Wednesday, 2 August 2017

1618-2018: Some things never change

Grapple with the character of Sir Walter Raleigh and you’ll find him difficult to pin down. He displays so many facets, and inspired so many myths in later centuries. Some of the changes came with age of course: you go from disgust at the monstrous cruelty he seems to have displayed as a young officer in Ireland to admiration for the coolness he famously exhibited when facing death on the scaffold.

Raleigh's cell at the Tower of London
Image credit:

For part of his life he was the ambitious scheming courtier; towards the end he was the scholar and scientist, dispensing medicines from his laboratory in the Tower of London.    

It’s difficult to reconcile the contradictions in his character, but easy to spot the similarities between his age and ours.

King James I and President Trump: they share more than just their Scots heritage Image credit: Wikipedia

Nations today can still find themselves with rulers who come across as ‘a bit different’ from their predecessors. When in 1603 the Scottish King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth on the English throne he raised a few eyebrows. 

The Virgin Queen had been compared to a goddess and enjoyed royal ceremony whereas the new king hated formality. He was irritated by the swarms of eager crowds, who as a courtier explained, simply wanted to gaze on his face as he rode in his carriage. ‘God’s wounds! I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse,’ was his famous reply. 

“I give not a turd for your preaching,” in response to a tedious sermon is another royal quote which has gained him immortality.

So have the terms of endearment such as ‘sweet child and wife’  with which the King addressed his favourites like George Villiers, later created Duke of Buckingham. 

To the Privy Council he justified his relationship with such handsome young men by comparing himself to Jesus.  ‘Christ had his John and I have my George’ is another famous quote. 

Small wonder that he became known as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. 

And if complaints about foreign influence on election results are what makes headlines today you can be sure that it was no different in 1618. For ‘Russian’ substitute ‘Spanish’: Count Gondomar, Madrid’s ambassador in London, pictured above, was seen as the evil influence behind King James’s signing of Raleigh’s death-warrant.  

‘The devil in a dung-cart’ was how the ambassador was memorably described in 1621 by a London apprentice who saw him proceeding down Fenchurch Street. 

The fear of terrorism funded by foreign powers was as widespread in the 17th century as it is today. After all, the best known of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the Catholic Guido Fawkes, had adopted his name while fighting for the Spanish against Dutch Protestants in the Low Countries. 

In 1603, two years before the Plot was discovered, three of the conspirators, including Fawkes, had travelled to Spain in the hope of persuading the new King, Philip III, to attempt a new invasion of England following the failed 1588 Armada, although their efforts  were unsuccessful; Spanish policy towards England had changed and peaceful overtures were being made, at least at government level.   But in the popular mind, Spain and the Pope were still in league with the Devil against Protestantism. 

Twin images: United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks of 2011, alongside
a late 17th century publication of a ballad with illustrations celebrating the ‘Happy Deliverance by Divine Power’ from the Catholic plotters.  The success of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators would have had as horrific an impact in England as 9/11 for the West           Image source: Wikipedia


A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham   

Image source: Wikipedia

The way in which such events as the Gunpowder Plot and Raleigh’s trial and execution were handled in news reports of the time was of course very different from today. Press freedom did not exist, and offenders were punished by the authorities with imprisonment, fines or corporal mutilation. 

Not until the 1640s were there the beginnings of a campaign against censorship with the Puritan Revolution and the publication of John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644. 

But news could be spread and libels broadcast in the 16th and 17th centuries through printed or manuscript material as vigorously as any of today’s social media campaigns. 

Hundreds of inflammatory and explicit early Stuart political pamphlets survive in close to 10,000 contemporary manuscript copies, writes Dr Noah Millstone, of the University of Birmingham, in what he describes as ‘a shocking sum’.

Shortly after Raleigh’s execution the Government of King James published a justification of its actions. This was no mere hurriedly printed political pamphlet; it was, as the University of Rochester’s Joseph Frank puts it, an excellent printing job consisting of 68 pages of superior typography, paper and ink – ‘the government's weighty effort to show that Sir Walter's martyr's robe was really only sheep's clothing’. 

The full title was A/ Declaration/ of the Demea/nor and Cariage of/ Sir Walter Raleigh,/ Knight, as well in his Voyage, as/ in, and sithence his Returne;/ And of the true motiues and ìnduce/ments which occasioned His Maiestie/to Proceed in doing lustice upon him,/ as hath bene done.  

The Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, later to be disgraced and charged with 23 separate counts of corruption, was the principal author, working with the King. In a letter to a friend he wrote: ‘We have put the Declaration touching Raleigh to press, with his Majesty’s additions which were very material and fit to proceed from his Majesty.’

The Declaration was no doubt countered by less professionally produced publications which gave the opposite view. One of them,  ‘Vox Spiritus or Sir Walter Raleigh’s Ghost’, pictured above, was a handwritten pamphlet, conserved at Trinity College Dublin. It was produced in 1620 to promote the ideals of the late Sir Walter, namely the mistrust of Catholicism and all things Spanish. After Raleigh's execution in 1618 the King of Spain, the Pope and the Devil were seen as conspirators in a new version of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

‘Raleigh’s Ghost’, explains Trinity College’s archivist Estelle Gittins, imagines a meeting between Gondomar and a Jesuit priest on 20 November 1620 which is interrupted by the apparition of Raleigh who calls upon officials to defend England against the spread of ‘popery’. The vengeful ghost pointing an accusing finger at its quaking murderer is a classic dramatic device which crops up in contemporary tragedies.  The pamphlet was only available in manuscript form until it was published in 1983.

The author could have been Thomas Gainsford, described by the authorities as a ‘poore Captaine about London’, who was discovered with the seditious manuscript and imprisoned. Reputedly the first London periodical news editor he was described by Ben Jonson as ‘Captain Pamphlet’. He died of the plague in 1624. 

A second possible author was Thomas Scott, a Protestant minister whose pamphlet 'Vox Populi: or Newes from Spayne' was also published in 1620, deeply offending the Spanish ambassador Gondomar.   

Scott eventually fled to Utrecht to continue his anti-Spanish writings and was assassinated in 1626 by John Lambert, a mentally unbalanced English soldier who supposedly both admitted under torture that he had been ‘hired for money to do it’ but at the same time asserted that he was 'never hyred or induced by the perswasions of any priest, Jesuit, or other person to attempt that bloudy act.'

In 1603, when Sir Walter Raleigh was first confined in the Tower, his violent and haughty temper had rendered him ‘the most unpopular man in England’ wrote the 18th century historian and philosopher David Hume. 

Fifteen years later, thanks due in part no doubt to the spread of such hispanophobic literature, the same writer stated: No measure of James's reign was attended with more public dissatisfaction than the punishment of Sir Walter Raleigh.’

As part of the Raleigh 400 project I’m working with school students with the aim of bringing history to life.  I'd like to see them present the issues surrounding Raleigh’s execution as portrayed in this contemporary pamphlet war, but in a 21st century setting. 

Fake news would of course be allowed.

You can now read a growing mass of material about Sir Walter's 400th anniversary at

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