'The Great Day of Mart':

Returning to Texts at the Trial of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1603



  1. Sir Walter Ralegh's trial in November 1603 is infamous for its celebrity defendant, for its demonstration of early modern treason law, for the pathos of the great Elizabethan brought low, and the paradoxes of the accusation – that Ralegh, who built a career out of fighting the Spanish, should end his career by plotting with them. His arrest and conviction were the beginning of a thirteen-year imprisonment in the Tower of London. His death sentence was reprieved by James I who intervened at the last moment and took the opportunity to show himself publicly as a merciful ruler. Released in 1616 to make a second voyage to Guiana, which failed, Ralegh was returned to the Tower and finally executed in 1618.

  2. Interest across the centuries has been fuelled by the way in which the trial crystallised Ralegh's life into a set of apparent contradictions. The polarisations of his career, between Elizabeth I and James I, the high seas and the tower, hero and traitor, has made satisfying copy for journalists, biographers and historians. The urge to solve these paradoxes remains. With the emergence of new documents used by the prosecution found in the Bodleian Library by archivist Mark Nicholls three years ago, shock at Ralegh's conviction was heard again. On 5 November 1995, The Sunday Times carried the headline 'Raleigh was a traitor: official', and a week later the allegation was refuted in The Sunday Telegraph. The title of the present paper uses a phrase deployed by Queen Elizabeth's principal Secretary, Robert Cecil, when he described, in anticipation, the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James as a 'day of mart'. This metaphor encompasses much of the predominant sense of exchange and displacement which has surrounded perceptions of the trial and shaped Ralegh's niche in history (Bruce, ed. 1861, 18). Not least the trial has confirmed Ralegh as the great Elizabethan, a man inherently unfit for life under King James, a man who failed to make the switches of allegiance, policy, personality and patronage from one ruler to the other. This heroic intransigence has fixed to Ralegh the title 'The Last of the Elizabethans', granted by Edward Thompson in 1935 and repeated by A.L. Rowse, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Ralegh's most recent biographer Stephen Coote (Thompson, 1935; Rowse, 1955; Trevor-Roper, 1957; Coote, 1993, 298). Ralegh himself saw the 1603 trial as a watershed, and he complained from his prison cell that it had made him 'civilly dead', that is dead to law and society – a non-person (Edwards ed., 1868, ii, 296). A large number of the biographical portraits of Ralegh written in the seventeenth century were the product of the courtroom drama, and the picture of Ralegh as a victim of the Stuart regime has been an enduring characterisation of his career. Besides this, the trial was Ralegh's biggest performance because without witnesses or a defence lawyer, his words and sense of theatre were his only defence.

  3. During the first fortnight in July 1603, a total of eight men were arrested, and this group was divided into two strands of plots against the king, described as 'two conspiracyes, different or severed at the heades but tyed together by the tayles'. 1 The first treason was named the 'bye' or 'surprise' plot, which aimed to capture the king on midsummer's day, and as many of his council as were with him, and hold him until he agreed to demands for a relaxation of anti-papal legislation. 2 The so-called 'main' plot, which rested on the activities of Ralegh and his friend Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, Warden of the Cinque Ports, was alleged to be a plot to depose the king and put James' cousin the Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne, with the financial assistance of Spain. At the trial in Winchester the conspirators in the 'bye' plot were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Ralegh's trial took place two days later.

  4. The charges which Ralegh faced are closely bound up with the confessions and retractions of Lord Cobham. When Ralegh was first questioned about Cobham's dealings with Spain, he denied all knowledge of Cobham's plans. The manuscript recently discovered in the Bodleian Library, which Mark Nicholls describes as a summary of the cases against both suspects, shows that Cobham's testimony remained the basis of the evidence against Ralegh from his imprisonment in July through to the trial in November (Nicholls, 1995). The various charges against Ralegh were firstly, that he had knowledge of Cobham's plans to travel to Brussels and then Spain to procure foreign aid and invasion. Cobham planned to return home via Jersey where Ralegh held the governorship, and where the two men would have been safe to discuss possible uses for the money obtained from Spain. This sum of money was said to be between five and six hundred thousand crowns, and Cobham and Ralegh were charged with soliciting it through the Count of Aremberg, who arrived in England in the summer of 1603 as a special ambassador sent by Archduke Albert. Secondly, that Ralegh had urged Cobham to secure for him through the Count of Aremberg an annual pension of £1,500 for foreign intelligence.(Nicholls, 1995, 907). Both these indictments are known through statements made by Cobham which were furiously issued following Ralegh's denunication of his friend in which he confessed to having his own suspicions about Cobham. However, Cobham later retracted these accusations although the key evidence against Ralegh remained this unstable testimony. The main development to Cobham's examinations in the ensuing months was his placement of Ralegh in the role of instigator and aggravator of his discontent. Cobham cited a particular occasion at which Ralegh's personal unrest found expression, declaring that Ralegh had hastened him to open negotiations with Aremberg, 'that he should doe best to advertise and advise the king of Spaine to send an armie against England to Milford Haven' (Nicholls, 1995, 908).

  5. The law of treason had been set in place in 1352 in the reign of Edward III, and it was only recently consigned to history when Jack Straw signed the sixth protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and did away with the death penalty for 'treason and piracy with violence' (The Times, 27 January 1999). The 1352 act embodied ideas about treason as treachery, expressed in terms of the breaking of the feudal bond, and this is clearly represented in the definition of 'petty treason' – the slaying of a master by a servant, or a husband by his wife (Holdsworth, 1925, iii, 287). Edward III's statute declared not that killing the king, but that compassing or imagining his death, was treason: it was the intention to kill, rather than the act of killing that was the essence of this law. An overt act was not essential to a conviction for treason. 3 As William Holdsworth says, it was this wording which led to the passing of a series of statutes from the time of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I in order to extend the scope of the treason law (Holdsworth, 1925, iv, 496).

  6. In the late sixteenth century the definition of treason became inadequate largely because of the religious upheaval of the period which meant that allegiance to the state, and the security of the country, was bound up with the life of the Protestant Elizabeth, and so, in effect, more paths led to the throne. Besides this, it was seen that provision needed to be made for attempts on the life of the monarch in the course of conspiracies to depose or imprison, or conspiracies to levy war or create internal disorder (Holdsworth, 1925, iv, 496). In 1533 the offence of treason was made to include writing and printing anything to the peril of the monarch, and this was reiterated in a statute of 1571 (Holdsworth, 1925, iv, 496). Sensitivity to the threat to Elizabeth from Mary Queen of Scots, resulted in the controversial Bond of Association which was drawn up for the statute book in 1584. This was an instrument for the preservation of the monarch, to which the privy council, the clergy and the counties of England signed up. The principle of 'association' it attempted to legalize, was that in the event of a challenge to Elizabeth's life, or an attempt to advance the claim of another, the focus of the conspiracy (Mary), would bear the consequences and face death (Neale, 1934, 265-7). Mary's guilt was proved by her association, however passive, with any treasonous activity by others. Although there was fervent support for this measure, some M.P.s and Elizabeth herself were more cautious, and the Bond was modified so that proof of complicity was required before vengeance could be taken on Mary. Although tangential to the treason law, the Bond of Association, with its vigorous defence of the monarch, fits easily within treason's developing explication in the late sixteenth century.

  7. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the extension of the 1352 statute had really taken off, moving towards what is known as 'constructive' treason, where treason was not explicitly evident but constructed. The embeddedness of Ralegh's examination in 1603 in these notions about the proper extension of the law governing treason is made clear in a statement attributed to Ralegh given in a deposition by Lord Cobham. At the time when Ralegh had raised the Milford Haven issue, Ralegh and Cobham had allegedly agreed that there might be less risk attached to a bold approach such as inciting invasion, as 'many more had been hanged for words then for dedes'. 4 This issue was the source of a legal quibble between Francis Bacon and Edward Coke some years later. The question was, whether or not scandalous words were an overt act from which compassing the death of the king could be inferred. In investigating slander against the king in 1615, Coke, chief prosecutor at Ralegh's trial, clashed with Bacon in the case against Somerset Puritan minister, Edmund Peacham, who had been found in possession of a sermon against the government (Spedding ed., 1861-74, v, 109). Attorney-General Coke denied Bacon's premise, deciding that 'no words of scandal or defamation, importing that the King was utterly unworthy to govern, were treason, except they disabled his title' (Spedding, ed., 1861-74, v, 120). He argued that controversial writing or defamation was not a treasonable offence. Bacon, by contrast, cited the statute precedent of 1352 and argued that the king's death could be 'compassed and imagined' in writings which incited rebellion – even if they were unpublished – under the statutes terms, by 'making him appear to be incapable...to reign'. The ingredients of this debate are apparent in Ralegh's conviction in 1603, and as the trial documents show, the completeness with which the power of the monarch was made manifest and the mind of the accused made accessible to the prosecution bring us to the French word compasser, to encircle, from which the medieval statute took its terminology.

  8. The most important development in the interpretation of the law of treason then, concerned the legal imperative to establish intent, purpose or design summed up in the words 'compass or imagine'. The act of interpretation by the judge, of words, probabilities and intent, became crucial, and in Ralegh's case treasonous intent was constructed, or reconstructed, through a combination of his career, character and friendship with Lord Cobham. Taking these together, if Ralegh's treason went no further than idle speculation (or however his discontent had been expressed), and concealing the knowledge he had of Cobham's activities, it is still not possible to argue that he was innocent in law. Under the circumstances of the installation of the new king in 1603, with the ensuing competition for council positions and royal rewards, there was no scope for a charitable interpretation of detected indiscretion (Nicholls, 1995, 912).

  9. Inevitably, as Ralegh was perceived as being so out of step with the new regime in 1603, the byword for his situation after the death of Elizabeth was 'discontent'. The prosecution created what one observer recognised as a 'syllogisme' in which it was argued that Ralegh was discontented, discontented men plot treason, therefore Ralegh was a traitor. 5 King James had wasted no time in inflicting several deprivations on Ralegh, even negotiating as he travelled south to the throne from Edinburgh to return the London palace Durham House, which Ralegh had occupied for the past twenty years, to the bishopric of Durham. Ralegh's monopolies were taken away in May 1603, and subsequently his position as Captain of the Guard. Robert Cecil, who had eased his way through the minefield of the accession by conducting an illicit correspondence with the Scottish court before the death of Elizabeth, reported that one of the reasons for detaining Ralegh was that he had been discontented 'in conspectu omnium' – in the sight of all – ever since the king had come to England (Birch ed. 1848, i, 13). One of the surviving prosecution documents states clearly that 'the person of the offendor', that is, Ralegh's character and curriculum vitae, had a direct bearing on the evidence against him. The document asks: 'Whoe is Sir Walter Rawleigh?' The answer that the court found relevant – and this is reproduced across several manuscript accounts of the trial – was that he was 'a man by nature of an extraordinarie witt, and therbie the better furnished to shadowe his midsoing'. 6 Secondly, he was 'a man of too much more then ordinarie pollecie, and therbie the better provided to prevent the discoverie of his secreate unlawfull purposes'. Ralegh was indeed styled as the brain behind Cobham's brawn, as another Machiavelli. For the prosecution Attorney-General Coke said, 'My Lord Cobham as your Lordshipps all knowe is of an ancient noble house in his courses never politician nor Sword-Man, but...the invention of those things belonged to a Pollition and to the execucon a Swordman: Sir Walter Ralegh a man fitting for both'. 7

  10. These assumptions were based on the inference that Ralegh's martial career under Elizabeth equated to a dislike of a peace-loving king such as James and his readiness to incite others to rebellion. The fashioning of this identity in this manner is one way in which the treason law made the process of trial into a process of narrative effect. One of the first statements made by Coke in the courtroom was the setting forth of his belief that 'all great Mischiefes' bear the marks of imitation. The argument Coke made about Ralegh's imitation or reproduction of treasonous activities and ideas was the means through which he exposed the intention to compass or imagine a threat to the king's life. Imitation was a way of establishing the connection between Ralegh and treasonous intent. 'Direct and precyse prooffe', as one trial document puts it, was not required in cases of treason, because treason was 'a worke...of darknesse, and practized in obscuritie, and therefore requireth not that cliernesse of prooffe as honest workes of light doe'. 8 Coke's notion of imitation, through which he attempted to group Ralegh with the conspirators of the 'bye' plot and with Cobham, expresses the closing down of the distance between the defendant and treasonous actions which was part of the machinery of the Edwardian statute.

  11. Records of the exchanges between Ralegh and the chief prosecutor Edward Coke illustrate the extent to which Ralegh's conviction hinged on the semantic connotation of treason. Many times Coke attempted to lump Ralegh together with the bye plotters, and preface his account of Ralegh's guilt with the certainty of their earlier conviction. In reply, Ralegh strived to sustain a notion of his individuality. After Coke's summary of the guilt of the conspirators in the bye plot, Ralegh is recorded as saying, 'I profess I doe not understand what a worde of this meanes except it be to tell me newes. The treason of Markham and the priests what is that to me?' Coke then moved in, 'I will then come close to you', he said, 'you would have stirred England and Scotland both, you incited the Lord Cobham as soon as Count Aremberg came into England' (f.277). Coke's rhetoric sought to establish Ralegh's proximity to Cobham and the other conspirators. Elsewhere Ralegh argued, 'I doe not heare yet that you have spoken one word against mee...if my Lord Cobham be a trayter what is that to me?' 9 Ralegh's friendship with Cobham certainly was crucial in bringing the conviction, and this was a primary reason for detaining Ralegh in August, three months before he went on trial. 10 At one point however, the persuasive allusions to imitation were superseded by the total collapse of Ralegh's identity into Cobham's, as Ralegh was described as Cobham's 'second selfe'. 11 Circumstances and inclination were thought to be concurrent between the two men, and it seems likely that they were receptacles for each others disatisfaction. The general picture which can be drawn from Cobham's testimonies is the conclusion put forward by Mark Nicholls. It is a picture of 'a discontented Ralegh denouncing king and ministers, allowing his fertile imagination to conjure the possibilities of a Spanish descent on a nation that had forsaken him, and subsequently toying with the idea of taking a pension from any amenable foreign power'. This may well be the sum of his treason in 1603 (Nicholls, 1995, 910).

  12. The remainder of this paper will concentrate on the way in which one of the areas of subversive activity at issue in the treason law – writing, publishing and owning controversial literature, played a large part in the evidence against Ralegh. Such books and their reappearance in 1603 were in the trial's terminology, evidence of 'vyolente concurring circumstances', and they stood as signs of treasonous intention. It is at this point that my argument makes a retrospective move, because the literature with which Ralegh was linked at his trial was concerned with the Elizabethan succession. The question of Elizabeth's heir was a delicate one throughout her reign. The queen favoured a policy of inaction which spawned frustration among her ministers, much parliamentary debate, widespread speculation, and a long list of competitors for the throne. Contenders included Mary Queen of Scots, Arabella Stuart, as well as James himself, some descendants in the Suffolk line (through Mary, Henry VIII's sister), and the Earl of Huntingdon whose lineage could be traced to the Clarence family before the union of the houses of York and Lancaster. One book written on the Elizabethan succession published in 1594 contained no fewer than thirty pages on the lineage of the House of Portugal to the English throne (Doleman, 1594, 160ff). James VI of Scotland was not named heir to the English throne until Elizabeth was on her death bed and so the succession question was relevant thoughout Elizabeth's life, although it became increasingly taboo as the queen made clear her distaste for the subject.

  13. In reading the archive of examination documents at the trial, it is clear that the books which Ralegh was linked to were 'much stood upon' and took up most of one day's hearing. One of the trial officials, Sergeant Phillips, gave equal weight to Ralegh's contact with one particular book alongside the other allegations I have already summarised, charging the prisoner with, first, 'conspiracy of depriving the king from his crowne...the second by raising of tumults in Scotland the third by divulging a booke against the kings Title & the resolution to take the life of the king and his issues' (fol.306v). Attorney General Coke, whose maliciousness was the platform from which Ralegh built much of his defence, declared that 'English menn will not be lead by perswations of wordes but they must haue bookes to perswade'. 12

  14. The first text which was used to confirm Ralegh's guilt was a book written against King James' title to the English throne. Lord Cobham's examination which was read out in court, was the first statement made about the text. The best account of the trial, in the absence of any surviving examination of Ralegh, is a commonplace book dating from 1621 now in the Harley manuscript collection. This record of the trial says that Ralegh delivered a book to Lord Cobham which was against the king's title to the crown. Cobham confessed that he had received such a book from Ralegh and that Ralegh had told him 'itt was foolishly written' (f.296). In his defence Ralegh recounted the book's provenance. He said:

    heere is much adoe about this booke. I will tell your Lordshipps how I came to itt and what little account I made of itt. I had it out of a Counsellors Library long since written, above 26 yeares past by a lawyer and dedicated to a stranger (f.296) 13

    Ralegh saw his opportunity to attack rather than defend, and jibed, 'The booke was written by a man of your profession Mr Atturney'. 14 This text has not been conclusively identified, but its author is likely to have been Robert Snagge, a lawyer and M.P., and a vociferous campaigner in the parliaments of 1571 and 1572 for the Bill Against Mary Queen of Scots. 15 However, whereas Lord Cobham repeatedly testified that the book was 'against the Kings Title', Ralegh shifted the emphasis of the Scottish threat by saying that the book 'only' concerned the 'iustifying of the late Queenes criminall proceedings against the late Queene of Scotts'. 16 Ralegh was pressed by Coke to say from which privy councillor he had received the text, and he replied that it had come into his possession from William Cecil, Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, who by this time had been dead for five years. Cecil's son, Robert Cecil, was then called upon to give account for this unforeseen turn in the prosecution. With regard to the fact that the finger of suspicion had temporarily shifted onto his father instead of Ralegh, Cecil explained that it was the proper role of the wise councillor to keep abreast of all published and unpublished material that 'touched state', and that if anyone were to look into his library they would find the same (f.296). 17 Proximity to such texts was not dangerous but politic. Directly after Cecil's speech, Ralegh attempted the same argument. 'But I marvell itt should now be urged as a matter soe treasonable in me' he said, 'to have such bookes when itt is well known there comes out nothinge in these times but I had them and might as freely have them as another' (f.296).

  15. Attorney-General Coke used these accounts about the libraries of Ralegh and Cecil to infer that because Ralegh had no official government office he had no justification to own or read controversial literature. 18 The acceptability, or otherwise, of Ralegh's possession of subversive texts as presented at his trial, was governed by his non-privy council status. Whereas the contents of the Cecils' libraries was authorised by their official political roles, Ralegh's reading and ownership of such literature was unauthorised, and therefore his choice of books could be seen as indulging a disloyal mind; a choice which was personally inspired, rather than impersonally sanctioned by officialdom.

  16. Another book, this time promoting the French king's title to the English throne was also closely identified with the 'bye' and the 'main' plots in 1603. A minor figure in the trial proceedings, William Udall, approached the council a few days before Ralegh was brought to court, offering to make a discovery for the king's safety. He added weight to Ralegh's and Cobham's confederacy by reporting that they were patrons of a book about the French king's claim, which had been printed in Paris in French and English. 19 The 'French king's claim' must refer to plans by Elizabeth to marry Arabella Stuart to the nephew of Henri IV, the Prince of Condé. These plans were current in 1601, and by 1602, there were hints of another French marriage, between Arabella and the Duke of Nevers. Widespread speculation about the marriage may be guessed from a manuscript in Italian, undated and unsigned, entitled 'Whether it be expedient for the Queen of England to marry Mistress Arbella to the Prince of Condé and to declare them her successors to the kingdom'. 20

  17. The force of this textual evidence lay in the timing of Ralegh's passing the first of these books written against the king's title, to Cobham, an exchange which Ralegh denied, saying Cobham picked up the book himself while he was out of the room. Sergeant Phillips told the court that the significance of the book was thus: 'You presented your frind with it when hee was discontented. If it had byn before the queenes death, it had byn a less matter. but you gave it hym presently when he came from the kings, which was the tyme of his discontentment'. 21 In this scenario it was envisaged that Ralegh recognised the additional weight of meaning in the book at a time when his colleague was plotting. In both these cases, it is not simply the act of recommending, presenting or reading the book itself which is invested with treasonous potential, but treason is discovered through its context – time, place, and the identity (remember, the impropriety was Ralegh's not Cecil's) of the reader. These documents functioned as items of extrinsic evidence, their importance was not derived solely from the books themselves but in the conjunction with other sources which could vary or explain their relevance to the trial proceedings.

  18. The possibility that this documentary evidence was carefully assembled by Ralegh's enemies is hinted at in letters which are part of the trial archive. Lord Cobham's brother, George Brooke, who was executed in December 1603 for his part in the 'bye' plot, wrote many letters to government ministers pleading for mercy. One of these papers, dated July 1603, in which Brooke requested a private meeting with Robert Cecil, is endorsed in Cecil's hand 'Ralegh's Book'. Although there is nothing more in the letter itself describing this book, the superscription suggests that Cecil was recording the passing between him and Brooke of a piece of evidence against Ralegh which had been enclosed with the letter. 22 That Brooke attempted to create a special relationship with Cecil and the rest of the government during his imprisonment is clear from the imploring letters he wrote in which he begged for mercy in the name of his sister Elizabeth, Cecil's deceased wife. Brooke's extra efforts to exculpate himself, and the fact that he had already incriminated his brother, make it possible that he made other attempts to shift the guilt from himself and onto Ralegh by supplying interested parties with the book against the royal title. We know from reports of the trial that the book against the Scottish claim had indeed ended up in Brooke's hands and that Brooke had, of course, denied reading beyond the heads of the chapters (f.296).

  19. The identification of a corpus of literature which was dangerous when linked to Ralegh in 1603, leads us to another candidate for the description 'Ralegh's Book', a text of Ralegh's own, written some ten years before the trial. This treatise, unpublished until 1960, was Ralegh's response to the same question of the Elizabethan succession which would not have helped his case in 1603. The paper bears the title 'Reasons why her majestie should not name her successour', 23 and as Ralegh's editor Pierre Lefranc has shown, it can be dated precisely to the eighth parliament of Elizabeth's reign in February 1593, at which time the succession debate was resuscitated effectively by M.P.s in the House of Commons (Lefranc, 1960). It was the level of aggressive debate at this time that prompted Ralegh to write his 'Reasons' why the queen should hesitate to name her successor. 24

  20. The policy of not naming a successor was one expression of the balance of power between England and Scotland. Denying James the assurance of succeeding to the English throne, had, as Ralegh presented it, strategic benefits. Though his accession to the English throne was, by most, taken for granted, relations between Elizabeth and James were balanced around the degree of menace Scotland appeared to pose to her English neighbour. Advice such as Ralegh's, which disempowered James, could easily be interpreted as anti-Jacobean. Of James, Ralegh wrote in the succession tract,

    if his title weare by confirmacion strenghtned, it might be suspected that hee would be less respective, more impacient, & the reddier to call in the asistance of forren princes to the great danger and vexacion of both her Majestie and the whole kingdome. 25

    Ralegh wrote in support of Elizabeth's laissez-faire attitude to the succession. He argued that naming a successor would give all discontented persons a focus and figurehead for rebellion, and that discussion 'amonge our sealvs' on the matter, he wrote, was foolhardy, as no one would make a wiser choice than the queen herself. The relevance of such a document to the 1603 trial is clear in the light of the other pieces of written evidence which were used to make a case for Ralegh's treason. Although Ralegh's authorship of this text is not mentioned in the surviving records of the trial, it seems to me pertinent to include it here with the suggestion that at the 'day of mart' – the death of Elizabeth – Ralegh's succession paper was remarketed for another royal reader.

  21. The succession literature which was named at the trial needed Ralegh's character and career fully to account for its relevance to the conviction for treason. Ralegh was forced to decry the 'paper accusations' brought against him, implying the flimsiness of the allegations (f.296v). Yet the organisation of personality and probability clinched in this textual evidence illustrates the substantiality of this proof of the defendant's intent: the significance is supplied through a reading of the temporality of these objects, their time, place, ownership and exchange. The importance of extrinsic evidence to the trial, evidence which was not inherent to Ralegh's alleged actions or words, was the product of a treason law in which guilt could be constructed and intention isolated.

  22. Many people, not just those in the courtroom at Winchester, have been persuaded of Ralegh's innocence by the harshness of Edward Coke's examination. Coke delivered Ralegh so many insults in the course of the trial that instead of being a deeply shameful experience, Ralegh's courtroom appearances were a unique public relations opportunity. Coke's maliciousness helped to define the notion of Ralegh's integrity. One account now in the State Papers tells how Coke lost the battle for popular sentiment:

    Mr Attorney made many overtures to bring Raleigh in disgrace...terming hym Spanishe Spye and Monster with an English face and Spanish heart, and the like, so long that at length calling hym base trash the standers by began to hyss and Mr Attorney to be something daunted. 26

    As one observer commented, 'whereas, when he saw Sir Walter Ralegh first, he was so led with the common hatred that he would have gone a hundred miles to see him hanged, he would, ere they parted, have gone a thousand to save his life' (Stebbing, 1891, 230). This is an extremely important feature of the trial, and the trial's existence in historical, biographical and legal literature has proved to be underpinned in Ralegh's favour by the fashioning of personalities in the course of the trial proceedings. The examiner's question 'Whoe is Sir Walter Rawleigh?' which elucidated the probability of his subversive intentions, is ironically replicated in Ralegh's posthumous status, so dramatically shaped by his trial in 1603.


  1. Ortelio Renzo to Giovanni Antonio Frederico, 31 January 1604. S[tate] P[apers] 146, no.37. For printed narrative accounts of Ralegh's trial see Edwards ed., 1868; Howell ed., 1816; Overbury, 1648; Anon, 1719; Matthews, 1660. Manuscript accounts are: B[ritish] L[ibrary] Harley MS 39, a commonplace book c.1621, containing a detailed transcript of the trial between fols 275-322v; BL Egerton MS 2877, fols 175-176v; SP 14/4, no.83, a transcript made in November 1603; SP 14/6, no.37, a letter dated 31 January 1604; National Library of Scotland, MS 5444.


  2. Confession of Charles and Thomas Markham, brothers to Sir Griffin, 15 August 1603. Salisbury, 1883-1976, xv, 232-33.


  3. According to John Bellamy, commentaries on the treason law which cited the appearance of an 'overt act' as necessary to the conviction, are based on a misreading of the Edwardian statute, where 'overt act' referred to another definition of treasonous offences, adhering to the king's enemies. Bellamy, 1979, 31.


  4. Cobham retold this statement in one of his testimonies and attributed it to Ralegh. SP 14/4, no.91.


  5. This syllogism was suggested by Lawrence Keymis who gave evidence on Ralegh's behalf. BL Harley MS 39, f.298. Attorney-General Coke used similar logic, see ibid, f.290.


  6. Bodleian Carte MS 205, f.131.


  7. BL Harley MS 39, f.277. For similar assumptions see also Bodleian Carte MS 205, f.132v. Hereafter references to the Harley manuscript will appear as a folio number in the text.


  8. Bodleian Carte MS 205, f.131.


  9. SP 14/4, no.83.


  10. See Cecil in Birch ed., 1848, iv, 13. Cited in Nicholls, 1995, 912.


  11. Bodleian Carte MS 205, fol.132v.


  12. SP 14/4, no.83.


  13. Ralegh says elsewhere that the book in question, written against the Scottish claim to the English throne, was inscribed by Burghley as having been given to him by 'Robert Savage'. In some manuscripts this name reads 'Snagge', and this is probably the correct form.


  14. SP 14/4, no.83.


  15. See Neale, 1953, 281-87, for thorough treatment of these parliaments and Snagge's parliamentary career.


  16. Ralegh's assessment of the book is BL Harley MS f.296, and Cobham's is reported by Lord Howard at f.297v.


  17. William Cecil's 'Private Papers' in BL Cotton MS Caligula B.V., contain many folios of notes and discussions about the title of Mary Queen of Scots to the English throne and the state of Scotland in general.


  18. Coke's distinctions between councillor and non-councillor were accurately based on the job description of a privy councillor at this time. Elizabethan proclamations against seditious books typically contain the instruction that any such books or libels should be placed into the hands of her privy councillors.


  19. William Udall to the king, 11 November 1603. Salisbury, xv, 281. See also 297, 329. See Handover, 1957, 126-33, for the way in which Arabella became a pawn in the settlement of the succession. Efforts to identify the book on the French claim have proved unsuccessful.


  20. BL Add MSS 28451 fol.41.


  21. SP 14/4, no.83.


  22. The possible connection between the book against James's title and Cecil's memorandum was noticed by Ralegh's Victorian biographer. See Edwards, 1868, i, 421.


  23. Archivist Samuel Adee, who took over from William Murdin, produced the earliest classification of the relevant pages at Hatfield in 1756. Adee dated the treatise 'ab. 1589' based on the internal evidence of King James's marriage. Adee gave Ralegh's accompanying letter the date 1600, and it is my contention that the next cataloguer, C.J. Stewart, realising the connection between the tract and the letter, transferred Adee's date of 1600 from the letter to the paper on the succession, and hence its place in the Cecil archives. My thanks to Robin Harcourt-Williams at Hatfield House for advice on the cataloguing history.


  24. In the accompanying letter to the queen, Ralegh indicated the speed with which he had reacted to events in parliament. He wrote, 'this being after one houres warninge, but one houres worke.' The letter is C[ecil] P[apers] 83, f.35.


  25. CP 139, f.139v.


  26. SP 14/6, no.37.


Works cited

Anon. 1719. The Tryal of Sir Walter Rawleigh kt. With His Speech on the Scaffold. London: J. Redmayne.

Bellamy, John. 1979. The Tudor Law of Treason. An Introduction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Birch, Thomas, ed. 1848. The Court and Times of James the First. 2 vols; Revised by Robert Folkstone-Williams. London: Henry Colbourne.

Bruce, John, ed. 1861. The Correspondence of King James VI of Scotland...during the Reign of Elizabeth. London: Camden Society.

Coote, Stephen. 1993. A Play of Passion: The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Macmillan.

Cunningham, Karen. 1992. '"A Spanish Heart in an English Body": The Ralegh Treason Trial and the Poetics of Proof.' Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22:3, 327-351.

Doleman, Robert [alias Robert Parsons]. 1594. A Conference About the Next Succession. Antwerp: Arnout Conincz.

Edwards, Edward, ed. 1868. The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Together with His Letters. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Handover, P. M. 1957. Arbella Stuart. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Holdsworth, William. 1925. A History of English Law. 9 vols. London: Methuen.

Howell, T. B., ed. 1816. A Complete Collection of State Trials. 21 vols. London: T. C. Hansard.

Lefranc, Pierre. 1960. 'Un Inédit de Ralegh sur la Succession.' Études Anglaises 13, 38-46.

Matthews, Tobie. 1660. A Collection of Letters made by Sir Tobie Matthews Kt. London: Henry Herringman.

Neale, J. E., 1934. Queen Elizabeth. London: Jonathan Cape.

Neale, J. E. 1953. Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments. London: Jonathan Cape.

Nicholls, Mark. 1995. 'Sir Walter Ralegh's Treason: A Prosecution Document.' English Historical Review 110:902-924.

Overbury, Thomas. 1648. The Arraignment and Conviction of Sir Walter Rawleigh. London: W. Wilson for A. Roper.

Rowse, A.L. 1955. 'Sir Walter Raleigh: Last of the Elizabethans'. In Listener, 7 July, 17-18.

Salisbury. 1883-1976. Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquis of Salisbury. 24 vols. London: Historical Manuscripts Commission.

Spedding, James, ed. 1861-74. The Life and Letters of Sir Francis Bacon. 7 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts.

Stebbing, William. 1891. Sir Walter Ralegh. A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thompson, Edward. 1935. Sir Walter Ralegh. The Last of the Elizabethans. London: Macmillan & Co.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. 1957. 'The Last of the Elizabethans: Sir Walter Ralegh.' In Historical Essays. London and New York: Macmillan & St Martin's Press, 103-107.

[Back to Contents] [Back to top of page]
Contents © Copyright Rosalind Davies 1999.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1999. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 4, Number 1, 1999.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 13 December 1999.