Terror and Detestation

by Minoo Dinshaw

Dominic Cummings, late of Downing Street, has been compared to many ‘evil counsellors’ of kings bygone or imagined. The name of Grima Wormtongue, adviser to Theoden, King of Rohan, ran aflame on Tory benches animated, perhaps, by locked down Lord of the Rings marathons. More learned if not perhaps visually discerning commentators invoked George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, generally spoken of as a lover of James I of England, and an ill-fated chief minister to James’s son, Charles I. It is, however, to a third ‘evil counsellor’ that I think Cummings can be most productively compared — an even more hated, if in many respects more admirable minister to Charles I, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford.

Between Cummings and Strafford — or Wentworth, as he was for most of his career — there are certain evident similarities. First, Wentworth was, like Cummings, born into a prosperous, capable family in northern England: that historically complex part of the country, politically marginalised but commercially driven, simultaneously practical and romantic, set apart since the days of the Danelaw from the south of England, towards which its inhabitants have from time to time expressed, often with justification, mingled grievance and contempt. Wentworth inherited, while still a young man, the headship of a powerful Yorkshire family. It was a period when northern England was comparable to late-20th century Sicily; while the local Mafia of border reivers had been routed at the Union of the Crowns in 1603, it still helped to be as sharp and uncompromising a customer as possible. Of this local world Wentworth proved himself to be a consummate master.

Success at home encouraged Wentworth to chance his hand in London, at the royal court. He proved, however, a complete failure there. The Scottish king of England, James I, a peculiar but humorous man, was devoid of snobbery or pomposity; Wentworth, the aspirant courtier, was not. After suffering Wentworth’s longwinded boasting about his descent from the 14th-century English prince John of Gaunt, a Welsh peer entertained King James by quipping ‘if Wentworth ever becomes King of England, damme if I don’t turn rebel’. Snobbery — in either direction — is a vice of which Cummings appears to be unusually free by English standards. But his exhibitions of scientific expertise, as proudly recited and perhaps about as plausible as Wentworth’s genealogical vaunting, have played a part in shaping for Cummings a not dissimilar reputation as a posturing lecturer.

Spurned at court, Wentworth headed for a place for which Cummings has often expressed disdain, an emotion perhaps belied by his longstanding involvement with its intrigues — Parliament. In the Commons Wentworth won for himself a national role as a leader of the opposition to the King’s (and Buckingham’s) government. He secured, despite the resistance and reluctance of the new King Charles I, the passage of the Petition of Right in 1628, which confirmed some of the subject’s ancient liberties (immunity from the exaction of forced loans and protection from imprisonment without trial). But when Buckingham fell to an assassin’s knife that same year, Wentworth quickly accepted a peerage and the task of running his native north country (then, subsequently, Ireland), in the royal interest.

This swivel may seem at first glance to be far from Cummingsesque. Cummings is widely regarded as a force of maniacal ideological consistency — a man who fought to stop Britain joining the Euro and railed against the European Union unceasingly thereafter. Yet longer memories might unearth murkier conclusions. Was it not Cummings who was to be found behind the complex Borisian scheme that followed the Brexit referendum, of holding another referendum once terms buccaneering enough had been wrenched from a startled EU? And did not Cummings, having advocated earlier in the pandemic the theory of ‘herd immunity’, thereafter become the sternest (if not, notoriously, the most obedient) proponent of lockdown?

As Lord President of the Council of the North and then Lord Deputy of Ireland, Wentworth became one of the Caroline ministers most frequently identified with the style of government called at the time ‘Thorough’, which after 1629 functioned for eleven years without bothering to consult the English Parliament at all. Cummings’s approach to the institution of Parliament in the August of 2019, of course, might fairly be described as pretty ‘Thorough’.

In 1631, Wentworth endured a domestic tragedy whose catastrophic aspect quite overshadows the bathos of Cummings’s Barnard Castle imbroglio. His second wife Arabella, pregnant with her fourth child, leant forward to bat a buzzing insect from her husband’s coat, tripped and fell. A premature labour ensued, which she did not survive. Wentworth’s in-laws, who were politically at odds with him, proved receptive to a false story that he had knocked his wife over in a fit of rage, effectively murdering her and their child. Wentworth did not help matters by a rapid and secretive remarriage. Yet, whether because of his determination of character or his very different times, Wentworth was far less tarnished by these ugly suspicions than Cummings would be by his ‘eye test’, being soon dispatched to eminent, if challenging, independent power as the King’s representative in Ireland regardless.

In 1640, after Wentworth had spent eight unusually successful years as Lord Deputy of Ireland, a Puritan commentator otherwise generally opposed to royal policy at the time paid him the following unambiguous compliment:

. . . [Wentworth] doth great wonders and governs like a king, and hath taught [Ireland] to show us an example of envy, by having parliaments and knowing wisely how to use them.

Indeed, at this point Wentworth’s leading critics did not come from the opposition, but from rival ministers and powerful magnates he had slighted while pursuing what he saw as the Crown’s interest, though his enemies said it was his own. During Privy Council meetings Wentworth would ‘vandyke’, or doodle, caricatures of his colleagues. A man of culture as well as granite, he compared his personal enemies and pretended friends in Ireland to the sea nymphs of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He let it be known that he considered his Irish record superior to those of his three predecessors: an accurate, immodest assessment that alienated three courtly families and their allies. He insulted the able but wavering Earl of Bristol, in the context of the Scottish religious rebellion that began in 1637, by calling him ‘the Scots’ Mercury’ for his eagerness to negotiate. Even when Wentworth was advanced to an earldom (tardily, in his view) as Lord Strafford, he chose to claim as his accompanying minor title the barony of Raby, claimed by a rival courtier, Sir Harry Vane — to Vane’s fatally lasting fury. Wondered at, feared and fearless, uncompromising, impolite — the parallels by now need little stretching.

In 1640 Charles I summoned the newly-minted Earl of Strafford from Ireland to retrieve the King’s increasingly precarious position in both of his mainland realms, England and Scotland. As Wentworth, Strafford had used a tame Irish Parliament to turn a profit for the Crown; now Charles hoped, and Strafford promised, he could make the English Parliament just as biddable and use the funds to crush the rebels in Scotland. Strafford left his Irish administration in the hands of a trusted lieutenant, Christopher Wandesford. Wandesford and Strafford’s other subordinates formed a milieu bound by friendship and fidelity that had few matches in an increasingly treacherous political landscape. Anthony van Dyck’s painting of Strafford and his secretary, Sir Philip Mainwaring, at work, brings to life the latter’s almost canine devotion. The walkout threatened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, after Cummings’s role was called into question, as dramatised by Benedict Cumberbatch & co in Channel 4’s Brexit: An Uncivil War, comes easily to mind.

Charles I did not, any more than his father had done, get on particularly well with Strafford at a personal level. His French Queen, Henrietta Maria, positively disliked the Yorkshire enforcer, though she conceded he had beautiful hands. But by now Charles had allowed Strafford to convince him that the earl was the indispensable instrument of the government’s only workable policy. In this both monarch and minister proved to be mistaken. Wentworth had once been a hero of Parliamentary oratory, but as Strafford he was badly out of sympathy with the English Commons, and did not realise how much he was hated as well as feared. Parliament assembled, only to prove so obstructive that it was quickly dismissed. Strafford fell ill at the worst possible time, and the cash-strapped campaign against the Scots developed into a disaster. His coffers emptied, Charles had to recall a new Parliament in the autumn of 1640, one eager for the head of ‘Black Tom Tyrant’.

The coalition that painstakingly brought Strafford to the scaffold over the succeeding six months was unified by little except terror and detestation of the ruling minister. Many of Strafford’s nemeses in fact shared with him much common ground — a nostalgic longing for the reign of Elizabeth, an imprecise belief in traditional ‘mixed monarchy’, plain Protestant tastes in religion and, crucially, a desire to control royal policy. Wentworth had first become a leader of the anti-court MPs in the Commons because Buckingham had blocked his way to power. Now, as Strafford, he himself similarly obstructed the path of many gifted and careerist men, including the Earls of Bedford and Essex, the Parliamentary veteran John Pym, the universally liked moderate Lord Falkland (son of one of the Irish Lords Deputy insulted by Strafford), and the lawyers Oliver St John, Edward Hyde, and Bulstrode Whitelocke. Strafford defended himself so impressively, and succeeded so entirely in identifying his fate with the King’s honour, that there was talk of a last-minute compromise, letting the minister retire, be exiled or imprisoned. But Lord Essex snappily declared that ‘stone dead hath no fellow’, and in May 1641, despite the agonised flip-flopping of the King, he got his way.

It might be quietly observed at this point that although Cummings is lazily thought of as the bugbear of Remainers, those who have apparently proved instrumental in his actual dismissal — Carrie Symonds, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, to name three — are all absolutely convinced Brexiteers. Furthermore, one of the first and loudest voices to demand Cummings’s sacking after Barnard Castle was none other than Nigel Farage — whose Brexit Party happens to be one of the political corpses left in Cummings’s wake. Cummings, as Strafford did before him, has become the national hate object, and there is a populist opportunism clearly discernible about those who have built their careers on conspicuous denunciation of him. (Douglas Ross, the Scots Conservative leader, is the supreme example of this tendency.)

Defending himself in Parliament, Strafford warned that his execution as a traitor, on grounds half pedantic, half confected, would exacerbate, rather than appease, the body politic’s bloodlust:

Beware you do not awake these sleeping lions by the raking up of some neglected, moth-eaten records . . . be not you ambitious to be more skilful, more curious than your fathers were in the art of killing.

There is amidst this eloquence a hint of the trademark Cummings contempt for the pettifoggery of the past, ‘moth-eaten records’. But there is also a deeper, institutional, even, if you like, ‘Establishment’ wisdom here too — of a kind which Cummings has, it seems, always emphatically despised — in Strafford’s prescient, even prophetic, consciousness of the civil wars that would follow his end. Strafford warned of sleeping lions, remembered the nation’s belligerent fathers, and imagined how their deeds of darkness might yet be outdone. Cummings’s parting words, as far as can be adjudged from the press’s eager exegeses, have been more petulant than sonorous. But the same warning stands; and the Prime Minister, his ‘reset’ unravelling by the day, yearning in vain, and for now in literal isolation, for levels up, fresh as I write from a gaffe about Scottish devolution, already seems to be fulfilling it. Cummings’s departure, like Strafford’s, ushers forth new, perhaps less surefooted power-brokers implementing old policy. And if Cummings by his actions contributed to a national malaise, he cannot, merely by his departure, exorcise it.