Skip to main content

Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Last Sunday after Trinity 2018 commemorating the life of Walter Raleigh (c 1554–1618)

Do we see the hidden reality in the life of Sir Walter Raleigh?

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 28th October 2018 at 11.00 AM

Blind Bartimaeus had his sight restored by our Lord, as we have just heard read from St Mark’s Gospel. Unlike other beneficiaries of our Lord’s miracles in the synoptic gospels, he didn’t simply go on his way rejoicing; rather he went with Jesus and as St Mark says joined his band of disciples. He was blind and he had truly come to see.

St John also recorded a blind man receiving his sight. This action of Jesus aroused a great dispute. At the end of St John’s account, we hear some of the Pharisees saying to Jesus, ‘Surely, we are not blind, are we?’

So we learn that these accounts are not simply about being able to see physically. They are ultimately about being able to see spiritually, to have insight. This is not of course easy or straight-forward. But it is possible for us to see beyond the surface of things to the hidden reality, where we find the power and beauty and love of God working through human lives and the created order to renew and transform. Do we see anything of that in the life we celebrate today, the life of Sir Walter Raleigh?

Walter Raleigh was beheaded 400 years ago tomorrow, on 29th October 1618, nearby in Old Palace Yard. His body was buried quickly here in St Margaret’s Church. His wife Bess had hoped to have his body for burial but she was allowed for a time to keep his head, which later joined his body here. What had he done and how had his life brought him to this pass? What kind of man was he? A recent account of his life by Anna Beer is entitled Patriot or Traitor without a question mark; perhaps he was both.

The one thing we are all supposed to know about Walter Raleigh, that he laid down his cloak to allow Elizabeth I to walk dry-shod through a puddle, was first recorded by a writer born five years after the death of the queen. We can discount it. Nor is it true that he brought tobacco to England. He never went to north America so it would have been impossible, though he enjoyed smoking. It seems some of the many stories about Walter Raleigh were scarcely true or even plausible. Stories clung to him. For he was a star in his day, though one that was to fall: quite something for the fifth son of a Devonian gentleman with no real connections.

His half-brother Humphrey Gilbert and cousins encouraged him as a teenager to join an expedition to France and later to Ireland to put down an uprising against the queen. Raleigh became a successful captain with a troop of a hundred men and made his name. He wrote frequent accounts of his achievements to the queen’s secretaries and was eventually in 1581 brought to the court, where he quickly became established. The queen found she needed him, though she allowed him to sail the Atlantic, largely challenging Spanish shipping, like an authorised pirate. In 1583, an expedition he had launched to Newfoundland foundered, but Humphrey Gilbert, although discouraged by the queen, set out again and lost his life on 9th September in terrifying seas.

By 1585 Raleigh had been knighted and become steward of the Duchy of Cornwall and Lord Warden of the Stannaries, a 12th century office connected to the work of the Cornish tin mines. Within two years he had also been given by the queen 42 thousand acres in Ireland and the London house of the Bishop of Durham in the Strand. Later he was given also by the queen land in Sherborne in Dorset and built there a castle. Other offices he held included being an active member of parliament, Captain of the Queen’s Guard and holder of lucrative wine monopolies. He had come far.

But not all had gone well. He married secretly Bess Throckmorton, a lady in waiting to the queen, who was expecting his child. Most of her family were Catholics though her father had renounced that religious practice for the Established Church but the connection would later excite further comment. It took some time for the queen to hear of this unauthorised liaison and then both Walter and Bess were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Walter was free within a month, having offered the queen both his loyalty and £80,000, but Bess stayed in the Tower until the autumn. They both lay low. Walter went to south America to find gold but failed.

Gradually he was brought back to court and to the queen’s favour. But his highest ambitions were never satisfied. Raleigh was never a privy councillor, never a knight of the Garter. The honours the Earl of Essex won were never his, though he felt himself to be his nearest rival. When Essex fell, Raleigh rose no further. Indeed the queen had tired of him and he was sent away to become governor of Jersey. Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603.

It had become inevitable that her successor would be the son of Mary queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland. But Walter Raleigh was to be charged early in the new king’s reign with having plotted with his friend Lord Cobham to place another on the throne, Lady Arbella Stuart, a Catholic, and great great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. It was a hopeless case. It seems quite unlikely that Raleigh, a stout opponent of the Spanish, would really have been involved. But James I had him arrested and his trial at Winchester condemned him to death. He would have been hanged, drawn and quartered. But the king prevented the sentence being carried out.

Raleigh was not pardoned; he was in effect dead but walking and was to spend the next thirteen years imprisoned in the Tower of London, before, suddenly and astonishingly, being released to lead another expedition in search of gold in south America. Spanish spies were everywhere and indeed Spain had confirmed its control of most of south America. Raleigh’s hopes were inevitably dashed. His son Wat was killed and the various ships and crews Raleigh had assembled were separated and lost.

Raleigh could have escaped anywhere. But he returned to England. Perhaps he hoped for another chance. But by now he had no purchase, no connections with the king, now that Henry Prince of Wales was dead and queen Anne sick unto death. No further legal steps were necessary. He had been tried and condemned to death fifteen years earlier. A hearing before the Privy Council was confirmed on 28th October by the Court of the King’s Bench. He was held overnight in the Gatehouse of Westminster Abbey just north of here. Sentence was carried out the following morning.

If that had been all, how has Sir Walter Raleigh left such an indelible mark on our island story? He was tall and handsome and beautifully dressed. But there must be more. He was full of energy and aspiration. But there must be more. He was a chancer and a pirate, albeit in the queen’s service. But there must be more. He was a poet and a writer. In his imprisonment he assembled a collection of five hundred books and wrote a History of the World of eight hundred folio pages.

Above all, Walter Raleigh was an eloquent speaker. Both at his trial in 1603 and again as he stood on the scaffold and awaited his execution, he spoke beguilingly, on the latter occasion for 45 minutes, defending himself and commending himself, establishing for himself a place of respect in the Elizabethan firmament.

The age of Elizabeth we see, as clearly as we can from this distance, as a golden age in our history. Her religious settlement, so subtle, so true, inspires us still. Here at the Abbey we continue as she instructed us when on 21st May 1560, after our twenty years of turmoil, she re-erected us as the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster. Raleigh did not achieve the heights of Leicester or Essex or the lasting greatness of Shakespeare or Byrd or even Tallis but, in a world more fluid than we imagine, he rose high. We remember him. He was a buccaneer, a risk taker, and as such a key figure at a time of change, of renewal and transformation. He represents the glamour, the risk and the heroism of Elizabeth I’s reign. He won everything and lost everything.

In the end, all he could do, as he faced death with courage, even bravado, was to pray, ‘Even such is time … who, in the dark and silent grave, when we have wandered all our ways, shuts up the story of our days, and from which earth and grave and dust, the Lord will raise me up, I trust.’

May our final prayers be no less confident.

Twitter logo Tweet this