Welcome back to Nerds On Earth’s first summer serial, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh, Swashbuckling Bard! To catch you up: the year is 1603 and Queen Elizabeth has died. The succession is smooth, and James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England.
Our hero–the swashbuckling bard Sir Walter–has spent the previous decade robbing the Spanish blind on the high seas and searching for El Dorado in South America, but nobody is sure what Sir Walter’s role in the new regime will be. Concrete intelligence about the new king is scarce, and Ralegh has nothing to rely on but his steadfast wit and intelligence…
The Swashbuckling Bard, Part 5: Sunset
In the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death, many found it strange to be ruled by a king. Gloriana had reigned for almost 50 years—tens of thousands English men, women, and children had lived their whole lives under her reign, and few were old enough to remember the time of old Henry VIII.
This did not stop many of the Queen’s courtiers from fleeing (some even before she died) to the court of the new ruler, James VI of Scotland. They did not have to travel all the way to the harsh climes of the Scottish highlands, for James was already aware that he had been chosen as next in line to the English throne.
King James did not cut an impressive figure: his tongue was too large for his mouth, he constantly fidgeted with his hands, and seemed to bubble and tremble with nervous energy.
None of Elizabeth’s majesty and innate grandeur seemed to have been inherited by her distant Scottish cousin. He possessed cunning that belied his appearance, however, controlling the Scottish nobility with often-dubious accusations to destroy or fleece the aristocrats of their wealth. But the English blue bloods came anyway, eager to secure a spot in his court. All except Sir Walter Ralegh, that is.
Sir Walter was repulsed by the quick abandonment by the court toadies of the Virgin Queen and their equally quick pledges of loyalty to King James. He waited until James was almost to London before riding north to meet him.
James, deeply insecure in his new power, must have been threatened by the overpowering charm and confidence of Ralegh. (Sir Walter always rolled 20s on his diplomacy checks.) In fact, the King was already planning Ralegh’s downfall; Robert Cecil (Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and soon-to-be spymaster for James as well) had been writing to James for months of the supposed threat the adventurer posed to the King’s new reign. Cecil warned James of Ralegh’s possible atheism (an old rumor that had returned to haunt him) and that Ralegh was unsupportive of the new regime.
Sensing a chance for a public relations victory, James plotted Sir Walter’s removal as a potential threat and as a beloved hero who might distract from the King’s brilliance.
Ralegh was accused of treason for entertaining the idle talk of Lord Cobham, Robert Cecil’s own brother-in-law. Cobham had brooked negotiations with the foreign minister of the Netherlands (and, by extension, the Netherlands’ ally Spain) about placing a cousin of Elizabeth’s on the throne. Ralegh, hearing Cobham talk lightly of these negotiations and suspecting no actual rebellion, talked lightly about his friend about the future of England under the rule of a Scotsman and his swarms of hangers-on.
The King saw it differently, threw Ralegh into the Tower of London, and stripped him of all titles and honors. Ralegh’s trusting nature failed to understand the depth of the King’s animosity towards him. Intent on removing Ralegh from power and popularity, James engineered a show trial. During his “trial,” the obvious lack of evidence and Ralegh’s dignified defense turned the tables on James. Even the old claims of atheism were nothing more than hearsay, try as the King may to make Sir Walter look like an unrepentant pagan. Ralegh’s calm testimony and solemn dignity made him into a martyr, the last of the glorious Elizabethans, and guaranteed his lasting popularity.
King James faced a tough choice: execute, acquit, or imprison Sir Walter?
Executing the famous explorer so early in his reign might permanently ruin his public image among the common folk; acquitting Ralegh would let him walk free to stir up more trouble and become even more popular. Instead, Ralegh was granted a royal pardon the morning of his scheduled execution and spent the next dozen years in the Tower of London.
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In our final installment, Ralegh is given one last chance for adventure—a return to El Dorado, the City of Gold!