F Heritage History | Tales from Irish History by Alice Birkhead

Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead




The Scourge of Wentworth

The hopes of Catholic subjects turned very naturally towards the son of James I., because he had married a French Catholic princess, and was thought to favour her religion. A deputation from Ireland sought an early opportunity of waiting on Charles I., and offering him a very large sum of money if he would grant religious and civil freedom. Fifty-one articles, known as the "Graces," had been drawn up to state the grievances, which were burdensome to the Irish. The king was so anxious to have money that he accepted these terms readily, and received part of the bribe at once. He promised that an Irish Parliament should give the force of law to this agreement, but this was one of the many promises that Charles did not keep.

Charles had a favourite scheme of ruling the three different parts of his kingdom by his three devoted ministers. Archbishop Laud was to rule England under his own direction, Hamilton was to bind Scotland to his will, and Wentworth was to find in Ireland the means of overawing his English subjects, if they broke into revolt. Charles expected Wentworth to gain a great revenue from Ireland and to train an army in that country, ready to march against the English at short notice. He chose his men well. Wentworth had already ruled the north of England with a firm hand, and had gained much profit for the king. He was one of the Royalist party in England after the death of Buckingham, the favourite who had once swayed the king by his slightest freak of fancy. Once advanced to high honour, Wentworth did not look back to the hour when he had defended the liberties of Parliament. He was now bent on making the royal power supreme throughout the king's dominions. He had determined, when he set out for Ireland, to show certain unruly patriots in the English Parliament how meek and obedient to the will of a sovereign a Parliament could be made.

Wentworth became Lord-Deputy in 1633. He ruled fairly well as long as the king's interests were not opposed in any way. A heavy hand crushed the new nobility of the plantations when these seemed inclined to flaunt their patents too proudly, and the petty tyranny of great landowners knew control at last. Wentworth made the shipping trade secure, by sweeping swarms of Algerian pirates from the sea; he was careful to import Flemish weavers, and to encourage flax-spinning, when he destroyed the Irish woollen trade as dangerous to the prosperity of English merchants. Nevertheless, it was soon clear that he placed the well-being of the Irish much lower than the absolute sway of the king, his master. He set about his work without the slightest regard for the injuries he inflicted on a nation that was too weak to resist him effectually.

Wentworth's first step was to summon an Irish Parliament so cleverly "packed" that it contained about the same number of Protestants and Catholics. He took care to have a handful of military men returned as members so that he could gain his way by force, if necessary. He opened Parliament in Dublin with a ceremony and magnificence that had never been seen before. He then proceeded to address the House in a loud, bold voice, demanding money, and warning the members "not to mutter and mutiny in corners." He promised that there should be two sessions of Parliament, one for the Crown, which was to deal with the voting of money, and one for the Irish, in which the "Graces" should be considered. Wentworth had his session first, and bullied the members into granting money, but refused afterwards to perform his promise of attending to the claims of Ireland.

Wentworth's attention was next directed to the church. He intended to establish the form of service which Laud favoured, and took no thought for the opinions of Catholics, Presbyterians or Low Churchmen. They were all to worship according to High Church doctrines. The Church of Ireland certainly needed reform—buildings were in ruins, parish priests often lived in beggary. Only evil and ignorant men would consent to take livings in a church, which had been robbed of its endowments. In Connacht a vicar was seldom paid more than 40 a year, while some of the bishoprics were only worth 50 a year.

The Deputy ordered a commission for repairing the churches and recovering Church property. The Earl of Cork was obliged to disgorge tithes and lands, belonging to the College of Youghal and the see of Waterford, to the value of 2000 a year. Wentworth called the Bishop of Killala to the Council-Chamber, rated him soundly, declaring that he "deserved to have his rochet pulled over his ears," and wrote jubilantly to Laud that he had so "warmed his old sides" that the bishop had been obliged to give up the attempt to sell Church lands. Wherever it was possible, Wentworth introduced a more elaborate form of service, adopting Laud's plan of moving the communion table from the body of the church to the east end.

Wentworth next attacked the landlords of Connacht, and proved by old documents that their land was the lawful property of King Charles. He went in person through Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo, alarming the juries till they gave verdicts for the king in sheer terror. He met resistance in Galway, where the people were devoted to the Earl of Clanricarde. He held his court in the earl's own castle at Portrumna, where he fined the sheriff and imprisoned him for bringing together an obstinate jury. The men still gave verdicts for the landowners in spite of this. They were fined 4000 apiece and sentenced to imprisonment till they either paid the fines or altered their decision. The sheriff died in prison, the Earl of Clanricarde sank into the grave with shame and at length complete submission was given to Wentworth's imperious demands in Ireland.

The powerful Deputy was approaching his own downfall. In 1641, Charles sent for him in haste to join in plans for suppressing the Parliamentarians, who had taken up arms against the king's tyranny. Wentworth held council with the Royalists and went back to Ireland again to find men and money for the coming strife. He had no difficulty in wresting what he wanted from the cowed and beaten natives. The Irish Parliament owned him master and promised to furnish Charles with grants of money and a well-provided army. Wentworth, now Earl of Strafford, hastened across the Channel, well satisfied with his visit. He found that the king had betrayed him by signing a treaty with the Scots and that he was left to face the hatred of Parliament.

At Strafford's trial, witnesses crowded to hear evidence of tyranny. Many came from Ireland—Connacht landowners, castle officials, Presbyterian pastors—the weight of accusation fell heavily against the fallen minister. England and Ireland watched the trial with the same excitement, for Strafford's character was such that even tyrants had bent before him. Rejoicing burst forth when the public learnt that Charles had signed the Bill of Attainder that sent his most faithful adherent to the scaffold.