Earl of Strafford (1640-1641)
Born 1593 Died 1641
Thomas Wentworth, son of Sir William Wentworth, of Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, a member of an ancient family long established there, and of Anne, daughter of Sir Robert Atkins of Stowell, Gloucestershire, was born on the 13th of April 1593, in London. He was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, was admitted a student of the Inner Temple in 1607, and in 1611 was knighted and married Margaret, daughter of Francis Clifford, 4th Earl of Cumberland. In 1614 he represented Yorkshire in the Addled Parliament, but, so far as is now known, it was not till the parliament of 1621, in which he sat for the same constituency, that he took part in the debates. His position towards the popular party was peculiar. He did not sympathize with their zeal for war with Spain, but James's denial of the rights and privileges of parliament seems to have caused him to join in the vindication of the claims of the House of which he was a member, and he was a warm supporter of the protestation which drew down a sentence of dissolution upon the third parliament of James.
In 1622 Wentworth's wife died, and in February 1625 he married Arabella Holles, daughter of the Earl of Clare. He was returned for Pontefract to the parliament of 1624, but appears to have taken no part in the proceedings. He had no sympathy with the popular outcry against Spain nor for wars undertaken for religious considerations to the neglect of the practical interests of the country. He desired also to avoid foreign complications and do first the business of the commonwealth. To the advances of Buckingham he replied coldly that he was "ready to serve him as an honest man and a gentleman".
In the first parliament of Charles I, June 1625, he again represented Yorkshire, and at once marked his hostility to the proposed war with Spain by supporting a motion for an adjournment before the house proceeded to business. He took part in the opposition to the demand made under the influence of Buckingham for war subsidies, and was consequently, after the dissolution in November, made sheriff of Yorkshire, in order to exclude him from the parliament which met in 1626. Yet he had never taken up an attitude of antagonism to the king. His position was very different from that of the regular opposition. He was anxious to serve the Crown, but he disapproved of the king's policy. In January 1626 he had asked for the presidency of the Council of the North, and had visited and been favourably received by Buckingham. But after the dissolution of the parliament he was dismissed from the justiceship of the peace and the office of custos rotulorum of Yorkshire, to which he had been appointed in 1615, as the result probably of his resolution not to support the court in its design to force the country to contribute money without a parliamentary grant. At all events he refused in 1627 to contribute to the forced loan, and was imprisoned in consequence.
Wentworth's position in the parliament of 1628 was a striking one. He joined the popular leaders in resistance to arbitrary taxation and imprisonment, but he tried to obtain his end with the least possible infringement of the prerogative of the Crown, to which he looked as a reserve force in times of crisis. With the approbation of the House he led the movement for a bill which would have secured the liberties of the subject as completely as the Petition of Right afterwards did, but in a manner less offensive to the king. The proposal was wrecked between the uncompromising demands of the parliamentary party who would give nothing to the prerogative and Charles's refusal to make the necessary concessions, and the leadership was thus snatched from Wentworth's hands by Eliot and Coke. Later in the session he fell into conflict with Eliot, as, though he supported the Petition of Right in substance, he was anxious to come to a compromise with the Lords, so as to leave room to the king to act unchecked in special emergencies.
On the 22nd of July 1628, not long after the prorogation, Wentworth was created Baron Wentworth, and received a promise of the presidentship of the Council of the North at the next vacancy. This implied no change of principle whatever. He was now at variance with the parliamentary party on two great subjects of policy, disapproving both of the intention of parliament to seize the powers of the executive and also its inclination. towards puritanism. When once the breach was made it naturally grew wider, partly from the engrossing energy which each party put into its work, and partly from the personal animosities which of necessity arose. Such and no other was the nature of Wentworths so-called apostacy.
As yet Wentworth took no part in the general government of the country. In December he became Viscount Wentworth and president of the Council of the North. In the speech delivered at York on his taking office ihe announced his intention, almost in the words of Bacon, of doing his utmost to bind up the prerogative of the Crown and the liberties of the subject in indistinguishable union. "Whoever", he said, "ravels forth into questions the right of a king and of a people shall never be able to wrap them, up again into the comeliness and order he found them". His government here was characterized by the same feature which afterwards marked his administration in Ireland and which it was the gravest charge in his impeachment that he intended to introduce into the whole English administration, namely the attempt to centralize all power with the executive at the expense of the individual in defiance of those constitutional liberties which ran counter to and impeded this policy.
The session of 1629 ended in a breach between the king and the parliament which made the task of a moderator hopeless. Wentworth had to choose between helping a Puritan House of Commons to dominate the king and helping the king to dominate a Puritan House of Commons. He instinctively chose the latter course, and he threw himself into the work of repression with characteristic energy, as if the establishment of the royal power was the one thing needful. Yet even when he was most resolute in crushing resistance he held that he and not his antagonists were maintaining the old constitution, which they had attempted to alter by claiming supremacy for parliament.
In November 1629 Wentworth became a privy councillor. In October 1631 he lost his second wife, and in October 1632 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Godfrey Rhodes. In January 2632 he had been named Lord-Deputy of Ireland, and arrived in Dublin in July 1633.
Here he had to deal with a people who had not arrived at national cohesion, and amongst whom English colonists had been from time to time introduced, some of them, like the early Norman settlers, being Roman Catholics, whilst the later importations stood aloof and preserved their Protestantism. In his government here he showed the most remarkable abilities as a ruler. "The lord deputy of Ireland", wrote Sir Thomas Roe to the queen of Bohemia, "doth great wonders and governs like a king, and hath taught that kingdom to show us an example of envy, by having parliaments and knowing wisely how to use them". He reformed the administration, getting rid summarily of the inefficient English officials. He succeeded in so manipulating the parliaments that he obtained the necessary grants, and secured their co-operation in various useful legislative enactments. He set on foot a new victualling trade with Spain, established or promoted the linen manufacture, and encouraged the development of the resources of the country in many directions. The customs rose from a little over £25,000 in 1633-1634 to £57,000 in 1637-1638. He raised an army. He swept the pirates from the seas. He reformed and instilled life into the Church and rescued church property. His strong and even administration broke down the tyranny of the great men over the poor. Such was the 'government of thorough', as Strafford expresses it. Yet these good measures were all carried out by arbitrary methods which diminished their usefulness and their stability. Their aim moreover was not the prosperity of the Irish community but the benefit to the English exchequer, and Strafford suppressed the trade in cloth lest it should be a means to prejudice that staple commodity of England. (Strafford's Report of 1636. Cal. of State Papers; Irish, 1633-1647, P. 134.) Extraordinary acts of despotism took place, as in the case of Esmond, Lord Chancellor Loftus and Lord Mountnorris, the last of whom Strafford caused to be sentenced to death in order to obtain the resignation of his office, and then pardoned.
Promises of legislation such as the concessions known as the 'graces' were not kept. In particular Strafford set at naught Charles's promise that no colonists should be forced into Connaught, and in 1635 he proceeded to that province, where, raking up an obsolete title the grant in the 14th century of Connaught to Lionel, Duke of Clarence, whose heir Charles was. he insisted upon the grand juries of all the counties finding verdicts for the king. One only, that of Galway resisted, and the confiscation of Galway was effected by the court of exchequer, while he fined the sheriff £1,000 for summoning such a jury, and cited the jurymen to the castle chamber to answer for their offence. In Ulster the arbitrary confiscation of the property of the city companies aroused dangerous animosity against the government.
Towards the native Irish Wentworth's bearing was benevolent but thoroughly unsympathetic. Having no notion of developing their qualities by a process of natural growth, his only hope for them lay in converting them into Englishmen as soon as possible. They must be made English in their habits, in their laws and in their religion. "I see plainly", he once wrote, "that, so long as this kingdom continues popish, they are not a people for the Crown of England to be confident of." High-handed as Wentworth was by nature, his rule in Ireland made him more high-handed than ever. As yet he had never been consulted on English affairs, and it was only in February 1637 that Charles asked his opinion on a proposed interference in the affairs of the Continent. In reply, he assured Charles that it would be unwise to undertake even naval operations till he had secured absolute power at home. He wished that Hampden and his followers "were well whipped into their right senses." The opinion of the judges had given the king the right to levy ship-money, but, unless his majesty had "the like power declared to raise a land army," the Crown "seemed to stand upon one leg at home, to be considerable but by halves to foreign princes abroad." When the Scottish Puritans rebelled he advocated the most decided measures of repression, in February 1639 sending the king £2,000 as his contribution to the expenses of the coming war, at the same time deprecating an invasion of Scotland before the English army was trained, and advising certain concessions in religion.
Wentworth arrived in England in September 1639, after Charles's failure in the first Bishops' War, and from that moment he became Charles's principal adviser. Ignorant of the extent to which opposition had developed in England during his absence, he recommended the calling of a parliament to support a renewal of the war, hoping that by the offer of a loan from the privy councillors, to which he himself contributed £20,000, he would place Charles above the necessity of submitting to the new parliament if it should prove restive. In January 1640 he was created Earl of Strafford, and in March he went to Ireland to hold a parliament, where the Catholic vote secured a grant of subsidies to be used against the Presbyterian Scots. An Irish army was to be levied to assist in the coming war.
When in April Strafford returned to England he found the Commons holding back from a grant of supply, and tried to enlist the peers on the side of the king. On the other hand he induced Charles to be content with a smaller grant than he had originally asked for. The Commons, however, insisted on peace with the Scots. Charles, on the advice, or perhaps by the treachery of Vane, returned to his larger demand of twelve subsidies; and on the 9th of May, at the privy council, Strafford, though reluctantly, voted for a dissolution. The same morning the Committee of Eight of the privy council met again. Vane and others were for a mere defence against invasion. Strafford's advice was the contrary. "Go on vigorously or let them alone ... go on with a vigorous war as you first designed, loose and absolved from all rules of government, being reduced to extreme necessity, everything is to be done that power might admit ... You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this kingdom." He tried to force the citizens of London to lend money. He supported a project for debasing the coinage and for seizing bullion in the Tower, the property of foreign merchants. He also advocated the purchase of a loan from Spain by the offer of a future alliance. He was ultimately appointed to command the English army, and was made a knight of the Garter, but he was seized with illness, and the out of Newburn made the position hopeless. "Pity me," he wrote to his friend Sir George Radcliffe, "for never came my man to so lost a business .... In one word here alone to fight with all these evils, without any one to help." In the Great Council of peers, which assembled on the 24th of September at York, the struggle was given up, and Charles announced that he had issued writs for another parliament.
The Long Parliament assembled on the 3rd of November 1640, and Charles immediately summoned Strafford to London, promising that he "should not suffer in his person, honour or fortune." He arrived on the 9th and on the 10th proposed to the king to forestall his impeachment, now being prepared ay the parliament, by accusing the leaders of the popular party of treasonable communications with the Scots. The plan however having been betrayed, Pym immediately took up the impeachment to the Lords on the 11th. Strafford came to the house to confront his accusers, but was ordered to withdraw and committed into custody. On the 25th of November the preliminary charge was brought up, whereupon he was sent to the Tower, and, on the 31st of January 1641, the accusations in detail were presented.
These were, in sum, that Strafford had endeavoured to subvert the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and that the attempt was high treason. Much stress was laid on Strafford's reported words, already cited "You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this kingdom", England, it being contended, and not Scotland being here meant. It is clear nevertheless that however tyrannical and mischievous Strafford's conduct may have been, his offense was not one which could by any straining of language be included in the limits of high treason; while the copy of a copy of rough notes of Strafford's speech in the committee of the council, the genuineness of which was asserted only by the defendant's accusers or personal enemies and not supported by other councillors who had also been present on the occasion, could not be evidence which would convict in a court of law. In addition, the words had to be arbitrarily interpreted as referring to the subjection of England and not of Scotland and were also spoken on a privileged occasion. Advantage was freely taken by Strafford of the weak points in the attack, and the lords, his judges, were considerably influenced in his favour.
But behind the legal aspect of the case lay the great constitutional question of the responsibility to the nation of the leader of its administration, a principle which was now to be revived after many centuries of neglect, and, in the circumstances which then prevailed, could only be enforced by the destruction of the offender. The Commons therefore, feeling their victim slipping from their grasp, dropped the impeachment, and brought in and passed a bill of attainder, though owing to the opposition of the Lords, and Pym's own preference for the more judicial method, the procedure of an impeachment was practically adhered to. Strafford might still have been saved but for the king's ill-advised conduct. A scheme to gain over the leaders of the parliament, and a scheme to seize the Tower and to liberate Strafford by force, were entertained concurrently and were mutually destructive; and the revelation of the army plot on the 5th of May caused the Lords to pass the attainder. Nothing now remained but the king's signature. Charles had, after the passing of the attainder by the Commons, for the second time assured Strafford "upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune." Strafford now wrote releasing the king from his engagements and declaring his willingness to die in order to reconcile Charles to his subjects. "I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such massacres as may happen by your refusal, to pass the bill; by this means to remove ... the unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish between you and your subjects." Finally Charles yielded, giving his fatal assent on the l0th of May. Strafford met his fate on the 12th of May on Tower Hill, receiving Laud's blessing, who was then also imprisoned in the Tower, on his way to execution.
Thus passed into history "the great person", as Clarendon well calls him, without doubt one of the most striking figures in the annals of England. Strafford's patriotism and ideas were fully as noble as those of his antagonists. Like Pym, a student of Bacon's wisdom, he believed in the progress of England along the lines of natural development, but that development, in opposition to Pym, he was convinced could only proceed with the increase of the power of the executive, not of the parliament, with a government controlled by the king and not by the people. He was equally an upholder of the union of interests and affection between the sovereign and his subjects, but believed this could only exist when the king's will, and not that of the parliament, was paramount. The development of the constitution, in his opinion, either in the direction of a democracy or an aristocracy, was equally fatal and could only lead to anarchy, to the waste of national resources and to degeneration. With a strong and untrammelled executive directed by a single will, wise reforms could be carried out, the weak defended against the strong, the resources of the country developed to their full extent, the hesitations, delays and contradictions caused by barren discussions avoided, and the national forces concentrated on objects worth the aim.
For one brief moment it was given to Strafford to carry out his ideals, and the final failure of his Irish administration, and especially its inability to endure in spite of its undoubted successes, has afforded an object-lesson in one-man government for all time. If such was the event in Ireland, where political ideas were still rude and elementary, still less could success be expected from the attempt to introduce the centralization and absolute power of the executive into England, where principles of government had been highly developed both in theory and practice, and a contrary tendency had long been established towards the increase of the rights of the individual and the power of parliament.
While arousing in the course of his career the most bitter enmities and no man's death was ever received with more public rejoicing, Strafford was capable of inspiring strong friendships in private life. Sir Thomas Roe speaks of him as "Severe abroad and in business, and sweet in private conversation; retired in his friendships but very firm; a terrible judge and a strong enemy." His appearance is described by Sir Philip Warwick: "In his person he was of a tall stature, but stooped much in the neck. His countenance was cloudy whilst he moved or sat thinking, but when he spake, either seriously or facetiously, he had a lightsome and a very pleasant air; and indeed whatever he then did he performed very gracefully." He himself jested on his own "bent and ill-favoured brow", Lord Exeter replying that had he been "cursed with a meek brow and an arch of white hair upon it", he would never "have governed Ireland nor Yorkshire."
Strafford was married three times: (1) in 1611 to Lady Margaret Clifford, daughter of Francis, 4th Earl of Cumberland; (2) in 1625 to Lady Arabella Holles, daughter of John, 1st Earl of Clare; (3) in 1632 to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Godfrey Rhodes. He left three daughters and one son, William, 2nd earl of Strafford.
See the article on Strafford in the Dictionary of National Biography by S. R. Gardiner; Strafford's Letters, ed. by W. Knowler (1839); R. Browning's
Life of Strafford, with introduction by C. H. Firth (1892); Papers relating to Thos. Wentworth. ed. by C. H. Firth for the Camden Society (1890), Camden Miscellany, vol. ix.; Private Letters from the Earl of Strafford to his third Wife (Philobiblon Soc. Biog. & Hist. Misc. 1854, vol. i.) ; Lives by H. D. Traill (1889) in English Men of Action Series, and by Elizabeth Cooper (1886) ; Calendar of State Papers, Domestic and Irish, esp. 1633-1647 Introduction; Historical Manuscripts Commission manuscripts of Earl Cowper; Strafford's Correspondence, of which the volumes published by Knowler represent probably only a small selection, remains still in manuscript in the collection of Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse. (P.C.Y.)
Being the entry for STRAFFORD, THOMAS WENTWORTH, EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.