shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

So the heart be right

"Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an
acre of barren ground, long health, brown furze, any
thing. The wills above be done! but I would fain die
a dry death."

                                                               The Tempest     (I, i)

Shakespeare's wise old codger Gonzalo would just as soon die on dry land, and who can blame him? It takes the heart of an adventurer to relish the challenge of crossing the open seas, particularly when those seas turn malignant, and come roaring up and over the gunwales and into a man's teeth.

Such an adventurer was Sir Walter Ralegh (he never spelled his name with an "i" so we won't either). Born in South Devon c1552-1554, a region of southwest England that cranked out great sailors by the score, Ralegh apparently never got all of the salt out from between his molars. Whether he was raiding Spanish shipping and coastal towns or pushing another plan at colonization in Virginia, he spent much of his time as one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, although the tale of Ralegh tossing his expensive cloak down over a puddle to keep the queen's feet dry is, wishful thinking aside, merely apocryphal. It is a testament to the man's charismatic style that such a story even exists.

Ralegh did succeed in messing up his own life when he secretly married one of the queen's maids of honor, Elizabeth Throckmorton. The queen's fondness for Ralegh turned to fury, and she had him thrown in prison for a brief period in 1592. He managed to work his way, at least somewhat, back into Queen Elizabeth's good graces with a daring and successful raid of Cadiz on the Spanish coast in 1597. Since Ralegh and the prima donna Earl of Essex were rivals at court, Ralegh's standing with the queen certainly didn't suffer in the aftermath of the failed Essex Rebellion.

But when Queen Elizabeth died, Ralegh's fortunes all but died as well.

Once James VI of Scotland ascended England's throne as King James I after the death of Elizabeth in 1603, swashbucklers like Ralegh must have looked around and wondered where their world had gone. James I brought the posture of a modern-day "peacenik" to his relations with Spain, leaving a trouble-maker like Ralegh in the lists, decidedly persona non grata.

Ralegh was incarcerated in the Tower of London on essentially trumped-up charges of treason shortly after James I came to the throne. Reprieved the day before his scheduled execution, he remained in the Tower from 1603 until January 1617 (the royal warrant for his release is in the Folger Shakespeare Library).

As a prisoner of high status Ralegh was accorded a number of creature comforts (at least by prison standards) that allowed him to write his History of the World, which he left unfinished upon the death of his young pupil, James I's son Henry, Prince of Wales. Ralegh's work is pictured above: dated 1614 and bound in brown calfskin, it is in the collection of Agecroft Hall. It contains a fine portrait of Ralegh and contains a history that extends from the world's creation up to the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 133 BC.

One of the maps, shown above, shows the Holy Land, with the top of the map facing east, as was customary at the time. Jerusalem can be seen in the lower portion of the map, a bit left of center; Sodom and Gomorra appear to smolder beneath the waves of the Dead Sea.

Ralegh's own future wasn't much brighter: James did release him from the Tower upon Ralegh's promise that he'd bring back a huge load of gold ore from Guiana in South America. Storms, sickness, ill luck, and a propensity to harass the Spanish led to Ralegh being re-imprisoned upon his return to England, and executed in 1618. Yet he had returned to England because his sense of honor had bade him do so: he deserves enormous respect for that.

When he lay his head on the block, it was reported that someone complained that he was facing the wrong direction, to which he responded: "What matter how the head lies, so the heart be right?"

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