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Who Killed Sir Walter Ralegh?
By Richard Dale
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Richard Dale
All rights reserved.
Sir Walter Ralegh
Ralegh doth time bestride
He sits twixt wind and tide
Yet uphill he cannot ride
For all his bloody pride.
London Ballad, 1601
As he contemplated his fate in his Winchester prison, Ralegh must have reflected that he had fallen from a very great height. For nearly twenty years up to the death of Queen Elizabeth in March 1603 he had enjoyed the life of a renaissance prince. As Captain of the Guard he was a familiar figure at court, always dressed exquisitely, renowned for his poetry and pithy sayings, and attracting around him a group of brilliant men who helped to plan his great voyages of discovery. When in London he lived a few minutes' horse ride from Whitehall Palace at one of the most desirable residences in London. This was Durham House, a great palace on the south side of the Strand where he had accommodation for forty servants and stabling for twenty horses. His country estate was at Sherborne where he had built a fine mansion which was conveniently located for his frequent trips into the West Country.
All this was far removed from the modest Devonshire farmhouse, Hayes Barton, where he been born in 1554. The Raleghs were a respectable family that had fallen on hard times after their involvement in the Cornish uprising of 1497. Squire Ralegh was a tenant farmer while his third wife, Katherine Champernowne – Walter's mother – had born three sons by her first husband, Otho Gilbert of Compton near Torquay. These three seafaring older half-brothers – John, Humphrey and Adrian – were to be an important influence on Walter in his early years.
So how had Ralegh emerged from his rural West Country origins to become one of the greatest figures of Elizabeth's court, enjoying a lifestyle and status surpassing that of the landed nobility? His early career had certainly been colourful. At the age of 15 or thereabouts he fought in France with the Huguenots in a volunteer group led by his cousin, Henry Champernowne. By his own account, he was present at two great Huguenot defeats in 1569: the Battle of Jarnac and the retreat at Moncontour. As a boy soldier he was therefore exposed to the massacres, pillaging and merciless brutality of the continental religious wars.
Little is known about Ralegh's formal education. He appears to have attended Oriel College, Oxford, in 1572 after his continental adventures. He left without a degree and although in 1575 he was registered as a member of the Middle Temple, he later claimed that he never studied law.
A contemporary room-mate later referred to his 'riotous' and 'lascivious' companion, and there were other indications that Ralegh was enjoying a boisterous life in his early twenties. In 1577, when two of his servants were brought before magistrates on a charge of riotous behaviour, Ralegh described himself in the bail sheet as 'de Curia' or 'of the Court' suggesting that he was already on the fringes of the royal entourage. Two years later he would be committed to the Fleet Prison for a 'fray' with another courtier, Sir Thomas Perott, and in the same year he was sent to the Marshalsea Prison after coming to blows with a man named Wingfield beside the tennis court at Whitehall.
Ralegh's first big break came in 1578 when Queen Elizabeth granted to his half-brother and mentor, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a six-year licence 'to discover, find, search out, ... such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.' Any land discovered could be disposed of according to the laws of England and settlers in the colonies would enjoy their full rights and privileges as subjects of the queen. This was an open-ended authorisation to colonise unclaimed territories in the New World and Ralegh, aged only 24, was chosen by Gilbert to be his partner in this great enterprise. The adventurers had plans for a little privateering on the side to help fund the expedition, but this was not publicised.
The would-be colonists set sail from Dartmouth in September 1578 with 365 men in ten ships. Ralegh was given command of the Falcon, a 100-ton vessel belonging to the queen, with seventy men on board. However, expectations of fame and fortune were to be disappointed: twice the fleet was driven back by autumn storms and after being forced to seek shelter, first in Plymouth and then in Dartmouth, those ships that had not already departed abandoned the cause. Only Ralegh in the Falcon continued on course for the West Indies. Yet after reaching the Cape Verde islands he was worsted in an encounter with the Spanish and was forced to return to Plymouth in May 1579, his ship severely damaged and many of his men killed. Ralegh had demonstrated his determination and courage but nothing had been gained and he would have to account for the near-loss of a royal vessel.
It was shortly after his return to London, following this naval setback, that Ralegh suffered his successive spells behind bars for breaching the peace. It may be thought that at such a juncture Ralegh would be the last person to deserve royal favours. Yet it was in 1580 that he now secured his first position at court, as an esquire of the Body Extraordinary – a group of young gentlemen required to wait upon the queen, particularly when she appeared in public. There is more than a suspicion that this was a reward for some political skulduggery at the behest of Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, in which Ralegh had befriended the Earl of Oxford and his pro-Catholic set in order to report on their activities (two of the Oxford group, Charles Arundell and Lord Henry Howard, were later sent to the Tower for conspiring on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots.) In any event Ralegh was sufficiently in favour to be appointed in July 1580 to serve under Lord Grey in Ireland, in command of 100 foot soldiers.
It was in Ireland that Ralegh established a reputation for military daring. He escaped an ambush and rescued a colleague when outnumbered twenty to one, he outmanoeuvred and defeated the rebel Lord Barry and, by a brilliant deception, infiltrated the castle of another Anglo-Irish rebel, Lord Roche, whom he humiliatingly brought to Cork in a perilous journey through enemy territory.
But the Irish episode also revealed the brutal side to Ralegh's soldiering. A party of Spanish and Italian mercenaries under the papal flag had landed on the west coast of Munster and Smerwick to support the Catholic cause against the English Crown. Holed up in their fort on this isolated peninsula, the invaders were overwhelmed by the forces of the puritan, Lord Grey. They capitulated following a bombardment of four days. As one of the two duty officers of the day, Ralegh received Grey's order to enter 'and full straight to execution'. Some pregnant women who attended the invading force were hanged and the soldiers, numbering around 600 and including some Irish, were systematically slaughtered using a technique known as 'hewing and punching' (slashing the neck, then stabbing the belly) after their armour had been removed and neatly stacked beside their pikes. Judging from his later criticism of Lord Grey as being too soft in dealing with the Irish insurrection, it may be taken that Ralegh was in agreement with the massacre he helped to execute.
Another side of Ralegh's emerging personality to be revealed by the Irish episode was his deviousness and disloyalty to his superiors – at least when they stood in his way. First he wrote to Walsingham as well as to Grey criticising the Earl of Ormond, Governor General of Munster, for his organisational shortcomings: Ormond was recalled and, pending a replacement, Ralegh became part of a triumvirate appointed to discharge Ormond's duties. Ralegh also appears to have criticised his commanding officer, Grey, behind his back. In August 1581 he wrote to the queen's favourite, Leicester, to express his discontent: 'I have spent some time here under the deputy [Grey], in such poor place and charge, as, were it not for that I know him to be one of yours, I would disdain it as much as to keep sheep.'
In 1582, after Ralegh and Grey had been recalled to London, further tensions between them were reported and it was related by Sir Robert Naunton, (later to become Secretary of State to James I) that, in briefing the Council on Irish affairs, Ralegh had 'much the better in telling of his tale'. It was also on his return to the royal court that Ralegh began to attract the queen's attention, as Naunton describes:
He had gotten the Queen's ear at a trice; and she began to be taken with his elocution, and loved to hear his reasons to her demands. And the truth is, she took him for a kind of oracle, which nettled them all; for those that she relied on began to take this sudden favour for an alarm, and to be sensible of their own supplantation.
Ralegh's success as a courtier was achieved in the face of fierce rivalry for the queen's favour from men of higher birth and fortune. Yet he proved to be a master of the game of courtly love which Elizabeth played with her pretended suitors. The extremes to which these pseudo-romantic rituals could be taken is demonstrated by Sir Christopher Hatton, who, as a close confidante of the queen (he was later to become Lord Chancellor), wrote to her in language more appropriate to a lovesick sweetheart than a government official: 'Would God I were with you but for one hour. My wits are overwrought with thoughts. I find myself amazed. Bear with me, my most dear sweet Lady. Passion overcomes me. I can write no more. Love me, for I love you.'
Ralegh's particular appeal to the queen lay in his physical allure and, above all, his 'wit'. Tall, with dark 'Spanish' looks, he was a flamboyant dresser who later set new standards for sartorial extravagance at court: he wore pearls in his hair, pearl studded clothes, jewels on his shoes and, by his own account, spent one hour each morning on his grooming. But it was above all his way with words that appealed to Elizabeth's sharp intellect: in his soft voice and rich Devonshire accent he wooed the queen with his quick repartee, forceful argument and colourful language. Whether or not Ralegh, when attending the court at Greenwich, really laid down his cloak so the queen could walk dry shod over a puddle, the legend still serves to portray the man: he knew how to employ chivalry to please his sovereign and did so at every opportunity. And when he was away from court he could, as an accomplished poet, continue to charm his middle-aged mistress with lines that expressed his love and idolatry.
Those eyes which set my fancy on a fire,
Those crispe'd hairs which hold my heart in chains
Those dainty hands which conquered my desire,
That wit which of my thought does hold the reins.
Royal favours began to flow. In April 1582 he was given the command of a company of footmen in Ireland as a form of pension, since he was allowed to discharge his office by deputy and to remain at court. In February 1583 he was included in the prestigious escort sent to accompany the Duke of Anjou from England to the Netherlands. Two months later he was given the leases of two small estates belonging to All Souls' College, Oxford, and in March 1584 he began to make serious money when he was granted the licence to export woollen broadcloths in return for a fixed rent payable to the queen. Under this licence he received not only the duty payable on exports, but also a specified penalty due on all 'over-lengths' – that is, pieces which exceeded the maximum permissible length of 24 yards. When Lord Treasurer Burghley was later reviewing the tax system he calculated that Raleigh, in the first year of his grant, had received the staggering sum of £3,950 from a privilege for which he paid the state a rent of only £700.
But more was to come. In May 1584 Ralegh was given one of the great monopolies of state: the farm of wines. This enabled the holder to charge vintners £1 a year for the right to retail wine and Ralegh immediately sub-contracted the licence to his agent, Richard Browne, for seven years in exchange for a fixed payment of £700 per annum. Ralegh later discovered that Browne was making very substantial profits on the arrangement so he tried to renegotiate the deal. When Browne refused Ralegh persuaded the queen to call in his licence and reissue it to him so that he could sub-contract on much more favourable terms – thereby doubling his income from the monopoly.
One may well ask at this point what was going on here? A young man from the West Country had arrived at court as something of a parvenu, he had performed some useful but relatively minor service in Ireland, and now he was being rewarded with great riches by his sovereign – putting him in income terms amongst the very wealthiest in the land, even though he had few assets to call his own.
The extent of royal patronage seemed limitless. In September 1583 Ralegh's half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had drowned when his ship went down in a failed attempt to colonise North America. Ralegh had invested in this expedition by fitting out, at his own expense, a 200-ton ship of advanced design which he named Ark Ralegh. Now, in the spring of 1584, Elizabeth agreed to renew Gilbert's colonising charter in Ralegh's name but with expanded powers to 'inhabit or retain, build or fortify, at the discretion of the said W. Ralegh', any territory that he might find hitherto unoccupied by a Christian prince. This was to become the basis of Ralegh's great colonising ventures, although for the time being, as favourite, he was not permitted to leave court.
The favours continued to be heaped on Ralegh. In January 1585 the queen bestowed on him a knighthood. In the same year he was appointed Lord Warden of the Stannaries (a position of profit), Lord Lieutenant of the county of Cornwall and Vice Admiral of the counties of Cornwall and Devon. At this time, too, he entered parliament as one of the two county members for Devonshire.
Meanwhile, Ralegh had moved into Durham House, a vast turreted palace overlooking the Thames. It was conveniently located off the Strand with its own waterfront, although he preferred to travel by coach rather than river boat or 'wherry'. Durham House was the fourteenth-century palace of the Bishops of Durham which had come into the possession of the Crown in the reign of Henry VIII and was now in the gift of Elizabeth. She granted it to her favourite to enjoy at the royal pleasure, although Ralegh did not have use of the ground floor which was occupied by Sir Edward Darcy. This stately pile became Ralegh's town house where he lived from 1584 to 1603. Here he was able to maintain a score of horses in the stables along the Strand, and up to forty servants in the outbuildings. He also had a study in the turret, as described by John Aubrey, the antiquarian: 'Durham House was a noble palace. I well remember [Ralegh's] study, which was a little turret that looked into and over the Thames, and had the prospect which is [as] pleasant, perhaps, as any in the world ...'
Ralegh was now able to live a life of extraordinary privilege. However, he lacked one thing; nearly everything he possessed – Durham House, the farm of the wines and the licence for wool exports – was enjoyed at the royal pleasure and he had no extensive landed estates of his own.
This deficiency was, however, made good in 1586 when he became the beneficiary of confiscated property in both Ireland and England. Following the execution of the Earl of Desmond, whose rebellion Ralegh had helped to put down, the royal favourite was rewarded with 42,000 acres of the earl's forfeited lands in the southern Irish counties of Cork and Waterford. These Irish estates were the basis for Ralegh's first colonial settlement: West Country families were persuaded to become his tenant farmers and he cultivated his woodlands with a view to exporting hogsheads to wine merchants in France and Spain. Reflecting his enduring taste for grandeur and show Ralegh also acquired the lease of Lismore Castle, which was to be the jewel in the crown of his new little kingdom. The scale of the royal grant of Irish lands to Ralegh drew adverse comment from the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. Perrot was subsequently warned by Burghley that Ralegh 'is able to do you more harm in one hour than we are all able to do you good in a year'. Such was the favourite's influence with the queen that a word in her ear could make or break a man.
In 1587 Ralegh enjoyed another windfall gain when he became the main beneficiary of the so-called Babington plot. This was a Catholic conspiracy, led by the wealthy young Anthony Babington, to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne with the help of troops brought over from the Netherlands. Ralegh appears to have played some minor role in the discovery of the plot but he was rewarded quite disproportionately with nearly all the estates forfeited by the Babington family. In this way he acquired extensive landholdings in Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. He was now wealthy in his own right.
Excerpted from Who Killed Sir Walter Ralegh? by Richard Dale. Copyright © 2011 Richard Dale. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Brought to Bay,
1 Sir Walter Ralegh,
2 Sir Robert Cecil,
3 Shifting Alliances,
4 Preparing for the Great Day of Mart,
5 The Death of a Queen,
6 The Lion Provoked,
7 Treason: The Raptor Strikes,
8 Holding the Line,
9 Preparing for the Trial,
10 The Trial,
11 Was he Guilty?,
12 The Aftermath,
13 The Tower,
14 The Final Gamble,
15 The Last Act: Old Palace Yard, 29 October 1618,
A The Prisoner's Dilemma,
B Extract from letter of Robert Cecil to Sir Thomas Parry, 4 August 1603,
C Extract from letter of Robert Cecil to Sir Thomas Parry, 1 December 1603,
D Extract from Sir Edward Coke's Prosecution Document,