Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Thomas Wentworth was the second son ( and third of twelve children) of William Wentworth of Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire and was born on Good Friday, 13 April 1593 at a house in Chancery Lane, London, owned by his father in law. His father was a wealthy landowner with two manors at Gawthorpe and Woodhouse, and an income of several thousands pounds a year. The Wentworths were therefore more than a country squire but not quite nobility. This was one of the aspirations that would be achieved in time. Thomas`s elder brother died in infancy leaving the young Thomas heir to the estates and, apart from one sister, the eldest child which may have contributed to his assertive and dominating manner. Well educated he was most meticulous and paid attention to detail. This early upbringing was reflected in almost all that he did as an adult, and he gained something of a reputation as a meddler as well as dangerous enemy. Yet most of his early political career was driven by a desire to see a higher standard of loyalty , responsibility and hard work among those who served the Crown. It was this that frightened lesser persons among his peers - the man was verging on honest, an almost unheard of trait in those days. In his early career he sought mostly to bring about compromise between the demands of the King, usually for money, and the opposition in Parliament led by John Pym. Surprisingly perhaps, his great achievement at this time was to broker agreement between the Commons and the House of Lords over the Petition of Right. Having secured agreement the Petition was placed before the King and approved, under great pressure, on 7 June 1628.
Thomas had a reasonably successful career in politics before he went to Ireland. He had for many years been a Member of Parliament for his native Yorkshire and prior to going to Ireland he had been Lord President of the North, a vice regal appointment in which he virtually ruled the North of England without intervention from the king or parliament. His four years of tenure had been successful, in that he had ruled reasonably fairly and constrained some of the excesses of the landowners and nobility who were prone to the disease of the age - filling their pockets. He had hoped for the position of Treasurer for which he was genuinely well qualified. But he had never really succeeded in becoming a member of the all powerful inner circle who advised the king, and in fact it was likely that Wentworth was too powerful a figure for the king to cope with. Wentworth was not a diplomat and cared little for foreign policy. he was content to be at peace with Spain and his experience of France was negative - he disliked the French and their management style which only reinforced his view that Britain needed a strong central government. The need as he saw it, was to build sound finances (that were not milked at every turn) and good administration ; so a cautious neutral policy in Europe was important to that objective. He had no qualms about friendship for Spain, coolness towards France and a disregard of the Protestant cause at home or abroad.
Wentworth landed in Dublin on 23 July 1633. Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, who had been co-governor with Lord Loftus since the recall of the last Deputy in 1629, handed over declaring confidently that ‘the kingdom was yielded up in general peace and plenty’. Wentworth determined to find out the facts for himself and concluded in a letter to the Lord Portland, Secretary to the King, ‘It doth almost affright me at first sight’, He had found that the politics and problems of Ireland made the difficulties that he had confronted when President of the North seem trivial. Here he found a different kind of rapaciousness as well as the ever greedy landlords, all of which was exacerbated by antagonism between different races and different types of settlers. These he found to lie at the heart of problems. Elsewhere he was aware of the demands made on the central administration, the endless jockeying for position, and the need for a reorganisation with better salaries for the King`s servants that would discourage attempts to make anything on the side from payment of fees and perquisites, and bribes. But, unfortunately a sensible and worthwhile reform did not happen; his `thorough` ness consisted of a higher standard of loyalty, responsibility and hard work amongst those who served the Crown.
In Ireland his policies had a superficial consistency to them but they lacked the essential across the board balance between his objectives, the desire for justice and the aspirations of other parties. He was hindered perhaps by his own lack of diplomacy, and rush to get things done. He alienated the English magnates of the City of London over Londonderry; offended the Catholic nobility and Old English by not enacting the `Graces` and continuing to tax them heavily. Worse, he fell out with the new English in the form of the Earl of Cork who bore a grudge that would contribute to Wentworth`s impeachment and execution .
History should, however, also record that in his period of rule there was greater economic activity, prosperity and orderly administration than Ireland had enjoyed for generations. He did much, despite economic policy controlled from Westminster (England`s needs were paramount), to contain the effects of piracy around Ireland`s shores; developed a better administration in the ports, that helped trade; and obtained better cooperation from the English navy. The chief exports were hides,tallow, timber,wool, corn, livestock, (cattle and sheep) some iron ore, and much fish - salmon, eels, herrings, and pilchards. Another profitable venture he identified was the carrying trade largely dominated by the Dutch. So far as trade was concerned Wentworth objected to constraints on the export of horses to Ireland where there was need for breeding stock; and the imposition of English import duties on Irish sheep and cattle. He also resisted the restrictions on the export of tallow; additional duties on coal; and also condemned the strictures and malpractices in the raw wool trade. He preferred a direct licence system for wool merchants which generated revenue for himself and the king. Fortuitously the English manufacturers were eventually able to absorb the excess wool from Ireland, which removed a further area of possible conflict. So far as the linen industry is concerned, Wentworth saw that the climate in Ireland was good for flax growing and endeavoured to restrict volumes of poor quality yarn going to Lancashire`s developing industry, in favour of an Irish manufacture aided by French and Flemish workers (Hugenots). He had hoped to eventually undercut the French and Dutch manufacturers by as much as 20 per cent. But the outcry was too great and the project was abandoned losing him a considerable amount of money. He also had plans in hand for developing munitions manufactures and cannons; glass works; and tapestry, all of which he was prepared to invest his own money in with the prospect of big profits. Although thwarted at times, his success overall was reflected in the increase of customs duties for the Crown during which he also tackled the practice of `farming` the revenues to secure a better deal for the King.
Amongst the Irish Lords were many keen on filling their own pockets as well as conniving and conspiring together to that end. Chief among them was Francis Annersley, Viscount Mountnorris, Vice Treasurer of Ireland - a recently acquired and very profitable position. He was something of a professional troublemaker and quick to tell tales to Whitehall, having been chiefly responsible for the recall of Lord Falkland, the previous Lord Lieutenant. Wentworth complained of his wilfullness and ignorance, as well as his gambling and mismanagement of funds, paying in late and using it to support his gambling activities. There was a singular risk to Wentworth`s authority, however, with his two opponents - Mountnorris and Lord Loftus, who were aligned with the Irish Party. The risk was that they link with the (Catholic) Queen, which would have been formidable opposition. Mountnorris was a leading figure in the syndicate who `farmed` the customs duties and from which they paid about fifty per cent of the profits to the king. The amount paid became a matter of serious dispute later on and meant more enemies for Wentworth. This was followed in 1636 by a Court Martial of Mountnorris for alleged treason - indiscrete words at a dinner party, that enabled Wentworth to get his way over `farming` of customs duties, and remove Mountnorris from office. The manner of the deed, its timing and perceived benefits to Wentworth soon caused friction at Whitehall and in Ireland, with a loss of trust by the King and worse, some of his friends. This presaged his downfall as voices were increasingly raised against him. His other main adversary was the Earl of Cork , the largest `landowner and prime culprit in dealings with church lands, who was playing the new Protestant settlers card. Wentworth`s great strength had been the vice regal powers that Charles had given him, thus all Ireland was answerable to him and Wentworth was answerable to the king alone. But the time was not that far away when the Westminster associates, many of them family of the Irish nobles, would take their revenge.
Wentworth enjoyed a break from Ireland in 1636, returning to London to be most cordially received by the king. After a visit to Yorkshire he returned to Ireland and continued his `thorough` firm rule for a further three years. In between times, he bought more land and started building himself a grand country home (which was unfinished) near Naas in County Kildare. His position seemed reasonably secure but he had nagging doubts about the strength of the King`s position, who was too easy going in his government and increasingly influenced by the Queen. Charles continued to usurp Parliament when needing funds, where the issue of Ship Money was a open sore and John Pym was a fierce defender of the Puritans in England. In Scotland the Covenant was signed in 1638 and civil war would soon break out (the Bishops Wars 1639-40). Wentworth, meanwhile, was fearful of a war with Spain which would have serious impact on his hopes for Ireland. In Ireland itself a sense of restlessness was building up, including raids by hooded men on Wentworth`s estate in Wicklow. Wentworth`s big mistake at this time was to blame the unrest on religion, failing to see the enmity that had gathered to his stern management and especially the land policies.
Bishop Lesley returned from Berwick on 5 August 1639 and delivered to Wentworth the King`s message "Come when you will". The long awaited call had finally come. Charged with retrieving the Crown`s position, Wentworth was reasonably confident in his ability to find solutions. He had not been an advocate of Ship Money, nor consulted on the Church policies. And the decision to continue the war in Scotland had been taken before his return. But he was a resolute supporter of the King (and thus his policies) and determined to exact obedience. In the hindsight of history, what was required was patience and subtlety to sort out and manage the many facetted issues. It did not require a sledgehammer approach.
"This then was the monstrous irony of Wentworth`s career. When his great moment came, it gave him no scope to exercise his genius for administration and finance, but called instead for abilities he did not possess, so that he threw away his future, his fortune and his life in a struggle he could never have won." [ The Earl of Strafford, C V Wedgwood (1998), p269]
When the crisis came on 5 May 1640, Wentworth reluctantly agreed at a meeting of the Privy Council that Parliament should be prorogued, having again declined to provide necessary funding. Knowing of the King`s determination to wage war on the Scots, this was the path agreed on, with instructions issued forthwith. Wentworth meanwhile sought a deal with Spain that generated an offer of four million ducats for a guard of thirty five English warships to convoy Spanish ships through the Channel. This would have solved the financial crisis, but it fell through with the Dutch regarding it as breaking England`s neutrality. Perhaps foolishly Wentworth scorned the unrest in London in which he and Archbishop Laud were painted as the culprits and provokers of the war. In late May and June he was prostrate with another bout of dysentery, then by pleurisy, but he recovered to attend a Council meeting on 5 July and injected some courage into the disillusioned body. In the City of London meanwhile, the merchants blamed him for several money raising activities, including seizure of the gold stored in the Tower of London, along with talk of debasing the copper coinage. At New Year of 1640 he was finally made an Earl, adopting Strafford for his title after the area or `hundred` in which Wentworth Woodhouse manor was situated; he was also raised to Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
The illness of the Earl of Northumberland, general of the army, saw Wentworth appointed to the post, which he did not want, and his departure to the North in August 1640. Here the army, levies, and cavalry was without support and equipment, poorly trained and worst of all, unpaid. Disillusionment infected everyone, including the Kings advisers. In particular Hamilton had not organised ships to bring some 9000 troops from Ireland to create a diversion that would have split the Scottish forces. In September a Council of Peers recommended a treaty - that of Ripon 26 October 1640, which was continued in London with consultation with a Parliament called for November.
The storm now broke about him. His Northern support crumbled, his nominations for MPs failed to get elected and he was lampooned as "Black Tom" - the bogey man. The King seemed to have cooled towards him and showed favoritism to the Earl of Essex family, and Clanricarde over the Galway land struggle. Almost all influential voices and groups now blamed him and Laud for the war and wanted to be rid of them. A last minute decision from the King was that Wentworth should go with him back to London; a most dangerous thing to do in the current state of things. Inevitably his arrest and impeachment was too good an opportunity to miss.
The Earl of Cork would write in his diary May 12th,1641: " the oppressing Earl of Strafford ... was beheaded on Tower Hill, as he well deserved."
Wentworth - the land settlements and religion.