Although much has been conjectured, little is in fact known about Ralegh's early career. In particular, it is not understood for certain how he came to acquire the formidable learning displayed in later life. Sir Robert Naunton may give a lead when he writes that Ralegh was 'an indefatigable Reader, whether by sea or Land, and none of the least observers both of men and the times'. So far as can be discerned from the meagre clues to hand, some of them throwaway remarks in Ralegh's History of the World (1614), he served as a volunteer in France from 1569 with the Huguenot armies during the second phase of the wars of religion, and tasted an early military reverse at the battle of Moncontour in October. Campaigning took him across northern and south-western France, the barbarities and valour he witnessed making a deep impression on him. It appears that he returned to England after the peace of St Germain was concluded in 1570.
The date of Ralegh's matriculation at Oriel College, Oxford, remains uncertain, although he probably went up to the university in 1572. He was the youngest of four surviving sons--there were two half-brothers from his father's first marriage, John (d. 1588) and George (1527-1597), as well as an elder brother from his father's third marriage, Carew [see below]--and his means may accordingly have been somewhat limited. Thomas Child of Worcestershire told John Aubrey that Ralegh, pressed for money, 'borrowed a gowne of him when he was at Oxford ... which he never restored, nor money for it'. Ralegh left Oxford without a degree, and was admitted to the Middle Temple on 27 February 1575. On admission he was described as being 'late of Lyons Inne'. His first published poem appeared in 1576, as a commendatory verse in George Gascoigne's The Steele Glass. He was living at Islington, Middlesex, in 1577, entering into a bond for one of his servants summoned to answer charges in December.
Records of Ralegh's early contacts with the court also remain elusive. His mother's elder sister, Katherine Astley (d. 1565), was Princess Elizabeth's governess from 1544, became chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber in 1558 and of the bedchamber in 1559, and remained an intimate companion of the queen until her death in July 1565. This connection may have afforded Ralegh an initial introduction, but it was perhaps through Humphrey Gilbert's means that he first met leading courtiers, among them Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. When in June 1578 Gilbert secured a patent to discover 'remote, heathen and barbarous lands ... not actually possessed of any Christian prince', Ralegh sailed in his fleet as captain of the Falcon, a ship of 100 tons. To this day the precise purpose of Gilbert's expedition remains obscure, but he was in any case frustrated by storms, mischance, quarrels among the high command, and desertions. The Falcon, however, pressed on into the Atlantic, braving winter weather in a vain search for plunder and adventure. Ralegh eventually returned to Plymouth in May 1579.
Ralegh turns up next in London. According to the not altogether trustworthy reports and assertions of Charles Arundell, Ralegh seems for a time to have moved in the circle of Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, Lord Henry Howard, and other Catholic courtiers, carrying a challenge from Oxford to Sir Philip Sidney after their tennis-court quarrel in August 1579. However, the association with Oxford--and more significantly with Howard--degenerated over time into mutual dislike. On 7 February 1580 Sir Thomas Perrot and Ralegh were committed to the Fleet prison by the privy council following a 'fraye'. Ill feeling between them was ongoing. A month later Ralegh was caught up in another brawl, and was on this occasion obliged to cool his heels in the Marshalsea prison. Through the good offices of other friends at court, he secured a captain's commission in the reinforcements then being dispatched to Ireland to counter the Desmond rebellion and its various offshoots. He served under the lord deputy, Arthur Grey, fourteenth Baron Grey de Wilton, at the bombardment of Smerwick, co. Kerry, where a force of Italian and Spanish adventurers had landed in support of the rebels. After four days the besieged garrison sought mercy, surrendered, were disarmed, and then methodically slaughtered, Ralegh overseeing the butchery. Searching through the possessions of the dead, he discovered letters which contained some unspecified matters of secrecy, and was sent to London with the documents in December 1580. This episode is frequently portrayed as the genesis of his career at court, even though he was ordered back to Ireland early in 1581. Until the summer Ralegh was quartered at Cork. Lobbying hard for a grant of Barry Castle, in Cork harbour, stronghold of the politically suspect David fitz James Barry, first Viscount Buttevant, he fought with considerable bravery in more than one guerrilla skirmish. His earliest surviving letter, written to William Cecil, Baron Burghley, lord treasurer, from Cork in February 1581, sought an allowance in respect of soldiers' pay, and adopted a degree of familiarity, naturally well mixed with deference. Certainly, his stock had risen to the extent that in the spring he was appointed to the commission, based at Lismore, co. Waterford, which governed Munster during the absence in London of the provost-marshal, Sir Warham St Leger.
At about this time Ralegh also fathered a child. Of the mother, Alice Goold, little is known beyond the fact that she appears to have been a daughter of Justice James Goold. Indeed, the very existence of this child rested on a single letter of disputed authenticity until the rediscovery of Ralegh's will in the 1960s revealed a bequest to his 'reputed daughter' of #333 6s. 8d. The girl's name is not known, but there is some reason to believe that Ralegh later betrothed her to Daniel Dumaresq, his page in Jersey, and that the young woman died of plague in London.
On returning to court, Ralegh began to attract Elizabeth I's attention. The well-worn tale of how he spread his cloak over a 'plashy place', thus allowing her to walk across, rests only on gossip recorded by Thomas Fuller. So too does the rather less credible, but also widely known, story that has Ralegh and his queen scratching couplets on a window pane. Naunton, trying to account for Ralegh's influence, said that Elizabeth took him 'for a kind of oracle, which netled them all'. That is as may be; there was clearly a physical attraction too. Ralegh was tall (at 6 feet, taller than most of his contemporaries), dark-haired in youth, with somewhat pale and refined features. However apocryphal, Aubrey's raw tale of how Ralegh pleasured a scarcely reluctant maid of honour against the trunk of a convenient tree, gives a flavour of the man's power, and, ultimately, his weakness. The queen detained Ralegh for a time at court, making him an esquire of the body by 1581, but he eventually departed for the Low Countries in 1582 with Francois, duc d'Anjou, travelling with Leicester, Henry Carey, first Baron Hunsdon, and Sidney. While he was there, William of Orange entrusted him with a message intended for Elizabeth's ears only.
Ralegh rose rapidly in the queen's favour, playing the courtier to perfection and writing her elegant, at times innovative, poems--his 'Farewell false love' was read widely in court circles during the early 1580s. Corresponding with his half-brother in March 1583, he sent Humphrey Gilbert 'a token from Her Majesty, an ancor guyded by a Lady ... farther she cummandeth that yow leve your picture with mee'. The intimacy, ostentatiously displayed, is unmistakable. On 27 December 1584 the Pomeranian traveller Leopold von Wedel, recounting a visit to the English court, offered further insight into this relationship. Chatting with her courtiers, the queen pointed 'with her finger at his face, that there was a smut [smudge] on it, and was going to wipe it off with her handkerchief; but before she could he wiped it off himself'. Tangible rewards soon began to accrue. In April 1583 Ralegh secured leases reverting to the crown from All Souls College, Oxford, selling them on without delay. In the same year, Elizabeth granted him one of her favourite palaces, the handsome London dwelling, Durham Place on the Strand. It was blessed with a lantern tower that had a 'prospect which is pleasant perhaps as any in the world'. Views were important to him; Ralegh put the room to use as his study, and it is argued that he later used a similarly high attic room at Sherborne, Dorset, for the same purpose. Visitors to Durham Place spoke of its magnificence, of the splendour of its fabric and fittings. In May 1583 Ralegh received a patent for the sale of wine and the licensing of vintners, worth at a minimum over #700 per annum, and this remained the foundation-stone of his fortunes.
Although now at the heart of the court, Ralegh remained very much the Devon man. Apart from Aubrey's interesting assertion that Ralegh spoke 'broad Devonshire' to his dying day, it is known that the newly established courtier tried in July 1584 to purchase his birthplace, 'Hayes, a farme sumtyme in my fathers possession'. This attempt failed, but many of the honours bestowed upon him by the queen had a deliberate regional slant. Knighted on 6 January 1585, he was appointed vice-admiral of the west, lord lieutenant of Cornwall, and, with the death of Francis Russell, second earl of Bedford, lord warden of the stannaries in the same year. He also served as a knight of the shire for Devon in the parliaments of 1584 and 1586. In 1587 Ralegh was nominated to succeed Sir Christopher Hatton as captain of the guard, a post for which he appeared ideally suited, even to the most jaundiced of contemporaries. Ralegh duly took up his duties after Hatton's death in November 1591.
To support these new dignities Ralegh received extensive estates, including the Derbyshire properties of Anthony Babington, executed and attainted for a conspiracy in support of Mary, queen of Scots, in 1586. In the same year Ralegh also received from the queen a grant of three and a half seignories in the plantation of Munster, part of the confiscated Desmond patrimony, amounting to 42,000 acres. This was far larger than any other single grant in the plantation, almost three times larger than that given to Sir William Herbert, and four times more than the grant awarded to Hatton. Since each 'undertaker' was limited to 12,000 acres, the grant drew hostile comments from the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, Sir Thomas Perrot's father. Ralegh in turn accused Perrot of 'raising impertinent objections'. Perrot was then warned by Burghley that Ralegh 'is able to do you more harm in one hour than we are all able to do you good in a year', a striking tribute to the strength of the latter's position at court. Ralegh was not, however, prepared to stay in Ireland. He peopled his lands with tenants--148 of them by 1589--but leased out the seignories themselves to various Englishmen in 1594 for #200 per annum.
Ralegh's well-publicized initiatives to colonize North America began in earnest after the death of Humphrey Gilbert in September 1583. Privateering and colonization had been a central element in his half-brother's grand design for the New World, and Ralegh eagerly took up the challenge, securing a patent for the purpose of colonization in 1584, and seeking practical advice from the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot. Harriot, who became a close friend and one of the overseers of Ralegh's will in 1597, worked on a dictionary of the Algonquian language with the help of two native Americans brought back by members of Arthur Barlowe's reconnaissance expedition in 1584. Ralegh also enlisted both Richard Hakluyts to compose works supporting the colonizing initiative, Hakluyt senior in his Inducements to the Liking of the Voyage Intended towards Virginia, and his more famous younger cousin in the Discourse of Western Planting (written in summer 1584). Walsingham, Lord Charles Howard, Ralegh's cousin Sir Richard Grenville (1542-1591), and many London merchants subscribed to his scheme. In 1585, having received his patent to colonize, he sent out an expedition of four ships and two pinnaces, with 600 men, under Grenville. Although Ralegh himself never went to Virginia, he was the mastermind behind this expedition and its successors. Grenville's men settled on Roanoke Island, while Grenville himself sailed into the Atlantic on a successful privateering voyage, leaving command of the infant colony to Ralph Lane, an army officer who had served in Ireland and equerry of the stables. By July of the following year the colonists were desperately short of food and welcomed the chance of a passage home when Sir Francis Drake put in at Roanoke on his return from the Caribbean. Grenville then arrived with a relief expedition, but, finding the colony deserted, sailed off, leaving behind fifteen unfortunate men. They were never seen again.
In 1587 Ralegh sent out yet another expedition, under John White. Unlike Lane's colony, whose purpose had been primarily a base for privateering, this was intended as a farming settlement. The planters were to have 500 acres each, more if their investment merited it. This venture was no more successful than its predecessor. After various catastrophes, White went home to organize relief. Unhappily for the colonists, Elizabeth was then involved in the Armada crisis and forbade the dispatch of further expeditions. When White did finally get two pinnaces to sea in 1588, they were diverted into piratical enterprises and were then themselves attacked. By the time a ship reached the colony in 1590 it was once again deserted, the settlers gone. Ralegh was blamed by some at the time, including Hakluyt, for neglecting the colony; and probably he must take some responsibility for the failure to relieve it. However, the main cause lies in the war with Spain, which distracted the attention of the queen and of her mariners.
There was a good deal of the courtier, if little of the politician, in Ralegh. His letter of 29 March 1586 to Leicester, who was concerned by the need to secure a contingent of tin-miners to serve as sappers in the Low Countries, overflows with tact and reassurance. He had, he declared, raised the matter with Elizabeth, and 'found her very willing in so mich as order was geven for a cummission, but since the matter is stayd, I know not for what cause'. If Leicester would only tell him of any grievances he would do his utmost to clear the misconceptions that must have given rise to them. He expanded upon his hatred for Spain, a passage which finds echoes in so many of his later writings: your lordshipe doth well understand my affection towards Spayn and how I have consumed the best part of my fortune hating the tirranus sprosperety [sic] of that estate and it were now strange and monnsterous that I should becum an enemy to my countrey and conscience.
The Low Countries again claimed his attention, along with those of the entire English political nation, when Sidney died in October 1586 as a result of the injury he received at the battle of Zutphen. Ralegh's honest, elegant epitaph, with more than a conscious element of nisi nil bonum, is arguably the best of his early work. Nevertheless, his talents as a courtier were perhaps limited. For all his success with the queen--and, indeed, because of that success--he made many enemies. Unlike Hatton, also raised from relative obscurity through royal favour alone, Ralegh lacked the patience and self-control of a conciliator. He occupied Hatton's lodgings at court in 1585, earning the sharp reprimand from Elizabeth that 'she had rather see him hanged than equal him with [Hatton] or that the world should think she did so'. Ralegh was, indeed, notoriously quick to denigrate. Shortly after Leicester's death in 1588 a derogatory epitaph began to circulate at court and beyond: 'Here lies the noble warrior that never drew a sword'. Rightly or wrongly, Ralegh was popularly given credit for its composition.
Ralegh was always, at heart, a man of action. In December 1587 he energetically assessed the defences of Devon and Cornwall, and pondered how best to pay for necessary precautions against the threat from Spain. In a thoughtful letter to Burghley he wrote that, so far as he could tell, 'if it might notwithstandinge stande withe Her Majesties likinge to beare the one half of the charge, beinge great, it would be very consonant to all good pollecy, and the countrey, as I judge, will willingly defray the rest'. That was optimistic. Despite the danger, queen and privy council opted for economy and chose instead to forgo the mustering of any sizeable defence force. Ralegh did not confine his efforts to the south-west. He also surveyed the coastal defences of East Anglia, focusing everywhere on the need to protect deep-water harbours. William Camden maintained that he served with Charles Howard, second Baron Howard of Effingham, from 23 July 1588, but there is no other evidence for this. If Ralegh did see active service against the Armada, he was back in London by 2 August, when he was sent from court to the south coast to 'confer' with the lord admiral.
A long tradition associates Ralegh with the introduction of both potatoes and tobacco into England. The potato originated in Peru and arrived in Seville by at least 1570: from there it spread to other parts of Europe. However, John Gerard, in his Herball of 1597, confused matters by writing that he received roots of the potato from Virginia, which grew in his garden, implying that this was a recent import and leading people to think that it had been brought over by one of the recent English expeditions. Ralegh's name is not, however, linked in print with the potato until 1699, when John Houghton claimed in a weekly bulletin that he first brought it to Ireland, whence it spread to Lancashire and then to the rest of England. Charles Smith's History of Cork (1750) relates a story of Ralegh's gardener at Myrtle Grove, his house at Youghal, co. Cork, finding tubers beneath the soil, growing them, and cooking the berries instead of the roots, with unhappy results. None of this is very convincing. More interesting evidence is provided in the manuscript journal of the Royal Society for December 1693, where the president, Sir Robert Southwell, writes that his grandfather brought potatoes into Ireland, having been given them by Ralegh. If that is so, Ralegh might be indirectly credited with importing the root into Ireland. However, most of the available evidence is thin and conclusions are speculative.
There was no reason at the time for anyone to have paid attention to the introduction of the potato; and the debate arose very much later. Tobacco was different. Smoking was a new, exotic, outlandish, and controversial habit; and credit or blame for it was soon bestowed. Tobacco was mentioned in the literature of discovery very early: by Christopher Columbus in 1492. It was introduced into Europe by Andre Thevet in mid-century, was growing in England by 1571, and was being smoked there by 1573. While Ralegh cannot have introduced it to this country, he probably helped to make it fashionable at court and in landed society. Aubrey claimed that Ralegh 'was the first that brought tobacco into England and into fashion'. He was certainly wrong on the first point, right on the second. Smoking was just the kind of habit--dramatic and new-fangled--that would appeal to a man as conscious of his image as Ralegh. Potatoes had--and have--no such cachet.
In 1591 there appeared the first of Ralegh's published works, A report of the truth of the fight about the Isles of Azores, this last summer, betwixt the Revenge ... and an Armada of the king of Spain (generally known to historians as The Last Fight of the Revenge). Grenville died on 2 September 1591 in a disastrous encounter between ships under Howard of Effingham and a much larger fleet of fifty-three vessels dispatched from Spain. The English ships were caught unprepared, many of their men sick, others on shore. All save one, the Revenge, under Grenville, managed to escape. Grenville stayed and died with honour. It is not clear whether Ralegh was persuaded to write his account by the government to counter Spanish claims of victory, or whether he was moved to defend his cousin, Grenville, from charges of unnecessarily endangering himself and his men. Either or both are possible. Two principal objectives were pursued in his brief work: denying Spanish boasts and glorifying Grenville's conduct without, if possible, antagonizing the Howard clan. In following these Ralegh also wrote a bold, vivid, and moving account of the battle.
Ralegh described how Grenville rejected all pleas from the master of his ship to flee from the Spanish, and ordered the master gunner to 'split and sink the ship, that thereby nothing might remain of glory or victory to the Spaniards' (or, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, put it in his 1878 reworking of the story, that the Revenge might 'fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain'). In the end, the master and others of the ship's company overruled Grenville and negotiated a surrender. Mortally wounded, Grenville was carried onto the Spanish admiral's flagship, and there he died. Howard of Effingham would, according to Ralegh, have come to Grenville's aid, but was dissuaded by the rest of his fleet. As for the Spanish, they lost more ships than the English did, 'a manifest testimony how injust and displeasing their attempts are in the sight of God'. Ralegh ended with a round condemnation of Spanish conduct in Europe and, above all in the Indies and Peru, thus declaring his allegiance to the protestant cause.
Throughout the later 1580s Ralegh retained Elizabeth's confidence and so held the measure of her younger favourite, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. Ralegh and Essex were sometimes allies, occasionally friends, but for most of the following ten years they regarded one another warily, the relationship increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion. Blame for his failure to win over Ralegh, who at heart shared the same political and strategic philosophies, is conventionally laid squarely on the intransigent and irrational earl. However, Ralegh could be equally intransigent and, sometimes, just as irrational. His antagonism towards the earl may have originated over his relationship with Essex's sister, Dorothy (d. 1619), who married Sir Thomas Perrot in July 1583. It was not, in any case, Essex who displaced him for ever from his central place in Elizabeth's affections. At the beginning of the 1590s, Ralegh began a liaison with Elizabeth (bap. 1565, d. c.1647), also known as Bess, one of the queen's maids of honour, and daughter of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (1515/16-1571) and his wife, Anne. At some point late in 1591, with Bess pregnant, she and Ralegh were married in secret, fully aware that news of this union, once it leaked out, would gravely displease the queen. All accounts agree that Bess was both determined and formidable. Her brother Sir Arthur Throckmorton (c.1557-1626), who was very fond of her, referred to her as 'Morgan le fay' in a diary entry of 1609. The affection between husband and wife, however, was apparently strong and enduring. It had much to endure.
Ralegh perhaps felt that he would be able to ride the storm when it broke, but here he underestimated the intensity of Elizabeth's displeasure. Busying himself in preparations for a privateering venture, he made every effort to discount spreading rumours of the marriage, assuring Sir Robert Cecil as late as March 1592 that 'if any such thing weare I would have imparted it unto your sealf before any man livinge'. He more than once resorted to blatant falsehood when he perceived his career to be at stake. The couple had a son on 29 March. Remarkably, Essex stood godfather when the child was baptized Damerei (1592-1593), after a prominent forebear on the Throckmorton side of the family. On 27 April Bess returned to court, taking up her duties as a maid of honour, still trying to hide the facts of marriage and motherhood, while Ralegh sailed on the first leg of an expedition in which a good part of his fortune was invested. He was back in Plymouth by mid-May, and then, belatedly, his secret came out. Elizabeth took his measure. On 28 May Damerei Ralegh was brought by his nurse to Durham Place, where his father saw him for perhaps the only time. Two days later Ralegh was committed to Cecil's charge, though by 2 June he was back at Durham Place. On the following day Bess was placed in the custody of the vice-chamberlain, Sir Thomas Heneage.
Still believing that the usual charades of courtly contrition would suffice, Ralegh lamented his wretchedness to Cecil. 'Do with mee now therfore what yow list', he wrote. 'I am more wery of life then they are desirus I should perishe, which if it had bynn for her, as it is by her, I had bynn to happelye borne' . Later, Cecil himself recalled an occasion on which Ralegh, watching from Durham Place, noticed Elizabeth's barges on the river below, at Blackfriars. Wrestling theatrically with his keeper, George Carew, he shouted that he 'wolde disguyse hymselfe and gett into a pare of oares to ease his mynde butt with a syght of the Quene, or els, he protest, his harte wolde breake'. Elizabeth was irritated rather than pacified by these gestures, smacking as they did of implicit defiance and a wholesale lack of remorse. It was a curious but somehow characteristic miscalculation, which provoked a venomous response from the queen. Husband and wife were both sent to the Tower of London on 7 August.
Ralegh chafed at the disgrace, sought solace in poetry, and begged their release with as much humility as he could muster. Happily for him, the fleet he had recently sent to the Azores succeeded in capturing a Portuguese carrack, the Madre de Dios, one of the greatest single prizes taken by Elizabethan seamen. The ship was brought home to Dartmouth in triumph, and exaggerated tales reached London of how the vast treasure on board was being rapidly plundered by those at the scene. In this administrative chaos lay Ralegh's opportunity. On 15 September, at the request of Sir John Hawkins and through the mediation of Burghley, he was sent to Dartmouth, still technically a prisoner, as he never tired of telling those he met on the way. Once there, under Cecil's observant eye, he worked hard, enjoying the welcome given him by mariners. When all was eventually divided up, Elizabeth allowed Ralegh only a small share of the spoils: a notional profit of #2000 on the #34,000 adventured by him and his associates. She did, however, begin to forgive. On 22 December Bess was released from the Tower.
It is possible, though now hard to prove, that the death of Bess's son helped prompt this charity. Damerei Ralegh vanishes from the record. On 1 November 1593 the couple's second child, Walter (1593-1618), was baptized at Lillington, Dorset, near the foundations of a fine new house Ralegh was beginning to build close by the old castle at Sherborne. In January 1592 the queen took a lease of ninety-nine years on all the estates of John Coldwell, bishop of Salisbury, in or near Sherborne, and immediately sublet these properties to Ralegh for the remainder of her term. The new 'Lodge', and its gardens, were substantially the work of Adrian Gilbert.
For the time being both Ralegh and his wife were banished from court--the ban on Ralegh was not lifted until 1597--but he was elected a burgess of Mitchell, Cornwall, in the parliament of 1593. He had been knight of the shire for Devon in the 1580s, and this borough seat was distinctly less exalted. Nevertheless, it was at least a stepping-stone back to favour, and in the next two parliaments he was returned for county seats: Dorset in 1597 and Cornwall in 1601. He was unique in Elizabeth's reign in sitting for three counties, a keen parliament man, actively concerned with borough patronage and with the business of the House of Commons. In 1593 he warned fellow MPs in ringing tones of the dangers posed by Spain, demanding pre-emptive action and, consequently, a grant of money sufficient for such a strike. These opinions were hardly unorthodox; and MPs duly granted the queen an unprecedented triple subsidy. However, he also strongly expressed hostility towards the Dutch. Early in 1593, perhaps, Ralegh wrote a treatise on the succession, arguing very correctly that the matter was for God and princes alone, beyond the remit of mere subjects, and beyond legislation. Again, however, he showed his lack of political common sense, wondering publicly about what James VI might do to press his claim if ever it were challenged.
The explorer, 1595-1596
In these years of disgrace Ralegh's preoccupation with the fabled empire of El Dorado took firm root. The power of Spain was, he observed, founded on its American silver and gold. A project to establish England's own source of wealth in the New World grew alongside his schemes to create a colonial empire on the north coast of South America. His dreams about the treasures of lost cities combined with an appreciation of Spain's present military weakness, sharpened by Spanish travellers' tales, and by the adventures of the governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berrio, who had repeatedly travelled through the interior of Guiana in search of gold. The resulting voyage--financed largely on credit through the efforts of William Sanderson, Ralegh's nephew by marriage--was all very much a last resort; Bess, perhaps at her husband's suggestion, wrote to Cecil, hoping that he might 'draw Sir Walter towards the east than help him forward towards the sunset'. Cecil chose instead to invest in the new expedition, and Ralegh eventually sailed from Plymouth with four ships on 6 February 1595. When the Spanish colony on Trinidad was overwhelmed, amid considerable brutality, Ralegh focused on information provided at some length by a particularly valuable prisoner, the elderly Berrio. There followed an eventful voyage up the rising waters of the Orinoco. Like the Spaniards before him, Ralegh was beguiled all the way by tales of fantastic cities and wealth in the interior, and ultimately obliged to return to the coast empty-handed. Attempts to secure some plunder in the Caribbean were equally futile--costing several lives in an abortive assault on Cumana--and Ralegh arrived in Plymouth in September, his holds empty, to face the indifference of queen and privy council.
The scorn and derision of Ralegh's fellow countrymen grew intensely irksome. Some even suggested that he skulked in Cornwall for a year, making up the whole adventure. 'What becumes of Guiana', he wrote to Cecil on 10 November 1595, 'I miche desire to here, whether it pass for a history or a fable'. 'Her majestye', he suggested two days later, would 'shortly bewayle her negligence therin, and the enemy by the addition of so mich wealth weare us out of all'. Once or twice in these fulminations he makes a telling point: 'wee must not looke to mayntyne warr uppon the revenus of Ingland'.
Over the winter Ralegh wrote a report on the expedition, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana. Dedicated to Cecil and Howard of Effingham, it was an elegant and memorable piece of travel writing, at once a self-justification and a call to exploit his discoveries. As they journeyed up the Orinoco:
on both sides of the river we passed the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld; and whereas all that we had seen before was nothing but woods, prickles, bushes and thorns, here we beheld plains of twenty miles in length, the grass short and green, and in divers parts groves of trees by themselves, as if they had been by all the art and labour in the world so made of purpose.
However, the rapid rising of the rivers made it impossible to mine for gold in the time available and they lacked the necessary tools. Ralegh, though, was confident that 'the sun covereth not so much riches in any part of the earth' as in Guiana. He fully intended to return, because, as he wrote in conclusion: Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, turned, nor wrought; the face of the earth hath not been torn, nor the virtue and salt of the soil spent by manurance, the graves not been opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their images pulled down out of their temples. Once conquered it could be easily defended. Ralegh had already made friends with the indigenous people and if the Spanish were once driven out the principal native chief would pay Elizabeth hundreds of thousands of pounds in tribute. At all events he convinced himself. More and more, the illusion of Guiana appeared--to a frustrated man--a means of re-establishing his own fortune and bolstering English war chests at one and the same time. The book was read widely, both at home and abroad. Latin, German, and Dutch editions all appeared within five years. Harriot drew a presentation map of Guiana, while his friend George Chapman waxed lyrical upon the fertility of the land and the friendliness of its inhabitants. Yet, all these tales of distant marvels failed to move the Cecils or the queen.
Elizabeth and her privy councillors were, however, concerned at the dangers posed by a revived Spain. Virtually the entire privy council now recommended an attack on the Spanish coast, and in 1596 the interests of Essex and Cecil combined to pursue this goal. Ralegh's maritime knowledge was suddenly in demand, and he was closely involved in the labyrinthine discussions which, eventually, established who should take charge of what. He worked hard to raise the necessary troops and to prepare the fleet, under the direction of his friend Howard of Effingham, placating and cajoling suspicious courtiers and a queen reluctant to spend money in pursuit of campaigns abroad. When the commanders assembled, Ralegh and Sir Francis Vere quarrelled over the scope of their respective commands, and these arguments were never entirely resolved. This was all quite in character. Nevertheless, the ensuing expedition was one of the triumphs of Elizabethan arms. On 20 June 1596 the fleet arrived off Cadiz, taking the Spanish authorities there completely by surprise. Ralegh was sailing in the rearguard, patrolling the coast to surprise enemy shipping, but he was present for the main assault. In one of his longest surviving letters, written on the day after the assault to Arthur Gorges, he provided a vivid narrative of the action. He was wounded in the fighting, receiving 'a greevous blow in my legg, larded with manie splinters which I daylie pull out'. Cadiz was sacked, but the wealth of the merchant fleet in the harbour was lost when the Spanish ships were scuttled. Essex busied himself in knighting sixty followers, but a great opportunity for plunder passed the victors by.
Ralegh's narrative was published in 1700 by his grandson as A Relation of the Action at Cadiz. It is one of the finest set-piece battle scenes in English literature. Writing of his own attack on the Spanish galleons, he described how the Philip ran aground: tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers, so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack in many ports at once, some drowned, some sticking in the mud. The Philip and the St Thomas burnt themselves. The St Matthew and the St Andrew were recovered with our boats ere they could get out to fire them. The spectacle was very lamentable on their side; for many drowned themselves; many, half burnt, leapt into the water, very many hanging by the ropes ends by the ship's side under the water even to the lips; many swimming with grievous wounds stricken under water, and put out of their pain; and withal, so huge a fire, and such tearing of the ordnance, in the great Philip and the rest, when the fire came to 'em, as if any man had a desire to see Hell itself, it was there most lively figured.
Weighing this triumph, Elizabeth inclined towards forgiveness. Ralegh was allowed to return to court the following year, and once again exercised his captaincy of the guard. As Essex's star waned, so Ralegh and his friends recaptured something of their old authority. For example, Henry Brooke, eleventh Baron Cobham, a rich if rather superficial young man, was appointed lord warden of the Cinque Ports, in succession to his altogether more worthy father, and in the face of a determined campaign by Essex to promote his own candidate. Ralegh acknowledged the influence of Cecil, now the queen's principal secretary, in restoring his own fortunes, flattering him and commiserating with him gracefully on the loss of his wife, Cobham's sister, in January 1597. 'Yow shall', he wrote: butt greve for that which now is as then it was when not yours, only bettered by the difference in this, that shee hath past the weresume jurney of this darke worlde and hath possession of her inheritance ... Sorrows draw not the dead to life butt the livinge to death. Touching the melancholy of bereavement Ralegh was seldom lost for words. Possibly at the instigation of Burghley, he worked to foster better relations between the Cecils and Essex--passing on news from Cecil to the earl and recording by way of an intimate touch in July 1597 that Essex had been 'wonderfull merry att the consait of Richard the 2'. He was recovering lost ground. Nevertheless, much of his former wealth had been eroded by expensive efforts to repair the breach with Elizabeth, and by his outlay on Sherborne. When he drew up his will that same month, his estate appears relatively modest. Ralegh's own lands by now consisted only of the Irish estates--vast, but never profitable--and the leasehold on the manor of Sherborne. In this interesting document the queen was nowhere remembered. Indeed, the beneficiaries were exclusively members of his family, and his servants, although Cecil was given a residuary interest in a set of porcelain. Ralegh, it may be noted, had a liking for quality chinaware.
The will was drawn up for a purpose. Ralegh was sailing as Essex's second-in-command on a new expedition against Spain, the so-called 'islands voyage'. Beset by foul weather, incompetence, and deep divisions among the senior officers, the enterprise was a fiasco. It threatened to prove something worse when a Spanish fleet set sail in October 1597 for the undefended coasts of England, only to be swept away in turn by Biscayan storms. Ralegh's capture of the town of Fayal in the Azores was the sole achievement of any note, and here, so Essex maintained, the rear-admiral had flouted his direct orders.
This fresh quarrel gravely weakened the carefully nurtured amity between Essex and Ralegh, but Elizabeth chose to blame the earl, roundly and personally, for the expedition's shortcomings. The debacle of Essex's expedition to Ireland in 1599, where a private parlay with Hugh O'Neill, second earl of Tyrone, touched on treason, and his precipitate return to court that autumn, completed the favourite's fall. Increasingly paranoid, Essex numbered Ralegh and Cobham among his bitterest foes: anyone who was not for him, stood against him. In the miserable finale Essex was condemned by the privy council in 1599, by commissioners at York House in 1600, and, after his desperate rebellion, by his peers in the court of the lord steward on a charge of high treason in February 1601. Ralegh, himself accused by the distracted earl of treason, and, fantastically, of plotting to divert the succession to Philip, infante of Spain, joined in the persecution. During spring 1600 he warned Cecil to ensure that the stricken favourite did not recover ground lost: the less yow make hyme the less he shalbe able to harme yow and yours ... for after revenges feare them not ... His soonn [son] shalbe the youngest earle of Ingland ... butt if the father continew he wilbe able to break the branches and pull up the tree, root and all. Lose not your advantage: if yow do I rede your destiney.
That such a letter survives among Cecil's papers testifies to the anger Essex's insinuations aroused. It testifies as well to Ralegh's political naivety. Elizabeth, noting his flaws, declined to have him sworn a privy councillor, despite repeated hints and requests. She did, however, appoint him governor of Jersey in August 1600, a post Ralegh had coveted ever since news of the fatal illness of the previous governor, Sir Anthony Paulet, was first made public, early in the year.
Cobham, something of a royal favourite in Elizabeth's final years, was assiduously courted as a friend and ally. Witty and capable, for all his shallowness, he proved congenial company for Ralegh, who regretted Cobham's failure to join him at Bath in a distinctly sycophantic letter of 29 April 1600: 'we can butt longe for yow and wyshe yow as owre lives whersoever'. Cobham was at that moment preoccupied by his forthcoming marriage to Frances Fitzgerald, nee Howard, dowager countess of Kildare, but the following summer he and Ralegh, along with Northumberland and other courtiers, visited the Low Countries to experience life on campaign. For Ralegh this was nothing new, and he was soon back in England. That autumn he travelled to Cornwall, and also to Jersey, surveying his new command. He took his oath of office on the island on 20 December. In his absence a fire, beginning in the stables, caused considerable damage to Durham Place. When Essex staged his rebellion on 8 February 1601, Ralegh was again in London. Early that morning he met his rebel kinsman Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1568-1647) on boats in the middle of the Thames, counselling common sense, discretion, and reliance on the queen's clemency; but discretion and common sense were in short supply that day. Gorges refused, honouring his commitment to Essex and warning Ralegh of bloody times ahead. While they talked, Sir Christopher Blount aimed four bullets at Ralegh from Essex House, but the optimistic shots missed their target. Recognizing the futility of negotiation, Ralegh hurried to court and mobilized the guard. Essex's rising was crushed within hours. When he was brought to the executioner's block, seventeen days later, rumour had it that Ralegh gloated over his rival's fate, although the truth of the matter seems to have been that, obliged to attend the execution as captain of the guard, Ralegh withdrew to the armoury precisely to avoid such a charge. There was, for the moment, no means of restoring a reputation hopelessly tarnished:
Raweleigh doth time bestride;
The popular ballad was a travesty--and Ralegh was by no means its only target--but the archetypal greedy and covetous upstart courtier struck a familiar chord. Although innocent of any open triumphalism, there is no question that Ralegh sought advantage from his rival's fall. He begged--and may have obtained--some of the lands of Essex's follower, the volatile Sir Edmund Baynham, who was sentenced to death for treason in February, only to be pardoned in August.
In September 1599 Ralegh also obtained from the queen a freehold title to his Sherborne estate, which he then proceeded to expand through further purchases. With Sherborne relatively secure there seemed little point in holding on to his Munster estate, long since a liability. In 1602 the Irish lands were sold to Sir Richard Boyle for #1500. Meanwhile, the courtier and captain of the guard had other roles to play. In September 1601 Ralegh escorted Charles de Gontaut, baron de Biron, Henri IV's emissary, 'to Westminster, to see the monuments'. He disagreed openly with Cecil in the parliament of 1601 over the latter's call for further financial sacrifice in support of the war effort. In a quarrel fashioned on semantics, and again disclosing political ineptitude, Ralegh argued that to Spanish ears the very request would argue poverty in the state, and encourage a redoubling of their efforts against England. He is said to have blushed during the acrimonious debates over monopolies, defending the practice through his administration of the Cornish tin mines, and challenging his opponents to relinquish their own monopolistic interests if he did the same. The great silence that followed this typically theatrical gesture may signify embarrassment, or, more likely, open disagreement.
Ralegh's alienation of Cecil had serious consequences. Causes for the rift are still elusive. It may be that Ralegh felt disappointed that he was still not sworn a privy councillor, and that he somewhat unfairly blamed Cecil rather than Elizabeth for this frustration. That is conjecture. What is known is that Cecil, though outwardly correct and civil in all his dealings with Ralegh, felt increasingly abandoned by a former ally in the two years before Elizabeth's death. By summer 1601 he was writing to his client--and Ralegh's cousin--Sir George Carew (1555-1629), lord president of Munster, that he had been so frustrated and irritated by 'the mutinys of those whom I do love and will (howsoever they do me)', that he had been 'left to seek new Freends'. Cecil duly found them. Over the next two years Ralegh's name was repeatedly blackened in the letters of Henry Howard, youngest brother of Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, written to James in Edinburgh to assure him of Cecil's (and Howard's) loyalty, and to warn him against the intrigues of others. As Howard described him, Ralegh was once again an atheist, indiscreet, incompetent, hostile to the very idea of James's succession. More significantly, Howard's long-winded venom was clearly prompted by Cecil's own clandestine letters to James. All this is as crucial to understanding Ralegh's subsequent troubles as it is murky and unedifying. Given his significance at court, Cecil's dissociation from Ralegh, his insistence that he could never support a man of 'light and soddain humours' fundamentally opposed to a Stewart succession, was deeply damaging, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the latter's wilful part in this critical breach amounted to an entirely avoidable miscalculation.
Ralegh was still not entirely without friends. Northumberland, in his own secret correspondence, advised James that although Ralegh was certainly 'insolent, [and] extreamly heated' he was essentially powerless, unable to do the king 'muche good nor hearme'. Moreover, the earl felt compelled to add that there were 'excellent good parts of natur' in his old friend. However, Northumberland was himself subjected to Howard's insinuations, and these assurances probably did little to alter James's already low opinion of Ralegh.
When Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, Ralegh's world began to fall apart. He hastened from the west country to meet the new king, only to receive the driest of welcomes. Aubrey puts the punning words into James's mouth, 'on my soule, Mon, I have heard rawly of thee'. Ralegh was present in his official capacity at the queen's funeral, but thereafter endured a series of telling rebuffs. He was stripped of his monopolies and captaincy of the guard in May, and was given notice to quit Durham Place, Tobias Matthew, bishop of Durham, having successfully petitioned James for the return of his London home. The decisive blow fell soon after. On 15 July, while at court, Ralegh was detained for questioning in connection with two tangled treasons, then coming to light. He was placed under house arrest in the charge of Sir Thomas Bodley, at Fulham, Middlesex. Implicated by Cobham in the so-called Main plot, which ostensibly hoped to foment rebellion and Spanish invasion, aiming thereby at the death of the king and the elevation of Arabella Stewart in his place, Ralegh was conveyed to the Tower on or about 20 July. There, overwhelmed with despair at the turn of events, he wrote a touching letter of farewell to Bess and made an unconvincing attempt at suicide on 27 July: he tried to stab himself to the heart using a table knife. Neither the theatricality of the gesture nor the essentially unchristian nature of the act were lost on hostile observers. Subsequently, however, his spirits returned. He perceived that the sole evidence of any substance laid against him was a statement made by Cobham on 20 July--made, moreover, in the heat of the moment, when Cobham was under the not wholly unfounded impression that Ralegh had betrayed him. Cobham withdrew his accusations almost as soon as they were made, but these fleeting charges had the two conspirators soliciting enormous sums of money from Spain--500,000 or 600,000 crowns. In this confession, Cobham admitted his intention to press for the money during a forthcoming visit to the continent. He had, he said, also planned to travel home via Jersey, where he and Ralegh proposed to discuss the distribution of this war chest, with a view to stirring revolt wherever the opportunity arose.
Cobham's curious, retracted testimony remained the most telling evidence against Ralegh when he was finally brought to trial at Winchester on 17 November. It was presented in court, not as a signed confession, but rather in the form of a 'certificate' attested by the examining counsellors and as an 'affirmation' from the lord chief justice, Sir John Popham. Cobham even smuggled letters of exoneration to Ralegh in October. The trial itself was an extraordinary affair, with Ralegh resolute and dignified, and with the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke, losing his temper on more than one occasion and failing to present his case with any clarity. Coke did, however, manage to throw in an accusation of atheism, echoed by the lord chief justice at the end of the day, and he did trump Ralegh's letter from Cobham with a written confirmation from Cobham of previous accusations. The precise wording of this restatement is nevertheless interesting, for it departs from the charges allegedly made on 20 July. Cobham now declared that Ralegh had urged him to mediate with the former's friend Charles de Ligne, count of Aremberg, in order to secure a general pension of #1500 for foreign intelligence. He added that 'coming from Greenewich one night', Ralegh passed on information on 'what was agreed upon betwixt the King and Low Countrymen' for transmission to Aremberg, insisting that Ralegh had been the principal cause of his own discontent. Though this is far from the broad sweep of treason embraced in his outburst of 20 July, the court seems to have interpreted Cobham's letter as an elaboration on that testimony, focusing upon the fact of accusation. At the end of a momentous day, this was sufficient to persuade a jury of Ralegh's guilt.
However, it is clear from Cobham's subsequent confessions, after Ralegh's conviction, and at his own arraignment, that these accusations should be seen as replacing those made in the heat of the moment, months earlier. Events on the night he returned from Greenwich seem to hold the key to Ralegh's subsequent actions. According to Cobham, Ralegh arrived full of 'discontent uppon certeine woords that that day as he sayed had passed between the lord Cecill and him'. He then pressed Cobham to negotiate with Aremberg 'that he should doe best to advertise and advise the king of Spaine [Philip III] to send an armie against England to Milford Haven'. Characteristically, Ralegh held that the bold approach was necessary in such situations: 'many more', he growled, in a prophetic utterance, 'had been hanged for words then for dedes'. The picture that emerges from Cobham's later testimony, of a discontented Ralegh denouncing James and his ministers, conjuring visions of a Spanish descent on the nation that had treated him so poorly, and exploring the availability of a pension from any amenable foreign prince, offers a credible summary of his treason. Ralegh never denied that he lent 'a patient ear' to Cobham's 'unwise and lavish projects'.
Legally if not morally, Ralegh's much maligned jury returned a correct verdict, even on the basis of Cobham's revised accusations, which they never heard. The most extraordinary aspect of Ralegh's political downfall was his simultaneous transformation in the popular imagination from upstart villain into popular hero. His composure at Winchester, the harshness of a technically accurate verdict, and Coke's loss of temper on so public a stage all combined to replace loathing with sympathy. As Dudley Carleton put it a few days later, 'never was a man so hated and so popular in so short a time'.
Despairing of mercy from James, Ralegh wrote another letter of farewell to his wife. Here is Ralegh at his doleful best: for all the obvious sentiment so characteristic of the man, and for all the common form, no one reading these lines can doubt that he loved his wife. James, however, ultimately allowed him his life on 9 December 1603, first putting Cobham, and the Bye conspirators Thomas Grey, fifteenth Baron Grey of Wilton, and Sir Griffin Markham, each in turn, through the grim charade of a reprieve on the scaffold. Ralegh dutifully thanked both king and Cecil, hoping that an early release might follow. That liberty was not forthcoming; Ralegh, like Cobham and Grey, was long to remain a prisoner in the Tower. Incarceration was comfortable enough. He was allowed his two rooms in the Bloody Tower, his books, a 'stilhows', or laboratory, a garden for his exercise, and congenial company. For most of this time his wife was allowed to come and go without significant restriction, and their third son, Carew [see below], was baptized at the church of St Peter ad Vincula on 15 February 1605. Lady Ralegh took a house on Tower Hill for its proximity to her husband's gaol. Nevertheless, confinement vexed a man of Ralegh's stamp. He suffered from some form of 'palsy' or paralysis. Dr Leonard Poe, a royal physician, attended him in September 1604, and in March 1606 Peter Turner, another medical man, reported that Ralegh was complaining of a numbness in his left side, 'and his tong taken in sum parte, in so mych that he speketh wekely'. Turner, perhaps taken in by another of Ralegh's theatrical performances, recommended a move to less chilly quarters.
The king did not at this stage act vindictively against Ralegh or his family, granting all his goods and chattels to his servants John Shelbury and Robert Smith on 14 February 1604 for the use of his wife and child, in order to settle his debts. Ralegh's wine licensees were ordered by the privy council to pay their arrears to the trustees one week later, and the right to grant wine licences was given to the earl of Nottingham (Howard of Effingham) and his son only in December 1604. Shelbury and Smith dutifully discharged their obligations. On 3 August 1604 the Sherborne estate was granted by letters patent to family trustees who held them on behalf of Lady Ralegh and young Walter for the duration of Ralegh's life. It may be that Ralegh held out for more, for the freehold to Sherborne, or it may be that here is the first intimation of a serious problem that blighted the Raleghs for years afterwards. By the following winter it had become apparent that a conveyance of the Sherborne estate to his son, dated 20 January and sealed on 12 April 1603, contained a fatal flaw, in that the clerk who had copied it from the draft had omitted ten crucial words. Legally, this left Ralegh in freehold possession of the estate at the time of his attainder, the manor being thus forfeit to the king. James at first inclined to confirm Ralegh's family in their possession, but by the end of 1609 Sherborne passed to his favourite, Sir Robert Carr. Intending it for his eldest son, the king purchased it back again in February 1610, Carr repurchasing it after the death of Henry, prince of Wales.
Quite early on, Ralegh's prospects for release appeared to turn on the feasibility of another voyage to Guiana. He was staking, and continued to stake, everything on the chimera of mountains of gold within a far-off continent. With support from a favoured Scot, John Ramsay, Viscount Haddington, Ralegh approached Cecil, by now earl of Salisbury, in summer 1607. He suggested that if the queen, Anne of Denmark, and Salisbury would each take a third stake in the venture (which he calculated would cost #5000) then he and his friends would cover the rest. Ralegh himself would travel under another's command, as a private gentleman, so as to guarantee his return to England. 'Wee will break no peace, invade none of the Spanish towns. Wee will only trade with the Indiens and see none of that nation except they assayle us'. Salisbury declined the bait. Later that year Ralegh is found cultivating James's eldest son, then thirteen years old, advising him on shipbuilding. The death of Henry on 6 November 1612--despite the application in extremis of a 'quintessence' supplied by Ralegh, 'which he sayes they shold have applied sooner'--was a grievous blow to his hopes of liberty. This medicine, subsequently known as Ralegh's 'cordial', became famous, its properties passing into legend as the recipe itself was lost. Its concoction is again in character: Ralegh was long known to be dabbling in medicines and chemistry in the Tower. Earlier in 1612, reporting the death of Sidney's daughter Elizabeth Manners, dowager countess of Rutland, to Sir Ralph Winwood, John Chamberlain remarked that Ralegh had been 'slaundered to have geven her certain pilles that dispatcht her', and when Ralegh fell sick in February 1615 some, the ever cynical Chamberlain among them, put it down to his chemical experiments.
Ralegh was now denied direct participation in political or military life and, until his second expedition to Guiana, could maintain his reputation only with his pen. He reinvented himself as a kind of elder statesman, instructing Henry and advising James. Two tracts on proposed marriages between the children of James and the house of Piedmont-Savoy reveal his stance. They were probably written at Henry's instigation. The proposal made early in 1612 for a marriage between Princess Elizabeth and Victor Amadeus, eldest son of Charles Emmanuel (I), duke of Savoy, was adroitly criticized by Ralegh, on the grounds that it would be of no political advantage to Britain; might entangle the king in the impossible defence of Savoy against its powerful neighbours; and would not serve the comfort of the princess, who would be matched with a Catholic husband. Better, said Ralegh, for her to marry Frederich (V) Wittelsbach, prince palatine of the Rhine, who was a protestant and would strengthen the alliance with the Netherlands. (Ralegh's advice was taken, with unhappy results.) The companion piece, A Discourse Touching a Marriage between Prince Henry of England and a Daughter of Savoy, is rather more problematic, since some versions appear to have been addressed to Charles, duke of York. It was probably made to serve for both in turn. 'There is', said Ralegh, 'a kind of noble and royal deceiving in marriages between kings and princes' who bestow their daughters only for their own advantage. 'We do not need to fear Savoy, but it is the Spaniard whom we should fear, who layeth his pretences and practices with a long hand'. The duke of Savoy was firmly tied to Spain and to Rome, and might entangle James in their conflicts. The prince would do well to hold off marriage for the time being and then marry with a French princess. In A Discourse Touching War with Spain, probably written early in James's reign but not printed until 1702, Ralegh presented the king with general arguments for assisting the Netherlands against the Spanish. Without external help the Dutch would have to submit to the Spanish, which would provide the latter with a base for the invasion of England. If James did not assist them, the Dutch would look to the French, which would be equally disastrous: a familiar argument from the reign of Elizabeth, but cogently put by Ralegh.
About 1609--the year that his friend and fellow prisoner, Northumberland, was writing something very similar--Ralegh tried his hand at a familiar genre: the father's advice to his son. His version, known as Instructions to his Son and to Posterity, has a sharpness and cynicism that partly marks it out from the efforts of Shakespeare's Polonius and others. The first chapter, headed 'Virtuous persons to be made choice of for friends', turns out to be more self-seeking than the title suggests. A man should choose his betters for his friends and should shun the poor and needy. 'Such therefore as are thy inferiors will follow thee but to eat thee out'. While a man's betters are best for his friends, he should remember that 'great men forget such as have done them service'. Wise choice of a wife was crucial to the preservation of a man's estate: 'the only danger therein is beauty, by which all men in all ages, wise and foolish, have been betrayed'. It is better to choose beauty in a mistress rather than a wife, 'for when thy humour shall change, thou art yet free to choose again'. On the other hand, it is inadvisable to marry an 'uncomely' woman, for the sake of the children, 'for comeliness in children is riches, if nothing else be left them'. The Instructions circulated in manuscript until 1632, when they were printed: six more editions followed up to 1636.
Ralegh's major work during the years in the Tower was The History of the World. While most of his prose works up to then had been written for private circulation (the tracts on The Revenge and Guiana excepted) the History was intended for publication to a wide audience. Ralegh began writing it about 1607; the work was entered in the Stationers' register in 1611 and appeared towards the end of 1614. This copy did not have the 'Preface'. It was suppressed by George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, on 22 December and copies were seized by the king's agents for his own use. According to Chamberlain the suppression came about because it was 'too sawcie in censuring princes'. The suppression order was soon lifted and the History was reprinted in 1617. It remained popular: there were at least eleven editions in the Seventeenth Century, one in the eighteenth, and one in the nineteenth.
The History is described as 'The first part of the general history of the world', implying, as Ralegh said, that other parts were to come. This, he admitted, was his intention and indeed he had 'hewn them out'. What exists is a substantial work, of about a million words, in five books, running from the creation of the world to 146 BC, the time of the second Macedonian war. The first two books are principally, though not wholly, concerned with biblical history, the last three mainly with the story of Greece and Rome. In the first two God's judgments are seen as the central determinants of events; in the latter three the role of man is more evident. History is regarded as moral exemplum, a classical concept appropriate to the treatment of ancient history but unusual for the subsequent discussion of Henry VIII. The juxtaposition of the discussion of Henry with that of James must have registered as ironic with the original readers, especially later when James's 'unstained sword of justice' had Ralegh's blood on it.
The History is far more than a chronology. Its opening chapters described the creation of the world and its nature, before Ralegh moved to the philosophical problems raised by the concepts of prescience, providence, free will, and fortune. He adopted the familiar distinction between first and second causes. God's will, he later wrote, determined everything: 'there is not therefore the smallest accident, which may seem unto men as falling out by chance, and of no consequence: but that the same is caused by God to effect somewhat else by'. Yet God works through second causes, 'instruments, causes and pipes', which carry his will to the world. The distinction is not clear or unambiguous, but it enabled Ralegh to focus upon human actions. Essentially, he wrote for a purpose, as a man of action: it was, he said, 'the end and scope of all History, to teach by example of times past, such wisdom as may guide our desires and actions'.
One principal theme of the work was the general wickedness of kings and the severity of God's judgment upon them: Oh by what plots, by what forswearings, betrayings, oppressions, imprisonments, tortures, poisonings, and under what reasons of state, and politic subtilty, have these forenamed Kings, both strangers and of our own nation, pulled the vengeance of God upon themselves, upon theirs, and upon their prudent ministers!
The misdeeds of English kings were related in some detail. Of Henry VIII, Ralegh wrote that 'if all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the World, they might all again be painted to the life, out of the story of this king'. Only one ruler in the entire history of the world receives unstinted and unadulterated praise from Ralegh: Epaminondas of Thebes, with Hannibal as proxime accessit.
Although Ralegh believed that history could provide examples and precepts for rulers to follow, its events demonstrated only too clearly that they were unlikely to do so. His book ends with a paean of praise to Death: Oh eloquent, just and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou has persuaded; that none has dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hath cast out of the world and despised: thou hast drawn together all the far stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet. The bitterness, pessimism, and anger that marked so much of Ralegh's poetry remained to the end in his prose.
The next work that Ralegh wrote in the Tower, A Dialogue betweene a Counsellor of State and a Justice of the Peace, is very different in tone, style, and content. Written after the dissolution of the Addled Parliament in 1614, and presented in manuscript to James, it sought to persuade the king to call parliament. The counsellor took the part of those advising James against parliaments, which he claimed had always been dangerous to kings in the past. In reply the JP attacked the use of imprisonment without trial and argued that parliaments provided the king with the best way of raising money, which should be done by persuasion, not constraint. The argument proceeded by methodical examination of the relations of English kings with their subjects since the reign of John. It has none of the force or brilliance of the History; it is indeed often quite boring, yet it may have had in the short term the greater influence.
The last voyage, 1616-1618
With the advantage of hindsight, many commentators have dismissed Ralegh's final voyage to the Orinoco to try to find El Dorado as the hopeless pursuit of fantasy, but it is important to remember that friends and foes alike seriously questioned whether the enterprise was viable long before Ralegh set sail. For some, Ralegh deluded himself with daydreams. Locked away in the Tower, his vivid imagination simply got the better of him. Others, less charitable, wondered what the old fox was up to now. Surely he realized that Spanish settlements on the Orinoco had multiplied since 1595, and that, for all his disclaimers, the voyage would mean bloodshed? Was that perhaps what he wanted--one means to foment dissent between England and Spain being as good as any other? Here was a way to frustrate the carefully nurtured plans of James and the Spanish ambassador Diego Sarmiento de Acuna, count of Gondomar, who had long endeavoured to persuade a sceptical Philip that Charles, now prince of Wales, should marry his daughter, the Infanta Maria. And might not the frustration of these desires be encouraged by France? Ralegh certainly opened negotiations with the French ambassador, Count des Maretz, in 1616, apparently with the aim of securing a refuge in France if all went wrong, though evidence on the precise nature of these discussions remains obscure. In fact, the expedition may be taken at face value: it was Ralegh's final, personal gamble. He believed--he had to believe--that there was a mountain of gold or silver, deep in the jungles of Guiana, and he clung to proofs of its existence, gleaned over twenty years. The Spanish crown had no valid claim to unoccupied, undiscovered regions; the gold was there for the taking.
Ralegh was released on 19 March 1616, and at once set about planning his expedition. The planning was, of course, extensive, and little he said or did comforted those at court who were determined on a lasting peace with Spain. He discussed with Sir Francis Bacon, attorney-general, the possibility of seizing the silver fleet, brushing aside the latter's remarks that this would amount to an act of piracy: had Bacon, he asked rhetorically, ever heard 'of men being pirates for millions?' The Guiana fleet sailed from Plymouth on 12 June 1617, but storms and adverse winds detained it off the southern coast of Ireland for nearly two months. Finally, on 19 August, a fair wind allowed the ships to make their way south from Cork. It was to be a laborious voyage, with illness taking its usual toll. Never comfortable at sea, Ralegh himself succumbed to fever, and was unable to face solid food for nearly a month. The fleet did not arrive in harbour, at the mouth of the Cayenne River, until 14 November. An expedition under Lawrence Keymis, with Ralegh's nephew George Ralegh in command of the land forces, sailed up the Orinoco in five ships on 10 December. Carrying provisions for one month, the three vessels that survived the shoals of the delta battled against strong currents and arrived at the Spanish settlement San Thome on 2 January 1618.
The English then took the town by storm. Fatalities in the brief, bitter struggle included the Spanish governor, Diego Palomeque, and Ralegh's elder son, Walter. There can be little doubt that the assault was pre-planned, and if so, that the action directly violated the commission by which they sailed. It is, however, uncertain whether the expedition acted under verbal orders from Ralegh, or whether they were rather following Keymis's own directions, given in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Ralegh subsequently tried to excuse this aggression by claiming, in his Apology for the Voyage to Guiana, that quite another settlement had been stormed, but the characteristic evasion smacks of desperation.
Thereafter, Keymis visibly began to lose his nerve. The principal problem, of course, lay in the fact that no one knew for certain where the mine might be found. Three launches were eventually sent further up the Orinoco under George Ralegh's command. They travelled 300 miles upstream, but discovered neither gold nor silver. After an occupation of twenty-nine days San Thome was burnt to the ground and the expedition returned to the river mouth. News proceeded ahead of the main party, and on 13 February Ralegh was told of his son's death. He met Keymis with accusations, refusing to accept any apology, and declaring that his lieutenant's obstinacy had undone him. Keymis took to his cabin. First he tried to put a bullet through his breast, but the shot was deflected by a rib. He then stabbed himself to the heart. Ralegh received the news of his suicide with contempt. Thereafter he blamed his dead subordinate for all his misfortunes. It is difficult not to reflect that Keymis had been charged with an impossible mission.
Faced with the crisis of his schemes, Ralegh planned another expedition to San Thome. The mine, he reasoned, must have been overlooked, it might still be exploited. His men, however, refused to follow, and soon afterwards the fleet sailed north. Even then, Ralegh conjured with visions of revictualling and returning to Guiana, and he thought once more of plundering the Spanish treasure fleet. By now such hopes were vain; his demoralized troops were disinclined to adopt risky strategies. In the last week of March the rest of his fleet deserted, leaving Ralegh in the Destiny, alone off Nevis. With a mutinous crew he sailed north towards Newfoundland, then across the Atlantic to Kinsale, co. Cork, where a number of the company melted away. Ralegh, with the remnant of his force, sailed on to Plymouth.
The failure of his expedition left Ralegh stunned. 'My braines are broken,' he wrote to Bess on 22 March 1618, 'and tis a torment to mee to write ... as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins died heart-broken when they failed of their enterprize, I could willinglie doe the like'. Once home, he received no sympathy. A proclamation of 9 June denounced reports that the peace between England and Spain had been compromised by violence at San Thome. Ralegh was placed under arrest by order of Howard of Effingham soon after his landing and conveyed to London by his cousin Sir Lewis Stucley (1574/5-1620), vice-admiral of Devon, at the end of July, in accordance with directions from the privy council. While still at Plymouth he made an abortive attempt to escape by ship to France, but then changed his mind, resolving to see matters through at home. It can only be surmised that he was concerned for the fate of his wife and son, or that he believed James's anger to be essentially a diplomatic device. Perhaps he even hoped that the Spanish alliance would soon come to grief. At Salisbury, Ralegh wrote an Apology for the Voyage to Guiana, insisting that Guiana was English territory, and that the actions against Spanish authorities there were entirely justified. James arrived in the city on his summer progress, apparently rejected the Apology, and ordered Ralegh on to London. A second attempt to escape to France was frustrated by Stucley. As Chamberlain put it, Ralegh was: bewrayed, or in a sort betrayed by Sir Lewes Stukeley (who had the charge of him) and brought backe by certain boates that waited for him about Wolwich. Sir Lewes did nourish him in the humor with promise to assist and accompanie him, but yt was a fowle pas de clerc for an old cousener to be so cousened and overtaken.
The cozener again! Ralegh was conveyed to the Tower on 10 August, and appealed to George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham, for help two days later. His options had narrowed ominously. Buckingham was then actively supporting the Spanish alliance, and had little time for Ralegh's point of view.
James wished Ralegh dead; only the means to this end remained unresolved. A commission established to probe his offences first questioned Ralegh on 17 August, and members of his crew were also interrogated. Suspecting that stories of the silver mine were spurious, and half-believing that Ralegh's voyage was one element in an involved conspiracy fomented by France, the commissioners persevered. Ralegh was interviewed repeatedly by Sir Thomas Wilson, acting on behalf of the privy council under their commission dated 10 September. Wilson was no impartial examiner--he openly sought incriminating evidence from this 'arch-hypocryte', asking God to preserve James 'from having many such dangerous subjects'. Despite Wilson's efforts, the pickings were meagre. On 18 October the commissioners reported their findings to the king. James, however, was dissatisfied with their proposals. Simply issuing a warrant for executing the sentence of 1603 seemed unduly arbitrary, but he wanted no public hearing either. There was a risk that this 'would make [Ralegh] too popular, as was found by experiment at the arraignment at Winchester, where by his wit he turned the hatred of men into compassion for him'. Mindful of Coke's bungling fifteen years earlier, the king wished rather to steer a middle course. Ralegh should be called before the commissioners alone, 'those who have been the examiners of him hitherto'. Examinations would be read out, Sir Henry Yelverton, the attorney-general, and Sir Thomas Coventry, the solicitor-general, would inform against him, the prisoner might speak, and 'others confronted with him, who were with him in this action'. The conclusion was, of course, preordained.
The privy council duly summoned Ralegh before it on 22 October. Yelverton accused him of blatant lies--Ralegh had been ungenerous to a king who had pardoned his manifest treasons, he had known all along that there was no mine, he had planned to foment war between England and Spain, he had abandoned his men and betrayed James. Ralegh in his reply also reached back across time to his finest hour, recalling the apparent harshness of the original verdict handed down at Winchester, 'he hath heard that the King said that he would not bee tried by a jury of Middlesex'. He had, he insisted, fully believed in the mine, he had not plotted with France, and he had not abandoned his own men in Guiana. His words were, of course, to no purpose; the commissioners informed him that they were satisfied of his guilt, and that he was therefore to be put to death.
Sentence was confirmed in his presence by Sir Henry Montagu, lord chief justice at the court of king's bench, Westminster, on 28 October. Again Ralegh tried to excuse his actions on the recent voyage, only to be stopped by Montagu, who told him that, since he had not been pardoned expressly in his commission, what he had or had not done in Guiana was quite irrelevant to the question at law, which was whether the king might indeed now confirm a sentence of execution passed in November 1603. Ralegh then took the only course open to him and threw himself on James's clemency. Montagu made a considered, and in the circumstances a rather courageous speech, affirming his own belief in Ralegh's character and religion, and praising his History. 'You must do', he said, 'as that valiant captain did, who perceiving himself in danger, said in defiance of death, death thou expectest me, but maugre thy spite I expect thee'. He concluded by granting execution.
Ralegh spent his last night in the Gatehouse and was executed on the morning of 29 October 1618, at Westminster. He made a long, moving speech, lasting three-quarters of an hour, welcoming the fact that he was to die in the light, forgiving his enemies and traducers, insisting that he had no ulterior motive in planning his expedition, that he had not plotted with France, and that he had never considered seeking refuge abroad. The execution of Essex still troubled him:
There was a Report spread, that I should rejoice at the death of my Lord of Essex, and that I should take Tobacco in his presence; when I protest I shed Tears at his Death, though I was one of the contrary Faction.
He asked the onlookers to pray with him for divine forgiveness, summarizing his own career as he did so. He had been, he admitted, 'a Man full of all Vanity'; he had lived 'a sinful Life, in all sinful Callings, having been a Souldier, a Captain, a Sea-Captain, and a Courtier, which are all places of Wickedness and Vice'. Ralegh maintained his courage to the end, touching the edge of the axe and jesting with the sheriff that here was 'a sharp Medicine ... a Physitian for all Diseases'. His head, severed at the second blow, was placed into a 'Red-leather bag', and was carried away by Lady Ralegh, who kept it by her thereafter. The body was buried at St Margaret's, Westminster.
by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals
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