Thursday, April 17, 2014

Strafford Led to Execution by Paul Delaroche (1836)

After yesterday’s splendid (and harrowing) picture of the Execution of Lady Jane Grey, it dawned on me that political executions were something of a specialty of 19th Century French Academic Painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1857).  Here is yet another stunning example of his dramatic sense of history painting, and his sure hand in finding the telling, poignant psychological moment.

Strafford Led to Execution is not only an interesting picture, but it is also an important lesson to remember when anyone is naive enough to believe the cant of our political leaders (on the Left or the Right). 

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593–1641) was an English statesman and a major figure in the period leading up to the English Civil War. As we will see tomorrow, this was a period of particular interest to Delaroche, primarily because, I believe, he was able to look at French political history through the safe prism of English history.  Wentworth sat in Parliament and was a supporter of King Charles I, acting as Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1632–39. He became a leading advisor to Charles when he was recalled to England, strengthening the royal position against an increasingly powerful Parliament. When Parliament condemned him to death, Charles signed the death warrant and Wentworth was executed.

Wentworth was an advocate of the right of the Commons, as against those of the King, but after Parliament pushed through the Petition of Right in 1628 (and following the assassination of Wentworth’s pro-monarchist rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham), Wentworth had a change of heart of changed camps to the side of monarchy.  He proclaimed The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.  Words, I’m sure, he would have loved to have later eaten.

Wentworth now worked to ensure the powers of monarchy; and, in the process, rose up the political ladder himself.  Now, when enmity arose between king and commons, Wentworth advocated the most extreme and violent measures to compel the compliance of errant Englishmen.

These actions did not endear Wentworth to Parliament.  By 1640, he had become the personification of Charles’ very rule.  When Charles was obligated to later summon Parliament once more, the first order of business was to impeach Wentworth.  However, years as courtier prepared him for all kinds of political maneuvering, and Wentworth repelled the charges and was acquitted.  Proving that the more things change the more they stay the same, Parliament decided to pass a bill of attainder, which condemned Wentworth to death, anyway.

Charles had guaranteed Wentworth’s safe passage during his most recent summons to London; in addition, the writ of execution could not be enforced without Charles’ signature, anyway.  But popular hatred for Wentworth threatened to escalate into full-scale revolt, and Charles had to do something.

In a grand gesture, Wentworth wrote to Charles, releasing him from any previous promise.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death.

Imagine, then, Wentworth’s surprise when Charles…. Accepted.  Never imagining desertion from the monarch he had served so faithfully and too well, Wentworth quoted scripture, Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  Political expedience and high human sacrifice are a never-changing constant in real politik.

Charles requested of Parliament that Wentworth have a week to prepare himself; Parliament instead scheduled the execution for the very next day.  He was beheaded on Tower Hill; supposedly the crowd watching the bloody scene was 200,000 strong.  (An over-estimation, surely, as that was nearly the entire population of London at the time.)

Charles would later hear his own death sentence, and one wonders if thoughts of his loyal servant came to mind.

Prior to leaving for execution, Wentworth received the blessing of Archbishop Laud, also imprisoned in the Tower by Charles I, and later executed in January 1645.  Like Wentworth, Laud was arrested, imprisoned and executed as a pawn in the struggle between King and Parliament.

Delaroche’s interest in martyred English royals mirrors post-revolutionary French artists’ fascination with English literature and history, just years after their own regicide.  If this picture lacks the strong, emotional impact of the pictures of Lady Jane Grey and the Children of Edward, that may be because Wentworth was no innocent victim.  However, it does depict grace under pressure as the courtier bows before the barred window of his fellow political prisoner to receive his blessing.

The figures are, once again, kept to a minimum: five principals and the arms of Laud, gesticulating through the bars.  The jailer in his red doublet rests unconcernedly on is sword, while the soldier on the far right looks up at Laud with a blandly disinterested air.  The judge, holding the order of execution, looks at Wentworth solemnly, but there is no pity or compassion; he is simply posing as he fulfills his orders.

The only emotion is that of Wentworth, which is profound resignation and disappointment; his son, who weeps, literally, on the arm of the law; and, interestingly, in the graceful gestures of condemned archbishop.  Delaroche’s message is clear: the wheels of government crush its people without concern or regret, its criminal acts implemented by disinterested bureaucrats.

More Delaroche tomorrow.

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