Saturday, 5 May 2018

Sherborne celebrates Sir Walter!

Sherborne Castle, built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594

‘No-one can live in Sherborne for long without becoming  aware of Walter Raleigh,’ wrote the author Barbara O’Sullivan. ‘He has not only  entered into the mythology of England’s heroes; his presence broods over the  New Castle and, in the Abbey, St Katherine’s Chapel, where he had his pew’.  

The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin at Sherborne, usually called Sherborne Abbey. It has been a Saxon cathedral (705–1075), a Benedictine abbey (998–1539), and, now, a parish church. Saved by the bishop by surrendering the abbey to Henry VIII and converting to a parish church the abbey survived almost intact. Image credit John Armagh

You can find hints of the town’s links to Queen Elizabeth’s favourite in Sherborne buildings named after him, like the sheltered housing at Raleigh Court and the Raleigh Hall community centre.

By 1593, Raleigh had settled in Sherborne with his wife Bess and had begun work on building the New Castle, pictured above. Disgraced through having lost favour with the Queen following her discovery of his secret marriage, he no doubt found Dorset to be a rural idyll after Court life and what has been described as the shark pool of Elizabethan politics.

Two years earlier, while still in favour with Elizabeth, Raleigh had been granted the lease of Sherborne Manor and Castle. However he found that building renovations would prove too expensive and set about redesigning and enlarging the nearby hunting lodge which would evolve into the Castle that we see today.

It was a home of which he was proud.  Sherborne, he wrote on 10 May 1593, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State Robert Cecil, was his ‘fortune’s fold’.

Copy of Raleigh's original letter to Richard Duke

Things could have been very different. Ten years previously, Raleigh had been keen to settle in his home county. On 26 July 1584 he wrote to Richard Duke, the owner of Hayes Barton, East Budleigh, in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the property. He had, he explained, a ‘naturall disposition’ to the place, ‘being borne in that howse’, and went on to write: ‘I had rather seat my sealf ther than any where els’. 

Mr Duke had been disinclined to sell, even to a man who was at the height of his powers and fame at Court: a powerful royal favourite who had hinted in his letter of the benefits that could be obtained through friendship with such an important neighbour. So East Devon’s loss became Dorset’s gain.  

And four centuries on, the Dorset community is remembering Sir Walter’s warm words about Sherborne. Members of the town’s Twinning Association are among those involved in celebrating his life.

At the Castle a new exhibition about Raleigh is being staged, and owner Maria Wingfield Digby has published a new biography of this most intriguing character.

The town itself has its own Sir Walter Ralegh 400 group which has been hard at work planning events during 2018. A film night focused on Raleigh is scheduled for 14 September, and a talk at Sherborne Museum has been planned for 26 September. Four days later, on 30 September there will be a guided walk, including access to The Almshouse. This is a building which has provided shelter and care for the people of Sherborne for over 500 years. It was built in the 15th Century for ‘12 poor men and 4 poor women’.

St John’s Almshouse, Sherborne  © Copyright Jaggery

Dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and now restored and renovated, it is one of Dorset’s oldest serving almshouses and is still in use today, serving its original purpose of providing housing to 18 elderly residents of the town. It is run by trustees elected from local citizens, and holds in its archives a letter written by Raleigh.

On 11 October, Maria Wingfield-Digby, owner of Sherborne Castle give a talk about him as part of the town’s Literary Festival, followed by a guided walk, with access to The Almshouse and the Castleton estate.

On 27 October, two days before the 400th anniversary of Raleigh’s death, there will be a Tudor themed banquet in Sherborne’s Memorial Hall.  Guests are invited to wear costume and the organisers hope to set a period ambiance with appropriate music and and entertainment, including poetry by Raleigh.

Sherborne’s Blue Badge guide Cindy Chant is hoping to give a talk entitled ‘The History of Walter Ralegh in Eight Objects’. ‘It will be rather like the BBC did about 20 years ago on ‘The History Of The  World, in 100 Objects’, she tells me.

‘I really want to mark this celebration of Raleigh’s personality and achievements with living objects, stories and artefacts which mark the milestones in his life,’ says Jill Hogben, Mayor of Sherborne.

I am impressed and delighted with the way that Sir Walter is being remembered in places for which he had such affection.


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