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Among the major political figures of Ireland’s history during the seventeenth century, Thomas Wentworth holds an unusual position in light of his achievements and the attitudes of those he ruled. The Lord Deputy in Ireland starting in 1631, Wentworth traveled to Ireland to stabilize the deeply divided territory and to set her productivity to England’s benefit. Of the goals he attempted, among them the stabilization of Ireland’s economy, the reform of its military, the regeneration of its commerce, and the reorganization of its religion, few, if any, failed under his driven leadership.
However, his methods have been argued as ruthless and tyrannical, earning him intense dislike among the people of Ireland and among political circles at home in England. While Wentworth may have succeeded at bringing the Crown’s bidding into reality in Ireland, his methods intensified an underpinning disorder within Ireland and between Ireland and England.1
Wentworth first appears as a significant political figure at the Parliament of 1628, vocally and slyly siding with the popular cause against the Crown.
2 Charles and his Court undoubtedly noticed the vigor and savvy in Wentworth as their adversary in parliament. Thus, in promoting him to viscountcy and then appointing him President of the Council of the North, the Crown both gained an apt ally and removed a growing thorn in its side. Wentworth’s acceptance of this position and apparent reversal of political alliance became known in political circles as his great apostasy, a blemish on his character which many remembered for years to come.
Whatever his affiliations during the earliest days of his political career, from his appointment in the North, Wentworth professed his foremost loyalty to the king and repeatedly demonstrated his unflinching dedication to the royal decree.3 For it was here, governing England’s more remote and otherlandish counties, that Wentworth developed both a strong-handed reputation and experience in political management that would eventually lead him across the Irish Sea half a decade later.
Wentworth’s primary goal in the North was to reestablish the Crown’s authority, bringing the various local powers back under one rule. He recognized the need to impress upon the North the authority he wielded, knowing this would give similar gravity to his reforms. A scandal arose in 1631, in which a Sir David Foulis of Yorkshire began spreading rumors of Wentworth embezzling Knighthood fines. For this attack on his character, a tactic not unfamiliar to government figures of the period, Wentworth brought swift and extreme vengeance, charging Foulis with libel and sending him to prison for seven years. This extremism, though not common during Wentworth’s presidency, was not a singular case either, and Wentworth soon made his levity known. It would be unfair to say that the Northern presidency during these years was tyrannical – Wentworth revived several causes aimed at aiding the poor. Investigations into the Yorkshire cloth industry were aimed at regulating worker wages, though also cut into the capitalists’ profits. His enforcement of the 1601 Poor Law ensured work and provisions for the poor, though at the same time made him unpopular with the gentry as it drained their coffers and proved an unfamiliar annoyance.4 Wentworth’s goal was to make the will of the Crown a reality in the North; The cost of this goal was perhaps too great, however: “His tactics were the same as those he later practiced in Ireland, leading to the accusation that he planned to centralize all power with the executive at the expense of the individual in defiance of constitutional liberties.”
Wentworth’s successes in bringing the northern counties back under control of the Crown and that constitution marked him as a candidate for a similar, though far more daunting task: that of the Lord Deputyship of Ireland. Ireland at this time was a political enigma; a chaotic territory which for a century had chewed up and spit out any statesman who dared try to bring its people in line with England’s interests. Appointed to the post in December of 1631, the promotion must have seemed a cruel gift to Wentworth who recognized the position as almost certain career suicide. Indeed, the move may have been strongly supported by his political enemies, among them George Weston and Francis Cottington, both members of the Privy Council, who saw Wentworth as an obstacle to their professional advancements, and the Queen, whose own foreign relations and Catholic-friendly policies were also threatened by Wentworth. Despite his suspicions and his obvious disappointment at being assigned such a daunting task, Wentworth reaffirmed himself as the king’s servant and, having set his affairs in order, set sail for Ireland in July, 1633.
Foremost of Wentworth’s goals was the financial stabilization of Ireland, followed by the desire to put the island to the profit of England. During recent Lord Deputyships, Ireland’s financial outlook had improved, though at his appointment, the land still drew in $40,000 per annum compared to an annual expenditure of $60,000. A levy established in 1628 had until this time filled this gap, breaking the country even, though it too was scheduled to expire in 1632. The problem was compounded by the need for a standing army in Ireland, both to safeguard against possible invasion from Spain and to enforce what new policies were generated in the government. Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork, proposed that the weight of the supporting the military force should be placed squarely on the shoulders of those citizens it was intended to rule, the Catholics. Boyle’s suggestion to enforce recusancy fines was ultimately rejected by Wentworth as a long-term solution, though he did use the fines as a threat against the Old English, driving them to continue filling in the financial gap until a more permanent solution could be developed. The decision to forego recusancy fines was not favorably received by most Protestants who saw the Lord Deputy’s decision not only as openly supporting the Catholics, but also as inflicting responsibility for the debt on themselves.
The ultimate solution, as Wentworth decided, lay in the development of Ireland’s commerce. The first aspect of this consisted of opening Ireland’s commercial doors to Spain, allowing their trading ships to gather provisions in Irish ports before setting sail to the West Indies and thus gaining revenue normally lost to Germany.The greater aspect of Wentworth’s commercial changes lies in his infamous dealings in Ireland’s wool industry. He first thought to increase Ireland’s production of flax, hemp, and linen and increase the duties paid on these exports, developing a trade which would generate revenue for the island, provide further opportunities of employment, and serve as a source of these products for England. The second half of his dealings in the textile industry, however, brings back to light his dedication to not only make Ireland pay for itself, but additionally to provide a profit to England. By severely limiting the production of wool in Ireland, Wentworth opened up a monopoly in which England not only gained revenue as the exclusive supplier of textiles, but also gained monetarily through increased customs.These changes, though in many ways beneficial to Ireland’s economic stability, won him few supporters, least of all among the New English planters upon whose livelihoods and profits he was encroaching.
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