Walter Ralegh: the traitor who inspired Cromwell

Anna Beer charts how the incendiary writings of Walter Ralegh fuelled England's revolution

Sir Walter Ralegh (c1554–1618, shown here in a painting attributed to William Segar) is often remembered as a favourite of Elizabeth I and an adventurer, yet he was also one of the most influential political philosophers of his era. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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It was Lord Mayor’s Day in the City of London, 29 October 1618. King James VI and I and his advisers were hoping that the “pageants and fine shows might draw away the people” from another event taking place upriver, in Westminster. Sir Walter Ralegh, condemned as a traitor in the earliest months of James’s reign, a long-term prisoner in the Tower of London, was to be executed that morning. That the king was remotely concerned about “the people” tells us something important about Ralegh. He had been legally dead for 15 years. He was the “best hated man” in England even before his arrest in 1603. He had no faction of his own and no great family standing behind him. In short, Ralegh’s death should have been wholly unremarkable.

That it was not was due to Ralegh himself. His final request had been that he might “be heard at the day of my death”, a request the crown made the mistake of granting. No formulaic scaffold speech for Sir Walter. He spoke for 45 minutes from the scaffold, delivering a powerful, politically charged justification of his beliefs. Impending death freed him from being a subject and allowed him to “speak freely” to the crowd: “I come not hither either to fear or flatter kings. I am now the subject of death, and the great God of heaven is my sovereign before whose tribunal I am shortly to appear.” It was radical stuff: “Now what have I to do with kings; I have nothing to do with them, neither do I fear them; I have only now to do with my God.” These were inflammatory words in a world in which the doctrine of the divine right of kings was used to justify tyranny.

Elizabethan adventurer, courtier, navigator and historian Sir Walter Ralegh – "a gorgeous, larger than life figure". Unfortunately, many of his peers weren't impressed by his good looks, and saw instead an arrogant man, blind to his own weaknesses. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But these words were only surprising if we think of Ralegh as just another of Elizabeth’s favourites, a beautiful man with flowers in his hair – as Hilliard’s miniature (right) of 1585 portrays him – a second-string courtier in the eroticised powerplays of the 1580s and 1590s. Ralegh may never have been a Privy Councillor (he was only the fifth son of a Devon gentleman, after all), but throughout Elizabeth’s reign his was an important political voice.

Oil in the machine

Ralegh had come to his queen’s attention not simply through his service in her wars, but by his talent for political and military analysis. Even more useful to Elizabeth was Ralegh’s rhetorical ability. This was one of the key drivers of his success, the oil in the courtly machine, a clue to what Elizabeth found compelling in him. Ralegh could charm and persuade with authority and panache.

He was also drawn to dangerous topics like a moth to a flame. He wrote about the succession when the queen had forbidden it. He asked questions about God and was accused of atheism. He criticised the queen for being only and ever “a woman”.

Elizabeth, however, knew how to harness Ralegh’s scepticism to her own cause, and knew (at least most of the time) how to control him. Not so her successor, James. In November 1603, Ralegh was found guilty of treason, after being implicated in the Main Plot, an alleged conspiracy to remove James I. At his trial, he offered a dazzling defence of himself and an equally dazzling critique of the judicial process. No lawyer for Ralegh, his own wit was enough. He was condemned to death but, famously, the execution was stayed at the very last. Ralegh would, however, spend the rest of his life ‘legally dead’, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

That long imprisonment would convert a man who occasionally turned to writing about matters political into one of the most significant (and most contested) political writers of the 17th century. For, in prison, Ralegh became preoccupied with the past and that preoccupation found its expression in writing. In prison, he built up a rich personal library of 500 books, vital tools for the writing of a universal history. In prison, he drew maps of lands he would never visit, studied battles on land and sea that had taken place millennia before, and brought to vivid life ancient civilisations that had crashed and burned. In prison, he questioned where, how and why events had unfolded as they had, always hinting at, but rarely spelling out (for that would be too dangerous) their relevance to contemporary life. In sum, in prison, he wrote his History of the World.

Dangerous words

Ralegh’s fellow prisoners in the Tower and their networks then helped him find a printer and publisher. These were men willing to take a risk on a book that would take three years to print and which only just squeaked past the censors, who insisted it must be published anonymously.

Despite the absence of Ralegh’s name on the frontispiece, The History of the World was a sustained act of personal display and vindication. Just as truth will emerge from death or dark oblivion, so Ralegh would speak from the Tower. Just as providence will eventually reward and punish individuals, so Ralegh and his persecutors would be judged. The final paragraphs of History were sheer political bravura – Ralegh wrote of the death of kings – and almost blasphemous in their diminishment of God and elevation of death. Only Ralegh was surprised that King James hated the book and feared its author. How could the king approve of a work that condemned individual monarchs with a ferocity rarely seen in the writing of the period? James was outraged by Ralegh’s “description of the kings that he hates, whomof he speaketh nothing but evil”. The work was called in, but it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle.

Meanwhile, Ralegh had more to say. As many regimes have found to their cost, if you put political prisoners in the same place, they start talking to each other. John Hoskins joined Ralegh in the Tower in 1614. The two men had known each other at the Inns of Court nearly 20 years earlier. The Inns were not merely places for the study and practice of law, but hotbeds of satire, and a breeding ground for a new kind of political actor: the parliamentarian. As an MP during the 1580s and 1590s, Ralegh himself had been extremely active, indeed vocal, by the standards of his time. But men such as Hoskins were taking things to a new level. This was why Hoskins found himself in the Tower in 1614, having spoken out against the king in the parliament of that year. The issue at stake was taxation without the consent of parliament. It was laced with a strong dose of anti-Scottish sentiment, but the principle at stake was parliament’s authority. Hoskins warned of a new Sicilian Vespers (a violent, and successful, rebellion against French rule in southern Italy, 1282), if parliament was dismissed.

Ralegh could charm and persuade with panache, and was drawn to dangerous topics like a moth to a flame

Hoskins was asking for trouble, and he was arrested the day after parliament finished sitting. Asked “whether he well understood the consequence of that Sicilian Vesper”, he answered “that he had no more than a general information thereof, being but little conversant in those histories that lay out of the way of his profession”. It was a familiar defence and almost entirely unbelievable of a well-educated, politically active man. Hoskins remained in the Tower. And he talked with Ralegh, who then wrote a Dialogue Between a Counsellor of State and a Justice of Peace (to give the work its full title), his response to the proceedings of what came to be known as the ‘Addled Parliament’ of 1614.

Ralegh’s dangerous foray into the history and practice of parliamentary politics included a passionate defence of the need for a public sphere characterised by freedom of speech. More specifically, Ralegh mounted a full-scale assault on the “great ones” who were destroying the kingdom – and who could and should be delivered up to the new political force, the “people”, and their representatives, the Commons.

In one of Ralegh’s earlier dialogues, the topic was tacked on to the end of a work that was predominantly concerned with typical Raleghan themes such as foreign policy, the art of war and the Roman Catholic Spanish threat. Now things had changed. The Dialogue of 1614 focused exclusively on internal politics, national history and secular arguments. It was an astonishing work from a political prisoner of nearly 12 years’ standing. The people were a force to be reckoned with, and James was a fool to underestimate them. Indeed, Ralegh raised the spectre of the mob if James lost “the general love of the people” by protecting his evil counsellors.

Blueprints for dissent

James ignored the work when it was presented to him, in manuscript, in 1615. But the Dialogue would do other work, both at its time of writing (it was widely circulated) and, crucially, over the following decades of dissent, civil war and revolution. In his lifetime, Ralegh’s political writings were, on one level at least, always self-serving: works that would draw his queen’s attention or were delivered at her bidding, and works that might, just, gain his release from prison. But to the next generation of political thinkers and actors, they would become much more.

Through years of dissent, civil war and revolution, Ralegh's raw critiques of monarchy would be weaponised.

Ralegh’s Dialogue was first printed in 1628, the year before James’s successor, Charles, turned to Personal Rule (an 11-year period when he ruled without recourse to parliament). Frustrated parliamentarians saw in Ralegh’s work not only advice (kings are safer when they work with parliament) but ideology, and gave the work a new title: The Prerogative of Parliaments in England. The subtitle even claimed Ralegh “proved” parliament’s rights. By the time the Dialogue was published for the second time (again as The Prerogative of Parliaments) in 1640, Ralegh’s oblique hints about the potential violence of the people, and his less oblique call for the removal of evil counsellors, were becoming lived reality as two such counsellors – William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford – went to the block. What had been latent in Ralegh’s fictional dialogue was becoming reality.

Ralegh was reaching an ever-wider audience, while beliefs about the ‘people’ were far outstripping anything that he might have written or even hinted at. In these years, his History of the World, a Commonwealth bestseller, provided rich pickings to Levellers (who advocated extended suffrage) and parliamentarians alike. Vox Plebis, the Levellers’ celebration of the voice and power of common people, even made Sir Walter speak for the ‘plebs’. His work was tweaked, but not by much. Ralegh’s now-cautious-seeming critiques of individual monarchs became a political principle: “We, the people” are “of as clear judgment in all things that concern the public as any, and as wise.”

“If God be for us”

But an even more famous and powerful advocate of Ralegh’s writings would emerge. His name was Oliver Cromwell and he recommended The History of the World as vital reading for his son, Richard (this is the only recorded instance of him recommending a secular book). Cromwell read Ralegh through the lens of his own religious fervour. In doing so, he transformed Ralegh’s pessimistic providentialism – which insists on the futility of all human actions, since death will surely come – into an optimism about the potential of human endeavour, if properly guided by providence. In a letter written on the same day that he recommended the History to his son, Cromwell wrote to his brother about his successes in Ireland: “If God be for us, who can be against us? Who can fight against the Lord and prosper? Who can resist his will?”

Throughout these years of dissent, civil war and revolution, Ralegh’s raw critiques of monarchy and his support for parliament would be weaponised and transformed into calls for radical political change. Future generations would harness Ralegh’s words in different ways, and to different agendas, but never so vitally as in the century of revolution that engulfed the British Isles.

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Anna Beer is visiting fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Her new book, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh, was published by Oneworld in October.