Select British Eloquence/The Earl of Strafford

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Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford, was descended from an ancient family in Yorkshire, and was born at the house of his maternal grandfather, in London, on the 13th of April, 1593. At St. John's College, Cambridge, where he received his education, he was distinguished not only for the strength and versatility of his genius, but for his unwearied efforts to improve his mind by the severest discipline, and especially to prepare himself for the duties of public life, as an orator and a statesman. The leading features of his character were strongly marked. He had an ardor of temperament, a fixedness of will, a native impetuosity of feeling, and a correspondent energy of action, which united to make him one of the most daring and determined men of the age. To those who rendered him the deference he expected, who were ready to co-operate in his plans or become subservient to his purposes, he was kind and liberal. But he was quick and resentful when his will was crossed; and even Clarendon admits that "he manifested a nature excessively imperious."

He was trained from childhood, to a belief in those extravagant doctrines respecting the royal prerogative, which were so generally prevalent at that day. It was therefore natural that Wentworth, in entering on public life, should seek employment at Court. The King seems, from the first, to have regarded him with favor; but Buckingham, who was then in power, was secretly jealous and hostile. Hence he was treated at times with great confidence, and raised to important offices, and again stripped suddenly of his employments, and subjected to the most mortifying rebuffs. Under these circumstances, he came out for a time as a "patriot," and joined the popular party. That he did so, however, only in opposition to Buckingham, as the most effectual means of putting down a rival—that there was no change in his principles, no real sympathy between him and the illustrious men who were resisting the tyranny of Charles, is obvious from his subsequent conduct, and from the whole tenor of his private correspondence, as afterward given to the world.[1] But such was the strength of his passions, and the force of imagination (so characteristic of the highest class of orators) with which he could lay hold of, and for the time being, appropriate to himself, all the principles and feelings which became his new character, that he appeared to the world, and perhaps even to himself, to have become a genuine convert to the cause of popular liberty. In the Parliament of 1627-8, during the great discussion on the public grievances, he came forth in all his strength, "amid the delighted cheers of the House, and with a startling effect on the Court." After entering upon the subject with a calm and solemn tone befitting the greatness of the occasion, he rose in power as he advanced, until, when he came to speak of forced loans, and the billeting of soldiers upon families, he broke forth suddenly, with that kind of dramatic effect which he always studied, in a rapid and keen invective, which may be quoted as a specimen of his early eloquence. "They have rent from us the light of our eyes! enforced companies of guests, worse than the ordinances of France! vitiated our wives and children before our eyes! brought the Crown to greater want than ever it was in, by anticipating the revenue! and can the shepherd be thus smitten, and the sheep not scattered? They have introduced a Privy Council, ravishing at once the spheres of all ancient government! imprisoning without bail or bond! They have taken from us—what shall I say? Indeed, what have they left us? They have taken from us all means of supplying the King, and ingratiating ourselves with him, by tearing up the roots of all property; which if they be not seasonably set again into the ground by his Majesty's hand, we shall have, instead of beauty, baldness!"

He next, in the boldest language, proposes his remedy. "By one and the same thing hath the King and the people been hurt, and by the same must they be cured: to vindicate—What? New things? No! Our ancient, lawful, and vital liberties, by re-enforcing the ancient laws, made by our ancestors; by setting such a stamp upon them, that no licentious spirit shall dare hereafter to enter upon them. And shall we think this a way to break a Parliament?[2] No! our desires are modest and just. I speak truly for the interests of the King and the people. If we enjoy not these, it will be impossible to relieve him." "Let no man," said he, in conclusion, "judge this way 'a break-neck' of Parliaments; but a way of honor to the King, nay, of profit; for, besides the supply we shall readily give him, suitable to his occasions, we give him our hearts—our hearts, Mr. Speaker; a gift that God calls for, and fit for a King."

In the same spirit, he united with Eliot in urging forward the Petition of Right; and when the Lords proposed an additional clause, that it was designed "to leave entire that sovereign power with which his Majesty is intrusted," he resisted its insertion, declaring, " If we admit of the addition, we leave the subject worse than we found him. These laws arc not acquainted with 'Sovereign Power!'"

The Court were now thoroughly alarmed. But they knew the man. There is evidence from his own papers, that within ten days from this time, he was in negotiation with the speaker, Finch; and "almost before the burning words which have just been transcribed, had cooled from off the lips of the speaker, a transfer of his services to the Court was decided on." In a few days Parliament was prorogued; and shortly after, Sir Thomas Wentworth was created Baron Wentworth, and appointed a member of that same Privy Council which he had just before denounced, as "ravishing at once the spheres of all ancient government!" The death of Buckingham about a month after, placed him, in effect, at the head of affairs. He was made a Viscount, and Lord President of the North; and at a subsequent period, Lord Deputy, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Earl of Strafford.

The twelve years that followed, during which Charles undertook to reign without the aid of Parliaments, were filled up with arbitrary exactions, destructive monopolies, illegal imprisonments, and inhuman corporal punishments, which Strafford was known to have recommended or approved; while his presidency in the North was marked by numerous acts of high-handed injustice, and his government of Ireland carried on with such violence and oppression as "gave men warning," in the words of Clarendon, "how they trusted themselves in the territories where he commanded."

In 1640 Charles was compelled by his necessities to convene another Parliament. The day of retribution had at length arrived. The voice of three kingdoms called for vengeance on the author of their calamities; and not a man was found, except Charles and Laud, to justify or excuse his conduct. Even Digby, who sought only to save his life, speaks of Strafford, as "a name of hatred in the present age by his practices, and fit to be made a name of terror to future ages by his punishment." At the moment when, governed by his accustomed policy, he was preparing to strike the first blow, and to impeach the leaders of the popular party, as the surest means to avert the coming storm, he was himself impeached by the House of Commons, stripped of all his dignities, and thrown into the Tower. The 22d of March, 1641, was fixed upon for his trial. The great object of his accusers was to establish against him the charge of "attempting to subvert the fundamental laws of the realm." In doing so, they brought forward many offenses of inferior magnitude, as an index of his intentions; and they never pretended that more than two or three of the articles contained charges which amounted strictly to high treason.

In conducting the impeachment, they had great difficulties to encounter. They could find precedents in abundance to justify the doctrine of constructive treason. Still, it was a doctrine which came with an ill grace from the friends of civil liberty; and it gave wide scope to the eloquence of Strafford, in some of the most powerful and touching appeals of his masterly defense. In addition to this, the time had not yet arrived when treason against the state, as distinguished from an assault upon the life or personal authority of the king, was distinctly recognized in England. Strafford had undoubtedly, as a sworn counselor of Charles, given him unconstitutional advice; had told him that he was absolved from the established rules of government; that he might use his simple prerogative for the purpose of raising money, above or against the decisions of Parliament. Such an attempt to subvert the fundamental laws of the kingdom, if connected with any overt act, would now be treason. But the doctrine was a new one. The idea of considering the sovereign as only the representative of the state; of treating an encroachment on the established rights of the people as a crime of equal magnitude with a violation of the King's person and authority, had not yet become familiar to the English mind. We owe it to the men who commenced this impeachment; and it is not wonderful that Strafford, with his views, and those of most men at that day, could declare with perfect sincerity that he was utterly unconscious of the crime of treason.

The trial lasted from the 22d of March to the 13th of April, 1641, during which time the Earl appeared daily before the court, clothed in black, and wearing no badge or ornament but his George. "The stern and simple character of his features accorded with the occasion; his countenance 'manly black,' as Whitlocke describes it, and his thick hair cut short from his ample forehead." He was tall in person, but through early disease had contracted a stoop of the shoulders, which would have detracted from his appearance on any other occasion; but being now ascribed to intense suffering from the stone and the gout, which he was known to have endured during the progress of the trial, it operated in his favor, and excited much sympathy in his behalf. During eighteen days he thus stood alone against his numerous accusers, answering in succession the twenty-eight articles of the impeachment, which of themselves filled two hundred sheets of paper, examining the witnesses, commenting on their evidence, explaining, defending, palliating his conduct on every point with an adroitness and force, a dignity and self-possession, which awakened the admiration even of his enemies. On the last day of the trial, he summed up his various defenses in a speech of which the report given below is only an imperfect outline. It enables us, however, to form some conception of the eloquence and pathos of this extraordinary man. There is in it a union of dignity, simplicity, and force—a felicity in the selection of topics—a dexterity of appeal to the interests and feelings of his judges—a justness and elevation in every sentiment he utters—a vividness of illustration, a freshness of imagery, an elasticity and airiness of diction—an appearance of perfect sincerity, and a pervading depth of passion breaking forth at times in passages of startling power or tenderness, which we find only in the highest class of oratory. The pathos of the conclusion has been much admired; and if we go back in imagination to the scene as presented in Westminster Hall—the once proud Earl standing amid the wreck of his fortunes, with that splendid court around him which so lately bowed submissive to his will; with his humbled monarch looking on from behind the screen that concealed his person, unable to interpose or arrest the proceedings; with that burst of tenderness at the thought of earlier days and of his wife, the Lady Arabella Hollis, "that saint in heaven," to whose memory he had always clung amid the power and splendor of later life; with his body bowed down under the pressure of intense physical suffering, and his strong spirit utterly subdued and poured out like water in that startling cry, "My Lords, my Lords, my Lords, something more I had intended to say, but my voice and my spirit fail me"—we can not but feel that there are few passages of equal tenderness and power in the whole range of English eloquence. We are strongly reminded of Shakspeare's delineation of Wolsey under similar circumstances, in some of the most pathetic scenes which poetry has ever depicted. We feel that Strafford, too, with his "heart new opened," might have added his testimony to the folly of ambition, and the bitter fruits of seeking the favor of a king, at the expense of the people's rights, and the claims of justice and truth.

" Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition!
By that sin fell the angels; how can man, then,
The image of his Maker hope to win by't?
Love thyself last! Cherish those hearts that hate thee!
Corruption wins not more than honesty!
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
To silence envious tongues! Be just and fear not!
Let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's,
Thy God's, and Truth's ! Then if thou fallest, O Cromwell,
Thou fallest a blessed martyr."


  1. ^  This is shown at large by Mr. Forster in his Life of Stafford, which forms part of Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia.
  2. ^  Alluding to the threats of the Parliament being dissolved for their freedom of speech.