Great Strafford?

C.V. Wedgwood analyses the life, death, and influence of Thomas Wentworth, first earl of Strafford.

‘Great Strafford! worthy of that name though all Of thee could be forgotten, but thy fall...’

So wrote the Royalist poet Sir John Denham who was one of the many spectators of Strafford’s trial in Westminster Hall in 1641. Denham proved a prophet, for Strafford’s trial and execution assured him of far greater fame than he would have gained had he avoided his fate by a timely flight and died in exile of natural causes. Then he would have left only the memory of an energetic, efficient and unpopular administrator. But the last six months of his life made him a memorable and dramatic figure in the conflict between King and Parliament.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was by far the ablest minister in the service of King Charles I during the eleven years of his personal rule. It is possible that the King found his indefatigable energy rather tiring at close quarters, for he employed him most of the time at a considerable distance from the Court, first at York as Lord President of the North and then in Dublin as Lord Deputy of Ireland. In both places Strafford used his quasi-autocratic power to enforce law, order and respect for the Crown. Charles never gave him the post he longed for, that of Lord Treasurer, and this was Charles’s loss for Strafford was remarkably astute in all money matters and lack of money was the basic weakness of the Crown.

Only in 1640, in the disastrous concluding year of the King’s personal rule, with the Scottish Covenanters in rebellion and widespread unrest in England, did Charles turn to the ambitious indomitable Wentworth to get him out of his difficulties. Only then did he make him Earl of Strafford - an honour he had previously refused him.

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