Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

A Period of Turmoils


Although Sir Walter had been debarred from Elizabeth's court during several years, he had been, as we have seen, employed by the Queen in various capacities, as soldier, naval officer, and general man-of-all-work, when anything urgent was demanded which no other person could perform. On his return from the "islands voyage," as the expedition to the Azores was termed, he seems to have been once more admitted to the confidence of his sovereign. He no longer shared her affections, however, these having been re-concentrated upon the hapless Essex, whose presumption on this account brought about his downfall and death. So far, in fact, he ventured, on one notable occasion, that the angered Queen dismissed him from her presence with a stinging box on the ear, and in his anger he accused her openly of being more anxious to please "that knave Raleigh" than himself.

Sir Walter was now between forty and fifty years of age, with "a leg lame and deformed" from the wound received at Cadiz, and yet he took as great pride in his personal appearance as ever. His armor was the costliest and most adorned with jewels of any worn at court, and his bearing before the Queen was as gallant as that of Essex himself.

It was his sage counsel that Elizabeth now valued, and not his attractions of face or manner; yet an incident that occurred sometime in the year following his return from the Azores would seem to belie any claim made for him of wisdom or good judgment. Taking advantage, one day, of the Earl's temporary banishment from the Queen's presence, Sir Walter arranged to make a display before her of himself and a gallant company of knights, all splendidly decked out in orange-colored feathers. But Essex had heard of his intention, and in order to divest the affair of the eclat with which his rival had expected to be greeted, he quickly organized another band of orange-feathered gallants far more numerous than Raleigh's, and at their head, in orange-colored armor, entered the tilt-yard and galloped around it, to the great enjoyment of his royal mistress and the total discomfiture of his opponent.

Soon after this so-called "feather triumph" of one feather-brained courtier over another, Essex received the fatal appointment as Governor of Ireland, which realized for him a great ambition but proved his undoing. At one time, having listened to his vaporings about what he would do to the Irish rebels, the veteran Cecil, Elizabeth's long-trusted Secretary of State, held out a psalm-book to Essex, silently pointing to the verse, "Men of blood shall not live out half their days," a prophetic warning that should have been heeded by both the Earl and Sir Walter. Ireland had been "the sepulchre of his father," as some one remarked, and was destined to be "the grave of his own fortunes," yet the rash young Earl persisted in going there as governor. "I have beaten Raleigh and Knollys in the council," he boasted, "and I will beat Tir Owen [the rebel] in the field; for nothing worthy her Majesty's honor has yet been achieved."

Not many months elapsed before there was a sudden panic in England, for it was privately reported to the Queen that, taking advantage of his possession of the "largest army that Ireland had ever seen," the Earl of Essex meditated a descent upon the throne. Nothing could be more absurd; but when he unexpectedly appeared at court sometime later, where he burst into the Queen's private apartments unannounced and without ceremony, he was at once arrested and sent to the Tower.

There is something strange about the behavior of Essex at this time, which might lead to the belief that he had become insane—as perhaps he had, through excess of ambition and jealous brooding over the acts of his rivals Cecil and Raleigh. He was kept in "honorable captivity" for some months, and released in August, on condition that he should hold no public office and should continue a prisoner in his own house at the Queen's pleasure. But his proud and jealous nature could not brook the restraint placed upon him, as he believed, by his deadly enemies, or those whom he considered as such. His popularity with the people had been proved during his long confinement, and, mistakenly relying upon their uncertain support, he cast himself upon their mercy when he led his band of deluded men through London, with the intent, as he said, of appearing before the Queen to plead his cause in person. But he was immediately proclaimed a traitor, and, finding the streets defended by barriers, behind which were constantly increasing forces of the Queen's men, he began a retreat to Essex House, where he remained. There, at ten o'clock of a gloomy night, he was arrested and conveyed to the Tower, whence he was to issue only to meet his final doom.

An endeavor had been made to draw Sir Walter Raleigh within the net that had been spread for the Earl's enemies, and he was shot at several times, by Sir Christopher Blount, on returning from a conference with Sir Fernando Gorges; but he emerged unharmed from the emeute, though compelled to attend various scenes of danger in his capacity of captain of the Queen's Guard. He also directed the siege of Essex House, which its owner had barricaded; he accompanied the prisoner to the Tower, and, as commander of the Queen's Guard, was forced to be present at the ensuing trial and execution. Though Sir Walter attended both trial and the scene of execution in his official capacity, there were not wanting certain mean-spirited persons who accused him of being there in order to gloat over the misfortunes of his defeated rival. He wag also accused of' having betrayed the Earl's intentions to the government, after the interview with Gorges; but as to that, the foolish actions of Essex ware known to all, and needed no "betrayer," for, indeed; he was his own worst enemy.

Whether or not the Earl of Essex was betrayed by Raleigh, the former had assured himself of a posthumous revenge, for during a long correspondence with King James of Scotland, the aspirant for the crown of England upon Queen Elizabeth's demise, he had "instilled into his mind that subtle poison which was never eradicated, and was the first to formulate the monstrous charge on which he was tried and condemned, and for which at last he died." When on his defence, Essex had declared that "Cobham, Cecil, and Raleigh's violence hath driven me to the necessary defence of my life," as exemplified in his attempt to burst into the Queen's presence., "And let them," he said, "freely enjoy their life; for my part, death  is more welcome to me than life."

He proved his sincerity by meeting his fate with composure, and when, after his sentence of death was pronounced, the edge of the axe was turned toward him, he said: "This body might have done the Queen better service, if it had so pleased her; I shall be glad if it may be useful to her in any way." But Elizabeth recalled that he had also said, when the recipient of her favor, that she was "as crooked in disposition as in her carcase," which remark, with others she may have remembered, probably steeled her to sign the death-warrant of one whom she had spoiled by her petting and ruined by her indulgence.

No one doubts that the Queen was deeply affected by the death of her superlative favorite, nor that, as the few years remaining to her passed by, she was more and more remorseful over the deed committed with her sanction. From that time, indeed, she visibly declined, mentally and physically, almost from the hour of his death becoming subject to periods of irritability and depression, from which no efforts on the part of her attendants could divert her. She was rarely cheerful after that, and never with a heart free from the pangs of remorse. Ever before her, by night and by day, she must have seen the headless corpse of him who had been so much to her that none could fill the void caused by his death.

Of Raleigh, it was asserted that if he had used his mediation in behalf of Essex, while the Queen's mind was wavering in an agonized reluctance to signing the death-warrant, he might have saved his former rival from the extreme penalty of his deeds. But he did not; though in consideration of a bribe, said to have amounted to ten thousand pounds, he interceded successfully for Baynham and Littleton, two of the Earl's co-conspirators. His remorse, if indeed he were thus afflicted, found surcease in extraordinary activities, and he made himself so useful, even indispensable, to the Queen that, instead of holding him in any measure accountable for, or implicated in, the projects of Essex which resulted in his death, she gave him her confidence and patronage.

The Earl of Essex was beheaded on February 25, 1601. In the month of September preceding, Elizabeth had conferred upon Sir Walter the governorship of Jersey, and to his island realm he had turned hopefully, in the expectation of finding there much-needed rest and comfort. His noble wife and son accompanied him to the vessel that he took on this first voyage to Jersey, but neither Lady Raleigh nor "little Wat" went with him farther then, though the latter, when grown to be a sturdy young man, was to take a longer voyage with his father—that to Guiana, which was to prove fatal to both.

Rest was denied Sir Walter in the island he was given to govern, as well as elsewhere, for he found much to do—forts to build, trade to establish with the colonies, and many measures to promote for the benefit of his people, which earned for him their lasting gratitude. Then he hastened back to Cornwall, where, as Lord Warden of the Stanneries, he was instrumental in doubling the wages of the miners, the poverty of whom may be inferred from the fact that even then they received but four shillings a week. In a defence of his course in Cornwall, set forth before Parliament, when it was proposed to abolish his monopoly of the mining of tin, Raleigh boasted of this in the following words: "Now I will tell you that before the granting of my patent, whatever the price of tin, the poor workman never had but two shillings a week, finding himself. But since my patent, whosoever will work be tin at what price soever—they have four shillings a week, truly paid." And such was the degradation of those poor miners that they felt very grateful to the rich Sir Walter Raleigh for allowing them to toil in his deep, dark mines at a wage of one dollar a week!

Sir Walter Raleigh's ancestors had filled seats in Parliament, in the House of Commons, for generations, and as a knight of the shire of Devon he had been returned in 1585. His greatest activity there is noticed between the years 1597 and 1602, when he took part in many a debate, notably on the abolishment of monopolies—in which he himself was vitally concerned, with his privileges of wines, of the tin-mines, etc.—and on the proposition to enact laws against religious sects not in accordance with the established church.

The "Brownists, "for example, had been declared recalcitrant and deserving of banishment, but Sir Walter spoke in their favor, as follows:

"In my conceit, the Brownists are worthy to be voted out of a commonwealth. But what danger may grow to ourselves, if this law passes, were fit to be considered. It is to be feared that men not guilty will be included in it. The law is hard that taketh life, or sendeth into banishment, where men's intentions shall be judged by a jury; and they shall be judges what another man meant. But the law that is against a fact is just. Punish the fact  as severely as you will. And again, if two or three thousand Brownists meet at the seaside, at whose charge shall they be transported? Or whither will you send them? I am sorry for it, but I am afraid there are nearly twenty thousand of them in England. When they are gone, who shall maintain their wives and children?"

His wisdom was manifest, also, in many other speeches, as in his remarks on the compulsory sowing of certain crops, to the exclusion of others more to the profit of the agriculturist. "For my part," he said, "I do not like this constraining of men to use their grounds at our wills. Rather let every man use his ground to that which it is most fit for, and therein use his own discretion."

In an argument on free trade in grains, he declared himself against monopolies of all sorts, and for open ports. "I think," he says, "the best course is to set corn at liberty, and leave every man free; which is the desire of every true Englishman." But when it was proposed to place tin on the free list at least so far as his monopoly of working the mines was concerned—he saw at once certain insuperable objections to such a course. Free corn was very desirable, but free tin would bring about an invasion of the miners' rights which could not be tolerated! In point of fact, while Sir Walter could sometimes soar to the heights of statesmanship, in the matter of self-service he was ever the politician!

In the midst of his multifarious occupations, Raleigh still found time for the enjoyment of literature, as a producer, and as a patron of others. He assembled about him a number of men interested in the antiquities of the country, and began, sometime in the last ten years of Elizabeth's reign, that study of history which stood him in such great advantage in his famous book, written while a prisoner in the Tower of London. Nearly all the authors who made the Elizabethan era famous were either his friends or acquaintances, and he has the credit of founding the celebrated Mermaid Club, which contained such great names as Shakespeare, Jonson, Fletcher, Beaumont, Cotton, and other lesser luminaries.

It is a curious fact that within the span of Raleigh's life Shakespeare's was contained, for he was born a few years later than Sir Walter (1564), and died two years previous to his execution. As for "Rare Ben Jonson" (to whose verbal combats with Shakespeare Raleigh must often have listened with amusement and profit), being twenty-one years the junior of Sir Walter, and nine younger than the immortal playwright, little is recorded of his connection with the club. He there formed his opinion of its founder, however, and is said to have remarked, with his usual acumen, that Sir Walter was more vain than forceful.

It must be confessed that Raleigh, through long acquaintance with vice in its most attractive forms, as displayed at court, where it was scarcely masked for sake of respectability, had grown accustomed to its presence and tolerant of its existence. He even excused, or glossed it over in his friends, and by the exercise of a still broader tolerance became self-blinded to their grave defects. To this failing we may attribute his continuance of an intimacy with the notorious Lord Cobham, who, the year that Elizabeth died, dragged him within the shadow of the scaffold.

During all the years that intervened between his return from the Azores and the accession of King James, or from 1597 to 1603, Raleigh kept a strict watch upon England's enemies, the Spaniards. Through his secret agents he obtained such information that he was enabled to inform the government of a projected invasion of Ireland, which was thus defeated before it was accomplished and another grievance added to the account held against him by the King of Spain. He did not confine his efforts to checkmating the schemes of the enemy, but maintained squadrons of privateers in commission for driving Spanish commerce from the seas. In this enterprise Cecil and Cobham were jointly concerned with him, though the Queen may not have been cognizant of all that took place on the ocean at that time. Indeed, her interest in all earthly affairs was waning rapidly, for soon after she had attained her seventieth year, or in the latter part of 1602, Elizabeth virtually withdrew from active participation in affairs of state and business. She more frequently attended divine service, and listened more attentively to the reading of prayers than ever before, spending the interim chiefly in the self-absorption of her thoughts. That these were sad, almost unbearable, and that her state was intolerably lonely, was painfully apparent to her attendants, whose efforts to amuse or distract her were in vain. As for her courtiers; most of them thought solely of themselves, in the last months of their sovereign's existence, and were, almost without exception, in secret communication with the coming king. The Earl of Essex had been one of the first thus to forestall events by trying to prepare for them, and doubtless his correspondence with King James (in which he failed not to warn him of Raleigh's influence as something inimical to his succession) had incensed the Queen. She could never allude to this indiscretion without great irritation, for the question of the succession, presaging as it did her own death as necessary for its accomplishment, was, as she often remarked, "like pinning up her winding-sheet before her face." When, therefore, she became informed that many of her courtiers, though deeply indebted to her for favors, were already building upon her grave—as it were—she sank into gloom and despondency. "Ah, me!" she exclaimed, "they have yoked my neck. I have none in whom I may trust. My estate is turned upside down!"

She no longer had the venerable Cecil to advise her, for he had died in 1598. In his place was his son Robert, who, though her most trusted confidant and counsellor, was at the same time deepest in the intrigue through which King James was to benefit by her death. He had early begun a correspondence which sought, on his part, to elevate himself in the estimation of the King, and depreciate others who might stand in his way—notably Sir Walter Raleigh, as one who by his exceptional talents would be likely to attract royal attention. This, however, was a superfluous labor, it seems, since James had already formed an opinion adverse to Sir Walter, from letters written by Essex and from his own activity against the Spaniards. He viewed him as a reckless soldier whose aspirations might lead him to the throne itself if they were not checked. But Raleigh, though cognizant of the King's aversion, did not, like Cecil and others, seek to conduct a clandestine correspondence with the Scottish court, in an endeavor to gain the King's favor, while his beloved sovereign was still living.

The most reprehensible of the Queen's courtiers in this respect was Cecil, whose sycophantic labors for King James procured for him the sobriquet of "Little Beagle," though "badger" or "hyena" would have been more appropriate, from his proclivity for digging into plots and mysteries, which could only be come at by burrowing underground, or in the graves of ruined reputations. He was also known to his familiar contemporaries as "Robert the Devil," from his sly and insinuating methods, and "his crooked body, upon which he carried a head-piece of much content." He was, nevertheless, trusted by the Queen to the very last, though, it is related, he once came near arousing suspicions that would have insured his prompt discharge from office, dependent upon him as she was for advice. It was on one of her last rides into the country. A messenger met the coach, as it was crossing Blackheath, with a packet from Scotland. She desired him to deliver it to her, but Cecil, who was at her side, first secured it, and, having broken the seals, declared that it contained nothing but old and musty parchments, "which it would trouble her Highness to endure." It should first be purified, he assured her, before being admitted to her inspection; and the broken-spirited Queen assented, thus relieving Cecil from a most embarrassing position, for the packet was from King James, and contained incriminating letters.

"Robert the Devil" took good care that the one he most feared should not have too frequent or confidential interviews with Elizabeth in the closing days of her reign, and was present at the last of which we have an account, about three months before her fatal seizure. She then implored Sir Walter to advise her respecting the treatment of certain Irish rebels whose properties had become forfeit through their disloyal acts, and the former favorite was gratified to observe that she instructed her secretary to act in accordance with his suggestions.