Charles I - Jacob Abbott

Downfall Of Strafford And Laud

The Parliament assembled in November, 1640. The king proceeded to London to attend it. He left Strafford in command of the army at York. Active hostilities had been suspended, as a sort of temporary truce had been concluded with the Scots, to prepare the way for a final treaty. Strafford had been entirely opposed to this, being still full of energy and courage. The king, however, began to feel alarmed. He went to London to meet the Parliament which he had summoned, but he was prepared to meet them in a very different spirit from that which he had manifested on former occasions. He even gave up all the external circumstances of pomp and parade with which the opening of Parliament had usually been attended. He had been accustomed to go to the House of Lords in state, with a numerous retinue and great parade. Now he was conveyed from his palace along the river in a barge, in a quiet and unostentatious manner. His opening speech, too, was moderate and conciliatory. In a word, it was pretty evident to the Commons that the proud and haughty spirit of their royal master was beginning to be pretty effectually humbled.

Of course, now, in proportion as the king should falter, the Commons would grow bold. The House immediately began to attack Laud and Strafford in their speeches. It is the theory of the British Constitution that the king can do no wrong; whatever criminality at any time attaches to the acts of his administration, belongs to his advisers, not to himself. The speakers condemned, in most decided terms, the arbitrary and tyrannical course which the government had pursued during the intermission of Parliaments, but charged it all, not to the king, but to Strafford and Laud. Strafford had been, as they considered, the responsible person in civil and military affairs, and Laud in those of the Church. These speeches were made to try the temper of the House and of the country, and see whether there was hostility enough to Laud and Strafford in the House and in the country, and boldness enough in the expression of it, to warrant their impeachment.

The attacks thus made in the House against the two ministers were made very soon. Within a week after the opening of Parliament, one of the members, after declaiming a long time against the encroachments and tyranny of Archbishop Laud, whose title, according to English usage, was "his Grace," said he hoped that, before the year ran round, his grace would either have more grace or no grace at all; "for," he added, "our manifold griefs do fill a mighty and vast circumference, yet in such a manner that from every part our lines of sorrow do meet in him, and point at him the center, from whence our miseries in this Church, and many of them in the Commonwealth, do flow." He said, also, that if they must submit to a pope, he would rather obey one that was as far off as the Tiber, than to have him come as near as the Thames.

Similar denunciations were made against Strafford, and they awakened no opposition. On the contrary, it was found that the feeling of hostility against both the ministers was so universal and so strong, that the leaders began to think seriously of an impeachment on a charge of high treason. High treason is the greatest crime known to the English law, and the punishment for it, especially in the case of a peer of the realm, is very terrible. This punishment was generally inflicted by what was called a bill of attainder, which brought with it the worst of penalties. It implied the perfect destruction of the criminal in every sense. He was to lose his life by having his head cut off upon a block. His body, according to the strict letter of the law, was to be mutilated in a manner too shocking to be here described. His children were disinherited, and his property all forfeited. This was considered as the consequence of the attainting of the blood, which rendered it corrupt, and incapable of transmitting an inheritance. In fact, it was the intention of the bill of attainder to brand the wretched object of it with complete and perpetual infamy.

The proceedings, too, in the impeachment and trial of a high minister of state, were always very imposing and solemn. The impeachment must be moved by the Commons, and tried by the Peers. A peer of the realm could be tried by no inferior tribunal. When the Commons proposed bringing articles of impeachment against an officer of state, they sent first a messenger to the House of Peers to ask them to arrest the person whom they intended to accuse, and to hold him for trial until they should have their articles prepared. The House of Peers would comply with this request, and a time would be appointed for the trial. The Commons would frame the charges, and appoint a certain number of their members to manage the prosecution. They would collect evidence, and get every thing ready for the trial. When the time arrived, the chamber of the House of Peers would be arranged as a court room, or they would assemble in some other hall more suitable for the purpose, the prisoner would be brought to the bar, the commissioners on the part of the Commons would appear with their documents and their evidence, persons of distinction would assemble to listen to the proceedings, and the trial would go on.

It was in accordance with this routine that the Commons commenced proceedings against the Earl of Strafford, very soon after the opening of the session, by appointing a committee to inquire whether there was any just cause to accuse him of treason. The committee reported to the House that there was just cause. The House then appointed a messenger to go to the House of Lords, saying that they had found that there was just cause to accuse the Earl of Strafford of high treason, and to ask that they would sequester him from the House, as the phrase was, and hold him in custody till they could prepare the charges and the evidence against him. All these proceedings were in secret session, in order that Strafford might not get warning and fly. The Commons then nearly all accompanied their messenger to the House of Lords, to show how much in earnest they were. The Lords complied with the request. They caused the earl to be arrested and committed to the charge of the usher of the black rod, and sent two officers to the Commons to inform them that they had done so.

The usher of the black rod is a very important officer of the House of Lords. He is a sort of sheriff, to execute the various behests of the House, having officers to serve under him for this purpose. The badge of his office has been, for centuries, a black rod with a golden lion at the upper end, which is borne before him as the emblem of his authority. A peer of the realm, when charged with treason, is committed to the custody of this officer. In this case he took the Earl of Strafford under his charge, and kept him at his house, properly guarded. The Commons went on preparing the articles of impeachment.

This was in November. During the winter following the parties struggled one against another, Laud doing all in his power to strengthen the position of the king, and to avert the dangers which threatened himself and Strafford. The animosity, however, which was felt against him, was steadily increasing. The House of Commons did many things to discountenance the rites and usages of the Episcopal Church, and to make them odious. The excitement among the populace increased, and mobs began to interfere with the service in some of the churches in London and Westminster. At last a mob of five hundred persons assembled around the archbishop's palace at Lambeth. This palace, as has been before stated, is on the bank of the Thames, just above London, opposite to Westminster. The mob were there for two hours, beating at the doors and windows in an attempt to force admission, but in vain. The palace was very strongly guarded, and the mob were at length repulsed. One of the ring-leaders was taken and hanged.

One would have thought that this sort of persecution would have awakened some sympathy in the archbishop's favor; but it was too late. He had been bearing down so mercilessly himself upon the people of England for so many years, suppressing, by the severest measures, all expressions of discontent, that the hatred had become entirely uncontrollable. Its breaking out at one point only promoted its breaking out in another. The House of Commons sent a messenger to the House of Lords, as they had done in the case of Strafford, saying that they had found good cause to accuse the Archbishop of Canterbury of treason, and asked that he might be sequestered from the House, and held in custody till they could prepare their charges, and the evidence to sustain them.

The archbishop was at that time in his seat. He was directed to withdraw. Before leaving the chamber he asked leave to say a few words. Permission was granted, and he said in substance that he was truly sorry to have awakened in the hearts of his countrymen such a degree of displeasure as was obviously excited against him. He was most unhappy to have lived to see the day in which he was made subject to a charge of treason. He begged their lordships to look at the whole course of his life, and he was sure that they would be convinced that there was not a single member of the House of Commons who could really think him guilty of such a charge.

Here one of the lords interrupted him to say, that by speaking in that manner he was uttering slander against the House of Commons, charging them with solemnly bringing accusations which they did not believe to be true. The archbishop then said, that if the charge must be entertained, he hoped that he should have a fair trial, according to the ancient Parliamentary usages of the realm. Another of the lords interrupted him again, saying that such a remark was improper, as it was not for him to prescribe the manner in which the proceedings should be conducted. He then withdrew, while the House should consider what course to take. Presently he was summoned back to the bar of the House, and there committed to the charge of the usher of the black rod. The usher conducted him to his house, and he was kept there for ten weeks in close confinement.

At last the time for the trial of Strafford came on, while Laud was in confinement. The interest felt in the trial was deep and universal. There were three kingdoms, as it were, combined against one man. Various measures were resorted to by the Commons to diminish the possibility that the accused should escape conviction. Some of them have since been thought to be unjust and cruel. For example, several persons who were strong friends of Strafford, and who, as was supposed, might offer testimony in his favor, were charged with treason and confined in prison until the trial was over. The Commons appointed thirteen persons to manage the prosecution. These persons were many months preparing the charges and the evidence, keeping their whole proceedings profoundly secret during all the time. At last the day approached, and Westminster Hall was fitted up and prepared to be the scene of the trial.

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


Westminster Hall has the name of being the largest room whose roof is not supported by pillars, in Europe. It stands in the region of the palaces and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, and has been for seven centuries the scene of pageants and ceremonies without number. It is said that ten thousand persons have been accommodated in it at a banquet.

This great room was fitted up for the trial. Seats were provided for both houses of Parliament; for the Commons were to be present as accusers, and the Lords as the court. There was, as usual, a chair of state, or throne, for the king, as a matter of form. There was also a private gallery, screened from the observation of the spectators, where the king and queen could sit and witness the proceedings. They attended during the whole trial.

One would have supposed that the deliberate solemnity of these preparations would have calmed the animosity of Strafford's enemies, and led them to be satisfied at last with something less than his utter destruction. But this seems not to have been the effect. The terrible hostilities which had been gathering strength so long, seemed to rage all the more fiercely now that there was a prospect of their gratification. And yet it was very hard to find any thing sufficiently distinct and tangible against the accused to warrant his conviction. The commissioners who had been appointed to manage the case divided the charges among them. When the trial commenced, they stated and urged these charges in succession. Strafford, who had not known beforehand what they were to be, replied to them, one by one, with calmness and composure, and yet with great eloquence and power. The extraordinary abilities which he had shown through the whole course of his life, seemed to shine out with increased splendor amid the awful solemnities which were now darkening its close. He was firm and undaunted, and yet respectful and submissive. The natural excitements of the occasion; the imposing assembly; the breathless attention; the magnificent hall; the consciousness that the opposition which he was struggling to stem before that great tribunal was the combined hostility of three kingdoms, and that the torrent was flowing from a reservoir which had been accumulating for many years; and that the whole civilized world were looking on with great interest to watch the result; and perhaps, more than all, that he was in the unseen presence of his sovereign, whom he was accustomed to look upon as the greatest personage on earth; these, and the other circumstances of the scene, filled his mind with strong emotions, and gave animation, and energy, and a lofty eloquence to all that he said.

The trial lasted eighteen days, the excitement increasing continually to the end. There was nothing proved which could with any propriety be considered as treason. He had managed the government, it is true, with one set of views in respect to the absolute prerogatives and powers of the king, while those who now were in possession of power held opposite views, and they considered it a matter of necessity that he should die. The charge of treason was a pretext to bring the case somewhat within the reach of the formalities of law. It is one of the necessary incidents of all governmental systems founded on force, and not on the consent of the governed, that when great and fundamental questions of policy arise, they often bring the country to a crisis in which there can be no real settlement of the dispute without the absolute destruction of one party of the other. It was so now, as the popular leaders supposed. They had determined that stern necessity required that Laud and Strafford must die; and the only object of going through the formality of a trial was to soften the violence of the proceeding a little, by doing all that could be done toward establishing a legal justification of the deed.

The trial, as has been said, lasted eighteen days. During all this time, the leaders were not content with simply urging the proceedings forward energetically in Westminster Hall. They were maneuvering and managing in every possible way to secure the final vote. But, notwithstanding this, Strafford's defense was so able, and the failure to make out the charge of treason against him was so clear, that it was doubtful what the result would be. Accordingly, without waiting for the decision of the Peers on the impeachment, a bill of attainder against the earl was brought forward in the House of Commons. This bill of attainder was passed by a large majority—yeas 204, nays 59. It was then sent to the House of Lords. The Lords were very unwilling to pass it.

While they were debating it, the king sent a message to them to say that in his opinion the earl had not been guilty of treason, or of any attempt to subvert the laws; and that several things which had been alleged in the trial, and on which the bill of attainder chiefly rested, were not true. He was willing, however, if it would satisfy the enemies of the earl, to have him convicted of a misdemeanor, and made incapable of holding any public office from that time; but he protested against his being punished by a bill of attainder on a charge of treason.

This interposition of the king in Strafford's favor awakened loud expressions of displeasure. They called it an interference with the action of one of the houses of Parliament. The enemies of Strafford created a great excitement against him out of doors. They raised clamorous calls for his execution, among the populace. The people made black lists of the names of persons who were in the earl's favor, and posted them up in public places, calling such persons Straffordians, and threatening them with public vengeance. The Lords, who would have been willing to have saved Strafford's life if they had dared, began to find that they could not do so without endangering their own. When at last the vote came to be taken in the House of Lords, out of eighty members who had been present at the trial, only forty-six were present to vote, and the bill was passed by a vote of thirty-five to eleven. The thirty-four who were absent were probably all against the bill, but were afraid to appear.

The responsibility now devolved upon the king. An act of Parliament must be signed by the king. He really enacts it. The action of the two houses is, in theory, only a recommendation of the measure to him. The king was determined on no account to give his consent to Strafford's condemnation. He, however, laid the subject before his Privy Council. They, after deliberating upon it, recommended that he should sign the bill. Nothing else, they said, could allay the terrible storm which was raging, and the king ought to prefer the peace and safety of the realm to the life of any one man, however innocent he might be. The populace, in the mean time, crowded around the king's palace at Whitehall, calling out "Justice! justice!" and filling the air with threats and imprecations; and preachers in their pulpits urged the necessity of punishing offenders, and descanted on the iniquity which those magistrates committed who allowed great transgressors to escape the penalty due for their crimes.

The queen, too, was alarmed. She begged the king, with tears, not any longer to attempt to withstand the torrent which threatened to sweep them all away in its fury. While things were in this state, Charles received a letter from Strafford in the Tower, expressing his consent, and even his request, that the king should yield and sign the bill.

The Tower of London is very celebrated in English history. Though called simply by the name of the Tower, it is, in fact, as will be seen by the engraving in the frontispiece, an extended group of buildings, which are of all ages, sizes, and shapes, and covering an extensive area. It is situated below the city of London, having been originally built as a fortification for the defense of the city. Its use for this purpose has, however, long since passed away.

Strafford said, in his letter to the king,

"To set your Majesty's conscience at Liberty, I do most humbly beseech your Majesty for Prevention of Evils, which may happen by your Refusal, to pass this Bill. Sir, My Consent shall more acquit you herein to God, than all the World can do besides; 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 dislodging Soul, so, Sir, to you I can give the Life of this World with all the cheerfulness imaginable, in the just Acknowledgment of your exceeding Favors; 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 as their unfortunate Father may hereafter appear more or less guilty of this Death. God long preserve your Majesty."

On receiving this letter the king caused the bill to be signed. He would not do it with his own hands, but commissioned two of his council to do it in his name. He then sent a messenger to Strafford to announce the decision, and to inform him that he must prepare to die. The messenger observed that the earl seemed surprised; and after hearing that the king had signed the bill, he quoted, in a tone of despair, the words of Scripture, "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the sons of men, for in them is no salvation." Historians have thought it strange that Strafford should have expressed this disappointment when he had himself requested the king to resist the popular will no longer; and they infer from it that he was not sincere in the request, but supposed that the king would regard it as an act of nobleness and generosity on his part, that would render him more unwilling than ever to consent to his destruction, and that he was accordingly surprised and disappointed when he found that the king had taken him at his word. It is said, however, by some historians, that this letter was a forgery, and that it was written by some of Strafford's enemies to lead the king to resist no longer. The reader, by perusing the letter again, can perhaps form some judgment whether such a document was more likely to have been fabricated by enemies, or really written by the unhappy prisoner himself.

The king did not entirely give up the hope of saving his friend, even after the bill of attainder was signed. He addressed the following message to the House of Lords.

My Lords,—I did yesterday satisfy the Justice of this Kingdom by passing the Bill of Attainder against the Earl of Strafford: but Mercy being as inherent and inseparable to a King as Justice, I desire at this time in some measure to show that likewise, by suffering that unfortunate Man to fulfill the natural course of his Life in a close Imprisonment: yet so, if ever he make the least Offer to escape, or offer directly or indirectly to meddle in any sort of public Business, especially with Me either by Message or Letter, it shall cost him his Life without farther Process. This, if it may be done without the Discontentment of my People, will be an unspeakable Contentment to me.

"I will not say that your complying with me in this my intended Mercy, shall make me more willing, but certainly 'twill make me more cheerful in granting your just Grievances: But if no less than his Life can satisfie my People, I must say Let justice be done. Thus again recommending the consideration of my Intention to you, I rest,

"Your Unalterable and Affectionate Friend,

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


The Lords were inexorable. Three days from the time of signing the bill, arrangements were made for conducting the prisoner to the scaffold. Laud, who had been his friend and fellow-laborer in the king's service, was confined also in the Tower, awaiting his turn to come to trial. They were not allowed to visit each other, but Strafford sent word to Laud requesting him to be at his window at the time when he was to pass, to bid him farewell, and to give him his blessing. Laud accordingly appeared at the window, and Strafford, as he passed, asked for the prelate's prayers and for his blessing. The old man, for Laud was now nearly seventy years of age, attempted to speak, but he could not command himself sufficiently to express what he wished to say, and he fell back into the arms of his attendants. "God protect you," said Strafford, and walked calmly on.

He went to the place of execution with the composure and courage of a hero. He spoke freely to those around him, asserted his innocence, sent messages to his absent friends, and said he was ready and willing to die. The scaffold, in such executions as this, is a platform slightly raised, with a block and chairs upon it, all covered with black cloth. A part of the dress has to be removed just before the execution, in order that the neck of the sufferer may be fully exposed to the impending blow. Strafford made these preparations himself, and said, as he did so, that he was in no wise afraid of death, but that he should lay his head upon that block as cheerfully as he ever did upon his pillow.

Charles found his position in no respect improved by the execution of Strafford. The Commons, finding their influence and power increasing, grew more and more bold, and were from this time so absorbed in the events connected with the progress of their quarrel with the king, that they left Laud to pine in his prison for about four years. They then found time to act over again the solemn and awful scene of a trial for treason before the House of Peers, the passing of a bill of attainder, and an execution on Tower Hill. Laud was over seventy years of age when the ax fell upon him. He submitted to his fate with a calmness and heroism in keeping with his age and his character. He said, in fact, that none of his enemies could be more desirous to send him out of life than he was to go.