1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Nobility,Political Expedience,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1645: William Laud, given to the devil

4 comments January 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason.


Portrait of William Laud by Anthony Van Dyck. For this image’s subsequent life in popular circulation (and its contribution to its subject’s beheading) see Mercurius Politicus.

This diminutive “martinet” made himself odious to the rising Puritan party through his rigorous (some would say narrow-minded) enforcement of so-called “High Church” dogma and decor. It was a time when believers were prepared to rend the fabric of the church over a literal fabric, the surplice worn by the clergy — among other innumerable points of doctrinal rectitude.

Laud’s run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I‘s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular as well as religious policy would do his sovereign no favors in the public mind.

Roughly enforcing an unpopular minority position, Laud got the woodblock blogosphere in a tizzy with heavy-handed stunts like having dissenters’ ears cut off.

That’s the sort of thing that’ll give a guy an image problem. The king’s fool, Archibald Armstrong, is supposed to have tweaked our high and mighty subject (and warned the king against his influence*) with the punny aphorism,

Give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the devil.

Funny because it’s true.

So when Charles ran out of money and finally had to call parliament in 1640, that august representative of the nation had some business with Laud. Ironically — since the prelate was always sensitive about his height — it would involve shortening him.

Laud was impeached as early as December 1640 and soon tossed in the Tower, where his neck awaited the unfolding radicalization of the pent-up Puritans and the onset of armed hostilities in their contest with the obdurate king. (While his hands blessed the allies who preceded him to the block.)


Wenceslas Hollar’s etching of William Laud’s trial.

For more about Laud’s life and work, check out the detailed Britannica entry or this Google books freebie.

* If a warning, it apparently was not heard. This 19th-century publication of Armstrong’s jests cites a 1637 royal order to the effect that

the King’s Fool, for certain scandalous words of a high nature, spoken by him against the Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury his Grace … shall have his coat pulled over his head, and be discharged of the King’s service, and banished the Court.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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