Spaniards, the expedition was back at Dartmouth in the spring of 1579 (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, iii. 186.).
A few months later Ralegh was at the court, on terms of intimacy at once with the Earl of Leicester, and with Leicester's bitter enemy and Burghley's disreputable son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford. At Oxford's request he carried a challenge to Leicester's nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, which Sidney accepted, but Oxford refused to fight, and, it is said, proposed to have Sidney assassinated. Ralegh's refusal to assist in this wicked business bred a coldness between him and Oxford, which deepened on the latter's part into deadly hatred (St. John, i. 48). But Ralegh's temper was hot enough to involve him in like broils on his own account. In February 1579–80 he was engaged in a quarrel with Sir Thomas Perrot, and on the 7th the two were brought before the lords of the council ‘for a fray made betwixt them,’ and ‘committed prisoners to the Fleet.’ Six days later they were released on finding sureties for their keeping the peace (ib. i. 50), but on 17 March Ralegh and one Wingfield were committed to the Marshalsea for ‘a fray beside the tennis-court at Westminster’ (Acts of Privy Council, xi. 421).
Next June Ralegh sailed for Ireland as the captain of a company of one hundred soldiers. The friendship of Leicester, and, through Sidney, of Walsingham, brought him opportunities of personal distinction. In August he was joined in commission with Sir Warham St. Leger for the trial of James Fitzgerald, brother of the Earl of Desmond, who was sentenced and put to death as a traitor. Ralegh expressed the conviction that leniency to bloody-minded malefactors was cruelty to good and peaceable subjects (ib. i. 38). When, in November, the lord deputy, Grey, forced the Spanish and Italian adventurers, who had built and garrisoned the Fort del Oro at Smerwick, to surrender at discretion, Ralegh had no scruples about carrying out the lord deputy's order to put them to the sword, to the number of six hundred (ib. i. 40) [see Grey, Arthur, fourteenth Lord Grey de Wilton]. Although the exploit has the aspect of a cold-blooded butchery, it must be remembered that the Spaniards were legally pirates, who had without valid commissions stirred up the native Irish to rebellion, and that English adventurers in the same legal position on the Spanish main [cf. Oxenham, John], although they were free from the added imputation of inciting to rebellion, had been mercilessly slain. The only fault found by the queen was that the superior officers had been spared (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, lxxix. 13). Edmund Spenser [q. v.], who was present at Smerwick, approved of Grey's order and of Ralegh's obedience (View of the Present State of Ireland, Globe edit. p. 656), and Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in London, ventured on no remonstrance (Froude, Hist. of England, Cabinet edit. x. 582–91).
During the campaign Spenser and Ralegh were necessarily brought together, but it does not appear that any intimacy then sprang up between them, and in January Ralegh was sent into garrison at Cork, where, except for an occasional journey to Dublin to confer with Grey or a dashing skirmish, he lay till the end of July. He was then appointed one of a temporary commission for the government of Munster, which established its headquarters at Lismore, and thence kept the whole province in hand. It was apparently in November that Ralegh, on his way from Lismore to Cork with eight horse and eighty foot, was attacked by a numerous body of Irish. They could not, however, stand before the disciplined strength of the English, and fled. Ralegh, hotly pursuing them with his small body of horse, got in among a crowd of the fugitives, who turned to bay, and fought fiercely, stabbing the horses with their knives. Ralegh's horse was killed, and Ralegh, entangled under the falling animal, owed delivery from imminent danger to the arrival of reinforcements. This marked the end, for the time, of Ralegh's Irish service.
In the beginning of December 1581 he was sent to England with despatches from Colonel Zouch, the new governor of Munster, and, coming to the court, then at Greenwich, happened to attract the notice and catch the fancy of the queen. There is nothing improbable in the story of his spreading his new plush cloak over a muddy road for the queen to walk on. The evidence on which it is based (Fuller, Worthies) is shadowy; but the incident is in keeping with Ralegh's quick, decided resolution, and it is certain that Ralegh sprang with a sudden bound into the royal favour. Fuller's other story of his writing on a window of the palace, with a diamond,
Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall,
and of Elizabeth's replying to it with
If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all,
rests on equally weak testimony, and is inherently improbable. Naunton's story that Ralegh first won the queen's favour by the ability he showed in pleading his cause