Westminster Palace: Analysis of the 1844 Trial of Strafford Painting (Part 2)

In the Part I article of the “Trial of Strafford” analysis I presented at Westminster this Spring, I provided an overview introducing the historical analysis I did and the groups depicted in that historic painting.  In this and the next article, we’re going to explore the depth of the stories painter Thomas Woolnoth laid onto that sprawling canvas in the early 1840’s.

In our time, Woolnoth would have been the videographer behind a BBC historical docu-drama of this pivotal event in English history. But in the early 1840’s even the earliest deguerrotype camera was a technical oddity, leaving Woolnoth only the brush and palette to carry his audience back to the floor of Westminster Hall in the spring of 1641.
I’m hard pressed to think of this trial’s analogy in American history because I’m not sure there has been one. It is my suspicion that the crisis that came to a head in the Trial of Strafford and the civil war that followed were not lost on the American constitutional framers 150 years later.  The elegant system of checks and balances they emplaced ensure the ambitions of potential tyrants and usurpers are constrained by something far more substantial than disapproval.  

Color coded analysis map of the depicted persons / groups in the 1844 “Trial of Strafford” painting.

The graphic above shows the Woolnoth “Trial of Strafford” scene with the members of the various groups involved shaded by colors.  I studied these groups and the historical records of the trial to identify individuals who might be depicted. I then gathered background information on those historic individuals and existing portraits of them to see how many I could identify in the scene.

Key to information captured in the analysis slides

The figure just above points out the structure of the individual analysis slide I created for each of these historical figures, along with portraiture and comments supporting the identifications I’ve made.

The Judges


In the 1641 trial, the judges sat immediately in front of Lord Steward Arundel on the traditional “woolsack” seating.  This unusual honorific seating is still used on the floor of both houses of the UK parliament today (see picture below). This was a group of senior judges and a handful of several key VIPs (including members of the king’s Privy Council) seated nearest Lord Arundel.

Woolsack seating on the floor of the modern House of Commons (photo: http://www.vaguelyinteresting.co.uk)


Although Wenceslaus Hollar documented approximately 18 persons in this group, he only labeled a handful of  the most important among them by their titles.  Noting that Thomas Woolnoth only depicted 8 persons in this area, I wondered: could these all be specific depictions?  And if so, who were they?

In the end, I decided those Woolnoth in the judges area are a mix of specific and figurative depictions, with slight differences in clothing differentiating among them. Aside from some rearrangement around the woolsack (placing the most prominent individuals facing the viewer), Woolnoth seems to have adhered to the general adjacency documented by Hollar.


The first two men on the upper left of this group appear to be “Masters of the Chancery”, as  called out by Hollar. These were the most senior jurists in the Chancery courts, but were lesser among this overall group given their seating furthest from the seat of the king.  It is probable these were not intended to be specific individuals given the indistinctness of their depictions.

The Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (identified by Hollar) was a very unique and important individual of that time: Lord John Bramston. I encountered his portrait while at Middle Temple earlier this Spring (below).  The ornate chain draped across his robe is a specific symbol of this office.

Portrait of Lord John Bramston, hanging in the hallway leading to Middle Temple Hall. Temple, London.

In this case, Woolnoth has intentionally strayed from historical accuracy of placement, for an understandable reason. If he were depicted at his true location (at Lord Arundel’s knee), Bramston would have been obscured by others and you would not be able to see this important figure. 


The next depiction in the scene was not someone Hollar had called out as an individual, but the depiction seemed quite specific. So, I investigated to see whether I could identify any of the primary judges of the Exchequer court (since the “Judges and Barons of the Exchequer” were called out).

When I found that Francis Cottington was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and located portraiture of him), I reviewed the depicted judges, and came up with this very strong resemblance. I suspected that some of the facial hair in the depiction may have been lost or altered during the painting’s restoration (which the Curator of the Parliamentary Art Collection confirmed during my presentation). Overall the depiction and attire of this individual are a strong match for this key member of the Exchequer court.


Interestingly, the current online exhibition seems to have identified this person as Lord Keeper Littleton, who I found is convincingly depicted behind and to the left of this figure. Although I’m pretty sure this is Francis Cottington, I felt I couldn’t really rate this identification higher than “moderate” since Woolnoth appears to have shifted judges from their actual locations, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer wasn’t called out specifically in the Hollar depiction. 

The person leaning over Cottington’s shoulder has slight attire variations from the other judges, and is painted rather indistinctly. I believe this person to be a notional depiction of a member of the king’s Privy Council, based upon his location relative to the others in this group. Its interesting that Woolnoth depicted a whispered conversation taking place while Pym is orating.


A possible discrepancy in the Woolnoth scene

When looking into the “Master of the Rolls” (who was called out specifically in the 1641 Hollar engraving), I ran into a genuine quandary.  The person seated most exactly in that location was the one I annotated as figure “M” (using the same designation as Hollar).  At the time of the trial, this would have been Sir Charles Caesar, but this depiction doesn’t look at all like Charles Caesar, who had a full, dark beard.  In fact, none of the depictions in this area has such a beard.

This was a dilemma.  And it made me wonder–what if Woolnoth had gotten the name of the Master of the Rolls wrong?  When I looked into it, I was able to confirm there had been qite a bit of “turnover” in this position around the time of Strafford trial.  It fact, this position had been held by three different individuals within the three years bracketing the trial.

Gathering portraiture of all three of these men, I looked to see if any of the others were a match, and both of the other candidates seem like they could be matches. If you look at the analysis slide below, you can see portraits of all three candidates, in the order they held the office (left to right).  The only thing that seems clear is that Sir Charles Ceasar was not depicted in the Woolnoth scene.


I attempted to improve this identification through an investigation of clothing, but discovered the most consistent attire for the Master of the Rolls was a black robe with  extensive gold banding down the arms and a wide white collar (see example below). Looking into it further, I realized that this design didn’t seem to appear before the time of the restoration (1660’s).

Master of the Rolls, ca late 1600’s

Since this look seems to have emerged in the later 1600’s, I wondered whether the Master of the Rolls would have been wearing attire so similar to the judges the area, and found it is possible.

The Master of the Rolls was originally charged with stewardship of court documents (in the form of parchment rolls) when it first emerged in the 1200’s.  However, I found that it evolved into a judicial position over the centuries.  In that light, it makes sense that this person would have been seated in the judges area (as Hollar indicated he was).  In this light, it also seemed reasonable that the Master of the Rolls would have been wearing attire similar to the other judges (or that Woolnoth might reasonably have assumed so).

In the end, despite the investment of a significant amount of time, I was unable to improve my confidence of either of my candidate matches to the Master of the Rolls.  I don’t believe Woolnoth would have left this person out of the painting, and find it far more likely that his information indicated either Sir Dudley Diggs or Lord John Colepeper was in that role in 1641.

The Nobility Areas


Because the trial was being judged by the House of Lords (apparently in addition to the judges in the center of the floor), its members were seated in a u-shape surrounding the floor on three sides. Many of these individuals may be also specific depictions by Woolnoth, but I have not done the research needed to assemble a comprehensive list of candidates for comparison. I do expect at least some of these are additional specific depictions.

Among the important persons who were called out by Hollar was the “Lord Chamberlain of the king’s household”. But when you examine the Woolnoth scene, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no one depicted at the location of the person identified in the Hollar engraving.  Having identified this person as the Earl Phillip Herbert, I went looking for him in the scene–and found him!


In the Hollar depiction, he is standing in the crowded floor, seemingly in conversation with the head clarke. It seems that Woolnoth chose to show Herbert ostensibly checking into something on behalf of the king (who observing the trial from behind a screen in separate anteroom).  I was surprised to discover that Herbert later fell into disfavor with the king for voting in favor of the bill of attainder against Strafford. The fact that he participated in voting seems to confirm that he was also a member of the House of Lords…

The “Lord High Chamberlain of England” at the time of the trial was a man named  Robert Bertie.  When I checked his portraiture against the Woolnoth image I found a strong matches for both he and the distinctive person to his left, Lord Keeper Littleton. I consider both of these men to be “high” confidence matches.



The final person I identified in the Nobility area was another who was specifically called out by Hollar: the Marquess of Winchester, Lord John Paulet.  The Marquess was depicted in the same location by Hollar and Woolnoth, making him a “high” confidence match.


At the far right of the both the Hollar and Woolnoth scenes, a group of lads are depicted.  These were the eldest sons of the nobility, who were allowed to observe the trial from this location.


The Clarkes Area

The clerks were positioned in the middle of the trial of necessity. They were charged with capturing a record of the proceedings, and so had to be able to hear and quickly confer with principals to resolve questions without interfering with the trial.  All of the clarkes in the trial seem to be anonymous.


One prominent figure in the Hollar depiction is standing next to the clarkes table, reading a document.  This individual might have been a judge reviewing something in the record, or it might have been a head Clarke ensuring the correctness of the records being taken.  In the Woolnoth scene, a figure is similarly shown on his feet in this area, but he is not alone.  Given the uniqueness of his clothing and its similarity to the clarkes, I believe this was intended to be a “head Clarke” discussing a question while the clarkes are busy capturing what is being said.  It should be noted that it was the work of these clarkes that provided the detailed records of the trial we so depend upon for historical study of this trial today.


There is one individual who is standing as though in conversation with the head clarke, but currently paying attention what John Pym is saying.  I was not able to identify this noble, but believe this to be a specific depiction.


I had wondered whether this might have been a depiction of Sir Henry Vane, who was an important figure in the trial, and whose notes became the key evidence upon which Strafford was executed.  The problem is that Vane was a member of the House of Commons, and so would not have been in the middle of the floor among the judges. Vane was too important a figure to not be depicted though, and I suspect he is depicted in shadow on the far right periphery of the Woolnoth scene instead–seated in the first row of the spectator’s gallery and visible only because he is leaning into the edge of the scene.

Before I conclude this article, there is one more person who I need to mention. The powerful colored overlays used in this analysis and the slide design itself are the work of a friend and graphic artist, Rhonda Martinek.  She put a lot of time into these graphics, and they made a tremendous difference to the effectiveness of this presentation. Thanks!

The next article will wrap up the analysis, including the identification of Sir Richard Lane, Master of the Bench of Middle Temple, and Lead Counsel to Lord Strafford.



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

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