Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

The Fortunes of a Courtier


Although Sir Walter comported himself so gallantly in the continuous action with the Armada as to win the smiles and thanks of his royal mistress, not many months elapsed, if we may believe the gossips of the court, before he was "chased away" by his younger rival for the Queen's affections the handsome Earl of Essex. This is a matter of no moment, for neither Raleigh nor Essex held Elizabeth in regard, and only her vanity prevented the Queen from perceiving the real state of their feelings toward her. She was aged, ugly, capricious, and yet jealous of the attentions her two favorites bestowed upon other women. Had she not been a sovereign and capable of granting royal favors, these gallants would never have hung so constantly about her, like moths about a flame. And this simile is not inapt, since, like the proverbial "moth," they received a scorching for too persistently hovering around the throne. Their wings were singed, and one of them lost his life as an indirect consequence of his folly.

It is only when our hero comes within the pernicious influence of the court, with its intrigues, its hollowness, and mockery of all reason, that he displays the shallow waters of his nature. Abroad, away from empty-pated courtiers and painted beauties, he shows himself at his full stature. There was no dispute between him and his companion heroes of the Armada fight as to which should assume direction and take the lion's share of honors, as there was between him and Essex when the matter of their Queen's favor was involved. Many years after, when composing the chapters of his renowned History of the World, we find Raleigh going out of his way to compliment his old commander, the Lord High Admiral, for refusing to grapple with the Spanish ships and board them. "To clap ships together without consideration," he wrote, "belongs rather o a madman than to a man of war, By such ignorant bravery was Peter Strozzi lost at the Azores, when he fought against the Marquess of Santa Cruz. In like sort had Lord Charles Howard, Admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588, if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were that found fault with his demeanor. The Spaniards had an army aboard them, and he had none. They had more ships than he had, and of higher build and charging; so that, had he entangled himself with those great and powerful vessels, he had greatly endangered this kingdom of England. For twenty men upon the defence are equal to a hundred that board and enter; whereas, then contrariwise, the Spaniards had an hundred for twenty of ours, to defend themselves withal. But our Admiral knew his advantage and held it; which had he not done, he had not been worthy to have held his head."

While playing the fool at court, Sir Walter was acting the man abroad, for his privateers, under the general supervision of their owner, were sweeping the seas of Spanish galleons wherever they could be found. Availing himself of the comparative liberty which he possessed for a brief period after the Armada encounter, he joined an expedition fitted out for the attempted restoration of the exiled Dom Antonio to the throne of Portugal. The fleet was commanded by Sir Francis Drake, but the forces which were carried along for a land invasion by Sir John Norris, and between the rivalship of the two the entire expedition failed of its mission. Dom Antonio was landed on his native soil of Portugal, and Sir John Norris marched upon Lisbon, which came within an ace of falling into his hands; but the Prince did not reach his throne through the intervention of his English allies.

Raleigh sailed in a ship of his own and took several Spanish prizes; but there was "a fly in his ointment" on this occasion, owing to the presence in the fleet of his rival, Essex, who had surreptitiously joined it while at sea. He had, in very truth, run away from their mistress, the Queen, who, when she learned of his absence, was frantic. A swift vessel was despatched after the fleet, with orders to bring back her wandering lover and latest favorite; but Sir Roger Williams, in whose ship, the Swiftsure, Essex was concealed, stood more loyally by him than he did by his irate sovereign, and the messenger went back without him.

If all the English engaged in the march upon Lisbon had been as gallant and as dauntless as the Earl of Essex, perhaps the city might have been taken away from the Spaniards and Dom Antonio, seated upon the Portuguese throne, for he was at the van of the army all the time. He led his soldiers right up to the gates of the city, and attempted to storm it almost alone. When at last a retreat was ordered, Essex fumed and raged. Failing to provoke the Spaniards within the walls to send out a champion to fight him in single combat, he sent a challenge to them all combined. Once again on board the Swiftsure, he found cause for complaint against Raleigh, one of whose prizes was claimed by Sir Roger Williams. It was either upon their return from this unfortunate voyage, or, as some say, immediately after the Armada defeat, that the fiery young Essex challenged his rival to fight a duel, which was prevented by the Queen's Council, who wished to avoid involving their sovereign in a scandal, and thought best to "bury it in silence."

This may have been the occasion upon which Essex boasted that he had succeeded in "chasing Raleigh from court," to which allusion has been made. Sir Walter himself asserted, in a letter respecting the affair, written to his cousin, Sir George Carew: "For my retreat from Court: it was upon good cause, to take order for my prize." This prize was probably the captured vessel in which Sir Roger Williams claimed salvage, and on account of which Essex was involved, by supporting his friend against his rival. The situation was certainly complicated, for we find two aspirants for the Queen's favor sailing abroad in the same fleet—one in a huff because of his banishment, and the other fleeing to escape from her blandishments!

The next view we have of Raleigh reveals him in more congenial company than he found at court or in the fleet that sailed for Portugal; for, shortly after his return to England, he paid a visit to his friend and brother poet, Edmund Spenser, who, like himself, had received a generous gift out of the Irish spoliations. From the Earl of Desmond's forfeited estate he had been given a grant of three thousand acres, and at the time of Raleigh's visit was living in picturesque Kilcolman Castle, in the midst of beautiful scenery, but in comparative solitude.

Neither Raleigh nor Spenser, from the very nature of their Irish acquisitions, were welcome visitants in Ireland, and their ostracism by the natives was almost complete. But both were poets, both craved, at times, just such solitude as lovely Kilcolman afforded, and that they enjoyed it to their hearts' content Spenser failed not to testify in his pastoral, "Colin Clout's Come Home Again." Therein Raleigh is the Shepherd of the Ocean, who entertained his friend with the story of his adventures. Filled as he was, however, with a sense of the Queen's injustice in banishing him from court, his tale, as Spenser renders it,

". . . . was all a lamentable lay,

Of great unkindness and of usage hard,

Of Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea,

Which from her presence faultless him debarred.

And ever and anon, with singults rife,

He cried out to make his undersong:

'Ah, my love's queen, and goddess of my life!

Who shall me pity, when thou dost me wrong?"

Who, indeed, could make reparation but the Queen? And who so likely to reward an impecunious poet as Elizabeth provided the offering he made should prove acceptable? So the two men of verse put their heads together, and the following wondrous lines were evolved:

"When thus our pipes we both had wearied well,

Quoth he, and each an end of singing made,

He 'gan to cast great liking to my lore,

And great disliking to my luckless lot

That banished had myself, like wight forbore,

Into that waste, where I was quite forgot.

The which to leave thenceforth he counselled me,

Unmeet for man in whom was aught regardful,

And wend with him his Cynthia to see,

Whose grace was great, and bounty most rewardful.

Besides her peerless skill in making well,

And all the ornaments of wondrous wit,

Such as all womankind did far excel,

Such as the world admired and praised it!"

Though Spenser did not accompany Raleigh out of Ireland, "his Cynthia [Elizabeth] to see," he went with him to the manor of Youghal, where he was most hospitably entertained. Either there, or at Kilcolman Castle, the two friends discussed the first cantos of The Faery Queen, of which Spenser had already informed Raleigh, in a letter outlining its scope, and sent him at the beginning of this year, 1589. Acting upon Sir Walter's advice, he submitted an installment for publication, the first three books appearing in January, 1590, with a poetical address to the friend who had been instrumental in bringing them out. His direct appeal to "Cynthia," with its fulsome flattery, that might have proved nauseating to any one less vain than Elizabeth, secured him a pension of fifty pounds a year. It was not always regularly paid, for the lord treasurer had views of his own anent the bestowal of this pension, and whenever he grudgingly granted the money was wont to grumble: "And all this for a song!"

The "song" has outlived the lord treasurer, and the times in which it was written, whatever his opinion as to the reward paid for it, as a testimonial to the Queen's most eminent virtues. Neither Raleigh nor Spenser derived from their Irish estates that satisfaction, in abundant leisure, to which they had looked forward on their acquisition. Though the latter rejoiced in the ownership of a castle and broad acres, he was never possessed of wealth, and finally, in 1598, by a recrudescence of the rebellion, was driven from Ireland under circumstances of such barbarity his castle having been set on fire, and one of his children perishing in the flames—that his heart was broken, it is said, and his death followed not long after.

Sir Walter's championship of Spenser, whose genius he may be said to have brought from obscurity, if he did not discover, was an aid to him at court, and by the beginning of 1590 he was again established as prime favorite. The recovery of his ascendency over the Queen may be attributed, rather, to the disgrace of Essex, who had offended his mistress by marrying without as much as saying "By your leave." As one favorite went down, the other went up, and vice versa, but, had there been a third favorite, it is likely that Raleigh would have received the "cold shoulder." As there was not, and as Queen Elizabeth felt the necessity of somebody to administer large doses of flattery continually, Raleigh, whose fount of adulation was perennial and inexhaustible, was re-established as an adjunct to the throne.

He signalized his return to favor by interceding with the Queen for the Puritan, John Udall, who had been imprisoned and was awaiting sentence of death, or at least of banishment, for advocating reforms in the established church. The Queen's Council was determined to silence him, but whether it were best to do so by hanging or by banishment the councillors were not agreed. Sir Walter nobly stepped forward in Udall's defence; but before a decision had been rendered, the poor man died in prison. He was a scholar of attainments, uncommon for his time, and had to his credit the compiling of a Hebrew grammar which was said to have been the first that had appeared in English; yet he died the death of a felon merely because he differed from the Queen in matters of ritual, or the least important part of religious worship. This event made a deep impression on Raleigh, whose views on religion were creditable to his head as well as his heart. He was charged with caring little for religion, and in fact accused of atheism, but, as his last days show, most unjustly.

He was the uncompromising foe, not only of the Spaniards, but of their religion, and once wrote of the Spanish priests: "For matter of religion it would require a particular volume to set down how irreligiously they cover their greedy and ambitious practises with the veil of piety; for, sure am I, there is no kingdom or commonwealth in all Europe, but if reformed, they invade it for 'religion's sake.' If it be, as they term 'catholic,' they pretend title: as if the kings of Castile were the natural heirs of all the world; and so, between both, no kingdom is unsought."

This arraignment of the Spaniards and their religion was issued at the time Sir Walter first appeared to the public as a writer of vigorous prose. It was the occasion of his report on the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of the Azores, published in the latter part of 1591, which was an account of the heroic action and death of his kinsman, Sir Richard Grenville. Sir Richard, it will be recalled, had commanded Raleigh's Roanoke fleet in 1585, and was not considered altogether blameless for the subsequent misfortunes of the colony. Still, he was knighted in 1587, and when, in the summer of 1591, rumors were rife that another armada was being assembled by Spain to act against England, he was sent out to intercept what war-ships he could on the high seas.

He commanded a ship in Admiral Howard's squadron called the Revenge, and, in company with his commander, was overtaken in the Azores by a fleet of fifty Spanish war-ships. There were but six fighting vessels in the English fleet, so the Admiral signalled a retreat and set the example by flight. But many of Grenville's crew were ashore, and before he could get the wind in his sails he was surrounded by a cordon of Spanish galleons, from which there was no escape. Among them was the great San Felipe, a ship of fifteen hundred tons, from the over-topping decks of which a plunging fire was directed upon the doomed Revenge, while from ten to fifteen other ships of large size joined in the battle, which was waged from mid-afternoon till the next morning. Two thousand men were killed on both sides, and several ships were sunk, but still the Revenge  held out until a helpless wreck.

Says Raleigh himself in his account of the fight: "Nothing was to be seen but the naked hull of a ship, and that almost a skeleton, having received eight hundred shot of great artillery some under water; her deck covered with the limbs' and carcases of forty valiant men; the rest all wounded and painted with their own blood; her masts beat overboard; all her tackle cut asunder; her upper works razed, and level with the water, and she herself incapable of receiving any direction or motion, except that given her by the billows."

The gallant Grenville, who was wounded early in the action, desired to blow up his ship and sink with her to the bottom of the bay, but was overruled by the survivors. They were forced to surrender, and Grenville was taken on board a galleon just in time to expire, after venting his valiant spirit in these words: "Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and a quiet mind, for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do, fighting for his country, his queen, his religion, and honor. Whereby my soul most joyfully departeth out of this body, and shall always leave behind it an everlasting fame of a valiant and true soldier, that hath done his duty as he was bound to do."

Grenville sacrificed his life in the service of his queen; but the penurious Elizabeth perceived only that he had also sacrificed one of her noble war-ships, which was the first actually taken in battle by the Spaniards, who were as rejoiced as the English were depressed. But Raleigh had no regrets, save for the loss of life, even though he himself had fitted out the expedition in which had sailed the Revenge. Commenting upon the fact that, soon after the fight, she and fourteen Spanish war-ships were cast away in a storm and destroyed, he says: "So it pleased them to honor the burial of that renowned ship, the Revenge, not suffering her to perish alone, for the great honor she achieved in her lifetime." Equally elevated is the sentiment he expresses in referring to his cousin's final end: "What became of his body, whether it were buried in the sea or on the land, we know not. The comfort that remaineth to his friends is, that he hath ended his life honorably in respect of the reputation won to his country, and of the fame to his posterity; and that, being dead, he hath not outlived, his own honor."

The Queen's captains were greater than their sovereign, for Drake and Hawkins, Frobisher, Davis, and Raleigh, would have conquered half the Spanish world, and swept the wide waters throughout their length and breadth, had it not been for the vacillating and petticoated occupant of the throne. She had the power, unfortunately, to control, to curb, and throw into prison, if they proved recalcitrant, those noble worthies who worked so unceasingly for the extension of her realm. Elizabeth's whims carried greater weight than the matured opinions of her counsellors, so what could be expected of a nation that had set up such a tyrannical virago as its ruler? Somehow it progressed—though slowly in spite of her; somehow its enemies were overcome, and its colonies were planted, notwithstanding her objections to expenses of the sort that were essential to great undertakings. But it was not the Queen who bore the burdens incidental to these expeditions, so much as her enterprising subjects; and Sir Walter Raleigh generally assumed the major portion, as was emphasized in the outfitting of the next expedition that sailed in 1592. It consisted of fifteen vessels, of which number the Queen contributed only two, while Hawkins and Raleigh equipped and sent three or four. Sir Walter was the author of this scheme for attacking the Spaniards in their own waters, and not only supervised all the preparations, but invested in the expedition more money than his whole estate amounted to, having had recourse for the purpose to the money lenders, who charged him most usurious rates. Yet when a settlement was made, after prizes worth several million pounds had been captured, the Queen claimed vastly more than the government's share, and barely allowed Raleigh the amount of his original contribution, let alone pay for his services.

It was in pursuance of Raleigh's long-cherished plan: to weaken the enemy by plundering his rich settlements and treasure-fleets, such as Panama, Cartagena, and the silver-laden carracks that voyaged between the isthmus and Seville. To this end the expedition was fitted out, of which he had the Queen's promise that he should be admiral. Adverse winds delayed the departure of the squadrons until tidings had reached Spain, and Raleigh, knowing how futile would then be an attack upon people and places forewarned, changed the destination of the fleet from Panama to the Azores and coast of Spain.

The fifteen vessels had waited in the Thames from the middle of March to the first of May, and Sir Walter, compelled to "row up and down with every tide, from Gravesend to London," was, as he expressed it, more grieved than ever he was "at anything of this world for this cross weather." When finally aboard his flag-ship and away, he was still within the possibilities of further detention, though it was not the wind, this time, but a crotchet of the Queen, that took him adversely. He was hardly at sea, in truth, before Sir Martin Frobisher was after him with most peremptory orders to return.