Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, was one of the main advisors to Charles I. Strafford became a devout supporter of Charles and was seen by Parliament, along with Archbishop Laud, as being the epitome of what was wrong in Stuart England. Wentworth paid the ultimate price for his loyalty when he was executed in 1641 – the price Parliament demanded for supporting Charles in his campaign against the Scots.
Thomas Wentworth was born on April 13th 1593 into a wealthy family. His father was Sir William Wentworth. Thomas Wentworth was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge University, and attended the Inner Temple in 1607. To broaden his education and experiences, Wentworth went on a tour of Europe between 1611 and 1613. He also married his first wife, Lady Margaret Clifford, in 1611. On the death of his father in 1614, Wentworth inherited the position of being Member of Parliament for York.
Ironically for a man so associated with supporting royal authority, Wentworth originally was an opponent of extensive royal rule. In the last three parliaments of James I, Wentworth gained a reputation for rallying those who were opposed to the style of rule James had introduced into England. James was an unflinching believer in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and this had brought him into conflict with Parliament. If the succession of Charles was expected to usher in a more tolerant era, people were quickly disappointed.
Such was the reputation that Wentworth had gained that Charles appointed him Sheriff of York. This was a shrewd move by the king. The title had more status than a Member of Parliament had but it also meant that in theory Wentworth would have to stay in the city to carry out his duties. If he was not in the House of Commons, he could not act as an organiser of royal opponents. The man who was to be executed for supporting his royal master was imprisoned from 1627 to 1628 for refusing to pay a forced loan that Charles had introduced to support his finances. Wentworth was also a vociferous critic of the Duke of Buckingham before the Duke was murdered in 1628. In the same year he was a supporter of the campaign that led to the Petition of Right – though he wanted a more moderate version and lost out to those who demanded and gained a more extreme version. There was very little to indicate up to 1628 that Wentworth would be anything other than a thorn in the side of the King.
However, it was the murder of Buckingham on August 23rd 1628 that paved the way for the turnaround in Wentworth’s loyalty. Wentworth had little time for Buckingham – a consequence of a family issue he had at the time of his first marriage with Sir John Savile who was a client of the Duke of Buckingham. His murder left a vacuum with regards to who could get close enough to Charles to act as an advisor. As Charles had accepted, albeit grudgingly, the Petition of Right, this was no longer an issue for Wentworth and he seemingly forgot about his time in prison. Also Wentworth became wary of those in Parliament who seemingly wanted to take the movement against the king further than Wentworth wished to. For Wentworth the acceptance of the Petition of Right should have been the start of a new relationship between Parliament and Charles. When it became clear that this was not going to be the case, Wentworth responded by rallying to the side of monarchical rule.
With Buckingham dead, Wentworth saw that there was an opportunity to acquire much power by supporting the king. In a very short space of time, Wentworth ingratiated himself to Charles who either forgot about Wentworth’s previous indiscretions with regards to the monarchy, or realised that it was better to have Wentworth in the royal camp than in opposition. His previous colleagues called him a turncoat but as Lord President of the Council of the North (appointed December 1628) Wentworth proved himself to be an excellent but ruthless administrator. The man who had been a critic of royal authority swiftly became the man who exerted royal rule over the north. His policy of ‘thoroughness’ in enforcing royal authority in the north made him a rich man. It also advanced him in the eyes of Charles I. However, it was the start of Wentworth making many enemies.
When Wentworth’s work in the north is analysed, it was not all for the bad. The real sufferers of Wentworth’s power were the regional magnates. Their stance, as Wentworth saw it, was to expand their authority and power in the north at the expense of the king’s. This, the now loyal Wentworth, was not willing to tolerate. The power of the magnates was curtailed and as their regional power fell, Wentworth advanced the power of the king. However, he was a fair man in the respect that the poor were no longer at the mercy of the rich. The power of local JP’s was carefully watched and Wentworth did all that he could to control enclosure. Wentworth also ensured that the poor did not go hungry. His policies ensured that the majority would at the least be favourable to the king’s man in the north who did what few in power cared to do – help the poor.
In July 1633, Wentworth was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland (as well as maintaining his position in the north of England). Wentworth was by now a Privy Councillor and it is thought that members of the Privy Council used their position to influence the king’s decision and to manoeuvre Wentworth out of England.
It was in Ireland that Wentworth exerted real authority. Again, those who were against Wentworth portrayed his time in Ireland as one where all and sundry were oppressed. This was not true. The island was a haven for pirates who created havoc with the shipping that attempted to serve the island. Wentworth solved this problem and the island as whole benefited. Once again, his methods were harsh but effective – but the majority prospered as a result. Wentworth introduced measures that increased trade, industry and agriculture. He increased custom revenues by three times and Ireland became profitable. Law and order was established on an island where this had not always been the case. Wentworth certainly upset and angered people – but it was men who had previously benefited from the structure of government prior to the arrival of Wentworth. Controversial policies were introduced by Wentworth – such as encouraging more Protestants to settle in Ireland in land previously owned by Catholics who were pushed further north onto less prosperous and fertile land.
On September 12th 1639 Wentworth was recalled to England to support the king in the First Bishops’ War with Scotland. Such was the entrenchment of values in Ireland, that many aspects of government returned to what they had been before Wentworth arrived there. For six years some had gained from his rule in Ireland and some had suffered. Those who had their wings clipped with regards to power soon found that they could re-establish it once Wentworth had answered his master’s call.
By 1640, Wentworth had become an invaluable advisor to Charles I. In January 1640, Charles appointed Wentworth Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Earl of Strafford. It was Wentworth who advised Charles to recall Parliament to raise sufficient funds for a successful war against the Scots. Wentworth assumed that the loyalty of Parliament to England at a time of war would take priority over their grievances against Charles. He was wrong – the Short Parliament seemed more intent on using their recall to vent their anger against the king and his advisors. The Short Parliament, as its title suggests, was quickly dissolved in May 1640. Wentworth believed that it was perfectly possible for him to raise an army in Ireland and England and use it against the Scots. The English army was raised but it was poorly trained and it fought the Scots before the Irish army had crossed to the mainland. The English army was beaten in the Second Bishops’ War.
In November 1640, Charles had little choice but to recall Parliament – the Long Parliament. Members of Parliament used this opportunity to attack men they deemed to be enemies of the Crown – Wentworth and Laud. Parliament held the general view that Wentworth was going to use the Irish army against Parliament itself in an attempt to remove it from the political arena. Wentworth was impeached and charged with treason. His trial started on March 22nd 1641. Wentworth defended himself with skill and he was found not guilty of treason. Parliament, led by John Pym, then resorted to a Bill of Attainder in their efforts to ‘get’ Wentworth. By using this method Parliament did not need to present evidence – they simply needed the signature of the king.
Charles prevaricated over signing the bill but eventually he did. Wentworth was executed at Tower Hill on May 22nd 1641. Charles continued to have deep misgivings about signing the bill. In 1662, the Bill of Attainder was revoked and the titles and property of Wentworth were restored to his son.