By A N Wilson
Updated: 20:19 EST, 29 August 2011>
You could not be alive in Elizabethan England and not feel that it was a young country, full of vigour and possessing the capacity to reinvent itself. There was a palpable sense of rebirth, of creative energy, of newness and expansion.
This was the age of glory when our nation put civil wars behind it and emerged into the broad, sunlit uplands.
It is no exaggeration to say that modern history began with the Elizabethans. British explorers went out to every corner of the known world to form the foundation of power and prosperity for future generations.
Heroic archetype: Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh in the film Elizabeth: the Golden Age
Central to this vision of an expanding British domain was the fervently ambitious and multi-talented soldier, sailor and poet Walter Raleigh. He was from an old West Country family that had come down in the world.
A Raleigh had fought at Agincourt and another had been a medieval Bishop of Winchester, but they were now impoverished gentry.
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The young Raleigh served as a captain of soldiers in Ireland — a school of hard knocks where he was nearly killed in battle — before making his first appearance at Elizabeth’s court in Greenwich.
It was there, according to legend, that he saw the horror in the Queen’s eyes as she walked towards a ‘plashy’ place — a puddle. In the words of a chronicler, he ‘cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground, whereon the Queen trod gently’.
Under threat: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in the 1580s where she faced threats from King Philip of Spain and her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Her allies included Sir Francis Walshingham and Sir Walter Raleigh
This act of chivalry certainly caught her attention. Grateful for his ‘so free and seasonable tender of so fair a foot cloth’, she bestowed on him ‘many suits’ as a reward, and much more besides.
She was approaching 50, smarting from the loss of her oldest and greatest love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and seeking consolation. She was on the lookout for a new man in her life.
She needed someone to love extravagantly and capriciously. Exceptionally tall and very good-looking, the 29-year-old Raleigh fitted the bill perfectly.
Rugged: Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh
He undoubtedly attracted the Queen — 20 years his senior — sexually, which, outrageous flirt and flatterer that he was, he played on shamelessly.
But he was also a man of colossal intelligence and enterprise and very deep reserves of humour. His cleverness, his ability to read and converse in three modern European languages, his grace, his panache and his physical courage were all appealing to her.
He was a match for her intellectually, which few people were, and she must have relished the side of him that was cynical, inquiring and angry.
Well-educated, well-read and well-travelled, he was a true Renaissance man, who drew around him a circle of poets and philosophers, explorers and adventurers. All in all, he was the worthy object of her new-found adoration.
Elizabeth showered her new favourite with honours. He, in turn, danced attendance on her and wrote impassioned and extravagantly worded love poems to her. In The Ocean To Scinthia (that is, Raleigh to Elizabeth, poetically envisioned as the Goddess of the Moon) he hailed her as ‘the seat of joy’s and love’s abundance!’.
It is pointless to ask whether such protestations were genuine. Elizabethan court life was an elaborate dance. The abject gestures and hyperbolic words of the successful courtier would be insanely sycophantic in a modern context.>Enlarge >Enlarge
Favourite: Queen Elizabeth showered Sir Walter Raleigh with honours and riches
But behind the ritualistic façade of Raleigh’s devotion to his jewel-encrusted monarch-doll, there was a serious friendship between two extremely strong characters.
It was a relationship that was also tempestuous and often unhappy. There were always tensions between them. She could be petulant and dismissive of him in his role of favourite.
She was a demanding mistress. As the appointed Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard, there were times when he was all but unable to leave her side.
But from the palace overlooking the Thames that she gave him to live in, he planned transatlantic voyages and the colonisation of America, for which he had been granted the royal patent. Until now, British maritime adventures had largely been treasure-hunting forays by buccaneers such as Francis Drake and slaving expeditions by the likes of John Hawkins.
With the Queen’s secret backing, England had acted as a pirate kingdom, enriching herself at the expense of the rest of the world by stealing silver and gold.
Elizabeth loved the sort of adventures Drake got up to as he wreaked havoc on the Spanish coast. If it went wrong, she could disclaim responsibility. If it worked and he came home with a shipload of loot, she could bag her share.
Visionary: The priest Richard Hakluyt and his book upon English exploration
But Raleigh’s vision was different. Inspired by another great Elizabethan, the geographer and map-maker (pronounced Hackle-wit), he envisaged proper overseas colonies in which settlers lived off the land and prospered.
Seated at his desk in Oxford, Hakluyt studied the accounts of travellers and from them grasped the almost limitless political possibilities of the new geography.
He saw that possession of power at sea truly was open to any island race with the skill and the panache to seize it. He thus radically redefined the position of England in the world.
Admiral: Sir Richard Grenville was a naval commander and privateer
Raleigh, who knew and admired Hakluyt, provided the practical side of that daring philosophy. As he planned expeditions to North America, he consulted scientists as well as sailors and soldiers. He recruited bricklayers, masons, carpenters and blacksmiths to build proper settlements, rather than temporary camps.
Ever the flatterer, he deemed that ‘Virginia’ would be an appropriate name for this first English colony in the New World, in honour of the Virgin Queen. She rewarded him for this pretty idea with a knighthood and named him ‘Lord and Governor of Virginia’.
His intention was to lead the expedition himself, to go out there and conquer ‘new lands, ample realms, unknown peoples’. That was until the Queen stepped in and stopped him. She could not spare him from her side, she decreed. He must stay.
In his place, his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, commanded the small fleet that set off across the Atlantic to Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina.
Here was a warning for Raleigh of what might become of him. He was at heart an action man but, as the Queen’s favourite, he could well find himself tied to her apron strings and permanently marooned at court. It was clearly what she wanted for him.
But she could not really expect a man such as him to be sexless in the way that she was. However much she tried to hide this obvious fact from herself, she could never be the love of his life.
Forbidden love: Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh and Abbie Cornish as Bess Throckmorton
Something had to give, and in 1592 Raleigh committed a great sin. He fell in love with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting.
There should have been no great surprise. At 40, a 16th-century man was entering, if not old age, then a period when the best of life is over. Raleigh was 36 when he fell for the 25-year-old Bess Throckmorton.
They married in secret. Worse still, she was pregnant. They were both now in deadly peril if the Queen found out. The baby was born and hastily lodged with a wet nurse while Bess tried to return to court as if the marriage and the baby had never happened.
But there was no real hope of keeping the secret — not in such a rancorous and feud-riven court as Elizabeth’s had become, always prey to what Raleigh’s friend, the poet Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, termed the ‘malice of evill mouthes’.
When the Queen discovered the truth, she went into a rage. Raleigh and Bess — whose crime was, as a lady-in-waiting, to have married without her mistress’s consent — were sent to the Tower of London.
Royal prison: Queen Elizabeth I herself was imprisoned here as a young woman and she in turn kept her fallen favourites confined
Had the royal whim so decreed, they might easily have been incarcerated for years, or until death.
In the event, they spent only five weeks in the Tower before he was released on probation. His Queen and his country needed him.
Raleigh’s seafaring cousin, Grenville, had been sent into the Atlantic to capture Spanish treasure ships. His ship, the Revenge, was one of 16 English vessels loitering off the Azores, waiting for their chance to grab a rich prize or two, when a Spanish war fleet surprised them.
The 50-strong Spanish squadron scattered the English. The Revenge was isolated and surrounded. Rather than surrender to the Spaniards, Grenville, an archetypal Elizabethan hero, fought to the end against hopeless odds. The loss of the Revenge passed into legend.
Three centuries later, Tennyson immortalised it with Grenville’s epic words:
‘Sink me the ship, Master Gunner
Sink her, split her in twain!
Fall into the hands of God,
Not into the hands of Spain!’
Raleigh was released from the Tower specifically to avenge the Revenge, which, as a free-born Englishman, he felt perfectly within his rights to do. The venture also stood to make its backers, including the Queen, a great deal of money. He took a squadron back to the Azores, where they seized two giant Spanish treasure ships returning from the Caribbean and the coast of South America.
The Queen took the bulk of the loot — valued at £82,666 (the equivalent of £14 million in today’s money). Between them, Raleigh and his partners managed a smaller profit of just £2,000 (£350,000 today).
The morality of it all seems peculiar to us, the compass more than a little awry. In order to atone for his supposed ‘sin’ — namely, consummating heterosexual love, procreating and marrying — Raleigh was ordered by the Queen to carry out ‘virtuous’ deeds. These consisted of committing acts of piracy and mass murder on Spanish vessels. But such was the ethical universe that the Elizabethans inhabited.
Disgraced: Raleigh and his wife Bess retired to his estate at Sherborne, Dorset
For Raleigh when he returned, there was no forgiveness. Although he had made the Queen a spectacular profit on her investment in the enterprise, he was still in disgrace. His heyday as a courtier was over. He now looked abroad for glory. He and Bess retreated from the court to the country, where he planned more expeditions.
England’s economy was in a parlous state, with rising food prices, failed crops and a fall in the real value of money. Covetous eyes were cast to the rich pickings on the other side of the Atlantic as a means of returning England to wealth.
Raleigh went searching for gold in what is today Venezuela, and not very successfully, though he pursued that dream for years until he returned in the mid-1590s. But his principal achievement was to put Virginia on the map.
The colonists who had gone there with his cousin Grenville had had a difficult time, but they returned to England with an enriched knowledge of the flora, fauna and weather conditions. There would be more attempts to settle there.
Meanwhile, by his fame and colourful personality — smoking tobacco, cutting a figure in society (if not in court) — Raleigh was a constant reminder to English people of the North American colony’s existence.
Thanks to him, a new attitude emerged. Rather than shoring up the creaking economy by piratical forays to steal from Spanish vessels, the English began to see themselves as a small maritime power, capable, by a mixture of commercial enterprise and large-sightedness, of ruling other lands and other seas.
Spy master: Francis Walsingham oversaw operations which penetrated the heart of Spanish military preparation
Raleigh had laid the foundations of an empire and left an indelible mark on history. This change in outlook inspired the young John Donne. In his erotic poem To His Mistress Going To Bed, he likened the experience of seeing her naked to the explorations of the transatlantic voyagers.
‘O, my America! My new-found land.
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My mine of precious stones, My Emperie,
How blest I am in this discovering thee!'
Donne’s poem captured the intense excitement of discovering new love. The discovery of America for the English — the real discovery, which came in the Elizabethan Age, rather than the mere knowledge that America was ‘there’ — was just as exciting.
We know what the American future held. In time it would be the largest and most powerful nation in the world. That makes Raleigh’s far-sighted optimism all the more extraordinary.
The fact that the United States is English-speaking is also the direct consequence of that same Elizabethan world picture. So, too, is much of our deeply-ingrained national identity.
Protestant England’s rejection of the Pope meant the country was cut off from the European mainstream and became a beleaguered little offshore nation doughtily maintaining its difference from the rest of Europe. This belligerently insular mindset has served us well.
But by turning westwards to the new world, Elizabethan England was more outward-looking. It was more open to the world, but more insistent that the world must accept it on its own terms.
That the rather strange, twisted and unrequited love between Raleigh and the Virgin Queen played such a critical part in defining who we were — and maybe who we still are — is just one of the ironies of history.
- Adapted from The Elizabethans by A. N. Wilson, to be published by Hutchinson on Thursday at £25. © 2011 A. N. Wilson. To order a copy for £18.99 (inc P&P), tel: 0843 382 0000.
Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2031524/Pirate-plundered-Elizabeths-heart-How-Walter-Raleighs-silver-tongue-broody-looks-bewitched-Virgin-Queen.html