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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.budleigh-festival.org.uk/
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.
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?
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).