Reign of Charles I.—Lord Strafford.-Perfect Despotism.—Hume’s Notions of the “innocent and laudable.”—Proposed Coalition between Captain Rock and the Emperor of Russia.—Fate of Strafford.
Lord Strafford was a man whom the lovers of arbitrary power ought to canonize; for seldom has more lustre been thrown over their bad cause than by “those rare abilities of his, (as Lord Digby well expressed it) of which God gave him the use, but the devil the application.”
His government in Ireland was, on a small scale, a perfect model of despotism”, combining all the brute coercion of the East, with all the refined perfidy and Machiavelism of the West, and giving full rein to talents of the noblest breed, in the most unbounded career of oppression and injustice.
There are some of his acts which might almost turn men into rebels but to read—and yet Hume, to whom the severity of the Star chamber appeared only “somewhat blame-able,” has, in the same spirit, styled the acts of Lord Strafford in Ireland, “innocent, and even laudable.”
History has been called “philosophy teaching by examples”—and if the hearty concurrence of Strafford with the views of his perfidious master, in violating the solemn pledge given to the Catholics*—if his private advice to the monarch to disregard this pledge, while he publicly rebuked the parliament for harbouring the least doubt of its sincerity**—if his readiness, when even Charles shrunk from the responsibility of such deceit, to take all the infamy of this transaction on himself***—if that unparalleled system of robbery, under the pretext of an Inquiry into Titles, to which, adopted with improved machinery from the preceding reign, he gave all the impulse of his powerful mind, and by which the whole province of Connaught became the booty of the crown and its minions—if the arbitrary measures by which he enforced this scheme of plunder, fining, pillorying, and branding such jurors as hesitated to find a title in the king—if his flagitious trial of Lord Mountnorris****, where himself, the accuser, presided, and the only witness against the accused sat among the judges—if such transactions as these are to be held up as examples of the innocent and the laudable, then let Hume’s own “Sceptic” take the world into his hands, and remove all those landmarks of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, by which honest men have hitherto steered; let tyranny and turbulence, perfidy and plunder, be the order of the day among rulers and their subjects; and let Captain Rock and the Czar of Russia divide the world between them. I shall not complain of my share in the arrangement, and I will answer for the magnanimous Alexander being equally satisfied with his.
It is not, however, Hume alone that has contributed to throw a false light round the memory of Lord Strafford. His able biographer, Macdiarmid, has also, perhaps unconsciously, given somewhat too softened a tone to the “umbrata atque aspera” of his picture; and has had the forbearance to go through the detail of such insulting enormities, without suffering one true spark of indignation to “kindle as he runs.”
The splendid talents of Lord Strafford, and the imposing dignity of his death, may well justify a feeling of sympathy in his fate; but there would be no living in this world if there were not such examples, to hang up in the halls where Power holds his revel, and, like those awful mementos in the banqueting rooms of the Egyptians, chasten his pride and check the exuberance of his riot.
*His promise to them of certain Graces or concessions, in return for those voluntary contributions with which they had assisted him in his necessities. The favours which they required of him (says Macdiarmid) “were certainly moderate. They related to certain abuses arising from a defective police; to exactions in the court of justice; depredations committed by the soldiery; monopolies which tended to the ruin of trade; penal statutes on account of religion; retrospective inquiries into defective titles, &c. &c.”
**“Surely,” he said, “so great a meanness cannot enter your hearts as once to suspect his majesty’s gracious regards of you, and performance with you, where you affix yourselves upon his grace.”
***Charles thus acknowledges this faithful service of his “ame damnée:” “WENTWORTH,
“Before I answer any of your particular letters to me, I must tell you that your last public despatch has given me a great deal of contentment; and especially for the keeping off the envy of a necessary negative from me of those unreasonable Graces that people expected from me.”
The undisguised selfishness of Charles appears also on another occasion, where, in recommending to Strafford’s attention some grants on the Irish establishment, which he was either to concede or refuse, as the good of the service required, he says, “yet so, too, as I may have thanks howsoever; that if there be any thing to be denied, you may do it, not I.”
****Strafford’s contempt for the law, except as an instrument of power, breaks out continually and impatiently in his letters. He was short-sighted enough to look upon the opinion of the judges, with respect to Ship-money, as “the greatest service which the profession had rendered in his time to the crown.”. In one of his letters, too, from Ireland, he boasts of the complete control which he had gained over all the ministers of justice, who now, “ministering wholly to uphold the sovereignty, carried a direct aspect upon the prerogative of his majesty, and squinted not aside upon the vulgar and vain opinions of the populace.”—Strafford’s State Letters. It is to be regretted that Mr. Macdiarmid did not make more use of these spirited and highly characteristic letters. A biographer of Lord Strafford should make him tell his own story.