The Right Man in the Wrong Times
C. V. Wedgwood subtitled the second edition of her biography of Strafford “A Revaluation”, because, in the interval since the first edition, a great mass of the subject’s letters had become available to scholars, yielding much information about the Earl’s relationships to important personages and his extensive business affairs. Between the subtitle and some hints in the preface, the reader may expect scandalous revelations or at least a substantially more negative view than Professor Wedgwood had expressed 27 years earlier. If so, he will be disappointed. Strafford emerges from this study as, by the standards of his day, extraordinarily competent, honest and disinterested. The standards of his day were not, however, the same as ours. That is part of the reason why this talented servant of the King ended his life on the scaffold.
Few real lives have been shaped so much like classical tragedy. Sprung from the middle ranks of the Yorkshire gentry, Thomas Wentworth first became prominent in public life as a leader of the 1628 Parliament, which imposed the Petition of Right on a reluctant King Charles. He then turned into the King’s loyal servant, a development that anti-Royalist contemporaries and Whig historians saw as “apostasy” prompted by personal ambition. Wentworth’s own judgement seems to have been that the King had been pushed as far as necessary in the direction of reform and that patriots ought now to help him govern effectively.
That he did for the next dozen years, first as President of the Council of the North, then in the incredibly difficult office of Lord Deputy of Ireland. The latter position made his reputation as an administrator. He removed corrupt officials, cracked down on oppressive nobles, promoted trade and manufactures, increased government revenues (and, with much difficulty, retained them for the benefit of his province), reorganized the army into an effective fighting force, and was hailed, quite sincerely, by the Irish Parliament as “like another Solon or Lycurgus, studying the good of this your country”.
It was the task of governing Ireland that aggravated, if it did not give birth to, Wentworth’s tragic flaw. An upright man himself, a devout but unfanatical Puritan, he had no patience with corruption and incompetence and no sympathy for religious bigotry. Thus he concluded that, in the circumstances of the time, the only way to make England governable was to effect “thorough” (his favorite word) reform through the energetic use of the royal prerogative. Once the policy of “thorough” had led to justice, prosperity and liberty, the King could form a partnership with a Parliament elected by a grateful nation.
Putting these views into practice gained him personal enemies in Ireland (mostly influential men whose rackets he halted) and political enemies in England, where the King’s opponents saw efficiency and the rule of law as undesirable props to royal authoritarianism. As a further irritant, the royal councillor most in sympathy with “thorough” was Archbishop Laud. Thus, ironically, the Puritan Wentworth was marked out by association as a bête noir of the Puritan faction in politics, whose hatred of Laud overflowed all rational bounds.
A further irony is that, during his service in Ireland, Wentworth was not among the King’s most influential advisors. If he had been, Charles would have been considerably more cautious about collecting ship money and enforcing episcopacy upon the Scottish church. It was only after those measures had led to a crisis that Wentworth was summoned to England as a kind of first minister. By then the day was very late, and the most pressing problems were not amenable to Wentworth’s particular abilities.
The newly created Earl of Strafford found himself in the midst of an unpopular war against the King’s Scottish subjects. He had no serious military experience, was burdened by illness and inevitably failed to bring the conflict to a speedy and successful end. That failure made calling Parliament an inescapable necessity. Strafford hoped that patriotism and self-interest would lead the electorate to choose representatives willing to cooperate in repelling what had turned into a Scottish invasion, but patriotism was little match for extremist ideology, and the new assembly was dominated by opponents of the King.
Because they condemned the exercise of the prerogative, the leaders of what became the “Long Parliament” gained an anachronistic reputation as champions of Parliamentary democracy and personal liberty. Professor Wedgwood’s account of their doings, centered around their attack on Strafford, reveals how undeserved that reputation is. John Pym and his associates were narrow-minded religious (or, to be more precise, anti-Catholic) bigots who believed that force and fraud were proper means for achieving God’s ends.
The campaign to send Strafford to his death blatantly disregarded truth, legality and justice. The House of Commons impeached him for “treason” yet did not allege any acts that were recognized by law as treasonous. Pym’s rationalization was that “treason” did not have to be defined: A capital offense could be amorphously “constructed” from individually nontreasonous activities. Even if one accepts that theory (the draftsmen of the U.S. Constitution were later at pains to reject it, along with those other devices used against Strafford: attainder and ex post facto law), the specifications in the indictment were largely founded on the transparent perjury of the Earl’s Irish enemies. Though handicapped by one-sided procedures (admittedly not unique to his case), he had little difficulty discrediting their evidence.
In the end, the Commons prosecutors lost confidence that they could win a conviction in the House of Lords. Fearing that acquittal would sway public opinion in the King’s favor, Pym turned to an alternative. The last act of attainder (a statute sentencing a man to death without trial) dated from the Wars of the Roses. The anti-royalists professed to abhor the King’s use of obsolete medieval precedents to support his financial measures, but they had no qualms about reaching back in time for a way to bypass ordinary judicial processes in a capital case. With the help of mob intimidation, Strafford’s attainder passed the House of Commons and was narrowly pushed through the Lords (most of whom stayed away for fear of violence). The King’s acquiescence in this legislative murder was, to his own mind, the greatest blot on his reign. He later was to see in his own downfall God’s chastisement for the abandonment of the faithful Earl.
On May 12, 1641, Thomas Wentworth, stripped of his noble rank, was beheaded on Tower Hill. Saving him, the King had reasoned, would risk civil war. Giving him up did not avert it. War broke out almost exactly one year later. After a long struggle, Charles too went to the scaffold, and his victorious enemies imposed on England the most stringent dictatorship in its history.
Through the haze of centuries, it is easy to think that King Charles failed because he tried to impose authoritarian rule on liberty loving Englishmen. Seen close up, the King’s enemies look more like modern radicals, who are willing to extend liberty only to persons and ideas of whom they approve. Unfortunately for Charles and his countrymen, the conservative, patriotic party was disorganized and confused. Some historians have suggested that the current of opinion was running in its favor and that, given a few years of calm, it would eventually have prevailed. That may be true, but the radicals made sure that there would be no time for peaceful, passive tactics to succeed.
Strafford’s career furnishes an excellent perspective for seeing what went wrong. On a practical level, the government lacked the energy, steadiness and honesty needed to perform its essential functions. Lord Deputy Wentworth faced constant demands for corrupt favors, presented by men whose personal loyalty to the King was unquestionable (many of the worst offenders fought loyally in the Civil War) but who could not conceive of government as anything other than an instrument for handing out monopolies, land grants, sinecures and other private benefactions.
Had the government been more efficient, it still would have been hampered by primitive political concepts. The King never moved far away from the simple idea that loyal subjects would obey him out of belief in his divine right to rule. Strafford was sensible enough to see that the King’s rule would be accepted only if it provided benefits to society, but he assumed that good government would win support all by itself and made no serious effort to enlist an active cadre of supporters outside his own household. It is clear that he preferred to command rather than collaborate. Given the poor quality of the contemporary “ruling class”, that attitude is understandable, but it was not the best strategy for repelling organized, actively disloyal radicalism.
Strafford’s life and death may yield lessons for our own day, for many countries in the “Third World” and the former Soviet bloc face circumstances analogous to those of Caroline England. Their governmental apparatus is inefficient; concepts of the public good are weak; large segments of society are infected by radical ideologies that undermine their allegiance to the body politic; it often seems that coercion is the only effective instrument for halting the slide into chaos. If the party of civilization cannot come up with better responses than Strafford did, it may share his fate.