Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

A Prisoner in the Tower


The orders received by Sir Walter were hardly unexpected, for it had been intimated to him two months before that the Queen was loath to have him leave her. Nor did he intend to disobey her command, though he continued with the fleet until well on its way to the destinations he himself was to designate. Then he divided it into two squadrons—one to proceed to the Azores, and the other to the coast of Spain, off which it was directed to hover threateningly, in order to hold in port such war-ships as might otherwise sally out to serve as convoys' to the plate-fleet, then expected from the West Indies. It was this fleet of treasure-freighted ships, consisting of galleons and carracks coming up from Panama and the Spanish Main by way of the West Indies, that Raleigh desired to intercept. For that reason he sent the better part of the English fleet to cruise off the Azores, at which islands the treasure-ships generally touched and received their convoys when on their homeward voyage.

Sir Martin Frobisher


The squadron that went off to hold the Spanish war-ships in check was placed by Raleigh under the command of Sir Martin Frobisher; the other he gave to Sir John Borough, and then, having made every arrangement possible that could conduce to success, he returned to England (though not without misgivings and protests), in obedience to the Queen's command. Whether he knew what was in store for him, or whether he was wholly ignorant of his capricious sovereign's intentions, does not fully appear; but from a letter which he had written to Sir Robert Cecil, on March loth preceding, one might infer that he had at least an inkling of what was disturbing her Majesty:

"I receved your letters this present day concerning the wages of the mariners and others. For myne owne part, I am very willing to enter bonde, as you perswaded me; but, I pray, consider that I have adventured here all, that I am worth, and must do, ere I depart on this voyage. If it fall not out well, I can but lose all, and if nothing be remayning, wherewith shall I pay the wages? Besides, her Majestie tould me her selfe she was contented to pay her parte, and my own Lord Admiral his, and that I should but discharge for myne own shipps.

"And, further, I have promised her Majestie that, if I can perswade the Cumpanies to follow Sir Marten Forbisher, I will without fail return after bringing the shipps into the sea only some fifty or sixty leagues, for which purpose my Lord Admiral hath lent me the Disdayne  . . . But, Sir, for mee then to be bounde for so great a sum, upon the hope of another man's fortune, I will be loth; and besides, if I were able, I see no privy seal for my thirds!

"I mean not to cum away, as they say I will, for fear of a marriage, and I know not what. If any such thing were, I would have imparted it unto your selfe before any man living; and therefore I pray you believe it not, and I beseich you to suppress what you can any such malicious report. For I protest before God, there is none, on the face of the yearth, that I would be fastened unto!

"And so, in haste I take my leve of your Honor."

"Yours ever to be cummanded,


It appears that for weeks previous to the departure of the fleet there were rumors afloat respecting the secret marriage, or entanglement, of Sir Walter Raleigh with a fair lady of Queen Elizabeth's court. As will shortly appear, though the Queen based her order for his return ostensibly upon solicitude for his welfare, desiring that he should not remain away for so long a time as the voyage might last, there was really an unavowed reason for that command.

Queen Elizabeth's wrath had blazed forth when, two years before, Essex, by a secret marriage with Sir Philip Sidney's widow, had incurred her fierce displeasure; but his punishment was mild, indeed, compared with that she meted out to Raleigh. Immediately upon his return from his sea-trip he was committed to the Tower of London as a prisoner, there to remain during the Queen's pleasure—or, rather, her displeasure—for he had offended her deeply. He did not need to be told with what offence he was charged, for no one knew better than he the full measure of his guilt. He had said, in his letter to Sir Robert Cecil, that "there was none on the face of the earth that he would be fastened to," or, in other words, would marry; but, while this may have, been true as to his intent, there was one upon whom, in justice to her and to himself, he should have bestowed his name and title.

Of the ladies in waiting upon the Queen, there was none fairer or better-born than the stately Elizabeth Throgmorton. She was the orphaned daughter of Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, who had died in 1570, after having served his sovereign faithfully in several capacities. As ambassador to France he had displayed a high degree of statesmanship and won the regard of the Queen, who had adopted his daughter as one of her maids of honor. She also bore her name, Elizabeth, and is thought to have stood to the Queen in the relation of god-daughter. Her mental gifts were great, and her beauty was undeniable. She soon attracted the attention of the gallant captain of the Queen's Guard, who was brought into frequent communication with the "ladies of the bedchamber," for whom, however, he professed but scant esteem. He had been heard to say, in truth, that they were like witches, "who could do no good, but might easily do harm." When, therefore, it was discovered that haughty Sir Walter and the beautiful Bess had committed an indiscretion which the Queen could not consistently overlook, even were she unprejudiced, great was the excitement among the ladies of the court. The erring woman was dismissed from the Queen's presence in disgrace, and for his share in the affair Sir Walter Raleigh was sent to the Tower.

Whatever may have been Elizabeth's motives and they certainly were not unbiased—there is little doubt that her former favorite fully deserved his punishment; for, while he had been subject to her caprices, and treated more like a spoiled boy than a man, he yet had shared her confidence, which he shamefully betrayed. In contrasting the two culprits, let it be said, in passing, that the erring but sweet and womanly Bess Throgmorton developed a stronger nature, under the trials to which the twain were subjected, than her copartner, the fawning and cringing Sir Walter. She retired to a privacy which might never have been broken but for their marriage in the Tower shortly after Raleigh's incarceration there; and during their subsequent life together she proved a devoted helpmeet and reliable support. Her demeanor is not described, for she was not such a commanding figure as her husband, at that time, in the world's estimation, but his conduct when in the Tower was not such as would win admiration either from friend or foe. He had so long beguiled the Queen with adulation that he seemed to think she might relent and pardon him were he only able to show himself still her devoted slave pining in prison for a glimpse of her. Thus, one day, when he saw, through the barred windows of his cell, a royal procession of boats and barges on the river, he suddenly "brake out into a great distemper, and swore that his enemies had on purpose brought her Majesty hither to brake his gall in sunder with Tatalus's torments, in order that when she went away he might see his death before his very eyes."

He declared to his keeper that he must get into a boat and follow the Queen, "else his heart would surely break," but the man demurred, seeming to doubt if his heart were so fragile; and in discussing the matter the two came to blows, daggers were drawn, and a friend who interfered got his knuckles slashed for his foolishness. As he tells the tale:

"At the first I was ready to break with laughing, to see the two scramble and brawl like madmen, until I saw the iron walking [the daggers drawn], and then I did my best to appease their fury. . . . Thus I purchased such a rap on the knuckles that I wished both their pates were broken; and so, with much ado, they stayed their brawl to see my bloody fingers. As yet I cannot reconcile them by any persuasions, for Sir Walter swears that he shall hate his keeper [Sir George Carew] for so restraining him from a sight of his mistress."

This account, of course, was carried to the Queen, and it may have somewhat softened her heart toward the recreant swain as doubtless was Sir Walter's intention when he made the scene. We would like to believe that this affray never took place, that this man, so capable of vast emprises, would not condescend to play the fool merely to obtain his freedom; but unfortunately he has left at least one letter, in which are sentiments as mawkish as those he professed to his keeper. In this letter, which was written to Sir Robert Cecil, he pours out his griefs as follows:

". . . My heart was never broken till this day, that I hear the Queen goes away so far off whom I have followed so many years, with so great love and desire, in so many journeys, and am now left behind her, in a dark prison all alone. While she was yet nere at hand, that I might hear of her once in two or three dayes, my sorrows were the less; but now my heart is cast into the depth of all misery. I, that was wont to behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her hair about her pure cheeks, like a nymph; sometime sitting in the shade like a goddess, sometime singing like an angell, sometime playing like Orpheus!

"Behold the sorrow of this world! One amiss hath bereaved me of all. 0 Glory! that only shineth in misfortune, what is becum of thy assurance? All wounds have skares but that of fantasie; all affections their relenting but that of womankind. Who is the judge of friendship but adversity? or when is grace witnessed but in offences? There were no divinity but by reason of compassion; for revenges are brutish and mortall.

"All those times past the loves, the sythes, the sorrows, the desires—can they not way [weigh] down one frail misfortune? Cannot one dropp of gall be hidden in so great heaps of sweetness?

". . . She is gone, in whom I trusted, and of me hath not one thought of mercy, nor any respect of that which was. Do with me now, therefore, what you list. I am more weary of life than they who are desirous I should perish; which, if it had been for her, as it is by her, I had been too happily born!

"Y'rs, not worthy any name of title,

"W. R."

Had the Queen not been apprised of this remarkable effusion, the languishing Sir Walter would have been at all this labor for nothing; but, as it was, she refused to relent. Further than this in hyperbole the prisoner surely could not go, and if this letter would not move his mistress nothing on earth could, he felt assured. He had not, however, touched her heart-strings with his plaints, though her anger was appeased when he filled her coffers with gold and gems from the privateering expedition which he had sent out to Spain and the Azores.

Elizabeth was obdurate, and would neither restore her quondam favorite to liberty nor to favor; and he might perhaps have remained in the Tower during the remainder of her natural life but for the return to England of Sir John Boroughs with one of the largest and richest prizes that was ever brought into a British port. This was a huge carrack called the Madre de Dios  (Mother of God.) She was an immense ship for those days, a veritable floating castle, with seven decks, or stories, and towered above every other vessel on the ocean. The fight in which she was captured, Sir John Boroughs reported, lasted from ten in the morning till midnight, and she was taken by Sir Walter's own ship, the Roebuck.

Such rich treasures as were found in her holds surpassed everything imagined by the most sanguine officials of the realm, and the news spread rapidly all over England. Everybody who could, and especially the rapacious hangers-on at the court, made great haste to visit the captured carrack at Darmouth, in the hope of sharing the spoils; but there was one notable exception the prisoner in the Tower, through whose efforts the expedition was fitted out that had resulted so gloriously. Only a short time before he had written to the Lord High Admiral of England, bitterly complaining of his enforced inaction while great and glorious deeds awaited him:

"I was yesterday advised by a man of mine, coming from the coast of Brittany, that there are twenty Spanish ships-of-war lying between Scilly and Ushant, to take up our new levied men, and to search for prizes that shall be sent home. If any of the ships in the narrow seas were sent for a time, or other course taken, it were most necessary; or else we shall lose all, and be the scorn of nations. But we are so much busied with the affairs of other nations (of whose tangled troubles there will be no end) that we forget our own affairs, our profit, and our honor. . .

"I see there is a determination to disgrace and ruin me, and therefore I beseech your Lordship not to offend her Majesty any more by suing for me. I am now resolved in the matter, and only desire that I may be stayed no one hour from all the extremities that either law or precedent can avouch. . . . For the torment of the mind cannot be greater; and for the body—would that others did respect themselves as much as I value it at little."

The coming of the great carrack did for Sir Walter what neither his letters nor the influence of his friends could do: it brought about his release from durance. When the men who manned that fleet which he had fitted out and sent to certain victory learned of his disgrace and imprisonment, they demanded in no uncertain tones that he be at once released. They were, in truth, on the verge of mutiny, and Sir John Hawkins wrote to Lord Burghley, with the bluffness of an old sea-dog: "Sir Walter Raleigh is the especial man to bring this to some good effect "—to curb the mutinous sailors, and save from absolute spoliation the great carrack's precious treasures. He wrote much more, but to the same effect, with the result that the Queen was made to see that her interests would best be served by setting the prisoner at liberty. He was then released, but conditionally only, as a state prisoner, in custody of a keeper, and in this manner journeyed post-haste to Dartmouth.

Lord Cecil's son Robert had preceded him, like many another, anxious to seize some of those precious pearls and spices before all had been appropriated, and especially before Sir Walter should arrive and put a stop to the sacking of the carrack. He reached Dartmouth in season to sequestrate some gold and gems, including a spoon of crystal set with rubies which, he said, he had reserved for the Queen. The letter in which he announced this fact to his father closed with these significant words: "Her Majesty's captive comes after me; but I have outrid him!"  Two days later he wrote:

"Within one half-hour Sir Walter Raleigh arrived with his keeper, and I assure you, sir, his poor servants, to the number of one hundred and forty goodly men, and all the mariners, came to him with such shouts and joy as I never saw a man more troubled to quiet them in my life. But his heart is broken;  for he is very extreme, pensive longer than he is busied, in which he can toil terribly.

"The meeting between him and Sir John Gilbert [his half-brother] was with tears on Sir John's part. Whensoever he is saluted with congratulations for liberty, he doth answer: 'No, I am still the Queen of England's poor captive!'  I wished him to conceal it, because here it doth diminish his credit which, I do vow to you, before God, is greater among the mariners than I thought for. I do grace him as much as I may, for I find him marvellous greedy to do anything to recover the conceit of his brutish offence. Sir John Gilbert's heart was so great, till his brother was at liberty, as he never came but once to the town, and never was aboard."

It came as a surprise to Cecil, as well as to Raleigh himself, that Sir Walter was found so popular with his men; but the manifest injustice with which he had been treated, and the universal conviction that he was the real hero of the great event, swept him into public esteem on the crest of the wave. There had been, perhaps, no man less popular in all England, owing to his equivocal connection with the sovereign, his holdings of oppressive monopolies, and as a beneficiary of so many confiscated estates. But the short-sighted public forgot his previous errors, and readily forgave his many omissions, when it appeared that he had suffered intensely for his errors, and was still the object of the Queen's condemnation.

When it further appeared that Elizabeth, though she had contributed but meagrely to the equipment of the expedition, now entered claim for the lion's share of the rich spoils, to the exclusion of those, and notably Raleigh, who had adventured almost their entire possessions, there was a radical revulsion in his favor. "The Queen's personal covetousness," says one who would rather praise than depreciate her character, "was at length excited to a degree which sets in strong relief the petty trickeries wherewith, in the preceding Spring, it had endeavored to throw every possible shilling of outlay upon those who were to risk both life and livelihood in an enterprise which, if it was not the legitimate service of the Crown and people of England, was mere piracy."

The total value of the carrack's cargo, after much portable property in gems, gold, silks, ebony, pearls, and tapestries had been pilfered, was appraised by the royal commissioners at a sum amounting to more than three million dollars, in approximate money values of the present day. The Queen, or the government, had contributed not more than one-tenth of the outlay, yet she was assigned more than one-half; while Raleigh, who had all but impoverished himself in the equipment of the fleet, received less than he had advanced, without taking account of his services and the money invested by his friends and copartners.

In a paper left behind him at his death, Raleigh complains: "We that served the Queen and assisted her service have not our own again. I was the cause that all this hath come to her, and that the King of Spain hath spent three hundred thousand pounds the last year. And [yet] I lose, in the past year, in the voyage of my Lord Thomas Howard, 1,600, besides the interest of 11,000, which I have paid ever since this voyage began . . . I carried the ships from hence to Falmouth, and thence to the North Cape of Spain; and they only sat still and did but disburse. Double is quits to them, and less than mine own to me.'

It was at Sir Walter's suggestion, however, that the Queen was paid five times the amount to which she was entitled, and he surely had a reason for it, as appears from a passage in a letter written by him from the Tower, previous to his trip to Dartmouth: "Five-score thousand pounds is more than' ever a man presented her Majesty as yet. If God hath sent it for my ransom, I hope her Majesty, of her abundant goodness, will accept it!" This was the view possibly taken by the Queen, for she certainly accepted the apportionment without a qualm of conscience as to her companion-adventurers; and that it may have been considered as Sir Walter's ransom might be inferred from the fact that he did not return from Dartmouth to the Tower.