University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Of Walter Raleigh

Volume VI · Autumn 1950 · Number 1
Of Walter Raleigh

The visitor to the Treasure Room can now see, through a new literary lens, a brief panorama of some of the fascinating hills and valleys, mountains and chasms, of seventeenth-century international politics. He can see England and Spain jockeying for position in an old Europe and a new South America; see the anachronistically glamorous Sir Walter Raleigh pitted against a pedantic and politicking King James; and he can see this conflict through the competent and wide-roving eyes of Francis Bacon. The work which carries one back to this period -- an age in many respects frighteningly like our own -- is, on the surface, merely an official pamphlet attempting to justify Raleigh's execution in 1618. Written within a month of his final and most dramatic appearance, it is the government's weighty effort to show that Sir Walter's martyr's robe was really only sheep's clothing.

The full title of this sixty-eight-page pamphlet is innocuous: A/ Declaration/ of the Demea/nor and Cariage of/ Sir Walter Raleigh,/ Knight, as well in his Voyage, as/ in, and sithence his Returne;/ And of the true motiues and ìnduce/ments which occasioned His Maiestie/to Proceed in doing lustice upon him,/ as hath bene done. Except for an error in pagination, it is an excellent printing job, and, like most authorized statements of the government of that time, typography, paper, and ink are superior. The Library's fine copy of the very rare first edition, the gift of Edward G. Miner, is thus an asset to both the bibliophile and the historian.

A Declaration itself is anonymous and official. As such, its style is somewhat formal and formless, though clear, sometimes vivid, and less long-winded than was customary. An examination of contemporary letters and documents indicates, however, that it was no piece of bureaucratic hack work. Too much was at stake. The man responsible for its production and who, in all probability, wrote most of it was the Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Francis Bacon. Assisting him were the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Naunton, and one of England's greatest legal minds, Sir Edward Coke. Finally, the man who checked the finished copy and made several revisions was James I, King of England.

But why this array of imposing weight -- as if Truman, Marshall, Acheson, and Vinson were to write a brochure attacking Alger Hiss? Very abbreviated, part of the answer is this. In 1618 James was busy trying to negotiate a marriage between his son and the Infanta of Spain. Relations between the two countries were precariously peaceful. Count Gondomar, the wily Spanish Ambassador, was active in discussing the potential largeness of the Infanta's dowry, a topic very enticing to a king always hard-pressed for cash. Spain was thus, at the moment, in no position to be flouted.

And Raleigh? In 1603 the great Elizabethan courtier had been sentenced to death for treason. His conviction had been railroaded through a packed court, and, at the last minute, the new king had temporarily commuted his sentence. For over twelve years Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower. In 1616 he was released, after much pressure, for the express purpose of returning to that part of the New World (now Venezuela), which he had investigated twenty years earlier, in order to bring back gold. His instructions were clear: the gold was to be mined from the ground, not pirated from the Spaniards.

These instructions and the rest of the story, though they must be taken with a good many pro-Raleigh grains of salt, can be effectively pieced together from the often dramatic officialese of A Declaration. Arriving off the coast of Venezuela, Raleigh sent an expedition up the Orinoco River to search for the gold mine which he believed to be about twenty miles inland. Not far from the mouth of the river was the small Spanish settlement of St. Thomé. With or without provocation, the English attacked the town. After a brief skirmish in which Raleigh's son and the Governor of the town were among the few casualties, the village was captured. Fearing Spanish reinforcements, the expedition burned it and returned to the fleet. During this period Raleigh had been sick, and the activities of his captains and business partners were ostensibly marked by indecision and bickering. After more of the same, and after the suicide of the lieutenant who had directed the assault on St. Thomé, the bulk of the group, including its leader, returned to England.

Then a tragicomedy of errors set in. Two days after landing at Plymouth, Raleigh was under arrest -- in the custody of a relative of his, Sir Lewis Stukeley. Their tortuous trip to London was punctuated by efforts on the part of Raleigh to escape, efforts both aided by the gullibility of Sir Lewis, and, at the same time, complicated by the fact that he was trying to catch his prisoner in the act of escaping in order to make him seem more guilty. In addition, Raleigh continually tried to delay the journey, probably seeking time in which to prepare his own defense. In this a French doctor was the ambiguous stooge, working for Sir Walter and Sir Lewis: at one time, for instance, giving Raleigh an ointment that made his skin break out in leprous sores, then telling Stukeley of Raleigh's various plots.

But Raleigh did not escape. After two hearings, both of them semi-secret, in which the government rested its case on Raleigh's violations of his detailed commission to seek gold and not to disturb the possessions of any colonial empire, it was decided that he must be executed. Since Raleigh was almost as popular as Spain was unpopular, and since he could not legally be brought to trial because of the old conviction still hanging over him, he was beheaded -- not for the offense against St. Thomé, but for the alleged treason he had committed in 1603. In October, 1618, before a vast and sympathetic crowd, the headsman's axe carried out the sentence.

A Declaration tells most of this story. Reference is made to the King's clemency in postponing Sir Walter's punishment. A good deal of the political background is hinted at. The details of Raleigh's instructions are presented often and explicitly, and the story of his venture and of his apprehension and machinations back in England are told with considerable fullness and documentation. The account is interlarded with many anti-James sentiments reputedly uttered by Raleigh, and he is lightly splattered with the mud of old innuendo. Nonetheless, the overall tone of the pamphlet seems to be defensive. Raleigh's performance on the scaffold had been noble and gallant in the extreme. His prestige as a public hero was restored. The glory of the throne that had been Elizabeth's was giving way to the tarnish that was to become that of Charles I. In this decline, England's relations with Spain were a considerable factor. Consequently, judging by contemporary reports, the effort of Bacon, aided by Naunton and Coke, and revised by King James, met a cold, if not hostile, reception. In the words of Trevelyan, "The ghost of Raleigh pursued the House of Stuart to the scaffold."

Notwithstanding its lack of political success, A Declaration is good reading. Its appeal to the person interested in early Americana is explicit, as is its interest to the historian of Jacobean England. Implicit is the human drama of the clash of personalities, the lights and shadows of international politics, and, perhaps most inviting, the temptation to sleuth through these sixty-eight pages in an attempt to evaluate the justice of the government's justification.