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1st Earl of Strafford

1st Earl of Strafford

The English statesman Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593-1641), was lord deputy of Ireland from 1632 to 1640. In Ireland he autocratically enforced, with his hated policy of "Thorough," the King's rule and the King's peace. Later he became Charles I's chief adviser.

Thomas Wentworth was born on April 13, 1593. He derived from a knightly family long established at Wentworth-Woodhouse, Yorkshire. He was educated at Cambridge and at the Inns of Court, London. He spent a year traveling on the Continent after his marriage to the eldest daughter of the Earl of Cumberland. Upon his return to England he was elected to Parliament from Yorkshire in 1614.

In 1621 Wentworth was again elected knight of the shire, and the courtier Lord (George) Calvert was his fellow member. Wentworth evidently supported Calvert's policy of peace with Spain. He joined the critics of the Duke of Buckingham, who favored war with Spain. For this reason he was excluded from Parliament by being made a sheriff of Yorkshire.

In 1625 the widowed Wentworth married Arabella Holles, second daughter of the Earl of Clare. She was the sister of Denzil Holles, a leader of the parliamentary opposition. Wentworth's continued opposition to war with Spain led him to move to the ranks of the opposition in the first year of Charles I's reign. In 1627 Wentworth's opposition went so far that he refused to pay a forced loan and was imprisoned for 6 months.

King Charles I sought Wentworth's adherence by creating him baron and viscount in 1628 and by naming him lord president of the Council of the North. As lord president, Wentworth carried out, in cooperation with the King, the tasks of orderly civil government, which were congenial to him. Any derogation of royal power in the North was quickly punished.

Lord Deputy of Ireland

On Jan. 12, 1632, Wentworth was named lord deputy of Ireland. He determined to bring a maximum portion of land in Ireland under the direct administration of the Crown and to improve the royal income and power. He brought his harsh rule of "Thorough" to Ireland. The philosophy of "Thorough" was summed up in Wentworth's words: "Princes are to be the indulgent nursing fathers to their people…. [The people] repose safe and still under the protection of their sceptres." Wentworth summoned the Irish Parliament in 1634, and it granted a large tax revenue to the government. He initiated a program of clearing the Irish Channel of pirates in order to stimulate trade, and he patronized the linen industry in order to increase customs revenues. To the Anglican Church, that faithful adjunct of royal power, he often restored Church lands that had been alienated to Protestant laymen. Finally, he left the titles of Catholic landlords uncertain as the prelude to a massive expropriation and resettlement by English colonists. Wentworth's wealth increased enormously. He farmed the Irish customs at a profit and acquired five manors representing nearly 60,000 acres. He remained lord president of the North and derived large revenues from there, especially from fines on Roman Catholics (recusants).

In 1639 Wentworth returned to England in order to defend his treatment of subordinate English officials. He was exonerated, created 1st Earl of Strafford, and became a chief adviser to Charles I. Created lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1640, Strafford raised a largely Catholic Irish army to use against the Scots. He was forced, however, to leave this army in Ireland.

Strafford also recommended a Parliament that he expected to dominate, but when it did not cooperate, he concurred in its dismissal. His military efforts proved unavailing against Scotland, and when Parliament was again summoned in November 1640, its chief order of business was the destruction of Strafford. He ably defended himself against an impeachment of treason. But he was powerless against the legislative device of a bill of attainder, which defined his autocratic acts in Ireland and in managing the war against the Scots as a constructive subversion (treason) against the whole frame of legal government in England. After long hesitation, Charles I signed the bill, and Strafford was beheaded on May 12, 1641.

Strafford's career represented the tension between parliamentary allegiance and royal service that so acutely divided his generation. His increasingly extreme advocacy of royal authority led to his fate on Tower Hill.

Further Reading

The standard biography, Strafford by C. V. Wedgwood (1935), was revised as Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, 1593-1641: A Revaluation (1961), as a result of the publication of Hugh F. Kearney's influential Strafford in Ireland, 1633-41: A Study in Absolutism (1959).

Additional Sources

Kearney, Hugh F., Strafford in Ireland, 1633-41: a study in absolutism, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Timmis, John H., Thine is the kingdom: the trial for treason of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, First Minister to King Charles I and last hope of the English Crown, University: University of Alabama Press, 1975 1974. □

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