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