Wentworth, is born in London on April 13, 1593, the eldest surviving son of Sir William Wentworth, a Yorkshire landowner. Educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and at the Inner Temple, he is knighted by James I in 1611. His marriage to Lady Margaret Clifford, daughter of the impoverished Francis Clifford, 4th Earl of Cumberland, establishes a link with an ancient and noble family still influential in the north.
Wentworth represents Yorkshire in the parliaments of 1614 and 1621 and Pontefract in 1624. His wife dies childless in 1622, and in February 1625 he marries Arabella Holles, daughter of John Holles, 1st Earl of Clare, a peer out of favour at court who brings Wentworth into touch with the critics of the King’s expensive and inefficient policy of war against Spain and, from 1627, against France. Along with other critics of the court he is prevented from sitting in the Parliament of 1626, and later in the year he refuses to subscribe to the forced loan imposed to pay for the war, and is for some time under arrest. Despite his record of opposition to the King’s policy, he is approached by the crown — anxious to strengthen its position in the north — with the offer of a barony in 1628. He is appointed lord president of the Council of the North and in 1629 is given a seat on the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
Wentworth’s return to the service of the court, coming so soon after his vehement opposition to it in Parliament, startles even some of his closest friends. His conduct is no doubt partly inspired by personal ambition, though he has logical reasons for his change of front since in the summer of 1628 the King gradually abandons his war policy.
On the Privy Council Wentworth seems to advocate the paternalist government that distinguishes the early years of the King’s personal rule. As President of the Council of the North he quells all defiance of his authority and makes many enemies by his insistence on the honour due to him as the King’s representative, but his administration is on the whole just and efficient. In 1631 he is deeply distressed by the death of his much-loved wife, though he provokes scandalous rumours not long afterward by secretly marrying Elizabeth Rodes, the young daughter of a neighbouring squire, in October 1632.
The King meanwhile has appointed Wentworth Lord Deputy of Ireland. Taking up his office in the summer of 1633, he immediately sets himself to consolidate the royal authority, break the power of the dominant clique of “new English” landowners, extend English settlement, improve methods of agriculture, increase the productivity of the land, and stimulate industry and trade. His ultimate goal is to assimilate Irish law and customs to the English system and to make a prosperous Protestant Ireland into a source of revenue to the English crown.
Wentworth continues his effective and firm-handed administration of Ireland until 1639, when he is recalled to England by King Charles I. The King needs advice and support in handling a Scottish revolt precipitated by an ill-conceived attempt to enforce episcopacy on the Scots. He is created Earl of Strafford in 1640 and is expected to resolve the crisis. But his policy of making war on Scotland proves disastrous for both himself and the King. The English Parliament, called especially to vote money for the war, prove recalcitrant, and Strafford, in command of the English army, fails to prevent the Scots from overrunning the northern counties. The King, unable to pay his own troops or to buy off the Scots, is compelled by joint English and Scottish action to call a new Parliament in November 1640.
Wentworth is the chief target of attack from both nations. He is advised to leave the country, but the King relies on his help and assures him that he should not suffer in life or fortune. Detained by illness, he reaches Westminster on November 10 with the intention of impeaching the King’s opponents in Parliament for treasonable correspondence with the Scots. The leader of the House of Commons, John Pym, acts first by impeaching Wentworth before he can take his seat in the House of Lords.
Wentworth’s trial begins in March 1641. The basic accusation is that of subverting the laws and is supported by a charge that he had offered to bring over the Irish army to subdue the King’s opponents in England. More detailed charges rest on his administration in Ireland and the north. He conducts his defense with great skill, and it looks at one point as though he might be acquitted. Pym therefore introduces a bill of attainder. The Commons passes it by a large majority. The Lords, intimidated by popular rioting, pass it as well, but by a much smaller majority.
While an angry mob surges around Whitehall, Wentworth writes to the King releasing him from his promise of protection, and Charles, afraid for the safety of the Queen, gives his consent to the bill. He is executed before a crowd estimated, probably with some exaggeration, at 300,000 on May 12, 1641 (as this number is roughly the population of London at the time, the crowd is likely to have been a good deal smaller). In his last speech he once more professes his faith in “the joint and individual prosperity of the king and his people,” for which, in his view, he has always worked.
Wentworth remains an enigmatic figure in English history: ambitious, greedy for power and wealth, ruthless, and sometimes dishonest, but with a vision of benevolent authoritarian government and efficient administration to which he often gave persuasive expression. He made innumerable enemies, but his few close friends were deeply attached to him. In the last weeks of his life his dignity, eloquence, and loyalty to the King made a deep impression even on some of his enemies.