Viscount Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

Wentworth, Thomas, Viscount Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was born in Chancery-lane, London, 13th April 1593.

He was the eldest son of a wealthy Yorkshire baronet and landowner, whom he succeeded in 1614. In that year and 1621 he was elected to Parliament for Yorkshire.

Early in the reign of Charles I. he took part in the opposition to his arbitrary measures, but in 1628 went over to the side of the King, and continued his most devoted adherent during the remainder of his life.

He was created a Baron, 26th July 1628, Lord-President of the North in September, and Viscount Wentworth in December of the same year; a Privy-Councillor in 1629, and Lord-Deputy of Ireland in January, 1631–2.

He did not arrive in Dublin until July 1633, when he took up his residence at the Castle, with his family, and began to order the affairs of the country with vigour.

His commercial policy is thus indicated in a letter to the Lord-Treasurer, written six months after his arrival:

“I am of opinion that all wisdom advises to keep this kingdom as much subordinate and dependent upon England as is possible, and holding them from the manufacture of wool (which, unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage),and then enforcing them to fetch their clothing from thence [England] and to take their salt from the King (being that which preserves and gives value to all their native staple commodities). How can they depart from us without nakedness and beggary? Which in itself is so weighty a consideration, as a small profit should not bear it down.”

Soon after his arrival in Dublin, Wentworth proposed to call a parliament. To this the King at first objected, but the Deputy overcame his scruples by promising to use diligence to secure the return of men who would prove pliant instruments in his hands.

Parliament was opened in Dublin, with unusual pomp, in July 1634, and Wentworth made a speech in which he informed the assembly that it was determined to hold two sessions—one for the voting of subsidies, and a second for the redress of grievances. Six subsidies of £50,000 each were immediately voted; but when the time came for the consideration of “the graces,” as the desired concessions from the King to the people of Ireland were called, Wentworth, by skilful manœuvring, and playing off the Protestants against the Catholics, managed to avoid granting them.

Among the concessions sought were, that Catholics should be excused from taking the oath of supremacy, that an undisturbed possession of land for sixty years should give a good title as against the Crown, and that the inhabitants of Connaught should be permitted to make a new enrolment of their estates.

Parliament was dissolved in April 1635, without “the graces” being conceded, and the Deputy gleefully boasted:

“The King is as absolute here as any prince in the whole world can be, and may be still, if it be not spoiled on that side”

— namely in England.

A commission was then issued with the distinct object of confiscating the whole of Connaught by fictitious forms of law.

By threatening and coercing juries, and granting to the judges a commission of four shillings in the pound on the first year’s rent of all forfeitures, the confiscation of the greater part of the counties of Mayo, Leitrim, Sligo, and Roscommon was accomplished.

In Galway, owing partly to the influence of the Earl of Clanricard, the juries at first refused to find verdicts for the Crown. Heavy fines were inflicted, however, and the Earl had to compound for his estate by the payment of a large sum.

Flaws were found in patents granted as lately as the previous reign, and many of the large landowners throughout the country were compelled to sue out new grants of their estates at a heavy expense.

Even the London companies which held large estates in Ulster had to pay £70,000 to make good their titles.

The Catholics were alternately favoured and persecuted. At times the severity of the laws against them was relaxed, and at others they were carried out to the letter: Catholic schools were suppressed, rites of burial denied, and fines inflicted for non-attendance at Protestant service.

At the same time, in all matters not supposed to affect the King’s revenue or prerogative, the cause of religion, or the interests of England, the government of Ireland was conducted with vigour and judgment.

Algerine piracy was suppressed, the annual revenue from customs was increased from £12,000 to £40,000, and mining and the general development of the resources of the country were encouraged. In particular, the establishment of the flax manufacture as a flourishing industry, dates from this time.

In 1636 Wentworth visited England and received the King’s approval of his acts.

In the latter part of 1639 he was again sent for by Charles, and in January 1639–’40 was created Earl of Stratford, and Baron of Raby.

At the same time he was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, an office which had remained vacant since it was held by the Earl of Essex in Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

In March he paid a visit of two weeks to Dublin, to meet Parliament. He “had four subsidies given then, and gave orders to levy 8,000 foot in Ireland, which, together with 2,000 foot and 1,000 horse, which was the standing army in Ireland, and 500 horse to be joined with them,” were to be sent into Scotland under his lordship’s command.

On the 3rd of April he embarked for England. He was delayed for some time by illness on the road, and in London. On his recovery he was made Lieutenant-General of the English forces; but the army was defeated at Newborne before his arrival.

When the Long Parliament met in London in November 1640, one of its first acts was the impeachment of Stratford before the House of Lords.

The indictment for high treason embraced twenty-eight counts, twenty of them being for acts more or less connected with his Irish administration.

He was accused of various acts of an illegal and oppressive nature; of having ruled Ireland as a conquered country; of counselling the King to arbitrary acts; of showing undue favour to Roman Catholics; of trying to kindle war between England and Scotland; and, in particular, of raising an army in Ireland, nominally to fight the Scots, but really to crush the English, and enable the King to rule without Parliament and without the law.

In the following March, according to Clarendon,

“a committee was come from the Parliament in Ireland to solicit matters concerning that kingdom. This committee (most of them being Papists, and the principal actors since in the rebellion) was received with great kindness, and upon the matter added to the committee for the prosecution of the Earl of Strafford.”

The impeachment trial began on the 22nd of March and continued until the 14th April, the prosecution being urged with implacable hostility by Pym and other popular leaders of the House of Commons, while Strafford defended himself on every point with great ability.

Ultimately it was resolved to abandon the impeachment trial and to proceed by Bill of Attainder. The Bill passed finally in the Commons on the 21st of April, by a vote of 204 to 59, and in the House of Lords, on the 8th of May, by 26 votes to 19.

Popular feeling ran very high against the Earl, and the King, though he had assured Strafford that his life should be spared, abandoned him when it came to the point, and on the 10th signed the commission for giving the royal assent to the Bill.

The Earl was beheaded on Tower Hill, 12th May 1641, and met his death with dignity and composure. He was 48 years of age.

In private life the Earl of Strafford was a devoted husband and father, a true friend and a man of high cultivation and feeling.

Many of his faults of temper arose from his shattered health, the result of agonizing accessions of inherited gout.

His personal habits were naturally simple, but to sustain the honour of the King “before the eyes of a wild and rude people,” he maintained almost regal magnificence, with a retinue of fifty servants and a body-guard of one hundred horse splendidly mounted and accoutred.

The ruins of a princely mansion, begun by him, but never completed, may still be seen near Naas.

He was long known in the traditions of the Irish peasantry as “Black Tom.”


175. Ireland, History of: Samuel Smiles, M.D. (the Invasion to 1829). London, 1844.

345. Wentworth, Life of Thomas, Earl of Strafford: Elizabeth Cooper. 2 vols. London, 1874.

345a. Wentworth, Thomas—Earl of Strafforde, State Letters and Dispatches, with his Life by Sir G. Radcliffe: Edited by W. Knowler, LL.D. 2 vols. Dublin, 1740.