A great and complex character
In the run-up to the Mayflower 400 celebrations in 2020 MICHAEL DOWNES considers the legacy of East Devon’s most important historical figure
“Do you know about Sir Walter Raleigh?” my Budleigh solicitor asked one of his colleagues. “You mean the pub?” she replied. It shows how far the legacy of the great figure, born in East Budleigh sometime between 1552 and 1554, has slipped the public consciousness.
At least one of his recent biographers wrote that our local hero “did not have a good 20th century” and some would say the outlook is not going to improve. But in this 400th anniversary year of the great Elizabethan adventurer’s death on 29 October, 1618 Raleigh has been well remembered in his birthplace.
Actually, Sir Walter’s reputation started off quite well in the early years of the last century. Even while the First World War was still in progress the tercentenary of his death portrayed him as a national hero. The organising committee’s patron was none other than King George V; members included the Foreign Secretary, a former Prime Minister and British and US ambassadors. In that year, the British Academy founded the Sir Walter Raleigh Lectures on history, conscious of Sir Walter’s claim to be a historian as much as a poet and explorer.
Raleigh, of course, had pioneered the first Englishspeaking colonies in the New World in the 1580s, well before the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers. In 1918 he was seen as personifying the special relationship between Britain and the USA, and our nation was conscious of the debt that it owed Americans for their intervention
in the War. And most of the nation was also proud of what it saw as the achievements of the British Empire, viewing Sir Walter as having contributed to its foundations.
Since 1918 the winds of change have blown over the Empire as well as over national attitudes. Yet Raleigh, like the spelling and pronunciation of his name, remains a confusing and paradoxical figure.
John Buchan, author of patriotic adventure stories like The Thirty Nine Steps and Greenmantle, wrote a little book about Sir Walter and his times “especially for boys”. Published in 1911, it was intended to inspire young people with the same spirit of adventure that had made Britain great. But even Buchan recognised that Raleigh had contributed both to the creation and the destruction of imperialism. “The British Empire of today, and the Republic of the United States, are alike built on his dreams,” he wrote in the foreword.
Raleigh’s life was marked by many failures and he came to a sticky end, but the centuries following his death saw his reputation restored largely thanks to a book written when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. This was his History of the World, denounced by King James I as being “too saucy in censuring Princes” and suppressed by royal decree. It was one of Oliver Cromwell’s favourite books, read by him and fellow republicans as an attack on tyranny and absolute monarchy.
In the following century it was Raleigh the parliamentarian and republican rather than the foppish royal favourite that the Americans admired. In 1776, at the height of the War of Independence, they cheekily even named a warship after him, doubtless to the outrage of our Royal Navy.
John Buchan’s book was clearly inspired by Sir John Millais’ 1870 celebrated masterpiece The Boyhood of Raleigh, one of The Tate’s treasures. The artist was working at a time when our nation was at its most confident. The painting, set on Budleigh Salterton’s pebble beach, portrays young Walter and his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert listening to an exotic looking sailor’s tales of adventure in foreign parts.
Thanks to a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant ‘The Boyhood’ is back in Budleigh Salterton. As one of the highlights of Fairlynch Museum’s Raleigh 400 exhibition it’s just one of many treasures on view until 31 October. They include a preliminary sketch of Millais’ own son Everett as young Walter, on loan from a private collection. Also on display are a first edition of the History of the World and a pair of beautifully embroidered 1590s kid leather gloves associated with Raleigh. Michael Downes is a volunteer at Budleigh Salterton’s Fairlynch Museum. More information about the museum can be found at fairlynchnuseum.uk