A discovery! The UK Parliament’s circa 1844 painting “The Trial of Strafford”…

The grounds of history around Sir Richard Lane are simply full of rabbit holes!  While doing some research into the 1641 Trial of the Earl of Strafford – an event that included the day the historical biographer Lord John Campbell called “the most memorable day in the life of Richard Lane” – I came across a wonderful painting of that trial in the UK parliament’s art collection. What makes it so wonderful is that the painter had endeavored to accurately portray all of the primary actors in the drama of that trial…

This painting is one of only a few featured in an “online exhibition” in which key historical events are documented in the context of a key painting of that event.  The portrait known as “The Trial of Strafford” was painted by Thomas Alfred Woolnoth (1785-1857).  This painting had been the property of the remote town of Louth, near the northeast coast of England.  The painting was donated to Parliament, where it underwent a careful restoration. As part of the process of featuring this important historical painting, parliament historians analyzed the painting and were able to able to clearly identify many people in the painting from other surviving portraits.  Bear in mind that this was a circa 2000s analysis of a circa 1844 painting of a 1641 event, so there was no way to consult the artist himself!  But what is important is that the painter was an acclaimed portrait painter and engraver.  He was working from available portraits of the people in the dramatic scene depicted in the painting. And he did an excellent job capturing their likenesses in his painting.  Assuming that the artist was aware of the brave and dramatic address provided by Richard Lane (which was clearly included in the parliamentary record of the trial), had the artist also included the defendant’s circumspect lead counsel in the painting?

It has taken me awhile to fully grasp how widely regarded this trial is in English history – it seems to be as well known among the English as the average American’s awareness of the midnight ride of Paul Revere… I suspect it is seen as a tipping point, a bellwether victory of the parliamentarians over a monarch who unswervingly believed in the “divine right of kings” – a victory that emboldened those in the Parliament intent on minimizing the role of the monarchy in the future government of England. In the following year, this tumbling of events would erupt into the open combat of the English Civil War.

The Hollar Engraving

The trial itself is well documented in trial records and various contemporary accounts. It was also visually captured in  an important 1641 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar which showed the trial as it happened. As can be seen in the engraving (and in historical descriptions of the trial) the trial was of extreme interest at the time – taking place before packed galleries in Westminster Hall.

Richard Lane’s role in this trial is well documented by Lord Campbell in his biography chapter of Richard Lane (see previous article), and also appears verbatim in the historical record Attorney-General on behalf of Strafford, which appears in the Historical Collections of Private Passages of State (Vol 8, 1640-41, London 1721).

1641 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, documenting the Trial of the Earl of Strafford

It was the 1641 Hollar engraving that I first stumbled onto while looking further into the trial. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be a visual record of the trial – as I said, it’s taken me awhile to grasp the historical importance of this trial…

The engraving is a painstaking work, and is filled with a wealth of detail. Imagine the negotiations behind the improvised walled-off viewing spaces for the royals at the far end of the room!  Interestingly, the then 11-year-old Prince Charles II was seated in the open, next to an empty throne. The King and Queen were in attendance, but in a screened-in box behind the young prince, so their open presence would not affect the trial.  This seems a powerful indication of the weakness of King Charles I at this time…

You can also see how the records of the trial were gathered – the “clarkes” huddled on the very low table in the center of the picture were the 1600s equivalent of a modern court recorder.  Their job was to capture all that was being said, and to do so accurately – without interfering with the flow of the trial (I can’t imagine doing that task with a quill pen).  Note the fellow standing beside them, checking their work or reviewing some earlier statements.  I suspect this person was the head clarke, supervising the work of the team, and interacting with others regarding the ongoing record of the trial.

Notice also that small letters are superimposed over individuals or groups in the engraving, and that these letters correspond to an index of those depicted (at the bottom), identifying many individuals and groups as they were seated during the trial.  What a gift to future historians!

An excerpt from Hollar’s engraving of the trial of Strafford, showing the area around the defendant

Regarding the legal team assisting Lord Strafford, a study of this engraving shows a group of 4 unidentified men standing  in what seems to be an improvised boxed-in space adjacent to the defendant.  This would be consistent with the reluctant acquiescence of the House of Commons to allow the legal team of advisors assigned to support Lord Strafford in his defense.  That legal team, headed by Richard Lane, included 3 additional members.  This total of four matches the number of men depicted in Hollar’s engraving.  Also notice that the other enclosed spaces around the defendant include fully finished half-walls, separating them from the “Plaintitres” (those supporting the accuser) who are standing in the floor space around the enclosures for the defendant and trial managers (the team bringing the charges against Thomas Wentworth).  In contrast to those finished half-walls, note the improvised nature of the space provided for the four men adjacent to them – rails only, with no lower walls.  If this group was the defendant’s supporting counsel, the ad-hoc nature of their accommodations would certainly have reinforced the precarious nature of their inclusion in the proceedings.  Recall that charges were almost brought against this legal team simply for daring to help the accused defend himself!

The Trial

At the outset of the trial, public opinion was strongly against Lord Strafford. But as the trial proceeded, the mood shifted to sympathy as the attendees witnessed the untrained Earl bravely defending himself day after day against the onslaught of an array of powerful legal minds speaking in their own great hall. This was the mood at the end of the trial when Richard Lane was finally given tightly limited permission to address the proceedings regarding the specific points of law involved in the case. And he did – smoothly pushing past the imposed boundaries of his permission to point out that the charges were illegitimate and that the House did not have the authority to bring them. The biographical historian Lord Campbell relates that when he finished, he sat “to great applause”, and that those bringing the charges realized that an acquittal was now very likely.  Overnight, Parliament changed tactics – the next day passing a “bill of attainder” which legislatively declared Lord Strafford guilty of treason (rendering the trial moot).


Engraving of the May 12 1641 execution of Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford, by Wenseslaus Hollar

Despite King Charles I’s original insistence he would be protected when he returned to London to face the charges, the unfortunate Earl of Strafford was beheaded days later in an execution attended by more than 20,000 people.  This was a massive throng at the time, as can be seen in an additional etching made by Hollar of Lord Strafford’s execution on Tower Hill.  Thomas Wentworth’s family entered a dark time, as the Bill of Attainder (a mechanism specifically outlawed in the US constitution) had also stripped them of their property and title, making them commoners.  Fortunately for his family, the hereditary title Thomas Wentworth held would be restored to his family some years later, partially repairing the damage wrought by his politically motivated enemies.

The Woolnoth painting

Circa 1844 painting of “The Trial of Strafford” by Thomas Woolnoth, now part of the Parliamentary Art Collection.

In contrast to the documentary nature of the Hollar engraving of the trial, the Woolnoth painting was intended to convey the dramatic nature of the trial, and so the viewpoint has been altered somewhat from the original scene.  At the moment depicted, John Pym (who brought the charges against Wentworth) is shown presenting to the judges of the trial, while Lord Strafford stands to his left, listening.

What got my attention about the Parliament’s  “online exhibition” of this painting was the analysis of the people depicted in it, along with an account of the trial.  But in that account, Richard Lane and his supporting counsel are not mentioned at all. Apparently, the fact that Lord Strafford had to defend himself (which was true, as far as addressing the House and judges goes), had been interpreted literally.  The subtlety that King Charles I had arranged for his son’s Attorney General and a small legal team to assist Lord Strafford seems to have been overlooked –  understandable, given the limitations placed on that team!  So, I contacted Parliament about this discrepancy, including historical references documenting Richard Lane’s role in the trial. I also asked if they had any additional information about any others depicted in this intriguing painting…

And – I received a reply!  Dr, James Ford, the Consultant Assistant Curator of the Parliamentary Art Collection wrote back and informed me that the investigation into the painting had been completed previous to his involvement, and all that was currently available of that effort are the exhibition materials online, and the storyboards and brochures about the painting as it is now displayed in Parliament. He also let me know there was no original artist’s documentation of the painting.  Regarding my inquiry, he found the new information about Richard Lane fascinating, and said (pending vetting) he would be glad to update the online exhibition regarding Richard Lane and his role in the trial!

Dr. Ford asked if I had any information about Richard Lane that would help in identifying him (assuming he was depicted in the painting). He also sent me a high-resolution image of the painting to support my own analysis. Although I had not previously shared it, I have managed to locate an 1800s watercolor of Sir Richard Lane in a collection at Oxford (and have a snapshot of it). This watercolor (created in the early 1800s) was made from an earlier, unidentified portrait. Note that at that time, painting a copy of a existing painting was the only way to get a copy! If this is of the Lord Keeper Richard Lane (it may not be) I do not yet know whether it was based upon the 1645 Mytens portrait I am also seeking (as written about in an earlier article), or another, unknown portrait of Richard Lane.

Note: with the early 2018 discovery of an irrefutable photograph of the Lost Portrait of Sir Richard Lane, it is clear this watercolor was not taken from the Mytens portrait. The likeness is not strong between these two portraits, but the basic features do largely correlate.  It does seem the 1800s owners of the collection the Atlow watercolor was found in believed in was the same man.

When I analyzed the Woolnoth painting and compared it to the image I have, I found one important, unidentified character depicted in the foreground of the painting who seems a very good match, both physically and thematically!

A map from the exhibition materials accompanying the painting in Parliament which identified characters in the Woolnoth painting. I have annotated it to identify the possible depiction of Richard Lane in this painting.
An excerpt from the Woolnoth painting with corresponding historical portraits of various identified persons in the painting. Note how well those depictions match their portraits…

The foreground figure is one of the closest subjects to the painter’s perspective, and is brilliantly depicted as both prominent and nearly hidden – his face almost in shadow, when compared to all of the other well-defined faces (which are generally highlighted). This figure’s back is turned to the trial managers (depicted behind Pym), including the specific character whose personal and professional life would intersect Richard Lane’s surprisingly often – Bulstrode Whitelocke.  Bulstrode (who was loyal to the Parliament in this drama) would rise to prominence with Parliament as the coming civil war unfolded.  And, I have evidence that in the coming years, Bulstrode Whitelocke would request and be granted Richard Lane’s “Master’s” quarters in Middle Temple, would apply for (and be granted) possession of Richard Lane’s possessions there, specifically including his notebooks.  Thus, it is difficult not to consider him the one most likely to have provided those notebooks to the publisher of “Lane’s Reports” (following Richard Lane’s death in exile).  I wonder if the artist intentionally captured the subtle unfolding personal intrigue of the potentially plotting Bulstrode, shown seeming to contemplate the shadowed figure in the foreground – and the figure himself, who seems focused on some strategic aspect of the trial unfolding before him?  If so, it was brilliantly done!

Is the foreground figure Richard Lane?

Of special interest to me is that the foreground figure is shown clutching a thick book. This figure isn’t writing in the book, he is simply holding it closely – with apparent determination. In the context of the trial, and the fact that the figure is on the participant’s side of the dividing wall, this was likely intended to represent a legal reference book, possibly identifying its possessor as a legal academic or lawyer.

Note that the figure has the same hair color and beard style as that in the portrait of Richard Lane. The dark eyebrows, strong cheek and strong nose are also consistent. Although at first the figure in the Woolnoth painting appears to have a full beard, note that the shadow near his temple matches that on his jaw and lower face – the only clear facial hair is the same mustache and chin beard worn by Richard Lane in his portrait.  The determination of this figure is also consistent with the account of Richard Lane in the trial – resolute after being threatened for defending his embattled client, forced to participate in the shadows of the trial, listening, perhaps waiting for his chance to step into the fray – and he did: authoritatively raising the points of law and precedent that would ultimately undercut the legitimacy of the charges against his client.

The question is whether the artist would have been aware of Richard Lane’s role in the trial, and also whether he would have had access to a portrait of him? Both are necessary preconditions for Richard Lane to have been included in the painting.

Certainly, Richard Lane’s position as a Master of the Bench and one time head of the legal inn of Middle Temple was well documented and available in the mid 1800s. The same is true of his relationship to both Prince Charles II (as his Attorney General) and also of his relationship to King Charles I. I have seen (thanks to the Archivist of Middle Temple) documents bearing King Charles I’s seal and signature written to Richard Lane at Middle Temple, regarding legal matters of the time.

In the parliament’s record of the trial, Richard Lane’s speech on the point of law is also well captured, and it’s clear that his words were those of a legal expert.  Also, if the year of the Woolnoth painting of the trial is accurate (circa 1844), it was painted within the same timeframe as the publication of Lord Campbell’s biographical chapter of Richard Lane, which describes his dramatic role in the trial.  Interestingly, Lord Campbell’s biography also discusses that Bulstrode Whitelocke had possession of Richard Lane’s personal property from Middle Temple, and that Whitelocke later denied it when Lane’s son asked for them to be returned.

Regarding his depiction, would Thomas Woolnoth have had access to an image of Richard Lane?  Certainly at least one was available at the time. Although it is since seemingly lost, I found a record proving that the large 1645 Mytens portrait of Richard Lane as Lord Keeper was in the possession of the Corpus Christi collection at Cambridge (which Richard Lane attended) in 1820 (see earlier article).  Also, the Thomas Atlow watercolor now located in the collection at Oxford was created in the early 1800s as a copy of an unidentified portrait of Sir Richard Lane, suggesting the original portrait was also made of him a few years after the trial.  There is some evidence that suggests the Atlow watercolor may not have been taken from the Mytens portrait, but of some other (now unknown) portrait of him (or another Richard Lane) instead…

Thus I think it can be reasonably asserted that several images of Richard Lane were available, and also that the image available does correlate quite well with the foreground figure in the Woolnoth painting.  All in all, I think the case that this figure is indeed Richard Lane is quite strong!  Wonderful.

IsThisRichardLaneAt StraffordTrial
Possible depiction of Richard Lane, lead counsel to Thomas Wentworth in his trial for Treason in the 1844 painting by Thomas Woolnoth.

In another happy outcome of this interchange, I have been invited to visit Parliament and to see the “Trial of Strafford” painting on display there, which I would love to do. I will continue to work with Dr. Ford to support the update of their online exhibition (assuming he agrees that there is sufficient evidence to support the identification of this figure as the Earl of Strafford’s lead counsel, of course!).  It seems my list of things needing in-person research in London is getting large enough its time to start planning another trip…


Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed.  I admire great writing, but have little choice but to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime! 

-Greg Sherwood

3 thoughts on “A discovery! The UK Parliament’s circa 1844 painting “The Trial of Strafford”…”

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