Monday, April 24, 2017

The Commons Decides: Strafford Must Die

by Annie Whitehead

Last month, I wrote an overview of the careers of William, Archbishop Laud (1573-1645) and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (1593-1641), who were both executed. This time I'm going to look at why the House of Commons was so determined to secure Strafford's execution.

Wentworth c. 1639

Thomas Wentworth, himself a long-serving parliamentarian, nevertheless feared absolute rule by parliament and believed in constitutional monarchy. In 1628, he was in effect the leader of the house, yet he suddenly changed sides.

He had been part of the parliamentarian stonewall which had opposed Charles I's attempts to muzzle the commons in 1626 after the Earl of Buckingham's' disastrous war policy and the incident at La Rochelle, after which the wheels were set in motion for Buckingham's impeachment. The following March parliament was recalled, and Wentworth was the man who brokered a deal by which charges against Buckingham would be dropped if Charles assented to the Petition of Right, which would, in Wentworth's words, enforce their "ancient , sober and vital liberties."

When he changed sides, leading members of parliament never forgave him for his volte face, and renowned parliamentarians Eliot, Hampden and Pym in particular were very strongly opposed to him.

Wentworth's character made him enemies too; he was arrogant and ruthless and a proponent of the Policy of Thorough - a belief that a higher standard of efficiency and honesty was needed to put the country in order. He was a puritan, but approved the Arminian idea of order and discipline and became a great friend of Laud's. People distrusted Laud, fearing that he was moving England back to Rome, i.e. towards Catholicism. Ergo, by association, Wentworth was distrusted too.

Because he had angered parliament, he was moved by Charles I away from London and appointed President of the Council of the North. Wentworth proved to be an able administrator, but this alone was enough to secure him unpopularity in the north, where great families had hitherto enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy.

Van Dyck painting of Strafford with his secretary, Mainwaring

Wentworth was determined to enforce respect not only for the king, but for himself as the king's representative. He set about reviving the decaying administration and was successful in making the council an efficient governing body. But he was high-handed, and through the council's efficiency the great families thus lost their power, losing any profit from corrupt practices. Furthermore, he saw to it that the Yorkshire weavers worked to rule, obeying all regulations. He would not tolerate any production of sub-standard cloth, causing production rates to slow down, and thus in effect, reducing wages.

On paper, though, his appointment was a success, and Charles I was pleased. He appointed him Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1631, but here Wentworth was to make even more enemies.

The previous incumbent, Lord Falkland, had been recalled and the Irish administration had deteriorated badly. The man nominally in charge was Lord Justice Kilmallock, who was being aided by corrupt Protestant colonists, the Earl of Cork and the Earl of Loftus, who were also on friendly terms with the Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria.

Wentworth arrived in Ireland in 1633 and began establishing the king's authority, using the Policy of Thorough. However, influenced by the nobles Wentworth was ruining, the queen developed a dislike of Wentworth and began working against him.

Wentworth built up the court of Castle Chamber and used it as a prerogative court; he fined the Earl of Cork £40,000 for corruption and dishonesty and dismissed Loftus as Chancellor with the aid of the Council of Ireland. He upset the landowners by setting up a commission to investigate defective titles and rights of ownership of land. It caused landowners to increase rents they paid to the crown, and some had to restore tithes to the Church.

The official State religion was a sort of 'Calvinist Anglicanism', and there were a vast number of Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster who did not approve of bishops. In 1639 Wentworth forced the bishops of Ireland to accept the 39 Articles of the English, and he forced many Anglican ideas onto the Irish which were at odds with their Calvinist ideas.

Wentworth also proved to be extremely efficient at collecting taxes, and this won him few friends, especially among the old nobles who had been making money out of Ireland; few of them sympathised with his attempts to introduce order.

In 1640, Wentworth was recalled to London as his help was needed with the 'Scottish Problem'. He was made Earl of Strafford and became the king's supreme counsel. It was he who persuaded Charles to call the 'Short' Parliament, and he had meant to dominate it. It was to be his enemy, John Pym, however, who was to have that pleasure.

Strafford's Trial
The Short Parliament, under Pym's leadership, would vote no money for a military campaign. When it became clear that Pym was in touch with the Scots, or at least acting in concert with them, Strafford gave up any hope of a constitutional or legal solution, and at a meeting on May 5th, he urged Charles to dissolve parliament, telling him that he was "loosed and absolved from all rules of government." Upon the dissolution, three Members were imprisoned and their houses searched, mob rioting was punished by vigilante justice, and two youths were summarily hanged, one having been tortured first. When the City Aldermen declined Charles' request for a loan, Strafford committed four of them to prison and told the king, "Unless you hang up some of them, you will do no good with them."

Strafford returned to Ireland and was later called back to lead the army against the Scots in the Second Bishops' War. However, the northern earls were not inclined to be led into battle by Strafford, no doubt disliking him more than the Scots whom they were supposed to be fighting. The Bishops' War was lost, and Parliament was called. It was determined to punish those responsible for Charles I's eleven years of personal rule, which meant, in effect, Laud and Strafford.

Strafford on his way to execution, being blessed by Laud
The king's ministers were blamed for the defeat by the Scots, and Strafford was accused of treason because he had offered the Irish army to Charles for use against the Scots. Although he argued his defence and eliminated most of the charges against him, it was John Pym who won this particular battle. Strafford had made himself so unpopular - with the people because of his efficiency, with the nobles because of his efforts to wipe out corruption - that Pym's efforts to impeach him were supported by most people. By this time, Strafford was a hated man.

The decision to impeach Strafford was one driven by personal hatred. Parliament had never forgiven Strafford for changing sides and had certainly never trusted him again. He dismissed almost all the charges against him, and still they pushed for his execution, this turncoat who had become a king's man, a traitor to their cause against the monarchy.

Previous article on Laud & Strafford

Further Reading:

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
The Stuarts - JP Kenyon

[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.
Amazon Author Page


  1. Excellent post. Thank you. I have been studying Strafford myself. I believe he meant well but was blind to a lot of things and made enemies at every turn. Kind of a train wreck!

    1. Thanks Ellys,
      Yes, I think he was ultimately well-intentioned but was just too intractable in his thinking (perhaps a little like his master.) Glad you enjoyed the article :-)


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