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The Quatercentary of Sir Walter Raleigh's Trial
Part I: Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth

On just a few occasions in the history of the Western World, fate or coincidence have conspired to bring together, in the same place and at the same time, a collection of truly extraordinary individuals - individuals whose collective impact on the political, social and cultural development of mankind has far exceeded the sum of their parts. One such moment in history arose in Classical Rome, under Julius Caesar, when the first Emperor of the Known World rubbed shoulders with Pompey the Great, Sulla, Cicero, Atticus, Crassus, Brutus, Clodius, Catullus, and Marcus Antonius. Likewise, in the Florence of Lorenzo ("the Magnificent") de Medici, a population of less than 100,000 included Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli and Machiavelli. So it was that in Elizabethan London, a constellation of historical stars came together in a city less than one-tenth - perhaps as little as one-twentieth - the size of modern-day Brisbane.

It seems more than accidental that this phenomenon has often coincided with the regimes of visionary autocratic rulers, and Elizabeth I was no exception. This enigmatic woman's 45-year reign was, in many ways, the mid-point between the absolute monarchy which preceded the Great Charter of 1215, and the constitutional monarchy presaged by the Bill of Rights of 1689. The last of the Tudor sovereigns was as autocratic as her father, Henry VIII, but less vicious; no less cunning than her cousin and successor, James I, but not so duplicitous. The Virgin Queen's handling of policy issues - domestic, foreign and military - displayed a wisdom and subtlety, strangely at odds with her petty and sometimes childish behaviour amongst the members of her court. She was naively prone to the flattery of the handsome young men with whom she surrounded herself, another trait which she shared with James I. But,unlike James, Elizabeth was masterful at playing her retinue off against one another, and possessed an uncanny ability to promote her most loyal and talented retainers to positions which suited their individual skills.

three popular views of Sir Walter Raleigh: the chivalrous courtier;
the explorer and colonist; the man who (supposedly) introduced tobacco to Europe

Dominant in her immediate circle was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, often identified as the inspiration for the character of Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet - a "tedious old fool" to the younger and more adventurous members of the court, but a gifted administrator who, as Secretary of State and later Lord Treasurer, was largely responsible for the financial and domestic security which characterised the Queen's long reign. Burghley was in due course succeeded as the Queen's principal minister by his hunchbacked second son, Sir Robert Cecil (subsequently 1st Earl of Salisbury), whose political intrigues were as crooked as his spine,and may have contributed to the theatrical device often employed by Shakespeare, of associating physical deformities with deformities of moral character. As a recent writer (Nieves Mathews, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination, 1996, p.236) has observed: "A craving for political power could be detected in the calculated concentration with which Robert Cecil camouflaged his wide network of corruption over the years, so successfully that it has only recently been uncovered."

Another prominent figure at Elizabeth's court was a shadowy character, Dr John Dee, who somehow epitomises the collision of Dark Ages mysticism and Renaissance learning. Dee would today be described as the government's scientific adviser, and he was undoubtedly a man of great learning, especially in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geography and navigation. But he also served as the Queen's spiritualist and astrologer, conducting séances and the like, and is said to have inspired the character of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. As a mariner, Sir Walter Raleigh was naturally interested to obtain the benefits of Dee's knowledge regarding geography and navigation; but Dee's reputation as a mystic and necromancer opened Raleigh to the charge of being associated with atheism and the "black arts".

Queen Elizabeth I

Lord Burghley

Raleigh, himself, was something of an amateur scientist, particularly interested in botanical specimens obtained from the New World, and their potential use for medicinal purposes; he is also remembered (albeit inaccurately) as the person who introduced the smoking of tobacco to Europe - a dubious title which rightfully belongs to his kinsman, the notorious privateer Sir John Hawkins. In an age of religious zealotry and heretical suspicion, Raleigh's interest in genuine scientific experimentation enhanced his reputation as dabbling in sorcery.

In his heyday, he surrounded himself with some of the most controversial intellects of his age, including mathematicians, astronomers, geographers and students of the natural sciences, as well as poets, playwrights, and philosophers. They met at Durham House, the grand London residence which Queen Elizabeth expropriated from the Bishop of Durham and provided for Raleigh's use. This group is often identified with the "School of Night" in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost.

the "School of Night" - Dr John Dee and Christopher Marlowe
and Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham

Elizabeth's England enjoyed unprecedented advances in military strength and strategic influence, and in cultural development. The former was achieved largely through the efforts of privateers - in truth, little more than licensed pirates - like Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, and more high-minded navigators and explorers like Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his half-brother, Raleigh. Elizabeth's reign was also a golden age of literature, though the brilliancy of the single greatest writer in the history of the English language,William Shakespeare, has tended to eclipse the lesser lights of Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, and John Lily.

There is no record that Shakespeare and Raleigh were personally acquainted, although they had many mutual acquaintances. Shakespeare's works contain a number of characters and references arguably inspired by Raleigh - including, as we shall see, an unambiguous reference to Raleigh's trial. The character of Armado in Love's Labours Lost is thought to be a caricature of Sir Walter, made all the more ironic because Raleigh's fanatical hatred of the Spanish is parodied by a character described as "a fanatical Spaniard".

Raleigh's literary circle: Edmund Spencer; Ben Johnson; William Shakespeare

Raleigh's literary connections included Ben Jonson - sometime tutor to Raleigh's eldest son, Wat - and the poet Edmund Spencer, to whom Raleigh was a close friend and patron. A rather more controversial connection existed between Raleigh and Shakespeare's major rival, Kit Marlowe, who was one of the Durham House "School of Night". Marlowe was a notorious atheist, and also openly homosexual - to him is attributed the aphorism, "All them who love not tobacco and boys are fools." When not writing plays, Marlowe was on the payroll of Sir Francis Walsingham, England's first semi-official spymaster. In 1593, Marlowe was arrested and charged before the Star Chamber with blasphemy and treason; but was then (astonishingly) released on bail. Within 10 days, he was dead - stabbed, supposedly, in an argument over who should pay the bill in a tavern at Deptford. The credibility of this "official" version of Marlowe's death is not enhanced by the fact that Marlowe actually died at a private home - owned, coincidentally, by a cousin of Cecil's - rather than a tavern; the fact that the man who inflicted the fatal wound, along with his two companions, were all members of Walsingham's secret service; and the fact that the killer rapidly received a royal pardon, and immediately returned to Walsingham's service. The true circumstances surrounding Marlowe's death have been debated ever since, with conspiracy theories ranging from the possibility that Marlowe was a double-agent who had to be eliminated to protect state secrets; that his death was necessary to prevent his implicating others when he came to trial before the Star Chamber; that he was the victim of a power play between the competing Cecil, Walsingham, Essex and Raleigh factions at court; that his death was "staged", and that he in fact survived with a new identity provided by his secret service employers, possibly to avoid his impending Star Chamber trial (and then went on, as it has been suggested, to "ghost write" Hamlet and other plays usually attributed to Shakespeare); or that his homosexual liaison with a prominent courtier was a potential source of embarrassment. Raleigh has from time to time been implicated in each of these conspiracy theories, except the last - not even the most fanciful of them has ever challenged Raleigh's sexual orientation.

The writing of poetry (though not plays) was regarded as a significant gentlemanly attainment amongst the inner circle at Elizabeth's court, and the noted poets of the age included three of Her Majesty's gentleman-soldiers, Sir Philip Sidney, Edward De Vere (17th Earl of Oxford) and Raleigh. The predominance of aristocratic literati at Elizabeth's court has led to the suggestion - mainly emanating from the "lunatic fringe" of serious literary study - that William Shakespeare was in fact the nom de guerre of a high-born author who preferred to conceal his true identity, or perhaps the barely literate "front man" for the supposed "real" author: maybe the Earl of Oxford, maybe Sir Francis Bacon, maybe Christopher Marlowe, maybe the Earl of Derby, maybe Raleigh (with or without collaboration from Bacon), or maybe even the Queen herself.

Gentleman-poets of Elizabeth's Court: Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Oxford, and Raleigh

Elizabeth's reign also produced a number of outstanding jurists. But in the legal world, as in the literary world, the fame of one has tended to out-shine the many; and that one was Sir Edward Coke. Amongst his contemporary lawyers, Ellesmere and Bacon are perhaps better remembered for their feuds with Coke, and in Bacon's case, for his philosophical and other non-judicial writings.

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links to other parts of this article

Part II: The Essex Trial

Part III: James’s Succession

Part IV: The Main and Bye Plots

Part V: Cobham’s Allegations

Part VI: The Law of Treason

Part VII: The Accused

Part VIII: The Prosecutor

Part IX: The Trial

Part X: Raleigh’s Execution

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this page last updated 20 January 2004