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Can you love a person and despise him at the same time? Can you admire someone for his sense of honor and his intellect, and abhor his dispassionate cruelty and greed?
Such was the conflict encountered while researching and writing about the infamous Earl of Strafford, Thomas Wentworth, for my latest novel, The Earl in Black Armor. Here was a man who stirred people’s passions to one extreme or the other. In his brightest hour, as chief advisor to King Charles I of England, he was loved by some and deeply hated by others. And yet, one is likely to feel respect for him, if not true admiration.
In this story, protagonist Faolán Burke spies on Wentworth at Dublin Castle, where he meets the alluring Denisa Dumalin. Denisa, a personal assistant to Wentworth, spies on the man also, but for very private reasons. Faolán is soon likewise torn—by his allegiance to his clan, his love for Denisa, concern for his daughter’s future, and his sense of honor and admiration for Wentworth.
Born on April 13, 1593 to a wealthy, respected family in York, Thomas Wentworth became a man of ambition, responsibility and high standards, generally acknowledged by his peers as a wise and effective administrator. He became a member of the English Parliament at just 21 years of age. He soon exhibited his ideals and determination, willing to go to prison with many of his peers rather than pay to the king what he considered a forced loan. In 1628, Wentworth was one of the authors of The Petition of Right, a constitutional document to define and protect the people’s liberties against such things as forced loans and forced billeting of soldiers in people’s homes.
He made perhaps his first and worst enemies when he accepted a position at court offered by King Charles. To his fellow parliamentarians, it appeared he was betraying them and selling out to the king. But Wentworth aspired to a court position, believing in the divine right of kings. He believed he’d have greater influence to advance reforms if he worked within the king’s court, rather than outside of it.
Wentworth demonstrated his capabilities so well, that soon colleagues urged him to accept the position of Lord Deputy of Ireland, to replace Lord Falkland, whom the king had recalled. Those colleagues may have had darker motives, wanting to remove Wentworth from consideration for the more lucrative position as the king’s treasurer in London. And, there is some suggestion that King Charles admired Wentworth’s abilities but also saw him as a threat. Wentworth accepted the Ireland post in 1632, eager to please the king by filling the treasury, and perhaps to earn a coveted earldom.
Arriving in Ireland in 1633, he established himself quickly as a man of fairness and action, by stopping the piracy that strangled trade, restoring law and order, and—by his policy of “thorough”—rooting out the corruption that lined the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This policy made him rather unpopular with powerful nobles who had used their positions for personal gain.
The same and other nobles also feared Wentworth’s plans to expand the English plantation system in Ireland, displacing Irish clans, destroying traditions, and eliminating the Irish way of life—including the Catholic religion that remained strong in the western counties.
Wentworth’s demeanor did not help, for he was intimidating, quick to anger, and his occasional cruelty caused many to hate him.
Haven’t we all experienced, or at least known of, such a person? A few modern examples come to mind. The beloved storyteller Walt Disney, for example, became the king of animation. He was greatly admired for his creativity and vision, and yet he was known to be an obsessive perfectionist and tyrant. The same might be said of Steve Jobs, a king of the microcomputer revolution, who was brilliant but also ruthlessness and cruel on a personal level. Anna Wintour, on whom the movie The Devil Wears Prada was likely based, became queen of the fashion industry, and yet was feared by her staff, made impossible demands, and gained a reputation of being rude to almost everyone.
In their defense, however, they managed under enormous pressures to help build major industries that employed millions of people—people who stayed with them because of their vision and power to succeed.
Wentworth succeeded on several levels to improve conditions in Ireland while earning the king’s favor. He made dozens of enemies along the way including the Earl of Cork, who was featured in my previous book, The Prince of Glencurragh. In time, Wentworth received his earldom, and much more. But King Charles was not the stalwart figure one hopes for in a monarch. Though Wentworth was the king’s chief advisor during the Bishops Wars, his advice often was not taken, and some of his recommendations may have been misconstrued. Did he, or did he not, suggest the king should use the Irish Army against his own people?
Faolán’s objective as a spy is fulfilled when the wars end at Newburn in 1640, but now he faces fierce inner conflicts and realizations about his own past that threaten to destroy him, just as the Earl of Strafford faces a bitter fight for his life.
As the author, I felt equally plagued by inner conflicts, influenced by historical writers on whose research I depended. I used several sources to study Wentworth and the events from 1633 to 1641, including C.V. Wedgwood, Elizabeth Cooper, Hugh Kearney, and more. Wedgwood and Cooper in particular exhibited mixed feelings about Wentworth. Wedgwood first wrote Wentworth’s biography when she was 25, then depicting him as a brave and able man. However, when new sources became available 30 years later, she revised it to produce “A Revaluation,” recognizing Wentworth’s greediness and tendency to apply laws to others but not to himself.
But Wentworth was not alone in this, and was probably not the worst of them in a time when corruption and the king’s favor were the best, if not the only paths to advancement. Wentworth is remembered as a tyrant and a statesman, but his contemporaries in Parliament have much worse to answer for.
The Earl in Black Armor is available now in paperback and e-book formats.