376 Letters of Blood

As opposition to reform gathered in parliament and the king plotted he regain control, all came down to Strafford. Would the architect and executor of the king’s party survive? Or fall, and his master’s authority with it?

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Ok, we were on 24th February 1641. Compromise is in the air, we appear to be moving towards a settlement led by Bedford and his clients, Pym, St John & Hampden. It was based freeing victims of the personal rule, ending prerogative taxes; the removal and replacement of those evil counsellors, regular parliaments by law, rolling back Laudian reforms – and in return, subsidies for the king.

Then the Scots had lobbed their grenade demanding abolition of the Episcopy, and the atmosphere had turned distinctly chilly. For Charles Bishops were non negotiable and for many MPs it was the same. Charles saw a way out – to split the Reformers, and bring moderate and royalist MPs to his side, prevent any further concessions and regain the initiative. The Junto was now divided between the religious Radicals and the Scots, and the moderate Bedford faction – neither could afford to lose Scottish support, but the Scots declaration of 24th February had without doubt changed the dynamic; The Junto could not be confident Parliament would be on the Scots side as a whole; and in pursuit of a settlement, the moderate Bedford himself would dearly love to lose them, because they now stood in the way of an amicable conclusion.

So now everything came to the trial of Stafford; could a solution be found that saved Charles’ honour and determination to protect the life of his servant, and yet ensure Strafford could never again help Charles impose arbitrary rule? There was clearly a problem; Charles’ expectations on 24th February were far more optimistic than they should have been. He had consistently refused the Junto’s request, and ignored Strafford’s willingness, to resign. He believed firmly, even religiously, that he had made enough concessions, Strafford was no way guilty of treason and the king’s majesty dictated that he was his servant and off limits – should be enough for any loyal subject. And if Strafford did fall – he could always use a royal pardon to save his life. The pattern here is not that Charles is incapable of making concessions; but that in the words of Lord Brooke, he had to be dragged to the point of ‘the necessity of granting’. He had a fatal tendency to give to little until it was too late.

For the Scots, there was no possible peace with Strafford alive, he must die. For the Irish a delegation the previous November, composed of lords from all communities – Gaelic Lords, Old English and New English – had brought a remonstrance against Strafford demanding his removal; there was not a hint from the Irish delegation of any idea of separatism or trouble by the way. For the Warwick-Brooke group, Strafford was a danger and must be convicted and executed. Bedford, Pym and Hampden however were hoping for a much softer conclusion; conviction possibly followed by imprisonment or even pardon. I’m reminded for some reason of the line Crucification? Good…Out of the door, line on the left, One cross each. A Monty P line is never far away. Anyway, Bedford’s group were looking to bring this settlement home, despite the Scottish grenade.

So, to Strafford then, 24th February. He’d been granted the leave of an extra week to prepare his response to the accusations him against him in the impeachment. The lords all assembled to wait for the defendant, to hear the charges against Strafford, and his answers to them. None of them were decked out in their robes of state – they wouldn’t be needed for a session like this. They were only needed at events attended by the monarch. So there was horror and alarm when Charles himself appeared with the Lord Keeper; he was also not wearing his robes. All most irregular – had he come on impulse I wonder? Anyway, Strafford was called and duly appeared in the House of Lords to hear the accusations, all 28 of them.

As Bedford, Saye and Sele and his party on the Lords heard Strafford’s response, their hearts must have sank. The man was brilliant, answering each accusation in turn with both razer sharp legal knowledge and wit. If any of them had been looking forward to a triumphant trial, they looked forward no longer. No doubt the news got back quickly to the man inked in to lead Strafford’s prosecution – John Pym.

Also, there was the matter of how the king behaved. As far as Charles was concerned, Saving Strafford was no matter of simple politics, or power or constitution, none of those tawdry baubles figured so highly as the matter of his honour. Strafford was his man, an extension of his dignity. To strike at Strafford was to strike at Charles – his very soul and conscience were at stake. Apparently he still believed that his royal majesty was such, that he now simply had to make his will clear to his loyal subjects, and his faithful servant would therefore he saved. So he made his view clear as he sat watching – when Strafford came in, he took off his hat as a mark of respect. After Strafford’s masterly rebuttal he said approvingly

He had done him no wrong for ought he knew, and that he had spoken all truth, so as far concerned him

This to Charles’ mind should have sorted it – after all Strafford stood accused of treason – and treason was an offence against the king. He had a point; but he misjudged his opponents. Though he had not misjudged the quality of his servant, Strafford.

The trial was due to open a month later on 22nd March. Until that time, the Bedford faction within the Junto, Bedford, Pym and Lord Saye – not Sele this time because Sele had fallen out with his twin – tried to persuade Charles that he must compromise – get Strafford sent down, and an agreement could be made. But Charles would do no such thing; Strafford had shown the weakness of the case against him in the session with the Lords. Charles would not allow himself to be humiliated. He would call the Junto’s bluff, their threadbare case would fail, and Charles would once more be supreme.

During this time, interestingly, Strafford received a letter from a young lawyer called John Cooke, Cooke was not supporter of the king or his attempt to rule without parliament; it would be John Cooke who stood forward, as his senior Bulstrode Whitelocke would not, and prepare the case against the king in 1649. But John Cooke knew the charges against Strafford were stretching the law – and so he advised Stafford as such. He’d suffer for his integrity – named as a Straffordian by the angry mob, and suffering a period of poor business as a result. But then as Mark mentioned a while back, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

So look, John Adamson made the very astute comment that all Justice is theatre, from the meanest petty court, to the county assizes, to the greatest court in the land at Westminster Hall. It is the demonstration of royal and national sovereignty and power – the great gift of justice, and the awesome power and jeopardy of justice. I don’t want to start declaiming and all, and I can feel myself getting a bit flushed, but from the earliest Saxon law codes, Justice has been the face of the power of the king and his government to his people.

And so it was to be for Strafford. Normally, an impeachment trial would take place in front of the Lords in the White Chamber, the House of Lords. But Black Tom Tyrant, Strafford, was too important for that; this needed to be public, seen by as many as possible, witnessed as the community of the realm together bring down a tyrant that had broken his contract of trust and betrayed his king, and the people he was supposed to protect on behalf of his king. A show trial, in short. A trial designed to be witnessed by the people – and by the court.

Early on the morning of 22nd of March, a small flotilla of barges glided out from Traitor’s Gate under the Tower of London. Many of the barges were full of heavily armed men as they rowed up river, to Westminster Palace, and landed their prisoner at the landing stage behind Westminster Hall called Parliament Stairs. It was 6 o’Clock in the morning, a cold Spring day. Surrounded by 100 men, Strafford was escorted to a small room next to Westminster Hall. To wait.

The set up of the court in the vast Westminster Hall was carefully planned and without precedent; there’s a map, and an engraving by Wenzel Hollar at the history of England. At one end was the Throne, raised on a dais, with a cloth of state; under which the king full expected to sit in majesty. In front of the throne were sat the Judges, on one side were seats of the Earls, and in front of the judges sat the Barons; off to the other side sat clerks. Then behind the earls on one side and the Clerks benches on the other were built stacked benches, rising high above the judges and Peers, where sat the assembled mass of the Commons. This was unprecedented – the Commons had no role in these proceedings, once they had initiated the process. But the Junto was determined that this should be the full parliament, all those responsible for defending the health of the Community of the realm.

As the Lords, Commons, Judges and clerks assembled and noisily took their places, fully half of the Hall was left free; and into that space crammed anyone who could squeeze in, and anyone who was anyone tried to be there. I mean – you wouldn’t want to miss this would you? Black Tom Tyrant facing the justice that all the three kingdoms had demanded. As a result, this was not a reverential occasion; you might remember that we are in a time when fun entertainment was joining the crowds for a good solid execution. This was indeed theatre, and a theatre of blood. Robert Baillie, the Scottish Commissioner kept a journal and wrote of the crowd that came to gawp

A number of ladies were in boxes above the rails for which they paid much money. It was daily the most glorious assembly the isle could afford; yet the gravity was not such as I expected.

With some distaste, Baillie recorded how the peers and Commons walked and clattered around and chatted in between sessions questioning of defendant. The Great British Public were of course a disgrace, thankfully, with

Much public eating not only of confections, but of flesh and bread, bottles of beer and wine going thick from mouth to mouth without cups[1]

Superb. I mean if you are going to be packed into a show trial for 10 hours, good idea to take a packed lunch. As for passing the bottles round – when I went on a coach to play football or hockey or whatever, I was told that after a can of something was passed round, when you swigged the last mouthfuls, you were drinking 80% saliva. Were you told that? Sorry, possibly that’s broken the mood.

Well, next bit of drama. The king arrived, to go to sit at the throne – the king with his court administering justice on behalf of his people. But no – to his horror and shame, Charles was not allowed to go and sit in state and majesty; instead he was taken instead to a room high in the walls behind the throne and cloth of state, and made to sit behind a lattice covered window. It seems to have been Lord Saye and Sele that insisted on this; they did not want a repeat of the fiasco of February, so the king must be out of sight. Charles was furious. The first thing he did was to tear down the lattice so that he could be seen.

I mean – how symbolic is that? The king uniquely banished from the court of his lords, sitting helplessly apart. And the brooding presence of the Throne – vacant under the cloth of state. A physical representation of the separation of the two bodies of the monarch – the biological body of the person -stuck behind the lattice; and the symbolic body of the king as state. On this concept the success of the prosecution depended.

This then was the sight that greeted Strafford when he came out of his room to face the judges, sitting in a dock all the way across the hall from the Throne, the public galleries behind him – at the away end as it were. The sight the public saw was carefully constructed. Strafford knew that he was being tried both by the parliament – and in the court of public opinion. He knew that the legend of Black Tom Tyrant had been assiduously spread by his enemies. And he was determined that the people would not see the tyrant – they would see a loyal, hard working public servant being harassed, victimised and pursued by a vengeful political cabal.

He was therefore dressed not in finery but entirely in sober black – what an observer described as ‘mourning suit and long cloak’ – the sort of thing people wore to a funeral, funeral blacks as they were known. He was wearing his George, the medal that marked him out as a knight of the garter, but he wasn’t wearing it with a grand sash as normal – but discreetly hung from a chain. His hair was left tousled and uncombed; one of his servants was surprised and remarked this was

Far from what he was wont to do heretofore[2]

What people saw then was exactly what Strafford wanted them to see – a tired, beaten down, prematurely aged loyal public servant, falsely forced to his knees.

The trial managers knew from the start they were in trouble. There was a team of them. Led by a barrister and MP Bulstrode Whitelocke. A fine name Bulstrode Whitelocke, and he’s local to me – he was the leading figure on the Henley area, and along with Bartholomew Hall would establish a tight grip on the town. You’ll hear more of him. From the start they were worried because frankly not to put too fine a point on it, their case was threadbare. There were two big problems in essence. The first thing was that Treason had been defined for centuries as an offense against the king; but demonstrably, and from the king’s own mouth, Strafford had been doing the king’s bidding so…the charge of treason was clearly tripe. Now as it happens the Scots had already cleared this up – treason in Scotland could be against the state, not just the king. So in spite of English law, this was what the prosecution was going to try to claim – that Strafford had broken some kind of natural law and by so doing had committed an offence against king as a representation of the state and people, by imposing an arbitrary government on the people. The second big problem was that there wasn’t really an obvious thing or occasion when this could definitely be proven – no smoking gun, to wheel a cliché into the story. That’s why there were 28 accusations – to batter away at their man, build a sort of cumulative treason, and in the process display Strafford to the people for the tyrant he was.

It started well – Strafford looked overawed by the large legal team facing him, and the sheer magnificence of the setting. Maurice Wynn was there, and remarked thayt he looked

Ghastly and grim, and much dejected

But as the first day wore on things began to change; Strafford realised that his enemies had nothing new to give – he’d already answered all the 28 charges, and there was little more new. With each contention he was able to turn them aside with wit and legal knowledge. At the end of the first day, Maurice noted that

He was seen to smile and went away cheerful

Accusation after accusation were met with knowledge, legal expertise and worst of all, humour and gentle mockery. He was accused of using an Irish army to enforce decisions and that amounted to levying war against the king; it was a feeble accusation, and Strafford was able to mock it with confidence

These must be wonderful wars…if we have no more wars than such…we shall not sleep very unquietly

His confidence, control and good humour began to win him admiration from people who really, really did not want to admire him. He was given something of a helping hand by the sheer incompetence of some of the witnesses. One of the accusations was that Strafford had been heard to say that

The king’s little finger should be heavier on the subject than the laws of the land

To a country with such a reverence for the law, this was indeed arbitrary government. But the prosecutors had to prove he had in fact said it, which Strafford flatly denied. Out then the prosecution wheeling Sir Thomas Leyton who claimed to have overheard it at the assizes of 1633. But when questioned in court, Leyton made no response.  Odd. So the question was put to him again – still no answer. At which point the problem became clear – Thomas Leyton was almost entirely deaf. Strafford had a bit of fun with this; how could this be evidence, how could he have heard any of Strafford’s words, he couldn’t even hear the prosecution shouting at him, such was his

Infirmity in hearing, that he must now be whooped to at the bar before he can hear

There were gusts of laughter from the galleries. By the end of two weeks of trial, not only was the case in a mess, but Strafford was winning the respect of the crowd – here was no monster

His behaviour exceeding graceful, his speech full of weight, reason and pleasingness

Gushed one. The Venetian ambassador wrote home that Strafford was

Endeavouring by his subtle arguments to change the universal hatred against him into sympathy

The king was delighted and could not conceal his joy. The ambassador saw a prospect

Which seems to be growing, that Strafford will be saved

With such a dodgy case, even if convicted, Charles could see that a royal pardon could be uncontroversial. The reformers’ strategy faced disaster and humiliation.

So in the next week, they changed the prosecuting team; there would be two. Bulstrode Whitelocke was full of legal experience, Walter Erle full of confidence, although admittedly naff all legal experience, but look, destiny is all. To Bulstrode fell their best evidence, and it was time to roll that out, the big guns. You might remember that Harry Vane Senior had taken notes at that privy council back in May 1640 in the wake of Charles angry dissolution of the Short Parliament. The one where Vane had taken notes recording that Strafford had said

You have an army in Ireland you may employ to reduce this kingdom

This was probably the best evidence they had that Strafford had advised military force to subject England to tyranny. They’d avoided using it so far because if they did well – it would be obvious to Charles and everyone else that his loyal Secretary of State had dobbed him in, which was embarrassing to say the least. But needs must when the future of the liberties and future of the community of the realm drives, so onward. And Vane and Strafford had a personal rivalry going on so Vane could presumably be relied on to stick the knife in – and so Whitelocke called Henry Vane.

Well, when the wheels fall off, they stay off. Twice when asked to speak his lines Vane stumbled and didn’t answer – he seems to have an attack of squeamishness. Only on the third time of asking did he roll out the goods, and then seemed to barely remember it. What a disaster! A few of the Lords grumbled that Strafford was probably talking about Scotland not England anyway when he spoke of reducing the kingdom, and someone pointed out a single witness wasn’t sufficient to convict anyway. Never was there a pear so pear shaped.

On 7th April, legal expertise in the form of Whitelocke was replaced by over confidence in the form of Walter Erle. Erle had a killer blow and he knew it. He confronted Strafford with the devastating news that his commission from Charles given in 1640 had a specific line empowering him to supress revolts in England. Erle stood back triumphantly and to revel in the cries of triumph and watch Strafford crumble.

And was annihilated. Strafford retorted that this was simply a standard clause in every general’s commissions – go and check the facts. Erle had no answer, and stood tongue tied , couldn’t think of a single word to say, stunned. You could hear a pin drop. Pym tried to help suggesting that Erle was ‘simply acting upon a mistake’ to break the embarrassing silence. If you’re not good at being off the cuff, John, just don’t do it. Because this was so obviously exactly what had happened, Erle had indeed messed up, that that many of the Lords couldn’t help but burst out laughing. There was a hiatus in the legal exchanges because, as Maurice wrote, work could not resume until

The lords had done laughing and the company left off their jeering of the knight

The case was in ruins. There was one more last ploy. Henry Vane senior had desperately told his son to go home and find the original notes – and they now had them here. So Pym boldly announced they had new damning evidence to present. Even now Strafford had the answer – if the prosecution had new evidence he the defence was surely allowed time to prepare. Over the prosecutors horrified objections, the Lords ruled that this was nothing but fair and the hall erupted again – shouts at the prosecution of Withdraw rang out; in the chaos a load of spectators thought someone was shouting draw and all drew their swords. It was pandemonium. The court broke up in chaos and confusion to give a week for both sides to prepare, amid scenes of bedlam.

Again an observer wrote down the scene. He saw that Strafford was beaming, so delighted

That he could not hide his joy

In his box behind the throne the king was seen to be laughing. Well, that all went well then.

Well. The Reformers were in trouble and make no mistake. What a mess, their stock in parliament sank like a stone and the tide in parliament was turning. Evidence of that had come on the previous night of 9th April, when the house debated whether or not to renew the cessation of war with the Scots agreed the previous year. For the Reformers, as we’ve said the presence of the Scottish army was critical, their only weapon to force the king to make concessions. And yet the debate was tight, it was very tight indeed; many members thought things had gone far enough, it was time to stop holding their king to ransom and get the Scots out even if it meant war and raising money for the king. The debate lasted to 7 that evening, the MPs forced a division and it was close – Pym won, but only by 167 votes to 128.

Good lord. The Revolution hung from a thread.

Enter Warwick, Brooke and Brooke’s brother in law, the Leicestershire MP Arthur Haselrig. Arthur was something of a dry old stick; the regicide and republican Edmund Ludlow, described him as

‘a man of disobliging carriage, sour and morose of temper, liable to be transported with passion, and to whom liberality seemed to be a vice’

Not a bundle of laughs then. But a relentless opponent of royal tyranny; consistently refusing to pay military fees to the county, he’d taken issue with Laud over ecclesiastical fees, been forced to kneel before the Privy Council and imprisoned in the Tower by Star Chamber. Now he had an idea, a way out of this mess. He promised to the radical Junto, the likes of Brooke and Warwick that there was another way. And the same night that the court at Westminster Hall adjourned on 10th April, Haselrig introduced an bill into the Commons. It was an old tool used to deal with rebels through the ages; it was a Bill of Attainder. The Bill declared that Strafford be found guilty of treason for introducing ‘an arbitrary and tyrannical government against law’, that he be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The moderates Reformers on the junto were horrified. There are two things about the Bill of Attainder; firstly it relied on no evidence, just votes of the Commons and Lords, parliament acting as the highest court in the land. Secondly, once the king had given his assent to the bill, he would be unable to use a royal pardon to save him.

It was brilliant. But for those like Bedford, Saye and Sele and Pym trying to reach a compromise with the king, it was a disaster; they strongly disagreed both on tactical and moral grounds. For Reformers like Hampden and Pym in particular it stuck in the throat; it was just morally wrong, this was judicial murder. If Strafford could not be convicted by a court of law, he should go free, that was the law – Hampden, like many others, withdrew from the Commons when the Bill of Attainder came up for vote. One of the few MPs who voted against the bill, was our Yorkshire hero, Henry Slingsby, Baronet and MP. And on the tactical ground, this would make the compromise they had been moving towards with the king much, much harder to achieve. They would have forced the most humiliating result on the king.

Meanwhile there were rumours and uproar outside and inside parliament. On 19th April news reached the Commons that officers had been ordered by the king to return to the English Army. Why? Rumours circulated of the dangers of an imminent royal coup against parliament. Meanwhile in London, there was a groundswell of support for the prosecution of Strafford, and fear he would escape punishment from court. A petition had been raised calling for Strafford’s death – Charles had ordered the Royalist Mayor of London, Richard Gurney to supress it, but still thousands of names had been taken – there may have been 30,000 names, a huge number. And now crowds poured into Westminster outside parliament, maybe 10,000 – not only to present the petition but to block any royal troops they feared would come to dissolve parliament. Inside Westminster it must have been terrifying. There can be no doubt the people were now thoroughly engaged in politics.

At Westminster Hall the trial resumed. The papers proved nothing new and the same doubts remained. As the case came to summing up Pym made a long rambling speech even his friends thought was a disaster. Stafford came to his last address, and played the crowd like a fiddle. At one stage he broke down and wept when he spoke of his children and his dead wife. Once more he had stolen the show. When recovered, he mocked the very basis of the argument – since none of the 28 accusations were treason, how all together could they be treason? But he also appealed to order and tradition and custom – he claimed that it was he, not Pym, that was defending the commonwealth – a continuing and powerful royal theme

The happiness of the kingdom consists in the just poise of the king’s prerogative and the subject’s liberty and things would never be well until they go hand in hand together

For Pym and the reformers though that was exactly the point – Strafford had sought to destroy that balance

If the prerogative of the king overwhelm the liberty of the people it will be turned into tyranny

Responded Pym.

The outcome of the trial could not have looked more uncertain.

But it was not to matter; Haselrig was to have the last word. On the evening of the 19th, the Bill of Attainder passed the Commons by a massive margin – 204 to 59. But look t those numbers, and look at how many stayed away. Behind the Scenes Bedford and Pym desperately tried to reach accommodation with the king even at this last moment; they offered that Strafford would suffer exile but not death. Bedford tried to win the more radical members of the Junto to his side, and targeted the Earl of Essex. At Bedford’s request, Edward Hyde approached Essex, asking him to support the compromise. Essex was unmoved – he coldly answered

Stone dead hath no fellow

Strafford must die for reform to succeed and be safe from retribution. Bedford meanwhile was struggling to concentrate, he was ill. His daughter found spots on his body, and though the physician told him there was nothing to worry about, Bedford was clearly very ill.

Meanwhile, Charles was determined to stand his ground. On 23rd April he wrote to his friend and faithful servant in the Tower. He was beginning to accept Strafford’s political career was over. But he wrote to reassure him

The misfortune that is fallen upon you by the strange mistaking and conjecture of these times, being such that I must layby the thought of employing you hereafter in my affairs; yet I cannot satisfy myself in honour or conscience without assuring you…that upon the word of a king you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune

Maybe Charles understood that he still had a chance to save Strafford, that the decision was not yet home and dry, despite the commons’ vote. Because as the Bill of Attainder went to the lords,  everything was unclear. Strafford had stolen the show at the trial, the Lords had begun to show frank disbelief of the evidence, and the prosecution had been feeble; the reformers feared now they had lost support of the Lords, that they would vote against the Bill of Attainder as well; the whole program was in jeopardy. Historian Jonathan Healey in ‘The Blazing World’ describes beautifully what happened next. On 29th April there was a conference of both houses about the attainder. The king was there, Strafford was there, the young prince Charles, just 11 years old, stood looking on too – what an impression this must have made. Now Pym pushed Oliver St John into the limelight one more time; was he the man to turn this thing around and convince the Lords to proceed with the Attainder, despite the disaster of the trial? But St John was a client of Bedford – would instead he reach for compromise or fail to convince?

But St John reached not for compromise, but for the throat. Strafford had subverted the laws of the realm and committed treason against the body politic, the king’s body politic. He appealed to the Lords’ social conservatism,

My lords take away law and there is no peerage but every swain is equal.

He deployed legal argument; they should never doubt this was the right and fair process – using the argument of a medieval judge that treason should be tried in parliament, not in any other court of law. And he appealed to their practical common sense

It was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock foxes and wolves on the head…because they are beasts of prey’

Oliver St John had understood and played to his audience, beautifully. Finally Strafford had found an opponent worthy of the name. And in front of Charles’ horrified eyes, and that of his son, the Lords thundered with applause. A German onlooker remarked

The whole scene seemed changed. [3]

The Revolution was back on.

And yet, Charles was made of stern, stubborn stuff. On 1st May he called a conference in the Lords, and summoned the Commons to attend. This was the time to bring down the full power, authority and majesty of the divine monarch to stop this. Everyone crowded into the hall as he spoke from the throne with all the trappings of majesty around him. At last he realised the gravity of the situation and conceded that Strafford could no longer serve

Not so much as to be high Constable

But then he went on. Strafford’s life must be saved. And he warned that he would not disband the Irish army, nor the English army. This was shocking. This was a threat. This was a king still thinking, after all that had passed, still thinking in terms of military confrontation with his own subjects. There was silence. Although the king waited, no one applauded as they should. There were no nodding heads, no murmurs of agreement, just a shocked silence. There didn’t seem much else to do. So, the king, turned, gathered his servants around him, and left.

Now, it just so happens there was a further reason why Charles was being so intransigent. There was a Plan B. In addition to his absolute conviction that his honour could not allow his loyal servant to be executed, Charles was beginning to see some other options. He heard whispers from Scotland that peers around Montrose were angry at the dominance of Argyll, and looking for a way out; so as early as April, Charles decided he’d go to Scotland to try and exploit this opportunity, and scotch the revolution at its source. Pun, I am happy to say, intended.

And in England, there was indeed a plot, and as the people had feared, it was to use the army to stage a coup against the Reformers. The army was hacked off for lack of pay, and blamed parliament, not Charles. Henry Percy, brother of the Earl of Northumberland, took an idea to the Queen; another pan came from the moderate Henry Jermyn, courtier again to the Queen, in Cahoots with the loyalist John Suckling. You might remember the swashbuckling cavalier, whose mem had looked so grand in the First Bishops war, together with other royalists like George Goring and others. They had a plan to seize the Tower and help Strafford escape. It may have been Charles countermanded one of these plots but he seems to have leaked the news about them to the Junto to put pressure on them to back down on Strafford. Either way – the plans for a coup were a[4] hideous mistake. And meanwhile the thoroughly cavalier poet John Suckling and his mate Captain Billingsley set about recruiting some conspirators anyway with or without the King’s approval.

On the 1st May Charles made one of those howlers I talked about. He ordered Suckling and Billingsley to the Tower with 100 men and gave them a letter from him demanding admission; the warden William Balfour refused. The news and rumour shot round parliament and London. And then, almost unbelievably, the whole tableau stopped, freeze framed, the rumours and politicking and petitioning, and revolution. And Why? Well of course it stopped – there was a royal marriage! And who can lead a rebellion when the bells are ringing and young people are in love and all that? It’s all rather extraordinary.

Well I say young people in love. The Princess Mary was 9 and William of Orange 14 so let’s just go for young then. Love can follow. They would have a son, called William, and he’d be back. So there we were, a fleet of 16 coaches ground their way along the Strand to Whitehall, celebration was in the air, crowds were everywhere, bells rang. Yay the monarchy, Yay!

The very following day it was back to revolting. Crowds gathered around the Tower, a thousand strong. Because while the celebrations had been going on, Suckling had gathered 60 of his swashbucklers at the White Horse Tavern on Bread street in the City. News spread, the plan of an attempt to free Strafford was whispered. When Suckling viewed the scene outside the Tower, 1,000 angry Londoners stood between him and the gatehouse. Suckling wisely retreated back into the dark streets of London.

The following day Parliament was besieged.

In a clap all the city in alarum; shops closed; a world of people in arms run down to Westminster

Reported Robert Bailie breathlessly. The puritan wood turner in Eastcheap Nehemiah Wallington, kept a diary, which give a great insight into the beliefs of a puritan artisan. And he was down with the crowd. The chaos was absolute, normal life had stopped; as he took part in it all, Nehemiah saw around him that

Trading was so decayed thereby that they could scarce get bread to maintain their families

The crowd’s blood was up. They smelled a cop out, that the king and some traitorous MPs and the Lords would let Strafford escape justice. The crowd posted bills – names of the MPs who had voted against attainder under the title ‘Enemies of Justice’. A terrified Bishop told of how people were talking of lynching Strafford or even the king.

Inside westminster, Isaac Pennington drew Pym aside and told him about the attempt by Billingsley and Suckling on the Tower. Pym stood before the Commons and revealed all he knew of the various plots. Typically of Pym, he blamed Catholics – there was a papist plot to bring down the kingdom. But all over London now there was an atmosphere of panic. There were rumours everywhere; To add to Pym’s rumour of an imminent Papist insurrection, there was a scare that an army was on the way from Ireland; that the army in the north was about to declare for Strafford; even that French troops were mobilising. In the atmosphere of imminent disaster, defeat, dissolution, to the sound of the cries of Justice! And Execution! from the crowds outside, Henry Marten spoke to the house. He called on the Elizabethan precedent, established by William Cecil, of an oath and bond of Association, to bring the MP, Lords and community together to defend the nation. A document was drafted, called the Protestation, to be subscribed by all in parliament – and anyone in the country who wished to. It was a vow to defend the

True reformed Protestant religion expressed in the doctrine of the church of England,

The king’s person, and the powers and privileges of parliament. The fear of dissolution was so fierce and real, that the Protestation was planned on the basis of establishing a provisional government if the king dissolved parliament. By the end of 3rd May all the MPs and Protestant Peers of the Lords had taken the oath. As a further protection, the Commons voted a new bill – preventing the dissolution of parliament without its consent.

When parliament reconvened on 4th, it was time for the Lords to vote on the Bill of Attainder. For three days they debated, while outside the crowd bayed. And then news arrived – deliverance! Essex had taken the control of the Tower into his hands, and the army plotters had fled – Percy, Jermyn, Suckling had all escaped to France. The earl of Stamford in the Lords stood and addressed the house expressing both the relief everyone felt – but also just how scared they had all been:

Give God thanks for our great deliverance, which is greater than that from the Gunpowder Treason. For by time, had not this plot been discovered, the powder had been about our ears here in parliament house, and we had all been made slaves

The Lords began to act like an executive rather than an advisory and legislative body, appointing commissioners to take control of the Trained bands in the City, and the fleet at Portsmouth. They set the rules of the debate about Strafford – it was to be a matter of conscience & belief not of evidence. So, how the Lord felt about Strafford was what counted. The Catholic peers no longer attended, because they could not take the Protestation oath. The Bishops had been expelled from voting by a Lords’ motion. Bedford was absent – the physician had been wrong; he had small pox and was like to die. Their only delay to a vote now was that they objected to the sense of being forced into a decision by the braying crowd outside.

In Whitehall, Charles could see his world disintegrating around him; his army plotters fled; HM was in a complete panic, terrified at the talk of a Catholic plot as the most ostentatiously visible Catholic in the country, who had boldly and openly celebrated her faith; at one point she was determined to save her life and flee to France. Only the French Ambassador was able to talk her down – and then only because he was sure her coach would be stopped on the way and she would be captured.

Sometime at this point according to Edward Hyde, writing later, Charles received a letter from Strafford in the Tower. The letter thanked the king for his favours and support. And bravely released him from his vow to save his life

Sir to you I can give up life of this world with all the cheerfulness imaginable

On the 8th May the Lords finally reached the last debate, and division. The vote was 26 to 19; a mere 45 votes from a possible total of 120 peers. The decision was – execution. Strafford was condemned. On Saturday a parliamentary delegation took the Bill of Attainder and the Bill preventing dissolution without consent to Whitehall and the king. Bedford probably didn’t know. By the following day, he was dead, taken by smallpox.

So, Charles sat in Whitehall, surrounded by the debris and ruins of his hopes and contemplated his honour and the promise he had made Strafford to save him. I doubt it made much difference to his conscience that the brave Strafford had released him from his oath. He consulted five Bishops on this moral dilemma, and received advice that was unhelpfully conflicting. Outside crowd periodically chanted, and people fancied they heard rebel drums and trumpets and panicked. London was in a fever. Not only was Charles in a dreadful position as regards the conscience that was so important to him, he also feared for the lives of his wife and family, and that a wrong decision would light a fire that would consume them and his kingdoms. He called the Privy Council to him on the Sunday, and when they arrived they found him in tears. They presented him with the hard, cold truth – that he had no choice. They proposed that they sign for him so he could at least say he’d not actually signed the Bill to save his conscience – but Charles was too honest for that. He signed the bill of Attainder, and the bill against dissolving parliament without its consent, and both became Acts.

Bulstrode Whitelocke was present when Secretary Carleton took the news to Strafford at the Tower. It seems that despite his letter Strafford was actually still in denial; a few days before, he thought he’d managed to bribe his goaler to let him escape for the princely sum of £22,000; but that fell through. As Bulstrode relates, Strafford

Seriously asked the secretary whether his majesty had passed the bill or not; as not believing without some astonishment that the king would have done it. And being again assured that it was passed, he rose up from his chair, lift his eyes to heaven, laid his hand on his heart, and said ‘put not your trust in princes, nor the sons of men, for in them there is no salvation’

Psalm 146 I believe. The KJV has a handy phrase for every occasion. As soon as the signed bill was received the sound of hammering could be heard on Tower Hill. Erecting a Scaffold; the King had at least managed to change the punishment from the old medieval horror, into a beheading. They were also erecting a sea of stands all around the scaffold – there’s an engraving by Hollar again showing the scene outside the Trower rammed with people when Strafford’s time came 2 days later. People had been queuing since 2 in the morning to get a good view. The Venetian Ambassador estimated 200,000 people – without doubt a wild exaggeration but gives an idea that the place was heaving; everyone on the stands would have paid to be there, executing tyrants is a nice little earner.

It took an agonising age until Strafford was allowed to go to the scaffold from the Tower. As you’d expect he met death with courage; he refused a coach and elected to walk through the crowds with members of his household. As he left the Tower, it’s said he passed through the gatehouse in which his old friend Laud was imprisoned; Laud reached his hands through the bars to bless him and was so overwhelmed he fainted.  A few days later Laud’s goaler heard his bitter complaint that Strafford had fallen because he had served a king ‘who knew not how to be, or be made, great’. [5]

When he ascended the scaffold and faced the vast noisy crowd, Strafford may well have been just feet away from some of those that had brought him down – Warwick, and Essex in particular. His speech was in the main conventional – professing his loyalty to the king, offering his forgiveness to all. But he had one sting to offer

I wish every man would lay his hand on his heart and consider seriously whether the beginning of the peoples’ happiness should be written in letters of blood.

And then, probably addressing the parliamentary delegation,

I fear they are in a wrong way; I desire Almighty God that no one drop of my blood rise up in judgement against them

The crowd waited for half an hour while Strafford prayed with his chaplain. At last he was done. He summoned the executioner, offered him his forgiveness, removed his doublet, put on a white cap to trap his hair and then knelt. Then lay, looked at the block and laid his neck on the gap to receive his neck. After a few moments of prayer, he stretched out his hands, the axe fell and severed his head in one blow. And Strafford was gone.

The executioner held up the head and cried ‘God save the King’. No one heard him, because London was filled with the jubilant roar of the bloodthirsty crowd.

[1] Hunt, T: ‘The English Civil War at First Hand’, p53

[2] Adamson, J: ‘The Noble Revolt’, p215

[3] Healey, J: ‘The Blazing World’ pp139-140

[4] Woolrych, A: ‘Britain in Revolution’, pp178-9

[5] Carlton, C: ‘Charles I: The Personal Monarch’, p226



15 thoughts on “376 Letters of Blood

  1. This is like watching Othello – first act tells you the plot and the following 4 bring it to depressing fruition.
    While the hope of compromise is welcome (usually Act 4 in Shakespeare tragedies, while the lead takes a break before the big finish), how likely was it to be realized? All parties know that Charles will go back on his word as soon as he can; he makes that clear to slow members of the audience by supporting the Army Plot while negotiating with the reformers. With no ground for mutual agreement, every interest group is motivated to push as hard as possible for their (conflicting) particular goals. Charles increasingly reminds me of his grandma, promising everything to everybody in negotiations while making threats that can’t be realized.

    1. Ach such a good question! There are so many times where they seem so close to avoiding the horrors of civil war and just can’t take it. Fear abd distrust; I feel as though Charles kept being dragged to the point, then a vague chance appears and he clutches at it, li,ke the army plot – a daft idea – and suddenly the chance has slipped away again

      1. That looks like they key word: Charles has to be “dragged”; he can’t see past his own viewpoint well enough to negotiate in good faith. How can any political system function when the institution at its apex is incapable of “playing well with others”? You made the good point that James bequeathed a situation that required delicacy and skill to handle. And Charles works only with an axe. Sadly, for everyone including him – and, what would have been worse for him, his children.

  2. I’m a big fan of the show. Thank you for the great content!

    I am a graduate student studying Theology. I’m in between semesters, and, if you think it would be useful, I would love to help with some of the more obscure religious controversies. Some of it really seems like splitting hairs if you don’t study it full time.

    In any case, keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Liam, and it’s a lovely offer. I must admit they linger at the very edge on my knowledge; do wade in if I get stuff wrong, as I am sure to do.

  3. I had refrained from listening to the episodes again so that I can seamlessly go through the story. I ended today with this episode, and my word. Phenomenal. It is a tour de force, I was utterly transfixed until you said ‘monster episode’ at the very end. I was practically in the crowd letting the bottle of ale pass by me without taking a swig myself.
    I now really hope that Charles’ last word was really “REMEMBER..!!”.
    I am incredibly exited to find out when I hear the rest of the story.

    1. Thank you! I constantly worry about the depth I go into, but Strafford’s story is so fascinating, I couldn’t not! really glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for taking the trouble to say so!

  4. Dear David – I’m a big fan but have a question… why exactly (other than mob fury and personal vengeance) did the junto members REQUIRE execution of Strafford after they had made their point via the trial (admittedly kinda a flop) and the Bill of Attainder? Why not negotiate and use Strafford as a bargaining chip to get Charles I to play ball ? Seems their determination to literally destroy Strafford must have hardened the king in future and given him a sense of outrage and anger that might have avoided further bloodshed had they agreed to exile? Please explain to this devoted reader of all things Crowther
    Yours truly
    Mike Wichman, Oahu Hawaii

  5. Ps … I too forgot to mention that these monster episodes are more than welcome as the detail and depth is the excitement and beauty of history- well done as always !! Mahalo Mike

    1. Thanks Mike – and particularly pleased you don’t mind the depth! I constantly worry I’m taking too long…
      First thing I think is that all the kingdoms demanded Strafford’s destruction – Scotland and Ireland as well as England. Many feared that any sort of compromise would only remove Strafford temporarily – and unless he was executed, he’d be back. But in fact the Bedford faction were offerring compromise; but Charles would not allow Strafford to resign as he suggested, he insisted he would not be forced – until it was too late it became a trial of strength and Juntoi could not back down, they’d lose all credibility.
      You are quite right though. After Strafoord many historians believe Charles would never accept compromise, and he was simply looking for different ways to beat the Junto.

  6. David,
    In August 2021 I started with episode 1 of HOE way introducing the podcast and kicking off from the mists following the Roman withdrawal from England in 410. This morning I finally caught up to the execution of Strafford. The podcast has been an excellent way to spend my commutes and I look forward to joining as a member to get some of the other material to fill my drive times now that I’ll be on the same schedule as everyone else. I really appreciate all the research and storytelling you have put in here and look forward to hearing how this English Civil War thing ends. I’m sure Charles will come to his senses in time before something really earth-shattering happens.

    1. Congratulations Jake! and massively impressive…I don’t know what podcasters would do without commuters. And you are quite right of course, good sense will prevail.

  7. David,

    As an ex-commuter, I am slowly catching up on your episodes and listened to many while on your HOE Podcast tour. I just listened to this one tomorrow. Great account of the events. As someone who believes that the concepts of right and wrong are embedded into our very universe and its physical laws, I think that perhaps the English Civil War, while perhaps necessary in the long run, failed as it did to remove the monarchy because it insisted on the deaths of innocent people like Stafford (well, innocent of the treason he was charged with anyways), and the death of Charles I, and the destruction of so much property (Goodrich Castle was just one of many “sightings”)… The “ends justify the means,” where the means are executions of innocents and mass destruction, has been used throughout history and while it results in winning battles, the overall war, based on such actions, always seems to fail in the end, as did the English Civil War’s removal of the monarchy. If the Parliamentarians had just stepped back and looked at the big picture, and disengaged from such unjust acts, I think they would have started a new Republic, with the monarchy intact, but with more limited power, that would have lasted up through today and beyond. And the US government established later would have followed the lead of this more just English revolution.

    1. Hello Mike and yes i have the same problem with podcasts – no longer being a commuter it’s difficult to find time! It was lovely to have you both with us on the Tour, I found I really enjoyed the whole thing.

      I agree Strafford was clearly a political assasination; but I’d view this very differently I have to say (plus I’d argue there was nothing unjust about the execution of Charles I, which NOBODY wanted! A king tried in public and held to account for the first time ever – a notable achievement). The tragedy of the English Revolution was that no one wanted it, but no amount of ‘looking at the bigger picture’ was able to force Charles I to come to a peaceful accommodation – and God knows everyone tried. And how was this peaceful revolution to be marshalled and organised in the 17th century? What was the philosophy that would drive it – after all there had been none of these political concepts before in Europe, there was no Englightenment to follow. There was no way of simply stepping back’ and yet achieving change. As for the destructioon of the slightings – which modern state would allow the continuation of privately held military installations?! In a war situation they were entirely sensible. The political blood letting, in comparison to the French Revolution, was rather limnited.

      I would argue that you are hoping for a ‘revolution without a revolution’, which I think is a famnous phrase from the French Revolution. The English were sucked into a maelstron, this was not a nice calm situation where everyone could sit back and consider the world around them. They all thought they were doing the right thing. Or that’s how I view it!

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