W. (William) Stebbing.

Sir Walter Raleigh, a biography online

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Students of Ralegh's career cannot complain of a dearth
of materials. For thirty-seven years he lived in the full glare
of publicity. The social and political literature of more than
a generation abounds in allusions to him. He appears and
reappears continually in the correspondence of Burleigh,
Robert Cecil, Christopher Hatton, Essex, Anthony Bacon,
Henry Sidney, Richard Boyle, Ralph Winwood, Dudley
Carleton, George Carew, Henry Howard, and King James.
His is a very familiar name in the Calendars of Domestic
State Papers. It holds its place in the archives of Venice and
Simancas. No family muniment room can be explored with-
out traces of him. Successive reports of the Historical Manu-
scripts Commission testify to the vigilance with which his
doings were noted. No personage in two reigns was more a
centre for anecdotes and fables. They were eagerly imbibed,
treasured, and circulated alike by contemporary, or all but
contemporary, statesmen and wits, and by the feeblest scandal-
mongers. A list comprising the names of Francis Bacon, Sir
John Harington, Sir Robert Naunton, Drummond of Haw-
thornden, Thomas Fuller, Sir Anthony AVelldon, Bishop
Goodman, Francis Osborn, Sir Edward Peyton, Sir Henry
Wotton, John Aubrey, Sir William Sanderson, David Lloyd,
and James Howell, is far from exhausting the number of the
very miscellaneous purveyors and chroniclers.


Antiquaries, from the days of John Hooker of Exeter, the
continuer of HoHnshed, vSir WilHam Pole, Anthony a Wood,
and John Prince, to those of Lysons, Polwhele, Isaac D'ls-
jraeh, Payne Collier, and Dr. Brushfield, have found boundless
hunting-ground in his habits, acts, and motives. Sir John
Hawles, Mr. Justice Foster, David Jardine, Lord Campbell,
and Spedding have discussed the technical justice of his trials
and sentences. No historian, from Camden and de Thou, to
Hume, Lingard, Hallam, and Gardiner, has been able to
abstain from debating his merits and demerits. From his own
age to the present the fascination of his career, and at once the
copiousness of information on it, and its mysteries, have at-
tracted a multitude of commentators. His character has been
repeatedly analyzed by essayists, subtle as Macvey Napier,
eloquent as Charles Kingsley. There has been no more
favourite theme for biographers. Since the earhest and trivial
account compiled by William Winstanley in 1660, followed by
the anonymous and tolerably industrious narrative attributed
variously to John, Benjamin, and James, Shirley in 1677, and
Lewis Theobald's meagre sketch in 17 19, a dozen or more
lives with larger pretensions to critical research have been
printed, by William Oldys in 1736, Thomas Birch in 1751,
Arthur Cayley in 1805, Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges in 1813,
Mrs. A. T. Thomson in 1830, Patrick Fraser Tytler in 1833,
Robert Southey in 1837, Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk in
1848, C. Whitehead in 1854, S. G. Drake, of Boston, U.S., in
1862, J. A. St. John in 1868, Edward Edwards in the same
year, Mrs. Creighton in 1877, and Edmund Gosse in 1886.

Almost every one of this numerous company, down even to
bookmaking Winstanley the barber, has shed light, much or
little, upon dark recesses. By four, Oldys, Cayley, Tytler, and
Edwards, the whole learning of the subject, so far as it was for
their respective periods available, must be admitted to have


been most diligently accumulated. Yet it will scarcely be
denied that there has always been room for a new presentment
of Ralegh's personality. That the want has remained unsatisfied
after all the efforts made to supply it is to be imputed less to
defects in the writers, than to the intrinsic difficulties of the
subject Ralegh's multifarious activity, with the width of the
area in which it operated, is itself a disturbing element. It is
confusing for a biographer to be required to keep at once
independent and in unison the poet, statesman, courtier,
schemer, patriot, soldier, sailor, freebooter, discoverer, colonist,
castle-builder, historian, philosopher, chemist, prisoner, and
visionary. The variety of Ralegh's powers and tendencies,
and of their exercise, is the distinctive note of him, and of the
epoch which needed, fashioned, and used him. A whole band
of faculties stood ready in him at any moment for action.
Several generally were at work simultaneously. For the man
to be properly visible, he should be shown flashing from more
facets than a brilliant. Few are the pens which can vividly
reflect versatility like his. The temptation to diff"useness and
irrelevancy is as embarrassing and dangerous. At every turn
Ralegh's restless vitality involved him in a web of other men's
fortunes, and in national crises. A biographer is constantly
being beguiled into describing an era as well as its repre-
sentative, into writing history instead of a life. Within an
author's legitimate province the perplexities are numberless
and distracting. Never surely was there a career more beset
with insoluble riddles and unmanageable dilemmas. At each
step, in the relation of the most ordinary incidents, exactness
of dates, or precision of events, appears unattainable. Fiction
is ever elbowing fact, so that it might be supposed contempo-
raries had with one accord been conspiring to disguise the
truth from posterity. The uncertainty is deepened tenfold
when motives have to be measured and appraised. Ralegh


was the best hated personage in the kingdom. On a con-
scientious biographer is laid the burden of allowing just
enough, and not too much, for the gall of private, political,
and popular enmity. He is equally bound to remember and
account, often on the adverse side, for inherent contradictions
in his hero's own moral nature. While he knows it would be
absurdly unjust to accept the verdict of Ralegh's jealous and
envious world on his intentions, he has to beware of construing
malicious persecution as equivalent to proof of angelic in-

One main duty of a biographer of Ralegh is to be strenuously
on the guard against degenerating into an apologist. But,
above all, he ought to be versed in the art of standing aside.
While explanations of obscurities must necessarily be offered,
readers should be put into a position to judge for themselves
of their sufficiency, and to substitute, if they will, others of
their own. Commonly they want not so much arguments,
however unegotistical and dispassionate, as a narrative. They
wish to view and hear Ralegh himself; to attend him on his
quick course from one field of fruitful energy to another; to
see him as his age saw him, in his exuberant vitality ; not
among the few greatest, but of all great. Englishmen the most
universally capable. They desire facts, stated as such, simply^
in chronological sequence, and, when it is at all practicable, in
the actor's own words, not artificially carved, coloured, digested,
and classified. As for failings and infirmities, they are more
equitable and less liable to unreasonable disgusts than a bio-
grapher is inclined to fancy. They are content that a great
man's faults, real or apparent, should be left to be justified,
excused, or at all events harmonized, in the mass of good
and ill.

No biographer of Ralegh need for lack of occupation stray
from the direct path of telling his readers the plain story of an


eventful life. The rightful demands on his resources are
enough to absorb the most plentiful stores of leisure, patience,
and self-denial. He should be willing to spend weeks or
months on loosing a knot visible to students alone, which
others have not noticed, and, if they had, would think might as
profitably have been left tied. He should collect, and weigh,
and have the courage to refuse to use, piles of matter which do
not enlighten. He should be prepared to devote years to the
search for a clue to a career with a bewildering capacity for
sudden transformation scenes. He should have the courage,
when he has lost the trace, to acknowledge that he has
wandered. He should feel an interest so supreme in his
subject, in its shadows as in its lights, as neither to count the
cost of labour in its service, nor to find affection for the man
incompatible with the condemnation of his errors. Finally,
after having arrived at a clear perception of the true method
to be pursued, and ends to be aimed at, he should be able to
recognize how very imperfectly he has succeeded in acting up
to his theory.

W. S.
London :
September, 1891.



I. Genealogy i

II. In Search of a Career (1552-15S1). ... 6

III. Royal Favour (15S1-1582) 22

IV. Offices and Endowments (1582-1587) . . • 32
V. Virginia (1583-1587) 42

VI. Patron and Courtier (i 583-1 590) . • . • 53

VII. Essex. The Armada (1587-1589) .... 60

VIII. The Poet (1589-1593) 69

IX. The Revenge (September, 1591) 82

X. In the Tower. The Great Carack (1592) . . 88

XI. At Home ; and in Parliament (1592-1594) . . 100

XII. Guiana (1594-1595) 108

XIII. Cadiz. The Islands Voyage (1596-1597) . . 125

XIV. Final Feud with Essex (1597-1601) . . . 141
XV. The Zenith (1601-1603) 155

XVI. Cobham and Cecil (1601-1603) 168

XVII. The Fall (April-June, 1603) 180

XVIII. Awaiting Trial (July-November, 1603) . . .186




XIX. The Trial (November 17).

XX. Its Justice and Equity .

XXI. Reprieve (December 10, 1603) .

XXII. A Prisoner (1604-1612)

XXIII. Science and Literature (1604-161

XXIV. The Release (March, 1616)
XXV. Preparing for Guiana (1616-1617)

XXVI. The Expedition (May, 1617-June, 1618)

XXVII. Return to the Tower (June-August, 1618)

XXVIII. A Moral Rack (August lo-October 15) .

XXIX. A Substitute for a Trial (October 22, 161S

XXX. Ralegh's Triumph (October 28-29, 1618)

XXXI. Spoils and Penalties ....

XXXII. Contemporary and Final Judgments













The Raleghs were an old Devonshire family, once wealthy Chap. I.
and distinguished. At one period five knightly branches of — ^^—
the house flourished simultaneously in the county. In the
reign of Henry III a Ralegh had been Justiciary. There
were genealogists who, though others doubted, traced the
stock to the Plantagenets through an intermarriage with
the Clares. The Clare arms have been found quartered
with those of Ralegh on a Ralegh pew in East Budleigh
church. The family had held Smallridge, near Axminster,
from before the Conquest. Since the reign of Edward III
it had been seated on the edge of Dartmoor, at Fardell.
There it built a picturesque mansion and chapel. The
Raleghs of Fardell were, writes Polwhele, 'esteemed ancient
gentlemen.' But the rapacious lawyers of Henry VII had
discovered some occasion against Wimund Ralegh, the head
of the family in their day. They thought him worth the levy
of a hea^7 fine for misprision of treason ; and he had to sell

Wimund married into the Grenville family; and in 1497




Chap. I. his son and heir, Walter, was born. Before the boy attained
~**~ majority the father died. As Dr. Brushfield, a Devon anti-
quarian, to whose diligence and enthusiasm all students of
the life of Walter Ralegh are indebted, has shown, Walter
Ralegh of Fardell, on the termination of his minority, in 15 18,
was possessed, in addition to Fardell, of the manors of Colaton
Ralegh, Wythecombe Ralegh, and Bollams. He may be pre-
sumed to have succeeded to encumbrances likewise. Part of
Colaton was sold by him ; and he did not occupy Fardell.
As he is known to have owned a bark in the reign of Mary,
it has been supposed that he took to commerce. Whether
for the sake of contiguity to Exeter, then the centre of a large
maritime trade, or for economy, he fixed his residence in East
Budleigh parish, on a farm, which was his for the residue of
an eighty years' term. His choice may have been partly
determined by his marriage to Joan, daughter to John Drake
of Exmouth. The Exmouth Drakes were connected with
East Budleigh ; and Joan's nephew, Robert Drake, bequeathed
charitable funds in 1628 for the benefit of East Budleigh
parish in which he hved. The dates of Joan's marriage and
death are uncertain. It is only known that the two events
occurred between 15 18 and 1534. Her tomb is in East
Budleigh church, with an inscription asking prayers for her
soul. She left two sons, George and John. Secondly, Walter
married a lady of the family of Darell or Dorrell, though some
genealogists describe her as Isabel, daughter of de Ponte, a
Genoese merchant settled in London. She left a daughter,
Mary, who married Hugh Snedale. On her death, some time
before 1549, Walter married thirdly Katherine, daughter of
Sir Philip Champernoun. She was widow of Otho Gilbert, of
Compton and Greenway Castles, to whom she had borne tlie
three Gilbert brothers, John, Humphrey, and Adrian. By her
marriage to Walter Ralegh of Fardell she had three more
children, Carew, and Walter, ' Sir Walter Ralegh,' with a
daughter, Margaret, described sometimes as older, and some-
times as younger than Walter.


At the time of Ralegh's birth the family had lost its pristine Chav. I.
splendour. But there has been a tendency to exaggeration of ""^*~
the extent of the decadence, by way of foil to the merit which
retrieved the ruin. John Hooker, a contemporary Devonshire
antiquary, uncle to the author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical
Polity, described the family as ' consopited,' and as having
'become buried in oblivion, as though it had never been.'
Yet Walter Ralegh of Fardell was still a land-owner of import-
ance. His third marriage indicates that he had not fallen out
of the society of his class. Not even personally can he and
his wife Katherine be set down as altogether obscure.
Holinshed names one of them, and Foxe names both. Walter '^^l^J-'"^'
seems to have had much of his great son's restlessness and
independence of character, if without the genius and the gift of
mounting. After his first wife's death he energetically adopted
reformed doctrines. In 1549 during the rising in the West
his religious zeal endangered his life.

The story is thus told in Holinshed's Chronicles. ' It hap-
pened that a certain gentleman named Walter Ralegh, as he
was upon a side holy day riding from his house to Exeter,
overtook an old woman going to the parish church of Saint
Mary Clift, who had a pair of beads in her hands, and asked
her what she did with those beads. And entering into further
speech with her concerning religion which was reformed, and
as then by order of law to be put in execution, he did persuade
with her that she should, as a good Christian woman and an
obedient subject, yield thereunto ; saying further that there was
a punishment by law appointed against her, and all such as
would not obey and follow the same, and which would be put
in execution upon them. This woman nothing liking, nor well
digesting this matter, went forth to the parish church, where all
the parishioners were then at the service ; and being impatient,
and in an agony with the speeches before passed between her
and the gentleman, beginneth to upbraid in the open church
very hard and unseemly speeches concerning religion, saying
that she was threatened by the gentleman, that, except she

B 2


Chap. I. would leave her beads, and give over holy bread and holy
-**- water, the gentlemen would burn them out of their houses and
spoil them, with many other speeches very false and untrue,
and whereof no talk at all had passed between the gentleman
and her. Notwithstanding, she had not so soon spoken but
that she was believed, and in all haste like a sort of wasps they
fling out of the church, and get them to the town which is not
far from thence, and there began to intrench and fortify the
town, sending abroad into the country round about the news
aforesaid, and of their doings in hand, flocking, and procuring
as many as they could to come and to join with them. But
before they came into the town they overtook the gentleman
Master Ralegh aforesaid, and were in such a choler, and so
fell in rages with him, that, if he had not shifted himself into
the chapel there, and had been rescued by certain mariners of
Exmouth which came with him, he had been in great danger
'ofolaL °^ ^^^ ^^^"S' ^'^d ^iks to have been murdered. And albeit he
escaped for this time, yet it was not long before he fell into
their hands, and by them was imprisoned and kept in prison in
the tower and church of Saint Sidwell, without the east gate of
the city of Exeter, during the whole time of the commotion,
being many times threatened to be executed to death.' He
was not released till the battle of Clyst, called by Holinshed,
Clift, Heath, won on August 4, 1549, by Lords Grey and
Bedford near the scene of his misadventure, followed by a
second victory on the next day, forced the Catholic insurgents
to raise the siege of Exeter, which they had been blockading
since July 2.

He was no fair weather theologian. His Protestantism
out-lived King Edward. He sympathized with the demon-
stration in 1553 against the Spanish marriage. On the
failure of the Devonshire movement his cousin, Sir Peter
Carew, the ringleader at Exeter, is stated in official depositions
to have effected his escape abroad through Walter Ralegh,
whom he 'persuaded to convey him in his bark' to France
from Weymouth. The wording implies active and conscious


intervention. The strange thing is that he should not have Chap. I.
been punished for comphcity. Later in the reign of Mary his ~**~
wife exposed herself to similar peril, and similarly escaped.
Foxe in his Acts and Monuine7its relates that Agnes Prest,
before she was brought to the stake in 1557 at Southernhay,
had been comforted in Exeter gaol by the visits of ' the wife
of Walter Ralegh, a woman of noble wit, and of good and
goodly opinion.'

Unless that Walter was churchwarden of East Budleigh in
1 56 1, and that a conveyance by him of the Sidmouth Manor
fish tithes proves him to have been alive in April, 1578,
nothing more is known of him. It has not been ascertained Death and
when he and Katherine died, though they are believed to have
been dead in 1584. The interest in the East Budleigh farm
had by that time run out ; and it is surmised they had re-
moved into Exeter, if they had not previously possessed a
residence there, perhaps by the Palace Gate. On the authority
of a request by their son in 1603 to be buried, if not at
Sherborne, beside them in ' Exeter Church,' it has been
concluded that they were interred in the Cathedral. A monu-
ment erected to Katherine's son by her first marriage. Sir John
Gilbert, was long accepted as theirs. In fact no trace of their
burial in any Exeter church has been found. The present
inclination of local arch geologists seems to be to assume that
they were not buried at Exeter at all. It is hard to assent in
the face of Ralegh's words. At all events, nothing else of any
kind is remembered of the pair ; or could . reasonably be
expected to have been remembered. History has told much
more of them than of most country- gentlemen and their


In Search of a Career (1552-1581).

Chap. II. Walter, the second son by the third marriage of Walter
— •^— Ralegh of Fardell and Hayes, was born in the reign of
Edward VI, it has been supposed, in 1552, The exact date is
not beyond doubt ; for the registration of baptisms at East
Budleigh was not begun till two or three years later. If the
inscription on the National Portrait Gallery picture, ' 1588,
aetatis suae 34,' and that on Zucchero's in the Dublin Gallery,
'aet. 44, 1598,' be correct, his birth must have been not in
1552, but about 1554. A similar, or nearly similar, inference
may be drawn from the statement, on a miniature of him at
Belvoir Castle, of his age as sixty-five in 161 8. One local
Raiegh-s writer, R. Izacke, has claimed the honour of his birthplace for
Birthpiine. ^ house in Exeter, adjoining the Palace-gate. Probably the
rumour points, as I have intimated, to its occupation at some
time or other by his parents. Another author asserts that he
was born at Fardell. His own testimony, ' being born in that
house,' is decisive in favour of his father's Budleigh home, a
lonely, one-storied, thatched, late Tudor farm-house, not a
manor-house, of moderate size, with gabled wings, and a pro-
jecting central porch. Tradition has marked out the par-
ticular room in which he was born, as on the upper floor
at the west end, facing southwards. The house, which is a
mile west of East Budleigh church, and six from Exmouth,
with the exception of some change at the end of the east
wing, probably retains its original character. It was restored
in 1627 by 'R. D.' For a century past it has been denomi-
nated Hayes Barton, or simply Hayes. Previously it had been


called, after successive landlords, Poerhayes or Power's Hayes, Chap. ir.
and Dukes-hayes. The hollow in which it lies, among low — •—
hills, is on the verge of a tract of moorland ; and Hayes Wood
rises close at hand. Through the oak wood to Budleigh
Salterton Bay is two miles and a half.

In this quiet spot Ralegh spent his boyhood, in circum-
stances not very unlike those of more eminent county families
with which his was connected. During the earlier half of the
sixteenth century the majority of the gentry were continually
growing poorer, and a minority were growing richer. The
Raleghs, it is plain, had not met with the good fortune of the
Russells, and others of their rural peers. They were declin-
ing, if hardly in the degree represented subsequently. But
an ampler share of prosperity could not have made much
difference in young Walter's prospects or training. Three
brothers were all before him in the succession to the patri-
mony. His birthright could not have comprised more than
the cadet's prescriptive portion of necessity and brains. It
is unfair to the natural curiosity of posterity that his extra-
ordinary endowments in the second respect are not traceable
in anecdotes of his childhood. Naturally a local legend
reports him to have loved the society of adventurous mariners.
Sir John Millais in his 'Boyhood of Ralegh,' which was
painted at Budleigh Salterton, has embodied it. In a narrative
printed a century after his death a general assertion of his
fondness for books of voyages occurs. Otherwise his boyish
tastes and habits are w^holly unknown. The name of his
school has not been preserved. The first accepted fact after
his birth is his entrance, as a commoner, into Oriel College, At Oxford.
of which, says Anthony a Wood, his cousin, C. Champernoun,
was a member. According to a statement by Thomas Fuller, of
which there is no corroboration either in the books of Christ
Church, or elsewhere, he belonged also to Christ Church,
before or after his admission into Oriel. For any details of
his academical course, as for the dates of its commencement
and close, posterity is indebted to Wood, who remarks that


Chap. II. he went up to Oriel 'in 1568, or thereabouts,' and, 'after he
*• had spent about three years in that house, left the University
without a degree.' Wood declares that ' his natural parts
being strangely advanced by academical learning, under the
care of an excellent tutor, he became the ornament of the
juniors, and was worthily esteemed a proficient in oratory and
philosophy.' It is exceedingly likely, Ralegh being Ralegh.
At the same time, particulars would have been welcome.

Lord Bacon has enshrined in his Apophthegms an example
of Ralegh's wit at Oxford. A cowardly fellow happened to be
a very good archer. Having been grossly abused by another,
he bemoaned himself to Ralegh, and asked what he should
do to repair the wrong that had been offered him. 'Why,
challenge him,' answered Ralegh, 'to a match of shooting.'

Online LibraryW. (William) StebbingSir Walter Raleigh, a biography → online text (page 1 of 36)