Today (May 12) in London History – “put not your trust in princes”

The first Earl of Strafford was beheaded on Tower Hill on May 12, 1641. It’s the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting. 

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

AKA the Today in London History podcast.

We’re heading back to May 12th, 1641. 

But to get us started we’re going to overshoot May 12th, 1641. Overshoot it by a little bit. 

Make a quick stop at May 10th, 1640. 

We’ll use it for our final run-in to May 12th, a year later. 

And there – our historical spotlight has picked him out – is Thomas Wentworth, the first earl of Strafford.

Thomas Wentworth was a Londoner. Born in a house in Chancery Lane on Good Friday, April 13, 1593, Thomas Wentworth was baptised at St Dunstan in the West.

He was certainly well connected. The house he was born in belonged to his maternal grandfather, Sir Robert Atkinson, an Inner Temple barrister. 

His father’s people were wealthy Yorkshire landowners.

When he was 14 – it’s a source of never-ending amazement to me how quickly they seemed to grow up hundreds of years ago – it’s almost as if there was no such thing as adolescence – anyway, when Thomas Wentworth was 14 he entered the Inner Temple and 18 months later he matriculated from St John’s College, Cambridge.

And then, to complete his education, there was a grand tour in France. 

His father died when he was 21. He inherited the title of baronet and came into an income of about £4,000 a year. A lot of money. A lot of money but there were demands on it because at 21 he was responsible for the education and career of his eight younger brothers.

His first scrape with authority came in 1626. It came in the shape of what was known as a forced loan raised to finance the war against France. Thomas Wentworth refused to pay it. That earned him a stint behind bars. In the Marshalsea Prison. 

“This too will pass” could have been his motto. And indeed it did pass. In due course he was freed and suddenly he was on his way. He became an MP. Became a great favourite and in time trusted lieutenant of Charles I. Needless to say, spectacular advancement followed. 

And with it endless opportunities to take financial advantage of the positions he held. To milk them.

Charles made him Lord President of the North. And subsequently Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. To accompany the wealth he amassed, honours poured in. He was made a Viscount. And then the Earl of Strafford. And Baron of Raby. 

He was the king’s Chief Councillor. Had His Majesty’s ear. 

Powerfully positioned. But it was a position on an unsteady raft on quicksand. Quicksand that was full of vipers. 

There were powerful people in and out of court who hated him. And the little people – a lot of them anyway – also hated him.

The history of those two decades – the 1630s and 1640s – Charles I’s rocky ride, his eventual trial and execution, the Civil War, the emergence of the Commonwealth – that history is immensely complicated. For our purposes here, let’s just note that Strafford was in those treacherous waters and in the end they did for him. 

The year or so of his life that we’re focussing on here could almost be a case study of the biter bit, of hubris and nemesis.

Let’s explore the room of the first date we’ve stopped at – May 10th, 1640. King Charles is trying to suppress a rebellion in Scotland. He needs money to pay for iron fist he wants to bring down on those Scottish rebels. Forced loan time again. This time, it’s the City of London in particular that’s being hit up. The crown tells the City it needs a £100,000. The City demurs. The crown ups the ante. Says it needs £200,000 and if that demand is not met the figure will go up to £300,000. The City calls the King’s bluff. Says it’s not prepared to help in the matter. For good measure, it refuses to supply a list of the wealthier men in the wards.

Whereupon Strafford makes his recommendation: hang a few aldermen. That might have done the trick. Or it might have sparked open rebellion. We don’t know. What we do know is the King fudged the decision. Four aldermen were imprisoned. A year later, nemesis is knocking on the door of the man whose advice had been to hang a few aldermen. Strafford was King Charles I’s most able minister. He was also his most unpopular minister. In 1640 and the first few months of 1641 the crown’s position had deteriorated so much that the King was forced to throw the dogs a bone. He did. The bone’s name was Thomas Wentworth, the Earl Strafford. Strafford was locked up in the Tower of London and put on trial in Westminster Hall. 

The King promised that he would save his servant’s life, come what may.

The King reneged on that promise. 

Strafford Black Tom Tyrant, as the London mob called him – was beheaded on Tower Hill on this day, May 12th, 1641. A crowd of 200,000 Londoners looked on approvingly, including, one imagines, more than a few aldermen whom Strafford had counselled, just a year earlier, should be hanged pour encourager les autres.

Strafford went to his death with great dignity. Almost Christ-like. Not a bad analogy because you could say Strafford died for all the mistakes and sins Charles I had committed over the past ten years.

There was one small mercy. The baying London mob didn’t get the traditional punishment for treason, didn’t get the hanging drawing and quartering it wanted. They had to make do with the sop of a beheading.

But let’s give the last word to the Earl of Strafford. Wiser – too late though it was – the first Earl said, “put not your trust in princes.”

And for a Today in London recommendation? A Tower of London private tour. On the way to the Tower  we make a short stop at the spot where the man who made the mistake of putting his trust in princes parted company with his head. In front of 200,000 people. On that tour you’ll see the difference between a public execution and a private execution. It’s edifying. Sort of like the difference between private education and its non-private counterpart. 

Anything else? Yes, how’s this for a connection, for a handbrake turn to this podcast. I’m thinking about the frenzied, almost orgasmic excitement of that horrible crowd. And thinking about Thomas Wentworth’s happier youthful days, the sunlit uplands of his time in France, his grand tour. And then how, step by step, his life path led to Tower Hill and his appointment with his executioner on the 12th day of May, 1641.

And wondering if there are any pulling together possibilities, anything we can do with that? Maybe. The best piece of advice I was ever given about guiding came my way over 40 years ago from a grizzled old guide, a real veteran. He said, “if you see their eyes start to glaze over just talk about sex or death. You’ll have them back just like that. Well, so far, this podcast has been about the death of King Charles I’s chief councillor, Black Tom Tyrant. But that execution date – the 12th – I think we might have ourselves a springboard there. Remember, I mentioned Strafford’s Grand Tour in France and his speaking perfect French. How the London crowd will have hated that.

Well, sex or death – or sex and death – and you’ll have them back in a trice – let’s test that. How about this for a sort of Sharon Stone moment in the tale I’m weaving here.

And yes, this utterly tenuous. But fun. 

A century or so after the Earl of Strafford lost his head on that date – the 12th – the Prince of Conde, a French aristocrat – deified, in his head, the number 12. One man’s unlucky date turned out to be another man’s lucky number. Why? Here’s why. The Prince managed to make love 12 times in a single night with one Madame Deschamps. Brimming with understandable pride over his achievement  the Prince became – and for the rest of his life remained – obsessed by the number 12. He had it marked on his clothes and stamped on his buttons, always had 12 courses at dinner, and never gave a tip other than 12 louis d’or. For her part, it wasn’t an obsession that Madame Deschamps shared. One imagines that she just lay back and thought of France.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company.

Let’s end with a cheeful googly.

If I’m going to have brain surgery I want a consultant neurosurgeon – not some schlubber with a scalpel and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy.

Except it’s not a Googly. 

It’s the same underlying principle that makes London Walks London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

It all comes down to the guiding. 

Famously and uniquely London Walks fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, University of London geologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, the Chair of the London Critics Society, historians, elite Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Elite means elite – professionally qualified guides who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award. With London Walks not only are you in the big leagues – you’ve got All Star guides, many of them MVPs.

And the converse of that is you will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script.

You WILL be guided by people of real substance – well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured professionals. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that word to the wise, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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