Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

Twelve Years a Prisoner


Raleigh heard the fearful sentence without a tremor, and after it was delivered calmly addressed the lords, requesting merely, that though he was to suffer the extreme penalty, it might not be through the ignominious death prescribed by the vengeful judge. A disdainful smile played about his lips, and his eyes flashed angrily, as he also demanded that, if Cobham were executed, he should precede him to the scaffold, since, he said, "he can face neither me nor death, without acknowledging his falsehoods."

He was taken to a cell in Winchester Castle, where, according to his enemies, his high courage deserted him to the extent that he wrote to the King begging him to spare his life for future service in his Majesty's behalf. Fully believing his end was nigh, he wrote a farewell letter to his wife which, though he was in error as to his immediate demise, reveals the workings of his sorrow-stricken heart, but gives no evidence of fear:

". . . You shall receive, dear wife, my last words in these my last lines. My love I send you, that you may keep it when I am dead; and my counsel, that you may remember it when I am no more. I would not with my last will present you with sorrows, dear Bess. Let them with me go to the grave, and be buried with me in the dust. And, seeing it is not the will of God that ever I shall see you in this life, bear my destruction gently, and with a heart like yourself."

After minute instructions as to the disposition of his properties, he continued:

"Remember your poor child for his father's sake, that chose and loved you in his happiest times. Get those letters which I writ to the Lords, wherein I sued for my life; but God knoweth that it was for you and yours that I desired it; but it is true that I disdain myself for begging it. And know, dear wife, that your son is the child of a true man, and who, in his own respect, despiseth Death, and all his misshapen, ugly forms.

"I cannot write much. God knows how hardly I stole this time, when all sleep; and it is time to separate my thoughts from this world. Beg my dead body, which living was denied you, and either lay it at Sherborne, if the land continue [in your possession], or in Exeter church, by my father and mother.

"I can write no more. Time and Death  call me away. The everlasting, infinite, powerful, and inscrutable God, that is goodness itself, mercy itself, the true life and light, keep you and yours; have mercy on me, teach me to forgive my persecutors and false accusers; and send us to meet in His glorious kingdom! My true wife, farewell. Bless my poor boy; pray for me. May God hold you both in his arms.

"Written with the dying hand of sometime thy husband; but now, alas, overthrown.

"Yours that was, but now not my own.


True, he was no longer his own; he was completely at the mercy of the King, and the "wise fool" played with his victim as a cat plays with a mouse. Had he sent Sir Walter directly to the block, as the tortured prisoner expected would be his fate, greater mercy would have been shown than was accorded him; but fifteen long and agonizing years were yet to be added to that life which had been declared forfeit to the King. The infamous James only delayed signing Sir Walter's death-warrant because he had yet other tortures in store for him. One of the perjured judges who condemned him declared on his deathbed that the justice of England had never been so degraded and injured as in that condemnation, and it may be added that never had an inscrutable Providence permitted a baser sovereign to wring the heart-strings of a nobler subject!

The hapless instigators of the "surprising treason," Clerke and Watson, were executed, and their remains degraded, on November 29th. Their accomplice, George Brooke, followed them to the scaffold a week later. The headsman held aloft the dissevered head of Brooke, and cried out, "God save the King!" as usual, but there was no response from the crowd. The people were sullen, dissatisfied, and even the dull intelligence of the King could perceive that they considered his worthless life too high a purchase at the cost of so many subjects.

Now the applause of the populace, composed though it was of an uncouth nation's "shin-fed savages," was sweet to the ear of this Scottish immigrant, and he quickly veered about to the side of clemency. He planned a farce to take the place of tragedy, so that when, on December 10th, Grey, Cobham, and Markham were brought to the block, they were severally confronted with a commutation of their sentence; that is, their agonies were prolonged, their deaths postponed, though all perished miserably in the end so miserably, indeed, that they really died a thousand deaths before the sweet relief of final dissolution.

The agonizing scene was prolonged through several hours, and from his grated window in the castle Sir Walter saw it all. He saw Markham first led to the block, where he was permitted to pray, and where, urged by the sheriff, he declared his sentence just. Then he was led away, and in his place stood Grey, with whom a like farce was enacted, after he, too, had prepared himself by prayer to meet his doom. Last of all came Cobham, who prayed so long and loud that the impatient spectators cried out that he must have been informed of the forthcoming reprieve. His seeming indifference, too, with the axe and the executioner beside him, appeared to confirm this impression.

Finally all the actors in this strange tragedy disappeared, and the bewildered Raleigh, gazing distractedly through the bars, too far distant to hear what had been said, wondered what had, in truth, taken place. Perhaps the prisoners were to be executed at some other spot! He could not believe they had been more than reprieved, and every instant he expected his own summons to the block. But he had heard the shouts of the "shin-eaters" as they acclaimed the magnanimity of their sovereign, and may have gained an inkling of the truth. "God save our King!" they had loudly shouted, and James, promptly informed of the fact, fancied himself a very grand and magnanimous sovereign indeed.

Perhaps we are wrong in judging the occurrences of that age by the standards of our own; but was not human life the same then as now—man made in the image of his Maker? The Englishmen of that day were gross, brutal, bestial, if we may believe the historians. Queen Elizabeth saw no impropriety in beating her maids of honor "so that those beauteous girls could often be heard crying and lamenting in a piteous manner."

Did not the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey receive such despiteful treatment, "being pinched and boxed, and ill-treated in other manners which she dare not relate," that she often wished herself dead? So severe were the punishments meted out for trivial offences, the death penalty being often invoked, that life lost its sacredness in the eyes of many.

"Throughout, a stern discipline, and the axe ready for every suspicion of treason great men, bishops, a chancellor, princes, the King's relatives, queens, a protector kneeling in the straw, sprinkled the Tower with their blood. One after the other they marched past, stretched out their necks: the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, the Earl of Surrey, Admiral Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, Lady Jane Grey and her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, Mary Stuart, the Earl of Essex all on the throne or the steps of the throne, in the highest ranks of honors, beauty, youth, and genius. Of the bright procession nothing is left but senseless trunks, marred by the tender mercies of the executioner."—Froude's History of England

No haste was made to relieve Raleigh's anxiety, and for a long time he awaited events, believing every hour might be his last. At last he was told that the King, in his clemency, had consented to render him his life for a season, and then he was committed to the Tower, there to pass the ensuing years, to the number of twelve, within its frowning walls.

A king who assumed the prerogatives of the Almighty, and who granted his subjects length of days, or cut them short, at his pleasure, could not but have inculcated in them a slavish humility, such as is disgustingly manifest in Raleigh whenever he suffered a reaction. In his dual personality existed a man and a puppet the former created by God, the latter bred in the vitiating atmosphere of courts. Against the God-given man no power on earth could prevail, for he feared not death, nor cared greatly for life. But the devitalized puppet was ever ready to bow the knee before base-born kings and queens, whom he had erroneously been taught to revere, as partaking more of the divine than the human. Hence we find him writing slaveringly to the monarch who had put his life in peril for no crime whatever, as though in the hands of the mongrel James were the keys of heaven and of earth.

This is the extent of Raleigh's self-degradation while a prisoner in the Tower, waiting, during a dozen years, permission to make his exit therefrom and perform his duties to the world. All that time the paltering James existed without the walls, king by the "grace of God" and the imbecility of a semi-civilized people, Sir Walter existed within, and, being thrown upon himself for entertainment, drew upon forces which hitherto he had not dreamed of possessing. It was not in his nature to remain at ease and quiescent, for the ferment of his mind was sufficient to keep his body in motion, and, deprived of friends sensate, he made friends of things inanimate.

Books were allowed him, and in a little garden adjacent to the "Bloody Tower" in which he was confined he was permitted to build a laboratory. As the most vindictive of his keepers reported to the King, "he hath converted a hen-house into a still-house, where he doth spend his time all the day in his distillations." This was several years after he had been committed, and that he passed his time there to some good account is shown by his decoction from spices and cordials, the fame of which induced the Queen to send for it in Prince Henry's last illness. The gallant Prince Henry was as unlike his father as one might wish him to be, and yet did not resemble his frivolous mother, possessing virtues to which they were strangers. Perhaps that is why he died in youth, before he became corrupted by the contaminating presence of his father; but however this may be, he manifested a strong regard for Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he formed an acquaintance that lasted till his death in 1612.

The young Prince often asked his father why he kept such a brilliant bird in a cage, and importuned him for his release; but the King did not consent to humor him until he was stretched upon his death-bed. It was only a promise that he gave him then, and a promise unfulfilled at that, for Raleigh owed his eventual release from prison to bribes he paid some influential members of the King's court, and not directly to the intercession of the Prince or his mother. To humor his young friend, however, Raleigh began writing his adventures, which interested the boy so greatly that he undertook and carried through a work which he called Observations on the Royal Navy and Sea Service, and dedicated to his friendly patron.

Prince Henry could not imagine this courtly and dignified cavalier, whose inbred delicacy of sentiment was in such striking contrast to his father's boorishness, capable of plotting that parent's destruction. He no more believed it than King James himself believed it; but the King had wronged Sir Walter too deeply to allow him unrestricted liberty. He did not deny his son and heir to the throne access to Sir Walter's quarters, and among his cheering consolations were the visits of the Prince. The most cheering, doubtless, was the presence in the Tower of Lady Raleigh, who was allowed to share his imprisonment part of the time, but who was subjected now and then to humiliating treatment at the hands of a brutish keeper, Sir William Waad. "Little Wat," their only child, was also a frequent inmate of the "Bloody Tower," which abode of gloom he enlivened with his pranks and laughter. He was ever a lively boy, early developing into a youth of reckless manners, somewhat after the pattern, perhaps, afforded him by his father. It is related that when just out of college he fought a duel with a foreigner who had offended him, and was obliged to fly the country in consequence, for a while remaining abroad. At a dinner one day, after the release of Sir Walter from the Tower, he became so hilarious, and told such an unseemly tale, that his outraged father buffeted him across the face. Filial respect forbade him to return the blow, but he quickly turned to the man sitting beside him and struck him a similar one to that he had received, with the audacious remark: "Box about [the table]; it will get to father anon!"

A second son, Carew, who was born in the Tower, survived both his brother and father, and became the heir to Raleigh's ruined fortunes. Having been divested of all his honors and means of livelihood, Sir Walter's fortunes were at a very low ebb before he left the Tower; and, in fact, he had not been long an inmate there before the process of despoliation began that soon deprived his wife and sons of what little he had given them. His Irish estates he had disposed of to one Boyle, afterward the Earl of Cork, in 1602. He had been compelled to vacate his palace in London, Durham House, that it might eventually fall into the hands of Cecil, the "Beagle," who "nosed out" good things for himself until the ending of his crooked existence in May, 1612,

But the most prized of Raleigh's possessions was the beautiful demesne of Sherborne, where he had built and planted, recreated and relaxed himself, amid the cares of Elizabeth's reign. Here he had planned to enjoy the last days of his life, and then pass the estate on to his heirs in perpetuity. He had provided, he thought, for the transfer of this estate to his son, in the guardianship of his wife; but when it was learned that King James desired Sherborne for his Scotch favorite, Car, Earl of Somerset, a flaw in the title was conveniently found by the obsequious Coke, who had hounded Raleigh to the scaffold's steps, and now deprived his wife and child of their sole means of support.

Sir Walter held Sherborne on a ninety-nine-year lease, which he transferred to his son in 1602, when he "set his house in order" on account of a prospective duel with Sir Amyas Preston. The duel was not fought, but a flaw was discovered in the transfer, as already intimated, and only through the intercession of Cecil was Lady Raleigh enabled to realize anything whatever from the estate. She was promised eight thousand pounds, a portion of which only was paid to be invested and lost in the fatal expedition to Guiana. When, yielding to the entreaties of Prince Henry, the King repurchased Sherborne from Car, to whom it had been conveyed, he gave him the sum of twenty thousand pounds. This was not in excess of its value, for when in Raleigh's possession it had yielded him an income of five thousand pounds a year. Lady Raleigh in vain entreated the King, on bended knees, flinging pride to the winds, to allow her to retain Sherborne as a place of abode. He stubbornly and invariably replied: "I maun ha' the land; I maun ha' it for Car," and in the interest of the favorite it was practically confiscated.

Thus passed out of Raleigh's possession the last of the large estates which he had received from Elizabeth. Shortly after, all his goods and chattels were, by the King's grant, placed in the hands of trustees for the benefit of his creditors, and he was actually impoverished. He had lost all but his title, and that, as the world well knew, was but an empty honor. As the years went on all men forgot his existence, except when they were occasionally reminded of him as formerly one of England's heroes; so he came to have a part in his country's traditions while yet alive. He became a memory only, save that now and then those who walked past the Tower saw him at exercise in the garden. But he was determined that his name should not perish, even though what he had done already had not secured for him recognition as one of England's worthies.

Taken from the field of active endeavor, in which like a man full grown he had well performed his part, Raleigh found, in the enforced leisure afforded by his imprisonment, the opportunity for his greatest literary labor. After several years of fruitless appeals and negotiations for freedom, he finally became settled in the conviction that his residence in the Tower was to be for life, be it long or short, and resigned himself to his fate. Then he called for pen and ink and paper, and set himself to the task of producing his long-contemplated History of the World. This work was his in every sense of the word, but in its production he had the sympathetic co-operation of England's greatest minds. "Rare Ben" Jonson wrote the title-verses, though he did not at first avow them; Heriot, Raleigh's friend, the philosopher, who wrote such an excellent account of the Roanoke colony, was his authority on chronology and geography; in fact, the historian of the Tower reached out all over London for collaborators in this great work, which was to make for him a posthumous reputation, though it was, at first, financially a failure.

The first edition of Raleigh's History  appeared in 1614, though its title had been registered three years earlier, and it was such a success as a literary product that another was published in 1617. Perhaps its sales were stimulated by the action of the King, who, morbidly jealous of Raleigh as a rival litterateur, ordered the first impression called in. This order was issued in January, 1615, the only excuse given for it being, in the words of James, that it was "too saucy in censuring the acts of princes." It was not a complete history of the world, for it was never finished, the reason appearing in the following anecdote: A short time before his death, the story runs, Sir Walter sent for his publisher and asked him how the work had sold. "So slowly," was the answer, "that it hath undone me."

With a sigh Sir Walter took from his desk the remaining portion of his History, in manuscript, and sadly said: "Ah friend, hath the first part undone thee? The second portion, then, shall undo ye no more. This ungrateful world is unworthy of it." So saying, he stepped to the hearth, where an open fire was burning, and casting the manuscript upon the coals, watched it until entirely consumed.

The History, as we know, was not Raleigh's sole literary achievement, though perhaps his greatest; for, besides his "output" from the Tower, already mentioned, he had written creditable verses, even a poem of such beauty as to be ascribed to Spenser. Besides his Discovery of Guiana, the Fight in the Azores, and the History, all of which were published in his lifetime, he left several works which appeared after his death, such as a Treatise on the West Indies, The Arts of Empire, and Maxims of the State, showing not only extreme versatility, but acute understanding. Though unappreciated by his contemporaries, and painfully aware of it, he yet "toiled terribly," as was said of him in Elizabeth's time, at the producing of immortal works for posterity to peruse.

Sir Walter seems to have given over thoughts of freedom, and, wrapped up as he was in his absorbing labors, he may not have been desirous of immediate liberty. Still, there were intercessions for him at the court where, after Prince Henry had departed, the Queen mother took an interest in his cause. He had the sad satisfaction of knowing that the world yet gave him an occasional thought, the still sadder knowledge that few of his friends remained alive to greet him, few of his enemies to revile him, should he secure release from his long imprisonment.

Cecil had left the world in which he strove for highest honors; the vain but harmless Arabella died a prisoner in the Tower, whence the jewels of which she was so fond were abstracted by the King's order ere her body was cold. Just six months before she was liberated from the Tower by death came Sir Walter Raleigh's liberation, through the King's order, issued on January 30, 1615. He was permitted to leave the Tower in charge of a keeper; but on March 17th, following, he was allowed by the royal council to go abroad, under supervision, and make preparations for a voyage to which he had looked forward during all his years of imprisonment.