The impeachment and execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford.
Wentworth knew the risk he was taking by returning to London but was swayed both by his concept of duty to the King and his own confidence that he could explain all satisfactorily to Parliament. He had previously done so and expected to be able to do it again. This time, however, he found the enmity strong from all sides and the Puritans led by John Pym both organised and clever. Although prepared for his reputation to be damaged and a probable need to withdraw from power, he was confident that the King would not let him perish. His hopes were raised when the complaints from Ireland were of a minor sort that he felt well able to answer; and a marginal vote (165-152) to refer the allegations to a Committee of the whole House indicated a strong residual support for him.
Parliament was now led by the highly experienced John Pym who saw that action had to be quick and ruthless if he was to ” pull down all the cobwebs which hung in the tops and corners”. An early task was to review the appointments as MPs by a Privileges Committee which rejected several Wentworth supporters. Elsewhere the mix included many members with Irish connections, including Sir John Clotworthy, a prominent Irish Presbyterian landowner. whose wife had been pursued for her faith. He lambasted the Irish government making the unchallenged allegation that the 9000 troops were Papist and well paid, unlike the Protestant forces. The implication was that they could have been used against England. The Commons, through a number of Committees investigating complaints, now sought to accuse
Wentworth to the House of Lords of High Treason and to demand his immediate removal from the House. Wentworth was closeted with the King when news of the proposal reached them, and he determined to return to the Lords to await the messengers from the Commons, but arrived just in time to see Pym and entourage entering the House of Lords. There followed the ignominy of being required to withdraw while the Lords considered the charge.
Before long he was summoned in and forced to kneel at the Bar of the House while the Earl of Manchester read the decision that he be sequestered from the House and confined. A tight lipped Earl of Cork watched in triumph as Wentworth left the Chamber to be met by Black Rod, who formally took him prisoner. Pym now had to work hard to prove the allegations since he knew that there would be a battle of wits between them and he could not afford to lose this chance to remove the one minister of the King who was really dangerous. This was done by creating and maintaining an atmosphere of tension and every opportunity taken to impugn Wentworth and his past actions. Even stupid allegations that he had connived with Jesuits were welcomed by Pym towards this end. Similar activity was taken amongst the City merchants while Pym did his homework on the use of the Bill of Attainder, a device dating from the Wars of the Roses and fallen into disuse. This was a device for condemning a man to death by Act of Parliament regardless of the legal position
and was his trump card.
Access to witnesses for Wentworth were blocked, visitors refused after dark, as was an application for bail. Pym then sought to interview members of the Privy Council about the dissolution of Parliament in May 1640, hoping to get damaging admissions from them. This should have been rejected by the Lords, but so many had turned against Wentworth in the past that the vote failed, and Pym gained a big advantage. This was added to when a Remonstrance from the Irish Parliament was brought forward, voted through by a strong Protestant membership, some supporting Catholics, and a Catholic neutrality generally. Thus armed, Clotworthy was their ready spokesman against Wentworth.
On 24 November Pym laid the articles of impeachment before the House an Wentworth brought there to hear the allegations. When he asked for details, names and the like he was told that representations should be by a petition, and was thus refused the opportunity to physically face his accusers ( a fundamental right in British law). From there he was taken to the Tower. He was soon placed
under close confinement with a full time guard placed on his rooms. On December 18 Archbishop Laud was also sequestered; impeached in February 1641 , and sent to the the Tower to remain several years before his execution on 10 January 1645.
In the New Year there were signs of cracks in the move for trial, and the Lords and Commons were very touchy about interviewing witnesses and the privilege of Wentworth, who was still a Lord. Otherwise Wentworth had little support from his peers. The charges from Ireland then appeared as the core of the allegations; Mountnorris and Loftus had earlier judgments reversed and the Earl of Cork was diligent in giving evidence. Such was the volume of witnesses that it was 30 January before Wentworth actually heard the specific charges against him – nine of a general nature and twenty eight specific allegations. Very reluctantly the House allowed him and his counsel a fortnight to respond, before he was returned through menacing crowds to the Tower.
The charges from Ireland were all meant to demonstrate his iron handed tyranny, and not so much that he had acted illegally, but had misused the prerogative and benefited personally from his administration. The underlying purpose was more to get rid of an unpopular Deputy, much as had happened in the past and to Wentworth`s predecessor, Lord Falkland. The charges that caught Wentworth`s eye especially, were the constitutional allegations of exerting undue influence on the King and of law breaking. The rest were defensible on the facts and probably very hard to prove in a court of law; indeed he successfully proved that several were engendered by personal spite. Meanwhile, on 24 February Wentworth appeared before the House of Lords and answered the charges, rejecting them all and claiming that the Commons by implication impeached the whole government. His answers thereby formed a political arguement, a personal defence and an obligue attack on his accusers. At the end of the appearance he asked for, and was declined permission to call his own witnesses or cross examine those produced by the Commons.
The trial proper took place on 22 March 1641 in the Westminster Hall, as the Commons insisted on being present, while constraints were placed on Wentworth`s legal representatives, and witnesses from Ireland (insufficient time to get to court or they had been impeached to prevent their appearance). Early in March the Commons published the accusations ( but not the responses) which, with the Irish and Scots Remonstrations, fanned public opinion. Widely read and taken as fact, few questioned them, as a result Wentworth was represented everywhere as a monster, guilty of the most horrendous crimes that popular imagination could contrive, including haven driven Irish children by their thousands into the fields to starve.
After much debate and wriggling by
Wentworth, the charges came down to the alleged threat to use Irish troops
against the English ( which ignored the fact that Britain had existed
since 1603 on the accession of James VI/I), and the alleged diversion of
monies or improper accounting. In respect of the latter the trial declined
Wentworth the opportunity to produce his accounts for audit – so much for
even handed justice. The use of troops allegation rested on the evidence
of Sir Harry Vane, the secretary at the Council meeting seven years
previously. Aged, infirm and in his dotage, Vane quite miraculously
recalled the exact phrases (allegedly) used by Wentworth, even
though he could remember little else. Clearly having been extensively
coached on the evidence he should give, Vane`s `evidence` was the
final straw on which the Attainder was secured and forced through
Parliament and the House of Lords. It no longer was a question of equity
and justice but one of a process of legislation which introduced new
evidence, refused Wentworth a reply to the charges and enabled a
`conscience free` execution even if the evidence did not prove guilt.
Charles meanwhile missed an opportunity to aid Wentworth, perhaps overcome
by the speed of events and his own precarious position amongst an
increasingly rebellious population of London who presented a petition of
twenty thousand signatures demanding death for Wentworth. Pym then
disclosed that the King had been plotting with Army officers which raised
the temperature of the public further and swayed some waverers in both the
House of Commons and the House of Lords. Wentworth himself, saw that all
was lost and only the King might intervene. But Charles fearful for his
own situation and the safety of his family did not do so, and gave raise
to the famous quote from Psalm 146 v 2, ” O put not your trust in Princes,
nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them”
The Bill of Attainder was passed in the
Lords by 26 votes to 19 on 8 May and the execution set for Wednesday, 12
May 1641. A hundred thousand spectators were said to have crammed onto
Tower Hill to give a deafening shout as the executioner held aloft
the bleeding head. For King Charles, there now lay a very rocky road ahead
that would see him embroiled in Civil War and eventually suffer the same
fate as his faithful servant Wentworth, in 1649.