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Walter Raleigh

The Boy of Devon: 1552-1618

Summer was over England, and the county of Devon, running down to Cornwall between two seas, was painted in bright hues. The downs were softly carpeted with purple and yellow gorse and heather that made a wonderful soft mist as one looked across the fields. Low hills, brilliant green ridges against the sky, ran inland from the sea, and in the little hollows here and there nestled small straw-thatched cottages with shining white walls, or the more pretentious Tudor farmhouses with red or brown roofs, and much half-timbered decoration.

The Devon winters were long, with heavy snow, and men had to build so that they might have all possible protection from the winds that swept across the open upland country. So they built down in the valleys and in the long low inlets from the sea that were called combes, and as a result one might stand on the high moors looking across country, and never know there was a house within a mile. It is a country full of surprises.

On a fine morning when Devon was looking its best, a boy came out of a dwelling that was half farmhouse, half manor-house, and that lay in a cup of low hills on the edge of a tract of moorland. The house belonged to a man named Walter Raleigh, of Fardell, a gentleman of good family whose fortunes had sunk to a low ebb. It was one-storied, with thatched roof, gabled wings, and a projecting central porch. Here lived Mr. Raleigh of Fardell with his wife Katherine, four sons and a daughter. It was a large family for such a small estate, and already the father was wondering what would happen to the younger boys when the little property should have descended, according to the law of the land, to the oldest son.

It was the boy Walter, youngest of the sons, who had come out of the house, and stood looking about him. He was a good-looking fellow, with fair hair, blue eyes, and the ruddy English skin. It did not take him long to decide which way to go this morning. He made straight for an oak wood that lay before the house, and followed a little path that led through it. Two miles and a half through the wood lay Budleigh Salterton Bay, and Walter liked that best of all the places near his home.

He passed the oaks and came out into open country. Here, where the gorse made a soft carpet on the ground, the salt of the sea blew freshly in to him. He gave a great shout, and pulling off his cap, ran as fast as he could, down to the shore of the bay. A few boats swung at anchor there, and an old man sat on the beach, mending a fishing net.

The boy swept the sea with his eyes from point to point of the bay, looked longingly at the boats, then walked over to the old mariner.

“Good-morning, gaffer,” said he. “It’s a fine sailing breeze out on the bay.”

“And good-morning to ye, Master Walter,” said the old man, glancing up from his nets. “A fine breeze it be, an’ more’s the pity when there’s work to be done on shore.”

“So say I,” said the boy, throwing himself down on the sand by the sailor. “I’d dearly like to sail across to France to-day.”

“How comes it you’re not to school?” asked the man.

“School’s done. Next month I go to Oxford, to Oriel College. Methinks ’tis a great shame to spend one’s time studying when there’s so much else to be done in the world. The only books I like are those that tell of far-away lands and adventures and such things. But to Oxford I must go, says father, like a gentleman’s son, and so I suppose I must.”

He lay out on the sand, his head resting in his hands, his eyes gazing up to the sky. “Tell me, gaffer, if you had your choice of the two, would you rather be a sailor, or a gentleman of the court, and live at London, near Queen Elizabeth?”

The man laughed. “I a courtier!” he cried. “I’d die of fright most like. I’ve never been to London town, but they say it’s a terrible place!”

“Would you rather sail out to the west, to the Indies, or perhaps to Guiana?” asked Walter.

The man nodded. “The savages be’nt so terrifyin’ to a sailor as the folk o’ London town.”

“And in London they might throw you into the Tower,” mused Walter. “You’re right, gaffer. ’Tis better to be free, and your own man, even if ’tis only among savages. Think you England will be at war soon?”

The sailor looked up from his net, and glanced out across the bay. “I figure you’ll live long enough to do some fightin’, lad. Them Spanish dons be plannin’ for to sweep the seas of Englishmen.”

Walter sat up, and followed the man’s gaze out to sea. “That they’ll never do,” said he, “as long as there are Devon men to build a boat and man it. But if there is a war I’m going to it, aye, as certain as we two be sitting here in Budleigh Bay.”

“War’s a fearsome thing, lad,” said the sailor. “I’ve fought the pirates in the south, and I’ve seen sights would turn a man’s hair gray in a night. ’Tis no holiday work to fight across your decks.”

“Tell me about it,” begged the boy, sitting up and clasping his knees in his hands. “I love to hear of fights and strange adventures.”

So, while the sailor worked over his net he talked of his wanderings, of his cruises, of his battles, of his flights, and the boy, his eyes wide with admiration, drank in the yarns. Mariner never found a better audience than this small boy of the Devon coast.

It was long past noon when the sailor and Walter left the beach. The boy went back through the wood to the house, and made his lunch in the pantry off of bread and cheese. The family were used to Walter’s wanderings, and never waited for him. Now, in his holiday time, he was free to go where he would.

Mr. Raleigh of Fardell wanted all his sons brought up as the sons of a gentleman should be, and so, although he was quite poor, he managed to send Walter that autumn to the University of Oxford. Walter was only fifteen, but boys went to college at that age in those days.

Oxford in 1567 was something like the Eton of to-day. There were not many college buildings, and the students in cap and gown looked quite as young as schoolboys do now. Oriel College was near the broad Christ Church meadows that led down to the river, and from there Walter could look across to the fields where the boys practiced their favorite sport of archery, to the silver thread of the little river as it wound in and out among the trees, and across it to the park where a herd of deer roamed free.

The Oxford country, inland and not far from the centre of England, was very different from his beloved Devonshire. Here there were many gentlemen’s parks, with well-kept lawns and gardens, lots of small woods, and meadows broken now and again by little sparkling brooks. Everything was very neat and beautifully cared for. But in Devon was the wide sweep of the high moorlands, the herds of grazing ponies, the glorious carpet of the heather, the salt smell of the sea.

Often the boy was homesick for that more barren country, and that shore from which he loved to watch the sails, and very often he was tempted to leave Oriel and go out to seek his fortune by himself. He did not give in to the desire, however. He stayed on for three years, holding his own in his studies, and winning the reputation of a good speaker.

Walter’s chance for adventure came full soon. His mother’s family, the Champernouns, were related to the French Huguenot house of Montgomerie. The Catholics and the Huguenots were at war in France, and Walter’s cousin Henry obtained permission of Queen Elizabeth to raise a troop of a hundred gentlemen in England to fight with him in France. He asked Raleigh at Oriel to join him, and the boy eagerly accepted. So he left Oxford, and with a number of others of good family, many scarcely older than himself, he crossed the Channel and entered France.

The moment was not a good one. The Huguenots had just lost the battle of Moncontour, and a little time after their great chief, the Prince of Conde, fell at Jarnac. But the small band of English gentlemen adventurers was not at all cast down. The Huguenot cause did not mean a great deal to them, and they speedily consoled themselves for Conde’s loss.

When they actually took the field they found the warfare a very irregular sort of fighting, a sudden swoop down upon the Catholics in some ill-defended town, a quick retreat at the approach of regular troops, an occasional short skirmish in the open. Walter was sent into Languedoc, and joined in the chase of Catholics through the hills.

The country was full of steep cliffs, and there were many caves hidden in them. Fugitives would escape through the open country and meet in these recesses, and the Englishmen would follow, tracking them after the manner of hunters of wild game. Sometimes they would come to the top of a cliff, overlooking a cave in which they had seen men hide. Then they would lower lighted bundles of straw by iron chains until they came opposite the mouth of the cave. In a short time the men in hiding would be smoked out, and compelled to surrender. Often they had hidden treasures of money or plate in the caves, and these would fall into the captors’ hands. This lure of booty added spice to the hunt.

It was rough, wild work, but it was a rough age, and men had few scruples when it came to dealing with their enemies. Young Raleigh proved a good fighter, fond of the hunts through the hills, and always ready for any wild expedition. He cared little enough for the cause for which the troop was supposed to be fighting. It was the opportunity to advance himself that concerned him most.

When he came back from France he found that there was no place for him at the manor-house in Devon. As a younger son he must fight his own way in the world. He had always loved London next after the Devon coast, and so he went there now, hoping that he might find some favor with the court. Queen Elizabeth liked to have youths of good family and good looks about her, and there were many of them living in London who used her court as a sort of club.

Walter made many friends of his own age, and lived as most of them did, mixing in all the excitements of city life. He was now rather a wild, reckless young blade, as willing to draw his sword in a street fight as to pay compliments to a pretty maid of honor. One day he got into a fight at a tavern with a noisy braggart. He managed to throw the man into a chair and bind him with a rope. Then he knotted the man’s beard and moustache together so that his mouth was sealed. The rest of the tavern applauded him for his neat manner of silencing the boaster.

He did not always come out on top, however. On one occasion he fought in the street with Sir Thomas Perrot, and was arrested by the town watch. He was brought to trial, and sent to the Fleet prison for six days. The imprisonment meant very little to him, it was simply part of the life of adventure he was so fond of living.

We must remember that all England, in this age of Elizabeth, was full of this same spirit of adventure. Young men were rising rapidly; there were a hundred ways to gain distinction, and many of them, although ways which we might consider rather doubtful nowadays, were then regarded as quite proper. Walter Raleigh kept his eyes wide open, and when he saw a promising chance, he was always ready to accept it. The first adventure that offered was to take part in a seafaring expedition.

Englishmen of fortune in those days were in the habit of fitting out privateers to roam the seas, much like pirates. Sir Humphrey Gilbert had planned to send some such ships to the banks of Newfoundland to capture any Portuguese or Spanish vessels that might have gone there for the fishing. He intended to bring his prizes back to some Dutch port, and there sell them. Walter liked this plan and he talked it over with Sir Humphrey, but for some reason the plan failed.

A very little while afterward, however, Sir Humphrey asked him to sail in an expedition that was supposed to be searching for the northwest passage to Cathay, but which in reality was intended to seize any heathen lands it might find and occupy them in the name of England. The fleet sailed, but soon fell in with a Spanish squadron that was looking for just such English rovers. Sir Humphrey’s fleet was beaten, and forced to return home. So for a time young Raleigh’s chances of winning fortune on the seas were ended.

He went back to London, and took up his former life at court. Very soon he was sent with some troops to Ireland, and there again he had a chance at the same sort of fighting he had known in France. He proved himself a good soldier; he shunned no toil nor danger. But the life he had to lead was a hard one, and very poorly paid, and Raleigh saw no chance to make his fortune in that path.

Now, however, Raleigh was known to many powerful men. When he gave up the Irish fighting and went back to court he found that people there had heard of what he had accomplished and that he had a reputation for courage bordering on recklessness. That was a quality the English of that day much admired. The great lords were almost all reckless adventurers, plundering wherever they could, and they were glad to find young men who would do their bidding without asking questions.

By this time young Raleigh had become typical of his age, having its virtues and its vices. The age was wild, coveting money in order to fling it away on mad schemes, reveling in the dangers as well as the glories of battle and exploration, of plundering Spanish galleons, or of hunting untold riches in the world across the sea. Queen Elizabeth liked daring men, and Raleigh took every opportunity to bring himself before her notice.

The young courtier had learned all the arts that helped to make men’s fortunes. He was tall and very handsome, a splendid swordsman, and a wit who could hold his own with poets and with statesmen. He still spoke with the strong broad accent of Devon, and when he learned that the Queen liked his unusual accent he was very careful to see that he never lost it. He studied each chance to please.

Elizabeth was extremely vain and extremely fond of romance. One day as she walked with certain of her lords and ladies she came to a marshy place, and stopped in hesitation, fearing to soil her slippers. This was the young courtier’s chance. Raleigh had been in the background, but seeing the Queen hesitate he sprang forward, and sweeping his new plush cloak from his shoulders, spread it in the mire, so that she might cross. The Queen’s face lighted up with pleasure at the graceful act, and she thanked the youthful gallant. Later she saw that he was given many court suits for the cloak he had so admirably ruined.

Having thus won her attention Raleigh next sought to fix himself in his Queen’s mind. He wrote on the window of a room in which she passed much time the line:

“Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.”

Elizabeth learned who was author of the writing, and scratched the answer underneath:

“If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.”

Raleigh had no fear whatever of falling, but a becoming modesty sat well upon him. The Queen remembered the young man now for these two qualities, his gallantry and his becoming modesty, and saw to it that a man of such spirit should be kept at court. The ardent boy of Devon, the restless Oxford student, the wild Huguenot trooper, had grown to be a man worthy of notice.

He was now, as Walter Scott pictures him in “Kenilworth,” the young seeker after royal favor, graceful, slender, restless, somewhat supercilious, with a sonnet ever ready on his lips to delight his friends or an epigram to sting his enemies.

We shall see him turn his many talents to great uses. He fell to planning voyages across the Atlantic to discover and settle parts of North America much as Sir Humphrey Gilbert had done, and as another young man about court, Sir Francis Drake, was doing. From the Queen, and from one noble or another who was interested in his marvelous schemes, he obtained the money to fit out several expeditions. Each in turn landed near what is now the Roanoke River, and each brought back rich gifts to the great English Queen. Among other things the explorer saw the Indians smoking a dried leaf called tobacco, tried the custom, liked it, and brought it back with him to England.

Raleigh had a stroke of genius when he named his colony Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. It pleased her to think that a great empire in the western world should be named for her. She gave Raleigh whatever he asked, making him practically governor of all the English domain in America, and for a long time Virginia was supposed to cover even part of what later became New England. He started to colonize the land, but his colonies did not succeed, and he lost all the money he put into them. Nevertheless his Virginian scheme brought him a great deal of fame, which he now craved, and kept London talking of him.

London was soon to talk still more about this daring, brave, and brilliant Westcountryman. The prophecy of the old sailor at Budleigh Salterton Bay came true, and for a brief time all England held its breath while the famous Spanish fleet, called the Armada, bore down upon her coast. Then all over the country gentlemen of fortune manned ships and put to sea, but especially the men of Devon, of Somerset, and Cornwall, counties famed for their sailors.

Among these men was Raleigh; his advice was eagerly sought by the Queen’s ministers, and when it came to the actual Channel fighting he made one of many gallant captains. The great Armada came to grief upon the English coast, and Raleigh had added another to his record of achievements.

Having been courtier, colonizer, warrior, Raleigh now blossomed forth as a poet, and became a friend and patron of Edmund Spenser. He had much skill in verse, and he was never lacking in imagination. But his real talents did not lie in that direction, and as in so many other things, he soon found himself distracted elsewhere.

The story of Raleigh’s manhood belongs to history. Turn to tales of Elizabeth’s court and you will find his name on almost every page. Now he is high in favor, braving it with the great Earl of Leicester, now down upon his luck, locked in some royal prison, writing verses to his many friends. His was a strange career; at one time there was no man in England whose favor was more sought, yet at the end he died upon the scaffold charged with treason. Time proved him guiltless of the charge, and almost at once the English people began to realize how great a light had been extinguished.

Through all his varying career he himself was the same brave, dreamy, ambitious man, the perfect type of that age which we call the Elizabethan. He could not stay in his native land of Devon; much as he loved its moorland and its bays, he had to listen to the call of London and the sea, and follow where their voices led him. Each way the road was set with many strange adventures, but he met and passed through them all with the high spirits that were part of his age. His courage never failed him, nor his joy in fighting his way to fortune with his own sharp wits.