by CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
IN THE spring of 1603, James VI of Scotland, already proclaimed King of England, left Edinburgh and with a crowd of courtiers rode down to claim his kingdom. Over the countryside, bells pealed, songs were sung, poetic welcomes declaimed. Schoolchildren threw flowers in the royal path. Sheriffs bearing white wands rode out from towns, mayors in scarlet, gold chains (when they had them) about their shoulders. Presents were showered. James was delighted. After his own barren wild domain, this kingdom seemed rich as Babylon, rich as Guiana. One of his train, a bluff plain Scotsman, was heard to say, “This people will spoil a good king.” James rode down through the pleasant April sunshine, the soft April rains. In London, Elizabeth lay in her leaden coffin, wrapped in serecloth. James had ordered her funeral to proceed without him.
For one man at least, Elizabeth’s death meant ruin. Sir Walter Ralegh strode behind her coffin, his helmet black-plumed, mourning band around his arm. Like everyone he expected drastic changes; James, quite naturally, would desire his old friends about him — new officers of the Bedchamber, a new Captain of the Guard. Ralegh looked for it. Moreover, he had already been rebuffed, if John Aubrey’s story is true. Going north to meet the monarch (against Robert Cecil’s advice), Sir Walter had introduced himself at Burghley House in Northamptonshire. Kneeling, he was greeted with a heavy royal pun: “On my soule, mon, I have heard rawly of thee!”
It was humiliating but by no means fatal. Already, James was noted for chiding his new English friends, watching closely to see how they received it, and letting reward or punishment fall accordingly. Ralegh was known as the most independent-minded man in England. Unlike Leicester, Essex, and the rest, he had never made a step toward popularity. “There is no man on the face of the earth,”he said, “that I would be tied unto.” His manner was arrogant, ruthless, and it was generally said that he showed himself greedy of money, an oppressor of the poor on his estates. He made enemies as readily as the Earl of Essex had made friends — and remained perfectly indifferent to the reputation. Ralegh was fifty-one, Edward Coke fifty-two. There had always been a magnificence about Sir Walter. His sword belt was studded with gems, a famous diamond sparkled at the hilt. From James he had received a check and knew it. But that his entire fortune, credit, honor—and very soon, his life — were in danger, he could not have suspected. He knew nothing of his enemies’ machinations during the past year, nothing of Lord Henry Howard’s letters, Essex’s letters, which had so effectually poisoned James’s mind by hints that Ralegh was ambitious, opposed to the succession, harbored plans of his own. James’s shrewd Scotch heart was fertile to suspicion; to turn it against Sir Walter had not been difficult. First of all, Ralegh desired war with Spain. Ralegh’s name was almost a symbol for war—and James loathed fighting. Secondly, Ralegh had been Essex’s enemy, whom James chose now to speak of as my martyr,”confident that the “unfortunate Earl” had desired nothing so much as to help him to the throne.
Sir Robert Cecil, while he did nothing to accentuate the royal distrust, by all the records did nothing to dispel it, though at the moment Cecil had large sums invested in Ralegh’s profiteering ventures. The intrigues that formed around James’s accession were mysterious, greedy, shameful — and in Ralegh’s case, tragic. To solve the plots, explain their motivation, is impossible. One thing, however, is sure: James left Scotland convinced that Ralegh was a threat and Cecil the strongest, wisest man in England. His little beagle, James called Sir Robert. Cecil, like James, was set against war with Spain, whereas Ralegh could not have enough of talking about it and had even prepared for James’s edification a Discourse touching a War with Spain and the protecting of the Netherlands. On top of this, Ralegh, after the Burghley House rebuff, went again to see the King on his journey at Beddington Park, where James was visiting Lady Ralegh’s uncle— and offered to invade the Spanish dominions at his own expense of two thousand pounds! He had another discourse ready, How War mag be made against Spain and the Indies. It was typical of Sir Walter, yet an extraordinary indiscretion, considering the new monarch was so fearful of blood that he fell sick at the sight of a sword.
But Ralegh, in this hopeful springtime of a reign, saw little reason why he should not win the royal confidence, bend the royal mind and purpose, and win eventual favor. He had every intention to try.
At Theobalds, Lord Treasurer Burghley’s country mansion, James met Elizabeth’s household officers and held a conference concerning monopolies. It was decided to cancel, among others, Ralegh’s monopolies on wines and tin and to advise Sir Walter that he resign as warden of the Cornwall mines and Governor of Jersey. Already, Ralegh had learned he was no longer Captain of the Guard; the King had named a Scotsman in his place.
ON MAY twenty-second, Coke was knighted in the palace at Greenwich with six others, among them the Lord Mayor and Speaker of the last Parliament, Recorder Richard Croke of London. There was a grand banquet, and when darkness fell, fireworks on the Thames, the sky all sprayed with arching light. “Sir Edward” went home to Stoke. James continued to make knights, not by the dozen but by the basketful — at least six hundred in three months. Ralegh, however, was forced from Durham House, his gray stone palace on the Strand. Nevertheless, he clung doggedly to his position. If enemies — men close to the throne—intrigued against him, well, it had been done before, in the Queen’s time, and he had prevailed. Dressed in his old magnificence, he continued to frequent the court, his bearing easy as ever, eyes enigmatic beneath their heavy lids, thick beard curling upward. (To his rivals, Ralegh’s heard had always been a point, of irritation. It “turned up naturally” while theirs must be curled with irons.)
Each move that Ralegh made now was watched, reported to the Privy Council. Sir Walter, for one who stood so high, had endured well-nigh unendurable humiliation. By every sign of his past nature he would strike back, either in open challenge to his enemies or by secret plans to overthrow them. Who then were his friends, with whom did he consort on these late evenings, and why was he so “inward” with that dubious man of riches and wayward temper, Lord Cobham, Warden of the Cinque Ports? Weeks before Ralegh left Durham House, the royal spies were out. Boats leaving his water gate were counted, their occupants noted. Already, by Lord Howard’s means, James suspected some dark alliance between Ralegh, Cobham, and the Catholic Percy, Earl of Northumberland. “That diabolical triplicity,” Lord Howard called the group. In June a Catholic plot had been discovered, though not as yet made public. One William Watson was at the bottom of it — a secular priest who had been a Catholic agent at James’s court in Scotland and had begged a toleration. (Actually, he thought he had succeeded, and so reported to Rome.)
Even before Elizabeth’s death, Watson had been in custody, but set free, on James’s accession, to act as decoy. Immediately he obliged, seeking out various “discontented men,” some Catholic and some, oddly enough, strongly Puritan. Chief among them were Cobham and his brother George Brooke; Sir Edward Parham, a distinguished Catholic layman; and Sir Griffin Markham, notorious spendthrift and owner of the forest of Beskwood, a place so vast and wild that should Sir Griffin take refuge there, a thousand men — so Cecil informed — could not rout him out.
At Beskwood Park, shortly after James’s arrival in London, there had been a meeting of souls. A plan was formed, absurd on the face of it. The King was to be “surprised” in his palace at Greenwich, the Tower guard overpowered, and the King kept there as hostage until Catholic demands should be granted. Lord Grey de Wilton (Essex’s great enemy) was, Sir Griffin told his confederates, already committed to the plan. Grey was rich and fervently Puritan. His bitter enemy, Southampton, had been pardoned by James. Grey resented it; his letters expressed dislike toward the crowd of Scotsmen in James’s train — foreigners, rivals, upstarts.
Among these plotters, Ralegh had no observable connection, with one exception. Lord Cobham and Sir Waiter had been close. Mutual visiting was noted, late meetings, midnight talks at Durham House—little for James to proceed upon. But it was enough. At Windsor Castle the blow fell. One morning in mid-July, Ralegh waited on the terrace, having expected to accompany the King out hunting. Cecil came to him. Would Sir Walter be pleased to go indoors? The Lords of Council had some questions to put.
Six days later, Ralegh was in the Tower, accused of high treason. The charge was conspiracy to kill the King, raise rebellion, alter the religion of the realm, and set Arabella Stuart on the throne. Nine other suspects bad been taken: Lord Grey de Wilton, Lord Cobham and his brother George Brooke, Sir Edward Parham, Sir Griffin Markham, Brooksby, Copley, and the two Catholic priests, Watson and Clarke, whose discovered activities had first brought exposure.
London was astonished. The thing had come suddenly, without warning. Moreover, the choice of confederates was bewildering. What, people asked, was Lord Grey de Wilton doing in this company of priests and atheists? “I hear muche (by pryvate means),”wrote Harington, “of strange plottes by Cobham, Grey, Raleighe and others.” Of Ralegh almost anything could be suspected, and the populace was ready to believe it. But that the Queen’s old Captain, sea-fighter, explorer, privateer had turned spy for the Catholic enemy— this was puzzling indeed.
On July twenty-fifth (St. James’s Day) the King was crowned at Westminster. The plague was raging in London, one of the worst visitations the city had ever experienced: report had it that two thousand a week were dying. Whole rows of doors were marked with the official placard: “Lord have mercy on us.” The King fled with his household. It was decided to hold the autumn term of court at Winchester, sixty miles down into Hampshire. Early in November, nine of the men accused with Ralegh made the trip under guard of fifty lighthorse. On November tenth, Ralegh followed in his own coach with Sir William Waad, Clerk of the Privy Council, and Sir Richard Mansell, ViceAdmiral of the Fleet.
It was a terrible journey. The London streets were black with crowds which braved even the plague to curse at Ralegh. So great was the disorder that watches were set far into the suburbs. Winchester, when they came there, was crowded. Up a steep narrow street to the castle Ralegh’s coach labored; soldiers rode ahead to clear the way. When they reached the castle courtyard and Ralegh stepped from the coach to prison, he could see in that brief moment’s respite the gentle valley spread below, the chalk hills to the westward, brick barns rosy in the low November sun. Shortly before Sir Walter’s arrival, seven of the conspirators had been tried in a court fitted up in the Bishop’s palace. All but one had been condemned to death, news not calculated to make Ralegh sleep the sounder.
ON THE seventeenth of November, 1603, Ralegh was taken down the hill for trial. When he came with his guard to the Bishop’s palace, the old stone ball was crowded. People sat in the minstrel’s gallery, leaned against the stone pillars until their legs must have ached. Some of them had been there since dawn; many had waited all night in the street before the doors. Here in the Bishop’s palace, Cobham lay imprisoned beneath the courtroom or in some turret chamber. And Cobham was Ralegh’s only accuser, the single witness on which the prosecution must build its case.
The jury of twelve knights had been brought down from Middlesex County. Such a panel was considered harsh and somewhat biased; King James himself remarked that he would not wish to be tried by a Middlesex jury. There was rumor that Sir Edward Darcy, Ralegh’s friend and neighbor, had been named and removed overnight from the panel. But there is no proof that the jury was packed, and Ralegh declined to challenge a single juror. He “thought them all honest and Christian men and knew his own innocence.” He had however one request. His memory was never good; sickness in prison had weakened him. Might he answer questions severally, as they came up, rather than all at once? Coke objected. The King’s evidence “ought not to be broken or dismembered, whereby it might lose much of its grace and vigor.”
The judges conceded the point to Ralegh. Yet Coke’s remark concerning the King’s evidence came as no surprise in Winchester Hall. A threat to the sovereign was a threat to every English subject, dangerous moreover to a Protestant Reformation which even yet was not secure. The King’s evidence (not the prisoner’s) must serve as focal point. To bring out this evidence was the business of the Attorney General. Unfortunately for Ralegh, his four judges considered it their business too, as did the seven lay commissioners who sat upon the dais with the judges. The majority of these men already knew the evidence by heart. Since the moment of Ralegh’s arrest (and likely a month before), they had been searching it out, fitting part to part until confession matched confession. In Essex’s case such “preparation" had been easy; hundreds saw his armed passage through London. With Ralegh the evidence was slim. Moreover, the court considered that it had here a knight far cleverer than Essex, one who by common parlance was an easy liar; in Coke’s own words, “the father of wiles.”
Ralegh’s judges plainly were part of the prosecution, determined from the start to prove the prisoner guilty. Yet there could have been no question of collusion; Popham, old Judge Anderson, Gawdy, Warburton were neither venal nor corrupt. On the contrary, they were men of high character who sat to do their duty. And judicial duty in the year 1603 (and for two centuries after) meant bringing forward every damaging fact of character and circumstance which could be gathered in the King’s favor— hearsay evidence, gossip at third hand, the confession of confederates. In treason cases, smoke was hot as fire and bare suspicion tantamount to the act overt. Those keeping company with traitors were ipso facto guilty; any evidence could pass. Yet Coke, Chief Justice Popham, Robert Cecil, who sat with the commissioners, took pride in the English legal tradition, pride even in their system of trial at common law. Was not such trial by accusation rather than inquisition, as in France and Spain? Was it not, by general agreement, speedy, open, viewed by any citizen who cared to come? Above all, was not the accused permitted to speak in his own defense, holding, if he wished, a daylong altercation with judges, commissioners, Attorney General? “Sir Walter Ralegh,”wrote Cecil to a Privy Councilor before the trial, “yet persists in denial of the main treason. Few men can conceive it comes from a clear heart. Always, he shall be left to the law, which is the right all men are born unto.”
Cecil believed what he said. Moreover he was to be the only man in Winchester courtroom who stood out for Sir Walter in the matter of his legal rights and privileges.
RALEGH’S indictment, read aloud by the Clerk, was short: Sir Walter had conspired to “kill the King, raise a rebellion with intent to change religion and subvert the government.” The overt acts charged were listening to Spanish bribes, conferring with Lord Cobham concerning Arabella Stuart’s claim, together with promises, plans, statements, and conspiracies to that end.
Serjeant Heale opened for the Crown. He was brief; his speech is remembered only for a startlingly facetious peroration where he remarked that as for the Lady Arabella, upon his conscience she had no more title to the Crown than he had himself, “which, before God,” he finished, “I utterly renounce.”Even Ralegh smiled. It was the last time he would smile that day.
Coke followed and spoke at length. Foul treasons had been unearthed, though no torture was employed to find them, and no “rigorous usage.” (The prosecution invariably took care to make this claim in treason trials, and the audience took care to disbelieve it.) “This great and honorable assembly,” Coke said, “doth look to hear this day what before hath been carried on the rack of scattering reports. . . . “
Two conspiracies had been discovered, Coke reminded the jury; the Bye Plot and the Main, they were called. The Bye was the Priests’ Plot, hatched by Watson and Clarke; the Main was Ralegh’s conspiracy. As Coke continued, it became plain he was describing, not Ralegh’s plot at all, but the Bye, a business far more flagrant and more foolish. Ralegh broke in, addressing the jury: “I pray you, Gentlemen, remember that I am not charged with the Bye, which was the treason of the priests.”
No, Coke said, Sir Walter was not so charged. Yet all these treasons, “like Sampson’s foxes, were joined together at the tails, though their heads were severed.” Coke went on to describe and define the law of treason, and was proceeding reasonably enough until, after a sugary panegyric on the character of James, he suddenly turned on Ralegh and demanded, “To whom, Sir Walter, did you bear malice? To the royal children?”
It was the first of Coke’s attacks, unexpected, startling, brought on perhaps by Ralegh’s quick positive denial of Coke’s charge, perhaps by the realization that here was a prisoner equipped to defend himself with skill and passion. “Mr. Attorney,” Ralegh answered, “I pray you, to whom or to what end speak you all this? I protest I do not understand what a word of this means, except it be to toll me news. What is the treason of Markham and the priests to me?”
COKE: Nay, I will prove all. Thou art a monster! Thou hast an English face but a Spanish heart. . . .
I look to have good words from you, and purpose not to give you worse than the matter press me unto. But if you provoke me, I will not spare you and I have warrant for it. . . . You would have stirred England and Scotland both. You incited the Lord Cobham. . . .
Cobham, rich, discontented, and apparently somewhat of a fool, had been one of the “diabolical triplicity” which, according to Lord Henry Howard, met at Durham House to conspire the King’s death and set Arabella in his place. Cobham planned to cross the Channel and obtain money for the support of Arabella’s title — a bargain which included promise of a “toleration of the Popish religion in England.”All this, said Coke, Lord Cobham had confessed: dealing with Aremberg, the Spanish agent; Aremberg’s offer of 600,000 crowns. Ralegh, Coke urged, pretended the money was merely a Spanish offer “to forward the peace.” Yet if the Spanish King had in mind such an offer, would he have chosen a recipient like Cobham, who was “neither politician nor swordsman”? No! It required a Ralegh to carry through these plans. “Such,” said Coke, “was Sir Walter’s secrecy and Machiavellian policy that he would confer with none but Cobham, ‘because,’ saith he, ‘one witness can never condemn me.’ It will be stood upon Sir Walter Ralegh today,” Coke continued, “that we have but one witness. But I will show your Lordships that it is not necessary to have two witnesses.”
On this point, so crucial to Ralegh, Coke was securely within the law. It was true that during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1552) statutes had been enacted declaring for two witnesses. But on the accession of Mary Tudor, these statutes were repealed (1553), and since then one witness was held sufficient in cases of felony tried under the common law. This was the legal view as known to every barrister who had argued in Westminster Hall. Nevertheless, the country at large clung stubbornly to the old two-witness rule. The Bible declared for it. and was not Holy Scripture corroborative of the common law?
Coke turned now to the jury and repeated the charge of setting up Arabella as “titular queen.”
On Ralegh’s interrupting, Coke retorted that he did not wonder to see Sir Waller “moved.”“Nay,”Ralegh replied, “you fall out with yourself. I have said nothing to you. I am in no case to be angry.
As the reporter’s bare account moves forward, it is hard to see why Ralegh’s calm interpolations were to Coke so palpably infuriating. Was it something in Sir Walter’s manner, the old easy arrogance, impossible of description, which for thirty years had earned a host of enemies? Whatever it was, it caused Coke to lose control again and again, spitting out words shameful, unworthy, never to be forgotten. After Ralegh’s quiet rebuke, Coke reverted once again to the Bye Plot, of which the prosecution well knew that Sir Walter was innocent, yet which, as the tale unfolded, seemed to implicate the prisoner by the very telling. As Coke talked, his anger mounted. “And now,”he informed the jury, “you shall see the most horrible practices that ever came out of the bottomless pit of the lowest hell. . .”
There followed the recitation of an involved, fantastic maneuver of Cobham’s, turning on a forged letter “placed in a Spanish Bible,” an answer forged and falsely dated.
RALEGH: What is that to me? Here is no treason of mine done. It my Lord Cobham be a traitor, what is that to me?
COKE: All that he did was by thy instigation, thou viper: For I thou thee, thou traitor! I will prove thee the rankest traitor in all Eagland.
RALEGH: NO no, Mr. Attorney, I am no traitor! Whether I live or die, I shall stand as true a subject as any the King hath. You may call me a traitor at your pleasure, yet it becomes not a man of quality and virtue to do so. But I take comfort in it, it is all you can do, for I do not yet hear that you charge me with any treason.
CHIEF JUSTICE POPHAM: Sir Walter Ralegh, Mr. Attorney speaks out of zeal of his duty for the service of the King, and you for your life. Be patient on both sides.
Coke now ordered the Clerk to read Cobham’s confession from the Tower, dated July twentieth.
It was almost a repetition of the formal indictment, but more impressive, coming direct from Cobham: “Confesseth: that he had conference with the Count Aremberg about procuring 500 or 600,000 crowns, and a passport to go into Spain to deal with the King, and to return by Jersey, the Channel island where Ralegh was then Governor. And that nothing should be done until he had spoken with Sir Walter Ralegh for distribution of the money to them which were discontented in England. Being shown a note under Ralegh’s hand [Cobham], when he had perused the same, brake forth, saying, ‘O traitor! O villain! I will now tell you all the truth!’ And then said that he had never entered into these courses but by Ralegh’s instigation, and that he [Ralegh] would never let him alone.”
Coke directed the Clerk to repeat the last words — “Sir Walter would never let Cobham alone.”As for the “note under Ralegh’s hand,”so disturbing to Cobham, it was to prove one of the deadliest facts toward Ralegh’s conviction. Written in July, before Sir Walter’s imprisonment, it was addressed to Cecil. Coke explained the occasion. At Windsor, when Ralegh first was questioned by the Privy Council, he had said he knew of no plots between Cobham and the Spanish agent. But later the same afternoon, Sir Walter, riding home to London, remembered an incident of early spring, after Cobham had spent an evening at Durham House. Cobham had left by the water gate, and Ralegh, looking out a turret window, saw the barge turn upstream, glide past Cobham’s own stairs, and stop at the house of La Rensi, a Spanish agent. As soon as Sir Walter returned from Windsor, he wrote out the story and sent it to Cecil.
To the jury, this action of Ralegh’s was positively damning. Why should Sir Walter, this early in the game, have taken it on himself gratuitously to inform against his friends, unless as a guilty man he hoped by such betrayal to save his own skin? Cobham, when first arrested, had sworn to Ralegh’s innocence of all plots and “conversations.”Only when shown this letter had Cobham broken down and accused Ralegh of treason.
Sir Walter, in rebuttal, asked to see Cobham’s confession. While it was being carried to him, he addressed the court: “Gentlemen of the Jury, this is absolutely all the evidence that can be brought against me. This is that which must either condemn me or give me life, which must free me or send my wife and children to beg their bread about the streets. This is that which must prove whether I am a notorious traitor or a true subject to the King. ...” Having read Cobham’s confession, Sir Walter answered at once concerning his own July letter to Cecil. Yes, he had written it. But it revealed to Cecil nothing new. Long since, in the late Queen’s time, said Ralegh, it was known that Cobham had dealings with agents from the Low Countries. Even Cecil’s father, Lord Burghley, had been aware of it. Cobham, glimpsing this letter in the Tower, had jumped, added Ralegh, to wild unwarranted conclusions. Were not Lord Cobham’s bitter railings well known? The man’s passions, indeed, had “such violence,” said Ralegh, “that his best friends could never temper them.”
The note was never produced in court. Apparently it had vanished, or at least it made no part of the bundle of depositions at Coke’s disposal. Chief Justice Popham now intervened. He himself had been in Cobham’s Tower cell when Cobham saw this letter. The Lords of Council had brought it at the exact moment when Cobham was signing his first statement of innocence. (Actually, Cobham had balked at signing. Subscription was like taking an oath. And noblemen, Cobham protested, were not required to swear to documents, their bare word being considered sufficient.) At Popham’s insistence, however, Cobham took up a pen —and as he wrote his name, the Lords walked in the door bearing Ralegh’s note “of betrayal.”Cobham looked at it and burst into fury, calling out upon Sir Walter as a wretch and a traitor. “Hath he used me thus? Nay then, I will tell you all!” Cobham’s face as he said it (testified Popham) was the face of a man speaking truth; his face and all his actions.
The testimony of a Chief Justice is not easy to disregard. Clearly, Popham believed in Cobham’s word, which meant he disbelieved in Ralegh’s. And upon this point — which man spoke truth, Ralegh or Cobham —the trial hung, and Ralegh’s life.
To the jury in Winchester courtroom, Ralegh’s word was, if anything, less reliable than Cobham’s. Both were liars, opportunists. Sir Walter by all reports was much the cleverer and stronger. Did it not follow he was also the more guilty?
IT WAS now Ralegh’s turn to speak in full, He had two lines to pursue: 1) show that Cobham’s word was not to be trusted; 2) convince the jury that his own circumstances made the alleged plots ridiculous, his past history being incompatible with such ill-timed and evil machinations. He began with the second argument, and what he said covers three printed pages; it is instinct with poetry and dignity, and, throughout, magnificently reasonable. By nature his voice was weak; in Parliament, men had complained they could not hear him when he spoke. Why, he asked now, if he desired to plot with Spain, would he have chosen this time of all times, when England was strengthened by a union with Scotland, the Irish rebels quieted, the Low Countries at peace with England, Denmark’s friendship assured by the royal marriage — and on the English throne, “instead of a Lady whom time had surprised, we had now an active King, a lawful successor to the Crown who was able to attend to his own business”?
Elizabeth, the old Queen! A Lady whom time had surprised. No man had said it half so well. The phrase would be repeated, would become famous. “I was not such a madman,” Ralegh was saying, “as to make myself in this time a Robin Hood, a Wat Tyler, a Kett, or a Jack Cade. I knew also the state of Spain well, his weakness and poorness and humbleness at this time. I knew that he was discouraged and dishonoured. I knew that six times we had repulsed his forces, thrice in Ireland, thrice at sea, and once at Cadiz on his own coast. Thrice had I served against him myself at sea, wherein for mv country’s sake I expended of my own properties, four thousand pound. I knew that where beforetime he was wont to have forty great sails at the least in his ports, now he hath not past six or seven; and for sending to his Indies he was driven to hire strange vessels — a thing contrary to the institutions of his proud ancestors, who straitly forbad, in case of any necessity, that the Kings of Spain should make their case known to strangers. I knew ...”
It was a saga, as Ralegh told it; it was the story of England’s glory unrolling. Men who had forgotten Drake, forgotten Hawkins, remembered them now and for one quick moment remembered also the days before ‘88, when England, a small and feeble island, had lived in terror of the Spaniard. Ralegh had never lost his broad Devon accent. It was impressive, here in the courtroom; it breathed of the sailor, not the courtier.
“What pawn had we to give the King of Spain? ” Ralegh went on, passionately. “What did we offer him?” He turned to Coke. “And to show I was not Spanish, as you term me, I had written at this time a Treatise to the King’s Majesty of the present state of Spain, and reasons against the peace. ...”
The jury listened. (“Never,” wrote a spectator, “any man spoke so well in times past nor would do in the world to come.”) Yet as Ralegh left his own history and came to Cobham’s dubious character — his second argument — what he said seemed less convincing. Sir Walter acknowledged an intimacy with Cobham, an “inwardness,” he called it. But their frequent meetings had been concerned only with private business; Cobham had wished advice about his estate. Moreover, Ralegh argued, if he himself desired a treasonable confederate, why would he have chosen Cobham, one of the richest noblemen of England? Ralegh finished speaking, and Cobham’s second examination was read by the Clerk: When he had been about to return from Spain with the 600,000 crowns, Cobham had feared to stop at Jersey and confer according to plan. At Jersey he would have been wholly in Ralegh’s power, and Ralegh “might well have delivered him and all the money to the King.”
Was Ralegh, then, doubly nefarious, mistrusted even by his accomplices, ready to play his cards both ways and betray his own confederate for credit with the King? Even if Cobham lied, these plots and counterplots were shocking, disturbing. They could not be all invention. . . . Had Cobham, Sir Walter asked quickly, put his signature to this second statement in the Tower? No, Coke replied. A declaration given in the presence of Privy Councilors needed no subscription to be valid.
RALEGH: Surely, Mr. Attorney, you would not allow a bare scroll to have credit with a jury?
COKE: Sir Walter, you say the Lord Cobham’s accusing you was upon heat and passion, This is manifestly otherwise: for after that the Lord Cobham had twice called for the letter and twice paused a good while upon it and saw that his dealing with Count Aremberg was made known, then he thought himself discovered and after said, ‘O wretch and traitor, Ralegh!’ As to improbability, is it probable that my Lord Cobham would turn the weapon against his own bosom and overthrow himself in estate, in honour and in all his fortunes, out of malice to accuse you? ... If he feared that you would betray him, there must of necessity be a trust between you. No man can betray another but he that is trusted, to my understanding. . . . You seek to wash away all that is said, by affirming t he evidence against you to be but a bare accusation, without circumstances or reason to confirm it. That I will fully satisfy. For as my Lord Cobham’s confession stands upon many circumstances, and concerns many others, I will, by other means, prove every circumstance thereof to be true.
RALEGH: But, my Lords, I claim to have my accuser brought here face to face to speak. And though I know not how to make my best defence by law, yet since I was a prisoner, I have learned that by the law and statutes of this realm in case of treason, a man ought to be convicted by the testimony of two witnesses if they be living. I will not take it upon me to defend the matter upon the statute 25th Edward III, though that requires an overt act. . . .
Ralegh turned to the commissioners. “Consider, my Lords, it is no rare ease for a man to be falsely accused, aye, and falsely condemned, too! And my Lords the Judges—remember, I beseech you, what one of yourselves said in times past. I mean Fortescue, a reverend Chief Justice of this kingdom, touching the remorse of his conscience for proceeding upon such slender proof. ’So long as he lived [he said] he should never purge his conscience of that deed.' And my Lords, remember too the story of Susannah; she was falsely accused. . . . I may be told that the statutes I before named be repealed, for I know the diversity of religion in the Princes of those days caused many changes. Yet the equity and reason of those laws remains. They are still kept to illustrate how the common law was then taken and ought to be expounded. By the Law of God therefore, the life of man is of such price and value that no person, whatever his offence is, ought to die unless he be condemned on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
“If then,”Ralegh finished, “by the statute law, by the civil law and by God’s word it be required that there be two witnesses at the least, bear with me if I desire one. Prove me guilty of these things by one witness only, and I will confess the indictment. If I have done these things I deserve not to live, whether they be treasons by the law or no. Why then, I beseech you, my Lords, let Cobham he sent for! Let him be charged upon his soul, upon his allegiance to the King. And if he then maintain his accusation to my face, I will confess myself guilty.”
IT WAS now midday, the trial was half over. Through high windows, light drifted down; on stone floors the rushes were pulled around chilly feet. Ralegh had argued brilliantly from the statutes, but his judges were quick with refutation. The laws quoted did not apply, later statutes had repealed them. “I marvel, Sir Walter,” Judge Warburton said, “that you being of such experience and wit, should stand on this point; for many horsestealers should escape if they may not be condemned without witnesses. By law, a man may be condemned upon presumption and circumstances, without any witness to the main fact. As, if the King (whom God defend!) should be slain in his chamber, and one is shown to come forth of the chamber with his sword drawn and bloody, were not this evidence both in law and opinion without further inquisition ?”
Ralegh’s own words were now produced, as taken down in the Tower on August thirteenth: “He confesseth the Lord Cobham offered him 10,000 crowns of the [Spanish] money for furthering the peace between England and Spain, and that he should have it within three days; but said, ‘When I see the money I will make you an answer,’ for [Ralegh] thought it one of [Cobham’s] idle conceits and therefore made no account thereof.”
To the jury, this was a serious acknowledgment: Ralegh had actually listened to an offer from Spain. That he had not accepted the money— had never even seen it—they promptly forgot. Men who listened to bribes were tainted men, dangerous, vulnerable. . . . Ralegh’s “confession" (which in truth confessed nothing) upset this jury of Middlesex knights who knew little of the tangled politics of faction, the bargains by which courtiers lived and moved, and the shifting of loyalties with each wind that blew from Europe. (Cecil himself was later to accept a pension from Spain.) Ralegh saw that he had lost ground and urged again that Cobham be produced in court. “Were the case but for a small copyhold, you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to the verdict. And I am here for my life!” Once more the Chief Justice refused: “Sir Walter, you plead hard for yourself, but the laws plead as hard for the King.” Cecil interposed. Might he hear the opinion of all the Judges on this point ?
The judges all answered [wrote the reporter] that in respect it might be a mean to cover many treasons and might be prejudicial to the King, therefore by law it was not sufferable.
As the afternoon wore on, spectators showed themselves restless; the temper of the hall was seen to alter. (“Sir Walter behaved himself so worthily, so wisely, so temperately, that in half a day the mind of all the company was changed from the extremest hate to the greatest pity.”) Ralegh had employed no histrionics but bore himself with simplicity, abusing no one beyond his own accuser, Cobham, and keeping his argument to the law and the state of the realm. Coke, on the other hand, digressed into any field that seemed fruitful. He now produced, with something of a flourish, his only oral witness of the trial, an English sailor, a pilot named Dyer, who put his hand on the Bible and testified that last July, in Lisbon, he had heard “a Portugal gentleman say that King James would never be crowned, for Don Cobham and Don Ralegh would cut his throat first.”
Nobody was impressed; such a fellow could palpably be bought for a few pounds. The sailor retreated. Ralegh spoke contemptuously: “This is the saying of some wild Jesuit or beggarly priest. But what proof is it against me?” COKE: It must perforce arise out of some preceding intelligence and shows that your treason had wings.
Again it was the old tactic of the treason trial, wherein the prosecution quotes damaging statements made by anybody at all, and then, by hinting association, or merely by constant repetition of the words, hypnotizes a jury into laying on the prisoner the initial responsibility for what was said. Robert Cecil, at this point, rose to remark that two innocent names had been implicated. Count Aremberg, the Ambassador, should not be blamed for “what others said to him or presumed of him, but of how far he consented or approved.” (Ralegh, hearing this, must truly have despaired; he was himself being tried on nothing beyond “what others said to him or presumed.”) Among the auditory, Cecil went on, was a noble lady whose name should be cleared, seeing the indictment charged a plot to set her on the throne. All eyes turned to the box where sat Arabella with the Earl of Nottingham. The old Earl rose. “The Lady,” he said, “doth here protest upon her salvation that she never dealt in any of these things.”
That, apparently, disposed of Arabella, a lady habitually dragged into public notice and then summarily dismissed. Coke, however, had reserved his two best points of evidence, He now produced the first one: a confession by Cobham, under date of October thirteenth, saying that Ralegh had sent a letter to the Tower bidding Cobham not to be dismayed because “one witness could not condemn him.” If they both kept silence, both were safe. The man who carried it was Kemys, a soldier and sea captain who had accompanied Ralegh to Guiana in 1595.
Ralegh: I deny the writings of any such letter! For Kemys, I never sent him on any such message. This poor man hath been a close prisoner these eighteen weeks and hath been threatened with the rack to make him confess, but I dare stand upon it he will not say it now.
Instant clamor broke among the commissioners; the lords all spoke at once. There had been no torturing of any prisoner. The King had given order that “no rigor should be used.”
RALEGH : Was not the keeper of the rack sent for and he threatened with it?
SIR WILLIAM WAAD, from the commissioners’ bench: When Mr. Solicitor [Fleming] and myself examined Kemys, we told him he deserved the rack but did not threaten him with it.
COMMISSIONERS: That was more than we knew.
The matter was dropped, but not until Kemys’s own confession had been read, wherein he swore he had delivered the letter to Cobham. This time it was Ralegh’s word against his own servant, a man known to be both faithful and brave. To the jury it looked as if Mr. Attorney had trapped Sir Walter into a lie. For the last time, Ralegh begged to have Cobham brought into court. “It is you, then, Mr. Attorney, that should press his testimony, and I ought to fear his producing, if all that be true which you have alleged.” Cecil supported Ralegh, Could not the proceedings be delayed while the judges sent to ascertain the King’s pleasure? But the judges resolved that the proceedings must go on.
What Sir Walter said now included little of law or logic. It was a simple, eloquent appeal: “You, Gentlemen of the jury: for all that is said to the contrary, you see my only accuser is the Lord Cobham, who with tears hath lamented his false accusing me, and repented of it as if it had been an horrible murder. I will not expect anything of you but what reason, religion and conscience ask for every man. . . . Remember what St. Augustine saith, ‘So judge as if you were about to be judged yourselves, for in the end there is but one Judge and one Tribunal for all men.’ . . . Now if you yourselves would like to be hazarded in your lives, disabled in your posterities — your lands, goods and all you have confiscated — your wives, children and servants left crying to the world; if you should be content all this should befall you upon a trial by suspicions and presumptions — upon an accusation not subscribed by your accuser, without the open testimony of a single witness — then so judge me as you would yourselves be judged!”
SERJEANT PHILLIPS, ordered by Popham to sum up for the Crown, repeated the charges briefly, adding that Cobhnm had confessed to all of them. “Now the question is,” Phillips said, “whether Sir Walter Ralegh be guilty as inciting or procuring the Lord Cobham to this treason. If the Lord Cobham say truth, Sir Walter Ralegh is guilty. If Sir Walter Ralegh say true, then he is free; so which of them says true is the whole question. Sir Walter Ralegh hath no proof for his acquittal, though he hath as much wit as man can have. But he uses only his bare denial. But the denial of a criminal is not sufficient to clear him, neither is the evidence on oath of a defendant in his own cause allowed to clear him in any Court of law or equity, much less therefore in matters of treason.”
Now the business [wrote the reporter] seemed to be at an end. Then said Sir Walter Ralegh, “Mr. Attorney, have you done?”
COKE: Yes, if you have no more to say.
RALEGH: If you have done, then I have somewhat more to say.
COKE: Nay, I will have the last word for the King.
RALEGH: Nay, I will have the last word for my life.
COKE: Go to, I will lay thee upon thy back for the confidentest traitor that ever came to the bar!
CECIL: Be not so impatient, good Mr. Attorney.
Give him leave to speak.
COKE: I am the King’s sworn servant and must speak. If I may not be patiently heard, you discourage the King’s Counsel and encourage traitors.
Was it now the spectators hissed? (A spectator, writing afterward, said the auditory hissed at Coke, not specifying the moment.)
Mr. Attorney [says the reporter] sat down in a chafe and would speak no more until the Commissioners urged and entreated him. After much ado, he went on and made a long repetition of the evidence for the direction of the jury. And at the repeating of some things, Sir Walter Ralegh interrupted him and said he did him wrong.
It was here that Coke lost all control, speaking words which are held forever to his shame. Nor were they phrases a man can whisper. Coke stood directly in front of Ralegh. Sir Edward was a big man and, at fifty-two, still in the prime of strength and vigor; his full, dark robes made him seem even larger. Long afterward, it was said he shook his fist at Ralegh, though no eyewitness mentioned it. Nevertheless, Coke’s voice must have filled the hall: “Thou art the most vile and execrable traitor,” he shouted, “that ever lived!”
RALEGH: YOU speak indiscreetly, uncivilly and barbarously. .
COKE: Thou art an odious fellow! Thy name is hateful to all the realm of England for thy pride.
RALEGH: It will go near to prove a measuring cast between you and me, Mr. Attorney.
COKE: Well, I will now lay you open for the greatest traitor that ever was. This, my Lords, is he that hath set forth so gloriously his services against the Spaniard, and hath ever so detested him! This is he that hath written a book against the peace [with Spain]! I will make it appear to the world that there never lived a viler viper on the face of the earth than thou! I will show you wholly Spanish, and that you offered yourself a pensioner to Spain for intelligence. Then let all that have heard you this day judge what you are, and what a traitor’s heart you bear, whatever you pretended.
During this terrible exchange, Coke carried in his hand a scroll. It was his final evidence, a surprise card he had withheld, a last damning word against Ralegh, given by Cobham only yesterday from his prison cell. Coke’s first words would indicate he held the paper up so all could view it. “See, my Lords, what it hath pleased God to work in the heart of my Lord Cobham, even since his coming hither to Winchester! He could not sleep quietly till he had revealed the truth to the Lords, and therefore voluntarily wrote the whole matter to them, but yesterday. And to discover you, Ralegh, and all your Machiavelian tricks, hear what the Lord Cobham hath written under his own hand, which I will read with a loud voice, though I be not able to speak this s’ennight after.”
Turning to the audience, Coke began to read Cobham’s words, “commenting,” says the reporter, “as he went along”; —
“Sir Walter Ralegh, four nights before my coming from the Tower, caused a letter, inclosed in an apple, to be thrown in at my chamber window, desiring me to set down under my hand and send to him an acknowledgment that I had wronged him, and renouncing what I had formerly accused him of. His first letter I made no answer to; the next day he wrote me another, praying me, for God’s sake, if I pitied him, his wife and children, that I would answer him in the points he set down, informing me that the Judges had met at Mr. Attorney’s house, and putting me in hope that the proceedings against me would be stayed. Upon this I wrote him a letter as he desired. I since have thought how he went about only to dear himself by betraying me. Whereupon I have resolved to set down the truth, and under my hand to retract what he cunningly got from me, craving humble pardon of his Majesty and your Lordships for my double dealing. . . .”
“The truth”—as Cobham saw it in this last retraction — was Ralegh’s bargain with Aremberg for a flat yearly pension of 1500 pounds in return for spying service, “to tell and advertise what was intended by England against Spain, the Low Countries or the Indies.” To the jury this was new and shocking. Bribes had been mentioned, but nothing so damning as a continuous, yearly payment. As instance — Cobham wrote further — Sir Walter, returning one night from the palace at Greenwich, revealed “what was agreed upon betwixt the King and the Low Countrymen, that I should impart it to Count Aremberg. . . . And Sir Walter in his last letter advised me not to be overtaken by confessing to any preacher as the Earl of Essex had.”
Here Coke broke off his reading, and turning to Ralegh, spoke in passion: “O damnable atheist! He counsels not to confess to preachers, as the Earl of Essex did! That noble Earl died indeed for his offence, but he died the child of God, and God honored him at his death. Thou, Ralegh, wast by when he died. Et lupus et turpes instant morientibus ursae!” Wolves and bears press close upon the dying. The Latin, rolling out, was like a curse; it was anathema, incantation, and, considering Coke’s own part in Essex’s trial, was least excusable. This was not law but rabble-rousing. It was the stones and mire hurled once more at Ralegh. Whatever the jury thought, they could not disregard the new evidence—a letter written at Winchester not twenty-four hours past. Tomorrow or next day, Cobham himself would stand trial in this very hall. Impossible that a man with death so close upon him would lie thus to the Lords. What had he to gain thereby? Was any favor, Popham inquired of the commissioners, “promised or offered” to Cobham for the writing of this letter? No, Cecil replied, to his knowledge there was none. “I dare say not,” Ralegh interposed drily. “But my Lord Cobham received a letter from his wife that there was no way to save his life but to accuse me.”
This, to the jury, was beside the point. “The Lord Cobham’s confession,” wrote the reporter, “seemed to give great satisfaction and cleared all the former evidence, which stood very doubtful.” Coke’s triumph was plain. For him, the trial was over. The withholding of this evidence until the end had been wise, he could tell himself— especially in dealing with a man of Ralegh’s skill. Now it was too late for denial. No trick of Sir Walter’s, no appeal of eloquence could counteract this final accusation of his enemy. Ralegh, said the reporter, stood “much amazed.”
“Now, Ralegh,” Coke said, “if thou hast the grace, humble thyself to the King and confess thy treasons.”
But Coke (though for the last time) underestimated his adversary. Sir Walter too had reserved a surprise.
By-and-by [wrote the reporter] Sir Walter Ralegh seemed to gather his spirits again, and said: “I pray you hear me a word. You have heard tale of a strange man. . . . Before my Lord Cobham’s coming from the Tower, I was advised by some of my friends to get a confession from him. Therefore I wrote to him thus, ‘You or I must go to trial. If I first, then your accusation is the only evidence against me!’ Therefore it was not ill of me to beg of him to say the truth. But his first letter was not to my contenting. I wrote a second, and then he wrote me a very good letter.”
Ralegh thrust a hand in his breast and produced a folded small sheet. “It is true,” he said, “I got a poor fellow in the Tower to cast up an apple with the letter in it, at Lord Cobham’s window; which I am loath to mention lest Mr. Lieutenant of the Tower might be blamed, though I protest Sir George Harvey is not to blame for what passed. No keeper in the world could so provide but it might happen. But I sent him his letter again, because I heard it was likely now he should be first tried. But the Lord Cobham sent me the letter a second time, saying it was not unfit I should have such a letter.”
Ralegh held up the paper. “And here you may see it, and I pray you read it.”
The Clerk came forward to take the note. The jury watched. In the history of trials, had evidence ever been so given and retracted, so sworn and forsworn? No matter what this new note of Cobham’s might say, Ralegh, in producing it, confessed what he had earlier denied — communication with Cobham in the Tower. “But what say you,” Popham interposed, “to the pension of 1500 pounds a year?”
He could not deny it, Ralegh replied, though it was never his purpose to accept it. “It was my fault I did conceal it, and this fault of concealing, I acknowledge. But for attempting or conspiring any treason against the King or the State, I still deny it to the death and it can never be proved against me.”
“I perceive,” Popham said gravely, “you are not so clear a man as you have protested all this while, for you should have discovered this matter to the King.”
The Clerk, during this exchange, stood waiting, Cobham’s letter in his hand. “Hear now, I pray you,” Ralegh said, “what Cobham hath written to me.”
Mr. Attorney would not have this letter read, saying that it was unfairly obtained from Lord Cobham. And upon Lord Cecil’s advising to hear it, he said, “My Lord Cecil, mar not a good cause!”
CECIL: Mr. Attorney, you are more peremptory than honest. You must not come here to show me what to do.
RALEGH: I pray my Lord Cecil particularly to read the letter, as he knoweth my Lord Cobham’s hand.
Then was read the letter of the Lord Cobham to Sir Walter Ralegh, to this effect: “Now that the arraignment draws near, not knowing which should be first, I or you, to clear my conscience, satisfy the world with truth and free myself from the cry of blood, I protest upon my soul and before God and his angels, I never had conference with you in any treason, nor was ever moved by you to the things I heretofore accused you of. And for any thing I know, you are as innocent and as clear from any treasons against the King as is any subject living. Therefore I wash my hands and pronounce with Daniel, I am innocent, of this blood. And so God deal with me and have mercy on my soul, as this is true!”
It was impressive; this was a day when men did not lightly call upon God’s name. Ralegh followed it quickly. “My Masters of the Jury,” he said, “this is a confession made under oath, and the deepest protestations a Christian man can make.” Yet the jury was weary with these retractations and denials of retractations; they came too late. Cobham’s confession of yesterday, as read aloud by Coke, invalidated this earlier statement, eloquent though it had been. Too much lay counter to it —notes tied to apples, servants bearing secret letters, connivance, and what looked like deliberate falsehood in court. “The acknowledging,” wrote the reporter, “of this 1500 pounds a year pension made the rest of the Lord Cohham’s accusation the better credited. ...” Chief Justice Popham addressed Ralegh direct. “In my conscience I am persuaded that Cobham accused you truly. I observed his manner of speaking. I protest, before the living God I am persuaded he spoke nothing but the truth.”
THE prosecution rested its case. Coke’s three points had been stated, embellished, gone over until twelve knights of Middlesex knew them by heart: 1) Ralegh’s July letter to Cecil, informing of Cobham’s midnight visit to La Rensi; 2) Ralegh’s letter to Cobham in the Tower, reminding Cobham that two witnesses were necessary for conviction and urging that as long as Cobham kept silence, they both were safe; 3) Cobham’s confession of November sixteenth, given from his cell in Winchester. The first two points were hearsay, the letters never seen by the jury, never produced in court. Yet testimony which the judges accepted, the jury accepted also. As for point two, the fact that Ralegh denied the writing of such a letter seemed only to enhance his guilt; Kemys had confessed to delivery of it. That Cobham had three times retracted his testimony proved only that he was, like all traitors, untrustworthy and should be destroyed. The Attorney General had trapped Sir Walter into a lie concerning communication with Cobham in the Tower. And though Magna Carta said that no man should be forced to testify against himself, in the jury’s mind, Coke’s harsh questioning was no derogation of this law. On the contrary, the prisoner had been given every opportunity to reply and clear himself of guilt.
The Jury were willed to go together; who departed and stayed not a quarter of an hour, when they returned, bringing in their verdict, GUILTY OF TREASON.
Ralegh was led to the bar. Chief Justice Popham stood up, bareheaded. In his hand he held the black cap that signified a death sentence. “Sir Walter Ralegh,” he said, “I am sorry to see this fallen upon you this day. You have always been taken for a wise man. And I cannot but marvel to see that a man of your wit, as this day you have approved it, could be entangled with so many treasons. I grieve to find that a man of your quality would have sold yourself for a spy to the enemy of your country for 1500 pounds a year. This covetousness is like a canker, that eats the iron place where it lives. ...”
There was more; to Ralegh it must have been well-nigh unendurable. “O God!” he had written to his wife from the Tower, “I cannot live to think how I am derided, the scorns I shall receive, the cruel words of lawyers, the infamous taunts and despites, to be made a wonder and a spectacle! O death, destroy the memory of these and lay me up in dark forgetfulness!”
Of all these cruel taunts, Popham’s solemn pronouncement was the worst. Coke had raved but Ralegh could answer him. Now, for Ralegh, denial and affirmation were forever blocked. What the Chief Justice said, the world (or so thought Ralegh) would take as truth. “It now comes to my mind,” Popham continued, “why you may not have your accuser brought face to face: for such an one is easily brought to retract when he seeth there is no hope of his own life. ... It now only remaineth to pronounce the judgment, which I would to God you had not to receive this day of me. I never saw the like trial, and I hope I shall never see the like again.”
Raising both hands with the deliberation of an aged man, Popham set the black cap on his head. “Sir Walter Ralegh,” he said, “since you have been found guilty of these horrible treasons, the judgment of this court is, That you shall be had from hence to the place whence you came, there to remain until the day of execution. And from thence you shall be drawn upon a hurdle through the open streets to the place of execution, there to be hanged and cut down alive, and your body shall be opened, your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off and thrown into the fire before your eyes. Then your head to be stricken off from your body, and your body shall be divided into four quarters, to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure. “And God have mercy upon your soul.”
In the third and last installment, Mrs. Bowen shows Sir Edward, as Chief Justice of England and leader of the Commons ,in a startling yet entirely convincing reversal of attitude — champion of men’s rights against a monarch who believed that the King of England was above the law.