Sir Walter Ralegh's treason: a prosecution document.
Nicholls, Mark. The English Historical Review v.110 no.438. p902-925 . Sept. 1995.


The so-called Main plot of 1603, hatched by the Warden of the Cinque Ports, Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, and by his friend Sir Walter Ralegh, remains a puzzling affair, doubts surrounding its nature, purpose, even its existence. Down the years, government investigations into the conspiracy have been interpreted as, on the one hand, the hasty over-reaction of a nervous new king and administration to the merest expression of grumbling discontent. In an altogether more sinister light, they have been taken to represent a settling of scores between court factions, the final triumph of Sir Robert Cecil and the Howard family over increasingly isolated opponents. One particularly stubborn question concerns the extent of Ralegh's involvement: according to the authorities, Sir Walter was the prime mover, inspiring his colleague to the utmost villainy; but, as is well known, their charge was based on Cobham's testimony, always regarded as problematic.(1)

This air of mystery results in large measure from the loss of original documentation; there is, in particular, no surviving examination of Ralegh. To some degree, the same problem confronts those investigating the parallel Bye plot of Sir Griffin Markham and the priest William Watson, for not one of Markham's examinations is now extant. With the Bye, however, we at least have to hand the extensive, candid confessions of Watson, and of his associate Anthony Copley.(2) For the Main there is nothing comparable. Reference can, indeed, be made to reports of Ralegh's trial, at Winchester Castle on 17 November 1603, for summaries of vanished testimony.(3) That, though, is to depend upon hasty notes, taken down by reporters as evidence was presented, notes then frequently recast in neat copy by others not themselves present at the arraignment. Such a transmission offers ample scope for confusion.

In contrast, this present document, the most comprehensive manuscript of its kind relating to the Main treason, permits us to see at first hand the government's case against Ralegh and Cobham as it was measured and worked through.(1) The document has been bound with miscellaneous papers concerning the family of another Bye conspirator, Thomas, Lord Grey of Wilton, in Bodleian Library MS Carte 205, among the collections of the eighteenth-century historian Thomas Carte.(2) Its provenance is, fortunately, well documented. Carte acquired the manuscript from the papers of Philip, fourth Lord Wharton. Wharton's wife was the granddaughter and heiress of Grey's half-sister. The Whartons had in turn received it, together with related material, from the second Earl of Bridgwater in 1651. At that time, the family was attempting to recover estates which, having passed after Grey's attainder to the dukes of Buckingham, had now fallen again into the state's hands. At the least, it had hoped to secure compensation for Grey's `unjust' conviction from a presumably sympathetic authority; Grey, like Ralegh, might plausibly be represented during the Commonwealth as a victim of arbitrary Stuart government.(3) Papers gathered to contest this case together form a most important new source for the Bye and Main treasons.(4)

There is every indication that these papers had been in Bridgwater's family since 1603. While the hand in the present document cannot as yet be identified conclusively, many pages are annotated and corrected by the second Earl's grandfather, Thomas Egerton, created Lord Chancellor and Baron of Ellesmere in July 1603, and appointed Lord Steward for the trials of both Cobham and Grey. Ellesmere, characteristically, took his duties very seriously. On account of his forthcoming `judicial' role, he was not closely involved with investigations into the treasons. Nevertheless, surviving papers display his keen interest in the prosecution, an interest also evident in his apprehension of Cobham's lawyer, William Gosnall, and steward, Richard Mellersh, during October 1603.(1) Annotations in the document below show him taking a precise, objective view of the evidence. He is impatient with vague chronology, and aware of the prosecution's obligation to demonstrate the strength of Cobham's self-condemnatory accusation of Ralegh. Ellesmere also finds persuasive those rather tenuous proofs which reinforce Cobham's evidence by demonstrating that the treason had been planned by both suspects, long before.(2)

This may not have been the only paper of its kind prepared for the Lord Steward. A somewhat similar document was, apparently, drawn up by Ellesmere's `secretary', one Buck.(3) We know too that the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, following council directions, briefed Ellesmere early, in November on the prosecution cases against all those due to be arraigned over the following weeks.(4) The present document is indeed complemented in MS Carte 205 by a similar analysis, in the same hand, of the cases against Lord Grey and the Bye plotters.(5) Both pieces appear from the occasional correction to be clean copies, compiled by one with access to all testimony then available. Repetition of entire paragraphs when appropriate to the presentation of a particular case suggests that the document was intended as a working paper, rather than as a literary exercise for circulation among interested parties. In the text, no mention is made of any examination after 14 September.(6) Only Ellesmere in his annotations refers to the discovery, late in October, of clandestine correspondence between Cobham and Mellersh,(7) and there is no hint that either scribe or Ellesmere is aware of Cobham's important November testimony, discussed below. This would seem to suggest that the paper was compiled during the pre-trial period, perhaps as part of the October briefings.

If the document thus represents a polished summary of the cases against both suspects, how far do its contents help our understanding of Ralegh's involvement? Certainly, they provide interesting new detail on the course of his examinations through August, and permit us to appreciate the weight of evidence against him. Coke probably held a very similar paper in his hand when he addressed the court at Winchester. His many biographers have almost to a man limited consideration of the case against Ralegh to an examination of his trial, and have come away either persuaded of injustice or, while conceding the folly of some of Ralegh's actions in 1603, still unable to gauge the extent of his treason.(1) Winchester, though, saw Coke, never particularly adroit as prosecutor, deliver a poor presentation of the Crown's case. By exchanging insults with the prisoner, by permitting him to exercise his eloquence on the most public of stages, and by opposing any move to allow Cobham to testify against his alleged associate, Coke turned Ralegh - literally overnight - from villain into hero.

The Carte manuscript reminds us that there were, by early seventeenth-century standards, strong cases against both Main suspects. Evidence against Ralegh, though not without its weaknesses, is more convincing than that against the accused Bye plotter Sir Edward Parham, whose acquittal two days earlier may well have set a standard for both commissioners and jury.(2) Even in major treason trials, juries were never mere tools of government. That his jurymen declined to acquit Ralegh is not without significance.(3) Through painstaking classification, the Carte manuscript also helps us distinguish the basis of evidence upon which the indictment was constructed. In terms of content, manuscript and indictment are closely related. According to both, Cobham and Ralegh stood accused of conspiring to foment rebellion and of inviting foreign invasion, intending by these means to depose and kill James I, murder his family, and establish Arabella Stuart on the throne in his place. They were charged with soliciting enormous sums of money from Spain - 500,000 or 600,000 crowns - through the mediation of Charles de Ligne, Count of Aremberg, an old friend of Cobham who, in the summer of 1603, arrived in England as a special ambassador, sent by Archduke Albert to congratulate James on his accession.(1)

Cobham, so ran the indictment, had proposed to travel during the summer, the better to secure this money. He had planned to visit, first Brussels, then Spain, returning home via Jersey, where Ralegh held the governorship. There, safe from discovery, the two conspirators would have been in a position to discuss appropriate investments of available resources. Any sums raised were, it was alleged, to have been used in furthering discontent, as opportunity arose.(2) While the indictment is as usual a bald catalogue of crime, the present manuscript, in providing separate cases against each suspect, emphasizes the importance of one particular confession, made by Cobham on 20 July, to the charge against Ralegh. The nature of evidence emerging that day has been oddly garbled in trial reports.(3) As is now apparent, Cobham's accusations were presented at Ralegh's arraignment in the form of a `certificate' from examining councillors, and a separate `affirmacion' from the Lord Chief justice, Sir John Popham.

A glance at the course of investigations into the Main will confirm that the evidence secured on 20 July for months represented a high-water mark in attempts to construct a case against Ralegh. The existence of a Main plot first emerged on 18 July, from testimony provided by Cobham's brother George Brooke, himself involved in the Bye. Brooke having already incriminated his brother in the latter conspiracy, both were then undergoing systematic examination. His knowledge limited to details confided by Cobham, however, Brooke had played no direct part in the Main. A though condemning his brother, his allegations amounted only to unsatisfactory hearsay where they touched upon Ralegh.(4) Nevertheless, with the close friendship between Ralegh and Cobham common knowledge, they nurtured existing suspicions. Sir Walter, already questioned on the basis of that friendship about Cobham's recent behaviour, aggravated doubts over his loyalty by, in rapid succession, denying all knowledge of Cobham's schemes, informing the Council of suspicions newly bred in his mind, and assuring Cobham that he had revealed nothing capable of sinister construction. First examined on 16 July, Cobham in a series of interrogations was brought to confess more and more details of his own plot against the King, yet not until the twentieth did he specifically accuse Ralegh. That day, confronted with evidence of Sir Walter's double-dealing, he furiously denounced his friend, only to retract every word when reason returned.(1) Having once withdrawn his fleeting accusation of Ralegh, Cobham remained resolute for many months.(2) Examinations continued, indictments were drawn, the law term postponed and removed to Winchester on account of plague in the capital; but all the while, as the Carte manuscript shows, the key evidence detailing Ralegh's supposed crime remained this curious, retracted testimony. His few, relatively inconsequential, confessions noted in the manuscript suggest that Ralegh himself proved obdurate when confronted by his inquisitors. In October, Cobham even wrote and smuggled letters of exoneration to Sir Walter while they were both imprisoned in the Tower.(3) One of these Ralegh produced at the bar, only to find such apparently conclusive evidence negated by still another, more recent deposition by Cobham, made after his arrival in Winchester. Of the latter, more later.

The Carte manuscript does, however, have limitations. Important as it is in establishing Ralegh's guilt at law, we cannot claim that it defines the extent of his treason. If drawn up in October 1603, before the trials, it tells only part of the story. To answer the question. What did Ralegh do?' we must look, not so much at interrogations in July and August, nor yet at the reasoned case arrived at with the drawing of indictments, nor even at his trial, but rather at the whole course of events in Winchester. Cobham's testimony is, again, crucial. When, eventually, he does accuse Ralegh once more, his charges are significantly recast. Once at Winchester, Cobham sent word to the commissioners, expressing a willingness to tell the truth. Subsequently, he provided the required written confirmation of previous statements, ahead of Ralegh's trial.

Even in this letter, however, there is a shift in Cobham's position, obscured by confusion in court over the manifest incompatibilities between his communications to Ralegh and to the lords. Setting aside all fulminations against Sir Walter's inconstancy, the letter's specific charges against Ralegh are, first, that he had urged Cobham to mediate with Aremberg in order to secure an annual pension of 1,500 [pounds] for foreign intelligence; secondly, that `coming from Greenewich one night' he had transmitted information on `what was agreed upon betwixt the King and Low Countrymen, for communication to Aremberg; and thirdly, that he had been the first and only cause of Cobham's discontent, instigating communication with Aremberg, while sparing no opportunity to aggravate his friend's disaffection.(1) This is far from the involved tale of conspiracy contained in Cobham's confessions allegedly made on 20 July, but there seems little doubt that the court either accepted assertions in the letter as an elaboration of previous testimony, or that, ignoring content, it focused only on the fact of denunciation.

Following the unsatisfactory proceedings on 17 November, the trials of Cobham and Grey were postponed, apparently to allow further questioning.(2) Examined on 22 November, Cobham provided further detail on the discussions that had followed Ralegh's evening arrival from the court at Greenwich, mentioned in his recent letter. Something had clearly occurred that day to raise in Sir Walter a violent fury: the sort of anger that breeds indiscretion. Though the provocation is now uncertain, Sir Walter appears to have cast all blame on Cecil's head; according to Cobham he had arrived full of discontent uppon certeine woords that that day as he sayed had passed betwen the lord Cecill and him'.(3) This discontent, as we might expect with Ralegh, had soon found expression. Cobham declared that Sir Walter had wasted no time in prompting him to negotiate with Aremberg,that he should doe best to advertise and advise the king of Spaine to send an armie against England to Milford Haven'. Fears of a Spanish descent on Milford Haven had, of course, haunted English governments over the past two decades; a mere reference to the place was sufficient to raise legions of unquiet ghosts. According to Cobham, Ralegh had resolved upon the bold approach. `Many more', Sir Walter had growled, `had been hanged for words then for dedes.'(4) No such specific accusation had been made at Ralegh's trial. Arguing that an undated `abstract' of the treasons, compiled by Coke, shows the Milford Haven evidence to have been known to the authorities as early as August, Ralegh's biographer Edward Edwards failed to observe that the passage relating to Milford Haven is a later alteration, the document as originally compiled carrying the charge set out in both indictment and Carte manuscript. For all his failings on the day, we cannot doubt that Coke, armed with so damning an accusation, would have used it at Winchester to telling effect.(5)

Cobham's (22) November confession goes on to repeat the story of the Spanish pension in virtually the same terms employed in his earlier letter.

(1.) For an outline of the 1603 treasons, see Samuel Rawson Gardiner, History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603-1642, (10 vols., London, 1883-4), i. 116-40. On the case against Cobham, see also Mark Nicholls, `Two Winchester Trials: The Prosecution of Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, and Thomas Lord Grey of Wilton, 1603', Historical Research, lxviii (1995), 26-48.

(2.) See M. A. Tierney (ed.), Dodd's Church History of England ... from the Commencement of the Sixteenth Century to the Revolution in 1688 (5 vols., London, 1839-43), iv, App. i, pp. xxi-xxii, xxv-xxvi.

(3.) Ralegh's is one of the most thoroughly examined trials in English history. For narrative accounts, see (among others) David Jardine, Criminal Trials (2 vols., London, 1832-5), i. 389-520; Edward Edwards, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh ... Together with his Letters: Now First Collected (2 vols., London, 1868), i. 383-439; B[ritish] L[ibrary], Harley MS 39, fos. 275-322v; T.B. Howell and others (ed.), A Complete Collection of State Trials ... (34 vols., London, 1809-28), ii, cols. 1-31; P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice], S[tate] P[apers], 12/278/102, 14/4/83, 14/6/37, 46/61, fos. 29-40; The Arraignment and Conviction of Sir Walter Rawleigh ... Coppied by Sir Thomas Overbury (London, 1648), pp. 1-25; Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS 538/36, fos. 273-313; A Collection of Letters Made by Sir Tobie Mathews Kt ... (London, 1660), pp. 2279-86; National Library of Scotland, MS 5444; BL, Egerton MS 2877, fos. 176-7. For published work on the trial, see Christopher M. Armitage, Sir Walter Ralegh, An Annotated Bibliography (Chapel Hill, NC, 1987), chs. and 3; cf. Karen Cunningham in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, xxii (1922), 327-51.

(1.) Other surviving analyses of the cases are either shorter (PRO, SP 14/4/80) or less wide-ranging (SP 14/3/54).

(2.) Although deeply implicated in the Bye, Grey all along distrusted his Catholic allies, eventually withdrawing from the conspiracy to advance his own independent treason: see Nicholls, `Two Winchester Trials,' 29-32.

(3.) See Bodleian, MS Carte 77, fos. 75, 80v; Carte 15, fos. 74-90. The document printed infra is item marked `DD', in the inventory of borrowed papers drawn up on 22 Dec. 1651 (MS Carte 125, fo. 11). Another sister had married Ellesmere's cousin, Sir Roland Egerton. That side of the family had been compensated by Buckingham years earlier.

(4.) The Wharton case papers collected in 1651 can be found scattered through Bodleian, MSS Carte 77, 80, 125, and 205.

(1.) For Ellesmere, see Louis A. Knafla, Law and Politics in Jacobean England: The Tracts of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere (Cambridge, 1977), esp. pp. 1-64. For evidence of Ellesmere' enthusiasm for his task, see Bodleian, MS Carte 125, fos. 66, 67 (draft, revised by Ellesmere, of sentence of death to be passed upon both peers, possibly indicating that at one stage before 19 November a joint trial as under consideration, cf. PRO, KB8/58, mm. 22, 23), 68v. For Gosnall and Mellersh, see Hatfield [House], MSS 101/165, 103/5; Bodleian, MS Carte 125, fos. 5, 7, 58.

(2.) Infra, pp. 913, 915, 916, 917, 920. At least one reporter caught the significance of such accusations: see PRO, SP 14/6/37.

(3.) This cannot at present be traced. The surviving outline of its contents does not seem to describe the Carte manuscript: J. Hughes and W. Kennett (ed.), A Complete History of England (London, 1706), ii. 663n; Howell, State Trials, ii, col. 45. No, `Buck' appears on the check-roll of Ellesmere's household in 1603: Huntington Library, MS EL 290. It is more likely that he was a legal officer of some kind. I am grateful to Dr Mary Robertson for her efforts to track the man down.

(4.) PRO, SP 14/4/43-4; Bodleian, MS Carte 125, fo. 5.

(5.) Ibid., MS Carte 205, fos. 116-26; item 3, marked `CC' in the Wharton inventory (MS Carte 125, fo. 11).

(6.) Reference is made to an undated letter from Cobham to the King (PRO, SP 14/4/37; infra, p. 917), which might post-date mid-September. This, though, is far from certain. (7.) Ibid., SP 14/4/36. See infra, p. 917.

(1.) For all the detailed exploration of Ralegh's literary achievement by Pierre Lefranc and others, the present century has not witnessed comparable advances in the study of Ralegh as politician. Much yet rests on the work of Edwards, and of William Stebbing in Sir Walter Ralegh: A Biography (Oxford, 1891-9), the first flawed by its excessive sympathy for Ralegh, the second by an absence of precise references. The numerous popular biographies have made little or no attempt to re-evaluate the accounts of Ralegh's fall presented by Edwards and Stebbing.

(2.) For Parham's case, see Mark Nicholls, `Treason's Reward: The Punishment of Conspirators in the Bye Plot of 1603' Historical Journal, forthcoming.

(3.) On jury acquittals, see John Bellamy, The Tudor Law of Treason (London, 1979), pp. 171-3.

(1.) Ralegh, on trial, claimed that the correspondence between Cobham and Aremberg had continued for seven years, with the approval of Queen and Council. At least a year before the Queen's death Cobham was thought to favour peace with Spain: Overbury's Trial of Ralegh, p. 10; Edwards, Life and Letters of Ralegh, ii. 439-40. (2.) For the indictment, PRO, KB8/58, m. 15; for a summary of the official process in KB8, see Public Record Office Deputy Keepers Fifth Report (London, 1844), App. 2, pp. 135-9.

(3.) Notably in Howell, State Trials, ii, cols 10-12, but nowhere are the details properly explained.

(4.) PRO, SP 14/2/59, 64; Nicholls, 'Treason's Reward', 37-8. Brooke was first arrested on 14 July.

(1.) See infra, p. 919. Cecil concedes as much during August (T. Birch [ed.], The Court and Times of James the First, based on Birch's collection of letters, further edited by R.F. Williams [2. vols., London, 1848], i. 14), and in this respect Cobham's confessions on 13 August refer merely to Ralegh's acceptance of a Spanish pension, to further the peace'; PRO, SP 14/3/24.

(2.) For the course of Cobham's examination, see Nicholls, 'Two Winchester Trials', 37-40. On 7 September 1603 William Waad mentions Cobham's resolve to admit nothing further: PRO, SP 14/3/63.

(3.) The date of this exchange may be established by Sir George Harvey's letter to Cecil of 17 December 1603. This enclosed a letter which Cobham had written to Harvey, expressing remorse for having falsely accused Ralegh. According to Harvey, he had received Cobham's letter on 24 October Hatfield, MSS 102/76, 77; Edwards, Life and Letters of Ralegh, ii. 483-5. One account dates Cobham's last letter vindicating Ralegh to about 4 November: Pierre LeFranc, `Ralegh in 1596 and 1603: Three Unprinted Letters in the Huntington Library', Huntington Library Quarterly, xxix (1965-6), 339-40, 344-5.

(1.) PRO, SP 14/4/451, 771; BL, Harley MS 39, fo. 320v; Edwards, Life and Letters of Ralegh, i. 431-2.

(2.) Bodleian, MS Carte 80, fo. 623v; Northants RO, IC 3481. It may be that the dates for the peers' trials were only settled finally on 19 November: PRO, KB8/58, mm. 17-27.

(3.) The French ambassador writes of Ralegh's fury at his dismissal from the captaincy of the guard in late April: Gardiner, History of England, i. 94-5n. While Cecil certainly bore the brunt of that outburst, it would appear to be a little early for the incident referred to by Cobham.

(4.) PRO, SP 14/4/91.

(5.) Edwards, Life and Letters of Ralegh, i. 439, ii, 462-3; PRO, SP 14/4/80.


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