Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

Queen Elizabeth's Favorite


What were the "considerations" that induced the Queen to retain Raleigh in England, and when did that intimate acquaintance begin which endured between them so many years? These are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered; but it is thought, as respects the friendship that existed between the great Elizabeth and her handsome courtier, that it had its commencement sometime in the year 1582.

The Queen had known of him, and favorably, before his return from Ireland; but did their personal acquaintance begin in the romantic manner narrated by the old historian, when, one day encountering her Majesty, attended by her courtiers, in a marshy spot, he threw his rich velvet coat upon the ground for her to walk over? This act would be characteristic of Raleigh, as we shall later come to know him, for he was by nature an adroit flatterer, and cultivated the arts of a courtier so skilfully that for a long period the Queen was fain to consider him her most devoted admirer.

Another anecdote, and by some considered "equally apocryphal" with that already cited, relates that "among the second causes of Raleigh's growth . . . that variance between him and the Lord Grey in his descent into Ireland was a principal, for it drew them both over to the council table, where he had much the better in the telling of his tale, and so much that the. Queen and the lords took no small mark of the man and his parts. Thus," continues the narrator, who was a personal acquaintance of our hero, "Raleigh had gotten the Queen's ear at a trice, and she began to be taken with his elocution, and loved to hear him give his reasons to her demands, and the truth is she took him for a kind of oracle, which nettled them all."

"Fain would I climb, but yet fear I to fall," Raleigh is said to have scratched with a diamond upon a window-pane of the palace, to which, it is related, the Queen added: "If thy heart fail thee, then climb not at all." His heart did not fail, whether the inscriptions were as apocryphal as the story of the cloak, or were ever traced, indeed. He "climbed" to some advantage, too, and rapidly made his way into the Queen's affections. There was a great disparity of years between these two, as well as of temperament, for Elizabeth had been born in 1533 and Raleigh in 1552. Thus, the half of an ordinary span of life separated them; yet the glamour around the person of the Queen more than compensated, in the eyes of the young soldier, for her lack of physical charms.

Walter Raleigh at that time, says a contemporary, was a model of manly beauty. "He had a good presence in a handsome and well-compacted person; a strong, natural wit and a better judgment; with a bold and plausible tongue, whereby he could set out his parts to the best advantage." He was six feet in height, admirably proportioned, graceful and dignified in his carriage, with features symmetrically moulded. His forehead was broad and capacious, his eyes bright and sparkling, his hair dark and abundant; and as he was always animated and audacious when in the presence of the Queen, he became, as a Flemish Jesuit expressed it, "the darling of this English Cleopatra," who often craved the presence of bright faces about her. His ready wit was grateful, too, for the vain and frivolous Elizabeth could appreciate mental attributes as well as external adornments.

We know, from the portraits that have been preserved of Raleigh, that he carried dress and decoration to the pitch of absurdity, and that his stalwart figure was frequently attired in a manner more befitting a clown or a mountebank than a sensible soldier who had fought valiantly in the wars. One full-length portrait represents him in a pinked vest of white satin, with a gorgeously flowered brown doublet embroidered in pearls, a hat with a black feather decorated with a ruby, a bejeweled dagger on his right hip, a sword-belt, pearl-besprinkled, round his waist, and on his feet buff-colored shoes tied with white ribbons. In another he is clad in his famous armor, which was of such exquisite workmanship that after his execution it was considered worthy of being preserved in the Tower of London. It was of silver, studded with gems, and the sword and belt which Raleigh wore when in armor were decorated with diamonds, pearls, and rubies. Sometimes the shoes he wore (a foreign ambassador at the English court averred) were "so bedecked with jewels that they were computed to be worth more than six hundred pieces of gold."

Elizabeth, however, expected her gaudily clad courtiers to transform themselves in a twinkling into armor-clad men of war, and it was doubtless the combination of the two in Raleigh that attracted her attention.

It was probably Raleigh's own fault that, though he won favor of the Queen, she never entirely gave him her confidence. She was attracted by his fine features and figure, his gaudy costumes, his brilliant personality, and his exceptional talents, but to the inner councils he was rarely admitted. He was, at thirty years of age and beyond, still the flippant courtier, the reckless, dare-devil soldier, and many were the affrays in which he participated with the hangers-on at court. Under a date previous to his rise to royal favor, it is recorded in the "council-book of the court," that "Sir Thomas Perrott and Walter Rawley, gentlemen, being called before their Lordships, for a fray betwixt them, were, by their Lordships' order, committed prisoners to the Fleet."  A week later it is recorded in the same book: "This day, Sir Thomas Perrott, knight, and Walter Rawley, gentleman, being called before their Lordships, and commanded to bring sureties the day following, to enter into bonds with them for keeping of Her Majesty's peace, the one towards the other, and in the mean season to demean themselves quietly, were released of their imprisonment in the Fleet."

This, to his discredit be it stated, was the first entry of Walter Raleigh's name in the "council register"; but this committal to prison was not by any means his last, for he later languished there in peril of his life, and for reasons not so directly traceable to his own folly. The doors of the historic Fleet seemed always ajar for the brawling younglings of Elizabeth's court, and three years after they closed upon Raleigh's companion in the brawl, Sir Thomas Perrott, who had offended the jealous Queen by marrying Lady Dorothy Devereux, sister of' the Earl of Essex. Under similar circumstances—as we shall later see Walter Raleigh himself was sent to prison by Elizabeth, who could brook no rival in the field of love, and punished severely those of her admirers who ventured to marry without her sanction.

At the time of Raleigh's advent at court, the Queen was, or seemed to be, infatuated with the. Earl of Leicester, who was more than suspected of having poisoned his young and beautiful wife, the unfortunate Amy Robsart, not to mention other crimes of which he was accused. His deplorable morals, however, seemed to be no bar to his advancement, though the Queen's affection for him was not so deep that she could not attach a portion of his estate, after his decease, in order to reimburse herself for a debt he owed her at the time of his death.

Though conscious of the insecurity of his position as Queen's favorite, Leicester is said to have introduced Walter Raleigh to Elizabeth. Becoming alarmed at the rapid advances made by the younger man in the estimation of the Queen, he endeavored to offset them by the introduction of a still younger, with the result that this new rival far surpassed either of his old competitors in the race for honors and royal regard. This gentleman was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, whose descent was as rapid as his advancement, and who finally paid the penalty of his temerity and folly by an ignominious death upon the scaffold. The intimacy of Leicester and Raleigh at the outset may be inferred by a letter written by the latter to the former while temporarily in supposed disgrace and absent from the court. "The Queen," he says, "is on very good terms with you, and, thanks be to God, well pacified. You are again her 'Sweet Robin.'"

The royal charmer of these distinguished men is described by one who saw her frequently as "of personage tall, of hair and complexion fair, and therewithal well-favored, but high-nosed; of limbs and feature neat, of a stately and majestic comportment." He added what the world well knows that she favored more her father, the infamous Henry VIII, than her mother, the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. In her passions also, as well as her masculine character and physical nature, Elizabeth resembled her father more than the lovely Anne, whom that cruel father caused to be executed when she herself was but an infant.

A Venetian ambassador, who saw her when not quite twenty-two, testified to this paternal resemblance as being more striking than in her sister, "Bloody Mary." "Her face may rather be called pleasing than beautiful," he says. "She is tall and well made. Her complexion is fine, although somewhat tawny. Her eyes, and still more her hands which she takes care not to hide are of special beauty." She was, with reason, proud of her shapely hands, and a young Frenchman, who paints a word-picture of her at maturity, says: "I heard from my father that at every audience he had with her she pulled off her gloves more than a hundred times, to display her hands, which were, indeed, very beautiful and very white."

Such was the Circe who had enchained Walter Raleigh, who had bound him to her throne with silken fetters which she could sever at will but he could not. Not by her charms had she caught and held him (for they were less than ordinarily possessed by ladies of gentle birth), but by royal prestige and authority. To her he sacrificed his manhood, for her he committed deeds which should have brought the blush of shame to his handsome face, and she rewarded him most generously.

In the years 1582, 1583, and 1584 he received very profitable grants and licenses, such as leave to export broadcloths, the vending of wines, etc., which yielded him a large yearly revenue. The grant for the "farm of wines," as the monopoly of these licenses was called, he underlet to another at seven hundred pounds a year; and this was but one of his privileges, so that he soon grew wealthy, indeed, and set up an establishment as became a gentleman of substance.

It mattered not to Raleigh that these monopolies were oppressive to the people at large, that many victims paid under protest, and many others sought to evade what they justly considered a burdensome and superfluous tax. He exacted every pound that was his due, and, by means of holding his emissaries strictly to account, managed to extract a revenue of more than twelve hundred pounds a year from this privilege granted him by the Queen.

In July, 1585, he was given the important and lucrative office of Lord Warden of the Stanneries, or tin mines, and in September of that year was made lieutenant of the county of Cornwall. A few months later he became vice-admiral of the counties of Cornwall and Devon, with Lord Beauchamp as his deputy in the first county and Sir John Gilbert in the second. Though he farmed out his various licenses of wines and cloths, and governed in the main by deputies, he yet gave strict attention to his duties in their larger sense, mastering every detail, and issuing regulations which, especially as regards the mines of Cornwall, were very beneficial.

By the attainder of Anthony Babington, a convicted conspirator against the crown, who was executed for treason, Raleigh became, in 1586-87, a "landed gentleman in five English counties," for the Queen bestowed upon him all the forfeited properties of the traitor. He thus acquired three manors in Lincolnshire, besides lands and tenements in the same county; the manor of Lee, in Derbyshire; other lands and tenements in various villages, and the fine mansion known as Babington's Hall, together with the broad acres around it. He had boasted hitherto of a small patrimony only, situated in Devonshire; but now, by bounty of the Queen, he became possessed of this vast property, together with "all rents, profits, and revenues coming to Us by the said attainder." And they were for "the proper use and behoof of him, the said Walter Raleigh, his heirs and assigns, forever; without any acknowledgment to be therefore rendered unto Us, our heirs or successors."

This was not the last token of royal favor which Raleigh received, nor the last forfeited estate he was destined to succeed to, through the defection of its rightful owner; but at the end before it came, in truth he was to lose, not alone the favor of royalty, but every acre that had been bestowed upon him through favoritism and every dwelling he had owned.