Editor's Published Articles

The Quatercentary of Sir Walter Raleigh's Trial
Part V:
Cobham’s Allegations

Raleigh's name was first mentioned by Brooke, when he accused Cobham. Brooke offered no evidence against Raleigh directly, but named him as a person whom the conspirators in the Main Plot regarded as a "fit man" to join with them. This meant nothing in itself: even under the oppressive treason laws of the day, a man could not be convicted merely because others mooted him as one who might be approached to join a conspiracy. And anyone seriously contemplating an armed insurrection would have been stupid not to consider Raleigh's name, given his (by this time) well-known fall from grace under the new King, his vast military and administrative experience, and his significant connections with people of influence. But even the fact that Brooke had mentioned Raleigh's name was sufficient ground to interrogate him.

At their initial interrogations, both Raleigh and Cobham denied any knowledge of the Main Plot. A few days later, a merchant from Antwerp, Matthew la Renzi (or Laurency) came forward, and admitted carrying correspondence between Aremberg and Cobham. He also deposed to a secret meeting between Aremberg and Cobham. More significant, so far as Raleigh was concerned, was the claim that Raleigh was present when a letter from Aremberg was delivered, and that Cobham and Raleigh had gone "into a chamber privately" to read the correspondence.

Raleigh was again interviewed, and again denied any knowledge. But, in an apparently genuine attempt to assist the investigation, he sent a letter to the Privy Council, stating:

    "If your honours apprehend the merchant of St Helen's, the stranger will know that all is discovered of him, which perchance you desire to conceal for some time. All the danger will be lest the merchant fly away. If any man knows more of the Lord Cobham, I think he trusted George Wyet [Wyatt] of Kent."

There can be little question about Raleigh's sincerity in writing this letter. The "merchant of St Helen's" was obviously la Renzi; "the stranger" was obviously Aremberg; Raleigh was making the helpful suggestion that la Renzi should not be arrested, lest it serve as a "tip off" to Aremberg and other conspirators. He was also suggesting that useful information about Cobham could be obtained from Wyatt.

Lord Cobham

Cobham was shown this letter during a subsequent interrogation, and immediately "broke out into passion", believing that Raleigh was determined to implicate him. Cobham cried out: "Oh villain! Oh traitor! I will now tell you all the truth", and then admitted to the negotiations with Aremberg, but claimed that it was all Raleigh's idea, and that he (Cobham) would not have become involved but for Raleigh's influence.

Raleigh was arrested, and imprisoned in the Bloody Tower pending trial. Normally, and for obvious reasons, treason trials were held very swiftly. But Raleigh's imprisonment continued from the end of July until early November. Possibly this was due, in part, to an outbreak of plague in London; but more likely, the Privy Council knew how weak was the case against Raleigh - based on the testimony of a single witness, and him a co-conspirator - and determined to wait in the hope that further evidence would turn up.

Far from producing further evidence to implicate Raleigh, the delay weakened the case against him, as Cobham recanted of his allegations. Then, at a further interview, Cobham repeated the allegations, claiming that he had retracted them only because of his fear of Raleigh.

This was itself a bizarre claim, given that both Cobham and Raleigh were imprisoned, and facing trial for their lives. What greater risk could Raleigh pose to Cobham, than the risk which his own confession had called upon himself: the risk of the gruesome punishment then meted out to convicted traitors, of being drawn on a hurdle through the streets of the capital, hanged, disembowelled, castrated, decapitated, then to have one's body hacked into quarters, with the four parts being displayed on the gates to the City, and the head left to rot on a staff over London Bridge - added to which was the penalty of attainder or "corruption of the blood", by which all of the convicted traitor's worldly goods were forfeited to the Crown, and the traitor's family were denied any inheritance from or through the traitor? And even if it could be supposed that Raleigh was in a position to do Cobham any greater harm than that, Cobham's best protection was to have Raleigh kept in secure confinement.

The suggestion that Cobham withdrew his allegations against Raleigh out of fear does not bear scrutiny. If anyone was in a position, either to terrify or to reward Cobham, it was the Privy Council - Cecil, in particular. Though Cobham had no hope of escaping conviction as a traitor, it was unusual for a member of the nobility to suffer the full rigours of the punishment prescribed by law, and Cobham could at least hope merely to be beheaded. But, were he to make himself useful to the King (and Cecil), there was even some chance of his sentence being commuted to one of imprisonment - and of his family continuing to enjoy his hereditary title and property. The suspicion that a deal was done with Cobham is strengthened by the fact that, following his and Raleigh's convictions, Cobham immediately received a full pardon.

In the lead-up to Raleigh's trial, Cobham again sought to withdraw his allegations against Raleigh, writing to the Governor of the Tower to arrange an interview with the Privy Council, saying: "God is my witness, it doth touch my conscience … . I would fain have [back] the words that the Lords used of my barbarousness in accusing him falsely". But the Governor withheld the letter until after Raleigh's conviction.

Due to the continuing plague in London, the trial was held in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle - to this day, apart from the great Gothic Cathedral, Winchester's main tourist attraction, where credulous Americans are shown King Arthur's Round Table, and the equally apocryphal nook from which James I is said to have eavesdropped on Raleigh's trial (James was in fact nowhere near Winchester at the time).

On a charge of treason, the prisoner was committed to trial by the Privy Council - not its Judicial Committee, which evolved in later years, but the council of the King's Ministers of State - so there were no committal proceedings in the modern sense.

Raleigh had never been a popular figure, and the mere accusation of treason was sufficient to turn the mob against him. Raleigh was despatched from the Tower to Winchester, in his own coach, with an escort of 50 horsemen, led by Sir William Waad and Sir Robert Mansell. He was pelted with sticks, stones and mud - and with tobacco pipes - and Waad wrote that it was "hob or nob" whether Raleigh "should have been brought out alive through such multitudes of unruly people as did exclaim at him". The 75 mile trip took five days, leaving Raleigh less than 48 hours to prepare for his trial on 17 November 1603.

Thus Raleigh came to trial for his life, on the accusation of a single witness, a confessed co-conspirator, who had everything to gain and nothing to lose from implicating Raleigh, and who had twice retracted his accusations against Raleigh.

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links to other parts of this article

Part I: Raleigh and Elizabeth I

Part II: The Essex Trial

Part III: James’s Succession

Part IV: The Main and Bye Plots

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