1642 – The earl of Leicester’s ‘Annus Horribilis’

In the first Revolutionary Stuart Parliaments blog of 2023, guest blogger Dr Fraser Dickinson explores the torn allegiances of the earl of Leicester in 1642…

… I am environed by such contradictions, as I can neither get from them [Parliament and Charles I], nor reconcyle them. The Parliament bids me go presently [to Ireland]; the King commands me to stay till he dispatch me. The supplyes of the one [Parliament], and the authority of the other [Charles I], are equally necessary. I know not how to obtain them both, and am more likely to have neither; for now they are at such extremes, as to please the one is scarce possible, unless the other be opposed … How soon I shall get myself out of this labyrinth I cannot tell your ladyship …

Sydney Papers, consisting of a Journal of the Earl of Leicester, and original letters of Algernon Sydney, ed. R.W. Blencowe (1825), pp. xxi-ii

Robert Sidney, 2nd earl of Leicester and Charles I’s lord lieutenant of Ireland, wrote these words to his sister-in-law, the dowager countess of Carlisle, on 25 August 1642. In doing so, he revealed much about the workings of his over-anxious mind in the summer of that year.

At the start of 1642, Leicester appeared to be a firm supporter of Parliament. On 11 January, the earl had been one of a number of protesting peers who had voted in favour of a Commons’ request to remove Charles’s lieutenant of the Tower of London, replacing him with one more acceptable to the Lower House. On 5 February, he had backed the bishops’ exclusion bill, which threatened the king’s support in the Lords. In the same month, Leicester, in Conrad Russell’s words, had gone ‘along with the Militia Ordinance,’ (Conrad Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 472), thereby challenging Charles’s control over England’s armed forces. How then did Leicester become the wavering, almost hysterical, peer of August 1642?

Contemporaries were not kind to the earl of Leicester, viewing him as neurotic and psychologically incapable of action. Edward Hyde, later 1st earl of Clarendon, the advisor to, and the minister of, Charles I and Charles II, respectively, famously described Leicester as ‘very conversant in books, and much addicted to the mathematics’ and ‘in truth rather a speculative than a practical man; and expected a greater certitude in the consultation of business than the business of the world is capable of’ with a ‘staggering and irresolution in his nature’ (Lord Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, ed. by W.D. Macray (Oxford, 1888-1992), ii. 531). Even the earl’s second and favoured son, Algernon Sidney, the noted republican, was critical, stating that his father ‘writ his own mind to see what he could think of it another time, and blot it out again may be’ (Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic 1623-1677 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 56.

A representation of the Portadown Massacre. There are men with muskets, sharp poles, and bats forcing people onto a bridge, and then into the river below. Some of the men are preventing people from swimming onto the river bank. There is writing at the top of the page: "Driuinge Men Women and children by hund: reds upon Bridge and casting them into Rivers, who drowned not were killed with poles and shot with muskets."
Engraving of the Portadown Massacre (1641) by Wenceslaus Hollar, first published in James Cranford’s Teares of Ireland (London, 1642). (c) British Museum

However, such dismissive accounts of Leicester’s character do not consider the difficulties faced by the earl in the late summer of 1642. Indeed, Leicester’s panic was shared by many leading politicians at that time, faced with deciding which side to choose in the impending civil war. To this general quandary was added the earl’s particular problems in reconciling the conflicting demands of Charles and Parliament in relation to his position as lord lieutenant of Ireland. Leicester had to deal with a number of further issues regarding the lieutenancy. His relations with the king were not good. In many ways, he had been forced on the king as lord lieutenant in June 1641 by Charles’s political opponents, once the unpopular Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford, had been first removed and then executed. By mid-1642, the King was looking for a more reliable loyal replacement to govern Ireland. Hence Charles’s promotion of Leicester’s rival, James Butler, 12th earl of Ormond, to marquess on 30 August.

Depiction of three men on the right threatening a group of women and children with pitchforks. There is a violent act shown with a man killing a baby with a pitchfork. At the top there is writing: "Companions of the rebels meeting with the English ---- for their lines falling down before them trying for mercy thrust their into their children's bellies and threw them into the water."
Depiction of supposed Irish atrocities during the Rebellion of 1641
Wenceslaus Hollar c. 1642
via Wikimedia Commons

Parliament’s management of the Irish war also made Leicester’s life more difficult. In particular, the earl had to contend with the complex military and political matters raised by the Scottish army, which had landed in Ulster in April 1642. Thus, Leicester had to consider how the Scots in Ulster would fit into the quarrel between the king and Parliament, as well as organizing the suppression of the Irish Catholic rebellion that had been raging since October 1641. In the struggle against the insurgency Leicester was at a further disadvantage. Although he was a skilled diplomat – he had served the king well as ambassador to Paris between 1636 and 1641 – he was not a professional soldier.

Moreover, Leicester’s diplomatic experience was of little help to him as lord lieutenant of Ireland. Even as an ambassador extraordinary in the late 1630s, Leicester was still in a subservient position to the English king. He could nudge Caroline foreign policy in the direction that he wanted, that is, to be committed fully to the Protestant cause in Europe, but he did not make the final decisions regarding English diplomacy. That was Charles’s prerogative. In other words, as an ambassador extraordinary, the earl was a ‘super servant’ rather than the final arbiter of policy. Yet as lord lieutenant of Ireland, Leicester was not a ‘super servant,’ but, in many ways, was now the ultimate decision-maker. The earl effectively ruled a little empire with all of the perks (money, patronage and power) that went with it. But being lord lieutenant entailed that Leicester had to act in an executive manner – that is, take difficult decisions. As the quotation cited at the beginning of my blog makes clear, this was something that he could not do.

Such a state of affairs meant that the earl was not simply a neurotic who was incapable of action. Rather, he had been promoted beyond his abilities. It was this specific psychological limitation of Leicester – combined with the demanding problems he faced regarding Ireland and the lieutenancy – that overwhelmed him, and caused him to be unable to reconcile the conflicting demands of Charles and Parliament in the summer of 1642.


Further reading

Michael G. Brennan, The Sidneys of Penshurst and the Monarchy 1500-1700 (Farnham, 2006)

Conrad Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-1642 (Oxford, 1991)

More about Algernon Sydney can be found in The History of Parliament, House of Commons 1640-60, due to be published this year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s