The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh
Courtier, soldier, explorer, colonist, scholar, family man, libertine: in his life Elizabeth's favourite played many parts, and posterity has accentuated each according to the needs of the time, as Robert Lawson-Peebles explains.
Nobody has ever doubted that Sir Walter Ralegh is a significant figure. The nature of his significance has however changed over time, and those changes are reflected in images of the man even more various than the spellings and pronunciations of his name. In part, the sheer variety of the images of Ralegh derives from the ways that he projected himself.
Self-presentation is often an important component of success, indeed seemed to be a requirement in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Historians and critics have remarked on the vital part played by the theatre and theatricality in Elizabethan culture. Role-playing was central to an ambitious man like Ralegh, and he played his parts to the hilt. But later ages asked him to play yet further roles, only some of which would he have recognised. Here we shall examine some of the ways in which Ralegh's reputation has been shaped and then reshaped to meet the demands of quite different times.
First of all, we need to establish the images which Ralegh used to present himself. The key is provided by one of Ralegh's followers, the cleric and geographer Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt claimed that his enormous collection, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, had been prompted by foreign disdain of the stay-at-home 'sluggish security' of the English. Hakluyt therefore constructed an English sea-going tradition starting in the time of King Alfred and ending with Ralegh and his shipmates. The exploits of Columbus set a particular challenge to the English, to which Hakluyt responded:
Suppose that Columbus, that noble and high-spirited Genoese, escried unknown lands to the Westward of Europe and Africa: did not the valiant English knight Sir Hugh Willoughby…?
That phrase, 'valiant English knight', applied to the man who died in 1554 in Lapland in search of the Northeast Passage to Cathay, shows that Hakluyt, in common with other Elizabethan writers, resorted to an allegory derived from medieval chivalry yet devoted to the service of a Protestant nation contesting others, principally Catholic Spain, for power and prestige.
For a number of reasons Ralegh was the ideal Renaissance version of the 'valiant English knight'. He was a dashing and handsome military and naval commander. He had led expeditions to Ireland and to the New World and had promoted settlement. He was, for a while, a favourite of Elizabeth I. In particular, he excelled at writing. Ralegh's friend Edmund Spenser said that he was 'the sommers Nightingale', writing poetry of 'melting sweetness'. His The Discovery of Guiana, first published in 1596, was so popular that it went through four editions that year, was promptly translated, and was included in the second edition of Hakluyt's Principal Navigations. As with every other activity, Ralegh wrote with a vigour bordering on, and sometimes becoming, fury. His most ambitious project was The History of the World, written during his long second sojourn in prison (1603-16), taking a million words to reach 130BC, and published in 1614.
The esteem given to Ralegh's writing was in part due to the way he adapted an allegory of chivalry. His version of the allegory had three linked components. In all of them Ralegh excelled. The first praised the absolute monarch at the hub of the nation, and the second laced delight with melancholy. There is probably no more adoring portrait of Elizabeth I than that contained in a letter written by Ralegh to Sir Robert Cecil in 1592. The queen had imprisoned him for marrying Elizabeth Throckmorton. Yet his description of her is one of longing rather than bitterness. He piles up similes to blend hyperbole with realism, history with myth; and then cuts them short with morbid reflection:
Behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her fair hair about her pure cheeks, like a nymph; sometime sitting in the shade like a Goddess; sometime singing like an angel; sometime playing like Orpheus. Behold the sorrow of this world! Once amiss [i.e. marrying], hath bereaved me of all. O Glory, that only shineth in misfortune, what is become of thy assurance?
Like others within the channed inner circle of Elizabeth's subjects, Ralegh paid court to her in a manner which distinguished worship from idolatry and combined ardour with chastity. Ralegh's melancholy shows that it was a delicate path to tread, and one that had clear limits. One of the sonnets in Spenser's sequence Amoretti (1595), written in praise of his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, could well be applied to the monarch: 'Let not one sparke of filthy lustfull fire/ Breake out, that may her sacred peace molest.'
The third element of the allegory was hatred of the Spanish. It took several forms. One that is relevant here is the belief that the Spanish were the bright sparks who fed the filthy lustful fire. Ralegh exceeds Spenser, extending the image of chastity from the queen to all women in order to distinguish English and Spanish modes of colonisation. The Spanish, he wrote, took the wives and daughters from the natives:
...and used them for the satisfying of their own lusts. But I protest before the majesty of the living God, that I neither know nor believe, that any of our company, by violence or otherwise, ever knew any of their women, and yet we saw many hundreds, and had many in our power, and of those very young, and excellently favoured, which came among us without deceit, stark naked.
The allegory of chivalry in which Ralegh clothed himself during his life fell away at the point of death. The report of his gallows speech of October 29th, 1618, presents a somewhat different picture from the one above:
He desired aile very earnestly to pray for him ffor he sayd he was a great Synner, for a long tyme, and in many kynde; his whole course was a course of vanity: A Seafaring man, a Souldior and a Courtier.
The various occupations are here seen as a vehicle for behaviour far removed from the image of chastity. This kind of imagery will recur.
If anything, Ralegh became more popular after his death. Early portrayals of him continued and embroidered the imagery of him as a valiant but fated English knight. Sir Robert Naunton's Fragmenta Regalta (1641) portrayed Ralegh as having 'a hand- some and well-compacted person, a strong naturall wit, and a better judgement, with a bold and plausible tongue' who had won his way into the favour of the queen, but in the process had created many enemies. As a result he had become Fortune's 'Tennis-Ball', tossed 'up of nothing, and to and fro to greatnesse, and from thence down to little more than to that wherein she found him'. Thomas Fuller added to Ralegh's fame by telling two anecdotes in The Worthies of England (1662). One gives us the couplet scratched in glass, the first line by Ralegh, the second in response by the queen:
'Fain would I climb, yet I fear to fall.'
'If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.'
The second is the most famous story of all:
This captain Ralegh, coming out of Ireland to the English court in good habit (his clothes being then a considerable part of his estate) found the queen walking, till meeting with a plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon. Presently [immediately] Ralegh cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground, whereon the queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a footcloth.
Fuller may have heard the two tales from his uncle Robert Townson, who as Dean of Westminster attended Ralegh in his last hours. They cannot be verified, indeed needed no verification at the time because they fitted the posthumous portrait of Ralegh.
Ralegh's Instructions to His Son fill out this portrait of the valiant English knight. Probably written between 1603 and 1605, the book was published in 1632 and was so popular that it quickly went through seven editions. Moral injunctions to male children, framed around the Ten Commandments, were common, and Ralegh's Instructions took its place alongside King James' Basilikon Doron and Lord Burghley's Certain Precepts. Among other things, Ralegh demands that his son obey God honour his family, and avoid such fleeting emotions as 'desire'. The Instructions give us a picture of Ralegh's family that was uncontentious, but that would change in a few years. Some posthumous images of Ralegh, however were more combative. This is certainly the case with his ghost, which in the period 1620 to 1705 made at least three appearances to uphold the honour of his Protestant country against the threat of Catholicism. Ralegh was regarded by some as a martyr, brought down by his intense hatred of Spain. Although he had been beheaded on a charge of treason, some believed that his death had been engineered by the Conde de Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador to the court of James I. Gondomar was thought to have wielded an unhealthy influence over James. This was not a safe belief to hold, as Thomas Gainsford found in 1620. Sir George Calvert, Secretary of State to James I, reported that he had discovered:
...that seditious book called Vox pupuli, whereof I have a hope to fynd out the author, and am now busy about it, having upon search of a suspitious person found out another pamphlett in his chamber of the like nature intituled Sir Walter Raleighes ghost... it is as seditious a booke as the other, yf not much worse, but not yet printed. The author is a poore Captaine about London, one Gainsford, whom I have committed to prison, and shall upon this see yf I can worke out the other
It is likely that 'Sir Walter Raleighes ghost' had been circulated in manuscript. It dramatises the attack on Gondomar contained in Vox Populi by depicting a conference between the Spanish ambassador and a Jesuit implicated in the Gunpowder Plot which is interrupted by the apparition, who calls on Parliament and the City of London to defend the country against the spread of 'popery'. The author, Gainsford, died of the plague in 1624. His 'Raleighes ghost' was published until 1983, by Exeter University Press, by which time it had ceased to be seditious.
Calvert failed to 'worke out the other'. He was Thomas Scott who escaped to the Netherlands where he published a sequel to Gainsford’s pamphlet in 1626, the year that he was assassinated. Sir Walter Rawleigh’ s Ghost Or England's Forewarner is a vivid example of Hispanophobia. This time Gondomar is alone; revealing his true nature with ‘antick postures, mums, moes and monkey-wry faces'. Ralegh appears before him, dressed in silver armour and brandishing his sword. Prostrate with fear, Gondomar admits that he has been 'a channel or a common sewer' for executing the intentions of the church of Rome. Ralegh warns him:
I, thy tormentor, will never be absent from thine elbow, and whatsoever thou shalt contrive or plot for the hurt of Great Britain, I, with the help of the holy angels, will return upon thine own bosom, and the bosom of thy country, for the God of heaven and earth... hath made royal King Charles, and his throne, precious in his sight...
Within fourteen years Ralegh's allegiance had changed. The silver armour had been replaced by home-spun. Hints in the work of Gainsford and Scott of Ralegh's support for Parliament had been elevated into republicanism. As Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently put it, Ralegh had become 'the idol of earnest, conventional, parsimonious, provincial, puritan inland squires' who, in abolishing 'the last Renaissance court in Europe... did it in the name of the greatest of all courtiers and virtuosi, Sir Walter Raleigh'. Christopher Hill has presented in careful detail the reasons why Ralegh was so highly regarded by such republicans as Oliver Cromwell, James Harrington and John Milton. All three were deeply influenced by the accounts of the consequences of tyranny in Ralegh's History of the World, and in 1658 Milton published The Cabinet-Council, a collection of aphorisms on liberty and statesmanship that he attributed, wrongly, to Ralegh. Over a century later, Ralegh was esteemed for similar reasons by the American revolutionaries. In July 1775, for instance, the newspaper the Pennsylvania Packet published 'An Elegy to the Memory of Doctor Warren', the patriot leader killed at Bunker Hill. It portrays a number of patriots of former days in the procession of Joseph Warren, with Ralegh at their head. In 1776 the American navy named a frigate the Raleigh, an irony that doubtless was not appreciated by the Royal Navy.
The Restoration of 1660 probably caused a change in Ralegh's dress. It certainly changed his behaviour, per- haps following the hint in his gallows speech, into that of a rake. John Aubrey's Brief Life probably written around 1679-80, tells a number of naughty stories about Ralegh, including one in which Ralegh had pinned a maid of honour against a tree. Her protestations changed 'as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher' from 'Sweet Sir Walter' to 'Swisser Swatter'. Aubrey gave no source for the tale, but it was so widely known that it was set to music by Henry Purcell in 1701. Aubrey claimed that James Harrington told him another story, of a dinner attended by Ralegh and his son, who:
...sate next to his Father and was very demure at leaste halfe dinner time. Then sayd he, I this morning... went to a Whore. I was very eager of her, kissed and embraced her, and went to enjoy her, but she thrust me from her, and vowed I should not, For your father lay with me but an hower ago. Sir Walt, being so strangely supprized and put out of his countenance at so great a Table, gives his son a damned blow over the face; his son, as rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face of the Gentleman that sate next to him, and sayed, Box about, 'twill come to my Father anon. 'Tis now a common used Proverb.
Within forty years of Aubrey's biography the imagery of Ralegh had once again changed radically, giving him a paternity far greater than that suggested by Aubrey, and one that would have an indelible influence on the symbolism of the United States. In 1719 the poet, essayist and playwright George Sewell published The Tragedy of Sir Walter Raleigh. It was his greatest success. By 1722 the play had gone through five editions. Sewell's Ralegh, like Aubrey's, is noted for his intense hatred of the Spanish and for his heroism. But his moral behaviour has changed markedly. Sewell's Ralegh is so irreproachable that he fills his nation not only with 'Contempt of Danger' but also with 'the Love of Virtue'. Above all, this Ralegh is a loving family man. In contrast, the Spanish and their English lackeys are presented as inveterate enemies of domesticity, urged on by the celibate priests and politicians of Rome. Ralegh loves his family so much that he tries to escape his fate but, of course, fails. This new image of Ralegh found its way into accounts of his life. The antiquarian William Oldys, who produced the first substantial biography of Ralegh in 1736, admitted 'this matter of devirginating a maid of honour', but asserted that Ralegh married the woman and that 'they lived together afterward in the most exemplary degree of conjugal harmony'. John Campbell's 1748 Lives of the Admirals made no such admission. Among the many qualities of this paragon were those of 'a beneficent Master, a kind Husband, an affectionate Father'.
The new view of Ralegh is the creation of familialism, the belief in the importance of family life, in blood ties, and in the relationship between the individual and the national family. One of the major documents in the ideology of familialism is Joseph Addison's 1713 play, Cato. The play was a great success, and it was soon joined by others which portrayed heroes who were both patriotic and patriarchal: not only Sewell's Raleigh but also Thomson and Mallet's Alfred of 1740 (which included the song 'Rule Britannia'), and Henry Brooke's Gustavus Vasa (1739), about Gustav I of Sweden. Such plays were popular in the colonies as well as in Britain. This was entirely appropriate, for familialism fitted easily with imperialism.
The image of Ralegh as an imperialist stands in stark contrast to the changes I have noted so far, a constant that would last to this day. Ralegh's hatred of Spain was only one reason for his desire to strip Spain of its empire. His Hispanophobia meshed with a comprehensive imperialist policy which included settlement and trade. It was in this respect that the English Puritans had some reason to regard Ralegh as a predecessor. Indeed, English overseas policy throughout the seventeenth century owed much to Ralegh. It follows that the distinction drawn between the cultures of cavalier Virginia and Puritan New England is less clear than is sometimes supposed. For instance, in 1623 there was a proposal for the settlement of New England not as a Godly sanctuary but rather to provide a commercial market, and a potential home both for the unemployed and for the impoverished gentry. In April 1654 Robert Venables, a protagonist of Cromwell's Western Design,
...resolved through the blessing of God, to send an army into America, for securing and increasing the interest of this commonwealth in those parts, and for opposing, weakening, and destroying that of the Spaniards, who under a pretence of the pope's donation claims all that part of the world.
Eight months later Venables co-led a force bound for the West Indies, for Cromwell, like Venables, followed Ralegh in believing that title was established by occupation, not by religious decree.
Two texts perpetuated the image of Ralegh the imperialist. One, of course, was the reprint of his The Discovery of Guiana in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations. It was treated as a practical guide, and was supplied to every vessel of the East India Company. The other was 'Observations touching Trade and Commerce with the Hollander and other Nations', first published in 1656 but supposedly presented by Ralegh to James I around 1617. William Oldys suggested in 1736 that this essay could not have been written by Ralegh, and this was confirmed by a German scholar in 1877. But everyone believed that it was, and numbers of tracts referred to 'Observations touching Trade' to support their mercantile arguments. For instance, Roger Coke's 1670 A Discourse of Trade referred to Ralegh and suggested that other countries were enriching themselves by taking English commodities; while in 1680 the anonymous Britannia Languens, or a Discourse of Trade cited him in asserting that 'no Nation in the World is naturally so adapted for a mighty Trade'.
Imperialist and familiarist images of Ralegh were united in an anonymous publication of 1773, entitled The History of the British Dominions in North America. It follows Hakluyt in challenging Columbus' priority in America. Although these claims dispossess the Spaniards, the main target of The History of the British Dominions is the French. It darkly portrays the French as sneaking down the Mississippi behind the British colonists so as to cut off westward expansion and eventually become masters of the whole continent although it claims that the 'boundaries of the British settlements... had always been considered illimitable'. Such aggressive and perfidious imperialism led inevitably, in the view of The History, to the French and Indian War. The fight against the French, it said was 'truly national' and sprung' from a root truly English', identifying the root as Sir Walter Ralegh, for:
...the English planted no colonies there until the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who granted a patent to Sir Walter Raleigh... in 1584... This illustrious man may be considered as the father of the British Colonies.
Inevitably, The History of the British Dominions in North America had a short shelf-life. The familialist plays lasted longer, some of them continuing to be popular in the United States until well after the Revolution. Gustavus Vasa was last printed in the United States in 1824 and Cato in 1806. Indeed, their influence has lasted to this day, and part of that influence links Sir Walter Ralegh and George Washington.
Washington's fondness for Cato is well known; he frequently quoted from it and he had his troops perform it to give them backbone during the hard winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. That play, and familial dramas like The Tragedy of Sir Walter Raleigh, had a deep impact on the most famous biography of Washington, by Mason Weems. The Life of Washington shows that Weems was familiar with supposed incidents in the lives of King Alfred and Sir Walter Ralegh; and it is this biography that gives us the anecdote about the cherry tree. It is put there, of course, to allow Weems to moralise about the value of family life. Weems shows Washington's family expanding as he grows older, moving from blood relations to his soldiers and finally to the entire nation. Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, for instance, is quoted in its entirety because it is his 'Legacy' to the nation, read, says Weems, 'with the feelings of children reading the last letter of a once-loved father now in his grave'. It is possible to suggest, then, that the image of George Washington, 'the father of his country', owes something to the image of Sir Walter as 'the father of the British Colonies'. Lurking behind the Gilbert Stuart painting of the solemn man with the plain face and wooden teeth is the ghost of an altogether more exotic figure with an Elizabethan moustache and pointed beard. A letter to The Times in 1996 suggested that the statue of Ralegh at Whitehall would be more suitably sited alongside that of Washington in front of the National Gallery. If the suggestion were carried out, it would symbolise a link between the two men already buried deep in the iconography of both countries.
In the 220 years since the Revolution both Britain and the United States have laid claim to Ralegh. In 1834 the American historian George Bancroft remarked that Ralegh's 'fame belongs to American history'. In 1841 the writer Isaac D'Israeli, father of the British statesman and novelist, began his 'Psychological History' of the man by responding that 'Rawleigh is a great name in our history, and fills a space in our imagination'. The space in the imagination of both nations has tended to be the same: about occupying space. An early example of the more recent imagery of Ralegh is to be found in the American poet Joel Barlow's 1807 'The Columbiad'. Once again Ralegh wears mail. This time he brandishes his sword not against Spain or Rome, but rather westward:
His eye, bent forward, ardent and sublime,
Seem'd piercing nature and evolving time.
Beside him stood a globe, whose figure traced
A future empire in each present waste...
This Ralegh has been portrayed as a servant of imperialism, both British and American.
Appropriately, Ralegh's life has sometimes been cast as an adventure story for boys. Millais' 'The Boyhood of Raleigh' portrays the lad listening raptly to an old salt who is pointing westward. The painting was so popular that in 1932 the tobacco firm of W.D. and H.O. Wills (perhaps also in response to Ralegh's reputation as a populariser of smoking) issued a Cigarette Card of the painting to be collected along with Yeames' 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?'
Ralegh was clearly an inspiration to one of the most famous British imperialists of our century. In 1897 John Buchan published his Oxford Prize Essay on Ralegh, and in 1912 he wrote a life 'told in eleven stories' aimed at boys of similar age to the Ralegh in Millais' painting. In the preface Buchan asserted that 'the British Empire of to-day, and the Republic of the United States, are alike built on his dreams'. Americans responded accordingly. In an essay published in The Nation shortly after Theodore Roosevelt's death in January 1919, Frederick Tupper portrayed the twenty-sixth President as Ralegh reborn, a scholar-adventurer who would speak out, warning against the imperial pretensions of other nations:
...the Englishman's vivid warnings against the Spanish menace of world- dominion find their closest analogue in the American's fervent kindling of his countrymen against the threatening Gennany of the Hohenzollerns.
In the Second World War, Ralegh tended to be recast as an intelligent patriot rather than as an imperialist. Initially this put him on the home front. In the nervous days of May 1939, the Cornish scholar A.L. Rowse wrote a letter to The Spectator, which the paper headed 'Sir Walter Ralegh and National Defence', suggesting that Ralegh's efforts in 'the routine of defence and national service' should be an inspiration to people now preparing to meet another foe. In 1941, however, Ralegh was shipped overseas when a schoolteacher, Eric Ecclestone, published a popular biography clearly intended for members of the forces and portraying Ralegh as a paradigm of the intellectual warrior of the kind 'found in a modern figure like T.E. Lawrence'.
There have been so many images associated with Ralegh that it is surprising that, since the War, he has made relatively few appearances outside the realm of scholarship. In 1955 the Twentieth Century-Fox film The Virgin Queen provided a garbled version of his earlier life, counterpointing marriage and imperialism. Richard Todd played a proud roistering Ralegh in red knickerbockers. An irascible Bette Davis in the title role imprisoned him for marrying the pregnant Elizabeth Throckmorton, played by a young Joan Collins. The film ends as the Virgin Queen relents, allowing Ralegh to sail west. Perhaps the film was made to take advantage of the 'New Elizabethanism' which dates back to the Second World War but which received a new lease of life with the coronation of Elizabeth II in June 1953. If so, its imperial message received a prompt setback with the Suez failure of 1956.
By 1975 the Irish poet Seamus Heaney was portraying Ralegh in wholly negative terms. 'Ocean's Love to Ireland', to be found in the collection North, changes the title of a poem that Ralegh wrote to Elizabeth I and uses Aubrey's 'Swisser Swatter' episode as a metaphor of England's rape of Ireland. Since then Ralegh, it seems, has absented himself from British iconography. It may be due to a failure of national confidence. He did not reappear during the Falklands War, or during the conflicts between Eurosceptic Conservative politicians and the bogeymen of Brussels. On one famous occasion Margaret Thatcher dressed as Elizabeth I, but she seemed to find no Ralegh among her many Courtiers. Maybe it was because she herself had supplanted Ralegh by more frequently assuming the role of an earlier English warrior, Britannia. Now that this modem Britannia has taken a back seat, perhaps Ralegh will reappear, bearing the red rose of the New Labour Government.
For Further Reading:
Sir Walter Ralegh, Selected Writings, ed. Gerald Hammond (Penguin, 1986); Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries (Penguin, 1972); John Aubrey, Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick (Penguin, 1962); Steven W. May, Sir Walter Ralegb (Twayne Publishers, 1989); Stephen J. Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegb: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (Yale University Press, 1973); H.R. Trevor-Roper, 'The Last Elizabethan', Historical Essays (Macmillan, 1957); Christopher Hill, The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Clarendon Press, 1965); Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (Yale University Press, 1981); Peter Karsten, Patriot-Heroes In England and America: Political Symbolism and Changing Values over Three Centuries (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); Melvin Yazawa, From Colonies to Commonwealth: Familial Ideology and the Beginnings of the American Republic (John Hopkins University Press, 1985).
- Robert Lawson-Peebles is a Senior Lecturer at the Exeter University's School of Englisb. He has published three books on American landscape and one on the American Musical. His Interests are mainly in eighteenth- and twentieth-century transatlantic relations.
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