Gateway to the Classics: Charles I by Jacob Abbott
Charles I by  Jacob Abbott

The Earl of Strafford

D URING the time that the king had been engaged in the attempt to govern England without Parliaments, he had, besides Laud, a very efficient co-operator, known in English history by the name of the Earl of Strafford. This title of Earl of Strafford was conferred upon him by the king as a reward for his services. His father's name was Wentworth. He was born in London, and the Christian name given to him was Thomas. He was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was much distinguished for his talents and his personal accomplishments. After finishing his education, he traveled for some time on the Continent, visiting foreign cities and courts, and studying the languages, manners, and customs of other nations. He returned at length to England. He was made a knight. His father died when he was about twenty-one, and left him a large fortune. He was about seven years older than King Charles, so that all these circumstances took place before the commencement of Charles's reign. For many years after this he was very extensively known in England as a gentleman of large fortune and great abilities, by the name of Sir Thomas Wentworth.

Sir Thomas Wentworth was a member of Parliament in those days, and in the contests between the king and the Parliament he took the side of Parliament. Charles used to maintain that his power alone was hereditary and sovereign; that the Parliament was his council; and that they had no powers or privileges except what he himself or his ancestors had granted and allowed them. Wentworth took very strong ground against this. He urged Parliament to maintain that their rights and privileges were inherent and hereditary as well as those of the king; that such powers as they possessed were their own, and were entirely independent of royal grant or permission: and that the king could no more encroach upon the privileges of Parliament, than Parliament upon the prerogatives of the king. This was in the beginning of the difficulties between the king and the Commons.

It will, perhaps, be recollected by the reader, that one of the plans which Charles adopted to weaken the opposition to him in Parliament was by appointing six of the leaders of this opposition to the office of sheriff in their several counties. And as the general theory of all monarchies is that the subjects are bound to obey and serve the king, these men were obliged to leave their seats in Parliament and go home, to serve as sheriffs. Charles and his council supposed that the rest would be more quiet and submissive when the leaders of the party opposed to him were taken away. But the effect was the reverse. The Commons were incensed at such a mode of interfering with their action, and became more hostile to the royal power than ever.

Wentworth himself, too, was made more determined in his opposition by this treatment. A short time after this, the king's plan of a forced loan was adopted, which has already been described; that is, a sum of money was assessed in the manner of a tax upon all the people of the kingdom, and each man was required to lend his proportion to the government. The king admitted that he had no right to make people give money without the action of parliament, but claimed the right to require them to lend it. As Sir Thomas Wentworth was a man of large fortune, his share of the loan was considerable. He absolutely refused to pay it. The king then brought him before a court which was entirely under royal control, and he was condemned to be imprisoned. Knowing, however, that this claim on the part of the king was very doubtful, they mitigated the punishment by allowing him first a range of two miles around his place of confinement, and afterward they released him entirely.

He was chosen a member of Parliament again, and he returned to his seat more powerful and influential than ever. Buckingham, who had been his greatest enemy, was now dead, and the king, finding that he had great abilities and a spirit that would not yield to intimidation or force, concluded to try kindness and favors.

In fact, there are two different modes by which sovereigns in all ages and countries endeavor to neutralize the opposition of popular leaders. One is by intimidating them with threats and punishments, and the other buying them off with appointments and honors. Some of the king's high officers of state began to cultivate the acquaintance of Wentworth, and to pay him attentions and civilities. He could not but feel gratified with these indications of their regard. They complimented his talents and his powers, and represented to him that such abilities ought to be employed in the service of the state. Finally, the king conferred upon him the title of baron. Common gratitude for these marks of distinction and honor held him back from any violent opposition to the king. His enemies said he was bought off by honors and rewards. No doubt he was ambitious, and, like all other politicians, his supreme motive was love of consideration and honor. This was doubtless his motive in what he had done in behalf of the Parliament. But all that he could do as a popular leader in Parliament was to acquire a general ascendency over men's minds, and make himself a subject of fame and honor. All places of real authority were exclusively under the king's control, and he could only rise to such stations through the sovereign's favor. In a word, he could acquire only influence  as a leader in Parliament, while the king could give him power.

Kings can exercise, accordingly, a great control over the minds of legislators by offering them office; and King Charles, after finding that his first advances to Wentworth were favorably received, appointed him one of his Privy Council. Wentworth accepted the office. His former friends considered that in doing this he was deserting them, and betraying the cause which he had at first espoused and defended. The country at large were much displeased with him, finding that he had forsaken their cause, and placed himself in a position to act against them.

Persons who change sides in politics or in religion are very apt to go from one extreme to another. Their former friends revile them, and they, in retaliation, act more and more energetically against them. It was so with Strafford. He gradually engaged more and more fully and earnestly in upholding the king. Finally, the king appointed him to a very high station, called the Presidency of the North. His office was to govern the whole north of England—of course, under the direction of the king and council. There were four counties under his jurisdiction, and the king gave him a commission which clothed him with enormous powers—powers greater, as all the people thought, than the king had any right to bestow.

Strafford proceeded to the north, and entered upon the government of his realm there, with a determination to carry out all the king's plans to the utmost. From being an ardent advocate of the rights of the people, as he was at the commencement of his career, he became a most determined and uncompromising supporter of the arbitrary power of the king. He insisted on the collection of money from the people, in all the ways that the king claimed the power to collect it by authority of his prerogative; and he was so strict and exacting in doing this, that he raised the revenue to four or five times what any of his predecessors had been able to collect. This, of course, pleased King Charles and his government extremely; for it was at a time during which the king was attempting to govern without a Parliament, and every accession to his funds was of extreme importance. Laud, too, the archbishop, was highly gratified with his exertions and his success, and the king looked upon Laud and Wentworth as the two most efficient supporters of his power. They were, in fact, the two most efficient promoters of his destruction.

Of course, the people of the north hated him. While he was earning the applause of the archbishop and the king, and entitling himself to few honors and increased power, he was sowing the seeds of the bitterest animosity in the hearts of the people every where. Still he enjoyed all the external marks of consideration and honor. The President of the North was a sort of king. He was clothed with great powers, and lived in great state and splendor. He had many attendants, and the great nobles of the land, who generally took Charles's side in the contests of the day, envied Wentworth's greatness and power, and applauded the energy and success of his administration.

Ireland was, at this time, in a disturbed and disordered state, and Laud proposed that Wentworth should be appointed by the king to the government of it. A great proportion of the inhabitants were Catholics, and were very little disposed to submit to Protestant rule. Wentworth was appointed lord deputy, and afterward lord lieutenant, which made him king of Ireland in all but the name. Every thing, of course, was done in the name of Charles. He carried the same energy into his government here that he had exhibited in the north of England. He improved the condition of the country astonishingly in respect to trade, to revenue, and to public order. But he governed in the most arbitrary manner, and he boasted that he had rendered the king as absolute a sovereign in Ireland as any prince in the world could be. Such a boast from a man who had once been a very prominent defender of the rights of the people against this very kind of sovereignty, was fitted to produce a feeling of universal exasperation and desire of revenge. The murmurs and muttered threats which filled the land, though suppressed, were very deep and very strong.

The king, however, and Laud, considered Wentworth as their most able and efficient coadjutor; and when the difficulties in Scotland began to grow serious, they recalled him from Ireland, and put that country into the hands of another ruler. The king then advanced him to the rank of an earl. His title was the Earl of Strafford. As the subsequent parts of his history attracted more attention than those preceding his elevation to this earldom, he has been far more widely known among mankind by the name of Strafford than by his original name of Wentworth, which was, from this period, nearly forgotten.

To return now to the troubles in Scotland. The king found that it would be impossible to go on without supplies, and he accordingly concluded, on the whole, to call a Parliament. He was in serious trouble. Laud was in serious trouble too. He had been indefatigably engaged for many years in establishing Episcopacy all over England, and in putting down, by force of law, all disposition to dissent from it; and in attempting to produce, throughout the realm, one uniform system of Christian faith and worship. This was his idea of the perfection of religious order and right. He used to make an annual visitation to all the bishoprics in the realm; inquire into the usages which prevailed there; put a stop, so far as he could, to all irregularities; and confirm and establish, by the most decisive measures, the Episcopal authority. He sent in his report to the king of the results of his inquiries, asking the king's aid, where his own powers were insufficient, for the more full accomplishment of his plans. But, notwithstanding all this diligence and zeal, he found that he met with very partial success. The irregularities, as he called them, which he suppressed in one place, would break out in another; the disposition to throw off the dominion of bishops was getting more and more extensive and deeply seated; and now, the result of the religious revolution in Scotland, and of the general excitement which it produced in England, was to widen and extend this feeling more than ever.

He did not, however, give up the contest. He employed an able writer to draw up a defense of Episcopacy, as the true and scriptural form of Church government. The book, when first prepared, was moderate in its tone, and allowed that in some particular cases a Presbyterian mode of government might be admissible; but Laud, in revising the book, struck out these concessions as unnecessary and dangerous, and placed Episcopacy in full and exclusive possession of the ground, as the divinely instituted and only admissible form of Church government and discipline. He caused this book to be circulated; but the attempt to reason with the refractory, after having failed in the attempt to coerce them, is not generally very successful. The archbishop, in his report to the king this year of the state of things throughout his province, represents the spirit of non-conformity to the Church of England as getting too strong for him to control without more efficient help from the civil power; but whether it would be wise, he added, to undertake any more effectual coercion in the present distracted state of the kingdom, he left it for the king to decide.

Laud proposed that the council should recommend to the king the calling of a Parliament. At the same time, they passed a resolution that, in case the Parliament "should prove peevish, and refuse to grant supplies, they would sustain the king in the resort to extraordinary measures." This was regarded as a threat, and did not help to prepossess the members favorably in regard to the feeling with which the king was to meet them. The king ordered the Parliament to be elected in December, but did not call them together until April. In the mean time, he went on raising an army, so as to have his military preparations in readiness. He, however, appointed a new set of officers to the command of this army, neglecting those who were in command before, as he had found them so little disposed to act efficiently in his cause. He supplied the leader's place with Strafford. This change produced very extensive murmurs of dissatisfaction, which, added to all the other causes of complaint, made the times look very dark and stormy.

The Parliament assembled in April. The king went into the House of Lords, the Commons being, as usual, summoned to the bar. He addressed them as follows:

"My Lords and gentlemen,—There was never a King who had a more great and weighty Cause to call his People together than myself. I will not trouble you with the particulars. I have informed my Lord keeper, and now command him to speak, and I desire your Attention."

The keeper referred to was the keeper of the king's seals, who was, of course, a great officer of state. He made a speech, informing the houses, in general terms, of the king's need of money, but said that it was not necessary for him to explain minutely the monarch's plans, as they were exclusively his own concern. We may as well quote his words, in order to show in what light the position and province of a British Parliament was considered in those days.

"His majesty's kingly resolutions," said the Lord keeper, "are seated in the ark of his sacred breast, and it were a presumption of too high a nature for any Uzzah uncalled to touch it. Yet his Majesty is now pleased to lay by the shining Beams of Majesty, as Phœbus did to Phaeton, that the distance between Sovereignty and Subjection should not bar you of that filial freedom of Access to his Person and Counsels; only let us beware how, with the Son of Clymene, we aim not at the guiding of the Chariot, as if that were the only Testimony of Fatherly Affection; and let us remember, that though the King sometimes lays by the Beams and Rays of Majesty, he never lays by Majesty itself."

When the keeper had finished his speech, the king confirmed it by saying that he had exaggerated nothing, and the houses were left to their deliberations. Instead of proceeding to the business of raising money, they commenced an inquiry into the grievances, as they called them—that is, all the unjust acts and the maladministration of the government, of which the country had been complaining for the ten years during which there had been an intermission of Parliaments. The king did all in his power to arrest this course of procedure. He sent them message after message, urging them to leave these things, and take up first the question of supplies. He then sent a message to the House of Peers, requesting them to interpose and exert their influence to lead the Commons to act. The Peers did so. The Commons sent them back a reply that their interference in the business of supply, which belonged to the Commons alone, was a breach of their privileges. "And," they added, "therefore, the Commons desire their lordships in their wisdom to find out some way for the reparation of their privileges broken by that act, and to prevent the like infringement in future."

Thus repulsed on every hand, the king gave up the hope of accomplishing any thing through the action of the House of Commons, and he suddenly determined to dissolve Parliament. The session had continued only about three weeks. In dissolving the Parliament the king took no notice of the Commons whatever, but addressed the Lords alone. The Commons and the whole country were incensed at such capricious treatment of the national Legislature.

The king and his council tried all summer to get the army ready to be put in motion. The great difficulty, of course, was want of funds. The Convocation, which was the great council of the Church, and which was accustomed in those days to sit simultaneously with Parliament, continued their session afterward in this case, and raised some money for the king. The nobles of the court subscribed a considerable amount, also, which they lent him. They wished to sustain him in his contest with the Commons on their own account, and then, besides, they felt a personal interest in him, and a sympathy for him in the troubles which were thickening around him.

The summer months passed away in making the preparations and getting the various bodies of troops ready, and the military stores collected at the place of rendezvous in York and Newcastle. The Scots, in the mean time, had been assembling their forces near the borders, and, being somewhat emboldened by their success in the previous campaign, crossed the frontier, and advanced boldly to meet the forces of the king.

They published a manifesto, declaring that they were not entering England with any hostile intent toward their sovereign, but were only coming to present to him their humble petitions for a redress of their grievances, which they said they were sure he would graciously receive as soon as he had opportunity to learn from them how great their grievances had been. They respectfully requested that the people of England would allow them to pass safely and without molestation through the land, and promised to conduct themselves with the utmost propriety and decorum. This promise they kept. They avoided molesting the inhabitants in any way, and purchased fairly every thing they consumed. When the English officers learned that the Scotch had crossed the Tweed, they sent on immediately to London, to the king, urging him to come north at once, and join the army, with all the remaining forces at his command. The king did so, but it was too late. He arrived at York; from York he went northward to reach the van of his army, which had been posted at Newcastle, but on his way he was met by messengers saying that they were in full retreat, and that the Scotch had got possession of Newcastle.

The circumstances of the battle were these. Newcastle is upon the Tyne. The banks at Newcastle are steep and high, but about four miles above the town is a place called Newburn, where was a meadow near the river, and a convenient place to cross. The Scotch advanced in a very slow and orderly manner to Newburn, and encamped there. The English sent a detachment from Newcastle to arrest their progress. The Scotch begged them not to interrupt their march, as they were only going to present petitions to the king!  The English general, of course, paid no attention to this pretext. The Scotch army then attacked them and soon put them to flight. The routed English soldiers fled to Newcastle, and were there joined by all that portion of the army which was in Newcastle, in a rapid retreat. The Scotch took possession of the town, but conducted themselves in a very orderly manner, and bought and paid for every thing they used.

The poor king was now in a situation of the most imminent and terrible danger. Rebel subjects were in full possession of one kingdom, and were now advancing at the head of victorious armies into the other. He himself had entirely alienated the affections of a large portion of his subjects, and had openly quarreled with and dismissed the Legislature. He had no funds, and had exhausted all possible means of raising funds. He was half distracted with the perplexities and dangers of his position.

His deciding on dissolving Parliament in the spring was a hasty step, and he bitterly regretted it the moment the deed was done. He wished to recall it. He deliberated several days about the possibility of summoning the same members to meet again, and constituting them again a Parliament. But the lawyers insisted that this could not be done. A dissolution was a dissolution. The Parliament, once dissolved, was no more. It could not be brought to life again. There must be new orders to the country to proceed to new elections. To do this at once would have been too humiliating for the king. He now found, however, that the necessity for it could no longer be postponed. There was such a thing in the English history as a council of peers alone, called in a sudden emergency which did not allow of time for the elections necessary to constitute the House of Commons. Charles called such a council of peers to meet at York, and they immediately assembled.

In the mean time the Scotch sent embassadors to York, saying to the king that they were advancing to lay their grievances before him! They expressed great sorrow and regret at the victory which they had been compelled to gain over some forces that had attempted to prevent them from getting access to their sovereign. The king laid this communication before the lords, and asked their advice what to do; and also asked them to counsel him how he should provide funds to keep his army together until a Parliament could be convened. The lords advised him to appoint commissioners to meet the Scotch, and endeavor to compromise the difficulties; and to send to the city of London, asking that corporation to lend him a small sum until Parliament could be assembled.

This advice was followed. A temporary treaty was made with the rebels, although making a treaty with rebels is perhaps the most humiliating thing that a hereditary sovereign is ever compelled to do. The Earl of Strafford was, however, entirely opposed to this policy. He urged the king most earnestly not to give up the contest without a more decisive struggle. He represented to him the danger of beginning to yield to the torrent which he now began to see would overwhelm them all if it was allowed to have its way. He tried to persuade the king that the Scots might yet be driven back, and that it would be possible to get along without a Parliament. He dreaded a Parliament. The king, however, and his other advisers, thought that they must yield a little to the storm. Strafford then wanted to be allowed to return to his post in Ireland, where he thought that he should probably be safe from the terrible enmity which he must have known that he had awakened in England, and which he thought a Parliament would concentrate and bring upon his devoted head. But the king would not consent to this. He assured Strafford that if a Parliament should assemble, he would take care that they should not hurt a hair of his head. Unfortunate monarch! How little he foresaw that that very Parliament, from whose violence he thus promised to defend his favorite servant so completely as to insure him from the slightest injury, would begin by taking off his favorite's head, and end with taking off his own!

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