Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

Sir Walter Raleigh

If I had followed strictly the order of dates I should have written about Walter Raleigh before I wrote about the Earl of Essex or even about Philip Sidney; for he was two years older than Sidney, and fifteen years older than Essex. But it is more convenient to put his story here. Raleigh had to wait much longer than the other two before he began to rise in the world. He fought and fought bravely in France, in the Low Countries, and in Ireland, but he was still nothing more than a private gentleman at thirty, though Essex, as we have seen, commanded the English cavalry when he was but twenty. Then came Raleigh's chance. There is no reason to suppose that the story is not true, though we do not find it in print till more than thirty years after his death. It is very like what we might expect from him and from the Queen.

Elizabeth—it is thus the story goes—had to pass over some muddy spot, and stopped a moment in doubt. Raleigh, who was wearing that day a new plush cloak, at once stripped it off his shoulders and threw it down in front of the Queen. She passed on, not forgetting to notice the young man who had been so ready with his politeness. Not long afterwards he wrote on a window where he knew the Queen would see it this line—

"Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall."

Elizabeth added underneath—

"If thy heart fail thee, climb not at all."

Raleigh took the hint, and climbed. He got up quickly enough. Of wealth he had plenty. The Queen gave him money and lands, not indeed of her own—of them she was very sparing—but belonging to other people. For instance, she made a college or a bishop grant him the lease of an estate at a very low rent; he could let it again, and take the difference. When Antony Babington was found guilty of plotting against the Queen, part of his property was handed over to Raleigh. Then he had monopolies of wine and cloth. Finally, though he did not get much profit out of them, he had lands in Ireland.


Sir Walter Raleigh.

If he got money quickly, he spent it freely. We read of a gentleman being tried for stealing a hat-band of pearls belonging to "Walter Rawley"—his name was spelt in twenty different ways—worth 30. This indeed is nothing compared to other stories told about him. One writer of the time says that he wore 6000 worth of jewels in his shoes. There is a tradition that he had a court dress that cost 60,000. But he did not spend all his money in this foolish way. He would gladly have done as Drake did, and gone voyaging himself in those "Western Seas," where the Englishmen of that day were so fond of seeking for riches and fame. But the Queen would not let him go. So he fitted out ships, and sent others to seek adventure and profit in his stead. Two started in April, 1584, and five months afterwards came back with some fine pearls and furs and other things, together with two natives. The land they discovered was called "Virginia," after the Virgin Queen. It was Elizabeth herself who invented the name. Other expeditions were sent out and were not so successful. In fact they all failed, and it seemed as if all the lives and the money that were spent in them had been thrown away. But it was not so; he set an example, and at last, and that in Raleigh's lifetime (1606), the colony was really founded.

When there was fighting to be done Raleigh was, as we may suppose, ready enough to take his share, and he fought as gallantly as any man in the battles with the Armada. In 1592 he got into trouble. The cause was the same as that which again and again made Elizabeth angry with her favourites. He presumed to love some one else. She sent him to the Tower. He was not kept there very long. In September the privateers which he and others had fitted out to take Spanish shipping brought home a splendid prize, the "Great Crown of Portugal Carack," as it was called, named the Madre di Dios. She had a most valuable cargo of spices, ebony, tapestries, silks, and all manner of precious things. The pepper alone was reckoned to be worth 102,000. Raleigh was let out of prison, that he might help in dividing the spoil, about which there was, as usual, a great deal of quarrelling.

In 1595 he actually did what he had often been thinking of—sailed for the Western Seas. Just six weeks—not a long time in those days—took him across the Atlantic. He reached Trinidad, burnt down a newly-built Spanish city, and then with a couple of boats made his way up the Orinoco. He had various adventures and saw many curious things, which are good to read about, but of which I cannot write in this place. One of his experiences was to make a friendship with an old chief one hundred and ten years of age. He did not gather much treasure, but he made sure that the land which he had found was full of gold and silver, and he fully intended to visit it again. One thing that pleased him, and that we are glad to read, was that he was on quite friendly terms with the natives. In August he was back in England. He did not bring back a great store of treasure; without that, discovery was not much thought of in those days. People too laughed at his traveller's tales, but we know now that there was a great deal of truth in them, and that when he says a thing as of his own knowledge he is to be believed. He did not stop long at home. In the June of the following year (1596) he was with Lord Essex in the taking of Cadiz. He was wounded badly in the leg during the sea-fight, in which indeed he thrust his ship into the very foremost place. This wound prevented him from being at the plunder of the town. He complained that his part of the spoil was "a lame leg and deformed"; . . . that while others were enriched he had "nought but poverty and pain." He had, as a fact, nearly 2000, which would be equal to about seven times as much in our time. But then the heroes of that day were almost as greedy as they were brave.

I shall pass quickly over the rest of the time between this and the Queen's death. Raleigh was now again in favour with her; as he rose, Essex fell; who was right, who was wrong in the lamentable quarrel between them we need not ask. When Essex died, Raleigh was there. Some one says that he came unasked; but then he was Captain of the Guard, and it was probably his duty to be present.

With the Queen's life Raleigh's good fortune came to an end. King James did not like him, why it is not easy to say, except that the favourites of one sovereign seldom please his successor. All monopolies were recalled—a good thing, except that they would soon be given again to other people. This greatly reduced Raleigh's income. Then his place of Captain of the Guard was taken from him. He still used to come to Court, but it was made quite clear that he was not welcome. In July he was arrested, kept at first in his own home, and then sent to the Tower. The charge against him was, of course, high treason, in that he had plotted to put Arabella Stuart on the throne. This lady was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII., and so of royal descent. Elizabeth, who did not like James, had sometimes talked of naming her as her successor. Nothing like real proof of this accusation was brought forward. It is likely that there had been some such plot, and Raleigh may have talked foolishly, but that was all.

At the last moment his life was spared; This was in December, 1603. For more than twelve years, that is, up to March, 1616, he was kept in prison. There was one person at least who wondered that such a thing could be done. This was Prince Henry, the King's eldest son. "Who but my father," he said, "would keep such a bird in a cage?" The Prince even made his father promise to release him. But he died, and for a time Raleigh's hopes were at an end.

At last he got his liberty. He was to go again to the country which he had visited twenty years before, and get possession for the King and his courtiers of some of the riches which he had seen there. But he was not pardoned. That was to depend upon whether he succeeded or not. He did not succeed. Everything seemed to go against him. He met with storms on his way. When he reached Guiana he himself fell sick of a fever, and was very near to death. Then he started for the great gold mine, where he hoped to find the wealth for which he was seeking. But the Spaniards were prepared for his coming. They thought that he had no business in the New World, believing that it all belonged to them. A battle followed, and Raleigh's son Walter was killed. As for the mine, they never reached it. If they had, they certainly would not have found what they expected. You do not find gold lying in a mine, as it lies in the drawer of a bank, and something of this was what they hoped to see. All that they did get was the plunder of a Spanish town, worth some 1000. Really it was worth far less than nothing to Raleigh, for King James desired above all things to be good friends with Spain, and here he had sent a prisoner out of the Tower to burn one of the King of Spain's towns!

There is no need to say much more. A few days after he got back to England he was thrown into the Tower. He had had no pardon for the crime of which he had been found guilty before, and new charges were brought against him. There was a sort of trial. But long before the King had made up his mind to kill him. And kill him he did. On the morning of Friday, October 29, 1516, Walter Raleigh was beheaded.

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