Elizabeth Ralegh, née Throckmorton

Elizabeth Ralegh


Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Ralegh was a daughter of the influential and controversial Throckmorton family. She has one biography: My Just Desire, by Anna Beer (2003; Ballantine Books.) I don’t love this book, but Beer did a good job of fleshing out the skimpy historical record typical for women of that time, even important ones like Bess.

My chief objection is the author’s attempt to cast Bess as a victim of an over-weening, self-absorbed man (Sir Walter Ralegh.) I’ve blogged about this biography once before, as an example of egregious bias in historical writing — Beer really hates Sir Walter!

True, he was widely regarded as arrogant beyond belief, but I think Bess would have been offended by being characterized as a victim. She married the most desirable man in England, for crying out loud! Also, he was wealthy, while she had nothing but a mixed bag of relations. He had lands, lucrative offices, fine houses, and ships. She had the clothes she stood up in — and herself. She must have been quite an interesting lady.

The early years

Bess was born 16 April, 1565, making her four years younger than my lodestone, Francis Bacon. Sir Walter was born in 1544; ten years older. Her father, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, was an important diplomat. Her mother Anna was a daughter of Sir Nicholas Carew, another solid gentry family who served the Tudor monarchs.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, by unknown artist, circa 1562, National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG 3800, via Wikipedia

Sir Nicholas managed to keep his head through the hazardous middle years of the sixteenth century, coming out on top as one of Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador’s to France. A. L. Rowse spends several chapters on Sir Nick in his book about Sir Walter (see below), but frankly, the guy makes me sleepy.

He was one of eight children of Sir George Throckmorton of Coughton Court, a place I’ve visited and taken many, many, many pictures of. Fantastic rose gardens, tended by modern Throckmortons. Such a lovely thing to turn to, after centuries of religious controversy.

The Throckmortons had contenders on both sides of those religious controversies. My personal favorite is Job Throckmorton, leading contender for the mastermind behind Martin Marprelate, about whom I’ve blogged not once, but twice. Martin was a naughty, articulate, daring, radical Puritan. Job was about Ralegh’s age and a nephew of Sir Nicholas, so a cousin of Bess. That’s one side of the family.

On the other side was Francis Throckmorton, convicted in 1583 of plotting and planning the Throckmorton Plot (in a history that could have been written by Dr. Seuss.) The plan was to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, returning England to the Catholic fold. Cousin Francis was executed in July, 1584, when Bess was 19 years old. How would you like going to court with an assassination plot hanging on your family name? 

More interesting to me is the fact that Bess had six older brothers. Perhaps that’s why she made such a good match for the matchless Ralegh? Although I don’t know how many of those brothers, or the four younger ones and two sisters, survived even into adolescence. Typical would be fewer than half.

Bess seems to have been especially close with her brother Arthur, the second eldest son. He and his wife Anne had a house in Mile End, which was a village one mile northeast of the center of London. That’s where the Raleghs’ first child was born. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber

Bess was made a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber in November, 1584 — just three months after her cousin was executed for treason. My historians don’t say this, but it’s reasonable to suppose Queen Elizabeth brought young Bess into her intimate circle to show the family – and the rest of England – that she held no grudge against Throckmortons in general. Nice of her, I think.

I promise to blog more about being a GPC in future. In the meantime, here are some tasty details from Beer’s book about that exalted position.

Elizabeth in the 1580s, by George Gower.

Bess received a salary: £33 s6 d8 per annum, plus her meals and meals for 3 servants. By comparison, a manservant might earn about two and a half pounds a year. A country parson made about one pound. A country gentleman lived comfortably on £50 – £150. A young gentleman at one of the Inns of Court might be able to scrape by on £50. So Bess was paid on the same scale as a young gentleman, minus the standard discount for being a woman.

She also got clothes for day wear and special occasions; even sometimes, perhaps, a cast-off from the Queen herself. She’d probably wear it once and then sell it, with a hefty mark-up for having touched the person of Gloriana Herself.

Note that dresses like the one in the portrait here weren’t worn and passed on. They were property of the state, valuable assets.

A lute, by Hans Holbein

Bess would have one woman in personal attendance upon her and a chambermaid to keep her room and clothes clean. Both women would wear her livery. She probably shared lodgings while at court, because they were desperately overcrowded all the time. She must have had at least a couple of stalwart allies, to help cover up her affair with Ralegh — not to mention the subsequent pregnancy.

(Note: I only give characters in my books one servant, if any, to keep from cluttering the story up with characters. In reality, none of my people would go anywhere without a couple of attendants.)

GPCs were expected to embody all the virtues of a woman: chaste, obedient, silent; but also learned, witty, and charming. Absolute loyalty was a must. Also the ability to amuse one’s fellow courtiers in masques, etc. Also be good at dancing, able to sing, and play at least one instrument. Elizabeth spoke and read six languages. She doubtless expected her courtiers to be able to converse with visitors to the court as well.

Although how you’re supposed to be both witty and silent is a bit of a conundrum…

A Secret Marriage

Enter the Favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh: tall, dark, and blazingly self-confident. He arrived around 1584, not long before Bess, although he must have been wholly focused on the queen at first. I blogged about his outer life not long ago. A post about the inner man will get written soonish.

He must have been The Topic among the gentlewomen for quite a while. Then there must have been frowns on a lot of pretty young faces when dower-less Bess Throckmorton walked off with the prize. Amazingly, none of her fellow GPCs squealed on her.

A pregnant Austrian lady from about the same time.

I work through the timeline of their affair in the earlier post about Ralegh. Briefly, the affair began before end of June, 1591. Bess and Walter married — at Arthur’s house, I think — in November. It was a huge secret, even though the Earl of Essex was a witness.

Bess must have been about four months pregnant when they married. I’ve been told that’s how long it could take to be sure, back in the days before effective tests. I can just imagine the worried – and excited – conversations they must have had. “Are you sure?” Walter asked. Bess shrugged. “We could wait one more month,” she said. Peril in all directions, for both of them, during those months on tenterhooks.

Son Damerei was born at Arthur’s house on 29 March, 1592. They chose that unusual name because “Ralegh had ‘proved’ with the aid of a genealogist that he was descended from the Plantagenets.” Sir John de Ralegh married the daughter of de Amerie of Clare, a relation of Edward I. De Amerie –> Damerei; get it? That’s actually not Ralegh showing his supreme arrogance; it’s typical of a middle-status Elizabethan to scour the records for some slender thread leading to royalty.

Bess continued to serve as a GPC through most of her pregnancy. She had to! She couldn’t spend more than two weeks away from court without having to explain herself. She would also lose the privilege of maintenance for her servants. This rule was meant both to keep track of nobility and to make sure they actually did the jobs for which they received compensation and favors.

View of Durham House, The Strand, London, from the river. 1828. Thomas Allen.

One month after Damerei’s birth, Bess sent him to Enflield, a little way north of London, to be cared for by a nurse (meant literally in those days). Bess went right back to work in the Queen’s privy chambers. She must have had good friends among the other GPCs to keep her condition secret before and after. And she must have had tremendous fortitude herself.

Ralegh went to sea in May. Bess recklessly brought the baby to Durham House on the Strand to spend a little time with him. Understandable, but not wise; Robert Cecil had a house on the Strand too, and spies galore. He discovered the Raleghs’ secret around this time. He already knew about the marriage. I don’t know why he kept their secret for so long; waiting for a time of maximum advantage, perhaps.

Rumors started spreading from late May, although the Queen still held her hand. She even transferred the rich estate of Sherborne to Ralegh in June. But everyone who was anyone was watching and waiting for the axe to fall. This from Rowse: “At the end of July, Sir Edward Stafford wrote Anthony Bacon from Court: ‘if you have anything to do with Sir Walter Ralegh, or any love to make to Mistress Throckmorton, at the Tower tomorrow you may speak with them.'” (That would’ve been funny, back in the day.)

Foolishly, the guilty couple made no effort during this time to beg for clemency. They could’ve thrown themselves at Elizabeth’s feet. Ralegh could have pleaded his natural desire for children. Bess could have said, “When you admired this man, how I could, so much the weaker, not do the same?” But they did no such thing. They continued to sneak around, acting like nothing untoward had passed between them. Rowse thinks Elizabeth gave them time to apologize, to explain. They didn’t take it.

So on Monday, 7 August, 1592, she sent them both to the Tower. Here’s a letter from Bess, quoted in Rowse. (Bess is famous for her free-spirited spelling.) “I am dayly put in hope of my delivery I assur you treuly I never desiared nor never wolde desiar my lebbarti with out the good likeking ne advising of Sur W. R. : hit tis not this in prisonment if I bought hit with my life that shulde make me thinkehit long if hit shuld doo him harme…”

Rowse interprets this letter as an expression of optimism. I’ll take his word for it.

Her Husband’s Advocate

A typical day at the office for Sir Walter Ralegh

They let Ralegh out in five weeks to send him down to the coast to resolve some ship-related conflict. He was the best at that work. Bess was kept prisoner until the end of the year. She wasn’t hurt. The upper crust had a decent room and good food. Friends and relations could come to visit and bring the baby, I think. No one says.

She went to Sherborne on her release, re-united with husband and son. Second son Walter was born there in 1593. They had a third child, Carew, in 1605. Ralegh was in prison again. In addition to managing their estates and rearing the children, Bess kept up an active correspondence with everyone who could do Ralegh any good, especially after Elizabeth died. King James never liked him.

Her principal correspondent was Sir Robert Cecil, the most powerful man in the kingdom. Sometimes she had news to offer him, maintaining the value of her communications. After one of Ralegh’s voyages, rumors were running rampant about the riches he had captured. Here’s one last sample of her prose: “Sur hit tes trew I thonke the leveng God Sur Walter is safly londed at Plumworthe with as gret honnor as ever man can, but with littell riches. Kepe thies I besech you to your selfe yet; himself will now. Pardon my rewed wryteng with the goodnes of the newes.”

Cecil probably had a secretary who could convert this into something more legible.

Ralegh was executed on 29 October, 1618. Bess spent much time thereafter in the Court of Chancery, suing and being sued for all sorts of old debts. Francis Bacon had recently been appointed Lord Chancellor; he must have heard and judged some of her cases.

We don’t seem to know much about Bess’s last years. She died around 1647, at the respectable age of 82. I choose to think she looked back on the winding stair of her life and said, “Oh, yeah. It was worth it.”


Beer, Anna. 2003. My Just Desire: The Life of Bess Raleigh, Wife to Sir Walter. Ballantine Books.

Rowse, A.L. 1962. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Whitelock, Anna. 2013. The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Sir Walter Raleigh: the outer man

Sir Walter in 1588, at age 34. Note the pearl earring and impeccable style.

Sir Walter plays a role in my fifth Francis Bacon mystery, Let Slip the Dogs, so it’s time for a post about this extraordinary man. There’s a great Wikipedia article about him, full of illustrations, which doesn’t need repeating. But I’m going to do two posts: this one to lay out the essential facts of Ralegh’s life, and another to share some insights about the inner man.

I find Ralegh fascinating, frankly, and he’s a fun character for my books, especially since I don’t have to write from his point of view. Francis Bacon must have spent many, many hours in his proximity, if not in his company, standing around in the presence chamber. Robert Cecil both schemed against him and recruited him, when necessary. Courtiers hated him; common sailors loved him. Through all the centuries since his death, he has been regarded as the quintessential Elizabethan.

About Sir Walter’s last name: He evidently spelled it ‘Ralegh’ more often than not in the many extant samples of his signature. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days, remember. You’d just follow whatever your ear told you at the moment of writing. Modern historians usually write ‘Ralegh,’ so I did too, in the first book in this series, Murder by Misrule. Since we don’t follow a variable spelling policy nowadays, that fixed my choice once and for all.


The early years

Combe Raleigh Church

Walter was born around 1554, exact date unknown. They were just beginning to keep good parish records in mid-sixteenth century. And no one could have predicted how famous that infant would become!

To the earls (Leicester, Oxford, and Essex) whom Ralegh displaced from the Queen’s side, he was an “upstart Jack,” a nobody. But in fact, his family, like theirs, extended all the way back to the Conquest. A Ralegh was Sheriff of Devon during the reign of Henry II. Another was a judge of King’s Bench; another was bishop of Winchester in the thirteenth century.

A.L. Rowse (see below) notes that one can get a sense of the medieval family’s importance by looking at a map of Devon, spotting towns like Withycombe Ralegh, Coalton Ralegh, and Combe Ralegh.

The family declined in fortune, if not in status. They continued to marry into Devonshire’s upper crust: Champernownes, Grenvilles, Carews. Walter’s mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne of Modbury (a very hip town, one presumes). Her first husband was Otho Gilbert of Compton Castle near Torquay.

Humphrey Gilbert

Lady Elizabeth bore sons with many strong qualities. Walter’s step-brothers were John, Adrian, and Humphrey Gilbert. Humphrey became obsessed with discovering the fabled Northwest Passage to Cathay – rumored to lie in the northern wastes of what we now know as Canada. He exhausted the family fortune in that vain and grandiose pursuit.

John Gilbert, like Ralegh’s full brother Carew Ralegh, was “mean and acquisitive,” in Rowse’s words. Adrian Gilbert was “a dabbler in astrology, alchemy, and necromancy.”

All young men of good family were expected to receive a modicum of formal education, so Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford, for the token year. The Inns of Court were next on the standard program, so he became a member of the Middle Temple, where he distinguished himself by fooling around with a semi-wild gang; more or less standard issue for gentlemen with no desire to become barristers. He also started writing poetry, some of which has survived.

Little is known about these years, but we can readily assume that Ralegh had an eye out for the main chance. A man with his vision, intelligence, and drive would sit around playing cards for long. We know that he entered the service of the Earl of Oxford. That must have been quite a clash. Ralegh was a true Protestant and a hard-working man of serious purpose; the earl had none of those qualities.

Killua Castle

Ralegh left Oxford for Leicester, where he must have been put to better use. Leicester, the Queen’s one true love, was also a hard-working administrator. 

Ralegh fought for the Huguenots – French Protestants – in France from 1569, popping back and forth from battlefield to university. He fought in Ireland between 1579 and 1583, participating in the Desmond Rebellion. That service earned him 40,000 acres of Irish lands. It also commended him to the Queen and her counselors. He spent some of his time in Killua Castle in Clonmellon County — a big step up from chambers in the Middle Temple.

The rise

To get a sense of what Elizabeth saw in the 27-year-old adventurer when first they met, click on over to the National Portrait Gallery to take a gander at Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait. Ooh. La. La. You don’t meet many cis men nowadays who can rock that much lace. Ralegh was also witty and well-read and not intimidated by Her Majesty. I imagine him looking her in the eye to answer her tricky philosophical questions boldly, if respectfully. She was in her early 50s when they met.

Elizabeth in 1585, by William Segar

Walter’s mother had a sister named Katherine, or Kat, who married Sir John Ashley and became Princess Elizabeth’s governess — the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Her recommendation was crucial in the advancement of her nephew. Perhaps through her influence, Ralegh was granted a charter to send ships to the New World in 1585. By all accounts, he dreamed of being an English conquistador, discovering new sources of wealth and glory to lay at the feet of his monarch.

That venture failed, as we know, but it left his name all over our eastern seaboard, even though he never came to our shores himself. It also gave him lots of great stories with which to beguile his queen. That part of their relationship was just about the only thing in Elizabeth: The Golden Age that rang true for me.

She knighted Ralegh in 1585. Interestingly, she never granted him any grander title. She was a shrewd judge of character. She doubtless recognized that elevating Ralegh to the peerage would disrupt the artful balance she maintained among her ministers, giving an innately powerful man too much practical power.

Ralegh, as we can see, was tall, handsome, and bold. He had shining dark eyes, a flair for dramatic self-presentation, and a naturally curly beard. His courage had been proven over and again, as had his administrative abilities. He reportedly only slept 4-5 hours a night and he wrote excellent poetry.

But, according to Rowse, “It was his intellectual gifts that completed the conquest of the Queen: the force and originality of his mind, the constant flow of ideas, his readiness or ‘wit’ as Elizabethans called it, allied to his natural eloquence and persuasiveness, the very ardour, that fascinated this remarkable woman, herself an intellectual, as much as his looks, his vigour and virility.”

The fall

Sherborne Castle

Ralegh’s natural arrogance had grown to monumental proportions. His near-instantaneous rise to favor inspired great envy, which he chose to exacerbate, rather than mitigate. He became “the best-hated man in the country” — at least, among the political class. Ordinary folks in the West Country loved him and he treated them fairly. His expensive costumes were considered outrageous even in this Age of Swank, but they weren’t expressions of personal vanity. Like the Queen, he understood the value of showmanship.

By 1591, Ralegh had plantations in Ireland, Durham House on the Strand in Westminster, and Sherbourne Abbey in Dorset. When the Babington Plot was exposed, Elizabeth gave him all of Anthony Babington’s lands and manors, right down to the furniture.

Ralegh held the right to grant licenses to sell wine, which netted him some L1100 a year — enough to support a peer. Some people hated him just for that. He also held the right to grant licenses to sell wool, England’s major export. Elizabeth made him Lord Warden of the Stannaries (tin mines), Lord-Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Vice-Admiral for both Devon and Cornwall. These were important posts that brought him considerable revenues, but also cost him plenty in travel expenses, clerks, etc. He “performed his duties efficiently and without complaint.”

Tin mine west of St. Agnes, Cornwall. Probably not Elizabethan, but evocative.

Elizabeth raised him high, but Rowse writes, “… it is important to realise the underlying assumption that these rewards were in return for service to Queen and state. On her side she certainly attached a remarkably able man to the chariot of the state and got manful service out of him.”

Ralegh had everything in 1591: honors, lands to support, and a great estate in which to establish his family. Except he had no family — no wife and no sons to carry on his name. Sometime before the summer of 1591, he embarked on a clandestine affair with Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, who will get her own post in a few weeks. We know the season, because she gave birth to his son, Damerei, on 29 March, 1592. The couple married in great secrecy in November, 1591.

Bess returned to court almost immediately, leaving the baby with a nurse in Enfield (on the western outskirts of London today.) She said nothing, simply took up her old duties. As late as 10 March, 1592, Ralegh was still holding up the lie, writing to snooping Robert Cecil that if he had married, he would surely have told Cecil about it first, of all people. Ha!

Ralegh set sail with a fleet heading for the West Indies on 6 May. Elizabeth constrained him to go no farther than Spain, so he was back by 12 May. Bess brought the baby boy to Durham House; recklessly, but his father wanted to see him. Robert Cecil nosed the infant out around 28 May.

The Tower of London

By early June, Ralegh was feeling the first ripples of Her Majesty’s rising wrath, though no direct consequences have yet transpired. He writes to Robert Cecil, “So I leave to trouble you at this time, being become like a fish cast on dry land, gasping for breath, with lame legs and lamer lungs. Yours, for the little while I shall desire to do you service.”

Rumors of his impending disgrace spread rapidly, fueled by vengeful delight. By July, no serious harm had befallen the couple, though they had both grievously deceived Her Majesty’s trust. Rowse writes, “what settled the fate of the guilty couple was the utter absence of any expression of contrition, apology or regret.” 

You know, that chaps my hide too, when people screw me up in some heedless or incompetent way, then refuse to acknowledge their error and take responsibility. I’m with Elizabeth on this one. Ralegh could have pleaded his very normal desire for an heir and probably persuaded her to let him marry, if he’d tried.

She sent them to the Tower, lodged separately, on 7 August. He stayed there for 5 weeks, until they needed him to sort out the chaos resulting from the capture of the Spanish treasure ship, Madre de Dios. Bess spent the rest of the year in prison, but Ralegh was too useful to be wasted. He and Robert Cecil toiled together to record and divide those fantastic spoils.

Ralegh was a free man after that, though barred from the Queen’s presence — and that avenue of influence. He still held all his important West Country offices; only a fool would fire so able an officer. He had his lands. As falls go, it could’ve been worse.

The restoration

The Raleghs retired to Sherborne Castle, which they promptly began to repair and remodel. Ralegh was returned to Parliament from the town of Mitchell — a nothing place, but it got him in the door. He performed admirably, speaking persuasively about the need to support the French king against the Catholic League. He proposed a new tax subsidy, but argued that the “three pound men be spared, and the sum which came from them to be levied upon those of ten pound and upwards.” That’s annual income, those three pounds. Spare the poor, was the message, even though they couldn’t do anything for him. It speaks well of him. His stock rose among the gentlemen of the House of Commons, which Rowse thinks played a role in his positive posthumous reputation.

He wrote constantly to Sir Robert Cecil, now his only hope of restoration to the Queen’s good favor. We call that ‘irony.’ The last thing Cecil the Dwarf wanted was irresistible Sir Walter Ralegh back in the Queen’s daily view.

Ralegh also started plotting another voyage, this time to Guiana. He’d heard about Antonio de Berrio’s discovery of a route to the upper Orinoco River basin, where de Berrio was certain El Dorado could at last be found. In 1594, Ralegh sold some property and sent Captain Jacob Whiddon to Trinidad to scope out the situation. Both Lord Admiral Howard and Sir Robert invested in the expedition.

Somehow, Ralegh persuaded himself that the expedition had been successful and outfitted another one in 1595, which he led himself. He captured Berrio and made a mildly positive impression on the local chiefs — who would prefer anything to more Spaniards. He ransomed a few Spanish coastal towns to pay the expenses, which means he stood his ships in the harbor and threatened to bombard them with cannon fire until they coughed up a few sacks of gold.

discovery_guiana_ucsdHe became as obsessed with Guiana as his step-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, had been with that non-existent Northwest Passage. So many mysterious places left in the world back then! Ralegh wrote a book about his voyage, the first to be published under his name. It was hugely popular; people had an appetite for books about the New World.

Ralegh wasn’t allowed to return to court until 1597, after the victorious Battle of Cadiz. Sir Robert Cecil was now the Queen’s right-hand man. Essex had been sole favorite all these years, but his ambition was starting to show and causing friction.

Ralegh and Cecil pulled together for several years, united in a genuine drive to perform services for Queen and country and a mutual loathing for Essex. 

But as the sixteenth century drew to a close and the Queen grew visibly frailer, Ralegh began to push harder for a seat on the Privy Council. Cecil refused to support that bid, for reasons unknown, but supposable. First, he probably didn’t have that much influence and second, the Queen knew her man — and his limits. Cecil was too wise to waste arguments on something he didn’t much want.

Throughout the tense 1590s, Cecil had been covertly cultivating the trust and good regard of James VI of Scotland, the only truly suitable heir to the English throne. So when Elizabeth died in 1603, Cecil slipped easily from her right hand to James’s. Ralegh lost his only true supporter, apart from Bess. In a matter of months, his enemies closed in on him, getting him charged with treason as a conspirator in the Main Plot. The idea was to remove James and replace him with Arabella Stuart. It was a stupid idea and I doubt Ralegh had anything to do with it. He was convicted in a shameful trial. The dignity, courage, and wit he displayed throughout the travesty contributed greatly to his undying legend. Thus, in a way, he bested them all.

What to do in prison

Write books, of course. Ralegh was not the type to lie on his bed and moan. Instead, he wrote a four-volume History of the World. Not even Francis Bacon attempted a subject so grandiose, but Ralegh was up to the task. You can download this masterpiece in PDF format. Or pay $8 for the first volume at Amazon.

Second title page of The History of the World, with a portrait of the author.

He apologizes for the hubris in tackling such a topic, saying that his few remaining friends urged him to do it, though he spends a good part of the Preface deriding the “vanity of vulgar opinion.” Approbation is certainly not his motive in writing his history. “For myself, if I have in any thing served my country, and prized it before my private; the general acceptation can yield me no other profit at this time, than doth a fair sunshine day to a seaman after shipwreck.”

Never a lazy man, Ralegh did his homework for this book. He quotes some 600 authors. Rowse says, “The learning and the idiom are traditional; the spirit, skeptical, questing, unquiet, is modern.” He admires the work, and says most historians do too, even though it hasn’t been popular for a long, long time. Rowse says, “There is a constant human interest in the book, besides the immense intellectual energy imposing rational order, so far as was possible then, upon the chronology and making what sense could be made out of Biblical nonsense…”

Ralegh’s prose style has been justly admired since his own time. His poetry is beautiful and sophisticated in mood. The language of The History is surprisingly modern, rather than early modern. Now I’m inspired to start reading it in PDF on my computer. Maybe during popcorn time…

Ralegh spent 18 years in the Tower of London. You can walk through the room he lived in. He used to stroll along the walls, with a guard, of course. People would come to watch him and talk to him. He charmed them; another layer in the construction of his legacy.

The death of a man; the birth of a legend

This post is far too long already, so I’ll wrap it up quickly. Ralegh persuaded King James to let him out for one more voyage to Guiana, swearing on all things holy that he would not provoke the Spanish, but that he would come home with ships filled with gold. He took his son Walter with him.

They didn’t find gold; there isn’t any. But one of Ralegh’s captains violated Ralegh’s orders and attacked a Spanish outpost. Walter died in that conflict.

When Ralegh got home, he had to face the wrath of the Spanish ambassador, who demanded that Ralegh’s earlier death sentence (for the bogus treason plot) be re-instated and executed. James could hardly refuse, given the blatant attack on the port. Sir Walter was beheaded on 29 October, 1618, at the age of 64. Brave and witty to the end, he faced his death with equanimity. He had lived a life, after all, unlike most people. And he is in truth immortal.

Rowse writes that “Ralegh is the most difficult of all the Elizabethans to get right — the most enigmatical or at least self-contradictory, a combination of qualities calculated to both attract and repel.” Before this 1966 biography, there were only two Victorian works, including Edward Edwards 1868 The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh: Letters.

Now I have three on my bookshelf, two of them published since 2000, another on my Kindle, and one on the library-book stand in my living room. (Mustn’t mix up the books!) Ralegh is apparently enjoying a resurgence of interest; historians trying to plumb the depths and navigate those many facets. He was an extraordinary man; a man of legend, except that it’s all true.


Esler, Anthony. 1966. The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rowse, A.L. 1962. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Trevelyan, Raleigh. 2002. Sir Walter Raleigh. Henry Holt and Company. [All the cover quotes are true: this is an impressive achievement, an outstanding biography, and a great read. There’s rather more sea-faring than I like, but that’s not the author’s fault. Each chapter covers a year in Raleigh’s life, starting from adulthood. The author declares his partisanship at the outset, but it doesn’t prevent him from giving us what feels like a balanced view of Sir Walter]

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