Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

At the King's Mercy


Why did Sir Walter Raleigh return directly to England after the disastrous ending of the flotilla expedition? If it were merely spoils that he was after, and vengeance upon the Spaniards that he was seeking, why did he not ravage the settlements in the West Indies and along the coast of terra firma? He might have had them at his mercy, for he had a fleet well equipped for privateering, which had done nothing while the flotilla was up the Orinoco, and which did nothing after its return, though the crews were seething with dissatisfaction at their admiral's inaction. He had said to Bacon, if tradition is true, that in default of ore from the mine, he would bring back treasure from the plate-fleet, that made the annual voyage from Panama to Spain. When Bacon suggested that such an act would be piracy, he rejoined: "Piracy? Who ever heard of men being pirates for millions?" He had correctly gauged the sentiment of the times and of the court, but he was later declared a pirate, in spite of the prevailing opinion that one could not commit an act of piracy against Spain on any sea south of the equator.

Raleigh might have evaded his doom for a while—perhaps have escaped the penalty of his crime altogether—if he had but taken advantage of his position as commander of a fleet containing a crew well disposed for privateering, or if he had yielded to his own inclination and hastened over to France, where he would have been well received and safe from his foes; or, still again, had he betaken himself to his American settlement at Roanoke, which he had long desired to see, which he had kept in mind for more than thirty years, and which—or, rather, the immediate successor of which was a flourishing colony of Virginia. Yet again, had not the Indians of Guiana begged him to remain and reign over them as their king, promising him true allegiance, and a retreat from his enemies, in the vast Guianian forests, where he would be safe from harm so long as he lived? Though he invented the tales told, as he alleged, by the Indians of Guiana in Elizabeth's time, it is true that he was considered by them as their friend, that they held him in remembrance long after he had died, and sent messengers to seek for him even while he was a prisoner in the Tower. Nearly two hundred years after he had visited the Indians of Guiana, Alexander von Humboldt found traditions respecting him still extant among their descendants, and, according to another, a banner he had left with them was still sacredly preserved as late as the middle of the last century. Raleigh had the faculty of winning men to him whenever he deigned to make the effort, and to hold them for years, as witness Kemys and Whidden, Piggot and King, devoted and long-serving followers who were ready to lay down their lives in his behalf. So there is no doubt at all that Sir Walter Raleigh could have found a following whichsoever way he might turn; but he thought only of wife and son awaiting him in England, and, despite the decree of outlawry against him there, he chose to take the highway leading to the headsman's block.

Raleigh's fleet arrived off the coast of England the second week in June, 1618, and on the 21st of that month the ill-fated Destiny  entered Plymouth harbor. Lady Raleigh met her husband almost as soon as he had set foot on shore, and from his own lips heard the story of hardship, disaster, and fatalities. They scarcely had time to mourn together when Raleigh was arrested by the Vice-Admiral of Devon, "Sir Judas" Stukely, who had received his orders from the King. He was Sir Walter's kinsman, but he performed his revolting duty with alacrity, and showed no mercy to the help-less pair, so soon parted after such a long separation.

The arrest of Raleigh was the sequel to a dramatic scene that took place in the month of May preceding at the court of King James. Spain's vindictive ambassador, Gondomar, had received the tidings from St. Thomas, on the Orinoco. He hastened with the news to the court, and bursting excitedly into King James's presence, shouted: "Pirata! pirata! pirata!   Your man Raleigh is a pirate, for he has murdered the subjects of my king, and has plundered them of their possessions! Now I demand the penalty, O King!"

"The penalty shall be paid," answered James; and this reply was the prelude to the last scene of all in Sir Walter Raleigh's life—that which ended with his execution. For the King's proclamation swiftly followed, declaring that this recreant subject, Raleigh, had "made an horrible invasion of the town of St. Thome, and committed a malicious breaking of the Peace, which hath been so happily established, and so long inviolately continued."

Aside from his inclination for peace, King James had an interest in keeping the favor of Spain, at that moment, on account of the marriage engagement then being negotiated between his son and the Spanish infanta. It would not do, of course, to allow a subject of the King to break the peace with Spain while his Majesty was seeking an alliance with its royal family. A victim was demanded; Sir Walter became that victim, and was sacrificed in expiation of his offence. He might have escaped, even after his arrival at Plymouth; for news of the King's proclamation had reached him at sea, and a French vessel was awaiting him in the harbor—provided, probably, by his far-seeing and self-sacrificing wife. For a while he was inclined to take the only road that then offered for liberty; but he reasoned with himself that to do so would be an acknowledgment of guilt, and chose to stay. On the way to London, while in charge of Stukely, he passed by beautiful Sherborne, where he had spent the happiest and busiest days of his life. "All this was mine," he could not refrain from saying, in the bitterness of his spirit, "and it was taken from me unjustly." This was true, but still it was remembered to his injury when the malicious King heard of it.

Another charge against him was that he secured delay, while on the road to London, by making himself sick with a drug; but by means of it he was enabled to write his masterly Apology for the Voyage to Guiana, which has long outlived his enemies and is to-day his vindication to posterity. He was outrageously abused for using this subterfuge to gain time, but the object certainly justified the means. Time was most precious to him then, for, as he himself said, in asking for opportunity to arrange his earthly affairs: "As soon as ever I come to London they will have me to the Tower and cut off my head!"

He had a sure prevision of his fate, and if, as was further charged against him, he at the last attempted to escape to France, was he not justified in such an effort? Raleigh's sad fate was attracting the attention not only of Spain's royal ruler, but also that of France, who would gladly have offered the persecuted man an asylum in his kingdom. The French ambassador somehow communicated this fact to him, and boats were provided on the Thames. But Stukely became privy to the matter, and when at last Sir Walter, one dark night, set out for the French ship, he was followed by another boat containing an armed guard, arrested, and returned to land. For frustrating this attempt, which he had convinced Sir Walter he was desirous of promoting, Stukely received a th9itsand pounds, and it was on this occasion that lie earned the title which was afterward bestowed upon him of "Sir Judas," since he sold his master for a sum of silver.

The captive's only remark when he discovered Stukely's perfidy was, "Sir Lewis, these actions will not turn out to your credit"—a dignified protest which the miserable wretch must often have recalled when he became, soon after, an outcast from society. There may seem to have been no need of all this by-play, this protracted torture of a victim already so securely clutched that there was never a chance for his escape; but it was in conformity with the King's policy, in order to induce Sir Walter to convict himself of his guilt by these vain endeavors.

King James was resolved upon an execution, but he desired that it should be carried out "decently and in order," so that his popularity might not suffer. Executed Sir Walter should be—there was no doubt of that; but should he be delivered over to the King of Spain for him to exact reparation, after the methods of the Inquisition, or would it be better to have him "lawfully tried" in his own country? The Spanish King declared himself satisfied, so he was put to death for his crimes, and James appealed to Sir Francis Bacon, the recently created Lord Chancellor, for advice how to commit the murder judicially. This learned but truckling sycophant advised the King that inasmuch as Sir Walter Raleigh was already attainted of high treason, he could not "judicially be drawn in question for any crime since committed. But," proceeds the wary assassin, "the King may issue his royal warrant for an execution upon the conviction of 1603, and at the same time publish a narrative of his late crimes and offences in print!"

In other words, the King was advised to murder Sir Walter on the strength of his conviction for treason fifteen years before; but the public should be given to understand, and the King of Spain made to believe, that he was executed on account of crimes committed in 1618. Under the semblance of a legal proceeding, said Bacon, he might be called before the King's council of state, and be told that this form of procedure was taken "because he was civilly dead already." Being "civilly dead," of course, he could not plead nor cause any trouble to the King or his eminent judges by a protracted trial that might excite public attention.

The prisoner did plead, however, when finally brought before the King's council, in accordance with Bacon's advice, that he had received a pardon by the issuance of the royal commission, and he cited the opinion of the Lord Chancellor himself in the matter. Fearing the very consequences of which he was then a victim, just before sailing on that fatal voyage Raleigh had inquired of Bacon if his safety would not be better assured by a pardon under the Great Seal rather than inferred on the strength of the commission. Bacon had replied: "You have a pardon  already by the terms of your commission." Sir Walter hinted that more money would be forthcoming, if necessary for the purpose; but the illustrious lawyer, who was then friendly to him, answered: "As money is the knee-timber of your voyage, spare your purse in this particular; for, upon my life, you have a sufficient pardon for all that is past already, the King having, under his Great Seal, made you admiral of your fleet, and given you power of martial law over your officers and soldiers. Your commission is as good a pardon for all former offences as the law of England can afford you!"

Could subserviency to royalty go further than this, or come nearer to criminality, when Bacon, in the year 1618, reversed his decision of 1603 in order that his master, the King, might take the life of an offending subject? He was not alone in his base perversion of custom and law, for the chief-justice, one Montagu, vied with him in his haste to lay Sir Walter's head at the feet of the King. Asked by him if he had anything to say before sentence was pronounced, Raleigh replied: "The judgment I received to die, so long since, cannot now, I hope, be strained; for since it was his Majesty's pleasure to grant me a commission to proceed on a voyage beyond the seas, wherein I had martial power on the life and death of others, so, under favor, I presume I stand discharged of that judgment. . . Under that commission I undertook a voyage to do honor to my sovereign, and to enrich his kingdom with gold, of the ore whereof this hand hath found and taken in Guiana. But the enterprise, notwithstanding my endeavors, had no other issue than what was fatal to me the loss of my son and the wasting of my whole estate."

The brutal judge here interrupted him: "The matter of Guiana is foreign to the purpose. The commission does not infer a pardon, because treason is a crime which must be pardoned by express words, not by implication."

"Then," said Raleigh, perceiving that his sentence was already predetermined, his doom pronounced, "I can only put myself upon the mercy of the King. His Majesty, as well as others who are here present, have been of opinion that in my former trial I received but hard measure. Had the King not been exasperated anew against me, certain am I that I might have lived a thousand years  before he would have taken advantage of that conviction."

He might well have added, what he once said at a former time: "If I had not loved and honored the King truly, and trusted in his goodness somewhat too much, I had not suffered death." But he was doomed already, and the sentence pronounced by the judge was merely perfunctory. It was that he should be beheaded on the following morning, and the judge intimated that he ought to feel thankful that he was not to be hanged, as his former sentence provided, and his corpse subjected to the indignity of being quartered and set up on a pole.

Sir Walter heard his sentence with calmness, as he had heard that of fifteen years before; but he suffered no relapse of obsequiousness, as then, except that, as an Englishman, born into a world of fawning servility, he could utter no word of reproach to the King. "I desire thus much favor," he said, addressing the lords with dignity: "that I may not be cut off suddenly, but have some time granted me before my execution, to settle my affairs and my mind more than they yet are. I have somewhat to do in discharge of my conscience, and I have somewhat to satisfy his Majesty in. I would beseech the favor of pen, ink, and paper. And I also beseech your lordships that when I come to die I may have leave to speak freely at my farewell. . . . And I beseech you all to pray for me."

The prisoner's reasonable request for time in which to prepare himself for the last long journey was refused. The King's warrant had been already drawn up and dated that very day; execution was to follow as soon after as the scaffold could be erected in Old Palace Yard. The craven monarch was far away, on a "progress "through the country, beyond the reach of prayers or petitions. He desired the execution to take place before his return before the public should become aware of the intended crime, and arouse to prevent it, or protest. It mattered not much to Raleigh, as he said, truly but despairingly, for he was old, sickly, in disgrace, certain of death, and life was already wearisome. Still, he was by no means cast down, nor did his natural spirits forsake him while the blood ran in his veins. On the morning of the trial, when summoned in haste from the Tower, a servant begged his attention to the condition of his hair, which had not been combed before he started. "Let them comb it that are to have it," he said to the man, with a smile; and then added: "Dost know, Peter, of any plaister that will set a man's head on again when it is off?"

Taken to the Gate House at Westminster, after sentence had been given, Raleigh there received such of his friends as had news of the terrible event to take place within a few hours' time. To one of them he said: "You will come to-morrow morning, of course. I do not know what you may do for a place, but for my part, I am sure of one!  You must make what shift you can."

To another, who had reproved him "for carrying it with too much bravery," he replied: "It is my last mirth in this world. Do not grudge it to me. When I come to the sad parting, you will see me grave enough." And he was, as his confessor, the Dean of Westminster, testified: "When I began to encourage him against the fear of death, he seemed to make so light of it that I wondered at him. . . . He was the most fearless of death that ever was known, and the most resolute and confident, yet with reverence and conscience."

But the dean could get no confession from him of guilt in any sort, such as the King desired him to, for Raleigh said to him, when charged with breaking the peace with Spain: "How could I break peace with a king who within these four years took divers of my own men, bound them back to back, and drowned them? As for burning the town, it stands upon the King of England's own ground. I did him no wrong in that."

"Your assertion of innocency," said the King's confessor, sanctimoniously—"is it not an oblique taxing of the justice of the realm?"

"Nay, nay," replied Raleigh, quickly. "I may confess that by course of law I must justly die, but you must give me leave to stand upon my innocency in the fact." Thus the King's minions pursued the victim of royal malignity to the verge of the scaffold, hounding him till he passed beyond their reach; yet did he treat them all with courtesy, and of the King no man ever heard him speak even reproachfully, though that poor fool was of the sort to be held in derision by all men, instead of being served with awe and reverence.

Scarcely was Sir Walter allowed time to see his wife alone, so importunate were the lay and religious servants of James to have the last word with him; but in the night that succeeded his sentence she came to the Gate House, and was admitted to a last interview. Throwing herself into his arms, she told him, in a voice choked by sobs, that she had only just learned that he was to be taken from her in the morning. True, she had been assured by the stony-hearted James that she should have the privilege of burying his body after death, but she had not suspected that it would occur so soon.

Straining her to his heart, Raleigh impressed a kiss upon her brow, and said, while his eyes shone with tenderness: "It is well, dear Bess, that thou mayest dispose of that dead which thou hadst not always the disposal of when alive." They continued in conversation till midnight, reviewing hurriedly their happy years of married life, mourning their dead, and planning the future for their only son. Soon after the midnight hour had struck, Sir Walter conducted Lady Raleigh to the door, and there took leave of her for the last time, imploring her to depart, to be brave, and to pray for the safety of his soul. Their reunion would come, he assured her, and no king's edict could part them for eternity.

He passed the remainder of the time till morning in drawing up his last testament, in writing directions for the correction of an injustice to a former friend, and in formulating an answer to the charges made against him. When morning dawned he welcomed with a smile the Dean of Westminster, from whom he received the last sacrament, remarking that he had no fear of death, for it was but an imagination, and the manner of his death, though to others it might seem grievous, yet he had rather die so than of a burning fever. He then breakfasted and smoked a pipe of tobacco, after which a cup of sack was brought him. This he drank with seeming pleasure, and on being asked if it suited him, replied: "I will answer as the fellow did who drank of St. Giles's bowl, as he went to Tyburn, 'It is a good drink, if a man might tarry by it.'

On his way to the scaffold he saw an aged and bald-headed man standing uncovered in the cold morning air, and taking off a cap which he wore he tossed it to him with the words, "Here, my friend, you need this more than I do," then passed on, smiling and erect. His carefully arranged dress and his dignity of bearing recalled to those who knew him the Sir Walter Raleigh of Elizabeth's time; but his wan and wrinkled face, his ague-stricken frame and venerable aspect dispelled this illusion.

He mounted the scaffold bravely; and when the executioner approached and asked his forgiveness for the deed he was about to commit, he placed both hands upon his shoulders and said he had naught against him, for he was but doing his duty. Then he demanded to see the axe; and when the man hesitated, he said: "I prithee let me see it. Dost think I'm afraid of it?" Passing his thumb along its edge, he returned it, saying: "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a cure for all diseases!"

Before submitting himself to the executioner he made a long harangue, in which he reiterated his declaration of innocence, and also made a statement clearing him of the charge that he was accessory to the death of Essex. "It was said that I was a persecutor of him, and that I stood in a window over against him when he suffered and puffed out tobacco in disdain of him. But I take God to witness that I did shed tears for him when he died. And, as I hope to look in the face of God hereafter, my Lord Essex did not see my face when he suffered, and my soul hath many times been grieved that I was not near unto him when he died, because I understood that he asked for me, to be reconciled to me. . . . I knew that he was a noble gentleman, and that it would be worse with me when he was gone, for those that did set me up against him did afterward set themselves up against me."

Begging the sheriff for a few moments more of grace, he said in explanation, and with a sad smile: "I have a long journey to take, you know, and must bid all this company farewell." His friends now crowded about to shake his hand, and when all had gone he said: "Now I entreat that you will all join with me in prayer to that great God of heaven whom I have grievously offended; that He will, of his almighty goodness, extend to me forgiveness, being a man full of vanity, and one who hath lived a sinful life, in such callings as have been most inducive to it; for I have been a soldier, a sailor, and a courtier all of them courses of wickedness and vice. But I trust He will not only cast away my sin, but will receive me into ever-lasting life."

Kneeling at the block, he said to the headsman: "When I stretch forth my hands, despatch me." The dean suggested that he should turn his face to the east, when he replied: "What matters it which way the head lie, so the heart be right?" He then gave the signal to the executioner, and a delay ensuing, he again stretched out his hands, saying: "What dost thou fear? Strike, man! strike!" Two cruel blows severed the head from the body. When it was held aloft by the headsman a shudder of horror ran through the throng about the scaffold, and one man shouted: "We have not such another head to cut off!"

The gory trophy of a king's crime was placed in a red leather bag and given to Lady Raleigh, who caused it to be embalmed, and kept it by her through nearly thirty years of widowhood. Bequeathed to her only surviving son, Carew Raleigh, it was taken with him to the grave when he was buried by his father's side at Westminster.