Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Sir Walter Raleigh: A Lecture by Dr Mark Nicholls, Monday 29 October at St Margaret's Westminster:

Dr Mark Nicholls’s teaching and research interests lie in Tudor and Stuart government and politics. He was the co-author with Penry Williams of Sir Walter Raleigh: in life and legend, published by Continuum in 2011.

He has published several analyses of conspiracies and state trials, as well as studies of ‘succession politics’ at the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the political career of Sir Walter Raleigh.
And yet, as he concluded in his lecture, ‘we know plenty but not enough’ about the Great Elizabethan; there remains ‘layer upon layer of complexity’. He remains ‘an astonishing man’.

Oliver Cromwell, reputedly an admirer of the 'History of the World', although Dr Nicholls observed that 'Cromwell was not really a reading man, the Bible apart.’ 

Dr Nicholls in his lecture gave a masterly survey of the different phases of Raleigh’s life, revealing the contradictions. Such puzzles are evident even in the text of the History of the World, known to have been admired by Cromwell: passages which seem to support the divine right of kings are countered by those which take the opposite view.

In life, Raleigh himself can be seen as a villain as well as a martyr, admitted Dr Nicholls. He was capable of ‘savagery’, suffering from the ‘insecurities of the younger son’: there was ‘something of the little boy about him’ with his tendency to exaggeration. By way of contrast there was also a ‘black dog’ pessimism and cynicism.

Above: The DECLARATION OF THE DEMEANOR AND CARRIAGE OF SIR WALTER RALEIGH, Knight, as well in his Voyage, as in, sithence his Returne; And of the true motiuves and inducements which occasioned His Maiestie to Proceed in doing Iustice upon him, as hath bene done. 

Yet it was as a Protestant hero that Sir Walter was portrayed in the pamphlet war which followed his execution in October 1618.  

The above Government-issued publication justifying the execution and attacking Raleigh was rushed out soon after his death.

Raleigh's supporters responded. 'Vox Spiritus' or 'Sir Walter Raleigh’s Ghost’ was a handwritten pamphlet, pictured above, produced in 1620 to promote the ideals of the late Sir Walter, namely the mistrust of Catholicism and all things Spanish.

Sir Walter Raleigh, moments before his beheading in Old Palace Yard, Westminster. 
British Museum Collection

Dr Nicholls presented a detailed analysis of Raleigh’s 45-minute speech on the scaffold, pointing out how he had been able to manipulate the feelings of the watching crowd. The Great Elizabethan no longer needed to flatter kings: the claim that Death was now ‘his sovereign’ would have clearly made an emotional impact on his contemporaries.

The statue of John Hampden, taken in Aylesbury town centre. The statue was commemorated in 1912
Image credit: Wikipedia 
and KingDaveRa  

Certainly, as we were reminded, the scene made a deep impression on republicans such as John Hampden who witnessed the event.

I was curious to see that the lecture’s opening slide included religious scepticism as one of Raleigh’s characteristics.
Dr Nicholls was kind enough to reply in detail to my emailed question.

St Mary’s Church, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, where Raleigh's supposed atheism was investigated

‘Ralegh was not above teasing a clergyman, trying to trick him into a circular argument,’ he pointed out, referring to the dinner given by Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset Sir George Trenchard in 1593 and Raleigh’s confrontation with Ralph Ironside, a clergyman of Winterborne. ‘That was in character’.

A portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Trinity College, Oxford.

‘But the accusations of atheism rest in part on his tendency for such mischief, in part on his patronage of 'scientific' men like Thomas Harriot, and in part on a hostile 'press' 
before 1603 which seems to have been picked up on by Catholic authors on the continent, keen to exploit what they saw as divisions and weaknesses in the English court. Both he and Bess were, essentially, religious people. When it matters they turn to God, if not necessarily to Christ.’

Richard Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, but only for 264 days from 3 September 1658 to 25 May 1659

As for Cromwell’s view of Ralegh's History, and the fact that he had recommended it to his son Richard, Dr Nicholls has  a slight reservation. ‘I think the recommendation came with the thought that here was a convenient big book on ancient history which could serve the boy well without the need for compiling a library. Cromwell was not really a reading man, the Bible apart.’

Dr Nicholls’ other publications include Investigating Gunpowder Plot (Manchester, 1991) and The History of the Modern British Isles, 1: The Two Kingdoms, 1529-1603 (Oxford, 1999) the first volume in the Blackwell History of Modern Britain series.  He was closely involved in the conferences and public events marking the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy in 2005.

He completed a new edition of George Percy’s Trewe Relacyon (2005), one of the key texts chronicling the initial English settlement at Jamestown, in Virginia.  Having edited the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research for eight years, he retains an active interest in the history and traditions of the British Army


North Carolina Museum of History exhibition: The Demise of Sir Walter Raleigh

From the North Carolina Museum of History

Raleigh 400 exhibition

The Demise of Sir Walter Raleigh
Sep. 28, through Nov. 4

Photo: Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I in The Lost Colony, America’s longest running outdoor drama. Photo by Carl Lewis.

400 years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in England by King James I, the successor to Queen Elizabeth I. This lobby exhibit will share fascinating stories about Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as feature the costumes of Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s costume will include: his ruff, doublet, gloves, breeches, hose, hat, cape and boots. Queen Elizabeth I’s costume will include: her wisk, open ruff, stomacher, bodice, cuffs, wheel farthingale, underskirt, pearls, fan and crown.

A writer, soldier, courtier, and explorer, Raleigh rose rapidly in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Knighted in 1585, he became captain of the Queen’s Guard within two years. One of the queen’s reward to him was the right to colonize North America.

Raleigh courted and married one of the queen’s maids of honor, Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton, in 1591. The discovery, nearly a year later, threw the queen into a jealous rage, and the couple was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Raleigh was again imprisoned in the tower for 13 years, charged with involvement in a plot against King James I. 

On October 29, 1618, the king had him put to death for treason.

The costumes on display are used in The Lost Colony, America’s longest running outdoor drama, written by Paul Green and produced since 1937 in Manteo, North Carolina.


Thursday, 25 October 2018

A new look in Sir Walter's study for Raleigh 400

To mark the 400th anniversary of Raleigh’s death, his study in the newly re-presented Bloody Tower,  has been dressed to reveal the reality of 'high status' imprisonment. 

A combination of film, sound, graphics and tactile objects provide a candid insight into Raleigh’s time at the Tower, including his passion for poetry and science.

Above images credit: Historic Royal Palaces 

A reminder of Raleigh as an explorer of the New World.

Above: Raleigh's quarters in the Bloody Tower as they were.  Image credit: Josie Stewart   

The Historic Royal Palaces website includes a feature on Sir Walter Raleigh at


Sir Walter’s Lost Garden revived for Raleigh 400 at the Tower of London


A Beefeater admires the newly installed 'Lost Garden' at the Tower of London 

‘This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries,’ famously pronounced Sir Walter Raleigh in the last moments of his extraordinary life. On the scaffold in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, watched in silence by crowds of Londoners, he had just asked his executioner to let him feel the blade on the axe. A few minutes later it would take off his head.

The Tower of London's Raleigh 400 display reveals Sir Walter the scholar and scientist

People talk about Sir Walter Raleigh as an explorer, courtier and poet and of course about his love of potatoes, tobacco and fine clothes.  But did you know that he himself gained a reputation as a gifted physician in later life? Kept as a special prisoner for 13 years in the Tower of London on the orders of King James, he was allowed his own laboratory where he conducted scientific experiments. The British Library has in its collection a manuscript in Raleigh’s own hand containing chemical and medical recipes.

Caring for a range of fragrant herbs, fruit and flowers in Raleigh's 'Lost Garden' 
Images credit: Historic Royal Palaces

Deprived of freedom, but living in relative comfort, Raleigh used the courtyard outside the infamous ‘Bloody Tower’ to grow plants from the New World and experiment with ingredients for an ‘Elixir of Life’.

Anna Beer, in her 2004 biography of Raleigh's wife Bess, notes that the couple were known for their skills in the making of remedies and that Raleigh himself during his time in the Tower of London probably discussed his medicines with the help of the South Americans Leonard Ragapo and Harry whom he had befriended.

Images in Raleigh's rooms at the Tower of London tell us of his work as a botanist 

From 20 October, in the 400th anniversary year of his death, visitors to the Tower of London can explore Raleigh’s ‘Lost Garden’, occupying the same spot where the original apothecary garden once stood. A new permanent display at the Tower, the garden features a range of fragrant herbs, fruit and flowers.
‘Take in the varieties, smell the scents and discover how they were used by Raleigh and his wife, Bess Throckmorton to create herbal medicines,’ say the curators.  ‘Green-fingered families can even have a go at concocting their very own elixir using the same herbs seen in Raleigh’s garden.’

Much of Raleigh’s chemical and botanical knowledge came from his travels, particularly from his exploration of South America in the area now known as Venezuela. At one time he was thought to have discovered curare – the ‘arrow poison’ – but this has been shown to be untrue.

Myrtus communis: the common myrtle

Raleigh is reputed to have been the first person to introduce myrtle into this country from Spain. The plant’s leaves contain essential oils which are valued for both medicinal uses and culinary applications.    

It is thought that he brought the seed of a fine species of cherry from the Azores, planting it during his time in Ireland. The tree, known as the Affane cherry after the parish in  which it was first grown, is celebrated for the quality of its fruit.  

Marmalade, made with Seville oranges for which we may thank Sir Walter!  Has no marmalade manufacturer ever thought of marketing jars of 'Sir Walter's choicest'

According to various sources, including The Horticultural Register of 1832, Raleigh is also recorded as having introduced the first orange trees into England. The trees, planted at Beddington in Surrey, began bearing regular crops of Seville or 'sour orange' in 1595, but were killed by frost in 1739.

While a prisoner in the Tower of London during the reign of King James I he created a range of cordials and herbal remedies. One of Ralegh’s cordials was believed to be good for women who had recently given birth. It contained flowers of borage and rosemary, marigold and red gilly - the gillyflower was a small carnation, and the dark red flowers were often used to perfume wines. Additional ingredients were saffron and juniper berries, pearl and ambergris and musk, all mixed with the syrup of lemons and red roses.

Raleigh was particularly celebrated for his ‘Balsam of Guiana’ and his ‘Great Cordial’. Such was the reputation of the latter that when King James I’s son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was taken ill with typhoid his distraught mother Queen Anne used it to try and cure him.  In vain.  He died on 6 November 1612, leaving Raleigh equally devastated; he had hoped that the Prince would release him from captivity on becoming king.  

You can read about the 'Great Cordial' at 

The Historic Royal Palaces website includes a feature on Sir Walter Raleigh at


Radical Ralegh

The point about Sir Walter Ralegh: historian Anna Beer with Millais’ celebrated 1870 painting at Fairlynch Museum.  Dr Beer’s visi...