The Magazine

Courtier Prince

The adventurous history of an Elizabethan favorite.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Perhaps through the pull of his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, notable for his classical learning and martial bloodlust, Ralegh found a place at the royal court and, once more, at war—this time in the subjugation of Ireland: “For younger sons like Walter, Ireland was an opportunity state, and a captaincy in Elizabeth’s army was a promising route to benefiting from its opportunities.”  

Ralegh saw his opportunities and he took them, wherever they appeared: keeping the restive southwest of England under the queen’s thumb, serving as a knight of the shire for Devon in parliament, investing in the doomed colony of Roanoke, collecting the prizes of seagoing plunder but preferring not to risk his own skin as a privateer, and leading a 1595 expedition to South America in search of Manoa, the fabled city of gold ruled by the emperor El Dorado. 

He was quickly in and out of Guiana (in the border region of modern Venezuela and Guyana), and wrote a book that amounted to a prospectus of imperial conquest and pelf. The reality did not live up to his pitch. Reports that the golden city lay within reach were blatant trumpery; there was no such place. Ralegh looked closer to home to secure his name and fortune, taking part in the English fleet’s 1596 attack on Cadiz, during which he received “a greevous blow in my legg, larded with manie splinters which I daylie pull out.” 

The handsome booty he sailed home with consoled him. In 1600, the governorship of Jersey, a pretty sinecure, came his way. Privateers in whom he had a stake preyed on Venetian and Brazilian ships laden with sugar and other luxuries. Ralegh presided over his elegant Devon estate, Sherborne, and put in orders to his freebooting underlings for porcelain and silk stockings. After all, he and his wife had their needs.

A courtier thrives at his peril, however, for rivals only await the chance to insert the knife. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died after a reign of 44 years, and Ralegh’s sweet life crumbled.  Perhaps a remark more witty than prudent to the new King James I helped ruin Ralegh, as Aubrey suspects. When James crowed that he could have won the throne by force if necessary, Ralegh wished the need had arisen: “Because that then you would have known your friends from your foes.” Moreover, Ralegh gave precisely the wrong advice on Spanish policy, promoting war when the king did not want to hear of it. Captaincy of the guard, well-paying monopolies, and a stately London house were all pulled out from under him.

And then, in July, came the fateful accusation of entanglement in an outlandish conspiracy—“the so-called Bye Plot aimed to kidnap the king and to hold him hostage against promises of wholesale changes in government and an openly acknowledged toleration of Catholicism in England.” As though that weren’t enough, there followed Ralegh’s implication in the vague but sinister Main Plot, which aimed to encourage rebellion and an invasion by Spain, thus ending in the king’s death and the accession of Arabella Stuart to the throne. Under duress, Ralegh sold out his good friend Lord Cobham, and the furious Cobham returned the favor. A suicide attempt ensued, but the knife missed Ralegh’s heart. Cobham’s testimony—later recanted, then confirmed—secured Ralegh’s conviction for treason. In the eyes of the law, he was a dead man.  

To his wife he wrote, “Thy mourning cannot availe mee: I am but dust.” The king, however, did not please to return Ralegh to dust just yet. Ralegh spent 13 years as a prisoner in the Tower, with two rooms, a laboratory, a private garden, hundreds of his own books, seemingly unrestricted conjugal visitation, and friends popping in regularly or readily available among the inmates, including Cobham, with whom he reconciled.

He did get depressed and sometimes gasped for breath, but he found ways of enduring, even profiting from, confinement. Ralegh had always been a writer; in the Tower, no longer pressed by affairs, he became torrentially prolific, producing tracts on politics, naval warfare, courtly behavior, and, above all, his million-word History of the World, which took in the Old Testament, the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, the Greek wars with Persia, and broke off with the ascent of Rome until the second Punic War.