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Sir Walter Raleigh
Very little is known concerning the youth of Sir Walter Raleigh. He was a younger son, descended of an ancient family, and was born at a farm called Hayes, near the mouth of the river Otter, in Devonshire, in the year 1552. He went to Oriel College, Oxford, at an early age, and gained high praise for the quickness and precocity of his talents. In 1569 he began his military career in the civil wars of France, as a volunteer in the Protestant cause. It is conjectured that he remained in France for more than six years, and returned to England in 1576. Soon after he repaired to the Netherlands, and served as a volunteer against the Spaniards. In such schools, and under such leaders as Coligni and the Prince of Orange, Raleigh's natural aptitude for political and military science received the best nurture; but he was soon drawn from the war in Holland by a pursuit which had captivated his imagination from an early age-the prosecution of discovery in the New World. In conjunction with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a man of courage and ability, and a skilful sailor, he made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a colony in North America. Returning home in 1579, he immediately entered the Queen's army in Ireland, and served with good esteem for personal courage and professional skill, until the suppression of the rebellion in that country. He owed his introduction to court, and the personal favor of Elizabeth, as is traditionally reported, to a fortunate and well-improved accident, which is too familiar to need repetition here. It is probable, however, that his name and talents were not unknown, for we find him employed almost immediately in certain matters of diplomacy.
Raleigh parting from his wife.
Soon after these events, Raleigh retired to his Irish property, being driven from court, according to some authorities, by the enmity of the Earl of Essex, then a young man just rising into favor. He there renewed a former intimacy with the poet Spenser, who, like himself, had been rewarded with a grant of land out of forfeited estates, and then resided at Kilcolman Castle. Spenser has celebrated the return of his friend in the beautiful pastoral, "Colin Clout's come home again;" and in that, and various passages of his works, has made honorable mention of the highly poetic spirit which enabled the "Shepherd of the Ocean," as he is there denominated, to appreciate the merit of the "Fairy Queen," and led him to promote the publication of it by every means in his power. The loss of Raleigh's court-favor, if such there were, could not have been of long duration on this occasion.
But he incurred more serious displeasure in consequence of a private marriage contracted with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of the Queen's maids of honor, a lady of beauty and accomplishments, who proved her worth and fidelity in the long train of misfortunes which beset the latter years of Raleigh's life. In consequence of this intrigue, he was committed to the Tower. One or two amusing anecdotes are related of the devices which he employed to obtain forgiveness, by working on that vanity which was the Queen's chief foible. He succeeded in appeasing his indignant mistress so far as to procure his release; and about the same time, in 1594, she granted to him the valuable manor of Sherborne, in Dorsetshire; but though she requited his services, she still forbade his appearance at court, where he now held the office of Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. Raleigh was peculiarly fitted to adorn a court by his imposing person, the graceful magnificence of his taste and habits, the elegance of his manners, and the interest of his conversation. These accomplishments were sure passports to the favor of Elizabeth; and he improved to the utmost the constant opportunities of intercourse with her which his post afforded, insomuch that, except the Earls of Leicester and Essex, no one ever seems to have stood higher in her graces. But Elizabeth's jealousy on the subject of her favorites' marriages is well known, and her anger was lasting, in proportion to the value which she set on the incense of Raleigh's flattery.
He retired, on his disgrace, to his new estate, in the improvement and embellishment of which he felt great interest. But though deeply alive to the beauties of nature, he had been too long trained to a life of ambition and adventure to rest contented in the tranquil routine of a country life; and during this period of seclusion he again turned his thoughts to his favorite subject of American adventure, and laid the scheme of his first expedition to Guiana, in search of the celebrated El Dorado, the fabled seat of inexhaustible wealth. Having fitted out, with the assistance of other private persons, a considerable fleet, Raleigh sailed from Plymouth, February 6, 1595. He left his ships in the mouth of the river Orinoco, and sailed 400 miles into the interior in boats. It is to be recorded to his honor, that he treated the Indians with great kindness; which, contrasted with the savage conduct of the Spaniards, raised so friendly a feeling toward him, that for years his return was eagerly expected, and at length was hailed with delight. The hardships of the undertaking, and the natural advantages of the country which he explored, are eloquently described in his own account of the "Discovery of Guiana." But the setting in of the rainy season rendered it necessary to return, without having reached the promised land of wealth; and Raleigh reaped no other fruit of his adventure than a certain quantity of geographical knowledge, and a full conviction of the importance of colonizing and taking possession of the newly discovered region. This continued through life to be his favorite scheme; but neither Elizabeth nor her successor could be induced to view it in the same favorable light.
On reaching England, he found the Queen still unappeased; nor was he suffered to appear at court, and he complains in pathetic terms of the cold return with which his perils and losses were requited. But he was invested with a high command in the expedition of 1596, by which the Spanish fleet was destroyed in the harbor of Cadiz; and to his judgment and temper in overruling the faulty schemes proposed by others, the success of that enterprise was chiefly due. Indeed, his services were perhaps too important, and too justly appreciated by the public, for his own interests; for the great and general praise bestowed on him on this occasion tended to confirm a jealousy of long standing on the part of the commander-in-chief, the Earl of Essex; and it was probably owing to that favorite's influence that Raleigh was still forbidden the Queen's presence. Essex, and the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, regarded each other with mutual distrust and dislike. Cecil and Raleigh were connected by ties of common interest, and, as the latter supposed, of friendship. Still Raleigh found the interest of the minister too weak to serve his purpose, while the interest of the favorite was employed against him; and, as the only method of effecting his own restoration to the Queen's favor, he undertook to work a reconciliation between these two powerful rivals. In this he succeeded, to the great admiration of all spectators; and the fruit of his policy was seen in his re-admission to the execution of his official duties at court, June 1, 1597. In the following August he was appointed Rear Admiral in the expedition called the Island Voyage, of which Essex held the chief command. The slight successes which were obtained were again due to the military talents of Raleigh; the main objects of the voyage were lost through the Earl's inexperience.
From this time to the death of the Queen, Raleigh enjoyed an uninterrupted course of favor. Elizabeth was now old; Cecil took no steps to diminish the high esteem in which she held Sir Walter Raleigh, but he secretly labored to prejudice her successor against him, and he succeeded to his wish. Very soon after the accession of James I., Raleigh's post of captain of the guard was taken from him; and his patent of wines was revoked, though not without a nominal compensation being made. To complete his ruin, it was contrived to involve him in a charge of treason. Most writers have concurred in speaking of this passage of history as inexplicable; it is the opinion of the last historian of Raleigh, Mr. Tytler, that he has found sufficient evidence for regarding the whole plot as a device of Cecil, and he has supported this opinion by cogent arguments. Lord Cobham, a violent and ambitious but weak man, had engaged in private dealings with the Spanish ambassador, which brought him under the suspicion of the government. By a device of Cecil's (we here follow the account of Mr. Tytler) he was induced, in a fit of anger, and in the belief that Raleigh had given information against him, to accuse Sir Walter himself of being privy to a conspiracy against the government. This charge Cobham retracted, confirmed, and retracted again, behaving in so equivocal a manner, that no reliance whatever can be placed on any of his assertions. But as the King was afraid of Raleigh as much as the secretary hated him, this vague charge, unsupported by other evidence, was made sufficient to commit him to the Tower; and, after being plied with private examinations, in which nothing criminal could be elicited, he was brought to trial, November 17, 1603. For an account of that memorable scene we shall refer to Mr. Jardine's "Criminal Trials," Vol. I. It is reported to have been said by one of the judges who presided over it, on his death-bed, that "the justice of England had never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh." The behavior of the victim himself was the object of universal admiration, for the tempered mixture of patience and noble spirit with which he bore the oppressive measure dealt to him. He had before been unpopular; but it was recorded by an eye-witness that "he behaved himself so worthily, so wisely, and so temperately, that in half a day the mind of all the company was changed from the extremest hate to the extremest pity."
The sentence of death thus unfairly and disgracefully obtained was not immediately carried into execution. James was not satisfied with the evidence adduced on the trial; and believing at the same time that Raleigh had been plotting against him, he set his royal wit to dive into the mystery. Of the singular scene which the British Solomon devised it is not necessary to speak, since Raleigh was not an actor in it. But as no more evidence could be obtained against him, even by the King's sagacity, he was reprieved, and remanded to the Tower, where the next twelve years of his life were spent in confinement. Fortunately, he had never ceased to cultivate literature with a zeal not often found in the soldier and politician, and he now beguiled the tedium of his lot by an entire devotion to those studies which before had only served to diversify his more active and engrossing pursuits. Of his poetical talents we have already made short mention; to the end of life he continued the practice of pouring out his mind in verse, and there are several well-known and beautiful pieces expressive of his feelings in prison, and in the anticipation of immediate death; especially "The Lie," and the beautiful little poem called "The Pilgrimage." He also possessed a strong turn for mathematics, and studied them with much success in the society and under the guidance of his friend, Thomas Hariot, one of the most accomplished mathematicians of the age. Chemistry was another favorite pursuit, in which, according to the standard of his contemporaries, he made great progress. But the most important occupation of his imprisonment was the composition of the "History of the World." The work extends from the creation to the end of the second Macedonian war. Raleigh meant to bring it down to modern times; but the untimely death of Henry, Prince of Wales, for whose use it was composed, deprived him of the spirit to proceed with so laborious an undertaking. He enjoyed the confidence of that generous youth in a remarkable degree, and maintained a close correspondence with him on civil, military, and naval subjects. Several discourses on these topics, addressed to the prince, will be found in the editions of Raleigh's works. Henry repaid these services with sincere friendship and admiration; and we may presume that his adviser looked forward to that friendship, not only for a cessation of misfortune, but for a more brilliant period of favor and power than he had yet enjoyed. Fortunately, however, his patron's death was preceded by that of his arch-enemy, Cecil; and through the mediation of the Duke of Buckingham, Raleigh was released from the Tower in March, 1615; and obtained permission to follow up his long-cherished scheme of establishing a colony in Guiana, and working a gold mine, of which he had ascertained the existence and situation.
The results of this disastrous voyage must be shortly given. Raleigh sailed March 28, 1617, and reached the coast of Guiana in November following. Being himself disabled by sickness from proceeding farther, he despatched a party to the mine under the command of Captain Keymis, an officer who had served in the former voyage to Guiana. But during the interval which had elapsed since Raleigh's first discovery of that country, the Spaniards had extended their settlements into it, and in particular had built a town called Santa Thome in the immediate neighborhood of the mine in question. James, with his usual duplicity, while he authorized the expedition, revealed every particular connected with it to the Spanish ambassador. The English, therefore, were expected in the Orinoco, and preparation had been made for repelling them by force. Keymis and his men were unexpectedly attacked by the garrison of Santa Thome, and a sharp contest ensued, in which the English gained the advantage, and burnt the town. In this action Raleigh's eldest son was killed. The Spaniards still occupied the passes to the mine, and after an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge them, Keymis abandoned the enterprise and returned to the ships. Raleigh's correspondence expresses in affecting terms his grief and indignation at this double misfortune: the loss of a brave and promising son, and the destruction of the hopes which he had founded on this long-cherished adventure. On his return to England, he found himself marked out for a victim to appease the resentment of the Spanish Court, to which he had long been an object of fear and hatred.
His conduct abroad had already been closely scrutinized, in the hope of finding some act of piracy, or unauthorized aggression against Spain, for which he might be brought to trial. Both these hopes failing, and his death, in compliment to Spain, being resolved on, it was determined to carry into effect the sentence passed fifteen years before, from which he had never been legally released; and a warrant was accordingly issued to the judges, requiring them to order execution. He insisted on the nature of his late commission, and on that plea being overruled, submitted with his usual calmness and dignity. The execution, with indecent haste, was ordered to take place on the following morning. In this last stage of life, his greatness of mind shone with even more than its usual lustre. Calm, and fearless without bravado, his behavior and speech expressed the piety and resignation of a Christian, with the habitual coolness of one who has braved death too often to shrink at its approach. His farewell to his faithful wife was manly, tender, and most affecting. The accounts of his deportment on the scaffold effectually refute the charges of irreligion and atheism, which some writers have brought against him, unless we make up our minds to believe him an accomplished hypocrite. He spoke at considerable length, and his dying words have been faithfully reported. They contain a denial of all the serious offences laid to his charge, and express his forgiveness of those even who had betrayed him under the mask of friendship. After delivering this address, and spending some time in prayer, he laid his head on the block, and breathing a short private prayer, gave the signal to the executioner. Not being immediately obeyed, he partially raised his head, and said, "What dost thou fear? Strike, man!" and underwent the fatal blow without shrinking or alteration of position. He died in his sixty-sixth year.
Raleigh sat in several Parliaments, and took an active part in the business of the house. His speeches, preserved in the Journals, are said by Mr. Tytler to be remarkable for an originality and freedom of thought far in advance of the time. His expression was varied and animated, and his powers of conversation remarkable. His person was dignified and handsome, and he excelled in bodily accomplishments and martial exercises. He was very fond of paintings, and of music; and, in literature as in art, he possessed a cultivated and correct taste. He was one of those rare men who seem qualified to excel in all pursuits alike; and his talents were set off by an extraordinary laboriousness and capacity of application. As a navigator, soldier, statesman, and historian, his name is intimately and honorably linked with one of the most brilliant periods of British history.
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