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A great Elizabethan

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Sea, Ships on Sunday, 31 January 2016

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This edited article about Sir Walter Raleigh first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 551 published on 5 August 1972.

Execution of Raleigh, picture, image, illustration

After risking his life countless times in the service of his country, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on a charge of treason, by Oliver Frey

He was a gallant, witty, brave and light-hearted adventurer, a typical example of those members of the Devon gentry who had been engaged in maritime adventure, often of a piratical nature, ever since the reign of Henry VIII. He was tall and handsome and his name was surrounded by legends.

He had thrown his mantle on the ground to help Elizabeth I to walk dry-shod over a puddle, they said, and he had scribbled verses with a diamond on a window pane to attract her attention. There was the tale that once, while he was lying in prison under sentence of death, he had asked for one night of freedom to rescue a lady, promising to return afterwards, and actually doing so when his wish had been granted. Whether or not these stories were true, there was one thing that could not be denied.

The name of Sir Walter Raleigh was one that was known throughout the whole of the land.

Although the pampered favourite of Elizabeth, he had done much for England. He had been tireless in his efforts to create a colony in America, he had helped to prepare the English fleet which had eventually defeated the Spanish Armada, and he had fought with distinction in Ireland. He had taken part in various expeditions against the Spanish, notably at Cadiz where he had been wounded, and he had sailed at the head of an expedition to Guinea, vainly seeking the fabled El Dorado, which was supposed to be a treasure house of gold.

But all that was in the past.

Now he was considered to be nothing more than a discredited adventurer who was guilty of treason. Locked up in the Tower for this crime, he had languished there for almost thirteen years, which had given him plenty of time indeed to reflect on how he had contributed to his own downfall.

His star had begun to wane in the reign of Elizabeth, when he had married one of her maids of honour, a presumption for which he had been punished by being put in the Tower for a while before being banished to the country. His fall from grace had been greeted with delight by the whole population, for his greed, arrogance and the fact that he was a suspected atheist, had made him the most unpopular man in England.

When he had been allowed to return to court, he had immediately quarrelled with the Queen’s new favourite, the Earl of Essex. The fact that he had helped to put down the revolt that Essex had eventually led against the Queen made no difference to the feeling of the people. Essex had been their favourite, and his death under the headsman’s axe, thanks partially to Raleigh, was merely another black mark against him.

The death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I had marked the final phase of Raleigh’s downfall. He was the last of that great band of soldier-sailors who had added lustre to Elizabeth’s reign, and for that very reason James disliked him. Men like those, men who thrived on warring with Spain were not to his taste. He wanted only peace and Raleigh had been quick to show that he was utterly against this policy.

Raleigh was a menace, and it was therefore essential that he be removed from power. Swiftly, James stripped him of all his privileges and high offices, including that of governor of Jersey. Raleigh’s answer to all that was to start taking part in a number of the conspiracies which arose at the beginning of James’ reign. He was arrested, tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death. A few days later, however, he was reprieved and sent to the Tower.

Oddly enough, the trial had turned him into a popular hero. He had defended himself so well, and with such dignity, that everyone had been impressed. Belatedly, too, they remembered what he had done for England in the reign of Elizabeth. Not that it changed anything. As the years went by, it had become obvious that the King was never likely to release him.

In the end, Raleigh managed to buy his freedom in a way that was to bring nothing but shame to everyone concerned. Hearing that the King was in sore need of money, Raleigh promised that if he were released he would lead an expedition to Guinea and bring back a vast quantity of gold from a mine he claimed to have discovered on his previous expedition.

The King knew that what Raleigh proposed was fraught with danger. The Spanish had colonies along the coast, and if Raleigh attacked them, all his attempts to keep the peace would have been in vain. But he was in desperate need of the money, and in the end he agreed to the proposal, warning Raleigh that if he should be guilty of piracy, he would be executed on his return.

Giving promises and assurances which he must have known in his heart that he could never keep, Raleigh set off in the March of 1616. It was to be one of the most tragic and futile expeditions of all time.

The expedition on which all Raleigh’s hopes foundered was ill-manned, ill-equipped, and ill-fated. Collapsing with fever at the mouth of the Orinoco river, Raleigh was forced to stay behind while five small ships went up the river under command of a Captain Keymis, who took his son, Walter, with him. On the way they stumbled across a Spanish settlement, and a skirmish followed in which Walter was killed. After several days of fighting, and a great deal of useless threshing about looking for the mine, Keymis returned to face Raleigh’s wrath. Broken by the death of his son, and unable to bear Raleigh’s bitter reproaches, he went quietly away and killed himself.

Sick and looking much older than his fifty-five years, Raleigh returned to England, where James was still fuming over his recent encounter with the Spanish ambassador, who had come into his presence crying, “Piracy, piracy,” and demanding that Raleigh should be delivered into the hands of the Spanish for punishment.

Although James was not prepared to go to those lengths to punish the man he hated so much, he was still determined to have his head. The sentence of death on Raleigh had never been revoked, and it was on that that he was re-tried and sentenced to death.

The sad part of it all was that Raleigh had so nearly managed to escape. After his arrival in England, he had been brought to London by Sir Lewis Stukely, a kinsman and a supposed friend who had also remained his jailor in London. Friends who had visited Raleigh there, urged him to flee and a boat was procured for him.

On a night when there was no moon, Raleigh entered the boat together with Stukely and one of his friends. The intention was for them to sail down the Thames and then into the open sea, from whence they would make their way towards France. But they had not gone far before they were overtaken by another vessel and boarded. Raleigh realised then that he had been betrayed by Stukely.

“Sir Lewis,” Raleigh said sadly, as he was arrested. “These actions will not turn out to your credit.”

Raleigh had spoken more truthfully than he had realised. For the rest of his life, Stukely was known as Sir Judas. When he was forced to visit the admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, the admiral immediately picked up a cudgel and threatened to knock his head off if he did not leave the house immediately. Incidents like these abounded, until Stukely could stand it no longer. He went to hide his shame finally on the lonely Lundy Island, where he went out of his mind.

When the time came for Raleigh to die he went to meet his end with courage, displaying at the same time something of that wit which had made him a popular figure before his execution. Visited by a friend before his execution he invited him to attend the ceremony, saying: “You must make what shift you can for a place. For my part, I am sure of one myself.” On the scaffold he leaned forward and felt the edge of the executioner’s axe. “A sharp medicine,” he said smiling, “but one to cure all diseases.” A deep groan of sadness rose from the gathered crowd as the axe fell, ending the life of one of the most famous men of his day.

His most appropriate epitaph was given by the Lord Chief Justice of England at his trial, who said:

“Sir Walter hath been a statesman and a man who in regard of his parts and quality is to be pitied. He hath been as a star at which the world has gazed. But stars may fall, nay they must fall, when they trouble the sphere wherein they abide.”

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