Sir Walter Ralegh was tried for treason in the great hall of Winchester Castle on Thursday 17 November 1603. As with almost all treason trials of the period, the result was a foregone conclusion: he was found guilty. The jury took less than fifteen minutes to reach its conclusion, surprising even the king’s counsel, the recently knighted Sir Edward Coke, in its speed: he was still out walking in the castle gardens when the verdict came in.
And yet, the day was in many respects a personal triumph for Ralegh.
Hitherto, he had been widely detested by both his peers and the populace for his arrogance and apparent avarice. He had been, one courtier said a year or two previously, ‘the most hated man in England’. Indeed, the journey from his prison in the Tower of London to the castle in Winchester – the court was out of London because of an outbreak of plague – was particularly fraught. ‘It is almost incredible with what speeches and execrations he was exclaimed upon all the way through London and the towns as he went; which they say he neglected and scorned, as proceeding from base and rascal people. They threw tobacco-pipes, stones and mire at him, as he was carried in the coach,’ a friend at court wrote to the earl of Shrewsbury.
The dignity, courage and wit with which he defended himself during these few brief hours in Winchester changed all that irrevocably. ‘In half a day,’ one witness said, ‘the mind of all the company was changed from the extremest hate to the greatest pity.’ Another said: ‘never [had] any man spoke so well in times past, nor would do in the world to come’. A third, bringing the news to James I, reported that ‘whereas when he saw him 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’.