1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford
English administrator
(1593-1641)




THOMAS WENTWORTH, EARL OF STRAFFORD (1593-1641), son of Sir William Wentworth, of Went-worth Woodhouse, near Botherham, was born in 1593 in Chancery Lane, London. He was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and in 1611 was knighted, and mar-ried Margaret, daughter of Francis, earl of Cumberland. In 1614 he represented Yorkshire in the Addled Parlia-ment, but, as far as is now known, it was not till the parliament of 1621 that he took part in the debates. His position towards the popular party was peculiar. He did not sympathize with their eagerness for war with Spain, and he was eager, as no man of that time except Bacon was eager, for increased activity in domestic legislation. He was what, in modern times, would be called a reformer, and in those days a reformer was necessarily an upholder of the authority of the crown, in whose service the most experienced statesmen might be expected to be found, whilst the members of a House of Commons only sum-moned at considerable intervals would be deficient in the qualities necessary for undertaking successful legislation. On the other hand, James's conduct of the diplomatic struggle with Spain was not such as to inspire confidence, and Wentworth's bearing was therefore marked by a certain amount of hesitation. He was, however, more than most men prone to magnify his office, and James's contemptuous refusal to allow the House of Commons to give an opinion on foreign politics seems to have stung him to join in the vindication of the claims of the House of which he was a member. He was at all events 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 Holies, the daughter of the earl of Clare. Of the parliament of 1624 he had not been a member, but in the first parliament of Charles I. 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. His election was declared void, but he was re-elected. When he returned to parliament he took part in the op-position to the demand made under the influence of Buckingham for war subsidies, and was consequently, after the dissolution, made sheriff of Yorkshire, in order to exclude him, as hostile to the court, from the parliament which met in 1626. After the dissolution of that par-liament he was dismissed from the justiceship of the peace and the office of custos rotulorum of Yorkshire.

Wentworth's 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. " My rule," he wrote December 1625, "which I will never transgress, is never to contend with the prerogative out of parliament, nor yet to contest with a king but when I am constrained thereunto or else make shipwreck of my peace of conscience." In January 1626 he had asked for the presidency of the Council of the North, and had visited and made overtures to Buckingham. His subsequent dismissal was probably the result 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 placed in confinement in Kent for his refusal.

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 upon 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 con-flict with Eliot, as, though he supported the Petition of Right in substance, he was anxious to come to a compro-mise with the Lords, so as to leave room to the king to act unchecked in special emergencies.

On July 22, 1628, not long after the prorogation, Wentworth was created Lord Wentworth, and received a promise of the presidentship of the Council of the North at the next vacancy. Even on political matters he had never been quite at unison with the parliamentary opposition, and in church matters he was diametrically opposed to them. Since the close of the discussion on the Petition of Right, church matters had come into greater prominence than ever, and Wentworth was therefore thrown strongly on the side of Charles, from whom alone opposition to Puritanism could possibly come. This attachment to Charles was doubtless cemented by Buckingham's murder, but, if he took the king's part with decision and vigour, it must be remembered that:, as has been already said, he was above all a man prone to magnify his office, and that things would look differently to him than they had done before he was in his new position. For the charge of apostasy in its ordinary meaning there is no foundation.





As yet Wentworth took no part in the general govern-ment 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 he announced his intention 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."

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 Bhodes. In January 1632 he had been named lord-deputy of Ireland, having performed his duties at York to the king's satis-faction, though he had given grave offence to the northern gentry by the enforcement of his authority. It was a cardinal point of his system that no wealth or station should exempt its possessor from obedience to the king. Not only was the announcement of this principle likely to give offence to those who were touched by it, but in its application Wentworth was frequently harsh and over-bearing. In general he may have been said to have worked rather for equality under a strong Government than for liberty.

In Ireland Wentworth would have to deal with a people which had not arrived at national cohesion, and amongst which had been from time to time introduced English colonists, some of them, like the early Norman settlers, sharing in the Catholicism of the natives, whilst the later importations stood aloof and preserved their Brotestantism. There was also a class of officials of English derivation, many of whom failed to reach a high standard of efficiency. Against these Wentworth, who arrived in Dublin in July 1633, waged war sometimes with scanty regard to the forms of justice, as in the case of Lord Mountnorris, whom he sent before a court-martial on a merely formal charge, which necessarily entailed a death sentence, not because he wanted to execute him, but because he knew of no other way of excluding him from official life.

The purifying of official life, however, was but a small part of Wentworth's task. In one way, indeed, he conceived his duty in the best spirit. He tried at the same time to strengthen the crown and to benefit the poor by making the mass of the nation less dependent on their chiefs and lords than they had been before, and, though Wentworth could not do away with the effects of previous mistakes, he might do much to soften down the existing antagonism between the native population and the English Government. Unhappily his intentions were frustrated by causes resulting partly from his own character and partly from the circumstances in which he was placed.

In the first place, Wentworth's want of money to carry on the Government was deplorable. In 1634 he called a parliament at Dublin, and obtained from it a consider-able grant, as well as its co-operation in a remarkable series of legislative enactments. The king, however, had previously engaged his word to make certain concessions known as the "graces," and Wentworth resolved that some of these should not be granted, and took upon himself to refuse what his master had promised. The money granted by parliament, however, would not last for ever, and Wentworth resolved to create a balance between revenue and expenditure before the supply was exhausted. This he succeeded in doing, partly by making a vast improve-ment in the material condition of the country, and partly by the introduction of monopolies and other irregular payments, which created wide dissatisfaction, especially amongst the wealthier class.





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." It is true that he had too much ability to adopt a system of irritating persecution, but from time to time some word or act escaped from him which allowed all who were concerned to know what his real opinion was. For the present, however, he had to content himself with forging the instrument by which the hoped-for conversion was to be effected. The Established Church of Ireland was in a miserable plight, and Wentworth busied himself with rescuing from the hands of such men as the earl of Cork the property of the church, which had in troublous times been diverted from its true purpose, and with enforcing the strict observance of the practices of the English Church, on the one hand upon recalcitrant Puritans, and on the other hand upon lawless disregarders of all decency. In this way he hoped to obtain a church to which the Irish might be expected to rally.
Till that time came, he must rely on force to keep order and to prevent any understanding growing up between the Irish and foreign powers. With this object in view he resolved on pouring English colonists into Connaught as James had poured them into Ulster. To do this he had taken upon himself to 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, he insisted upon the grand juries in 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, whilst he fined the sheriff ¿£1000 for summoning such a jury, and cited the jurymen to the castle chamber to answer for their offence. He had succeeded in setting all Ireland against him.

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. 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." The power so gained indeed must be shown to be beneficent by the maintenance of good government, but it ought to exist. A beneficent despotism supported by popular gratitude was now Wentworth's ideal.

In his own case Wentworth had cause to discover that Charles's absolutism was marred by human imperfections. Charles gave ear to courtiers far too often, and frequently wanted to do them a good turn by promoting incom-petent persons to Irish offices. To a request from Went-worth to strengthen the position of the deputy by raising him to an earldom he turned a deaf ear. Yet to make Charles more absolute continued to be the dominant note of his policy, and, when the Scottish Puritans rebelled, he advocated the most decided measures of repression, and in February 1639 he offered the king £2000 as his contribution to the expenses of the coming war. He was, how-ever, too clear-sighted to do otherwise than deprecate an invasion of Scotland before the English army was trained.

In September 1639, after Charles's failure in the first Bishops' War, Wentworth arrived in England to conduct in the star-chamber a case in which the Irish chancellor was being prosecuted for resisting the deputy. From that moment he stepped into the place of Charles's prin-cipal adviser. Ignorant of the extent to which opposition had developed in England during his absence, he recom-mended 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 resistance. On the other hand, he attempted to induce Charles to be content with a smaller grant than he had originally asked for. The Commons, however, insisted on peace with the Scots, and on May 9, at the privy council, Strafford, though reluctantly, voted for a dissolution.

After this Strafford supported the harshest measures. He urged the king to invade Scotland, and, in meeting the objection that England might resist, he uttered the words which cost him dear, " You have an army in Ire-land,"-r-the army which, in the regular course of affairs, was to have been employed to operate in the west of Scotland,—"you may employ here to reduce this king-dom." 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 purchasing a loan from Spain by the offer of a future alliance. He was ultimately appointed to command the English army, but he was seized with illness, and the rout of Newburn made the position hopeless. In the great council at York he showed his hope that if Charles maintained the defen-sive the country would still rally round him, whilst he proposed, in order to secure Ireland, that the Scots of Ulster should be ruthlessly driven from their homes.

When the Long Parliament met it was preparing to impeach Strafford, when tidings reached its leaders that Strafford, now lord-lieutenant of Ireland, had come to London and had advised the king to take the initiative by accusing his chief opponents of treason. On this the impeachment was hurried on, and the Lords committed Strafford to the Tower. At his trial in Westminster Hall he stood on the ground that each charge against him, even if true, did not amount to treason, whilst Pym urged that, taken as a whole, they showed an intention to change the Government, which in itself was treason. Undoubtedly the project of bringing over the Irish army, probably never seriously entertained, did the prisoner most damage, and when the Lords showed reluctance to condemn him the Commons dropped the impeachment and brought in a bill of attainder. The Lords would probably have refused to pass it if they could have relied on Charles's assurance to relegate Strafford to private life if the bill were rejected. Charles unwisely took part in projects for effecting Strafford's escape and even for raising a military force to accomplish that end. The Lords took alarm and passed the bill. On May 9, 1641, the king, frightened by popular tumults, reluctantly signed a commission for the purpose of giving to it the royal assent, and on the 12th Strafford was executed on Tower Hill. (S. R. G.)



The above article was written by: Prof. S. Rawson Gardiner, LL.D., author of The Great Civil War.



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