Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

In the county of Devon, not far from the town of Plymouth, is an old farm-house. It is lonely and solitary, standing on a level piece of ground surrounded by old spreading trees and shut in by woods and copses, at the same time very pretty, with its old thatched roof and heavy oak doors.

Here Sir Walter Raleigh was born. In this old farm-house he spent his childhood, and often in later life did he long to return to the peace and quiet of the country.

Raleigh's boyhood was spent wandering about the green lanes near his home, walking beside the clear streams, often with a book in his hand. For he loved reading and learning, and it is said he often only went to bed for five hours, reading late at night and beginning again early in the morning.

He would grow eager and excited as he read about the battle-field, but much as he loved learning about exploits on land, far better did he like to read of doing sat sea, of fierce conflicts on the wide ocean.

When he was fourteen he went to Oxford. There he met Sir Philip Sidney, and a friendship sprang up which lasted strong and true till death. Both were fond of learning, both eager for fame, though the gentle and sweeter manners of Sidney were a strange contrast to the somewhat harsh manners and iron will of Raleigh.

After three years Raleigh left Oxford without a degree to go to France and help the English to fight for the French Protestants, who were being badly treated by the Catholics.

It is very likely that, with Sidney, he was in Paris on the night of the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew and from his place of hiding saw the Protestants being killed without mercy.

When he had served his time, Raleigh left the army and returned to England. He went to London and took up his abode near his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He shared Sir Humphrey's longing to go to sea, to see the New World, to fight against the Spaniards in America, to explore unknown tracts and above all to make his fortune from the gold mines. After a time they induced Queen Elizabeth to give them some ships and let them go. So in 1578, Gilbert and Raleigh with seven ships and three hundred and fifty men sailed from Plymouth. But where they went and what they saw, we do not know; we only know that they returned in a year with what remained of their shattered fleet, having failed in their enterprise. Although they had failed, their courage had won for them the admiration of all, and they returned to find themselves popular and sought by great men of the day. On his return Raleigh was sent to rule in Ireland, where he lived several years.

In 1582 Raleigh was introduced to Queen Elizabeth. At this time he was strikingly handsome, he was very erect, very tall and graceful, his face was manly but very stern, his eyes bright and thoughtful. He dressed splendidly, and many of his clothes were adorned with jewels. His armour was made of silver, his sword and bit studded with diamonds, rubies, and pearls, which were so curious and rare that after his death they were put in the Tower of London, where they may be seen now.

Raleigh was very anxious to see the Queen. One day when he was walking near the palace he was commanded by the porter to go away, as her Majesty was just coming forth.

"I will not stir, till I see the Queen come forth," said Raleigh, quietly.

Very soon, amid a crowd of lords and ladies, he saw Elizabeth, tall and erect, in the prime of life, walking in the grounds.

Raleigh pressed forward, his hat in his hand, his rich cloak falling from his shoulder. The night had been rainy, and near where Raleigh stood was a little heap of mud. Here the Queen stopped. Raleigh dashed forward, and throwing off his cloak laid it on the miry spot, for Elizabeth to step upon. She looked at the noble face before her, nodded her head, and hastily passed on.

"Your gay cloak will need the brush to-day," observed a courtier.

"This cloak," replied Raleigh, "shall never be brushed while it is mine."

Raleigh and Elizabeth


This was their first meeting, but not the last. Elizabeth liked him and was interested in his learned conversation, while his manly face pleased her. But she never took him into her confidence as she did the gentler Sidney, though she was flattered and pleased by the verses Raleigh wrote about her.

Raleigh had been at court some years when he heard that Sir Humphrey was once more about to start for America. Raleigh had a ship built for him, and the Queen sent him a golden anchor to wear, and wished him good luck. The little fleet started, never to return. Away sailed the brave Sir Humphrey towards the west. Bad weather and high winds discouraged the crew, and no land was in sight. At last one night the wind increased, the waves rolled higher than ever, and Sir Humphrey saw that all would soon be over. "We are as near heaven by water as by land," he cried to the terrified seamen. When morning dawned no trace of Sir Humphrey's ship was to be found, and the survivors sailed home to tell the sad tale in England.

Even this failure did not discourage Raleigh, it only made him long more earnestly than ever to try again.

A few months after he heard the news of his brother's death, he fitted out a fleet and started with several other great men for the coasts of America. The next year they came back, having found a rich and fertile piece of land on the east coast of America. The woods were full of hares and deer, the trees were higher and finer than any in England, the few people there were, were handsome, gentle, and kind. Such were the glowing colours in which the new country was painted to the Queen.

Elizabeth was delighted, gave the new country the name of Virginia, and knighted Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh then sent out a hundred men to live in the new colony of Virginia, men that could find no work in England, and were glad to go to a new home, hoping to make their fortunes.

But the colony did not succeed. The Governor who was sent out lost control over the men, who soon became wild and disobedient, refusing to work, and fighting with the Red men who lived near.

Even this failure did not quite discourage Sir Walter Raleigh, and in 1587 he sent out a fresh party of settlers.

During one of Raleigh's visits to America he brought back some potatoes. He found the natives or Red men smoking tobacco through rough pipes of clay. He tried it and liked it very much, and brought some back to England, where nothing was known of it. One day Raleigh was sitting in his room in London, when he took out his pipe, and sending his servant for some ale, he began to smoke. When the servant returned he saw his master covered with smoke. He instantly thought he was on fire, and with great presence of mind, as he thought, threw the ale all over him, and then rushed out of the room shouting that Sir Walter was on fire. Soon after this a great many people tried smoking, and grew tobacco in Yorkshire for a long time, till it was forbidden.

Now Philip of Spain had long planned an attack on England, and at last his forces were ready. So he started his fleet, which he called the Great Armada, to surprise England. But an English fisherman saw the ships as they drew near the coast, and the alarm soon spread over England. And thus, before the Armada arrived, all were ready for the attack. Suddenly a violent storm came on, the Spaniards could not manage their large, ill-built ships, and they were driven away on to the Scotch and Irish coasts. Many were wrecked, and very few returned to Spain to tell their tale of defeat.

Slowly Raleigh was losing the Queen's favour, and at last she put him into the Tower. He grew sad, his heart seemed broken, and one day, after his release, when an old friend said how glad he was to see him free again, he shook his head sadly, and said:

"No, I am still the Queen of England's poor captive." In vain he tried to win favour again with Elizabeth; "she refused to smile on him as of old."

At last he made up his mind to sail forth once more to America. This time Guiana was the object he had in view, the "Realm of Gold," as it was then called. He went, and has written a great deal about the country, but got no gold, and returned poorer in purse than before. However, this bold expedition, which many had tried before and failed, won for him the favour of the people, and before long Elizabeth once more admitted him into her presence. After this he pleased her by taking part in the war against Spain, in which the English were successful.

Perhaps the greatest triumph in his life was the taking of Cadiz from the Spaniards. A huge English fleet under Raleigh and Howard sailed to Cadiz to prevent a Spanish ship from landing. The Spaniards knew they were coming, but paid little heed, till the vast English fleet swooped down upon the Spanish ships in the harbour of Cadiz. A terrible battle took place. Dreading falling into the hands of the English, the Spaniards threw themselves into the water, many half burnt still hung to the ropes, while others swam some way in the disturbed water and then sunk.

The Spaniards were defeated and the city of Cadiz then sacked.

Once more Raleigh was in favour with the Queen, once more and for the last time he enjoyed the splendour and honour of court life, but not for long.

In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died, and with her death Sir Walter Raleigh fell.

As Captain of the Guard he went to fetch the new king, James I., from Scotland, but he soon plainly saw that James was not going to favour him. First of all, James wished to make peace with Spain; this would put an end to Raleigh's enterprise and future hopes of glory, and he opposed it.

Elizabeth had favoured great explorers, she had helped on those men who had wished to discover new places and enlarge the English possessions; but these men found no favour in the eyes of her cousin James. He brought over Scots from his native country, and gave them high places in the kingdom.

Soon after James had become king, several plots were discovered, and Raleigh among others was accused of having helped in them.

He was sent to the Tower, and brought to trial. His carriage was sent to take him to Winchester, where the trial was to be held. A mob collected outside the Tower, and no sooner had Raleigh stepped into his carriage than they began to hoot and cry, throwing at him tobacco-pipes, mud, and stones, and crying out that they would go a hundred miles to see him hanged. Although Raleigh seemed indifferent to this outburst of hatred, he felt that his fate was near, that his doom was already sealed.

The cold November morning dawned, and at a given signal Sir Walter Raleigh entered the court, now thronged from end to end with people mute, hushed, and excited. Raleigh stood erect and calm, with a defiant look in his stern grey eyes, as he gazed on many well-known faces and cast his eyes upon the judge. He was accused of having plotted to dethrone James, and place upon the throne Lady Arabella Stuart.

After a long examination he was found guilty. Then he rose and in a loud yet sweet voice he reminded the people of what he had done for the country, of his rule in Ireland, his discovery of Virginia, his discovery of the potato and tobacco, the victory at Cadiz, the perilous voyage to Guiana. He spoke of Elizabeth's trust in him, of her admiration for him. He pleaded for his life, and the grand, eloquent flow of language drew tears from many among that vast throng. They felt that before them stood the greatest man living. But he must be found guilty, the king had wished it, and Sir Walter Raleigh was condemned to death.

He was taken back to the Tower, and there he wrote a beautiful poem. In vain did his wife entreat James to forgive Raleigh; daily men were led to the scaffold, and daily Raleigh expected to follow them. But day after day, month after month passed away, and Raleigh was left to pine in a miserable cell. At last he was allowed to see his wife and children, whom he loved dearly. Now it was that he began his "History of the World," which has made his name famous. It was printed in 1614, and made a great impression on the minds of all.

During his imprisonment Raleigh had cherished a hope of fitting out another expedition to Guiana. When he was at last released, in 1616, he prepared to go. After much difficulty he got leave from James, and the following year started, sure of success and reward. But this was not to be. As soon as he arrived at Guiana, Raleigh became very ill, he was obliged to give the command to another; the mining expedition failed, the second in command died, all were disappointed, and Raleigh was obliged to return to what he knew to be certain death. James was very angry, and Raleigh was for the last time sent to the Tower to await death. It soon came, and on the 29th of October, 1618, he was led forth to execution. This time he was not hooted and hissed; men thronged to gaze for the last time on the great prisoner, now worn with misery and sickness, yet still stately and resolute, and even cheerful, as he approached the block and bade farewell to the silent crowd below. His head was then struck off. Thus ended the "blackest day in James's black reign, the brightest of all in Raleigh's life."