Nerds On Earth is pleased to bring you the final installment in our summer serial, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Over the past few months, we’ve explored Ralegh’s ascent to international fame fighting for the English Crown around Europe, befriending Queen Elizabeth, exploring the New World, and becoming an infamous enemy of pomp, aristocratic entitlement, and Spaniards the globe over.
When we consider his deep intellect and unquenchable curiosity about the world, Sir Walter becomes the perfect historical template for any D&D party’s bard slot.
The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh Part 6: The Last Crusade
The years Ralegh spent in the Tower of London were very long. No longer a young man, Sir Walter suffered from ill health throughout the dozen years he spent in the moist and drafty rooms of his prison.
Though his wanderings through the world had stopped, his intellectual journeys never ceased—in fact, Ralegh’s intellectual and academic output reached fever pitch during his years in the Tower. He continued to write poetry; his gigantic Historie of the World consumed most of his waking hours; and he wrote treatises on sailing, navigation, shipbuilding, science, and medicine. Visiting the Tower of London to catch a glimpse of the last and most fabulous of the Elizabethans on his daily walk became part of every well-to-do tourist’s itinerary.
King James’ eldest son and the heir to the British throne, Henry IX, was drawn to his father’s old enemy, much to James’ rage. “Rawly,” as the Scottish king and his son called Sir Walter, took Prince Hal under his wing and tutored him in many subjects, building him models of ship design and offering him advice on a variety of subjects.
The prince was disgusted by his father’s idiosyncrasies and became the hope of the English populace. As an intelligent and upright young man he seemed to hold the promise of a distinct change from James’ slyness and rumor-laden personal life.
King James, completely aware of the poor comparison he made against Ralegh, could only watch as Henry came to love Ralegh’s company as a son loves a father. Prince Hal demanded Ralegh’s release from the Tower as soon as he came of age in 1612, but died under mysterious circumstances before Sir Walter could be freed. As all of England mourned the early death of the promising Hal, Ralegh’s hopes of freedom vanished.
A few years later, James began to reconsider Ralegh’s constant stories of Guiana and the gold and riches he could find there. He released Sir Walter from the Tower in 1616 on these conditions: find the mythical gold mines, and do so without attacking the Spanish. If he could complete this mission, he would be a free man again.
Ralegh leapt at the chance to escape his hated prison and prove the truth of El Dorado. This time, he took his oldest son Wat and long-time friend Lawrence Keymis with him on his voyage to the New World.
This second expedition to the city of gold was a disaster from the start. Returning to lands and native tribes friendly to him years before, Ralegh found the Spanish in huge numbers, with forts built all along the northeastern South American coast. One of these, Santo Tomé de Guayana, was built on the Orinoco River—the very river Sir Walter had explored during the reign of Elizabeth.
Keymis, leading Wat and a company of men separate from the main group, discovered the Spanish outpost and attempted an attack. The Spanish repelled them and, in the hail of gunfire raining from the fort, Wat was killed. Ralegh himself was back on the coast, suffering from a strange sickness that barred him from exploring the Orinoco himself. Keymis returned to Ralegh empty-handed in more ways than one; he had failed to find the fabled El Dorado or any gold mines and had to break the news to Sir Walter of his oldest son and namesake’s death.
Ralegh knew that his last chance at freedom was over. His men had attacked the Spanish—the one rule he could not break—and no gold had been discovered. Sir Walter returned home a broken man.
The Spanish ambassador at King James court howled for Ralegh’s death, and James granted his wish. He had finally trapped Ralegh, this old soldier, this brash, brave old man who had lost almost everything he loved in service of his country. Once again finding no suitable evidence with which to condemn Ralegh, the King’s commission fell back on the old accusations of 1603 with a beautiful and terrible declaration: “You have lived like a star, at which the world hath gazed. And like a star you must fall, when the firmament is shaked.”
Sir Walter, who could have found shelter and a hero’s welcome in the royal courts of France, Venice, or Holland, did not attempt to escape the King’s sentence; his pride could not allow it.
Sir Walter Ralegh was executed in front of an innumerable crowd on October 29, 1618.
The executioner’s hands shook as he lowered the axe to Ralegh’s neck and had to reset twice, prompting Ralegh to exclaim, “What dost fear? Strike, man, strike!”
The crowd, full of people who had heard tales of this last Elizabethan’s heroism and dignity for decades, watched the execution silently. The executioner grabbed Ralegh’s head by the hair and held it up to display to the people, too overcome with shame to cry out the usual, “This is the head of a traitor!” In the silence, a call rang out from the crowd, “We have not another such head to be cut off!”
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If you are interested in finding out more about Sir Walter Ralegh, check out this excellent biography by one of Ralegh’s descendents. He’s a great side character in the second book of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls’ Trilogy. Better yet, read some of Sir Walter’s poetry!
I’d also like to take a second to thank everybody who has read and (hopefully) enjoyed this series. Nerds on Earth is a site dedicated to passionate fandoms and general nerdery, and it’s been a real pleasure digging into some new areas of nerdish interest. If you’re interested in seeing more historical nerdery like this, let us know!