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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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