Politics As Usual

It was on this day, 17 November in 1603, that Elizabethan politician, adventurer, explorer, and colonizer Sir Walter Raleigh went on trial for treason in the great hall of Winchester castle. The event is notable in that Raleigh was convicted and sentenced to death after a rather trumped up “show trial” in which little was proven even by the rather lax standards of Elizabethan/Jacobean political prosecutions. (The Tudors were very fond of making a public display of a treason trial under the guise of which they were able to eliminate political enemies. It is a pattern familiar to students of the Soviet Union in more modern times. The fact that little or no evidence might be brought into the case little mattered to the foregone conviction.)

Raleigh was a bit of a scamp and a rascal, and he had made many enemies over the years, including Queen Elizabeth herself. Though he eventually returned himself to her good graces, after her death in early 1603, his political enemies convinced the new King James to move forward with the prosecution.

James – a bit less sanguinary than his Tudor cousins – did not execute Raleigh’s sentence after the trial, but left him imprisoned in the Tower of London for the next 13 years, finally releasing him to lead an expedition to South America where he ran afoul of Spanish forces. When Raleigh return to England, the Spanish ambassador demanded that King James finally execute Raleigh’s death sentence. And so it was done.

Raleigh had served King and Country and his own interests with varying degrees of success during his 65 or so years. He founded the first English colonies in North America, unsuccessfully, and he fought for England against her great enemy, Spain. He also contributed to the great outpouring of Literary creativity during the “Golden Age of English Literature,” penning volumes of prose and some of the marvelous age’s most outstanding poetry, notably his famous reply to Marlowe’s “Shepard.”

Raleigh was also a famous wit and raconteur. At his execution he is said to have observed that the axe was “a sharp medicine but a cure for all disease.”

I am particularly fond of a line taken from the transcript of his trial. At that time the English language was evolving away from the “familiar” form of the second person pronoun. Today we use “you” for both an individual whom we are addressing or a group of people. But it was not always so. As do most other European languages to this day, English had a singular and plural form of the second person pronoun. And also in keeping with the formal use of other European tongues, the plural form was also considered the more respectful and polite form. Thus, at the start of the Elizabethan age, one would use “thou” when addressing an individual, and “you” when addressing a group. But “you” would also be employed when addressing one’s social superior, such as a servant to his master, or a boy to his father. By 1600 or so, it had become distinctly disrespectful to address great men with the “familiar” “thou” form, and one always employed “you.” (Language experiences inflation: the finer, fancier form eventually drives out the plainer usage so that today thee and thou only survive for addressing God almighty – interestingly enough – and even that is now rare.)

The line of Raleigh’s that I like so well?

The prosecutor had addressed Sir Walter as “thou.” In a response that is at once amusing and illustrative of the protean mutability of the English language, Raleigh hotly replied:

“THOU durst thou me?! I thou thee, thou dog!”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Nil homine terra peius ingrato creat. — Ausonius

(The world creates nothing worse than an ungrateful person.)

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