Historic blunders

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Walter Ralegh (1552-1618), soldier, courtier, poet, wit, traveller, libertine, family man, all-time charmer and favourite of Elizabeth I, seemed to lose his touch after Elizabeth's cousin James I ascended the throne in 1603.

Ralegh found he had collected numerous enemies, who were pleased to produce evidence that he had used his Spanish connections in a plot to bring Arabella Stuart to the English throne instead of James. Accused of treason and confined to the Tower of London, Ralegh was left to immerse himself in poetry and his history of the world. During this time he attracted to his rooms many of the intellectuals of the age.

James I, by contrast, was an unattractive figure, ill at ease with his bisexual leanings, and Ralegh was a thorn in his side. Still, he was loath to deal with his distaste, particularly because Ralegh smartly befriended James's adored son Henry, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

Prince Henry, who was only nine years old when Ralegh was committed to the Tower, declared that no one but his father would keep such a bird in such a cage. Ralegh saw his chance in this relationship and he dedicated much of his writing to Henry. The boy was enthralled by Ralegh's tales of his adventures, particularly those in Guiana, and Ralegh's fortunes appeared to be looking up when Henry petitioned his father for the prisoner's release.

Unfortunately, Prince Henry died in 1612 while Ralegh was still in prison.

No one now stood between James and his dislike of Ralegh. But in a desperate bid for freedom, Ralegh promised James he would bring him a fortune in gold if the king would let him return to the Orinoco river (in what is now Venezuala). James was persuaded, so long as Ralegh undertook not to make any more trouble with the Spanish.

However, once again disaster struck. Ralegh's son and an aide, supposed to be helping to search for El Dorado, the mythical society of gold, were involved in an attack on a Spanish settlement.

Ralegh's son was killed in the encounter and the adventurer's return to England ended with James ordering him to be beheaded under that old sentence of treason he had evaded years before. Many have speculated that James had never forgiven him for alienating his own boy's affections.

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