Friday, 15 December 2017

50 Years Ago: 'The Boyhood' at Budleigh - Pt 2

Continued from

Immense efforts were made by a small group of Budleigh people in the late 1960s to ensure that Sir John Everett Millais’ painting ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’, seen above, would be exhibited at the town’s museum. Their aim was to mark the centenary of the creation of the painting, which Millais had set on Budleigh beach.

Joyce Dennys, a self-portrait

Among the group was local artist and writer Joyce Dennys, many of whose paintings can be seen at Fairlynch. 

This Joyce Dennys mural in the Costume Room is sometimes used as part of the regular displays

Joyce Dennys was also a playwright, and it’s no coincidence that the play she was working on at this time was entitled ‘Sir Walter Raleigh.’  Copies of the script and related documents are kept at the Museum; they include a letter written to Joyce Dennys, also known as Joyce Evans, from a friend, Evelyn, and dated 8 July 1969. The address is given as 4a Copp Hill Lane, Salterton - No Budleigh of course!

An intriguing view of how Sir Walter Raleigh was seen 50 years ago emerges from the pages of the play, which was performed – at the Public Hall it seems – in Budleigh Salterton.  It’s a blend of the burlesque, the heroic and the tragic with patriotic elements. Extracts from the play which follow are given in blue, with stage directions in italics.

Ron Holden and Joyce Dennys on stage

Some variation in the different copies of the script suggests that it was a ‘work in progress’ with possibly impromptu elements.  One copy of the script, for example, has a pencilled instruction for the ‘National Anthem’ to be played, followed by ‘Elizabethan music’. Continuity is provided with narration by two Tellers, the well known local actors Ron Cox and Ron Holden.

Hayes Barton, birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh

So many details of local interest are included.  ‘That is a picture of Hayes Barton where Sir Walter Raleigh was born,’ comments Ron Holden on the image which opens the proceedings. ‘It’s only a few miles from here and you can see it any day of the week. They’ll show you the Birth Chamber and the little room over the porch where people like to think the great Sir Walter smoked his tobacco and got a bucket of water thrown over him.’

Inevitably the play is indebted to the ‘Boyhood’ legend developed by Millais in his painting, which shows the young Walter and his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert on Budleigh beach.    ‘But when he lived to Hayes Barton he were just an ordinary little tacker who spent a lot of his time mucking about on the beach – listening to yarns,’ Ron Cox tells the audience.  There are stage directions - ‘The boys and the Fisherman settle as in the picture’ and ‘The fisherman points as in the picture’.  No need to mention which picture of course.

The play includes plenty of local Devon dialect: ‘you gurt vool’ is one expression which I’m sure I’ve heard. And of course there are lots of ‘tis.

Ron Cox, incidentally, made a recording of authentic Devon speech in the mid-1970s; it was entitled ‘A Fine Ol’ Frozzy’ and was part of a collection made by Folktrax and listed at  The fisherman in the play – not a sailor –  is called Master Vinnecombe, a well known local name.

Naturally, in connection with names, the well known issue of the spelling and pronunciation of Sir Walter’s family name is also used to comic effect. Stage directions are reproduced in italics.

Ron Cox: Why do you call him Rarleigh?  He wasn’t Sir Walter Rarleigh – he was Sir Walter Rawleigh.

Ron Holden: Oh what nonsense!  Of course he was Rarleigh.

Lights up on stage.  Enter 1st Woman

1st Woman: He wasn’t, you know.  He was Sir Walter Rawleigh – it’s an historical fact.  King James said he thought but rawly of him.

Two more women arrive on stage to state their view of how the name was pronounced:

I say Rarleigh, I say Rarleigh… I say Rawleigh, I say Rawleigh… I say Ralleigh, I say Ralleigh  with the stage directions: To tune of Scotland’s Burning  and The Rons join in and finally the audience. 

For readers who have forgotten the tune, you can hear it at

So, you can imagine that a thoroughly jolly time was had by all.

Joyce Dennys’ play has a considerable basis in historical facts, though of course many were anecdotal.   The line a poor student at Oxford who couldn’t afford to buy himself a gown based on the story of Raleigh refusing to return a gown to its owner.

An entire scene of the play is based on the historical fact that Raleigh tried to buy Hayes Barton in 1584, writing a letter to the owner Richard Duke, though the author has used artistic licence for comic effect. The owner of Hayes Barton is portrayed as a Mr Drake and his East Budleigh neighbours as country bumpkins who reject the idea of Sir Walter settling down in his home village: Us don’t want none of them fine folk for neighbours.  Us be very well as us be.

At the Sir Walter Raleigh pub in East Budleigh: the legend lives on 

Not all the play sticks to history. A scene with Raleigh spreading his clock is followed immediately by Queen Elizabeth’s famous speech to her troops at the height of the threat from the Spanish Armada.  I dessay you’ll think we’ve been monkeying about with history a bit, admits Ron Cox.  That was Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury which she made in 1588 and we’re now at 1592. 

A number of observations are made on Raleigh as a poet: the author had consulted Dame Helen Gardner’s book The Metaphysical Poets, first published in 1957. Raleigh had many gifts, says Ron Holden, the ability to write good verse for one but there was an underlying melancholy and cynicism in some of his poetry.  The poem ‘The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd’ is quoted as a well known example: it was Raleigh’s ‘debunking’ and cynical response to his friend Christopher Marlowe’s poem which begins with the famous line ‘Come live with me and be my love’.

In one copy of a script, another example of Raleigh’s cynicism is quoted, with Ron Cox and Ron Holden reciting verses from his celebrated poem ‘The Lie’. This was the poem which could have incurred the enmity of some of Raleigh’s contemporaries, with lines such as ‘Say to the Court it glows/ And shines like rotten wood./ Say to the Church it shows/ What’s good and does no good./ If Church and Court reply,/ Then give them both the lie.’

The two Rons are used as narrators to explain further episodes in Raleigh’s life, such as his secret marriage to the Queen’s maid of honour Bess Throckmorton, and their consequent disgrace and exile from Court. It was another opportunity to show off Raleigh the poet, with Ron Cox reading verse which Sir Walter hoped would win back Elizabeth’s favour:

Wrong not, dear Empress of my heart
The merit of due passion
With thinking that he feels no smart
That sues for no compassion.
Since, if my plaints serve not to prove
The conquest of your beauty,
It comes not from defect of love
But from excess of duty.

More history lessons follow, with the Rons conveniently condensing the facts of Raleigh’s later life, but also revealing whose side they were on at the time of our hero’s trial – recognised indeed by many contemporaries and by posterity as a shameful miscarriage of justice:

Ron Holden: In 1595 he set off on a voyage of exploration to Guiana and returned with high hopes.  But the Queen would neither see him nor grant him money to pursue his scheme of colonisation.  And because he had not loaded himself with plunder, Spanish fashion, his honesty was called in question.  They said he had never been to Guiana at all.

Ron Cox: His next expedition was against Cadiz in which he covered himself with glory.  Not that it did him much good.  Queen Elizabeth died and though she had never forgiven him she was never actively hostile to him.  Which is more than you can say for King James.  Raleigh was so much more kingly than James could ever hope to be and it went against him.  In 1603 he was arrested on a charge of high treason.  His trial was a shameful mockery where his friends gave evidence against him.

The historically recorded exchange of insults by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke, with Raleigh’s dignified and often witty responses, is reproduced in one version of the script but not in another. 

The play’s author may well have thought that she was going too far in her partisan approach in this description of the trial by Ron Holden:

He was harried and shouted down and grossly insulted.  It sickened even his enemies.  The courage, the dignity and the resource with which he faced it won all hearts.  He was condemned to death and acclaimed a martyr by the pitying populace.

And this, of course, was the line taken by Raleigh’s republican sympathisers – including in the USA – and by 19th century Protestant British historians. But the paragraph was crossed out in one of the scripts that we have. Maybe a Budleigh Salterton Catholic and Stuart sympathiser had protested. Interesting!

Also in the script at this point, and on an appropriate subject, is a speech by Raleigh. It has been taken from his History of the World:

Oh eloquent, just and mighty death! Whom none could advise thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all – for stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two words – Hic Jacet.

No one in the audience could fail to be moved on hearing Raleigh’s letter to Bess which he wrote in December 1603, a month after the death sentence had been passed at the conclusion of his one-sided trial in Winchester Great Hall. Here it is in full, as reproduced in the play and read out by the actor who played Bess:

You shall receive, dear wife, my last words in these my last lines.  My love I send you that you may keep it when I am dead; and my counsel that you may remember it when I am no more.  I would not, with my last will, present you with sorrows, dear Bess.  Let them go to the grave with me and be buried in the dust.  And seeing it is not the will of God that ever I shall see you in this life, bear my destruction gently and with a heart like yourself.

First I send you all the thanks my heart can conceive, or my pen express, for your many cares and troubles taken for me, which, though they have not taken effect as you wished – yet my debt is to you nevertheless;  but pay it I never shall in this world.

Secondly, I beseech you, for the love you bare me living, that you do not hide yourself many days, but by your travail  seek to help your miserable fortunes, and the right of your poor child.  Your mourning cannot avail me that am but dust.

Remember your poor child for his father’s sake, that comforted you and loved you in his happiest times.  And know it (dear Wife) that your son is the child of a true man, and who, in his own respect, despiseth death and all his misshapen and ugly forms.

I cannot write much.  God knows how hardly I stole this time, when all sleep; and it is time to separate my thoughts from the world.

Beg my dead body which living was deneyed you,

Time and death call me away.

Yours that was; but not now my own, W Raleigh.

He really was a remarkable man and did a lot of remarkable things besides bringing Tobacco and Potatoes to this country, comments Ron Holden.

Yes, we were waiting for tobacco and potatoes! They hadn’t yet made an appearance in the play. The mood of pathos is replaced by burlesque, with this song performed to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’:

Enter Man and Woman
There was a time when I weighed eight stone
And a lythe and lissom lass was I;
But now, alas, I am ten stone two
And all because of potatoes.
Why, why did Sir Walter bring
To our English shores that pernicious thing?
Why, why am I ten stone two?
It is all because of potatoes.

There was a time when my voice was strong
As a choir-boy’s pipe or a blackbird’s song;
But Walter Raleigh has done me wrong
By introducing tobacco.
Why, why did Sir Walter go
To the Western Seas archipelago
Why, why do I smoke and smoke
Till my throat is sore and I choke and choke?
Why, Why (his voice is drowned by coughs)

More years flash by on stage, with Ron Holden’s revelation that Raleigh, following a reprieve of the death sentence, was released from the Tower of London in 1616. Here’s  another partisan view from the play’s author: It seems incredible that somebody who had so much to give his country should have been imprisoned for fifteen years, but there’s no accounting for what a jealous man will do.

Few people, of course –  at least in Budleigh Salterton in 1969 – have good words to say about the ‘jealous man’ in question - King James. Even his son, Prince Henry, who was Raleigh’s friend, is quoted as saying: Only my father would keep such a bird in a cage.  And this, like much else in the play, is founded on the historical background, though admittedly based on a contemporary rumour. But Henry died and Raleigh had no more friends at Court, explains Ron Holden.

Ron Cox continues the story of Raleigh’s last years: the ‘ill-fated venture’ of his second expedition to Guyana, the unfortunate skirmish with Spaniards resulting in the death of Walter’s son Walt, the suicide of his remorseful second-in-command Lawrence Keymis.

In one copy of the script Raleigh’s letter to Bess telling her this tragic news is reproduced. In another version, clearly superior, an imagined scene has been written by the author, based on the moment that Sir Walter’s letter for his wife arrives, and involving Lady Digby, Carew Raleigh and Lady Raleigh.

No more burlesque: the scene is full of pathos and tragic irony. Carew has been sent out while the two women discover the awful truth; the scene ends with his return, eager to read what he hopes is a message for him from Walt, and still unaware of his brother’s death.   

Back to the historical record: the two Rons recount Raleigh’s return journey to Plymouth on board his ship The Destiny, followed by his arrest and the journey back to London, including an episode at Salisbury when he faked illness, the fear of death having come over him for a time. King James comes in for further mockery by the Tellers.

The date of Raleigh’s execution in London coincided with the Lord Mayor’s Day. No doubt King James had his own reasons for amalgamating these two events, comments Ron Cox.  Perhaps he feared riots and thought it wise to disperse the crowds, for Raleigh was much loved, and many hundreds gathered round the scaffold to hear his soft voice and country accent for the last time.  

The execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, 29 October 1618
From the collection of the British Museum 

For Ron Holden, it is the image of Raleigh the dandy which endures: Fully dressed, elegant in a hair-coloured doublet of fine satin, black taffeta breeches in the new style, black wrought waistcoat, embroidered silk stockings of ash-colour and a neat, small, starched ruff-band at the neck. A high-crowned, wide-brimmed black felt hat brightened by a single peacock’s feather, Sir Walter Raleigh went to his death the dandy he had always been. Still suffering from malaria he was afraid his ague might be mistaken for the tremblings of a coward.

I was impressed by the hard work that went into the play ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’. The notion of Sir Walter as a Great British Hero in the Ladybird books tradition was still alive in the late 1960s, at least in some parts of Budleigh Salterton.
Since then, and certainly since 1975, as Dr Robert Lawson-Peebles pointed out in a 1998 article in History Today, Raleigh has ‘absented himself from British iconography’.  It may be due, he suggests, to ‘a failure of national confidence’.

Since those confident days of 1969 in Budleigh Salterton , we’ve had ‘The Troubles’, with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney metaphorically portraying Raleigh the rapist of Ireland. There is, it’s only right to say, no mention in the play of Sir Walter’s atrocious behaviour as a young man in that country. And then, of course, there is the issue of slavery, which for some people taints all those great Devon seafarers, and even Queen Bess herself.

There is not much mention in the play of Raleigh’s monumental History of the World, which had such an influence on republicans like the poet John Milton and Oliver Cromwell with its attack on tyrant monarchs. Yet for some, it’s this aspect of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite which could make him the nations’s favourite once again. ‘Perhaps Ralegh will reappear, bearing the red rose of the New Labour Government,’ suggests Dr Lawson-Peebles. Mind you, he was writing 20 years ago.

In the folder of notes and typewritten scripts in Fairlynch Museum are the following items:

Historical documents:
1. The Menagier of Paris circa 1390. Included to give ‘the model of female deportement in the Middle Ages.
2. Notes from Sir Walter Raleigh by Sir Philip Magnus
3. Notes from Sir Walter Raleigh by Norman Lloyd Williams which reproduce text of Raleigh’s History of the World Book V, Chap.VI Section XII: ‘The Kings and Princes of the world….
4. Typewritten extract/notes from Helen Gardner The Metaphysical Poets
5. A Chronological Table of events in Raleigh’s life, copied from Sir Philip Magnus’ biography. This document notes that ‘There is a copy of Raleigh’s History of the World now on show at the Branch Library, Budleigh Salterton.’
6. A typewritten copy of Raleigh’s poem ‘The Lie’ obviously used at a poetry reading by two individuals R.C. [Ron Cox] and R.H. [Ron Holden]
7. A comic song, sung to the tune of Greensleeves
‘Sir Walter sai-ailed across the sea
8. A BBC interview with Sir Walter Raleigh
9. A 5-page typewritten script ‘Raleigh’s Letter’ with characters Eleanor, Lady Digby, Bess, Lady Raleigh, and Carew Raleigh.
10. A 22-page typewritten script ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ including introductions with Ron Holden and Ron Cox
11. Copy of above minus the introductions with Ron Holden and Ron Cox
12. A sketch ‘King Canute’


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