Sunday, March 19, 2017

An Overview of Laud and Strafford – Charles I’s ‘Evil Councillors’

by Annie Whitehead

William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford: these men are perhaps less well-known than some other characters during the time of political upheaval which ultimately led to the first of the English Civil Wars, and the intention of this article is to give, in the constraints of a blog post, only an overview of their careers.

Both Laud and Strafford did much good for England, but their attitudes and characters contributed greatly to their unpopularity and ultimately towards their downfall. Their careers invite comparison.

William Laud (7 October 1573 – 10 January 1645) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, until his execution in 1645. His career began in the reign of James I, but progressed slowly. James said of him that "He hath a restless spirit, and cannot see when matters are well, but loves to toss and change, and to bring things to a pitch of reformation floating in his own brain." It has been said of Laud that he did more than any other single man to provoke the Civil War. Charles I shared many of his 'qualities', and once Charles acceded, Laud's rise was rapid. In 1626 he became Bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1628 Bishop of London and Chancellor of Oxford University in 1630.

Along with Strafford, Laud dominated Charles' government during the eleven years' personal rule, and his chief aim was to 'stop the rot' in the Church of England, suppressing all traces of Puritanism.

William Laud

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (13 April 1593– 12 May 1641) served in Parliament and from 1632–40, served as Lord Deputy of Ireland; he was condemned to death by parliament and executed in 1641. Early in his political career he was an opposition MP. He joined in the attacks on the king's favourite, Buckingham, and he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea 1627-8 as one of the 76 who refused to contribute to the forced loan for Buckingham's pro-Spanish policy. His career changed direction after the assassination of Buckingham, and when given the choice between increasing the power of the king or the people, he chose the king.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
Archbishop Laud was an Arminian, and this religious attitude alone was enough to gain him unpopularity. He was feared by the parliamentarians, who believed that he intended to lead the king and the country back to Catholicism. Laud brought about further conflict when he declared that bishops should have more political power, and that they should become involved in local government as Justices of the Peace.

Laud was not a popular man with parliament, and he went on to upset the bishops when he decided to reform the Church. He declared that the Church was dishonouring God, and he wanted the Church to work towards uniformity and conformity. Laud was determined to stamp out Church abuses such as: Simony (the buying of offices), Nepotism (obtaining positions for relatives) and Pluralism (holding more than one office, which led to non-residence). He made himself unpopular with the bishops who were opposed to his reforms. They would not earn as much, and they could no longer put people who would support them in influential positions. Some of Laud's ideas were less contentious; he ordered closer examination of candidates for the priesthood and encouraged more honest and dedicated clergymen.

Unfortunately for Laud, his religion made him unpopular, and his reforms of the Church led people to fear him. Laud was stubborn and would take advice from nobody, and parliamentarians felt justified in believing him evil. It was reported that he was unable to keep a check on his temper during meetings.

Strafford had very similar problems to those of Laud’s. He upset parliament when in 1628 he changed sides, because he was not fully committed to the radical ideas of parliament, who were at the time totally opposed to the monarchy. He was never trusted by the parliamentarians or the king and, like Laud, his character made him enemies. He was arrogant, stubborn, and ruthless. He was an efficient administrator, and Charles moved him from London, appointing him President as the Council of the North. He revived the decaying administration there and rooted out corruption. In 1632 Strafford went to Ireland as Lord Deputy, and there he removed corruption and set up a prerogative court. He encouraged industry and investigated land ownership.

Unfortunately, whatever the merits of their ideas for reform, Laud and Strafford  were not likeable as characters, and they were feared by parliament for the power they held. Their reforms, necessary or not, would never have been welcomed by parliament, the landowners, or the clergy.

The trial of Laud

Besides facing almost impossible tasks, Laud and Strafford were ruthless to the point of cruelty while they were carrying out their plans. They both pursued the Policy of Thorough, which consisted of a belief that a higher standard of efficiency and honesty was needed to put the country in order.

The trial of Strafford

In 1630, Leighton, a clergyman, published Sion’s Plea against Prelacy, an attack on the bishops. For this, he was punished by Laud; he was tried in Star Chamber, imprisoned, and he lost his ear. In 1637, William Prynne, John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and John Lilburne were involved in writing and publishing an attack against the bishops. Laud had Lilburne flogged through the streets of London, while the other three men lost their ears and were sent to the Tower.

John Lilburne

Strafford was perhaps less cruel than Laud, but he was certainly determined to achieve his aims no matter what. While he was President of the Council of the north, he humbled the great northern families and ordered the Yorkshire weavers to work according to rule, which brought less money in for the workers. In Ireland, Strafford forced the convocation [of bishops] to accept the 39 Articles* of the English, although the Irish Church had remained predominantly Catholic.

Laud and Strafford were not likeable characters. Their ideas were bound to have been met with resentment. No Englishman would welcome efficient administration and tax collection, and many influential men would resent the reform of the Church and the government of the North and Ireland.

Strafford on his way to execution, being blessed by Laud
Strafford was impeached by the Long Parliament, but despite numerous complaints against him, including from those with whom he'd had dealings in Ireland, there was no proof of treason. His enemies then issued a Bill of Attainder, and Strafford was executed on 12th May 1641.

Laud was accused of treason by the Long Parliament and was imprisoned in the tower. Prynne, with good reason, was a personal enemy, but others were inclined to let old age despatch the unpopular archbishop. Like Strafford before him, he faced a trial in which it proved impossible to prove any specific act of treason, but Laud was executed on Tower Hill on 10th January, 1645.

*Read about the 39 Articles Here

and for further detail about the careers of these two men:

Archbishop Laud - Hugh Trevor-Roper
Archbishop Laud - Arthur Stuart Duncan-Jones
Strafford - C.V. Wedgwood
Strafford in Ireland 1633-1641: A Study in Absolutism - Hugh F. Kearney
The King's War, 1641-47 - C.V. Wedgwood

[all above illustrations are in the public domain, and sourced from Wiki Commons]


Annie Whitehead is an historian and novelist who writes about the Anglo-Saxon era, although she has a keen interest in the seventeenth-century. The author of two award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, she was also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the EHFA blog. Currently she is working on a contribution to a non-fiction book to be published by Pen & Sword Books in the summer of 2017.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you - as you know, I love this period; although I can't say I'm a fan of either of these two characters...!

  2. Fascinating article on these two controversial history makers. Having research this era for The Rose Trail I still found new facts and insights here. Wonderful stuff, Annie.

    1. Thank you Alexandra, I'm glad it was of interest. Keep a lookout for a follow-up piece about Strafford, coming soon...


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