Grapple with the character of Sir Walter Raleigh and you’ll find him difficult to pin down. He displays so many facets, and inspired so many myths in later centuries. Some of the changes came with age of course: you go from disgust at the monstrous cruelty he seems to have displayed as a young officer in Ireland to admiration for the coolness he famously exhibited when facing death on the scaffold.
The Virgin Queen had been compared to a goddess and enjoyed royal ceremony whereas the new king hated formality. He was irritated by the swarms of eager crowds, who as a courtier explained, simply wanted to gaze on his face as he rode in his carriage. ‘God’s wounds! I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse,’ was his famous reply.
“I give not a turd for your preaching,” in response to a tedious sermon is another royal quote which has gained him immortality.
And if complaints about foreign influence on election results are what makes headlines today you can be sure that it was no different in 1618. For ‘Russian’ substitute ‘Spanish’: Count Gondomar, Madrid’s ambassador in London, pictured above, was seen as the evil influence behind King James’s signing of Raleigh’s death-warrant.
‘The devil in a dung-cart’ was how the ambassador was memorably described in 1621 by a London apprentice who saw him proceeding down Fenchurch Street.
The fear of terrorism funded by foreign powers was as widespread in the 17th century as it is today. After all, the best known of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the Catholic Guido Fawkes, had adopted his name while fighting for the Spanish against Dutch Protestants in the Low Countries.
In 1603, two years before the Plot was discovered, three of the conspirators, including Fawkes, had travelled to Spain in the hope of persuading the new King, Philip III, to attempt a new invasion of England following the failed 1588 Armada, although their efforts were unsuccessful; Spanish policy towards England had changed and peaceful overtures were being made, at least at government level. But in the popular mind, Spain and the Pope were still in league with the Devil against Protestantism.
Twin images: United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks of 2011, alongside
A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham
Image source: Wikipedia
The way in which such events as the Gunpowder Plot and Raleigh’s trial and execution were handled in news reports of the time was of course very different from today. Press freedom did not exist, and offenders were punished by the authorities with imprisonment, fines or corporal mutilation.
Not until the 1640s were there the beginnings of a campaign against censorship with the Puritan Revolution and the publication of John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644.
Hundreds of inflammatory and explicit early Stuart political pamphlets survive in close to 10,000 contemporary manuscript copies, writes Dr Noah Millstone, of the University of Birmingham, in what he describes as ‘a shocking sum’.
Shortly after Raleigh’s execution the Government of King James published a justification of its actions. This was no mere hurriedly printed political pamphlet; it was, as the University of Rochester’s Joseph Frank puts it, an excellent printing job consisting of 68 pages of superior typography, paper and ink – ‘the government's weighty effort to show that Sir Walter's martyr's robe was really only sheep's clothing’.
The full title was A/ Declaration/ of the Demea/nor and Cariage of/ Sir Walter Raleigh,/ Knight, as well in his Voyage, as/ in, and sithence his Returne;/ And of the true motiues and ìnduce/ments which occasioned His Maiestie/to Proceed in doing lustice upon him,/ as hath bene done.
The Declaration was no doubt countered by less professionally produced publications which gave the opposite view. One of them, ‘Vox Spiritus or Sir Walter Raleigh’s Ghost’, pictured above, was a handwritten pamphlet, conserved at Trinity College Dublin. It was produced in 1620 to promote the ideals of the late Sir Walter, namely the mistrust of Catholicism and all things Spanish. After Raleigh's execution in 1618 the King of Spain, the Pope and the Devil were seen as conspirators in a new version of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
‘Raleigh’s Ghost’, explains Trinity College’s archivist Estelle Gittins, imagines a meeting between Gondomar and a Jesuit priest on 20 November 1620 which is interrupted by the apparition of Raleigh who calls upon officials to defend England against the spread of ‘popery’. The vengeful ghost pointing an accusing finger at its quaking murderer is a classic dramatic device which crops up in contemporary tragedies. The pamphlet was only available in manuscript form until it was published in 1983.
Scott eventually fled to Utrecht to continue his anti-Spanish writings and was assassinated in 1626 by John Lambert, a mentally unbalanced English soldier who supposedly both admitted under torture that he had been ‘hired for money to do it’ but at the same time asserted that he was 'never hyred or induced by the perswasions of any priest, Jesuit, or other person to attempt that bloudy act.'
Fifteen years later, thanks due in part no doubt to the spread of such hispanophobic literature, the same writer stated: ‘No measure of James's reign was attended with more public dissatisfaction than the punishment of Sir Walter Raleigh.’
Fake news would of course be allowed.