Britannia Biographies: Sir Walter Raleigh Part 14

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Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Christopher Smith

S I R      W A L T E R
 R A L E I G H
Part 14: Conflict with Essex

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of EssexConversations with Essex and Cecil now turned to an attack on Ferrol: an expedition known as 'The Islands' Voyage'. It was the last great sea-borne enterprise of the Elizabethan era as well as being its most chaotic. Again, a hundred ships set sail. The commanders were the same as the previous expedition to Cadiz and things did not start well. They hit a series of storms off the Bay of Biscay and were quickly scattered. Raleigh and Essex managed to head for port, but discovered that Howard and his squadron were off Corunna.

When the fleet eventually reformed, they again sailed to attack the Amada gathering at Ferrol, but Raleigh became separated from the main group and ended up chasing a imagined Amada to the Azores. Essex was furious and headed off in pursuit. At Flores, Raleigh was granted permission, by Essex, to reprovision his ships. Essex then sailed away but later got word to Sir Walter to join him in an attack on the Island of Fayal. Raleigh arrived at the given destination only to find Essex to be no-where in sight. He held off for his commander to appear, but enemy gunfire eventually forced him to act. When Raleigh landed on the reef and made for the shore, bullets were flying about him. He managed to attack the Spanish defenders and, though shot through the calf, captured the town. Too late to help, Essex finally arrived and, in his depressed state, found Raleigh's heroism a personal insult.

Essex demanded a court martial and Raleigh's death for a breach of order and articles. Raleigh protested his innocence and begged to defend himself as a principal commander under his lordship. The sacking of Fayal was, in effect, the reprovisioning of his crews, which is what Essex had ordered. A smarting Essex brought the meeting to a close and was rowed across to the town. Here he cashiered all of Raleigh's officers. Howard intervened and an ugly incident was narrowly avoided. Essex set about plundering Villa Franca and other islands in the Azores while Phillip II, ulcerous and close to death, decided to attack the unguarded England. A new Spanish Armada sailed up the Bay of Biscay through terrible storms but, fortunately, the enemy was dispersed and Essex and Raleigh were eventually able to return to Plymouth. The Queen vented her anger at Essex, but was not pleased with Raleigh either. The former never mentioned the sacking of Fayal to the monarch, yet it was the only success of the entire Islands Voyage.

Eventually, Essex was sent to Ireland in disgrace. Even his campaign there was a disaster. Having disobeyed the Queen's orders, their close relationship quickly began to fall apart and desperation led a bedraggled Essex to burst into the Queen's own bedchamber to explain his actions. The monarch was not impressed. She ordered the Privy Council to examine him and he was placed under house arrest. While Raleigh was still receiving favourable appointments, like the Governorship of Jersey, Essex was, apparently, on his way out. The Earl's paranoia, even pushed him into making treasonable contact with the Queen's possible successor, King James VI of Scotland and he later attempted to stage a coup to force the dismissal of his enemies. However, the Queen was alerted to Essex's plans and, after a short debacle on the Thames - during which shots were fired at Raleigh - the Earl was arrested at Essex House on the Strand and taken to the Tower. There followed a show trial for treason and he was quickly sentenced to death. Raleigh, as Captain of the Guard, attended his execution on Ash Wednesday 1601. Despite Essex declaring Raleigh to be a true servant of the Queen, the mob thought Sir Walter to be gloating over their hero's death and he was obliged to withdraw to the armoury.

Part 15: Out with the Old    Copyright ©1999, LLC