Poet and Son: Wat Raleigh

By John Harris | May 22, 2013

Sir Walter Raleigh actually had three sons, but the first, Dameri, born 29 March 1592, played a role in Walter’s life only as proof to Queen Elizabeth that Walter, one of her half-dozen top advisors and the captain of her palace guard, had impregnated Bess Throckmorton, one of her maids of honor. As she investigated further, she found out that it was far worse than that; he had married Bess, five months previous to Dameri’s birth.

Impregnating a maid of honor might get a favored courtier a slap in the face. Marrying her without permission called for more serious punishment. The Queen had a proto-sexual relationship with her counselors, and indeed her whole country. Having wisely (for both her and England’s sake) decided to keep power to herself by not marrying, she regarded herself as married to England, and she accepted from the favorites among her peers, the powerful men who helped her govern, an elaborate, sexual dalliance, a series of courtly “affairs” that distracted her from her difficult, often boring, spouse. Early in her reign these affairs probably involved sex; it’s generally assumed that the Earl of Leicester, her Commander in Chief until his death in 1588, was a lover.

By Raleigh’s time the affairs were Platonic. In the poems her “lovers” wrote for her, and she liked poems, she was the moon goddess Cynthia, also known as Diana, the hunter. She was above them, though tangible, and chaste. In exchange for their worship and service, they received incredible gifts, mainly in the form of estates and commercial monopolies.

Part of the deal was that they had to beg permission to marry. On bended knees would be putting it mildly; they had to assume that position just to talk to her. And if they didn’t grovel, they were in trouble. Leicester made the mistake of secretly marrying the Queen’s cousin. He was locked up for a time though eventually returned to favor, and his wife was banished forever from court. Later the Earl of Essex, her cousin and Dameri’s godfather, also had married secretly, the widow of Sir Philip Sidney and daughter of Walsingham, who ran the Queen’s secret police. Again there was a dangerous explosion of anger. This one lasted only a couple of weeks, but it lodged permanent doubts in the Queen’s mind about Essex.

And now Walter, mere gentry really, not one of the great families at all but attractive and serviceable, having proven himself through six years of fighting, from ages 16 to 22, in the protestant cause in France, having come to her attention through that history and his good looks, his poetic ability and his wit, having endeared himself to her in the course of a dozen years of service and faux-courtship, and having being elevated to the nobility through the gift of a great estate, Sherborne, as well as other estates in Ireland, and of a monopoly of tin from the Cornish mines, had “jilted” her.

She was almost sixty and insecure about her charms. She was also at the time of Dameri’s birth insecure about her circle of advisors. Leicester and Walsingham were dead. William Cecil or Lord Burleigh, her top man, was too old to keep up with things. His son Robert was being trained to replace him but was still inexperienced and in conflict with Essex. Essex was erratic. Raleigh was the transition from her old advisors and her new, and he stood between the new ones as they battled for the Queen’s trust. The Queen was hurt, but she needed Walter.

Dameri, after unintentionally alerting the Queen to the dangerous game his father was playing, had no further part in his father’s life, since he lived for only a year.

At the time Dameri was born, Walter was in the West Country, putting together an expedition meant as a distraction to keep the Queen and her officials from taking seriously the rumors around Bess’s absence from court and to prevent any enquiries into his own erratic behavior. If things went well, he would be far away when the secret was out, giving the Queen time to cool off. And with luck he would return with something she really liked, Spanish treasure. Since it had been deducted from Spain’s treasury and added to England’s, it was worth twice face value.

The plan had gone well — for awhile. Walter’s brother Carew invested in one ship, the Queen two ships and £3,000, some wealthy London businessmen two ships, the Earl of Cumberland six ships, and Walter himself a ship and £10,000, most of which he’d borrowed. At the end of April Bess, having given birth to Dameri and squirreled him away at Sherborne, was back among the maids of honor. Walter set off on 6 May 1592.

But within a few days he received a royal order to return. He knew what it meant, but continued on a few days more, until they were off Spain at Cape Finesterre. His pretense for holding back was that he was training his second-in-command, Martin Frobisher. However, Frobisher was a seasoned admiral, veteran of three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage, Drake’s raid on Cartagena and the action against the Spanish Armada. He needed no training from Walter. He was back in Plymouth by mid May and on 31 May Robert Cecil took him into custody. Bess was picked up four days later.

The Queen didn’t blow up at Walter right away as she had with Leicester and Essex. She banned him from court and kept him confined at Durham House. And she actually in that time, on June 27, confirmed her earlier gift of Sherborne. It was a sign that she was more hurt than angry, and was open to an apology.

But Walter didn’t catch on, and the Queen couldn’t wait long without losing face, so by August both Walter and Bess were in the Tower of London. They didn’t stay there long. Ironically, it was the privateering venture that sprung them rather than any sign of contrition from Walter. While Frobisher was cruising off Spain distracting the Spanish patrols, his deputy Sir John Borough, waiting off the Azores, intercepted a Portugese ship, the Madre de Dios, that had left India and come around Africa on the way to Lisbon. He took it easily and found on board £500,000 worth of cargo. Not even Sir Francis Drake, England’s greatest privateer, had captured a richer treasure.

But the looting started right away, especially by Cumberland’s men who had first boarded the giant ship, and it got serious when the expedition landed at Dartmouth. Borough couldn’t control it. Cecil had to get Walter out of jail and take him to Dartmouth. When the sailors saw the man who had conscripted them, their real leader and the cause of their present happiness, they were overjoyed and rallied around him. Cecil gathered in what was left of the treasure, about £140,000 worth, and the Queen doled it out, taking Walter’s share after expenses (mainly his £10,000 loan), as a fine for his having married Bess. Then, at Christmas 1592, she released them from the Tower.

However, though she had punished Walter, she was not ready to have him back as the captain of her guard. It was banishment to Sherborne,

Sherborne Castle.

Sherborne Castle.

and the start of what seems to have been the happiest time of Walter’s life. He enjoyed being with his wife, managing his estate, hanging out with friends. Among these were the great playwright Christopher Marlowe and the mathematician Thomas Hariot, who had scooped Galileo in seeing sunspots and making a lunar map. Hariot also helped Walter design some of the great fighting ships of the navy, which Walter was instrumental in building up as a defense against Spain.

Life got even better when Wat was born, on 1 November 1593. Walter doted on him. He wrote a poem for him, and evidently sang it to him as he bounced him on his foot. It’s a comic song, identifying Wat as a “wag”— a young man who’s also a wit and a joker, which are two of the things that Wat turned out to be, and it predicts a bad end for the wag if he doesn’t stay away from the hangman’s bag, or noose:

Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that that makes the gallows tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman’s bag:
The wag, my pretty knave, betokens thee.
Mark well, dear boy, that these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot:
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.

Walter wrote some other great poems in those few domestic years at Sherborne. He was already known as a poet, his poems having for a time appeared in songbooks and miscellanies. One, “Farewell False Love,” was popular, having been set to music by William Byrd. People, among them probably the Queen, were amazed at the quality of the new poems, and also at the subject matter. It was usual for the Queen’s great men to write the occasional poem, but never really good ones like Walter’s. He was, with his friends Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe, the great poet of the time before John Donne, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare.

His poems register his bitterness at how the Queen had treated him and how he had wasted his life at court. But he started a longer poem too at the time, only a part of which survives. It was about his relationship with Diana or “Cynthia,” the moon goddess, and it registers his growing awareness of the Queen’s perspective and what he might have done to her. He missed her. She was “the world,” the great alternate attraction to his beloved wife. She was the “action” that, for all the pleasures of domestic life, he badly missed.

Soon Walter was easing back into the Queen’s favor, entering into another few years of power until 1603, when she died. In 1595 she gave her approval to a voyage to Guiana, an exploration up the Orinoco River from Trinidad, at its mouth. Walter hoped to start an English settlement there, as he had (unsuccessfully) at Roanoke in Virginia. She didn’t, however, contribute any money or ships, and her letter of approval doesn’t refer to Walter in her old, glowing terms. She was still insecure about Walter and she never was much interested in colonies. She regarded her fighting men, like Walter, as full of what she called “vainglory,” always pushing her to fight the protestant cause in Europe, to drive Spain off the oceans, and to hoist the flag over places like Newfoundland, Virginia and Guiana. Didn’t they have enough trouble just hanging on to Ireland?

Which is where they went when they got too forward. There, they were sure to learn humility.

The object of Walter’s latest expedition was to find the fabled city of El Dorado and, more practically, to give the natives of the area some support in their fight against the Spanish. Raleigh went 500 miles up the Orinoco, made allies of the natives in his cause of founding a colony, heard their stories about the great city, and found some promising rocks that proved to be worthless. When he got home he published a book about it to convince his backers and the Queen, since he had no wealth to show for his efforts.

She wasn’t impressed. Where was the money? But Walter didn’t give up. He immersed Wat in stories about the Orinoco and planned his return, sending his lieutenant Lawrence Keymis back the following year. Keymis was a fellow of Balliol college and friend of Hariot’s who came to share in the intellectual life at Sherborne. Walter also started agitating the Privy Council to launch a body-blow attack on Spain. If he couldn’t acquire wealth for the Queen, he could contribute to her fight with Spain. He claimed to have heard rumors of another Spanish attempt to land troops in Ireland —a gambit that had been tried before with the idea that the Irish, being Catholic and oppressed by the English, would welcome the Spanish. It hadn’t worked; the Irish regarded the Spanish as foreigners and would-be colonizers. But the Spanish kept trying, and it was they who provided funding to Ireland’s great rebel the Earl of Tyrone. There were also rumors of another Armada.

The Privy Council went for his idea. Essex himself, and the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, agreed with Walter. The Cecils were persuaded. The Queen agreed. Also they all recognized Walter’s merits as a maritime commander and appointed him Rear Admiral with the task of marshalling the crews. The attack would be on Spain’s major harbor, Cadiz. It included a squadron of Dutch warships; the Dutch were always eager to strike back at their colonial masters. On June 3, 1596, a counter-armada of 120 ships sailed out of Plymouth, Walter in charge of one of the five squadrons.

They caught the Spanish completely by surprise, with a large merchant fleet trapped in the harbor and the harbor guarded by only four galleons, though they were giant ones. But Essex and Howard made a major mistake, an attempt to land troops through the Atlantic breakers and attack the city, thus circumventing the four great warships. Raleigh insisted on a direct attack on the warships, shouting down his colleagues. Since their plan was failing, they allowed him control.

The attack was so overwhelming that the four Spanish galleons cut their cables and ran aground, their crews abandoning ship. Two of the galleons exploded. The English sacked the city, while the Spanish burnt their merchant ships to keep the English from making off with them and the wealth they contained. But Walter was not among the looters. At the start of the attack on the galleons, a cannon ball had bashed into the deck right beside him and driven shards of splintered wood into his leg. He went down in agony, and ever after walked with a limp.

Though he went back to England penniless as usual, word of his heroism preceded him. He and the Queen were soon back into their familiar, pseudo-domestic habits. After five years of disgrace, he was back in favor, once again the Captain of the Guard. He was one of three, with Essex and Robert Cecil, who circled Elizabeth in her last years.

Then Essex began losing influence. With Walter as Rear Admiral he made two more strikes at Spain that degenerated into privateering excursions, and unsuccessful ones at that. He was supposed to be destroying the Spanish navy. Because he wasn’t, the expected second armada arrived in the English Channel. Once again it was driven off by weather, fortunately for the English, who were not prepared. The Queen blamed Essex. Where was this vaunted navy that she had spent her money on?

Then Tyrone launched a full-scale rebellion in Ireland, and Essex was sent to quell it after a confrontation with the Queen when he tried to get someone else, preferably Walter, appointed to the task. Essex wanted to be close to the Queen, who was obviously dying, so he could facilitate the transition to and curry favor with her obvious successor, James VI of Scotland.

Essex failed spectacularly in Ireland and, paranoid about what Walter might be plotting with Cecil against him (nothing, as it turned out), made a surprise return to London and raised a rebellion. On 8 February 1601 he captured a deputation of Privy Councilors who had gone to read the Riot Act to him. Walter prepared his Queen’s guardsmen to defend the palace. As Essex approached the palace, however, his support fell away and nobody from the crowds joined him. Walter presided over his execution.

Meanwhile Cecil was making his own arrangements with the Queen’s successor, James. One part of his plan was to put Walter in a bad light. He could raise him as a threat, protect the King from him, and earn his gratitude. Essex had also been corresponding with James, evidently offering him a faster access to England’s throne than waiting for the Queen to die. James decided that Walter was responsible for “martyring” Essex. Later in 1601, when James sent a Scottish earl to weigh Walter out on the issue of succession, Walter replied that he was so deeply indebted to the Queen that he could not consider the issue of her successor. James decided that this hid a plot, and that Walter was the main threat to his succession to the crown. He referred to him as “that great Lucifer,” a reference not just to his supposed antagonism but also his supposed knowledge (through Hariot) of the black arts.

In 1602 Walter, at the height of his power, unaware it seems of the ruin that was to come down on him with the Queen’s death, commissioned a painting of himself and Wat. Wat, nine years old now, his head reaching to Walter’s waist, imitates his father’s posture in every way. They seem even to have the exact same impression on their faces, eyes slightly away from the painter, slight smiles on their faces. Wat would have been aware of his father’s, and accordingly of his, status, familiar with the routines and accoutrements of power and some of the great men of court.Walter Raleigh & son Wat

Then the Queen died, James took over as James I of England, and Walter was stripped of his monopolies, offices and London house and finally, on the basis of a trumped-up charge of treason, thrown in the Tower and put on trial. He faltered at first under the knowledge that “the world” was no longer to be his, but his defense was a turning point. He showed courage and dignity, and people began to admire him again.

He was sentenced to death. He sent his blessings to Wat and Bess. Then his execution was postponed, and postponed. Bess and Wat, now ten years old, were allowed to stay near him, and a third son, Carew, was born in February 1605 and baptized in the Tower. Hariot visited and with Walter set up a lab and began refracting light through liquids. Hariot corresponded with Kepler, proposing a rational explanation for rainbows. Also, he and Walter continued to design ships. But there were bad times too. James attacked Walter in a pamphlet for picking up the habit of smoking from “the beastly Indians” and introducing it to Europe. Sherborne, which Walter assumed he had successfully transferred to Wat back in 1601, was taken. James appointed a less amiable Lieutenant of the Tower to manage Walter’s life and the experiments were over. Walter concentrated on his writing, prose.

It’s hard to say how much of Walter Carew might have seen. Walter published no poems about or for him. He may have written some, but the Commissioners of the King’s warrant after his execution took all Walter’s papers and destroyed or lost them.

Wat, in 1607, now living under straightened circumstances but still the son of a famous man, went off to Corpus Christi college in Oxford for what would now be called high school. He was a high-spirited, barely controllable boy, his teacher reported, of good intelligence and some ability in music. Bess ignored the complaints and concentrated on the praise. Wat argued that his teacher was a tyrant.

Walter must have been concerned, because in 1607 he wrote a pamphlet ultimately published as Instructions to his Son. The pamphlet contained a generalized set of moral rules to be followed by a young man setting out into adult life. Many of these rules sound funny coming from Walter, since they are rules most of which Walter never followed in his own life, especially those about lying and making and keeping friends. Wat seems to have understood this; he made a point of breaking every rule except the one about not drinking much. Like his father, he kept away from alcohol.

Walter’s prospects rose considerably when James’ son Henry, Prince of Wales, began to visit him, regarding him as the great English hero, the man who had prepared England against the armada and captured Cadiz. He talked with Walter about his explorations in Guiana and attempts to set up a colony in Virginia. Henry interceded with his father, at times over-rode him, when it came to keeping Walter happy and productive. “No king but my father would keep such a bird in a cage,” he said. It seemed that Walter had acquired a fourth son. Henry, aware that his father was allowing England’s navy, now the greatest maritime fighting force in the world, to deteriorate, set Walter to work on designing a new warship, the Prince Royal. Also he encouraged him to write a history of the world, parts of which Henry took off to the printers despite his father’s wish that they be banned. And Henry sent a small fleet to Guyana.

But then Henry suddenly caught a fever and died, on November 6, 1612. He was no longer there to stand between his hero and his father, a father who was now jealous as well as afraid of Walter. And Wat’s escapades were getting to be a bother. Bess couldn’t handle him, and Walter was stuck in the tower.

In order to keep Wat out of trouble, Walter hired Ben Jonson, a fellow poet and Shakespeare’s great competitor, as Wat’s tutor. This seems to have been a strange miscalculation, considering that Walter knew that Jonson, for all his merits as a poet, was a fighter, drinker and womanizer. Jonson and Wat went to Paris. At that time, you couldn’t leave England with more than £20 in your pocket (the yearly wage of two schoolteachers), so Walter funded the year-long trip through some agents in Paris, Brussels and Antwerp. Jonson and Wat cut a fine swath through the brothels of Paris, Wat taking to displaying the love tokens of damsels on a codpiece (a flap concealing the opening on men’s breeches). He also on one occasion found (or as Jonson later explained it to Walter got) Jonson drunk, handcuffed him spreadeagled to a wheelbarrow, and rolled him through the streets, arguing that he was a livelier crucifix than any the French had in their churches.

On their return from Paris, in April 1615, Wat wounded an opponent in a duel and had to go back to France and hide out for awhile. Jonson seems to have been involved in this event too.

On March 19, 1616, James released Walter, under guard, evidently deciding that Walter should prepare an expedition and go back to the Orinoco and find El Dorado. Walter had petitioned him to this effect a few times, with the backing of Prince Henry. Also, some expeditions, inspired by the pamphlet Walter had written long ago for the Queen, had successfully set up trading posts, established plantations and indeed formally claimed the area for England.

The King’s sudden decision to call Walter’s hand, and his approval of what was to that point the largest expedition to sail into the Caribbean, was actually a trap. James provided the Spanish ambassador with a list of Walter’s ships, armaments, ports of call and estimated dates of arrival. And he told Walter that any breaking of the peace with Spain would amount to treason. In other words he armed him to the teeth, told him he couldn’t fight, and told Spain where he would be.

Walter guessed he was being set up, and took precautions, cutting a deal with the French. Though the Hugenots that Walter had fought with in his youth had lost, their leader Henri of Navarre had accepted Catholicism and come to the throne, starting a new line of rulers, the Bourbons, who had great admiration for Walter. The deal with France was that Walter on his return could put in at a French port and from there appraise James’ reaction to the success or lack thereof of the expedition. If he could not safely go back to England, he could stay in France and help run the navy.

Once he was out of prison, Walter wandered around London noting the changes and visiting old friends. He dined with Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern, a place that the two had made famous as the site of their literary club meetings. It was here that Walter learned of Wat’s adventures in Paris. Wat was eager to play a part in the expedition and was made captain so he could go out and recruit a company of soldiers. It was at this time too that Walter and Wat were invited to a dinner party. Wat entertained the table by telling of how he’d gone to a whore that morning who refused to sleep with him on the grounds that she’d just been with his father. Walter struck Wat who turned and struck the man next to him, saying, “box about. ‘Twill come to my father anon.”

The fleet was battered by storms, and many men died of disease, but Walter arrived off the mainland of South America on 11 November 1617. He sent a ship back with news of the arrival and an optimistic pamphlet-length manuscript, News of Sir Walter Raleigh from the River of Caliana (now the Cayenne). Also there was a letter telling Bess that young Wat was well, amazingly resistant to the usual diseases that raged on board ship. Walter didn’t tell Bess this, but he himself wasn’t feeling at all well.

Walter organized the expedition up the Orinoco. He was sick and too old — sixty-five — to go himself, and anyway was needed to command the fleet that would guard the mouth of the river against the Spanish. Wat was passed by as leader of the 400 men and five small ships that would go inland. He was considered too impulsive. Keymis was chosen; he had the experience and the knowledge of the river. George Raleigh, Wat’s cousin, was given military command. However, Wat’s company of pikemen went, with Wat as leader.

As it turned out, Walter himself had nothing to worry about from the Spanish navy. Spanish authorities regarded Guiana as low priority and had other more important jobs for their fighting ships. Also they didn’t believe the report they received on Walter’s location; why would the English provide the exact location of a large fleet except as a feint for an attack that would come at some more important point? The information about Walter’s agenda was sent only to military officials in Trinidad and San Thomé up the river.

On January 2 1618, Keymis landed a few miles away from San Thomé, hoping that a few Spaniards would come down from the fort to negotiate. He would assure them that he was no threat and get some information about any mines or veins of ore. He thought he was far enough away from the town to discourage any concerted attack, but a dozen Spanish regulars struck at midnight at one corner of the camp. Unfortunately for them it was where Wat and his men were. Wat heard the shouting, Perros Ingleses!, and rallied his company, who quickly beat the Spanish back. But Wat forgot his orders about engagement and pursued the Spanish right to Thomé. When he noticed his men hesitating at the sight of the citadel, he shouted, Come on, my hearts! This is the mine you must expect! They that look for any other are fools!

It seems he had little faith in his father’s vision of El Dorado and was proposing to grab the wealth more immediately at hand by sacking the town. Maybe he was angry that he wasn’t playing a bigger part in the expedition. He charged and was felled right away by a musket ball. His troops, enraged at his death, broke through the defenses, and chased out the entire garrison, killing the governor and four of his main officers.

Keymis arrived to see the town taken and being sacked, and to realize that Wat had just given James the excuse he needed to execute Walter. He buried Wat with full honors. In the house of the dead governor, he found an exact copy of the expedition plans that Walter had given to James when the expedition was approved. Keymis seems to have panicked, deducing that the fleet at the mouth of the Orinoco would likely be under siege or maybe already destroyed. He and his men would be bottled up in the river to be picked off gradually by Spanish patrols. Instead of doing a thorough search of the immediate area for any mine or information about a mine, he decided on a rush trip further up the river with George Raleigh and a special party of volunteer troops. At some point he sent a party back to the fleet, and Walter received, on February 14, the news that San Thomé had been taken and Wat was dead. Walter knew that the message was his death warrant.

On his way back, Keymis burned San Thomé to the ground. He had nothing, finally, to show Walter but evidence of the King’s betrayal, a couple of gold ingots and several tons of tobacco found in the town. He was reprimanded by Walter and committed suicide. Walter now had the deaths of two people on his conscience, for Keymis had just been pursuing the dream that Walter himself had created and fuelled. If anyone apart from Walter himself was to blame for the total failure of the expedition, it was Wat.

The fleet broke up, a couple of Walter’s captains turning pirates as a way of recouping their losses. Historians have puzzled over why Walter didn’t go to France. Likely, he wanted to die.

He was executed on October 29, 1618. Carew Raleigh, now 13 years of age, wrote a last-minute appeal to James I to spare his father, and he spent the rest of his life defending him. He had a lot of help in this. As James and then Charles I more and more intrigued with Spain and insisted on their divine right to rule, Parliament and the people of England got more and more angry. They needed a hero and adopted Walter. He was from an old family, ardently protestant from the time of Henry VIII. He had fought the protestant cause in France, and he had defended England from the Spanish. He was regarded as a martyr.

Bess sent Carew to Oxford and then to Court. James didn’t like to see him there, crying out that he appeared like “the ghost of his father.” He was seen to share in Walter’s martyrdom since James denied him his inheritance, though it was returned to him by Charles I in 1628 in what turned out to be a futile attempt to lay Walter’s ghost to rest.

When Bess died in 1647 Carew came into possession of his father’s embalmed head. He married in 1649, the same year that Charles was beheaded. He had three sons and two daughters, and his older son Walter was knighted. Carew sat in parliament for four years. When he died in 1666, he was interred, with the head, in his father’s tomb in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The tomb had become a protestant pilgrimage site.

Likely there’s no sign of Wat’s grave up the Orinoco River, but his father’s poem for him is a much better memorial than any grave could be. It shows love and an understanding, at a very early stage, of Wat’s character. It contains for present readers the irony that it was Walter, not Wat, who ended up in the hangman’s bag (the equivalent for the nobility was the block). Wat had the luck to die in battle.


[Poet and Son is a series-in-progress about poets and their male offspring.]



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