You’ll know about Sir Walter Ralegh for any number of different reasons, but is imprisonment one of them?
That’s right: Ralegh spent time in the Tower of London as a prisoner. In fact, he did this not one but three times! It is not clear when Ralegh first became known to the royal court, but he had began to attract the attention of Queen Elizabeth I by 1581. While stories of the pair scratching couplets into a window pane, or of Ralegh protecting Elizabeth from a puddle by use of his cape, are unfounded, there was certainly some degree of physical attraction between them.
Walter Ralegh had dark hair and pale skin and stood taller than most men at that time at around six feet tall. It is not surprising that the Queen became fairly attracted to him. However, this was not a one-sided relationship. Ralegh was very skilled at playing the part of a romantic courtier, even writing a selection of poems to Elizabeth. He quickly rose in the Queen’s favour as a result, and began to receive a range of rewards.
Ralegh was given Durham House in London, along with some land in Dorset. The Royal Charter, introduced in 1584, gave him the authority to conquer new lands and play a role in expanding the British Empire. This vocation brought Ralegh his main claim to fame – the introduction of the humble potato to the British Isles. He was even awarded a patent for selling wine, which acted as the foundation of his wealth for the remainder of his life.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Ralegh was then knighted in 1585 and given the titles “vice-admiral of the west, lord lieutenant of Cornwall.”
The famous explorer had his first stay in the tower in 1592 for just five weeks, when he married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting without royal consent. Bess Throckmorton – the lady in question – fell pregnant in 1591, and the two had no option but to marry in secret. The pair knew that news of this marriage would greatly displease Elizabeth, and tried as hard as they could to put an end to any rumours about their relationship.
Bess returned to work just a month after giving birth to their son – Damerei Ralegh – and continued to try and keep the secret. However, the couple were not prepared for just how upset the Queen would be, and were both sent to the Tower of London on 7 August 1592. Considering the circumstances, Ralegh and Bess were able to live a relatively comfortable life in the tower.
Ralegh was given £208 per annum to spend on food, and was even able to stay with his wife, son and three servants for some time. The prison became a family home when Ralegh’s second son, Carew, was born in the Tower.
His second visit was a little longer (13 years) as he was believed to be conspiring after Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I. Still, he was given relative freedom. Ralegh was allowed to exercise outside in the garden, next to the Bloody Tower. He did this so much that the new King’s ministers complained about the freedom he had. Ralegh also had permission to grow many different exotic plants he had found in the New World, and to brew herbal medicines in a converted hen house.
Despite his relative freedom, we must remember that he was not living the life of luxury we may imagine. During his imprisonment, Ralegh’s morale and health often declined, to the point that he even attempted suicide in 1603. He had been stripped of his entire estate, his possessions had been sold to fund his stay at the Tower, and all of his honours were taken away.
Through all of this, it was the health of his family that worried him most. In 1604, as the plague progressed towards the Tower, he wrote to the Viscount of Cranbourne:
miserable estate, daily in danger of death by the palsy, nightly of suffocation by wasted and obstructed lungs ; and now the plague being come at the next door unto me, only the narrow passage of the way between us, my poor child having lien this fourteen days next to a woman with a running plague sore, and but a paper wall between, and whose child is also this Thursday dead of the plague. (source)
Ralegh spent a great amount of time worrying about the living conditions his family endured, and wrote endless letters to try and save his estate. To the Earl of Salisbury, he wrote in 1605:
[I]f your Lordship spare one thought towards this estate I mine, I cannot but hope of some happy end; which I leave to your Lordship’s goodness to resolve of, and rest your most miserable creature to do you service.
He was a popular man, and was allowed to receive many visits from guests such as Henry, the Prince of Wales. For Henry, Ralegh began to write The History of the World, based on information found in books his friends had supplied. He planned to write second and third volumes for this work, but abandoned this idea when the prince died in 1612.
Ralegh was released in 1616 and allowed on an expedition to Guiana to find gold for James I. Ralegh’s final imprisonment in the Tower came in 1618 – just two years after his previous stay – when he was accused of provoking a war between Spain and England during this expedition. He was executed just two months later.