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The Quatercentary of Sir Walter Raleigh's Trial
Part VII: The Accused

Raleigh's trial was inevitably a turning-point in the lives of the two principal protagonists - Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Edward Coke. Although both aged 51, the trial marked the end of the career which made Raleigh famous, and the beginning of the career which made Coke famous. Coke, it is true, had some prominence in public affairs prior to Raleigh's trial, especially when he led the prosecution of Essex; but nothing prior to 1603 would have generated for him more than a footnote in any history of the period. Raleigh survived 15 years after the trial, most of that time as a prisoner in the Tower, though he was released in 1616 to lead an expedition to Guiana, and his most important writings (especially his History of the World) date from the period of his imprisonment. But the things for which he is chiefly remembered all lay in his past.

History provides several similar examples of a confrontation between two near-contemporaries, where the outcome has practically ended one famous career, but created another. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington were born less than three months apart, yet Bonaparte's defeat by Wellington at Waterloo ended the former's life of prominence, whilst making the latter a celebrity. The same may be said of Oscar Wilde and Lord Carson, who had studied together at Trinity College, Dublin.

Raleigh's sea-faring contemporaries:
Sir Francis Drake; Sir John Hawkins; and Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Raleigh, at 51, had led a life of action and adventure, of conquest and of colonisation, of battles by land and by sea and in the thick of political intrigues at Elizabeth's court, unparalleled in English history. He amassed, not one fortune, but several - and lost each of them, as quickly, and almost as cheerfully, as they had been gained. He accumulated large holdings of property, including one of the grandest houses in London and an even grander country seat, and a large private fleet of armed warships; but, again and again, he hazarded everything on speculative ventures in the Americas.

Raleigh occupied a prodigious number and variety of public offices, some of them mere sinecures, but many involving onerous responsibilities which he discharged with great efficiency and success. He was Captain of the Queen's Guard, Warden of the Stanneries (the tin mines in Devon and Cornwall), Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, Vice-Admiral of the West, and Governor of Jersey. In addition, he controlled Crown monopolies in wines and exports of cloth - lucrative positions, but also ones requiring considerable administrative talent.

Raleigh and his eldest son, Wat, at about the time of the trial

Raleigh first saw action at 15, fighting with the Huguenots in France. At 26, he captained a vessel of his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in a voyage of exploration and privateering in the West Indies. At 28, he was sent by Elizabeth to command troops in Ireland, and took part in the savage defeat of an attempted Spanish invasion. Having been granted a royal charter to establish a colony in Virginia, he made three expeditions to North America, establishing the first English settlement on that continent. In England, he was instrumental in uncovering the Babington Plot against Elizabeth by supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1588, England was threatened by the Great Armada of Spain, the largest fleet ever assembled in Europe, and Raleigh was given responsibility for the defence of the channel ports; after the Armada was defeated, he led a reprisal raid at Cadiz. His last great adventure was the search for El Dorado, the legendary gold mines of Guiana; Raleigh led two expeditions to the Caribbean coast of South America, in 1594, and again (following his imprisonment) in 1617 at the age of 65. Raleigh was not, however, merely a man of action; he was also an accomplished writer and poet. He studied at Oriel College, Oxford, and was also enrolled at the Middle Temple (where he was a contemporary of Coke at the Inner Temple), but it does not appear that Raleigh had any interest in studying law. He wrote widely on matters historical, nautical, geographical and military; and his "serious" writings were amongst the most widely-read and best of his time. And he was also a noted poet. One story has Raleigh writing in a glass window, "Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall"; Queen Elizabeth, "either espying or being shown it, did under-write, 'If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all'." Two couplets are worthy of particular mention, as having an added poignancy given the circumstances of Raleigh's life and career.

As a young man, Raleigh penned the lines:

    For whoso reaps renown above the rest
    With heaps of hate shall surely be oppressed.

The night before his execution, he wrote:

    Cowards fear to die; but courage stout,
    Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

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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 V: Cobham’s Allegations

Part VI: The Law of Treason

Part VIII: The Prosecutor

Part IX: The Trial

Part X: Raleigh’s Execution

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Anthony John Hunter Morris QC
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this page last updated 20 January 2004