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

Devon Life - - Raleigh And East Devon -

“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

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