A court favourite of Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh’s many great deeds as polymath, politician and some time privateer undoubtedly justify his place in history; yet 400 years after his execution on a trumped up treason charge he is probably best known for things he didn’t do.
The story of how he chivalrously laid his cloak across a muddy puddle for Good Queen Bess to walk over is pure fiction and neither did he introduce tobacco or the potato to these shores – although he certainly helped popularise both. That such tales persist is perhaps testament to his status as one of our most enduring national heroes, a standing born out by his inclusion in the BBC’s 2002 poll for the ‘100 Greatest Britons’.
In a turbulent career he was at his most settled during the years he spent at Sherborne Castle, the home he made that he referred to as ‘Fortune’s Fold’.
‘Raleigh had many properties but he put his heart and soul into building Sherborne, it was cutting edge architecture with lots of glass, it would have been very light and airy and filled with the finest things – building the castle here was instrumental in putting Sherborne back on the map,’ says his most recent biographer Maria Wingfield Digby, the current lady of the house.
A landed Devonian by birth, after a short and bloody military career fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands and the Munster rebels in Ireland he became a fixture at court marked out by his ostentatious dress sense and lyrical poetry. He rose rapidly in the favour of the Queen who made him Captain of the Guard and after leading an expedition to the New World he sponsored further voyages and attempted to establish a colony in what was then Virginia, but now North Carolina. He was knighted in 1585.
Although Raleigh’s charm and intellect also made him enemies at court, the Queen continued to reward her favourite and in 1592 she granted him the 12th century castle at Sherborne, a regular staging post on his trips between London and Devon. The castle had belonged to the Bishop of Salisbury and Raleigh persuaded the Queen to appoint a new bishop on condition she was granted a lease, which she transferred to him.
By then he had married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, without royal assent. A son, Damerai, was born in April 1592 and when the jealous Queen found out she had both parents confined in separate quarters at the Tower of London only ordering their release after the boy’s death from plague in October.
Disgraced but not ruined the Raleighs retired to Sherborne where the Abbey bells were rung as the townsfolk welcomed them. Their second son Walter (Wat) was born in 1593 as, frustrated by attempts to renovate the medieval castle, they set about building a smaller home on the site of the bishop’s hunting lodge. Adrian Gilbert, Raleigh’s half brother, oversaw the works and laid out gardens with pools, canals and waterfalls as well as many rare foreign plants, including ‘Lady Bess’s Pinks’.
On a spot overlooking the main road to Dorchester Raleigh had a stone seat constructed that survives to this day, as does the entertaining story of the servant who approached Sir Walter as he enjoyed smoking a pipe and fearing he was on fire doused his master in ale. (Many versions of the story are told and it is sometimes set in the castle study, or in one of Raleigh’s other homes.)
‘It’s impossible to prove but we’ll claim the story for Sherborne and definitely outside on the seat, not indoors,’ says Maria Wingfield Digby.
Even in exile from court Raleigh would have revelled in the notoriety caused by his retinue at Sherborne that included a young boy he brought back from Guyana and had christened Charles, as well as Native Americans whose language he set his friend Thomas Hariot to decipher. He also entertained other close friends including the astronomer-mathematician Dr John Dee and the explorer Laurence Kemys. They were known to their political foes as The School of Atheism and in March 1594 at Cerne Abbas Sir Walter was tried for his alleged non-belief but acquitted for lack of evidence.
Nonetheless, to assert his spiritual credentials Raleigh and his friends Sir Ralph Horsey and George Trenchard of Wolfeton House oversaw the arrest of John Cornelius, family priest of the Catholic Stourton family at their home at Chideock Castle. Cornelius was held prisoner at Wolfeton where he and Raleigh talked at length, but following a trial he and three helpers – the Chideock Martyrs – were hanged, drawn and quartered at Dorchester, in front of Raleigh, and Cornelius’s head then displayed on the town gates. (He was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1929.)
As lord of the manor Raleigh was fully immersed in local affairs. He was a Justice of the Peace and Keeper of Gillingham park, a position held jointly with his brother Carew, Lieutenant of the Isle of Portland and vice-admiral of Dorset. He and Bess regularly attended services in the Abbey, sitting in the Leweston Chapel, and Raleigh successfully lobbied Mr Knoyll, master of Sherborne almshouse, on behalf of a resident Elliner Dyer to retain her tenancy. He was also involved with the school, which was attended by the children of Elizabeth’s chief advisor Sir Robert Cecil and were frequent guests at the castle.
Raleigh remained a committed Parliamentarian, representing seats in Devon, Cornwall and, in 1597, Dorset. He spoke on religious affairs and the need for a strong navy, but when he questioned the right of James VI of Scotland to succeed the English throne his enemies again cast doubt on his religious integrity, citing his friendship with the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a known atheist.
Such machinations were a way of life for Raleigh whose patronage was enjoyed by several Dorset men in public office not least his servant Morgan Moone who rose through the rope making industry to become sub-bailiff then Raleigh’s deputy in overseeing customs and subsidies on cloth, going on to represent Bridport as MP in 1584 and 1589. He paved the way for other associates including Sir Walter’s neighbour Gregory Sprint (Bridport MP in 1589) and Adrian Gilbert (1597), who served as Constable of Sherborne Castle from 1599 to 1603.
In 1597 Raleigh was restored to court and although Bess was never forgiven, two years later the Queen granted him the Sherborne estates freehold, which he attempted to secure in trust lest anything happen to him when Elizabeth died. In due course, in 1603 as James acceded to the throne Raleigh was arrested for treason and his lands seized, including Sherborne as a crucial phrase had been omitted from the trust deed.
A show trial followed at which Raleigh was convicted and sentenced to die, but a last-minute reprieve saved him from the block only to be imprisoned in the Tower for 13 years – Lady Bess gave birth to their third son Carew there in 1605 – until he was released to lead a return to Guyana (now Venezuela) in search of the mythical lost city of gold, El Dorado. The mission went badly wrong and in an attack lead by his father’s old friend Kemys young Wat was killed fighting the Spanish, against the express orders of the king.
Raleigh’s fate was sealed. On landing at Plymouth in 1618 he was arrested and afforded one last look at Sherborne as he was taken to London for execution. The last great Elizabethan, he met his fate with heroic stoicism on 29 October 1618 in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster having enjoyed a hearty breakfast and smoked a pipe. Memorably he ran his finger along the axe and quipped: ‘This is sharp medicine, but it is a physician that will cure all my diseases.’ As the axe fell the crowd groaned and a witness was heard to say: ‘We have not such another head to be cut off.’
‘It was a very theatrical performance, much like his life,’ says Maria. ‘In many ways it has secured his fame for 400 years. He probably made two great strategic errors – he should have sued Elizabeth for pardon when he and Bess were imprisoned and he should have foreseen the succession. As it was James hated Raleigh, so much so that he was interviewed in relation to the Gunpowder Plot even though he was in the Tower at the time. Although, I love the story that Bess was seen anxiously polishing armour as the plot unfolded – she was related to two of the plotters.’
In the years that followed Bess campaigned tirelessly to restore her husband’s name and is reputed to have kept his embalmed head in a bag to aid her crusade. In 1628 a Bill of Restitution repaired the Raleigh name ‘in blood’ allowing Sir Walter’s surviving son Carew to inherit. However, Sherborne had been leased to the king’s favourite Robert Carr and when he fell out of favour in 1617 sold to the diplomat the Earl of Bristol, Sir John Digby in whose family it has since remained.
:: An exhibition, Sir Walter Raleigh at Sherborne, marking the 400th anniversary of his execution, can be seen at Sherborne Castle until 28 October. Visitors can also see Raleigh’s original kitchens and a chair he took to the Tower of London. The Great Chamber on the first floor, now the Green Drawing Room, has an original ceiling bearing the Raleigh coat of arms and his heraldic device, a buck, can be seen throughout. In the gardens Lady Bess’s Pinks are being reinstated as part of this year’s Raleigh themed planting with Chilean potato plants, tobacco plants, smoke bushes and six roses named Sir Walter Raleigh.
:: Maria Wingfield Digby’s book Sir Walter Raleigh is published by Pitkin (ISBN 978184165912), price £6.
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.