Friday, 15 May 2009

More about Sir Walter c. 1552-1618

Although Sir Walter Raleigh was born a few miles away in the village of East Budleigh rather than in Budleigh Salterton our town is proud of its association with its local hero. The Town Council’s crest on the coat of arms which were granted to it in 1959 is a shield supported by a griffin showing the arms of Sir Walter.

There are various ways of pronouncing his surname, apparently 70 different ways of spelling it, and almost as many stories about him to create the legendary figure that makes him a Devon hero. He probably called himself ‘Rawley’.

The Sir Walter Raleigh pub sign in his birthplace of East Budleigh just a few miles north of Budleigh Salterton celebrates one of the best known of them, showing him laying his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I to walk without getting her feet wet.

The pub is well worth a visit especially if you’ve walked from Budleigh Salterton through the woods to East Budleigh and need some refreshment.

Just outside East Budleigh is Bicton Park Botanical Gardens. A popular visitor attraction, this 63-acre site set out in 18th century style as described at

It contains many rare shrubs and trees as well as the Bicton Woodland Railway with its replica tank engine built specially for the Gardens in 2000 and named after the local hero.

Hayes Barton can no longer be visited, but it’s well worth making the short journey to the beautiful old farmhouse a mile to the west of East Budleigh where Raleigh was born. Sir Walter moved away from Devon early in his life, but retained a sentimental attachment for Hayes Barton. At the age of 32 when he was high in favour at Court he tried to buy the property. “I had rather seat my sealf ther than any where else” he wrote in a letter dated 26 July 1584, citing “the naturall disposition I have to that place being born in that howse.”

The church of All Saints in East Budleigh is a fine building, dating largely from the15th century and situated on a hill overlooking the village. Its list of Vicars goes back to Stephen, 1261. The church is noted for its finely carved panels at the end of the pews, and the Raleigh pew (1537) is the second on the north side of the nave. One of the pews shows a sailing ship, supposed by some to have influenced the future transatlantic explorer.

Sir Walter’s father was the churchwarden in 1561 and it was here that the Raleigh family worshipped according to the newly established Protestant faith. It was to help defend the new religion that the young Walter, still in his teens, took part in an expedition to La Rochelle in France in support of the Huguenots where he may have fought at the battle of Jarnac in March 1569 and witnessed the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. By a strange coincidence, 71 years after Raleigh’s death his former church at East Budleigh found itself with a Frenchman as its vicar, a Huguenot refugee named Daniel Caunières.

Raleigh made his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1578 when he sailed with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert to America on what was a piratical venture against the Spaniards. Having sought to make his fortune at the court of Queen Elizabeth he followed a military career, serving as a captain in Ireland in 1580 and being rewarded with estates and a knighthood in 1584 and appointed Captain of the Guard three years later. In 1585, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina). This venture failed and another attempt at colonisation also failed in 1587. He has been credited with bringing tobacco and potatoes back to England, and he certainly helped to make smoking popular at court.

Through flattering attentions he made himself one of the Queen’s favourites, although he was later to displease her by secretly marrying in 1591 Bess Throckmorton, one of her ladies-in-waiting. Gradually he fell out of favour at court and the accession of King James I meant the loss of many of his privileges. He may well have been involved in conspiracies against the new king, and ended up being tried and found guilty of treason in 1603. A sentence of death was passed but not carried out; however he was confined to the Tower of London.

Raleigh made a final effort to gain the king’s favour in 1617, promising that he would bring back gold from an expedition to South America. When the Spanish Ambassador Gondomar protested that this would jeopardize the Spanish settlements on the coast, Raleigh rashly promised that they would be left intact. The expedition failed to find gold, and ended in a disastrous attack on the Spanish settlements in which Raleigh’s son was killed. He was charged with piracy on his return, and at the insistence of Gondomar was beheaded on 29 October 1618.

The stories of his courage on the scaffold enhanced his heroic reputation. “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries,” is what he is supposed to have said when he saw the axe that would behead him. Called on to put such a well-known figure to death, the executioner seems to have hesitated and lost his nerve. According to many biographers Raleigh’s final words as he lay ready for the blade to fall were: “Strike, man, strike!”

Adventurer, soldier and courtier, Raleigh was also a writer and poet. His friend the poet Edmund Spenser said that he was “the sommers Nightingale”, writing poetry of “melting sweetness.” His book The Discovery of Guiana, first published in 1596, was so popular that it went through four editions in that year. His most ambitious project was The History of the World, written during his long second sojourn in prison between 1603 and 1616, taking a million words to reach 130 BC, and published in 1614.

On Wednesday 29 July 2009, the Budleigh Festival of Music and the Arts will celebrate the life of this Devon hero with a performance of the cantata Even Such Is Time, a setting to music by local composer Nicholas Marshall of a poem written by Raleigh as he awaited execution at the Tower of London.

Even such is time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust!

More information about the Festival can be found at

East Devon’s best known hero is a multi-faceted character. Praised for his devotion to the new Protestant religion, Raleigh was also accused of atheism during his lifetime. His reputation grew in unexpected ways in the years following his death. He was highly regarded by such republicans as Oliver Cromwell and John Milton who were deeply influenced by the accounts of the consequences of tyranny in the History of the World.

A few miles from his birthplace you can see this stained glass window in Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth, where Sir Walter Raleigh stands next to Winston Churchill. Churchill’s name is universally known on both sides of the Atlantic as a defender of the free world. Not so well known in the United States is Raleigh's reputation among many Americans of the past as a patriotic hero and defender of liberty comparable to George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. The American navy in 1776 even named a frigate after him.

Two centuries later the Scottish writer John Buchan, a relative of the painter Sir John Everett Millais by marriage, asserted in an essay on Sir Walter Raleigh that "the British Empire of to-day, and the Republic of the United States, are alike built on his dreams."

You can make of Raleigh and his contradictions what you will, just as you can pronounce or spell his name in so many ways. And what thoughts was Millais the painter – through the ‘Genoese sailor’ perhaps? – putting into the boy’s head on Budleigh beach? Is that famous arm really pointing westwards across the Atlantic, filling the young Raleigh’s mind with thoughts of exotic lands, gold and plunder?

Or is it perhaps indicating south, to France where a tyrannical Catholic government led by the Inquisition was threatening the liberties of the ‘true religion’ and committing genocide against the Protestant minority? Is that why the teenage Raleigh found himself a few years later defending Huguenots and witnessing the horror of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre? If Millais is indeed making his hero a future defender of religious tolerance perhaps it is because the artist had in mind his own portrait of ‘A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge.’ The painting, done 18 years earlier in 1852, had been his first popular success.

And intrigued by the appointment of a Frenchman as vicar of that so English ancient church of All Saints at East Budleigh, in the very century of Raleigh’s death, I’m going to find try and find out more about that Daniel Caunières.

Note: I am indebted to Dr Robert Lawson-Peebles, Senior Lecturer at Exeter University's School of English for information taken from his article The many faces of Sir Walter Ralegh, originally published in History Today (1998).

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