BBC History: The 1603 trial of Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh with his son, painted in 1602. ©National Portrait Gallery

It is a curious fact that when Sir Walter Ralegh was finally executed – on 29 October 1618 – he had been legally dead for 15 years. Even by 17th-century standards, that was unusual. But then, not many people face the death penalty twice in court – particularly when found guilty the first time, as Ralegh was in November 1603.

Ralegh has, in some senses, been refusing to die for the past 400 years. This century alone has produced three full biographies – the latest being Anna Beer’s Patriot or Traitor (2018). But if you know nothing about Ralegh, the 1603 treason trial is a good place to start. Had Ralegh been executed in its immediate wake, it is doubtful his reputation would have long outlived him.

History remembers Ralegh as a polymath: a poet; a historian; a political theorist; a soldier; an explorer; and founder of the first English colony in the Americas who, it is thought, introduced tobacco to England, bringing it over from Virginia. But more than anything, the Ralegh of Elizabeth I’s reign was a ‘man on the make’. He came from a modest background – “a bare gentleman… poor in his beginnings,” one Jacobean commentator sniffed – but ended up as captain of the queen’s guard and holder of a hugely lucrative monopoly on wine licences, among other posts and perquisites.

But the 1603 treason trial changed everything. It made Ralegh into a hero, as iconic a victim of legal injustice as England has had: the US Supreme Court referred to his case extensively in a judgment as recently as 2004.

Which is all the more impressive when you consider that Ralegh was almost certainly guilty. But that was the extraordinary force of personality that he possessed. Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s closest adviser for some 40 years, once said that Ralegh could do more damage to a man in an hour’s conversation with Elizabeth than he, Cecil, could do good in a year.
But Ralegh made no overtures to the presumptive heir, James VI of Scotland, the future James I, before Elizabeth died in 1603. Which was doubly unfortunate, because one of James’s closest English confidantes was Lord Henry Howard, a former associate who had grown to deeply loathe Ralegh. Thus, when James came south in the late spring of 1603, he was already disposed to distrust Ralegh. Even if that weren’t the case, James simply had no need of him. Moreover, James had Scottish friends and supporters whom he needed to reward.

Ralegh’s fall, then, was swift and sharp. He lost both the captainship of the guard and his monopolies in May. He was required to move out of Durham House, his home on the Strand for 20 years, at two weeks’ notice. This wasn’t merely a loss of income and status; it was a humiliation.

The situation was not unique to Ralegh, of course. Others who faced dramatically reduced circumstances included two brothers, George and Henry Brooke, the latter being 11th Baron Cobham and a longstanding friend of Ralegh’s.
So what had happened to bring about these humiliations?

Plots against the king

James’s succession to the English throne was smoothly orchestrated – largely by Sir Robert Cecil, who had assumed the role of principal secretary from his father. But these were tense, fast-moving times. Two plots against James were certainly discussed, and – perhaps – developed.

One, known as the Bye plot, aimed to kidnap James and force him to grant greater toleration to the nation’s Catholics, and it involved the aforementioned George Brooke. The existence of the other, known as the Main plot, was revealed by Brooke under questioning for the Bye in mid-July 1603. It essayed the removal of James from the throne and the insertion of Arbella Stuart, James’s first cousin, in his place. It was to be achieved through the loan of 600,000 crowns from Spain, which Brooke’s older brother Cobham was to negotiate through his friend, the Count Aremberg, who was an ambassador to England from the Spanish Netherlands.

When questioned, Brooke implicated Cobham and Ralegh in the Main plot. Both denied involvement, but found themselves in the Tower of London, Ralegh arriving there on 19 July. Ralegh then wrote to the Privy Council with some ‘newly-remembered’ suspicions about Cobham and Aremberg. It was a foolish, perhaps desperate thing to do, not least because it failed to take into account Cobham’s volatility: Cobham, Ralegh would say at the trial, had “passions of such violence that his best friends could never temper them”. The inquisitors saw their opportunity. They showed Ralegh’s letter to Cobham and, as they expected, he exploded. “Oh traitor! Oh villain!” he repeated over and over, before giving a statement denouncing Ralegh as the principal instigator and deviser of the plot.

That was on 20 July. A few days later, Cobham’s temper had passed and he retracted his accusations. But the damage was done. The statement was all the inquisitors needed by way of evidence. It was also all they got.

Ralegh despaired. On 27 July he attempted suicide, stabbing himself a little below the right breast with a knife. Then as now, historians have been inclined to write this off as a vast theatrical gesture, a heroic exercise in self-pity, but I am not so sure. Anyone familiar with suicidal ideation will recognise the emotional force of the note he wrote for his wife, Bess: “Oh death destroy my memory which is my tormentor: my thoughts and my life cannot dwell in one body.” And for whose benefit would such theatrics be?

Beyond the walls of the Tower, London was being ravaged by the plague. It was therefore decided that proceedings would be held instead in Winchester, specifically the Great Hall of the castle. Ralegh’s inner turmoil had done nothing to halt the legal process. And a genuine stage to act upon awaited him. But first, he had to get to Winchester, and that was easier said than done.

Why? Because people hated Ralegh. Schadenfreude [pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune] is a common enough response to the hardships of the rich and famous, but this was something different. “It is almost incredible what bitter speeches and execrations he was exclaimed upon all the way he went through London and towns,” one eye witness said. Sir William Waad, Ralegh’s keeper in the Tower of London and the man responsible for transporting him to Winchester, was clearly alarmed. It was ‘touch and go’, Waad said, whether Ralegh “should have been brought alive through such multitudes of unruly people as did exclaim against him”. In the end, the people held back their rage, consoling themselves by hurling mud and stones at the coach, together with – a nice touch, this – tobacco pipes.

Ralegh on trial

Ralegh’s trial was set for 17 November 1603. It would last no longer than a day. As was customary in such procedures, the defendant had to argue his own case with no sight of the prosecution’s evidence before its presentation. Treason trials were not about justice, per se: they were about the authority of the state. Guilt and then the death sentence were all but foregone conclusions. What grounds were there for Ralegh to hope? His father-in-law, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, had been acquitted of treason half a century before, under Queen Mary I. The slimmest of hopes remained, then. But was it enough?

Ralegh’s trial was conducted in public before a panel of four justices and seven commissioners. Onlookers got their money’s worth: the trial was a sensation. “Sir Walter Ralegh served for a whole act, and played all the parts himself,” the courtier Dudley Carlton wrote to a friend. “He answered with that temper, wit, learning, courage, and judgement, that, save that it went with the hazard of his life, it was the happiest day that ever he spent.”

But what people noted first about Ralegh was his composure. While waiting for the trial to start, he sat on a stool, greeting friends with “very steadfast and cheerful countenance”, courtier Sir Thomas Overbury reported.

The impression made by the prosecutor, attorney general Sir Edward Coke, was less positive. Coke had a reputation for using an aggressive, abusive tone during proceedings: “His own disposition [was] to triumph upon poor delinquents, and men in misery,” Overbury said, and here he was no different. But Ralegh turned the abuse to his advantage: it spoke to the weakness of the crown’s case.

“All [Cobham] did was at thy instigation, thou viper. For I thou thee, thou traitor. I will prove thee the rankest traitor in all England,” Coke said to Ralegh.

“No, no, Mr Attorney,” Ralegh replied. “You may call me a traitor at your pleasure… but I take comfort in it. It is all that you can do, for I do not hear you charge me with any treason.”

An audacious defence

The more aggressive Coke was, the more he served to prove Ralegh’s point. And by making Coke and his handling of the prosecution part of his defence, Ralegh pulled him away from the legal substance of the case – which, whatever we may think of it today, was sufficient by contemporary standards.

But Ralegh’s primary goal was to undermine Cobham’s statement of 20 July. Amid the mudslinging, it was the only real evidence against him. Unfortunately, it was also the only evidence Coke required: Cobham had confessed to discussing the Main Plot with him, and Ralegh’s failure to report that information to the government made him complicit. Ralegh argued that one witness was insufficient for a prosecution in a treason trial, citing a law enacted under Edward VI: “No man shall be condemned of treason unless he be accused by two lawful accusers.”

No longer valid, said the judges.

Ralegh argued that because Cobham had never signed the 20 July statement, it was inadmissible as evidence.

Not so, said the judges.

Ralegh argued that he had – or ought to have – the absolute right to challenge his accuser in court. “Good my lords, let my accuser come face to face and be deposed. Were the case but for a small copyhold, you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to a verdict; and I am here for my life!” (this, incidentally, is the point that the US Supreme Court were discussing in 2004). What, Ralegh implied, was the prosecution afraid of? “If my accuser were dead or abroad, it were something. But he liveth, and is in this very house!”

Not necessary, the judges said.

When these arguments were rejected, Ralegh cited biblical precedent on justice: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deuteronomy, 17: 6).

It was an argument that played well among the onlookers: “His answers were interlaced with arguments out of divinity, humanity, civil law and common law; for his defence, especially, that he ought not to be condemned without two witnesses, and did insist both long and forcibly upon that point,” wrote London merchant Michael Hicks.

But the judges were unmoved. Ralegh’s arguments were, in a sense, those of what we would now call human rights. Half a century earlier, when Ralegh’s father-in-law, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, had been acquitted of treason, he had used the law itself to win his freedom. Having failed in his bid to do that, Ralegh went further. In essence, he put English law itself on trial. The audacity is startling.

And as the trial progressed, the mood in the room changed. People hissed and groaned at Coke when he rose to speak. “[Ralegh] carried himself so wisely and readily to all objections, as it wrought both admiration in the hearers for his good points, and pity towards his person,” Hicks wrote.

The trial’s climax came when Ralegh produced a new statement from Cobham exonerating him. Ralegh had been in secret communication with Cobham in the Tower over the summer: one written exchange had been delivered in a hollowed-out apple thrown in through an open window while the guard ate dinner.

It was a brilliant theatrical coup; Ralegh thought he had played his ace. This is why they won’t let Cobham take the stand. But Coke had another to trump it: yet another statement from Cobham, drawn up since they had arrived in Winchester, reaffirming Ralegh’s guilt (Cobham, it must be said, does not come out well from all this).

That, more than anything, surely did for Ralegh, as far as the jury was concerned. It wasn’t merely the accusation itself that mattered – its true force came from the fact that, in making the accusation against Ralegh, Cobham was also accusing himself. As Cecil wrote shortly after the trial: this was a kind of proof “than which… the law regardeth none greater”.

A verdict delivered

The jury took 15 minutes. The verdict came in: guilty, of course. And what then for Ralegh? The baroque theatrical torture of a traitor’s death.

But what the jury thought and what the public thought were two different things. “So well he shifted all advantages that were taken against him, that… in the opinion of all men he had been acquitted,” Dudley Carlton said. People wept, among them Cecil – often wrongly described as the architect of Ralegh’s downfall – and the Earl of Mar, one of James’s most loyal Scottish supporters.

News of Ralegh’s performance in Winchester travelled fast. Two allies of James rushed to brief him, Carlton tells us. “One affirmed that never any man spake so well in times past, nor would do in the world to come: and the other said that whereas when he saw [Ralegh] first, he was so led with the common hatred that he would have gone a hundred miles to have seen him hanged, he would, ere he parted, have gone a thousand to have saved his life.”

“In short,” Carlton said, “never was a man so hated and so popular, in so short a time.”

James, his authority only recently established, baulked at proceeding further. Ralegh’s execution was stayed, but the treason verdict was not rescinded. Ralegh would remain in the Tower, alive for now – but with the legal status of a dead man.

He was eventually executed in 1618. James had allowed him to leave the Tower in 1616 and lead an expedition to find gold in South America. (Ralegh had led an earlier, failed expedition in 1585.) His men attacked a Spanish fort, against James’s express command. The Spanish wanted revenge; James was happy to oblige.

But how? Being dead at law, it was impossible to bring new charges against him to trial. And besides, another public stage for Ralegh was too great a risk: what James called the “experiment at the arraignment in Winchester” could not safely be repeated. Instead, James convened a special – perhaps unique – panel of judges to decide if there were sufficient reason to re-instate Ralegh’s death sentence. Yes, they said. There were.

Ralegh died, then, to placate Spain, with whom James wanted to establish peace, on the basis of the 1603 verdict, which had condemned him for conspiring with Spain. Like being legally dead for 15 years while still alive and well, it was one of those ironies and paradoxes that seem to cluster round him.

The greatest of these is that the old queen’s former favourite made himself a kind of synecdoche for the rights of the English people against the arbitrary abuse of state power. After his death, his wife carried his head with her in a velvet bag wherever she went: even in death, Ralegh was a physical presence as much as a rhetorical and ideological one, each its own way a reproach against abuse of power. The shapers of the parliamentary cause later in the century – men such as Sir John Eliot; John Pym and Oliver Cromwell – thought deeply about Ralegh’s example.

In a sense, Ralegh’s agonised cry in his 1603 suicide note (“my thoughts and my life cannot dwell in one body”) proved prophetic: his trial; his sentence; his eventual death – a kind of political martyrdom, many thought – set his increasingly oppositional ideas free, and they metastasised into something far more powerful than anyone could have reckoned with that November day in Winchester.

This article was first published by BBC History. There is a transcript of the trial itself on my blog here.

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4 comments

  1. Interesting to see how the law has developed since then. Was it the fall of the Stuarts that saw a shift over to more constitutional, less “because the King said so” kinds of trials?

  2. I suspect that the tobacco pipes thrown at the coach were a part of the belief – widely held at the time – that a self-satisfied Ralegh had puffed on a pipe as he watched the Earl of Essex go to the scaffold in 1601. That tale aside, there’s no doubt that Ralegh was a key agent in Essex’s downfall, so he could hardly have expected much favour from James.

    Ralegh defended himself brilliantly, but he probably learnt a lot from watching the equally flawed Essex-and-Southampton trial.

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