Friday, November 1, 2013

Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth took special notice of Walter Raleigh in 1582 when she summoned Arthur Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Raleigh to appear before her Privy Council to be interrogated.  A captain of English troops in Ireland, Raleigh had sent critical messages about Grey’s job performance quelling rebellion to Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to the Queen.  Responding, Grey had accused Raleigh of making misrepresentations and fomenting plots.  “I neigher like his carriage nor his company,” Grey had written Walsingham.  Eloquent, persuasive, Raleigh presented himself before the Queen and her councilors far better than his superior.  Not wanting to go back to Ireland, Raleigh thereafter sought and was permitted to stay on at the Royal Court. 
Raleigh was 30 years old.  Eighteen years older than Raleigh, Elizabeth was taken by his masculinity, intellect, self-confidence, and charm.  Highly intelligent herself, erudite, fiercely independent, craving male adoration, she demanded his daily presence eager to debate his opinions, appreciate his wit, welcome his brass dismissal of rivals’ criticism, and bask in his declarations of courtly love. 
Throughout her lengthy reign Elizabeth thrived on masculine flattery.  She reveled in the artificial rituals of manly courtship.  She was not a beautiful woman; but her personality, according to biographer Alison Weir, was compelling, charismatic.  She charmed the opposite sex by utilizing her wit, vivacity, and expressive eyes.  She was far more at ease with men than women, whom she regarded as rivals.  It pleased her to believe that those who flattered her were really in love with her.  “As the years went by, she took more and more extreme measures to recapture her lost youth, but her chivalrous courtiers continued to reassure her that she was the fairest lady at court, a fiction her inordinate vanity allowed her to swallow” (Weir 229).
Raleigh was nearly six feet tall (a good eight inches taller than the average male).  He was dark haired with a lighter, neatly-trimmed beard and moustache.  He had piercing light brown eyes.  He was handsome, graceful, and very bold.  He had a charming Devonshire accent.  She teased him about it, calling him “Water,” not “Walter.” 
Raleigh was born in Devon in 1552, the youngest of five children.  His father was of the lower gentry.  Raleigh was a distant relative of Francis Drake (by way of his father’s first marriage) and the half brother of Humphrey Gilbert (by way of his mother’s first marriage).  Raleigh attended Oxford and the Inns of Court.  He was boisterous with friends and was often in trouble for brawling and playing practical jokes.  One of his roommates recalled him as being "riotous, lascivious, and incontinent."   He was bright, ambitious, and energetic.  He was inquisitive; he was a free-thinker.  He had a wide range of interests and possessed many talents.  He believed he could attain greatness.  He interrupted his studies in 1569 to join the Huguenots in France to fight against Catholic tyranny.  He may have been in Paris August 25, 1572, to experience the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Raised listening to the exciting tales of Devonshire seafarers, fired by the idea of global exploration, he participated in Humphrey Gilbert’s first attempt (1578) to found an English colony in North America.  Three of the seven ships that Gilbert commanded deserted; foul weather kept three others in port.  Raleigh’s ship left port and was gone for nearly six months, sailing probably as far as the Cape Verde Islands (off the coast of Africa), its crew and captain intent on practicing piracy.  
Mostly because of the recommendation of his mother’s aunt, Katherine "Kat" Ashley (who had served as governess and confidante to Elizabeth before she became Queen), in 1580 Raleigh secured a position at the royal court.  He became one of the Esquires of the Body Extraordinary, a group of personable young courtiers who performed for Elizabeth ceremonial duties.  Exhibiting a volatile temper, almost immediately he fought two duels and was imprisoned.  Needing to remove him from the contentious environment of the Court, Raleigh’s allies persuaded the Queen’s advisors to assign him to officer English soldiers in Ireland.  This entailed engaging Papal troops sent to a Catholic fort at Smerwick, County Kerry.  Accepting Lord Grey’s pledge of clemency after a three day siege, the Pope’s troops surrendered.  The fort's women were thereupon hanged, its priests tortured and executed, and all of the soldiers stabbed.  Much of this was done under Raleigh’s supervision.  Raleigh remained in Ireland until early 1582, when he and Deputy Lord Grey were summoned to appear before the Queen.
It had become nearly impossible for a courtier who lacked a noble pedigree to establish himself at Court.  England’s nobility had become even more resistant to social class upward mobility.  Expanded trade with European countries had enabled English merchants and the lesser gentry to become rich and powerful.  The influence of older landed families had begun to wane.  Peers were no longer automatically filling the highest levels of government.  The nobility, reacting, strived to redefine upper class status.  Gentlemen, henceforth, were to be defined by how money was made, not solely by wealth.  Great emphasis was placed on education and correct behavior.  “Nobility is a way of living, a sharing of tastes, a mastering of social graces” (Miller 138).  The nobility demanded enforcement of laws that defined the clothing styles allowed each class.  They and rich merchants strived to outdo each other, each wearing fine and costly garments.  The rise to prominence of a son of the lower gentry or mercantile class was fought against vehemently.
Moreover, competition to win favor at Court, regardless of a man’s pedigree, was fierce.  “The nearer one was to the Queen, … the greater the reward, which included court and government posts, knighthood, peerages (very rare), monopolies on goods, annuities, pensions, wardships and loans” (Weir 254).  Few openings for young candidates existed.  Success ultimately depended on winning Elizabeth’s approval.  Striving to do so was exceedingly costly. It required a massive outlay of funds to create a competitive visual image.  Many lost their fortunes; others had to sell off manor lands to pay their London debts.  If a young man was so fortunate as to be admitted into Elizabeth’s circle, he now had to worry about maintaining his advantage.  He could easily be supplanted.  Fashion at Court was all important, a public statement.  A courtier had to compete in the display of outlandish attire.  He also had to compete in dancing, writing poetry, and exhibiting accomplishments that revealed a fluency in many languages.  Elizabeth had created an exceedingly high bar.  Raleigh surmounted it handsomely.
In Elizabeth’s eyes Raleigh was fearless, daring, and overpoweringly virile.  He wooed her, sending her notes of endearment, playing skillfully the unrequited lover.  He traveled with her from palace residence to palace residence as well as on progresses throughout the kingdom.  Using a diamond ring Raleigh carved a message on a stained-glass window that read “Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.”  She carved a witty response: “If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.”  One of his poems, written in 1588 read in part:
            Those eyes which set my fancy on a fire,
            Those crisped hairs which hold my heart in chains,
            Those dainty hands which conquered my desire,
            That wit which on my thought does hold the reins!
            Those eyes for clearness do the stars surpass,
            Those hairs obscure the brightness of the sun,
            Those hands more white than every ivory was,
            That wit even to the skies hath glory won.
Elizabeth provided him a substantial income.  She bestowed on him two leases from All Souls College, Oxford.  He received the authority to charge every vintner in the country one pound a year to retail wines.  Import wine permits had to be obtained initially from him.  Later, he was given large and very profitable grants involving the export of woolens.  In late 1582 or early 1583 he was given a commodious house on the Thames River.  He used his income to dress lavishly, like a prince.  His clothes glittered with rubies, diamonds and pearls.  His footwear was adorned with jewels.  All the vessels at his table were of silver with his own code of arms.  His bed was draped with a green velvet spread bordered with silver lace.  His four posts were garnished with white feather plumes.  His rivals, and most of the nobility, hated him.  Raleigh was denounced as a manipulator, a fraud, a deceiver.  They made cutting jibes about his low birth.  Raleigh disdained their contempt, wearing it as a badge of honor.  Elizabeth reveled in it, even encouraged it.  Fearful of his effect on the Queen, many Privy Council members viewed him as an enemy. 
Profiting from Elizabeth’s favoritism, Raleigh pursued his objectives.  After his half-brother’s death at sea in 1583, Raleigh wanted Gilbert’s colonial patent transferred to him.  Elizabeth obliged.  Raleigh’s enterprises at Roanoke were about to begin.
Sources Cited:
Miller, Lee.  Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000.  Print.
Weir, Alison.  Elizabeth the Queen.  London: Vintage Books, 1998.  Print.