Strafford on trial

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001
The odds were being stacked even as he was being arraigned: Strafford on trial

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The trial of Strafford lasted for seven weeks and gripped the nation. It was followed with the same kind of rapt attention we now give to libel and murder trials. It was the Jeffery Archer or Jonathan Aitken trial of the day.

But it did not all go Pym's way.

Charles sat with Strafford throughout the trial. And despite suffering from terrible gout and dysentery, Strafford easily rebutted the allegations of treachery as well as the main charge of using Irish troops to quell English opposition to the monarch. Pym was dumbfounded and so dropped the idea of a trial. Instead, in a master-stroke, he moved an Act of Attainder - a Bill which simply decreed treason on the basis of a general presumption of guilt. It was a ruthless form of attack which paid no heed to natural justice or the rule of law. It was just a quick way to get rid of someone.

The Commons were now on far shakier constitutional ground than Charles had ever been during the 1630s. It was a show-trial; a stitch-up by the King's enemies to get rid of the hated minister. As Strafford remarked at the end of his trial, 'These gentlemen tell me they speak in defence of the commonweal against my arbitrary laws; give me leave to say that I speak in defence of the commonweal against their arbitrary treason.' It made no difference.

Pym forged more evidence against Strafford and then suddenly declared Parliament was in mortal danger from a Catholic plot. Fears of a Popish plot swept the capital and the Commons, followed by the Lords, voted against the unpopular Strafford.

The ball was now in Charles's court. At the beginning of the trial, he had assured his most loyal servant that 'you shall not suffer in life, honour, or fortune.' But the mobs of London, fed on fears of a Popish plot led by 'Black Tom Tyrant', screamed for blood. On May 10th 1641, with angry crowds egged on by Puritan MPs in Parliament, Charles I caved in and signed Strafford's execution warrant. When the news was carried to Strafford in the Tower, he wailed: 'Put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men for in them there is no salvation.' On May 12th 1641 Strafford left the Tower for his execution. As he passed the cell of his old ally Archibishop Laud, he kneeled down to receive benediction from the broken cleric. Then in front of 100,000 spectators at Tower Hill, the Earl of Strafford was executed as a traitor.

Letting go of a loyal and able supporter was one of Charles's weakest and most calamitous decisions-and one he would regret all his life. It had been a 'sinful frailtie.' He had allowed his opponents, the mob and the press, to dictate his appointments.

The Commons had effectively placed itself in charge of his Court. He looked pathetic after promising to look after Strafford and then throwing him to the wolves under public pressure. Yet with the passing of Strafford, a degree of calm entered into the relationship between king and Parliament. The Kingdom was at peace again.

Charles had sacrificed his most aggressive minister and now agreed to many of the constitutional changes Parliament demanded - such as the abolition of Star Chamber, the Court of High Commission and Ship Money.

Charles also signed a Bill that allowed Parliament to dissolve itself - a source of much future trouble. But the old nobility were happy at this return to traditional government as their power increased at court. In August, 1641 Charles began his long delayed trip to Edinburgh to smooth out his differences with the Scottish Covenanters. Civil war, let alone a Republic, was not on the radar. All that had occurred was a slight readjustment in the long-running relationship between King and Parliament, England and Scotland.

But just as a solution to the troubles seemed possible, disaster struck. In November, 1641 hysterical reports swamped London of a fully-fledged Irish rebellion. News filtered through of a Protestant holocaust, of settlers butchered, of infants ripped from the womb, of rape and sectarian violence. The Catholic conspiracy, so long imagined and so exquisitely dreaded, had finally occurred and it had a decisive impact on mainland politics.




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    The Civil War Team

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    Presented by Tristram Hunt, The Open University - BBC Civil War programmes explored the most turbulent time in British political history.

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