UNC professor speaks of Sir Walter's volatile life

jneff@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2013 

Raleigh the city has been criticized at times as staid and predictable.

Not the man whose name adorns the city.

Sir Walter Ralegh (yes, that’s six letters in his last name — his spelling) was an adventurer, explorer, poet, writer, spy, bon vivant, courtier of Queen Elizabeth and a blade whose amorous exploits are too randy for a family newspaper.

On Sunday afternoon, at the historic Joel Lane House, UNC professor Christopher Armitage held an audience spellbound with the tales of Ralegh’s exploits in the 16th and 17th centuries. Armitage deployed his Oxford accent to puncture some of the myths and misunderstandings of a man so fascinating that he inspired 30 different biographies in the 20th century alone.

Perhaps the most commonly told tale is that of Queen Elizabeth stepping ashore from a boat on the River Thames. Sir Walter, seeing the queen is about to step into a “plashy place,” takes off his expensive cloak and lays it in the mud to spare the royal footwear from soiling.

It’s a nice story, but probably never happened.

“It only appears 40 years after the fact, when all the people involved have departed from this vale of tears,” Armitage said. “The queen would never travel that way and certainly not step ashore into a mingled crowd without being checked out by the CIA first.”

Assassination was a constant threat, especially from foreign agents as England warred with Spain and pirated ships plying the Atlantic.

But the story reveals a truth about power and politics. To get ahead in Elizabethan England, one had to attract favor and notice from the absolute monarch. The cloak in the mud would be a sure way for Ralegh to stand out from crowd of sycophantic noblemen. Ralegh was certainly one who fawned and kowtowed to the queen: among the nobles, he authored some of the most florid and flattering courtship poems to the queen.

“The all-important thing was to get her eye and approval,” Armitage said. “It was a fiercely contested, dirty tricks operation.”

Ralegh clawed his way into the queen’s favor and was knighted in 1580. From that point to his death in 1617, Ralegh spelled his name with six letters, with no ‘i’.

“Here is what Othello called the ocular proof,” Armitage said, holding up a copy of a bold handwritten signature, Ralegh.

Spelling was not standardized in those days. Armitage said one scholar has found Sir Walter’s name spelled more than 70 different ways in a half dozen languages.

Ralegh didn’t remain in the queen’s favor. Elizabeth tossed him in the Tower of London when she learned he had secretly married one of her ladies in waiting.

Ladies in waiting were expected to wait for the queen to marry first, Armitage said.

But Elizabeth gave Ralegh a chance to redeem himself and freed him so he could raid a Portuguese galleon laden with gold. Ralegh took all the gold from the Portuguese, and the queen then took all the gold from Ralegh.

Ralegh bankrupted himself by sending three expeditions to America, including the one that established the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, and two trips looking for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold in South America.

Ralegh also fell out of favor with the queen’s successor, King James I, who jailed Ralegh in the Tower of London for more than a decade. Ralegh used the time to write a million-word book, The History of the World, which became one of the biggest books of the 17th century and was read by many of America’s founding fathers.

King James finally tired of Ralegh in 1617 and had him executed.

“His widow took the chopped off head home with her after the execution,” Armitage said. “The rumor has it, that at afternoon tea with selected guests, she would trot out the head of her late husband, which would certainly liven up the average tea party.”

And for those lively exploits of Ralegh? A contemporary, John Aubrey, included a very gossipy and lively chapter on Ralegh in his book, “Brief Lives.”

The city didn’t get its name until 1792, when the state legislature employed one of many different spellings to honor Ralegh’s sponsorship of New World exploration.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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