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The Quatercentary of Sir Walter Raleigh's Trial
Part II: The Essex Trial

Raleigh and Coke were born in the same year – 1552 – but led very different lives, the former as a navigator, explorer, colonist, soldier, courtier, scientist, author and poet; the former as a lawyer, parliamentarian, and judge. Prior to Raleigh’s treason trial, their paths frequently crossed, notably when Raleigh, as a member of the House of Commons, succeeded where Coke (as Speaker) had failed, in negotiating the resolution to an impasse between the Commons and the House of Lords; and also at the treason trial of the Earl of Essex.

Each was a product of the system of personal patronage which filled all important offices during Elizabeth’s reign. Raleigh was long one of the Queen’s favourites, and the story of his laying a cloak over a muddy puddle for the Queen to walk upon, even if apocryphal, reveals truths both about Raleigh’s love of fine and ostentatious clothing, and his chivalrous attitude to his sovereign. For some time he fell into disfavour, for marrying one of the Queen’s “maids of honour” without Her Majesty’s permission, and was confined to the Tower of London. But, towards the end of the reign, Raleigh had returned to favour, and was rivalled only by the young and dashing Earl of Essex.



Coke originally rose to power as protégé of Lord Burghley and his son, Sir Robert Cecil – grandfather and uncle, respectively, of Coke’s second wife – who procured his election as Speaker of the House of Commons during his first term as a member. Having successfully managed the passage of the Queen’s (that is, Burghley’s and Cecil’s) legislative programme, including the all-important revenue laws required to fund the continuing war with Spain – albeit, as previously mentioned, with Raleigh’s important assistance – Coke was promoted to solicitor-general.

When the position of attorney-general fell vacant upon the appointment of Lord Ellesmere as Master of the Rolls, Essex lobbied for the advancement of his own nominee, Bacon, even though the youthful Bacon then had no actual court experience. Cecil pushed for Coke’s appointment, and was ultimately successful – quite possibly with Raleigh’s support.

For some years, Cecil maintained a “divide and rule” stratagem as between the Queen’s leading favourites, Essex and Raleigh, generally supporting whichever of them was the “under-dog” to prevent the other from consolidating a position of power. As Essex rose in the Queen’s affections, this strategy increasingly brought Cecil into alliance with Raleigh. Indeed, it seems that Raleigh was genuinely beguiled by Cecil’s assurances of affection, loyalty and support; even as Cecil was plotting Raleigh’s ultimate fall, Raleigh continued to correspond with Cecil in terms of deep gratitude towards the person whom he regarded as his greatest friend at court. In the first instance, though, Essex was a greater threat to Cecil than Raleigh, and it suited both Raleigh and Cecil to have Essex out of the way. Nor would the removal of Essex’s influence do any harm to Coke’s position, given Essex’s support for Coke’s rival, Bacon.

Cecil, naturally, had a secret agenda – an agenda which was certainly unknown to Raleigh, and most probably unknown to Coke. Burghley and Cecil, father and son, had been the powers behind the throne throughout Elizabeth’s reign; but the reign was coming to an end. The Virgin Queen was the last of the Tudor line, and there were several competing claims to the succession. James Stuart – James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been beheaded for treason at Elizabeth’s orders – was not closest in line to the throne, and was arguably ineligible as a “foreigner”. But England needed a strong and experienced ruler, and the rival claimants were too young, too feeble (or feeble-minded), or women.

Father and Son - Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil

James’s succession had other advantages. It would bring about the unification of the English and Scottish crowns. The public demanded a Protestant king, and James was Protestant; yet it was imagined that James would also be tolerant to the Catholic Church, in which he had been baptised. Whilst his succession remained uncertain, he encouraged English Catholics to hope for such tolerance; but no sooner had he ascended the throne than he was heard to remark (in his thick Scottish accent), “na, na, we’ll nae need the Papishes now”. This would, in due course, lead to further troubles – including the Bye and Main Plots and the Gunpowder Plot; but, at this point, all of that lies in the future.

Cecil’s concern was not merely that of a patriotic statesman, to ensure the succession; more important for Cecil was to ensure, not only that he was in good standing with Elizabeth’s successor, but that others of Elizabeth’s favourites did not enjoy a similar advantage.

With Raleigh, there was no difficulty. An envoy on behalf of James, the Duke of Lennox, sought a secret meeting with Raleigh, but Raleigh spurned the proposal, informing Lennox that he was “over-deeply engaged and obliged to his own mistress to seek favour anywhere else, that should divert his eye or diminish his sole respect to his sovereign”. Raleigh then made the mistake of reporting to Cecil that he had “denied any kind of proffer of devotion or kind affection to have been made to King James”; to which Cecil disingenuously replied: “You did well; and as I myself would have made the answer, if the like offer had been made to me”. Even as Cecil wrote those words, he was engaged in encrypted correspondence with James, attempting to secure his own future under the anticipated Jacobite monarchy.

Knowing, therefore, that Raleigh had little prospect of maintaining his position of influence after Elizabeth’s death, Cecil set about to rid himself of his only remaining rival, the Earl of Essex. But Essex largely solved the problem for himself, by openly doing that which Cecil was doing covertly: attempting an alliance with James. Already in disgrace over a failed assignment to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, and knowing that his final fall was near, Essex attempted a coup d’état in the expectation that, with assistance from James, the rebellion commenced by a small force under his command would attract spontaneous support from Catholics and others opposed to Elizabeth’s regime.

Essex’s rebellion was a dismal failure. Support which had been promised to Essex – or which Essex convinced himself had been promised to him – was not forthcoming. Though Essex, ever popular with the public, was cheered by crowds of Londoners, they did not rise up to join him. His co-conspirators, once they saw which way the wind was blowing, melted away. Finally, with a small group of his closest followers, Essex was besieged in his own London house, and forced to surrender. From distant Scotland, James was quick to dissociate himself from the plot – though happy to claim the dashing Essex as his “martyr” when James eventually became King.

Essex was put on trial for treason. Coke, as Attorney-General, led the prosecution. He conducted the case vigorously, but not viciously. More surprising was Bacon’s role in the prosecution of his former patron. No doubt anxious to dissociate himself from the traitors, Bacon took an active and passionate part in the prosecution.

Essex’s defence (if it can be called that) was to the effect that he was forced to rebel because Cecil and Raleigh were plotting to have him murdered. During the trial, Essex interrupted Bacon’s address to “plead Mr. Bacon for a witness”, as Bacon had written and delivered for him a letter to the Queen seeking her protection against “the course of private persecution”. Bacon’s reply was: “My Lord, I spent more hours to make you a good subject than upon any man in the world besides”. This, as much as any event in Bacon’s odious life, justified Pope’s description of him as “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind”.

Coke’s role in the prosecution was, by contrast, an honourable one; as was Raleigh’s. Raleigh gave evidence against Essex, comprising a factual description of his part (as Captain of the Queen’s Guard) in putting down the rebellion, but without taking the opportunity – as so many other witnesses did – to introduce court gossip regarding Essex’s motives, or otherwise to denigrate his character. It was Raleigh’s duty to officiate at Essex’s execution, and by doing so Raleigh attracted the enmity of the public; but, in fact, Raleigh discharged his duty with every possible courtesy and consideration.

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this page last updated 20 January 2004