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This is page 8 of a 13 page article. Go to previous page. Go to Introduction.

II. Thomas Doughtie: the Martyr – The Ugly Trial and Beautiful Death of Thomas Doughtie[]

By the time they reached San Julian – which was certainly chosen carefully for what Drake the Younger would call the “paire of parallels to be added to Plutarchs” (67), being the site where Magellan quelled a quite definite mutiny, complete with killings and ships being taken over by armed men - Francis Drake had gathered enough “evidence” to conduct his legal lynching of Thomas Doughtie. “Doughty’s trial was conducted with much quaint ceremony,” says Richard Carnac Temple (xxviii), who seems to imply that misappropriation of justice is a trivial matter when conducted by our revered predecessors. To those concerned, however, it was quite serious, for when Drake convened his court on June 30th of 1578, he made it clear that if Doughtie were found guilty, he would deserve death. Probably realizing that he stood little chance of a fair hearing under the circumstances, Doughtie requested that he be held for a proper trial in England. When Drake refused, Doughtie then challenged Drake’s authority, demanding to see his commission from the queen.

The question of the extent of the authority granted to Drake by the queen is problematic. It is widely assumed that the queen made numerous secret agreements with privateers; one recent book is based entirely upon this premise (Ronald). It would certainly make sense that Elizabeth would wish plausible deniability if Drake’s fleet was defeated in the course of what was tacitly acknowledged to be an expedition of piracy. In a 1585 letter to Leicester, Sherley quotes her as saying of Drake, “If need be the gentleman careth not if I should disavow him,” (qtd in Sugden 98), which certainly seems optimistic on her part given the proceedings at San Julian. Drake claims to have had an actual written commission during Doughtie’s trial, but conveniently “forgets” to bring it to the sentencing, and, in any case, refuses to show it before the verdict is passed. To argue that he later shows this supposed commission to the Spaniard Don Francesco de Zárate is disingenuous – de Zárate was unlikely to be able to read English (Kelsey 452). However, the authority granted to Drake verbally is different, and Doughtie himself gives contradictory information. When he first takes command of the Pelican, Doughtie’s speech claims that Drake has the authority to execute mutineers (qtd. in Corbett 234-235). But in a later conversation with Sarocold, when the master of the Swan suggests that those who caused trouble in the fleet ought to be hanged, Doughtie is quick to inject that Drake’s authority does not extend that far: “I knowe hs atorytye so well as he him self dothe,” (“Documents” 167), a comment which infuriates Sarocold. It is impossible to determine which statement is true since in both cases, Doughtie would have motivation to lie – on the first occasion to keep restless men under control, and on the second, under the realization that Sarocold’s statement was a not-so-veiled threat. Either way, if the two pieces of testimony are to be trusted, it is a certainty that on at least one occasion Doughtie did lie, and so, upon careful examination of our own hearts and minds, we may triumphantly convict him of being human.

But the extent of Drake’s authority really doesn’t matter. Even if he had the authority to execute a mutineer, the evidence was so slim and the trial conducted in such an unorthodox fashion that Vicarye was outraged. Drake’s response is famous: “I have not to do with yow crafty lawyers, neythar care I for the lawe, but I know what I wyll do” (Cooke 204). Ironically, it is unlikely that any of the men with legal training are actually lawyers; Vicarye, who entered the Inner Temple in 1568, was never called to the bar. Although Drake did what he could to give some semblance of jurisprudence to the proceedings, when the judge began the trial by having Doughtie bound and then delivering a scathing invective against him, it must have been clear to all that impartial justice would not be delivered.

Before Drake proceeded with the real matter of the trial, he accused Doughtie of the ridiculous charge of poisoning the Earl of Essex. Obviously, there was absolutely no way this charge could be proved on the beach of San Julian; a regular court would have struck the remark from the records as prejudicial. Coote argues that everything Drake says or does during the course of the trial is a deliberately orchestrated gesture in a theatre of cruelty intended, after the fashion of the time, to set a morally edifying example rather than get at anything approaching truth (127). Nevertheless, Drake’s statements must have at least the veneer of possibility. As mentioned earlier, when he disavowed Doughtie’s claim to have introduced him to Essex, Drake asserts that he only saw Doughtie in the presence of Devereux once, and that much later than his period of employment. Drake finds it necessary to append this one occurrence to his statement in order to provide an opportunity for Doughtie to have committed his supposed misdeed. But, in a case of overkill, the testimony of Ned Bright also includes the information that John Doughtie had bragged “…he could poyson a man wt a dyamond, that he should be twelve moneths affter or he should dye,” (Documents 178). Implied in his statement is that even though the Doughties were nowhere near Ireland when the Earl of Essex died, the possibility of their direct culpability should not necessarily be discounted – is it any wonder that the jury disallowed the testimony of Bright?

Drake was probably relying on the common knowledge of John Doughtie’s imprisonment, which may have been rumored to be connected with the death of Essex. Considering the sequel, Drake might have done well not to bring it up. He was to be dogged by a rumor exemplified in the slanderous screed “Leicester’s Commonwealth,” that he, in the pay of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was ordered to kill Doughtie to in order to silence him. It is hardly likely that this rumor was true: much of “Leicester’s Commonwealth” is composed of bold-faced lies, the Earl of Essex, after an autopsy, was determined to have died of natural causes (dysentery, “the bloody flux,” quite common in that era and also responsible for Drake’s demise), and imagining that the cunning Leicester would trust the impulsive Drake as his secretly hired assassin is difficult. This rumor was in evidence in more reputable sources, for example, William Camden’s Annals, which says “Yet wanted there not some which, thinking themselves to bee men of a deeper reach, gave out that Drake has a charge from Leicester that hee should make away Dougbhtey by any colour whatsoever, for that hee had reported abroad that the Earle of Essex was made away by the cunning practises of Leicester,” (1580 section 20). It is of note that this is the first published text to name the gentleman Drake executed on the circumnavigation, and it gets it wrong, stating that John Doughtie was killed. So it would seem that if there was the faintest shred of truth in this mass of speculation, it was John, not Thomas who was concerned.

Drake impanels a jury, in Camden’s account a proper English jury of twelve, but according to Cooke, somewhat over 40 of the most influential men on the voyage. He appoints John Wynter foreman, realizing that Wynter, as Doughtie’s friend, would appear to be well-disposed towards Doughtie, making any conviction seem that much more damaging. In all likelihood, Drake also realized that more spine could be found in a dead jellyfish washed up upon the beach than in the perpetually intimidated Wynter. Indeed, on a later occasion, Wynter will testify, “Yf I should have contraryed him or gone about to practice to withstand him in anie parte of this his doings, he would have punished me by deathe,” (qtd. in Kelsey 110).

The trial consisted of Captain John Thomas reading aloud the accusations to the men who made them, who apparently affirmed they were correct. Most of the serious charges have already been discussed, save for a few to be treated at length below. To summarize the rest, Doughtie is accused of 4 counts of investing in the voyage, 3 counts of advancing Drake’s cause, 3 counts of defending his own innocence, 2 counts of having introduced Drake to the Earl of Essex, 2 counts of threatening action against his tormentors when the fleet returns to England, 2 counts of offering to lend money, 2 counts of saying that Drake should be ashamed of himself, and 1 count of being offered a position as secretary by Lord Burghley. This summary, of course, does not convey the tone of the accusations – the supposed statements by Doughtie are full of arrogance, spleen and pathos. However, the statements are all hearsay, and hearsay collected by a man who was bent on his opponent’s destruction. Because of this, it is doubtful that we can read anything significant into the tone of the wording anyway.

Considering only the subject matter of the accusations, the quality of evidence advanced against Doughtie is so scanty that Vaux believes the documents in question to be fragmentary notes and not the real accusations (xiv). “They are, one and all, the kind of skimble-scamble stuff, vague topics of prejudice or hear-say reports of things said, which ignorant, confused men are likely to mistake for evidence…They may be accurate reports of things said, and therefore may have been signed quite properly by Doughty’s friends; and yet they do not supply among them a scintilla of evidence that he meant to return, or to create a mutiny, or to do any harm to Drake, or that he would have found the least support in the squadron if he had tried to do any of those things” ( Hannay 802). It is hardly any wonder that, as according to Cooke, Doughtie doesn’t bother to deny these statements. Would anyone refute a statement of being “ honest as any in the companye, or as my lord Burlaye” (173), especially if one had legal training and knew what constituted proper evidence? Doughtie’s statement to Ned Bright to “...chardge me with nothyng but trewthe and spare me not,” reveals both his confidence that he has done nothing illegal, and his naïve belief that Bright is honest and the trial will be fair. Most of the charges are attested to by a handful of the same people: John Sarocold, John Chester, Emanuell Wattkyns, Gregory Cary and, surprisingly considering the sequel, Francis Fletcher. Three charges were attested to by 29 people – most likely these were all things said by Doughtie on the same occasion in a public fit of anger, to wit that he was “not to be charged with the least paringe of a nayle, and that the Captayne knew it well; but that he dissembled to please a sort of cogginge and lyinge knaves wch are about him,” and that he would revenge himself on those who spoke against him upon their return to England (Documents 169-170). It is significant that Leonard Vicarye’s name is upon the list of witnesses to this outburst; it is also of note that these charges are the only ones to which John Brewer affixes his name.

However, there are still a few more charges to consider of a more substantial nature, most especially including the testimony of Drake himself. A fascinating series of accusations concern mysterious statements by Doughtie that he knew certain secrets of Drake’s which he would “nevar vttar, allthough he should vse me very hardlye; and yet, sayd he, the vtteringe of them would tuche him muche,” (Documents 167). It is obvious that Drake would consider this a threat and a means to undermine him; nevertheless, lacking specifics, the remarks can hardly be considered slander. Indeed, it is equally probable that Doughtie was bluffing or that he did know certain secrets of Drake’s – what these secrets might have been can only be speculated as Doughtie kept his word and took them to his grave. Also, Drake directly testifies concerning an inquiry made by Doughtie about the nature of the chain of command if anything should happen to Drake. It seems likely that Doughtie was trying either to clarify or assert his position by this remark. It also seems obvious that Drake read it, or hopes his audience will read it, or both, as a veiled threat.

According to Cooke, the pièce de résistance of the trial is the deposition made by Edward Bright. Unfortunately, none of the trial documents are signed by Bright at all; there is, however, a lengthy, rambling document which is unsigned, but fits Cooke’s description of what was said. Besides the statements previously discussed, this testimony contains vaguely sinister statements, such as a confidence that Doughtie would choose a dozen men or so to “carry the bell away.” Besides the absurdity of the statement - a dozen men seem a rather small number to arrange a mutiny in a company of around 150 – there is the question of why Ned Bright would wait to reveal this important information, a question which is asked by the jury. Doughtie also challenges the veracity of this testimony, saying that he would never have been on such familiar terms with such a man as Ned Bright. Bright’s testimony certainly reeks of egotism – he is at pains to mention how much Doughtie supposedly regards him. Most of it is a long, rambling tale which demonstrates nothing more than is already known, but it is hardly true that, as Sugden argues, it made no difference because it was essentially the same as all the others (110). For at the end, Bright drops several bombshells of absurd magnitude – that Doughtie has claimed the high council and the queen could be corrupted, and that John Doughtie confided (again, to Bright, seemingly oblivious to the man’s ill-will towards his brother, and also in the presence of a Jhon Deane, who, for some reason, did not put his name to any of the accusations) his skills as a poisoner. According to Bright, the younger Doughtie also claimed that his brother could raise the devil and make him appear in the form of a lion, or a bear, or a man in harness. These almost comical accusations are necessary, of course, if Drake is to get the convictions he really wants – treason, for which death is the clear penalty, and witchcraft, for reasons which will be examined. “How lyke yow thes gere, syrra?” Bright taunts at the end of his statement (Cooke 203).

These revelations would have a profoundly negative effect upon the mariners; the more educated gentlemen of the jury were, however, unimpressed, eventually disallowing Bright’s testimony as coming from an untrustworthy source. There is no indication, as Thomson alleges, that the jury rejected this testimony because they felt that Bright, nurturing a lingering resentment over Doughtie’s insult to his wife, could not be an unbiased witness (110). For one, the most damaging accusations over the course of the trial were hardly made by unbiased witnesses (consider that Doughtie had engaged in physical altercations with both Drake and Sarocold). More importantly, Cooke spells out the matter quite clearly: “…trulye it dyd argwe small honestie in a man to conceale such a matar yf it had bene spoken in England, and to vttar it in that place where wyll was lawe and reason put in exile…” (205). Drake protests that Bright is honest, but the point was moot; the damage had already been done in quite another manner. Sensing the popular hostility against him, Doughtie is finally pushed to defend himself, and he makes an error which may have cost him his life.

Perhaps intending to prove that he is no traitor at all, Doughtie reveals that he told the true plan of the voyage to Lord Burghley. From this admission springs the oft-repeated and completely unsubstantiated story that Doughtie was a spy, even a saboteur, working against Drake in the employ of Burghley. “The trouble was that basically Doughty was Lord Burghley’s man and the lord treasurer had no stomach for Drake’s activities…even if higher authority decreed the expedition should go forward he would need agents to prevent it from being too successful; Doughty saw all this and realized he fit the role perfectly, but meanwhile it was in his interest to get the voyage approved,” (Roche 44). Needless to say, there is not one jot of evidence of any of this. And it hardly seems likely that if Doughtie were a spy and master schemer, he would so stupidly incriminate himself or betray the object of his true loyalties. It is possible that he revealed the truth to Burghley quite innocently, assuming that the lord already knew of the plans for the voyage (Sugden 110). But this revelation shocks and upsets Drake, and he rails against Doughtie in what was most likely the only unplanned moment of his performance. Drake claims that the queen specifically forbade disclosure of the voyage to Burghley, and he is so horrified at Doughtie’s indiscretion that the company is entirely convinced.

Apparently, no one challenges the contradiction inherent in the story: if Drake was telling the truth when he spoke of being called into a secret meeting with the queen, a meeting where he proposed a plan of his own design to annoy the King of Spain, then obviously Doughtie was not present at that meeting. It is just possible that Drake withheld the queen’s confidences from Doughtie (Thomson 109); in fact, if, as Drake claims, Doughtie had no authority at all and no responsibility for Drake's advancement, why bother to tell him? If Doughtie was ignorant of the queen’s admonition to Drake, both Doughtie’s imprudent revelation and Drake’s panicked outrage at Doughtie’s disclosure are logical reactions. This attitude might be inferred from the snippet of conversation that Cooke gives us. After the revelation is made that Burghley knows the plot of the voyage, Drake’s immediate response is to deny it – “No, he hath not.” His first reaction is not to accuse Doughtie of the misdeed, perhaps because he is more afraid that he himself will be accused of letting slip something the queen expressly forbade him to do. But Doughtie does not let the point go, insisting that Burghley does know, and it is only when Drake asks him how Burghley got the information that he reveals that he told the lord himself. If Doughtie was Burghley’s agent or knew that telling Burghley was forbidden, he had ample opportunity to allow the matter to drop, but he pushes the issue as though it will justify, not condemn him.

And why should it condemn him? This matter is not only left unexplored at the trial, but has scarce received critical attention in the histories. Lord Burghley was a peer of the realm, a member of the Privy Council, and still in the favor of the queen, who often did listen to his conservative advice counseling caution in foreign affairs. It is hardly as if Doughtie had spoken to Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, revealing the route of the voyage after the queen confiscated Drake’s records of his exploration – as John Brewer did (Cummins 125). The revelation need not be the sinister occurrence it is made out to be. Burghley was a man who made a career out of gathering information – Doughtie was a man, as we have seen, who amongst his many gifts did not count discretion. Burghley may have plumbed him for knowledge of this adventure – with Hatton, Leicester and Walsingham as supporters, is it likely that the old intelligencer would be completely in the dark that so many of his fellows were up to something? As Williamson says, “He had an efficient staff of secret agents and informers, and a project that was being elaborated by his fellow-ministers and the Navy officials would almost certainly have come to his ears,” (171). If Burghley did offer Doughtie a position as secretary, surely Doughtie felt a need to give a reason for refusing the post – and going on a spice expedition to Alexandria is hardly a plausible one.

At this point in the trial, sensing that he has made a fatal misstep, Doughtie tries to plea bargain, offering to admit to the charges if he is guaranteed his life. It is clear that Drake knew both that he had the advantage, and that if Doughtie were allowed to live, the charges would almost certainly be overturned in England, the document signed under duress considered worthless. Drake presses for the vote; Vicarye objects, first on legal grounds and then on the grounds that the jury is not comfortable with deciding on a death sentence. If Cooke’s account is correct, Drake prevaricates, saying the jury has only to decide whether Doughtie is guilty. Vicarye is no fool: “Then there is, I trust, no matter of death,” he presses. To this, Drake responds with a boldfaced lie: “No, no Mastar Vicarye,” (Cooke 204).

Cooke describes Vicarye as a “very and assured frend vnto Mastar Thomas Dowghtie;” this agrees with Doughtie’s own description in the codicil to his will, “I give and bequeathe to my affirmed good friende Leonard Vicarie of the Inner Temple of London gentleman in consideration of his faithfull and true friendshipp and great travaile by him sustained in this voyag. the some of fortie poundes.” Doughtie’s friendship (and generosity) to Vicarye are in evidence in Vicarye’s will, which was witnessed by none other than Thomas Doughtie. At the time of the departure, Vicayre was in considerable debt, which he worries will not be paid. He requests that if there is anything remaining after his debts are settled, it go to his brother, Richard. After this, he curiously adds that he is giving a gift of twenty-nine pounds, fifteen shillings to Doughtie, an amount of money comparable to some of Vicarye’s largest debts, and the same amount which Doughtie lists in his own will as a debt from Vicarye to be forgiven upon Doughtie’s decease. Since Doughtie was present at the signing, this wording is certainly intentional – Doughtie did not wish what he was owed to be counted as a debt against Vicarye’s estate, so the will is formulated such that Doughtie will only be paid if Vicarye is flush upon his death.

So with friends like Vicarye and John Wynter on the jury, why did it vote against Doughtie “without any dowbte or stop made” excepting to disallow Bright’s evidence? Since the codicil was written in the day following the trial, Doughtie clearly did not hold the verdict, or even the death sentence against his friend. Cooke is quick to remark that certain members of the jury felt terrified of Drake, fearing that they would be next after Doughtie. As will be seen, these fears were not entirely unfounded.

But there is another reason why Doughtie’s friends would convict so immediately. The list of accusations against Doughtie was more of the nature of evidence than of being charges in a legal sense. It is necessary to infer the actual grounds upon which Doughtie was being tried. Mutiny surely, for all Drake’s testimony that he and the voyage were threatened by Doughtie’s continued existence. To this we might add treason and witchcraft. By rejecting Bright’s testimony, the jury also rejects these greater charges. Drake has already assured them, falsely, that the death penalty is not in question. Seeing that Drake impaneled the jury, there are most certainly enemies of Doughtie upon it as well as his friends, men who would vote against him no matter the circumstances. If the jury locks, Drake could well declare a mistrial, and have the chance to form yet another jury, a second jury perhaps not so well disposed towards Doughtie, one more likely to convict on the truly damning charge of treason. The mutiny charge is at least grounded in some semblance of fact – the imprudent outburst against Sarocold upon the Swan. The irony of a mutiny conviction is, of course, that which Samuel Johnson laments: “What designs he could have formed, with any hope of success, or to what actions, worthy of death, he could have proceeded without accomplices, for none are mentioned, is equally difficult to imagine” (118). Nevertheless, Doughtie is convicted of mutiny, as we know from John Drake’s testimony to the Inquisition (qtd. in Temple xxxiv).

The jury miscalculates badly, of course, and Drake, through a scathing combination of rhetoric and intimidation, gets his death sentence. Significantly, the sentence is decided upon by everyone in the company except the two Doughties; Drake, previously desiring the sense of propriety a jury trial would give him, takes no chances with the sentence, manipulating the common sailors to exert pressure of numbers upon the gentlemen. The sailors are overawed with documents Drake produces from various noblemen, all very imposing but completely non sequitur. If the testimony of the Portuguese navigator Nuno de Silva is to be accepted, Drake’s performance is a drama intended to impress: “Placing himself in a more elevated position than the others, he took out some papers, kissed them, put them on his head, and read them in a loud voice.” (qtd. in Kelsey 452 n58). Cummins notes that Drake presents the men with a “spurious” either-or choice: if Doughty is executed the success of the voyage and enrichment of the men is assured, but if they do not, the fleet will have to slink home in disgrace to England (83). It is a measure of the force of Drake’s personality that no one, not even Vicarye, points out the complete lack of logic in this formulation.

The jury may have rejected the testimony of Ned Bright, but all present had nevertheless heard it; convicted of mutiny by some of his closest friends, how difficult is it to imagine that many convicted Doughtie in their minds of treason and witchcraft also? Ridiculous as it might seem to the modern mind, the charge of witchcraft may have been the most damning against Doughtie when he was sentenced. Coote, for example, believes that Drake, exploiting the bad weather, cynically manufactured the witchcraft charges to manipulate the sailors (119). Kelsey, on the other hand, questions whether Drake actually believed in the charges, citing that all the vessels that had been lost in storm while Doughtie was upon them were burned by Drake, as if to rid himself of a curse (105). To this, we may add the renaming of the Pelican. The idea that Hatton would forgive Drake for the death of his secretary simply because a vessel had been renamed in his honor is absurd; furthermore, the Pelican was the symbol of Queen Elizabeth herself, and the renaming of the vessel might have been taken as an insult by her. The renaming seems an oddly ritualistic gesture by Drake, designed to cleanse the fleet of the taint of Doughtie’s supposed malice and the blood guilt associated with his execution.

Whether or not Drake believed in the charges, it is likely some of the men did. Witch trials at sea have a tendency to become lynchings; in three documented cases between 1654-58 (Katherine Grady, Mary Lee and Elizabeth Richardson) the captains were called to account, but no decision was ever rendered (in Richardson’s case, Captain Prescott’s accuser could not appear in court, and the case was dismissed on the technicality.) Mary Lee’s case in particular dramatizes the sort of insane paranoia that can happen aboard a storm-tossed ship; in order to maintain order, Captain John Bosworth absents himself, allowing the crew to hang her while denying culpability (Rutman 209-210). In all cases, the accusation of witchcraft had the same basis: the summoning of storms. Doughtie’s case stands out in several respects: usually the accused is female, usually the accused is an outcast lacking social connections (although there were exceptions, and a number of prominent people were executed for witchcraft), and the climate of the Americas in the mid-seventeenth century was much more favorable to witch persecutions than that of Elizabeth’s England. It is doubtful that Drake would have escaped repercussions if Doughtie, a gentleman of note, had been executed solely on the basis of a witchcraft accusation.

The scene now changes to a surrealistic black comedy. Drake suddenly decides that he will spare Doughtie, if only someone can make a suggestion how to do so and yet assure the safety of the fleet. Does Drake feel a sudden stab of remorse, or is he toying with Doughtie? Interpretations have run the gamut, reading this vacillation as a measure of Drake’s compassion (Tudor Navy 258) all the way to seeing it as a demonstration of Drake’s sadism (Coote 132). According to Cooke, Doughtie himself argues to be abandoned in Peru, but Drake says only that he cannot answer to the queen if he does so. This is a statement which has been interpreted in numerous ways, including that Drake fears Doughtie will reveal their plan to the Spanish, or Drake believes it inhumane to leave Doughtie among the heathen “cannibals.” The latter fear, as absurd as it seems to the modern mind, was certainly considered by Sir Francis the Younger, who has Doughtie rejecting Drake’s offer to abandon him for just such a reason. Then Drake suggests that he will let Doughtie live if only someone is willing to vouch that he will not endanger the crew. Doughtie turns to John Wynter, who immediately makes such an offer.

If Cooke’s observations are accurate, Drake is flummoxed, but only for a moment. Perhaps, riding his triumph, he didn’t expect anyone to have the courage to stand up for Doughtie, and decided to push his luck to demonstrate both the extent of his fairness and Doughtie’s utter alienation. The plan backfires. Drake then begins to impose absurd conditions: Doughtie must be imprisoned by being nailed up under the hatches. The voyage must be canceled and the fleet must return home to immediately. Of course, a number of the men, who have suffered so much for the sake of the treasure they might win, immediately object. Doughtie’s fate is sealed. Drake gives Doughtie a day to arrange his affairs, “always promisonge that his continuall prayers to God shuld not cease that it would please God to put into his heade how he might do hym good. But he had so often afore sworne that he would hange hym, that I think at thes present he ment to do hym little good,” (Cooke 207).

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