Walter Ralegh: the heroic traitor
Mark Nicholls explains how the celebrated Elizabethan polymath fell foul of King James and ended up on the executioner's block
Early one October morning in 1618, a prisoner walked from the Gatehouse gaol in Westminster to a scaffold in Old Palace Yard. Sir Walter Ralegh had embarked on his last journey. He faced his death with courage, delivering a speech of 45 minutes in which he paced to and fro, using the platform as a stage, stirring onlookers to a high pitch of religious fervour. Ralegh shared a joke with the executioner: touching the axe he laughed that here was a cure for every disease, a “sharp medicine”. When the nervous headsman did not proceed at their prearranged signal, Ralegh, his neck on the block, demanded an end: “What do you fear?” he cried. “Strike, man!” His head was severed at the second blow. The last hero and favourite of the Elizabethan age was dead. He was 64 years old.
How had it come to this? The path to the scaffold was long, and must be followed across several decades. In his prime, during the 1580s, Sir Walter Ralegh appeared the epitome of the self-made man. The fourth son of a Devonshire gentleman, he had exploited looks, hard work and good luck to become one of the most influential men at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Ralegh was handsome, with dark features and, as the 17th-century biographer John Aubrey described it, a beard that curled up naturally. Elizabeth, some said, took him for “a kind of oracle”. Recognising the man’s energy and local knowledge she groomed him for high office in Devon and Cornwall, counties where independent views in religion and politics combined with an exposed coastline, vulnerable to attacks from the queen’s enemy, Spain.
Hilliard painted Ralegh in his prime, and legends grew around this gorgeous, larger than life figure. Half a century after Ralegh’s death, Thomas Fuller recorded how Sir Walter sacrificed his cloak so that the queen might walk across a “plashy place” at Greenwich. Though the tale is probably mythical, it captures the opportunism of a courtier, fashioning a gesture that still prompts the modern gallant to follow suit. Stephen Pound, for example, laid his coat across a puddle for Hazel Blears during the Labour party’s deputy leadership campaign in 2007!
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By his mid-thirties, Ralegh was being spoken of as a privy counsellor, one of the queen’s closest political advisors. Lord lieutenant of Cornwall, he served as a member of parliament for Devon. He was showered with rewards and survived the rise of Elizabeth’s newest favourite, the handsome young Earl of Essex, to remain at the heart of court.
But while many people admired Ralegh, few liked him. He was arrogant, ambitious, but blind to his own weaknesses. Able courtier he might have been, but Ralegh was no politician. He lacked discretion and subtlety, was too quick to say and write the first thing that came into his head, and seldom noticed that there were other valid points of view.
Moreover, a proud self-made man lacks friends when things go wrong, and things did begin to go wrong as the luck he had once enjoyed deserted him. The queen was infuriated by his clandestine marriage to one of her personal attendants, Bess Throckmorton, in 1591, but the clever politician would have appeased Elizabeth’s anger and retained her confidence. Instead, Ralegh and Bess concealed their marriage and the pregnancy that had prompted it, and when their secrets were discovered they engaged in gestures of contrition that, in their theatrical insincerity, infuriated the queen. Husband and wife were punished by imprisonment in the Tower of London.
Confinement was brief, but Elizabeth’s resentment endured. The middle-aged man never again enjoyed her full trust. Now he had to work hard to retain some powerful friends with better connections and deeper pockets, men like the Earl of Northumberland and Henry, Lord Cobham. Their surviving papers shed light on Ralegh’s career.
His fortunes recovered somewhat during the later 1590s. Ralegh explored Guiana in 1595, fought gallantly at the sacking of Cadiz in 1596, and was one of few to emerge with credit from the so-called Islands Voyage of 1597, an English expedition to capture the treasure fleet carrying silver back to Spain from mines in America. By Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he was again being considered as a privy counsellor, and the queen allowed him to exercise his captaincy of the guard, a position of trust that offered access to the monarch. But his “damnable pride”, as Aubrey describes it, ensured that he remained unpopular with ordinary people. The libels of the period mock him:
“Ralegh doth time bestride;
He sits twixt wind and tide,
Yet up hill he cannot ride,
For all his bloody pride.”
Higher up the social scale, one of the Earl of Essex’s supporters, Sir Josceline Percy, drew up a facetious will in 1601. In one unsubtle bequest, his contempt is obvious:
“Item I do give my buttocks to Sir Walter Ralegh and the pox go with them.”
Ralegh lacked political acumen and – fatally as it transpired – misread the new monarch. James VI of Scotland, who succeeded to the English throne as James I, was determined to end the expensive war with Spain, but Ralegh advocated the continuation of hostilities and even wrote a tract opposing any peace treaty. His enemies at court, notably Henry Howard, the future Earl of Northampton, poisoned the king’s mind against him, while former friends – like the influential secretary of state Sir Robert Cecil – refused to offer their support.
When the two men first met at Burghley House, James, through a terrible pun, gave Ralegh an idea of what was to come. “On my soul, mon,” the king said, “I have heard rawly of thee.” After being stripped of all his offices and ‘perks’, Ralegh was accused of plotting with Lord Cobham to bring about a Spanish invasion and of conspiring to murder the “king and his cubs”. While evidence was thin, it is clear that Ralegh had expressed his anger and discussed dangerous topics. He was tried at Winchester in November 1603, and sentenced to death.
Sympathy for the underdog won Ralegh new friends. Henceforth he was regarded by many as a victim of arbitrary royal rule and court intrigues. Technically, as the law then stood, there is little doubt that he was guilty of treason. Ralegh had “compassed and imagined” the death of his king, even if compassing and imagining had merely taken the form of grumbling among friends. In the uncertainty of a new reign, few courtiers were willing to risk their own careers to speak up for him.
But although the verdict might have been correct, the carefully prepared prosecution was bungled. Riled by Ralegh’s courageous defence and perfect behaviour in the dock, the attorney general Sir Edward Coke lost his temper along with the thread of his argument, and confused eyewitness accounts of the trial circulating afterwards only emphasise the fact that Ralegh’s conviction depended on testimony given and since retracted by Cobham, who refused to put his name to damning accusations blurted out in anger, soon after his arrest. As Ralegh himself reminded the jury, if convictions were to be sustained on such evidence, if people were “judged upon suspicions and inferences”, no one would be safe.
Ralegh was not, of course, executed in 1603. Early in his reign, James wished to earn the title of “clemens as well as Justus”, as the diplomat Dudley Carleton put it, and most of those accused in these plots were spared. But while James was prepared to let him live as a prisoner, he would not set Ralegh free. The years passed, and Ralegh understood that the king intended to let him die in prison. For an active man who still believed that James would one day appreciate his loyalty, this was a desperate thought.
Ralegh turned to scholarship. He took up pharmacy, concocting a ‘cordial’ that was used for more than a century as a medicine of last resort, with conspicuous lack of success. He sought solace in writing, assembling a library of over 500 books in his rooms within the Bloody Tower and giving his opinions on political developments at home and abroad.
Much of what he wrote was barbed, his criticism of the monarch only lightly concealed. Ralegh’s History of the World, which tells the story of mankind from the creation to the second century BC, was suppressed on first publication in 1614 because, as the London newsmonger John Chamberlain put it, the prisoner had been “too saucy in censuring princes”. Chamberlain made a good point, for Ralegh dwelt, time and again, on the corruption that accompanies power. If he was careful to emphasise the need for obedience to a monarch, in accordance with God’s will, he was under no illusions as to human weakness. Monarchs may be anointed by God, but God – for reasons known only to Himself – anointed fallible creatures.
James could do little to stifle these comments. Ralegh had friends at court, including the secretary of state Sir Ralph Winwood and the favourite George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham. He had to buy Buckingham’s support, but it was worth having. Desperate for freedom, Ralegh became obsessed by the possibility of finding gold and silver in Guiana. Inflating some discoveries made on his 1595 expedition, he was convinced he knew where to look, and sought permission to lead an expedition that would exploit lucrative mines. England was now at peace with Spain, and Spain had developed its settlements in Guiana since the 1590s. But James needed cash for his treasury. In 1616, Ralegh was given his freedom, and a commission to search for treasure.
He understood the dangers. Succeed, and he would make his king, his supporters and himself immeasurably wealthy. Fail, and he would face an uncertain future. Ever the optimist, he brushed aside fears, reminding Francis Bacon that men were never called pirates if they were wealthy enough to pay off their critics. While many volunteers and investors were infected with gold fever, more sober voices questioned the viability of the enterprise. “God speed him,” Chamberlain wrote at Ralegh’s departure for Guiana in 1617, “and send him a better voyage than I can hope for.”
Those prayers went unanswered. Ralegh contracted fever during an arduous Atlantic crossing and was too sick to accompany his forces up the Orinoco river to the site of the supposed mine. The expedition, led instead by his lieutenant Lawrence Keymis, found no silver and succeeded only in ransacking the Spanish settlement at San Thomé. Ralegh’s eldest son, Wat, was killed storming the little town. When the troops straggled back to the river’s mouth, Ralegh’s anger drove Keymis to suicide, while the disheartened volunteers refused to search further. Ralegh returned home a virtual prisoner of a mutinous crew. “My brains are broken,” he wrote to Bess, and for once he did not exaggerate.
This left James with the problem of what to do with his failed treasure-seeker. A diplomatic incident loomed: Philip III of Spain, furious at the attack on San Thomé, called for Ralegh’s execution. Yet many in England were by now uneasy about Catholic ambitions in Europe, and wanted to give no comfort to Spain.
Ralegh’s fate turned on James’s hostility. He had been a thorn in the king’s side for too long, and the more James’s investigators peered into Ralegh’s recent plans and negotiations, the more it seemed that he had operated as an agent of France, poisoning the Anglo-Spanish peace. There was enough truth in this picture to turn James away from clemency. Despite the principled objections of lawyers and judges, uneasy at the thought of executing a man on a sentence passed 15 years earlier, the king got his way. Ralegh went to the scaffold.
In 1618, as in 1603, there is evidence to suggest that Ralegh was, technically, guilty as charged. The irony is that on both occasions inept management of proceedings generated sympathy for the prisoner that endured after death. James could not escape the personal. In executing an elderly man, with so little respect for the mechanisms of justice, he confirmed suspicions expressed in Ralegh’s own writings that kings were perverted by the power they wielded.
Alive, Ralegh could, as AL Rowse once suggested, be a bore about himself. Dead, and silent, the story of his life gathered colour: legends of tobacco, potatoes, cloaks, and amorous adventures clustered around him. A dissident of the 1610s was shaped to later political needs. Several witnesses to Ralegh’s execution – John Pym, John Eliot and John Hampden – were among the parliamentary opponents of Charles I two decades later. In the words of the historian GM Trevelyan, Ralegh’s ghost “pursued the House of Stuart to the scaffold”. It has harried the memory of James I ever since.
Timeline: Ralegh's rise and fall
1554: Walter Ralegh is born at Hayes, near East Budleigh, Devon.
1585: Ralegh is knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, and continues to acquire lucrative monopolies and other financial rewards.
1591: Marries Bess Throckmorton, one of the queen’s ladies of the Privy Chamber. Elizabeth I is enraged and has the new husband and wife thrown in the Tower.
1595: Ralegh searches, unsuccessfully, for gold and silver in Guiana. Claims the country for Elizabeth I.
1596: Ralegh serves under the Earl of Essex at the sacking of the Spanish port of Cadiz.
1603: At the succession of James I, Ralegh is arrested and condemned to death on a charge of treason. His life is spared, but he remains a prisoner in the Tower of London.
1614: Ralegh turns his hand to history, as he publishes the first volume in a projected history of the world.
1617: Released from the Tower, Ralegh sails again for Guiana, hoping to find the treasure that will restore his fortunes.
1618: A failed venture proves fatal, as Ralegh returns from Guiana empty-handed, and is put to death without a new trial on the conviction of 1603.
Dr Mark Nicholls teaches history at St John’s College, Cambridge. He is co‑author of Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend (2011) with Penry Williams.
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