Marry in secret, repent in the Tower: Walter Raleigh’s marriage and imprisonment.
By R.N. Morris, author of Fortune’s Hand.
It is said that after Walter Raleigh’s death, his widow Bess carried his mummified head around in a velvet bag. If true, it says a lot about the peculiar bond of affection that existed between them (emphasis on the word peculiar). It’s also confirmation of L.P. Hartley’s famous insight about the past. They really did do things differently there.
Walter Raleigh married Bess Throckmorton in 1591. The marriage took place in secret, the reason being Queen Elizabeth had not given her approval. In fact, she knew nothing of the match, nor of Bess’s pregnancy.
Once the royal favourite, Raleigh was the recipient of many honours bestowed by Elizabeth. Bess was a lady-in-waiting, and a member of the Queen’s inner circle. In other words, Elizabeth considered herself to have absolute control over both their lives. Indeed, no courtier could marry without royal permission.
If the clandestine marriage fell short of out and out treason, it was certainly an act of disloyalty, and an assault on the Queen’s majesty.
Elizabeth’s own efforts to find love, or at least a politically suitable husband, had resulted in disappointment. It’s not hard to speculate that she grew envious of other people’s happiness. When broaching the subject of matrimony, courtiers must have felt like they were walking on egg shells.
Raleigh perhaps calculated that there was little point in asking for something that was likely to be withheld. He was much more the type to seek forgiveness after sinning than ask permission before. No doubt he was counting on his charm and the intimacy that had once existed between them to win Elizabeth over. At times, Raleigh seemed to have unbounded confidence in his own powers of persuasion.
And yet there is evidence that his confidence faltered when it came to his marriage.
The Earl of Essex had also recently married without asking the Queen’s permission. Although she initially made her displeasure known, Elizabeth quickly forgave Essex and his wife Frances (daughter of Francis Walsingham). Encouraged by this, Bess argued that they should make a clean breast of it and place themselves at their sovereign’s mercy. But Raleigh’s nerve failed him. He ran away. Or rather, sailed away, putting himself in charge of a raiding fleet bound for the Azores, leaving Bess to face the music – and have her baby – alone. At the same time, he continued to deny the marriage in private letters.
It wasn’t Raleigh’s finest hour, even if he could justify his flight on the grounds that his freedom would enable him to pull off a great service to Elizabeth – capturing a Spanish treasure ship, for example – for which Elizabeth would show due appreciation by forgiving them both.
It would be wrong to portray Bess as a helpless victim abandoned by her roguish seducer. By all accounts, she was a formidable woman – her brother Arthur described her as Morgan le Fay, a comparison that was perhaps consistent with her later appropriation of her husband’s head. She had her own reasons for wanting a match with the spectacularly successful and undoubtedly charismatic courtier. I imagine her greeting Raleigh’s disappearing act with impatience rather than despair.
Arguably, however, her position was more precarious than Raleigh’s. She came from a problematic family. Her father was a loyal Protestant, but the family’s roots were defiantly Catholic. Her cousin Francis was executed for high treason in 1584, giving his name – and hers – to the notorious Throckmorton Plot.
On top of that, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the queen’s jealous spite might be more fiercely directed towards another woman, rather than a dashing, good-looking man with whom she had some flirtatious history.
Raleigh’s ship was hardly out of the harbour before the jig was up. Unsurprisingly given Raleigh’s numerous enemies at Court, Elizabeth had found out about the marriage. She sent the explorer Martin Frobisher to relieve Raleigh of his command. Raleigh returned with his tail between his legs to face his sovereign’s wrath.
At first, the punishment appeared deceptively lenient. Elizabeth simply denied him her presence, banning him from court and placing him under house arrest. Raleigh might have tried to make light of that, but it was intended as a serious reprimand. Raleigh was being given the opportunity to apologise. He blew it, striking a tone that was defiant and complaining, rather than abject and grovelling.
The punishment was upgraded. He was taken to the Tower under guard. By now Bess had had the baby. Raleigh had chosen the name Damerei for his son, by which he provocatively seemed to be claiming royal descent from a Plantagenet family. Elizabeth was duly provoked.
Bess and Damerei joined Raleigh in the Tower. It could have been worse. At least the Queen didn’t confiscate his beloved Sherbourne. The Raleigh family were able to make themselves reasonably comfortable in their prison apartments. They had their hanging tapestries and their servants.
For a man of action like Raleigh, being confined in a cell, however well appointed, must have chafed. But his imagination could not be imprisoned. He spent his time conceiving plans, and putting together future projects. Sea captains and intellectuals were among his many visitors. The sustaining dream was a voyage to Guiana in search of the fabled gold of El Dorado. It is further testimony of Raleigh’s powers of persuasion that he could inspire quite practical and intelligent men with a belief in this highly speculative scheme, while he was a captive with no prospect of release.
Meanwhile, the couple continued to work towards that end, Raleigh by writing querulous poetry, Bess, rather more practically, by encouraging her brother Arthur to lobby on their behalf. Given his opinion of her, he could hardly refuse.
Their time in prison was overshadowed by personal tragedy. Baby Damerei died, most likely succumbing to the plague which raged through London that summer.
In the end, Raleigh’s instincts were proven right. It was Elizabeth’s need of him to serve her that resulted in his forgiveness. In Dartmouth harbour, the captured ship Madre de Dios, taken on the raiding expedition that Raleigh had been recalled from, was being shamelessly looted by the mariners who had seized her. It was an exercise in asset-stripping that Elizabeth could not countenance as she had a stake in the dwindling treasure. The perpetrators were Raleigh’s men. He was sent, still a prisoner under escort, to negotiate an end to the freeloading.
Having successfully performed this valuable service for Elizabeth, Raleigh was free. Significantly, it was several months before Bess was also released.
The next time Raleigh found himself in the Tower, it was during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James. Once again it was his sovereign’s greed that secured his release. Raleigh was let out to go on one final, ill-fated voyage, his last attempt to find the gold of El Dorado. He returned in disgrace, and without the promised riches. This time he could not talk his way out of the consequences of his actions. He was executed by decapitation on the 29th October, 1618. And so began the final phase of their marriage, the part where Bess kept her husband’s head in a bag.
R.N. Morris Bio:
Roger (R. N.) Morris is the author of thirteen novels. The latest is Fortune’s Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh. He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels and the St Petersburg Mysteries, featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment.
His website is rogernmorris.co.uk. Roger has a Facebook page for his novels, which is https://www.facebook.com/RNMorrisauthor
He is on twitter as @rnmorris and on Instagram as rogermorris7988. He would love to hear from you so drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org