Austen Saunders

John Cleveland: discovering poetry

‘Epitaph on the Earl of Strafford’

‘Here lies wise and valiant dust, Huddled up ‘twixt fit and just: STRAFFORD, who was hurried hence ‘Twixt treason and convenience. He spent his time here in a mist; A Papist, yet a Calvinist. His prince’s nearest joy, and grief; He had, yet wanted all relief. The prop and ruin of the state; The people’s violent love, and hate: One in extremes loved and abhorred. Riddles lie here; or in a word, Here lies blood; and let it lie Speechless still, and never cry.’

If Nick Clegg lived in bloodier times he might have ended up like Strafford by now. Executed on the eve of the civil wars, Strafford had a talent for alienating people who thought he was their natural ally. In part he suffered from other people’s fondness for oversimplifying complex political situations.

In the 1620s he opposed those policies of Charles I which he thought threatened the balance between Crown and Parliament. This balance, he believed, underpinned England’s unwritten constitution. When the king’s policies changed, Strafford dropped his opposition and accepted a high office.

Other opponents of the king thought him a turncoat and a sell-out, but Strafford had never shared their fear that Charles wanted to turn the country Roman Catholic. By personal conviction he was something of a puritan, but the religious conservatives in parliament (which is what the puritans were) mistook an overlap of interest for a deep ideological bond.

Strafford could have coped with this if he’d been able to maintain strong relationships with his new political bedfellows. Unfortunately he couldn’t. He was unshakably committed to guarding the interests of two people — himself and the king.

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