The Duality of Sir Walter Raleigh and His Times


William Segar’s 1598 portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, now less the courtesan peacock and more the grizzled silverback with a map of Cadiz at his rear and the wounded leg from that campaign emphasized by his cane.  Wikimedia Commons

I am about halfway through a biography of Sir Walter Raleigh entitled, Sir Walter Raleigh: Being a True and Vivid Account of the Life and Times of the Explorer, Soldier, Scholar, Poet, and Courtier–The Controversial Hero of the Elizabethian Age (2004) by Raleigh Trevelyen. I was surprised that I had never read a biography of the “founder” of NC, a man who had sponsored the venture to Roanoke. But who was this son of Devonshire? Was he a hero or a villain? He appears to be hated by a great many people of his time, some because of his astronomic rise from base origins to a tight orbit of the Virgin queen and others because of his indifference or cruelty. Yet still others found him a brave and steadfast Captain of men.

sir walterSir Walter, or Water as Elizabeth called him, would have led the failed Roanoke expedition himself and maybe it would have ended differently if the Queen had not forbidden him from leaving her covetous sight. Therefore, John White led the undertaking, but White was a better artist than a governor and abandoned them to their fate.

And the Queen was certainly fond of him, for a time; until she got her first glimpse of the young Earl of Essex, Robert Devereaux. Raleigh was then spurned. Maybe this led to his getting married without her permission to lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton. But getting married without her permission was something everyone within the Queen’s sphere had to do, for she never gave permission to any that asked. Nevertheless, he went to the tower for his transgression and so did his wife. His star never rose back to earlier heights after that, but he poured himself into everything he did, be it fighting the Spanish, exploring the New World or writing poetry. However, his loss of Elizabeth’s affection seemed to give him a wound that nothing would heal.

Although I had never read a biography dedicated to the man, he was certainly on the periphery of many books I have read and sometimes front and center. In John Stubbs’ biography of the poet John Donne, Donne, the Reformed Soul (2007), John Donne serves with him at the great (for the English anyway) battle of Cadiz during the action christened the “Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard” which is probably the best name for an operation ever coined. Donne also serves directly under him in Raleigh’s squadron during john donnethe mostly failed operation against the Spanish in the Azores. The poet is probably near him on an attack on the main town on the Azores island of Fayal where “…one shot ventilating the loose cloth of Ralegh’s breeches but miraculously taking nothing with it” (77). Donne also shares Raleigh’s circumstance of being gaoled for getting married. Their mutual friend and benefactor Henry Percy, the Earl and Wizard of Northumberland spilled the beans on John’s marriage to Anne’s father. Henry would later bowl with Raleigh in their shared stint in the Tower for treason. Although I really loved this book but there is no great description of Raleigh in it, he only looms in the background as a great Captain that Donne serves but shows an ambivalent attitude toward.

The next book, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (1956) by Catherine Drinker Bowen is probably my favorite biography of anyone. I usually seek out history from below; history of the often overlooked people, and this National Book Award winning biography really captures Sir Edward Coke’s fight for the Common Law of England against an absolutist King James I and his son Charles I. Although Coke is certainly one of the elite he fights for the rights of the common man as well as the gentry. And Sir Walter Raleigh is one of the major players in the biography for his fate hinges on Coke’s worst moment in the book, the prosecution of Raleigh on trumped up charges of treason. But the lion and the throneCoke hates the accused former Captain and will do anything to end him.

Bowen’s description of Raleigh as he stands ready to bear witness against Essex for attempting to overthrow the government is masterfully written but unsparing as to the flaws in his character:

Sir Walter was known as perhaps the most independent-minded man in England. Unlike Essex, he had never made a step toward popularity. “There is none on the face of the earth,” he said, “that I would be fastened onto.” His manner was arrogant, ruthless; and it was generally said that he showed himself greedy of money, an oppressor of poor on his estates. He made enemies readily as Essex made friends—and remained perfectly indifferent to the reputation. Ralegh was forty-nine, Edward Coke’s age. Today he stood impassive at command, a soldier who wore his armor as it were a courtier’s dress. His sword belt was studded with gems, a diamond sparkled at the hilt. The dark, bearded face was inscrutable, the dark glance careless, poised (140).

Bowen never lets up on Raleigh even as he is led away to trial through the streets of London as the citizens shout and throw stones at him,

Ralegh was cold, contemptuous. “Dogs,” he said, “do always bark at things they know not” (188).

And later at the trial Coke screams at Raleigh, Thou art a monster! Thou hast an English face but a Spanish heart…(194).

Trevelyen is much more venerating of his namesake and ancestor. He makes pains to tell that he was loved by the tin miners in his native Devonshire and as well as by the sailors who called him Captain. The author relates of his generosity and kindness toward the Native Americans his party crosses path with during his expedition to Guiana. And he does show much affection for his wife Bess, who Trevelyen unfairly hounds for her phonetically written letters (read my earlier post on the many ways that Raleigh wrote his name, sometimes differently in the same document).

So where does he stand in history? My non-expert opinion is that he was a self-absorbed courtesan but was unfairly maligned by his contemporaries out of jealousy and classism. He was also an accomplished poet and a true renaissance man that was curious about the world and religion. But he was also a ruthless warrior that killed any Spanish common soldier he came across even if they thought they were under his protection as he did in his two voyages to Guiana, his attack on the Cadiz and the Azores. And he controlled 40,000 acres of Irish soil where he cruelly supplanted the native Irish from their ancestral lands for the plantation of Englishmen. He was really just a man of his time, a time that was trying to pull away from the repressive climate of the Middle Ages and into an Age of Reason. But still one foot was in the past so it was accepted to be learned but not to question the established church, the gentry were magnanimous to their equals in battle but common soldiers were killed with impunity, you could believe that the earth revolved around the sun but also accuse someone of witchcraft, a commoner could rise to the gentry but be relentlessly attacked by their peers because of their origins. It was a time of duality between the traditional, intolerant ways of the past and the more rationalist, humane future and Raleigh embodied it.

Post script- In the book by Raleigh Trevelyen he references De Naturae Philosphia Sue de Platonist et Aristototelis Consensione Liber by Sebastiani Foxi Marzilla, a book that was found in a house in Ireland that was supposedly in Sir Walter’s personal collection and is now  housed in the Sir Walter Raleigh Collection at UNC Chapel Hill.

The Art of the Shine


Curtis Phillips by John G. Zimmerman

Our collection of photographs taken by Life magazine photographer John G. Zimmerman from the 1953 shoeshine contest in Wilson, NC are going to be on display at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.  This exhibit is titled The Art of the Shine and will be in the Crowe Lobby Gallery starting just after the New Year until March 15, 2015.  We have partnered with the Flanders Gallery in Raleigh and they are creating the exhibit which will also include Curtis Phillip’s shoeshine chair.

I am looking forward to visiting the exhibit!

Recent Reads in Historical Fiction and Linguistics

recent_reads_12_2014In the past couple of months I read two outstanding books of historical fiction and also a book on linguistics that was quite thought provoking.

The first is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by a true master of fiction, David Mitchell. You may have heard of the novel Cloud Atlas, yeah that was him. This book is nothing like Cloud Atlas and the fact that he can jump from a multi-layer piece of speculative fiction, a work that was short-listed for the Booker Prize to a novel that is more understated and nuanced, as well as one of the best books of historical fiction out there, says multitudes about Martin’s prowess as one of the best writers of fiction, period.


Dejima, The Granger Collection, NY

The novel centers on two protagonists, the first is Jacob De Zoet, a straight laced Dutch trader who is living on the artificial, Japanese island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. Dejima is the Dutch traders’ home and also prison for they are not allowed to go onto Japanese soil unless they have special dispensation for fear that they will pollute the Japanese citizens with western ideas and Christianity. But Japan itself is also a prison. No Japanese citizen may leave under penalty of death. This isolation and xenophobia is where the main conflict of the novel lies. A conflict because Jacob falls in love with a Dutch-trained midwife from a gentry-class family named Orito Aibagawa; and in Japan, Westerners are not allowed to marry the Japanese. So the novel starts out as a slow burn but then picks up to a frenetic pace almost like an Akira Kurasawa movie when Orito needs to be rescued from a notorious, homicidal monastery after her stepmother sells her to pay Orito’s deceased father’s debts. But this isn’t Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and the author makes sure that your expectations are dashed for nothing is predictable. But nestled in between the action is a great love story and a history class that you don’t even realize your taking because the narrative is so good.

Mitchell’s prose is usually impeccable with florid descriptions, historical authenticity and great character studies.

The next novel that read and found exceptional is Hild by Nicola Griffith. The first-rate research and word smithing that went into this superb novel about 7th century Britain really kept me in awe. I love words and this book was bric a brac with archaic old English and Brythonic words as well as beautiful metaphors and similes. The setting is a transitional period where the Germanic Saxons, Jutes and Angles were sweeping away the old Romano-Brythonic culture and language. The novel’s focus was the Northumberland Anglisc and the niece of their dour King Edwin, named Hild.

Hild was a real person from history named Saint Hilda of Whitby and the book is based on her life. She lived during the first half of the 7th century and what is known of Saint Hilda was written by the Venerable Bede, a contemporary of hers and one of the few scribes whose writings have survived from this period (It’s called the Dark Ages for a reason). Griffith has mined Bede’s writings but has also formed a rich background of the period from many other sources. Against this lush backdrop we follow Hild as she matures from a precocious child that is wise and existentially aware beyond her years to an astute and powerful woman of mercurial sexuality and strong martial prowess. Hild is a complex character, a woman who is keenly observant of the natural and human world which gives her clear insight into decision making. These traits would be greatly valued in a leader, but that is not possible in the patriarchal world of the Anglisc. So she finds a place for herself as a seer for the king; her astute observations being construed as prophecy by Edwin and his court. But it is a precarious role as the king’s seer, for there is always the chance that she will be wrong and the shifty King Edwin is clear that any false predictions would mean her death. But fortunately she is never wrong and Edwin grows in power, always one step ahead of his enemies.



Hild is also best friends with her secret half-brother named Cian. Cian does not know that he is her brother and is kept in the dark for his safety because King Edwin would see him as a rival if the secret was revealed. Cian is also half wealh (Briton), so you get a strong sense of the dichotomy that was interplayed as the Anglisc tried to fuse two sometimes disparate worlds into a hybrid culture that England would become. This is also evidenced by the fact that the pagan King Edwin becomes baptized as a Christian, which is an astute political move to increase the loyalty of his wealh subjects, who had been Christian since Roman times.

One aspect that I really enjoyed about the novel is its portrayal of the Anglisc and Brythonic language. Griffith didn’t shy away from including a fair number of authentic words in the book; in fact there is a glossary at the end of the novel that contains about seventy words. A few words that appear frequently are wealh- the word that the Anglisc refer to the Britons meaning stranger, the root word for Welsh. Wic- the Anglisc word for port. Aetheling– the Anglisc word for prince.

Hild lives alongside the wealh, the native Britons who are now second class citizens and slaves. Scholars now believe that the Anglo-Saxons were outnumbered by the Britons by at least 4 to 1. And although in the novel they are ascendant on the eastern shore of the island as the story progresses you realize that they are balanced on a knife-edge as two British kings seem poised to crush King Edwin. In fact Hild predicts that King Edwin will be destroyed by King Cadwallon of Gwynedd (north Wales) and King Penda of Mercia, which she logically keeps to herself.

The book is from a feminist perspective, but set in a period where women were little more than property, but not quite as rigid perhaps as later more conservative, dogmatic, Christian Medieval times. People in this period, at least how Griffith presents it, are expected to take lovers but the sex of the lover appears to be flexible. This did not ring false to me from an anthropological context, because there are many traditional societies who have been documented to have made allowances for this behavior, giving evidence that this has always been a natural part of the human condition.

Whatever you do in privacy during this period is your own business, but you are expected to marry, and if you are a high born lady, the king tells you who you will marry. And King Edwin’s choice for Hild comes as a slight shock. And that is where the novel ends with the promise of a sequel. I can honestly say that I am excited plunging back into this detail and character driven world.

The next book I examine has linguistic ties to Hild and is titled, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter. John McWorter is an accomplished linguist who is an expert in creole languages, an opponent of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and has written many books on African American dialect and culture. But in this book he wants to overturn the convention of how modern English evolved. In the past scholars tried to say that they Romano-Brythonic peoples of England were annihilated by the Anglo Saxons except for pockets in the west (Wales, Cornwall). The evidence of this was the fact that there are very few Brythonic words in English. But a lack of mass graves in the archaeological record from the period and recent DNA evidence shows that the ancient Britons are alive and well. Dr. McWhorter also feels that the language of the Britons is alive and well… in English.

Although there aren’t many Brythonic words that English has borrowed, its grammar is very different from the original Old Germanic that English is based on and McWhorter believes that its grammar has more in common with Welsh and Cornish than German. One major piece of evidence is what McWhorter calls the meaningless “do”.  Did I open?  Notice the word “do”. It really has no purpose. In Welsh it would be Nes i agor. Nes is the Welsh word for “do”. No other Indo-European language uses do in this way and neither does almost any other language in the world. And Middle English sounded even more Welsh. They used do in affirmative sentences instead of just the negative or question framing. McWhorter uses a line from Hamlet as an example: My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time. Welsh and Cornish also uses do in the affirmative.

Another construction of English that is like Welsh is its use of the present progressive. The example that McWhorter uses is the present progressive sentence Mary is singing; in Welsh it would be Mae Mair yn canu. In modern English, singing is a participle and in Welsh, canu is a verb-noun. But in Middle English they also used verb-nouns. Originally, in Middle English, the sentence Mary is singing would be written as Mary is on singing, with singing being a verb-noun just like in Welsh. In about the seventeenth century the sentence would have been Mary is a singing. The on has changed to a, but singing is still a verb-noun. Although that way of speaking has died out in England (if you know different, let me know) I have certainly heard it growing up in Gaston County North Carolina, a region that was deeply influenced linguistically by an influx of people from the Appalachians to work in the textile mills in the early 1900’s. Although the verb-noun is gone, our present progressive is still more Welsh than Germanic.

Not only the Welsh and Cornish influenced English but also the Norse who settled in England and Scotland starting in the 700’s. The Norse settlers were taking native wives and were speaking their own Pidgin English to communicate with their families. These Vikings were shaving off all of the many Germanic endings of Old English as well as neutering the gender, making English more streamlined. Soon their children were being taught their Pidgin English, therefore making the new form (Middle English) a creole language. McWhorter doesn’t directly say this but it can certainly be inferred. He also touches on many more interesting nuances about English and language itself, including his disdain for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis states that language determines thought. I have never liked the hypothesis either because many times the conclusions are subtly racist.

So if you want to impress people at the next football game with your knowledge of Tokugawa period Japan, Dutch trade, Dark Ages Britain and argue that English isn’t Germanic, then read these great books. The only one that the Wilson County Public Library doesn’t have is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I bought that one at the superb Reader’s Corner Bookshop in Raleigh.

1901 NC Confederate Pension Applications Now Online


They also have admission applications for the NC Soldiers Home. Noah Kale is a distant relation of mine.


The 1901 NC Confederate Pension applications are a great new digital resource from the State Archives of North Carolina.  Here is a lowdown from the frontpage:

This collection contains 1901 Confederate pension applications from the holdings of the State Archives of North Carolina. Formally referred to as “Pension Bureau: Act of 1901 Pension Applications,” these materials are part of the State Auditor’s records. The archival collection holds ca. 35,000 applications and the process of adding them to the North Carolina Digital Collections is ongoing.

Materials in this collection include application forms for Confederate pensions, sometimes including correspondence or additional affidavits regarding a soldier’s or widow’s claim. The information provided includes name; age (at time of application); place of residence; service information such as company, regiment, length of service, and wounds or disability; name of witness; and date of application. It also contains verification from the county pension board regarding applicant’s claim and whether the application was approved or disallowed by the state-level board of inquiry. The widows’ applications are filed under the names of the deceased soldiers.

Access, access, access!

New Book about the Great Dismal Swamp

a desolate place

There is a  new book called A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp  and it is about the archaeology and history of the Great Dismal Swamp.  For some reason it came in under my radar but it was featured on NPR today and I have now ordered it.  Any of you who follow my blog know that the Great Dismal Swamp with its foreboding blackberry hells, alligators, cottonmouths and tannin-infused black-water was a vital cradle for the formation of North Carolina as it provided a refuge for Virginia runaway slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans and those fleeing the fallout of the failure of Bacon’s Rebellion.

The author, archaeologist Daniel Sayers, states that he has found the remains of a dozen log cabins, clay pipes,  gun-flints and many other items that would have been a part of the material culture of ten generations of African Americans and others that called this life-giving labyrinth home.

I cannot wait to read it!

For more about the Great Dismal Swamp and it’s place in NC history please refer to my earlier post on the singularly important book, A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713  by Noeleen McIlvenna.

Oliver Nestus Freeman’s Family Albums Now Online



Freeman family


Unidentified woman from the Freeman family.

The NC Digital Heritage Center continues its great work of making archival resources more accessible by digitizing the family albums of Oliver Nestus Freeman.  This great window into East Wilson in the early 1900’s can be reached at this link.

But we need help with metadata so if you can identify anyone or anything in the photographs please let me know.

North Carolina Slave Narratives

nc slave narratives

     North Carolina Slave Narratives : a folk history of slavery in North Carolina from interviews with former slaves from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, is a tremendous new resource for our library.  The work that the WPA and the Federal Writers Project did in the 1930’s to interview, record and transcribe the words of the last people in the United States to have endured the pathological institution of slavery will hopefully be kept through the ages as a reminder and as a warning of the potential brutality of mankind.  You can even access seven hundred hours of sound recordings of interviews from this project at LOC American Memory.

Within these pages you find voices that crack with humanity as they recall the sometimes good and often terrible times that they witnessed and lived.   The orators describe the minutia of life that is sometimes missing in history.  You hear about how one former slave and her brother would scratch and rub the missus feet as she laughed and sang.  Another recounts prayin’ sinners through and stealing hogs while another talks about how hungry and skinny her mother was even though she cooked the master’s food.  One interviewee spoke of the speculators that came through with chains of slaves for sale stopping at their plantation for the night but leaving the shackled slaves outside in the winter cold.

There are a lot of entries from the adjoining counties of Wilson and one entry is an interview of a man named Blount Baker who was a slave in Wilson County.  Below is his interview.

Blount Baker

An interview with Blount Baker, 106 Spruce Street, Wilson, North Carolina.

“Yes’um, I ‘longed ter Marse Henry Allen of Wilson County an’ we always raise terbacker, Marse Henry wus good to us so we had a heap of prayer meetin’s an’ corn shuckin’s an’ such.

I ‘members de big meetin’s dat we’d have in de summer time an’ dat good singin’ we’d have when we’d be singin’ de sinners through.  We’d stay pretty nigh all night to make a sinner come through, an’ maybe de week atter de meetin’ he’d steal one of his marster’s hogs.  Yes’um, I’se had a bad time.

You know, missy, dar ain’t no use puttin’ faith in nobody, dey’d fool you ever time anyhow.  I know once a patteroller tol’ me dat iffin I’d give him a belt I found dat he’d let me go by ter see my gal dat night, but when he kotch me dat night, he whupped me.  I tol’ Marse Henry on him too so Marse Henry takes de belt away from him an’ gives me a possum fer hit.

I ain’t never hear Masrse Henry cuss but once an’ dat wus de time dat some gentlemens come ter de house an’ sez dat der am a war ‘twixt de north an’ de south. He sez den, ‘Let de damn yeller bellied Yankees come on an’ we’ll give’em hell an’ sen’ dem a-hoppin’ back ter de north in a hurry.’

We ain’t seen no Yankees ‘cept a few huntin’ Rebs.  Dey talk mean ter us an’ one of dem says dat we niggers am de cause of de war.  ‘Sir,’ I sez, ‘folks what am a wantin’ a war can always find a cause.’  He kicks me in de seat of de pants fer dat, so I hushes.

I stayed with Marse Henry till he died den I moved ter Wilson.  I has worked everwhere, terbacker warehouses an’ ever’thing. I’se gittin’ of my ole age pension right away an’ den de couty won’t haver ter support mi no mo’, dat is if dey have been supportin’ me on three dollars a month.”

Redwood Tree in Wilson

redwood tree 1redwood tree 2Wilson, NC has the tallest tree in the world.  Not this one specifically, but the Coastal Redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest species of tree in the world and Wilson has one.  A friend pointed it out to me recently and today I took some pictures.  I heard that it was one hundred years old and it is fairly girthy and as tall as the tallest hardwood around, but it is no Hyperion (the tallest tree in the world at 379.7 feet and 600 years old),  but it is very beautiful. I wish I knew the history of how it got here,  maybe one of my readers will tell me.

Update It seems that Our State Magazine had an article on the trees. There are actually ten of them and they are about 60 years old.  Read the piece for more info.