Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
The Death of Strafford
By Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon (16091674)
From the History of the Rebellion
DURING these perplexities, the Earl of Strafford, taking notice of the straits the king was in, the rage of the people still increasing (from whence he might expect a certain outrage and ruin), how constant soever the king continued to him; and, it may be, knowing of an undertaking (for such an undertaking there was) by a great person, who had then a command in the Tower, that if the king refused to pass the bill, to free the kingdom from the hazard it seemed to be in, he would cause his head to be stricken off in the Tower,) writ a most pathetical letter to the king, full of acknowledgment of his favours; but lively presenting the dangers, which threatened himself and his posterity, by his obstinacy in those favours; and therefore by many arguments conjuring him no longer to defer his assent to the bill, that so his death might free the kingdom from the many troubles it apprehended.
The delivery of this letter being quickly known, new arguments were applied: that this free consent of his own clearly absolved the king from any scruple that could remain with him; and so in the end they extorted from him, to sign a commission to some lords to pass the bill: which was as valid as if he had signed it himself; though they comforted him even with that circumstance, that his own hand was not in it.
It may easily be said, that the freedom of the parliament, and his own negative voice, being thus barbarously invaded, if his majesty had, instead of passing that act, come to the house and dissolved the parliament; or if he had withdrawn himself from that seditious city, and put himself in the head of his own army; much of the mischief, which hath since happened, would have been prevented. But whoever truly considers the state of affairs at that time; the prevalency of that faction in both houses; the rage and fury of the people; the use that was made by the schismatical preachers (by whom all the orthodox were silenced) of the late protestation in their pulpits; the fears and jealousies they had infused into the minds of many sober men, upon the discourse of the late plot; the constitution of the council-table, that there was not an honest man durst speak his conscience to the king, for fear of his ruin; and that those, whom he thought most true to him, betrayed him every hour, insomuch as his whispers in his bedchamber were instantly conveyed to those against whom those whispers were; so that he had very few men to whom he could breathe his conscience and complaint, that were not suborned against him, or averse to his opinions: that on the other side, if some expedient were not speedily found out, to allay that frantic rage and combination in the people, there was reason enough to believe, their impious hands would be lifted up against his own person, and (which he much more apprehended) against the person of his royal consort; and lastly, that (besides the difficulty of getting thither except he would have gone alone) he had no ground to be very confident of his own army: I say, whoever sadly contemplates this, will find cause to confess, the part which the king had to act was not only harder than any prince, but than any private gentleman, had been incumbent to; and that it is much easier, upon the accidents and occurrences which have since happened, to determine what was not to have been done, than at that time to have foreseen, by what means to have freed himself from the labyrinth in which he was involved.
All things being thus transacted, to conclude the fate of this great person, he was on the twelfth day of May brought from the Tower of London (where he had been a prisoner near six months) to the scaffold on Tower-hill; where, with a composed, undaunted courage, he told the people, he was come thither to satisfy them with his head; but that he much feared, the reformation which was begun in blood would not prove so fortunate to the kingdom, as they expected, and he wished: and after great expressions of his devotion to the church of England, and the protestant religion established by law, and professed in that church; of his loyalty to the king, and affection to the peace and welfare of the kingdom; with marvellous tranquillity of mind, he delivered his head to the block, where it was severed from his body at a blow; many of the standers by, who had not been over charitable to him in his life, being much affected with the courage and Christianity of his death.
Thus fell the greatest subject in power, and little inferior to any in fortune, that was at that time in any of the three kingdoms; who could well remember the time when he led those people, who then pursued him to his grave. He was a man of great parts, and extraordinary endowments of nature; not unadorned with some addition of art and learning, though that again was more improved and illustrated by the other; for he had a readiness of conception, and sharpness of expression, which made his learning thought more than in truth it was. His first inclinations and addresses to the court were only to establish his greatness in the country; where he apprehended some acts of power from the old lord Savile, who had been his rival always there, and of late had strengthened himself by being made a privy counsellor, and officer at court; but his first attempts were so prosperous that he contented not himself with being secure from his power in the country, but rested not, till he had bereaved him of all power and place in court; and so sent him down, a most abject, disconsolate, old man, to his country, where he was to have the superintendency over him too, by getting himself at that time made lord president of the north. These successes, applied to a nature too elate and arrogant of itself, and a quicker progress into the greatest employments and trust, made him more transported with disdain of other men, and more contemning the forms of business, than happily he would have been, if he had met with some interruptions in the beginning, and had passed in a more leisurely gradation to the office of a statesman.
He was, no doubt, of great observation, and a piercing judgment, both into things and persons; but his too good skill in persons made him judge the worse of things; for it was his misfortune to be of a time wherein very few wise men were equally employed with him; and scarce any (but the Lord Coventry, whose trust was more confined) whose faculties and abilities were equal to his; so that upon the matter he wholly relied upon himself: and discerning many defects in most men, he too much neglected what they said or did. Of all his passions, his pride was most predominant; which a moderate exercise of ill fortune might have corrected and reformed; and which was by the hand of Heaven strangely punished, by bringing his destruction upon him by two things that he most despised, the people and Sir Harry Vane. In a word, the epitaph, which Plutarch records that Sylla wrote for himself, may not be unfitly applied to him: that no man did ever pass him, either in doing good to his friends, or in doing mischief to his enemies; for his acts of both kinds were most exemplary and notorious.