Trial of Walter Raleigh
With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the fortunes of Walter Raleigh plummeted once more – his was certainly not a life of steady calm. King James wished to halt his new kingdom’s conflict with Spain, and Raleigh who had been a lifelong nuisance to the Spanish – in South America, in the fight against the Armada , in taking Cadiz – was sacrificed to that end.
Strangely Raleigh was brought down for supposedly, and very improbably, having conspired in the Main Plot with Lord Cobham, sponsored by the Spanish, whose aim had been to kill King James before he was crowned, and replace him with Lady Arabella Stuart.
Raleigh was tried in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. There can be little doubt that any defence he put up would always have been in vain. This was a special commission of oyer and terminer, called to hear a case of treason against the king’s person. Five judges and seven King’s Counsel sat in the panel. The jury had been selected in London and brought to Winchester, and even if they had not been directly coerced, the jury members knew it would have been extraordinarily unwise to find the defendant not guilty.
Sir Edward Coke led the prosecution, and for want of evidence often descended into mere invective against the prisoner. Raleigh’s main accuser, Cobham, had neither sworn on oath when he gave evidence, nor signed his confession implicating Raleigh. And the court obstinately refused to have Cobham brought to court, saying it was against the King’s interest. The only witness called, a merchant named Dyer, gave hearsay evidence of something he had been told in Lisbon by someone who had seemingly been told it themselves.
In spite of the lack of evidence, and Raleigh’s brilliant and often witty defence, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial had run from eight in the morning to midnight, yet the jury felt able to reach a verdict in just 15 minutes. James, however, perhaps fearing the reaction to what would have been judicial murder, had Raleigh put in The Tower instead, where he languished for some 13 years.
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