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The Exercise of Power

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Ireland’s role in establishing the British Parliament’s supremacy over the executive.

It was the English civil war, a brutal affair that lasted, on and off, for six years and pitched brother against brother and father against son, that established the supremacy of parliament. And it began with the trial of a man who had the temerity to threaten to raise a mostly Catholic army of Irish men to assist King Charles in his campaign against Scottish protestants. And Ireland was to suffer some of the worst horrors perpetrated during the course of the war.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford in an Armour, 1639, portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford in an Armour, 1639, portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth had been appointed as the king’s representative in Ireland. As such he succeeded in maintaining an uneasy peace on the island, between Catholic ‘Old English’, Protestant ‘New English’ and Scottish Presbyterians who had been granted land in the north and west taken from Irish clansmen. Meanwhile, on the mainland, many in parliament and outside were becoming uneasy about the king’s continuing support for a reforming arch-bishop who, in their eyes, wanted to take the Church of England back to something resembling the Roman Catholicism they had grown to detest.

So when the king asked Parliament for the funds to mount a war against a protestant led invasion from Scotland they refused. The king dissolved parliament and went ahead anyway. However, the army he raised was inadequate to the task. The Scottish force took control of Newcastle and Durham. The king re-called parliament. The Scottish leaders demanded that the arch-bishop and Wentworth be brought to trial for what they deemed to be acts of treason.

Parliament went ahead, against the wishes of the king. The trial lasted 7 weeks. The prosecution was unable to come up with sufficient conclusive evidence against Wentworth. Parliament therefore changed tack and instituted something called an ‘act of attainment’. This required only a body of suspicious evidence in order to secure a conviction. The problem was that the act required the king’s signature. At first he refused to sign.

Courage

In an act of extraordinary courage, Wentworth, fearing that his aquital would lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed, wrote to the king begging him to sign, concluding with this sentence: “To set Your Majesties (sic) Conscience at liberty, I do most humbly beseech Your Majesty for prevention of evils, which may happen by Your refusal, to pass this Bill.”

A 19th century representation of the Massacre at Drogheda, 1649

A 19th century representation of the Massacre at Drogheda, 1649

In as much as the king signed, Wentworth’s plea was successful. It failed, however, to prevent the coming holocaust. Wentworth was hung, the arch-bishop was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In the country people began to wonder if parliament had taken too much power upon itself. And, in Ireland, the Catholics and the native clansmen began to fear the prospect of domination by the Protestant New English and Scots Presbyterians. They staged a rebellion, making the spurious claim they were supporting the king. Exaggerated tales of massacres of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland, not all of them erronious, reached England. This did the king no favours and the stage was set for a revolution in England.

Both king and parliament began recruiting armies. On 23rd October 1642 the two armies met at Edge Hill in Warwickshire and fought the first of many bloody battles. By the end of that day about 3,000 lay dead and there were countless injured. By the end of the war, a quarter of a million had died in England, Scotland and Wales and a similar number* in the much smaller island of Ireland. There were sieges and accompanying massacres at Drogheda and Wexford.

This week’s court case in which it is being claimed that the executive cannot move to take Britain out of the EU without parliament’s approval surely won’t lead to civil war, although some of the opprobrium that accompanied June’s referendum – and still continues –  was of a kind that few Britons had seen in their lifetimes. But the outcome will be interesting, especially as one of the key arguments in the referendum was about the supremacy of parliament in our British democracy.

*The number of deaths in Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in 1649 has been estimated at as many as 600,000. This was the figure originally estimated by Sir William Petty, Charles II’s surveyor-general in Ireland, and is now widely regarded as a gross over estimate.

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1 Comment

  1. […] have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle […]

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