Britannia Biographies: Sir Walter Raleigh Part 2

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Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Christopher Smith
S I R      W A L T E R
 R A L E I G H
Part 2: Study & Youthful Experiences

Sir Walter RaleighWhen Young Walter Raleigh was barely fifteen years old, he joined a troop of a hundred horse, raised by the Compte de Montgomerie whose daughter had married a relation of his mother's (James Champernowne). He was present when the Huguenots, under Admiral Coligny, were routed at Montentour. He saw their revenge when they murdered Catholics in their caves in Languedoc by smoking them out like bees in a hive. Later, Walter narrowly escaped the massacre of St Bartholomew's Day and, on his return to England, he had become well aware of the misery which could be inflicted by organised religion in the pursuit of power.

Walter was then sent to Oriel College, Oxford with a cousin from Somerset, George Carew and Charles Champernowne from Devon. He studied Aristotle and became proficient in oratory and philosophy. He soon tired of University discipline, however, and left for the Middle Temple in London to study law and debate current affairs, not to mention meeting influential people and attempting to catch the Queen's eye. He lived in Islington, then a rural area with fine mansions, gardens and orchards, and it was here that he learned that a poetical soldier could become a popular courtier if he secured the patronage of the Earl of Leicester - Queen Elizabeth's 'Sweet Robin' - or his nephew, Philip Sydney.

The most influential figure in Walter's life was, however, his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. His true university was Gilbert's study at Limehouse. Here he read Sir Humphrey's paper 'Queen Elizabeth's Academy,' met John Dee, a mathematical genius, and first heard of the latter's vision of the founding of a Tudor Empire in North America, with Elizabeth as its Virginal Queen.

At this time, there was a deepening crisis between England and the late queen, 'Bloody' Mary's husband, King Philip of Spain. The Spanish Papal monopoly in the Americas had been thwarted by John Hawkins of Plymouth, who began the lucrative slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean. This led to the several battles of both Hawkins and Drake. These were rough times. On one occasion, one hundred men surrendered to the Spaniards. Those mercifully treated received a hundred lashes and six to eight years in the galleys. The rest were strangled or burnt at the stake.

In 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert received letters patent from the Queen to sail in search of remote heathen and barbarous lands and territories not possessed by any Christian princes. Sir Humphrey was to sail as Admiral in the Anne Archer, while Raleigh captained the Falcon with Simon Fernandez as master.

The Falcon was a tiny vessel less than seventy-five feet long, with a complement of gentlemen, soldiers and mariners, some seventy in all. Raleigh's cabin was on the poop deck in the stern, below was Fernandez with the charts and navigational instruments, below that was the cabin for the officers. At the forecastle were the quarters of the skilled mariners, the smith, the carpenter and the sail-maker. In the centre, dark and cramped, the deck painted blood red, were the rest of the practical crew. They slept on folded sails between the guns, in skin rotting damp. The less fortunate groaned with dysentery, typhus, beri beri or scurvy. The food was mere gruel, salt beef, flat beer and weevil infested biscuits from the hold; but it was ruthlessly controlled by the boson. Theft of food was a serious crime and the punishment was to nail the offender's hand to the mast and cut it off. The stump would be dipped in oil.

In this less than luxurious transport, Raleigh eventually reached the Cape Verde Islands, after facing forty foot waves and storms that often blew the main mast level with the sea. Large numbers of the crew had died and the expedition was soon obliged to return to Plymouth. It was 1579 and, at the age of only twenty-four, Walter already found himself in deep trouble with the Privy Council. Gilbert and Raleigh were both forbidden to sail again.

Part 3: An Irish Command    Copyright ©1999, LLC