Walter Ralegh: the heroic traitor

Mark Nicholls explains how the celebrated Elizabethan polymath fell foul of King James and ended up on the executioner’s block…

This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


Early one October morning in 1618, a prisoner walked from the Gatehouse gaol in Westminster to a scaffold in Old Palace Yard. Sir Walter Ralegh had embarked on his last journey. He faced his death with courage, delivering a speech of 45 minutes in which he paced to and fro, using the platform as a stage, stirring onlookers to a high pitch of religious fervour. Ralegh shared a joke with the executioner: touching the axe he laughed that here was a cure for every disease, a “sharp medicine”. When the nervous headsman did not proceed at their prearranged signal, Ralegh, his neck on the block, demanded an end: “What do you fear?” he cried. “Strike, man!” His head was severed at the second blow. The last hero and favourite of the Elizabethan age was dead. He was 64 years old.

How had it come to this? The path to the scaffold was long, and must be followed across several decades. In his prime, during the 1580s, Sir Walter Ralegh appeared the epitome of the self-made man. The fourth son of a Devonshire gentleman, he had exploited looks, hard work and good luck to become one of the most influential men at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Ralegh was handsome, with dark features and, as the 17th-century biographer John Aubrey described it, a beard that curled up naturally. Elizabeth, some said, took him for “a kind of oracle”. Recognising the man’s energy and local knowledge she groomed him for high office in Devon and Cornwall, counties where independent views in religion and politics combined with an exposed coastline, vulnerable to attacks from the queen’s enemy, Spain.

Hilliard painted Ralegh in his prime, and legends grew around this gorgeous, larger than life figure. Half a century after Ralegh’s death, Thomas Fuller recorded how Sir Walter sacrificed his cloak so that the queen might walk across a “plashy place” at Greenwich. Though the tale is probably mythical, it captures the opportunism of a courtier, fashioning a gesture that still prompts the modern gallant to follow suit. Stephen Pound, for example, laid his coat across a puddle for Hazel Blears during the Labour party’s deputy leadership campaign in 2007!

By his mid-thirties, Ralegh was being spoken of as a privy counsellor, one of the queen’s closest political advisors. Lord lieutenant of Cornwall, he served as a member of parliament for Devon. He was showered with rewards and survived the rise of Elizabeth’s newest favourite, the handsome young Earl of Essex, to remain at the heart of court.

But while many people admired Ralegh, few liked him. He was arrogant, ambitious, but blind to his own weaknesses. Able courtier he might have been, but Ralegh was no politician… Read more on History Extra

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