagh was secretly indemnified against any personal liability for shortfalls in the revenue. He was prepared to exercise fully the powers inherent in the new arrangements, which usurped Irish government functions and gravely undermined the position of successive lords lieutenant. Lord Berkeley (qv) and then the more substantial earl of Essex (qv) both resented his powers, and much of Essex's viceroyalty was spent in attempting to resist the influence of Ranelagh and to make him accountable for the increasingly dubious practices of the undertaking.
When Essex planned for an Irish parliament, Ranelagh knew it was not likely to be friendly to his projects and intrigued behind the scenes to prevent it. He had become a highly unpopular figure in Ireland, and was attacked in the English commons by two Irish peers, Lord Ibrackan and Lord Aungier in 1674. He managed his tax farm ruthlessly, both in extracting revenue and in prioritising payments according to his own political requirements. The army in particular suffered and soldiers found that complaints were useless, if not dangerous. In 1671 some twenty prominent officers, including Lord Power and Sir Henry Ingoldsby (qv), petitioned the Irish government about their arrears of pay, only to be cashiered because, it was said, Ranelagh depicted them to the king as mutineers.
A series of appointments and honours reflected Ranelagh's ascendancy. As part of the legal arrangements for the farm, he was made the chief commissioner of the office of vice-treasurer of Ireland in 1671, and was made sole vice-treasurer in 1674. He was made constable of Athlone Castle in 1674, was a captain of horse by 1675, and a captain of foot in 1678. His promotion in the peerage, to become 1st earl of Ranelagh in 1677, represented the peak of this phase of his career. He repeatedly delayed producing accounts for the undertaking, which was transferred to Sir James Shaen (qv) and his partners in 1677. His schemes to have Charles II's natural son, the duke of Monmouth, made lord lieutenant failed, Ormond being instead reappointed. Further blows came with the fall of his principal political ally, Sir Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, the lord treasurer, in 1678, and the collapse of an English undertaking, with which he was closely associated, in 1679. He purchased a place at court, as a gentleman of the bedchamber, for protection against his creditors. In Dublin, Ormond was pressing hard for Ranelagh's accounts, and in 1682 Ranelagh resigned as vice-treasurer. Neither contemporaries nor later historians have ever succeeded in penetrating the full workings of his undertaking.
Though he by no means abandoned his interest in Irish affairs, after the reign of Charles, Ranelagh's career was mainly English. After several failed attempts to enter the English house of commons, he was elected to the parliament summoned in 1685 by James II (qv), who in the same year appointed him paymaster general of the English forces. Ranelagh, though he had been an active servant of James, transferred his allegiance to William of Orange (qv), who, despite some misgivings, continued him as paymaster. James's Irish parliament in 1689 placed Ranelagh third in the list of over 2,000 names in its act of attainder; his mother was also named. Ranelagh meanwhile was active in the English convention in 1689, and was associated with much of the Irish business before that body. He continued to sit in the English commons in every parliament in the reign of William, who appointed him to the Irish privy council in November 1690 and to the English privy council in March 1692. From April 1692 a cabal of Irish grandees, including Ranelagh, his uncle, the earl of Burlington (qv), and Viscount Massereene (qv), intruded themselves into the English government's preparation of a legislative programme for the Irish parliament of 1692. Ranelagh appears not to have attended the Irish council in William's reign but was, like Lord Coningsby (qv), his political and business associate, one of those members of the English council who took a special interest in Irish legislation which came before that body. During the Irish parliamentary session of 1695, when Essex's younger brother, Lord Capel (qv), was lord deputy, Ranelagh appears to have attempted to exercise political influence. He played some part when the matter of Irish forfeitures was before the English commons in 1700.
In 1700 Ranelagh began to come under attack for the management of the paymaster's office, prompted in part by soldiers’ complaints of arrears of pay. A prolonged process of inquiry began into his conduct in office, though the wily Ranelagh offered many obstructions and delays. His enormously profligate style of living, costing vastly more than his known legitimate income, told heavily against him. Reports presented to the English house of commons in 1702 and 1704 relied on procedural malpractice rather than direct evidence of theft, but the house nonetheless in February 1703 condemned him for ‘a high crime and misdemeanour’ and expelled him. For the rest of his life he cut a pathetic isolated figure, greatly reduced in means and attempting to sort out his accounts. He died 5 January 1712, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The earldom became extinct with his death, and the viscountcy was not assumed until 1759, by his cousin Charles Jones (d. 1797), who was active in the house of lords.
He married first, in 1662, Elizabeth (d. 1695), daughter and co-heir of Francis, 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham; the couple had two sons, who died young, and three daughters, one of whom was reputedly a mistress of Charles II. He married secondly, in 1696, Lady Margaret Cecil (d. 1728), daughter of James Cecil, 3rd earl of Salisbury; there were no children of this marriage. According to the gossip of the day, Ranelagh, soon after his marriage to this much younger bride, came home unexpectedly early one day to find his wife in bed with Coningsby, ‘at which sight he said nothing, but withdrew very civilly and went downstairs about his business’ (Hist. parl.: commons, 1690–1715). The story seems quite in keeping with Ranelagh's cool, amoral cynicism; nonetheless he was displeased when his daughter Frances married Coningsby without his consent in 1697.
In the 1660s he probably lived in a large house in Dame Street, Dublin, belonging to his father, and would have been entitled to reside at Roscommon and Athlone castles. He was appointed in 1680 one of the commissioners for the building of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, which was designed by William Robinson (qv), whose enduring association with Ranelagh may have been based partly on a shared interest in architecture. In England he lived in St James's Square, Westminster, from the reign of Charles II, later acquiring land at Chelsea, Middlesex, during the 1690s and a residence at Cranbourn Chace, near Windsor, in 1700. Ranelagh, who had acted as architectural adviser on several noblemen's building projects, designed his own magnificent house and gardens at Chelsea, which after his death were sold and turned into the celebrated public attraction known as Ranelagh Gardens.