Saturday, 23 December 2017

Syons of the Tymes

I think it's time for some sober scholarship, as opposed to pub crawling for Raleigh 400 - though there's more of that to come. 

Two rather different houses with the same name, both in the Georgian style but separated from each other by more than 160 miles, play a part in the Raleigh 400 story.

East Budleigh’s Syon House, described as ‘the perfect boutique country house B and B’, would at first glance seem to have no connection to Sir Walter. It’s a fine 18th century building overlooking the village of Otterton, and in fact is separated from the older part of East Budleigh and Raleigh’s birthplace by the main road.

Syon House Brentford west aspect 
Credit: Russ Hamer 

Syon House is the spectacular London home of the Duke of Northumberland.  The house was built in the sixteenth century on the site of the Medieval Syon Abbey, and came to the family of the present owners in 1594. Syon has many layers of history and has seen some profound changes over the centuries

So what’s the link to the other Syon House, at Brentford, the spectacular London home of the present Duke of Northumberland? They’re both Georgian in design of course, but we have to dig a little deeper.

The Vision of St Bridget, detail of initial letter miniature, dated 1530, probably made at Syon. The document is a conveyance of lands bequeathed to Sheen Priory by the will of Hugh Denys(d.1511) to Syon (BL Harley MS 4640,f.15)

Redesigned in the 18th century by the architect Robert Adam and replacing an earlier building, the Brentford Syon House gives little hint to visitors that it was once a medieval monastery. But down in the crypt you’ll find much earlier stone foundations, the curious story of the religious order founded by the Swedish visionary St Bridget and its link with Otterton. 

Hugo the salt worker: sculpture by Angie Harlock

Following the Norman invasion of 1066, Otterton was given by William the Conqueror to the Abbey of Mont St Michel in France and a priory was set up. Its various trade interests included exploitation of the salt marshes at Budleigh Salterton. You can discover the story of the Prior of Otterton and Hugo the salt worker who was too fond of his cider, at the town’s Fairlynch Museum.

During the wars between England and France, in 1414 King Henry V seized the manor of Otterton and granted it to the monastery of Bridgettines which he had established by royal charter on the banks of the Thames. Its full title was given as ‘The Monastery of St Saviour and the Saints Mary the Virgin and Bridget of Syon of the Order of St Augustine and of St Saviour’. The foundation stone of Syon Monastery was laid by the King himself in 1431, the name coming from the Bible’s description of Syon or Zion, the citadel of Jerusalem.

Syon Monastery retained ownership of Otterton Priory for just over a century. Then came the turmoil of the Reformation in the reign of King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monks were dispersed, and the monastic half of Otterton’s church was pulled down, or simply allowed to decay.

Syon House before the alterations of the 1760s.
Robert Griffier (1688-1760)   landscape painter from London who was active in Amsterdam. - Christies
View across the Thames of Syon House

As for Syon Monastery itself, the King’s minister Thomas Cromwell himself took an active role in ensuring its closure. Its monks were finally expelled in 1539. The estate was acquired by the Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who built the first version of Syon House in the Italian Renaissance style.

More religious and political upheavals took place, including the Duke’s execution for treason in 1552, and the lease of Syon House was finally given in 1594 to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland.

Portrait of Henry Percy by Nicholas Hilliard (1590-95) 

Ten years younger than Sir Walter, Percy had an unusual
interest in scientific and alchemical experiments which he shared with Raleigh and which gained him the nickname of the ‘Wizard Earl’. 

He was also extremely wealthy, finally coming into possession not only of Syon House but of Petworth in Sussex.

The Molyneux globe at Petworth 

At this time both men were part of the select coterie of intellectuals based at Raleigh’s London residence, Durham House. The Molyneux cartographical globe at Petworth is supposed to have been given to him by Raleigh, one of many expensive gift which the two exchanged and Sir Walter is known to have consulted the library there in the course of his scholarly pursuits. 

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (the 'wizard earl'), painted posthumously as a philosopher, at Petworth House. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

Under King James I, Northumberland was a long-term prisoner in the Tower of London. According to the Percy Family History, he took with him into captivity ‘a large number of books, retorts, crucibles, alembics, zodiacal charts and globes’, also a selection of his favourite pipes. Food, good wine, and quantities of tobacco were sent to him regularly, and baskets of fruit were dispatched from his orchards at Syon.

There were also visitors, and he had living with him three wise men, scientists known as the ‘Three Magi’ who assisted him with his experiments. He played chess and draughts, and an early version of kriegspiel, for one item in his accounts is for 300 model soldiers and other necessary equipment.

Raleigh too, having offended Queen Elizabeth’s successor, was a fellow-prisoner with Northumberland at this time. Their friendship and the intellectual curiosity that they shared, along with their dislike of King James - ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ -  would no doubt have helped to make their lives more tolerable than those of most of the Tower of London’s residents.   

In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594), there is a mention of the ‘School of Night’. It has been argued that this refers to a circle of scientific investigators including Northumberland, which met at Syon House, though other commentators think the word ‘school’ is a misprint for something like ‘shawl’.  Since Northumberland was often considered to be an atheist, the ‘school’ was sometimes referred to as the ‘School of Atheism’.  Raleigh was the supposed leader.

Reading about this episode in Raleigh's life makes you realise how far he had evolved from the brutal thug that he was in his youth. And I enjoyed finding the answer to the puzzle that I first encountered when I saw Syon House on the map on a walk around East Budleigh.   

For more insights into the Percy family see

The East Budleigh Syon House website is at

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


Monday, 4 December 2017

Sir Walter Raleigh and Music

Professor Ivan Roots

Back in 2009, the late and great Ivan Roots, Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, was kind enough to give a talk in Budleigh Salterton about Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry. 

The event was a prelude to a performance of ‘Even such is Time’, the cantata by local composer Nicholas Marshall which is based on one of Raleigh’s most famous poems.

I wrote about Professor Roots’ talk at and remember his conclusion that Sir Walter was ‘not a great poet’. Although Raleigh’s later poems made ‘quite good, subtle points’, he conceded, much of the early stuff was extremely conventional, ‘addressed to imaginary women like hundreds of other courtly compositions of the age’.

Professor Dodsworth’s edition of the poems, entitled Sir Walter Ralegh: The Poems, with other Verse from the Court of Elizabeth I was published by Everyman Paperbacks in 1999

Music and poetry were valuable commodities in Renaissance high society. Raleigh, as Professor Martin Dodsworth writes, was a climber: ‘poetry was one of the means by which he climbed’.  And in what his biographer Raleigh Trevelyan calls the ‘shark pool’ of Elizabethan court politics – where a line of poetry could land you in royal disfavour or reward you with a thousand acres of a country estate – music was, to quote Dr Katherine Butler, ‘simultaneously a tool of authority for the monarch and an instrument of persuasion for the nobility.’

Engraving of a portrait reputedly of William Byrd (1543-1623)

Conventional they may have been, but Sir Walter’s verses were highly popular with contemporary composers. A good example is his ‘Farewell, false Love’, set to music by
William Byrd and published in 1588 in Psalmes, Sonets, and songs of sadnes and pietie.

Authorship of many verses ascribed to Sir Walter is a problem, but Trevelyan is one writer who believes that two further poems were penned by Raleigh and used by Byrd. ‘Wounded I am’ and ‘See those sweet eyes, those more than sweetest eyes’ were published in the 1589 Songs of sundrie natures.  

Another poem sometimes ascribed to Raleigh is ‘Like hermit poor in pensive place obscure’, set to music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger and published in Ayres (1609).

English composer Orlando Gibbons  (1583-1625) by an unknown artist

A poem widely recognised as Raleigh’s is ‘What is our life?’, used by the leading early 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons and published as ‘What is Life?’ in The First set of madrigals and motetts (1612).

Here’s the full poem:

What is our life? It is a play of passion.
What is our mirth? The music of division.
Our mothers, they the tiring-houses* be,
Where we are dress'd for time's short tragedy.
Earth is the stage, heaven the spectator is
Who doth behold whoe'er doth act amiss. 
The graves that hide us from the parching sun
Are but drawn curtains till the play is done.

*i.e 'attiring rooms' as in a theatre. 

An indication of Raleigh’s standing among Elizabethan musicians is the fact that a special piece – ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’s Galliard’ – was composed and dedicated to him by the lutenist Francis Cutting.

St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. 

Image credit: Reinhold Möller

It’s good to know that, in some places which have links with Raleigh, music associated with him will be part of the 400th anniversary events marking his death. 

The London-based choral director and conductor Aidan Oliver told me that 29 October 2018 was ‘a significant anniversary which clearly has great relevance’ for St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, where he is Director of Music. 

‘At the very least, I would expect that the choir could sing one of the settings of his beautiful ‘Even such is time’ at our Sunday Eucharist on the previous day.’

At least five composers have set this poem to music. They are Ina Boyle (1889-1967), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), Herbert Howells CH, CBE (1892-1983) and two living composers: Bob Chilcott and Budleigh Salterton’s Music Festival Director Nicholas Marshall. 

St Margaret’s, of course, next to Westminster Abbey, sits alongside the Houses of Parliament, and Aidan is responsible for the music at many high-profile Parliamentary occasions.

It’s there that you can see the Raleigh memorial window over the west door, installed in 1882 and subscribed for by American donors. 

At the top angels hold banners with the arms of the United States of America and the Royal Arms. Below, various angels hold other coats of arms and Tudor emblems. Five figures are shown in the main window - Elizabeth I, Henry, Prince of Wales, son of King James I, Raleigh himself, the poet Edmund Spenser, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the celebrated navigator and Raleigh’s half-brother.

Image credit:

Panels represent Raleigh sailing for America, his landing there, Spenser presented to the Queen by Raleigh, his imprisonment and burial. The inscription was composed by James Russell Lowell, the poet and diplomat who was US Ambassador in London at the time of the unveiling:

"The new world's sons from England's breast we drew, Such milk as bids remember whence we came; Proud of her past, from which our present grew; this window we inscribe with Raleigh's name".

Also in St Margaret’s, Westminster, is a brass memorial on the south east wall of the church, given in 1845 by the Roxburghe Society, replacing one of wood which had decayed. This includes Raleigh’s coat of arms (gules, five lozenges in bend, argent). The inscription reads:

"Within ye chancel of this church was interred the body of the great Sr. Walter Raleigh, Kt. on the day he was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster Oct. 29th Ano. Dom. 1618. Reader - should you reflect on his errors Remember his many virtues and that he was a mortal."

Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth

Nearer to Raleigh’s birthplace in East Budleigh, Devon, is Holy Trinity Church Exmouth.

Here there is also a fine stained glass window in his honour alongside an equally fine one commemorating Sir Winston Churchill.  The
Revd James Hutchings, Team Rector at Holy Trinity in the parish of Littleham-cum-Exmouth with Lympstone Mission Community and Rural Dean of Aylesbeare Deanery, told me that the Church would certainly want to mark the 400th anniversary. Prayers ascribed to Raleigh could be used in the Sunday service, the day before.

Local florist Daffodils have kindly agreed to provide flowers for Holy Trinity’s Raleigh window in October 2018.

This is one of the prayers mentioned by Revd James Hutchings:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

It’s actually the first six lines of 58, of a poem entitled ‘The passionate man’s pilgrimage’.

The Budleigh Salterton Male Voice Choir’s 2017 Christmas concert is on 16 December 4, 2017

What else in 2018? Well, I’m no musical expert and wouldn’t dare call myself a poet. But I do dabble in verse, and I was pleased to hear that the Budleigh Salterton Male Voice Choir plans to perform my ‘Sir Walter’s Lament’, to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’ at their Christmas concert, probably on 15 December 2018, in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton.

I was so excited by the news that I took out my quill and composed ‘A Hero of Devon’, which I wrote to the beautiful tune of ‘The Ash Grove.’ You can hear it being beautifully played at

Here are the words:  

1. A Hero of Devon –
We hope he’s in Heaven –
He lived in the time of Good Queen Bess.
They said he was proud:
His clothes were so loud.
He had his faults we must confess.
His surname is Raleigh,
Or maybe it’s Rawley,
And as for the spelling nobody is sure.
We’ll call him Sir Walter
Queen Bess called him Water.
He loved her to bits but we’re sure it was pure.

2. His cloak on a puddle,
He said ‘T’is no trouble!
Your Majesty’s feet will now not get wet!’
The Queen smiled and said,
‘We cannot be wed.
But please do become my favourite, pet!’
Sir Walter became
The man in the frame.
Potatoes won fame as his favourite dish.
Virginia known
For Queen Bess on her throne.
A pipe of tobacco his dearest wish.  

3. With bicycles too
His fame grew anew.
His poetry also was not bad at all.
But Bess’ successor,
A man so much lesser,
Did craftily bring about his fall.
He stood on the scaffold.
The crowd were so baffled
To see English justice had gone amiss.
Sir Walter take praise!
Our hero from Hayes
Who wrote loads of poems much better than this.

Now, if anyone reading this would like to use my verses to pay a musical tribute to Sir Walter I would be delighted to hear from you.

But seriously, there’s much fine Elizabethan music, and verses much finer than mine, which could be performed at concerts big or small. The only connection with Raleigh is that they are of his time. 

I’ve noted a few here, along with a link for you to hear them. The first is Thomas Morley’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. Another well known Shakespeare piece is The Wind and the Rain from ‘Twelfth Night’ which you can hear at

I rather liked John Dowland’s ‘Fine knacks for ladies’.

And I’m now so enthused by the idea of helping to mark Raleigh 400 with music that I suggested to some friends that we should form a select singing group called, provisionally, ‘Walter’s Wailers’. We would perform, probably in intimate venues like the pub, or if we get really enthused, on the street. 

If you’d like to have some fun and join us, do get in touch.

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