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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Fall of Strafford
By Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886)
 
From ‘A History of England, Principally in the Seventeenth Century’

THE KING was still very far from giving up his own or Strafford’s cause. On Saturday, May 1st, he declared that he would never again endure Strafford in his council or his presence, but that he thought him not deserving of death; and the Lords seemed of the same opinion. Equally little did it seem necessary to give way to the proposals against the bishops. On Sunday, May 2d, the wedding of the young Prince of Orange with the princess Mary of England—who however was but ten years old, and was to stay longer in England—was celebrated at Whitehall. Charles himself presided with address and good-humor over the wedding festivities, and seemed to be well pleased with his new son-in-law. Once more a numerous court crowded with the usual zeal around the highest personages in the country. Yet at that very hour the pulpits of the city were ringing with fiery addresses on the necessity of bringing the arch-offender to justice; disquieting rumors were in the air, and kept every one in suspense. The next morning, Monday, May 3d, Westminster presented a disorderly spectacle. In order to throw into the scale the expression of their will on impending questions, which already had been so effective once, thousands of petitioners repaired to the Houses of Parliament; the members of the lower House who had voted for the Bill of Attainder, and the unpopular Lords, were received on their arrival with insults and abusive cries. At the hour when the sitting of the lower House ought to have begun,—prayers were already over,—all the members remained in profound silence. There was a presentiment of what was coming: the attempt of the clerk to bring on some unimportant matter was greeted with laughter. After some time the doors were closed, and John Pym rose to make a serious communication. He said that desperate plots against the Parliament and the peace of the realm were at work within and without the country, for bringing the army against Parliament, seizing the Tower, and releasing Strafford; that there was an understanding with France on the subject, and that sundry persons in immediate attendance on the Queen were deep in the plot.  1
  Pym might and did know that the French government was in no way inclined to take part with the Queen; and the Parliamentary leaders had already sent their joint thanks to Cardinal Richelieu for preventing the Queen’s journey. We must leave it in doubt whether Pym was notwithstanding led by the appearance of things and by rumor to believe in the possibility of an alliance between the French government and the Queen, or whether he merely thought it advisable to arouse the apprehension in others. His speech conveyed the idea that a plot was at work for the overthrow of Parliament and the Protestant religion, which must be resisted with the whole strength of the nation. The mob, assembled outside the doors, where vague reports of Pym’s exordium reached them, certainly received this impression: a conspiracy had been detected, as bad as the Gunpowder Plot or worse, for massacring the members of Parliament, and even all Strafford’s opponents among the inhabitants. The fact that the Tower, which commanded the city, was reckoned on for this purpose, caused an indescribable agitation. At times the cry “To Whitehall!” was heard: at others it seemed as if the mob would go to the Tower in order to storm it.  2
  With these tumultuous proceedings were connected a consistent and systematic series of decisive measures taken by Parliament. The strongest motive for agitation in England as well as in Scotland was the danger to religion: and a similar attempt was made to obtain security on this point. A kind of covenant was devised in England also,—a Parliamentary and national oath,—by which every man pledged himself to defend with body and life the true Protestant religion against all Popish devices, as well as the privileges of Parliament and the liberties of the subject. Since in this oath the doctrines, if not the constitution, of the English Church were maintained, and the allegiance due to the King was mentioned, no great trouble was found in obtaining its acceptance by Parliament and the nation. Its importance lies in the connection it established between Protestantism and the interests of Parliament: whoever took it pledged himself to defend the privileges of Parliament. Amid the general agreement it was not forgotten that an eye must be kept on the immediate sources of danger. The undeniable needs of the army were provided for, and precautions taken against any possible movement in that quarter.  3
  For several days the rumor of impending danger grew. The French ambassador was warned at that time, as if he or his government had a share in the matter, and it might still at any moment be carried out. But in truth the disclosure of the scheme was equivalent to its defeat. Jermyn and Percy fled; other persons suspected or implicated were arrested; the Queen herself one day prepared to quit London. But she had nowhere to go: she could not but be aware that the Governor of Portsmouth, with whom she intended to take refuge, had caused the discovery of the scheme.  4
  Little as her attempt to cause a reaction may have been matured, it had nevertheless the effect of doubling the violence of the previous movement. The royal power itself immediately felt the force of the shock. The King had sanctioned the proposal to strengthen his hold on the Tower with trustworthy troops: the number of men that he desired to introduce was not more than a hundred, but even this now appeared a dangerous innovation. The commandant Balfour hesitated to admit the troops; the tumultuous mob directed against it a more urgent petition than ever. The Lords were induced to make representations on the subject to the King; who justified the arrangement on the score of his duty to provide for the safety of the ammunition stored in the Tower, but in view of the popular agitation did not insist on its being carried out. The Lords further empowered the Constable and Lord Mayor, if necessary, to introduce a body of militia into the Tower; and thus the control of the fortress which might keep the city in check began to slip out of the King’s hands. The measures taken for the security of Portsmouth, for the arming of the militia in several inland counties for this purpose, and for the defense of Jersey and Guernsey,—those islands seeming to be in danger from France,—were in effect so many usurpations of the military authority of the Crown, however well justified they may have been under the circumstances.  5
  Out of the necessity for satisfying the English army arose an idea involving the most serious consequences. As the Scottish army must be paid and the Irish one disbanded, which was impossible without discharging the arrears due them, new and extensive loans were needed. Yet who was likely to lend money to the Parliament, so long as its existence depended on the resolve and arbitrary will of the King, with whom it had engaged in violent strife? As the only security for the capitalists, a provision was desired that Parliament should not be dissolved at the simple will of the King. On May 5th a motion was made to this effect: on the 6th the special committee brought the bill before the assembled House: on the 7th it passed the third reading, and went to the upper House, where it was agreed to after a few objections of trifling importance.  6
  The fate of Strafford formed the central point of all these movements in the nation and in Parliament; of the tumultuous agitation in the one, and the far-seeing resolutions of the other. For new loans and for the payment of taxes one condition was on all sides insisted on: that the Viceroy of Ireland should first expiate his crimes by death.  7
  The Lords had alleged the troubles as the reason why they could not immediately deal with the bill of attainder: but the continued terror at length made all further opposition impossible. The sittings were now attended chiefly by those in whom government by prerogative, such as Strafford aimed at, had awakened from the first a spirit of aristocratic resistance. And when an opinion of the Court of King’s Bench was given, to the effect that on the points which had been taken as proved by the Lords, Strafford certainly merited the punishment for high treason, all opposition was at length silenced: the bill of attainder passed the upper House by a majority of 7 votes, 26 against 19.  8
  A deputation of the Lords went immediately to the King, to recommend him to assent to the bill on account of the danger which would attend a refusal. It was Saturday, May 8/18: in the afternoon the bill, together with the one for not dissolving Parliament, was laid before him by the two Houses, with a prayer for his immediate assent to both. Two or three thousand men had assembled at Whitehall to receive his answer. To their great indignation the King deferred his decision until Monday.  9
  The following Sunday was to him a day for the most painful determination;—for what an admission it was, to recognize as a capital crime the having executed his own will and purposes! The political tendency it fully carried out, obviously was to separate the Crown from its advisers, and make them dependent on another authority than that of the King; to make the King’s power inferior to that of the Parliament. Charles I. had solemnly declared that he found the accused not guilty of high treason; he had given him his word to let no evil befall him, not to let a hair of his head be harmed. Could he nevertheless sanction his execution? Verily it was a great moment for the King: what glory would attend his memory had he lived up to his convictions, and opposed to the pressure put upon him an immovable moral strength! To this end was he King, and possessed the right of sanctioning or of rejecting the resolutions of Parliament: that was the theory of the Constitution. But among the five bishops whom the King called to his side in this great case of conscience, only one advised him to follow his own convictions. The others represented that it was not the King’s business to form a personal opinion on the legality of a sentence; that the acts which Strafford himself admitted had now been pronounced to be treasonable; and that he might allow the judgment without being convinced of its accuracy, as he would a judgment of the King’s Bench or at the assizes. This may be the meaning of the doctrine attributed to Bishop Williams, that the King has a double conscience, a public and a private one, and that he may lawfully do as King what he would not do as a private man. But the constitutional principle essentially was that personal convictions in this high office should possess a negative influence. The distinction must be regarded as an insult to the theory of the Crown, implying its annihilation as a free power in the State. King Charles felt this fully; all the days of his life he regretted, as one of his greatest faults, that in this case he had not followed the dictates of his conscience. But he was told that he must not ruin himself, his future, and his house for the sake of a single man: the question was not whether he would save Strafford, but whether he would perish with him. The movement begun in the city was spreading throughout the country; from every county, men were coming up to join the city populace. From a letter of one of the best informed and most intelligent eye-witnesses, we gather that the idea of appealing to the Commons of the country against the King’s refusal was mooted in the lower House. And so far as the assurances given to the Viceroy of Ireland were concerned, a letter from Strafford was laid before the King, in which he released him from his promise, and entreated him to avoid the disasters which would result from the rejection of the bill, and to sacrifice him, the writer, as he stood in the way of a reconciliation between the King and his people.  10
  So it came to pass that on May 10th the King commissioned Lord Arundel and the Lord Keeper to signify his royal assent to the bill of attainder. The next day he made another attempt to return from the path of justice to that of mercy. Would it not be better to consign Strafford to prison for life, with the provision that for any participation in public affairs, or attempt at flight, his life would certainly and finally be forfeited. He asked the Lords whether this was possible: they replied that it would endanger himself and his wife and children. For no relaxation was to be obtained from the universal disposition both in Parliament and in the city. Unless the King gave way it would be scarcely possible to maintain his government any longer.  11
  At the news of the King’s submission, Strafford exclaimed that “No one should trust in princes, who are but men.” The genuineness of his letter has been denied, it being supposed that others wrote it in order to remove the King’s personal scruples; but a thorough examination of the fact removes every doubt. Though Strafford confirmed in his own person the experience expressed in the words of Scripture, 1 he himself with his last words gave, with high-minded forbearance, the opinion that it was necessary to sacrifice him, in consideration of the general circumstances and of the possible consequences.  12
  Strafford went to the scaffold in an exalted frame of mind. On his way he saw Laud, who at his request appeared at the window of his prison. The archbishop was unable to speak. Strafford bade him farewell, and prayed that God might protect his innocence; for he had no doubt that he was in the right in fulfilling his King’s will, and establishing his prerogative. He persisted that he had never intended either to destroy the parliamentary constitution, or to endanger the Protestant Church. He did not appeal to the judgment of posterity, as if he had been conscious that great antagonisms are transmitted from generation to generation: he looked for a righteous judgment in the other world.  13
  Such moments must come, in order to bring to light the absolute independence of success and of the world’s judgment which strong characters possess.  14
  His guilt was of a nature entirely political; he had done his best to guide the King in these complications, undoubtedly in the belief that he was right in so doing, but still with indiscreet zeal. So also his execution was a political act: it was the expression of the defeat which he had suffered and occasioned, of the triumph of the ideas against which he had contended to the death.  15
 
Note 1. “Put not your trust in princes” was the exact phrase he used. [back]
 
 
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