On 29th October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed after being accused of plotting against King James I. His fortunes, once well in favour with the royal court, had fallen to the chopping block. During the Tudor times in which he lived, such dramatic reverses were not uncommon.
To begin with Raleigh, if you look at his earlier life at court, his eventual fall from grace once seemed unthinkable. Born to a well-connected gentry’ family at Hayes Barton in Devon in 1552, Raleigh was a renowned explorer. In 1578 he made his first exhibition to America, and in 1585 he attempted to set up the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina). This attempt failed, as did others, but Raleigh was successful in introducing both potatoes and tobacco back to Britain.
Raleigh became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I in 1580, after helping to suppress an uprising in Ireland. He was knighted and appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard in 1587. However, in 1592, Raleigh was to trigger his own downfall when he secretly married one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. The queen was intensely jealous, and threw both Raleigh and his wife into the Tower of London. After eventually gaining a plea for release, Raleigh soon set off on another expedition, this time to find the fabled land of gold, El Dorado. The trip inevitably failed, doing little to improve his standing in court.
When Elizabeth’s successor, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, came to the throne, it was clear that he and Raleigh would never get on; unsurprisingly, this would have worse consequences for Raleigh. In 1603 James accused him of plotting against him and sentenced Raleigh to death. The sentence was not immediately carried out, though, and he spent the next 12 years back in the Tower of London. Indeed, the need for funds then saw King James releasing Raleigh on the understanding he would try to find El Dorado again. However, Raleigh went against James’s orders and attacked the Spanish instead. Raleigh’s death sentence was reinstated, and after his recapture, on 29th October 1618 he was executed.
Sir Walter Raleigh was not the first Tudor favourite to be the most popular member of the Royal court one minute and in fear of their lives the next. One of the most famous falls from grace of all has to be that of Anne Boleyn. After a spectacular rise to prominence, her presence brought about both the divorce of the king, Henry VIII, from Catherine of Aragon, and the dissolution of the monasteries. Again there were to be grave consequences, including Anne’s decline from favour, which was to be no less dramatic than her rise.
Towards the end of January, 1536, Anne Boleyn miscarried a child, only three months into her pregnancy. Henry complained, ‘I see that God will not give me male children’ (Doran, 178). This statement signalled the beginning of the end of the royal marriage, and coincide with Henry moving his latest mistress, Jane Seymour, into the royal apartments.
Anne’s fall was ensured when she began to involve herself in political matters, particularly the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne argued with Thomas Cromwell, the man who was trying to organise the dissolution for the king. Cromwell insisted on filling the King’s depleted coffers with church money, while taking a cut for himself. Anne however, advocated that revenues taken from the church to be distributed to charitable and educational institutions. Unfortunately for Anne, she couldn’t deliver on her political promises or expectations, and Henry used this, as well as rumours of an affair she probably wasn’t having, to dispose of her. Ironically, it was only a matter of time before Thomas Cromwell himself also fell from grace.
After his skillful handing of making sure Henry could divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell gained high favour with the king. He became Principal Secretary in 1534, and in July 1536, he was appointed Lord Privy Seal; one of the most influential and trusted positions in court. However, only four years later, Cromwell was arrested for treason- a crime historians can find no evidence of him committing. It is uncertain what happened to spark Cromwell’s demise. It is possible that it was triggered after he arranged Henry VIII’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. The marriage was meant to help form a closer alliance between England and the Protestant princes in Northern Germany. Although it was a disaster, Henry made Cromwell the Earl of Essex to thank him for arranging it for him. Unfortunately, the influential Duke of Norfolk took exception to a commoner being made an earl; Norfolk appears to have orchestrated Cromwell’s end by introducing his niece, the nineteen year old Catherine Howard, to Henry. Her beauty beguiled the king, and soon Catherine was providing the Duke of Norfolk with greatly increased influence in court.
The Duke of Norfolk convinced Henry that Cromwell was plotting to bring in a full version of Protestantism to England despite knowing that the king was adamantly against this. Believing himself in love with Catherine, and wanting to keep in favour with her family, Henry no longer listened to Cromwell. So, after further persuasion from Norfolk, Henry had Cromwell arrested, and only one month later, on July 28th 1540, he, like Raleigh and Boleyn, was executed.
Raleigh, Boleyn and Cromwell were only three of the era’s many high status figures who found favour and distinction one moment, and the executioner’s block the next. In a time filled with paranoia and treachery, it was a brave man or woman who aimed to rise to the top.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.