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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s