Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

The Great Conspiracy


The tidings of Elizabeth's demise reached Sir Walter Raleigh in the west of England, whither his official duties had called him. At the same time he received an order from Cecil to remain at his post, for the late Queen's secretary feared, with good reason, that he would hasten to join the throng of courtiers already on the way to meet King James as he journeyed southward. Perhaps he would have done well if he had remained where duty found him, for he certainly gained nothing by appearing before the royal boor from Scotland, whose first greeting is said to have been in the form of a clumsy pun: "On my soul, I've heard rawly  of thee!"

This greeting was an affront as well, for it implied that James ignored, even if he had known of Raleigh's great services to the state, his wit, his learning, his high qualities of manhood, which far transcended those of the King himself. This may have been the real secret of the King's antipathy, for he could scarce tolerate one who possessed the substantial erudition, gained from toil and experience, of which his own acquirements were but superficial reflections. The King's aspect, too, was repellent, and it may have been that Sir Walter, long-time courtier though he was, allowed himself a little scorn of this uncouth representative of royalty; for who could conceal his contempt of one whose very presence was the antithesis of royal comportment: who wabbled awkwardly about when he walked, like a sailor newly landed; whose eyes rolled around, but never rested upon, the person he addressed; whose tongue was so thick and whose "burr" was so pronounced that his speech was scarce understandable?

Such was "the wisest fool in Christendom" as he appeared to the most accomplished courtier in England. This was the man whom the Queen had in her mind when perhaps accused by conscience of the crime she had committed in executing his mother—she had exclaimed: "My seat hath been the seat of kings! Trouble me no more. He who comes after me must be a king. I will have none but our cousin of Scotland . . . ."And this  was the king!

King James bore no good will toward Raleigh, as was apparent in their first interview, and that he had already decided to despoil him of his various offices was soon made manifest, for another was appointed captain of the guard, his monopolistic privileges were taken away, and finally he was deposed as governor of Jersey. As a leader of the war-party, also, Sir Walter had incurred the displeasure of the King, who was disposed to peace at any cost, and who "could never see a sword without a shiver down his spine." Now, Sir Walter prided himself upon the very qualifications which the cowardly James held in abhorrence. His valor was as unquestioned as that of the lamented Essex, for whose death, in some manner, the King held Raleigh to be responsible—or at least as contributory toward it. He had written for and now rashly presented to King James a Discourse Touching a War with Spain, upon which he had plumed himself for a lofty flight, when the offended monarch, at one fell blow, brought him head-long to the ground.

"I want no war with Spain," he vehemently asserted. "Moreover, had I not been invited to the throne of England, I could have vindicated my rights by force of arms."

"Would to God, then," exclaimed the nettled Raleigh, "that it had been put to the test!"

"Ha, why do you say that?" inquired the King.

"Because, your Majesty," was the unexpected rejoinder, "you would then have known your friends from your foes!"

This was a discrimination that King James never made, for all foes could be his friends if they were but proficient in flattery. His perceptions were dull, his nature indolent, and he gladly gave into Sir Robert Cecil's hands the weighty affairs of state. Having ousted almost everybody else from the King's presence, Sir Robert, the sycophant, exerted himself to the utmost to fill all the positions they had filled. He was the King's prime-minister, his secretary—his factotum in every sense of the word. It was not long after the coronation of James had taken place that his faithful little "Beagle" brought him fearsome tidings of a most "surprising treason" against his Majesty. A "plot of the priests," he also termed it, since it had begun with the intrigues of a secular priest named William Watson, who joined with him another of his order, Francis Clerke. These two, somehow, secured the connivance of George Brooke, a dissolute brother of Lord Cobham; of Anthony Copley, a reckless adventurer and one-time pensioner of the Pope; and Sir Griffin Markham, a nobleman who owned a magnificent estate including a noble park so vast that it seemed a part of the primeval forest.

This quintet of conspirators met one afternoon in the environs of Sir Griffin's park, and, having taken an oath of secrecy, discussed the details of a most surprising treason, indeed. It was nothing less than the seizing of the King that they contemplated, and the confining of his Majesty in his own Tower of London. How they were to capture him, surrounded as he was by his guards, and how they were to seize the almost impregnable Tower, they could not tell at that time, but this was their scheme. Wild and visionary as it was, there was a grim purpose behind it, and this was to confine him as a hostage until certain reforms should be granted the Catholics, in whose interests they professed to be working. All the original conspirators were Catholics, but before the plot matured they secured the connivance of the young and brilliant Lord Grey of Wilton, a Puritan of the Puritans, who had become offended at the King on account of favors withdrawn from his own faction and disposed upon others whom he considered not so worthy of his Majesty's regard.

And this was the plot to seize the King's person at Greenwich on June 24th, when on his way to Windsor, overcome his guards, and then rely upon the assembling of the people, under the pretext of presenting a monster petition for the numerical strength sufficient to carry out their fell design. But the people, as usual, proved an uncertain and unreliable element to reckon on, and the scheme fell through. There were also dissensions among the plotters, for Watson, the priest, suspected Lord Grey, the Puritan, of an intention of turning the affair to his own profit by a counter-attack, releasing the King from the clutches of the confederates when they should have had him in their power, and then securing from him all the advantages they had hoped to gain for his own people, the Puritans. Thus there was a plot within a plot, or at least the suspicion of one, and rather than be the means of benefiting the Puritans, Watson concluded it were better to betray the scheme and depend upon the King's magnanimity for a pardon. So he conspired against the conspirators, and thus information leaked out, through a Jesuit priest named Blackwell, that put the court on its guard and set the wheels of official machinery in motion that eventually brought some of the plotters to the block.

This was the "Treason of the Main," as it was called, to distinguish it from the "Treason of the Bye," or another plot which had for its object a change in the royal succession. The "Main," or the principal treason, would, if successful, have endangered the lives of the King and his family, for it was the intention, as one of the conspirators is said to have expressed it, of making way with the "old fox and his cubs." He was, however, a wary old "fox," and now that his suspicions and those of his little "Beagle" were aroused, sniffed treason in the very air. He surmised, and probably was aided in the surmise by his "Beagle," that the next attempt would be made upon the "royal succession," and investigations were promptly carried on, with the inevitable result that others than those who have been already named were implicated in the "Treason of the Bye."

There was but one who could be used in setting up a claim to the throne to which King James had been called, and this one was the young and beautiful Lady Arabella. She was the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII., and sister of Henry VIII., the father of Elizabeth. She was the next heir in the succession to both the English and Scottish thrones after James, whose strength lay in his double descent from Margaret Tudor. Arabella Stuart could claim only a single descent from her great-grandmother; but she was of English birth, while James had been born it Scotland, and to the end of his days continued a Scotsman of the Scots.

The lovely Arabella had concerned herself very little about the succession, and it is doubtful even if she cared for the crown which her indiscreet admirers wished to place upon her youthful head. When very young she had been presented at Elizabeth's court, at which event the "Virgin Queen" had playfully remarked to one of her ladies in waiting: "Sometime the little Arabella will be mistress here, even as I am!"

Among those who heard this remark was probably Sir Walter Raleigh, for he was at court and in favor at the time. Perhaps the Queen may have discussed with him the matter of succession, though this, in view of her repugnance to the topic, is unlikely. With whatever favor Elizabeth regarded the child, she was not prevented by sentiment from seizing lands belonging to her in England, while in Scotland the crafty James despoiled her, not only of her paternal domain, but her mother's precious jewels as well. Thus she was rendered almost portionless, in order, perhaps, that she might not seem so attractive to dowry-seeking princes.

Now, Sir Walter Raleigh was probably the last man in England to think of advocating, much more risking life and fortune for, the succession of Lady Arabella to the throne, yet this charge was brought against him by his enemies. He was as surprised as any one could be who had never considered the matter seriously, and declared that he had seen the princess but once, and that was the year before the Armada was defeated, when she was scarcely twelve years of age. He did not like her then, he asserted, with emphasis, and he had given her no thought at any time since, so why should he be accused of this constructive treason to his king?

This accusation was only preliminary to another far more serious: that of conspiring with a foreign enemy in the interests of the Spaniards. The Count of Arenberg, united to the Infanta Isabella ("whose shadowy claim to the succession of Elizabeth was a pretext for the cry of Essex that the throne of England was 'sold to the Spaniards"), had attempted to negotiate a peace, with Lord Cobham as intermediary. As Cecil and the King well knew, Sir Walter Raleigh, the most determined enemy to Spain, would not be likely to advocate any terms with that country gained by peaceful means, and he was the last person who should have been accused, as he was, of accepting a bribe for promoting the treaty in England. The bribe was offered, his enemies declared, and he engaged that there should be no opposition from the English navy. This accusation was even more absurd than the previous one, and, had there been no peril in it, might have been treated by Sir Walter with the contempt it merited; but it carried an implication of treason, the penalty for which, at the King's discretion, was an attainder and death.

One morning in July, 1603, as Sir Walter was walking for exercise on the castle terrace at Windsor, he was tapped on the shoulder by the "Beagle," who informed him that the lords in council desired to speak with him. He went directly to the council chamber, and there was questioned as to his knowledge of the "surprising treason," of the plot to place the Lady Arabella on the throne, and also of his connection with Lord Cobham with reference to the Arenberg negotiations.

He replied that he knew absolutely nothing of any plot to surprise the King's person, nothing whatever respecting the Lady Arabella, and nothing treasonable in the peace negotiations conducted by Arenberg and Cobham. He admitted that overtures had been made to him—hints of several thousand crowns as his share—provided the plan for peace should succeed, but that he had not considered them seriously.

If he had spurned them, as he should have done, his career as a courtier might not have terminated so quickly, and the proceedings might not have been entered upon that placed his life in peril. But he was not the only subject of King James to whom Spanish gold had been freely offered—by some accepted. Even Cecil himself rested many years under the imputation that he was a secret pensioner of Spain. There was no crime implied in having been offered a bribe, nor even in having accepted one, but in being found out! The acceptance of a bribe was leniently regarded, and even looked on as a matter of course, but it might prove a deadly weapon in the hands of one's enemies.

It was not shown, either in the council chamber or during the subsequent trial of Sir Walter for treason, that he had been bribed in this particular instance; but it was assumed that he had, for it was known that his venality was not proof against one—if it were large enough; and it was also necessary for the perfection of that web of "evidence" in which he was to be entangled and dragged to destruction. Raleigh disclaimed any treasonable intention in his intercourse with Cobham, nor, he said, had he observed anything suspicious in his conduct; but as an after-thought it came to him that he had held questionable communication with one Renzi, a reputed agent of Count Arenberg, and this information he unwisely communicated to the council in a letter. He afterward wrote to Cecil that "if Renzi were not secured the matter would not be discovered, for Renzi would fly; yet, if he were then apprehended, it would give matter of suspicion to Lord Cobham." He may have meant nothing more than to shift the responsibility upon the foreigners or upon Cobham; but his act was unworthy a gentleman, and was swiftly requited in kind, as will shortly appear.

The principal in the plot, Lord Cobham, was arrested and taken before the lords in council. He exonerated Sir Walter entirely; but the latter's foes—as the lords proved themselves to be—showed him the portion of that unfortunate letter relating to his intercourse with Renzi. It was a confidential communication to Cecil, whose meanness in disclosing its contents to the "noble lords" was only paralleled by theirs in availing themselves of such a subterfuge. But it did the work well, for upon reading this passage, Cobham burst out, in a fury: "Oh, the traitor! Oh, the villain! Now will I confess the truth!"

What he then disclosed was not the truth, but a fabrication of his own, to the effect that he, by agreement with Arenberg, was to go into Spain, there to receive five hundred thousand crowns, which he was to bring to Raleigh, who, as governor of Jersey, possessed facilities for distributing the money among the rebellious troops they were to incite to rise against the crown. The statement was a mere tissue of lies; but it was what Cecil and his accomplices desired, and notwithstanding the fact that Cobham retracted it wholly in a subsequent assertion, upon it was based the charge of treason that resulted in the immediate committal of Sir Walter Raleigh to the Tower.

To be accused of treason was in effect to be convicted; to be convicted meant the loss of all properties, degradation, death. Raleigh knew what it signified to be imprisoned on such a charge, and he foresaw the end as clearly as if his doom were already pronounced. Realizing that all his former friends were against him, that the King, the courtiers, the people, were desirous of his death, he gave way to despair, and in the solitude of his cell made an attempt upon his life. His mind was distracted, no doubt; but one of his friends alleged afterward: "Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have declared that his design to kill himself arose from no feeling of fear, but was formed in order that his fate might not serve as a triumph to his enemies, whose power to put him to death, despite his innocency, he well knows."

He poured out his soul in a long letter to his wife, among other things saying:

"I have desired God and disputed with my reason, but nature and compassion have the victory. That I can live to think how you are both left a spoil of my enemies, and that my name shall be a dishonor to my child—I cannot. I cannot endure the thought there-of! . . . I am now made an enemy and traitor by the word of an unworthy man. He hath proclaimed me a partaker of his vain imaginations, notwithstanding the whole course of my life hath approved the contrary—as my death shall approve it. . . . Be not dismayed that I die in despair of God's mercies. Strive not to dispute it. But assure thyself that God hath not left me, nor Satan tempted me. Hope and despair live not together. I know it is forbidden to destroy ourselves; but I trust it is forbidden in this sort: that we destroy ourselves despairing of God's mercy. For the mercy of God is immeasurable; the cogitations of men comprehend it not."

But the self-inflicted wound was not fatal—"rather a cut than a stab," as Cecil himself describes it, having gone to him and "found him in some agony: seeming unable to endure his misfortunes, and protesting innocence, with carelessness of life." The wound soon healed, but the scar of it Raleigh carried on his breast to his death. If it were intended to have an effect upon Cecil, it failed utterly, for the "Little Beagle" fetched and carried between the Tower and the court, until at last his quarry was brought to bay at the bar of so-called "justice."

While confined in the Tower, Sir Walter obtained from his fellow-prisoner, Cobham, a retraction in writing of his original statement against him, the pith of which was: "I never had conference with you in any treason, nor was I ever moved by you to the things I heretofore accused you of. And, for anything I know, you are as innocent and as clear from any treasons against the King as is any subject living. God so deal with me, and have mercy on my soul, as this is true!"

The retraction availed not with the "noble lords," with Cecil, or with the King; for on November 17th following, the author of it, together with his brother, George Brooke, and the victim of his malice, Sir Walter Raleigh, were placed on trial. They were charged in the indictment with "conspiring to deprive the King of his crown and dignity; to subvert the government, and alter the true religion established in England, and to levy war against the King." Lord Cobham, the indictment further alleges, "had discourse with the said Sir Walter Raleigh, then Captain of the Isle of Jersey, concerning the means of exciting rebellion against the King, and raising one Arabella Stuart to the Crown of "England; and further, that for such purpose the said Lord Cobham should treat with Charles, Count of Arenberg, to obtain five or six hundred thousand crowns from Philip, King of Spain, to enable the said traitors to effect their treasons . . . and should likewise cross the seas and proceed to Spain to treat with the King of Spain, and persuade him to support the pretended title of Arabella Stuart to the Crown of England."

This was the flimsy indictment, the sequence to a plot which may never have been schemed, and which to-day is wrapped in mystery. The trial that followed was the most notable of the innumerable miscarriages of so-called "British justice" ever recorded. It was conducted in ancient Wolvesey Castle, before a "King's Bench," at the head of which was Sir John Popham, and containing, among others, the very lords of the council who had made the preliminary examinations and formulated the indictment. It was evident from the very first that they had determined to convict at least one of the accused, Sir Walter Raleigh, and to the end that this conviction might be brought about with a semblance of fairness, the jury had been carefully "packed," in advance, with his enemies.

When asked if he wished to challenge any of the jurors, Raleigh unsuspectingly replied: "I know none of them, but think them all honest and Christian gentlemen. I know mine own innocency, and therefore will challenge none." The sequel showed that he had unduly credited them with being gentlemen," for, like his judges, and like the common people, who had mobbed him when on the way from Tower to castle, so that "it was hab or nab whether he should have been brought alive through such multitudes of unruly folk who did exclaim against him," they hated him, because of the well-known hatred of the King as toward Sir Walter Raleigh. They hated him, and, moreover, they knew the part they had to play, which was merely to do the King's bidding and convict the prisoner.

They might have taken their cue from the attorney-general, the brutal and vindictive Coke (had they not been already instructed), for he, though no evidence had been given, nor ever was obtained, to connect Raleigh with the "treasons of the priests," proceeded to accuse him of them all. He quoted the remark attributed to one of the conspirators, respecting the "old fox and his cubs," as though it had been Raleigh's own, and then turned dramatically to him with the question: "To whom, Sir Walter, did you bear malice? To the royal children?" Raleigh in vain protested to the jury that he had not made the remark, neither had anything to do with the priests' treasons, when Coke retorted: "Nay, but I will prove all. Thou art a monster; the most notorious traitor that ever came to the bar! Thou hast an English face, but a Spanish heart!"

And this to one who had persistently fought the Spaniards from his first days of soldiering! This to the hero of Cadiz and the Azores, who had done more for the preservation of England from her Spanish foes than any man then present at that trial!

Sir Walter swallowed the affront, and patiently rejoined: "No, no, Master Attorney, I am no traitor. Whether I live; Or die, I shall stand as true a subject as ever the King hath. You may call me a 'traitor;' at your pleasure, yet it becomes not a man of quality or virtue to do so. But I take comfort in it. It is all that you can do, for I do not hear yet that you charge me with any treason."

"It is very strange," said Raleigh, addressing the jury, "that I, at this time, should be thought to plot with the Lord Cobham, knowing him a man that hath neither love nor following; and myself, at this time, having resigned a place of my best command, in an office I had in Cornwall:

"I was not so bare of sense but I saw that, if ever this state was strong, it was now that we have the kingdom of Scotland united, whence we were wont to fear all our troubles, and Ireland divided, where our forces were wont to be divided. . . . And instead of a lady whom time had surprised [Elizabeth, in her old age], we had now an active King who would be present at his own business. For me, at this time, to make myself a Robin Hood, a Wat Tyler, or a Jack Cade—I was not so mad! I knew the state of Spain well—its king's weakness, his poorness, his humbleness, at this time. I knew that six times we had repulsed his forces: thrice in Ireland, thrice at sea, once upon our own coast, and twice upon his own. Thrice had I served against him myself at sea, wherein for my country's sake I had expended of my own property forty thousand marks! . . . And to show I am not 'Spanish'—as you term me—at this time' I had writ a treatise to the King of the present state of Spain, and reasons against the peace."

In response, Attorney Coke merely made answer with scurrilous epithet, calling the prisoner a "damnable atheist," a "spider of hell," and repeatedly "an Englishman with a Spanish heart." "Methinks," he said, with a sneer, "it would have been better for you to have staid in Guiana  than to be so well acquainted with the state of Spain. As to the six overthrows of the King of Spain, I make answer: 'he hath the more malice,' because repulses breed desire of revenge. As for your writing against the Peace with Spain: you sought but to cloak a Spanish traitor's heart!"

Innuendo and invective constituted the bulk of the accusations against this prisoner on trial for his life. His indignant demand, "Let me answer, it concerns my life!" was denied. His request to meet his accuser face to face was refused; his statement that by the law no man could be convicted of treason on the mere testimony of a single witness was declared to be false, though the edict was then on the statute-books. Still, freedom of speech was not denied the prisoner, nor did his courage forsake him. He made his cogent reasonings felt by all present at the trial, and his dignified bearing, his lofty demeanor, his freedom from all fear (though within the shadow of the scaffold, as he well knew), made ample amends for his craven behavior when in prison. Said Sir Roger Aston, a confidential servant of the King: "Never man spoke so well in times past, nor would do so in times to come." Another gentleman asserted that although he would, before the trial, "have gone a thousand miles to see Sir Walter hanged, I would, ere we parted, have gone a thousand miles to have saved his life

When, after but a quarter-hour's deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, Raleigh was asked if he had anything to say in stay of judgment, he calmly answered: "My lords, the jury have found me guilty. They must do as they are directed. I can say nothing why judgment should not proceed. You see whereof Cobham hath accused me. You remember his protestations that I was never guilty!

"I desire that the King should know these things. I was accused to be a practiser with Spain. I never knew that my Lord Cobham meant to go thither; but I will ask no mercy at the King's hands if he will affirm it. Secondly, I never knew of the practises with Arabella. Thirdly, I never knew of my Lord Cobham's practises with Arenberg, nor of the 'surprising treason.'"

Then judgment was pronounced. Chief-Justice Popham, in the most brutal manner of which he was capable, sentenced his victim to death. He was to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of his execution, there to be hanged; but to be cut down while yet alive, to have his heart torn out and his head severed from his body, which was to be quartered, and subject to the pleasure of the King.