Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

The Boys of Devonshire


Just sixty, years after the West Indies were discovered by Columbus, an English boy was born, in the county of Devon, whose name was destined to be linked inseparably with that of America. The northern continent of the western hemisphere Columbus never saw, and he only glimpsed the southern; but to both he opened routes which others followed—as Vespucci, Pinzon, Solis, and navigators of lesser note—whose laurels would never have been gathered except for their renowned predecessor.

All who followed after Columbus, however, and extended European knowledge of the western hemisphere, say for several decades, were for the most part Spaniards or Portuguese sailing under the flag of Spain. That nation, indeed, regarded as exclusively hers, not only the West Indies, but the vast Caribbean Sea enclosing them, and continents adjacent, excepting only a portion of South America, which by treaty in 1494, was grudgingly allowed to Portugal. Even the lands discovered by the Cabots in 1497, far to the north of Spain's colonial possessions in America, were denied to England. Spain could not enforce that denial so far as related to Newfoundland and the northeast coast of North America, but upon all the approaches to the tropical Caribbean Sea she kept a close and careful watch.

During more than thirty: years she was successful in retaining this island-dotted sea as a preserve for Spaniards only to exploit, though a tradition has come down to us that a single English vessel, said to have been commanded by Sebastian Cabot, sailed the Spanish Main within that period.

But how could Spain hope to conceal from all the world her doings in the West Indies, when the very stones cried out against the atrocities of her conquistadors and fleets of gold-and-silver-freighted galleons ploughed the main with millions of treasure in their holds? And how could the kings of other countries refrain from stretching forth their hands to seize a portion of that treasure perchance they could capture it on the way to Spain? It had been won by fraud and bought with blood they reasoned, and hence was as much theirs as it was the Spanish sovereign's—always provided, of course, they could find a way to obtain it. The way was found, despite the treaties that existed between the European nations, and if not by the rulers themselves, then by their seafaring subjects, who were called by them "privateers," but by the Spaniards "pirates"

That "two wrongs make a right" hardly any one may claim to-day; but in those times it was held, by those who had the might, that the gold obtained by force was fair plunder for force to get again. So the galleons fared badly after the French and English found their way into the Caribbean, which was between the years 1525 and 1530. Nearly forty years in all the Spaniards had the West Indies to themselves; but after that their paper walls were broken down, and not only were their vessels plundered, but also their settlements.

The real advent of the English into the Caribbean was in 1529, when a ship of that nation touched at Santo Domingo, and the same year a French squadron invaded the waters of that southern sea. Ten years later, after cruising around the island of Cuba, a French, corsair met a Spanish war-ship off the harbor of Havana, and engaged with it in a fierce and bloody but indecisive sea-fight. The king of Spain frantically protested against this persistent invasion of his waters and destruction of his property, but the kings of France and England disclaimed any participation in the piratical acts of their lawless subjects, though they did not compel them to disgorge their plunder.

Thus it went on for years, the Spaniards despoiling the natives and the French and English taking toll of their ill-gotten wealth whenever they could lay hands upon it. The miserable Indians, of course, suffered vastly more than the Spaniards, and when, finally, they were brought to the verge of extermination, they were replaced by negroes brought from Africa. The first slave-stealers for the American market were Portuguese, it is thought, but the most successful trader in human flesh and blood, in the sixteenth century, was an Englishman, Sir John Hawkins. In the year 1563 (it is a matter of historic record) he sailed through the West Indies with a cargo of African slaves, which he disposed of at an immense profit to the Spanish planters. These cultivators of sugar-cane, having been brought almost to poverty's door by the depletion of the Indian natives, were rejoiced to see Sir John sail into their ports with that cargo of blackamoors; but he was not always a welcome visitor thereafter, for, conjoining with his friend and fellow countryman, Sir Francis Drake, he pillaged and burned the very towns and plantations that had purchased his slaves.

These titled pirates, by courtesy called privateers, were the predecessors, by fifteen or twenty years, of another class of voyagers, merchant adventurers, and colonists, to which class, and not to the predatory band containing Drake and Hawkins, belonged the hero of this biography, Walter Raleigh. He was twenty years of age when Sir Francis Drake, whom the Spaniards called the "Dragon," from his terrible prowess, sailed through the Caribbean on a pillaging voyage that left ruin and devastation in his wake. He was scant eleven when Sir John Hawkins; who had collected his cargo of negroes on the coast of Africa, "partly by the sword and partly by other means "—as he naively expressed it—exchanged those unfortunate wretches for the gold of Spanish planters in the West Indies. Like those "Sea Kings "of renown, who had scourged the Spaniards with fire and sword, Raleigh was a native of Devon, and as a youth must have heard the oft-told story of their adventures, perhaps from their own lips, and may have imbibed from them his hatred of the Spaniards for he was all his life an enemy of Spain.

Sir John Hawkins


Walter Raleigh was born at Hayes, in the county of Devon, in the year 1552. His ancestors had lived in Devonshire since the Norman Conquest, the patrimonial estate having been Fardell, from which his father removed previous to his birth. Anciently the family held vast possessions in the county as well as elsewhere, but owing to the prodigality of his ancestors, who were related to several titled families in Devon, Walter Raleigh senior was compelled to dispose of his inheritance and rent a farm. The manor-house in which he who was afterward known as "Sir Walter "first saw the light, and also the very room, may be seen to-day by the visitor to Hayes (we are told by a British biographer), but the house itself is probably greatly changed.

Walter Raleigh, the father of our hero, who was thus obscurely born, is chiefly known to fame, says an old historian, as "the husband of three wives," the third and last of whom was Sir Walter's mother. He had two sons by his first wife, a daughter by his second, and two sons and a daughter by his third. This third wife, who was the widow of Otto Gilbert and the daughter of Sir Philip Champernoun, was already the mother of three sons when married to Walter Raleigh senior. These sons were the afterward celebrated Humphrey, John, and Adrian Gilbert, whose fame at one time was scarcely second to Sir Walter's.

In truth, this favored woman could boast, in her later years, that she was "the mother of five noble knights": Sir Walter and Sir Carew Raleigh; Sir Humphrey, Sir John, and Sir Adrian Gilbert. She was a woman of strong character, "of noble wit, and of good and godly opinions"; but, though adored by her husband and children, it is not known that they left any remembrance of her save their verbal tributes to her many virtues. Only a glimpse is afforded us of Mistress Katherine Champernoun Raleigh, and this reveals her in a prison, whither she had gone to comfort a poor woman convicted of heresy, who was soon after put to death by command of "Bloody Mary".

Katherine Raleigh, like her husband, was of noble lineage, and doubtless Walter was nurtured upon the traditions of his famous ancestors, in common with his half-brothers, the Gilberts. Some of their portraits had been preserved with the wreckage of the family, and among other relics of departed glory was a target, centuries old, which had been suspended in a chapel erected by a valiant forebear, in commemoration of a miraculous escape from the Gauls. This target was an object of adoration to the youthful Walter, as a visible reminder of heroic deeds which he fain would emulate. So little is known of Walter's childhood days, however, that we can form no clear concept of him then; but doubtless he had a happy boyhood; and that he was an object of affectionate solicitude to his elder half-brothers, especially Humphrey and Gilbert, their intimate friendship in maturer days amply testifies.

Where he acquired the rudiments of his education is not known, nor when he laid the foundations of that vast fund of knowledge which he possessed later in life; but his native Devon was the home of sailor-folk, who, returning thither from long voyages to various parts of the world then visited by Britons, brought with them wonderful tales of adventure. From them, no doubt, the alert and receptive Walter gained a fund of information, from which he drew in later years, and received impressions upon his plastic mind which were ineffaceable. Among these, doubtless deeply stamped, were the heroic and horrible deeds of the Spaniards in America. Cortes and Pizarro must have been living realities to him, and the atrocities practised by them upon the inoffensive Americans must have confirmed in him that detestation of Spanish policy which Drake and Hawkins may have first aroused.

The doubt that has existed as to the time and place of Walter Raleigh's attendance at school, or schools, is greater than that attaching to his birthplace—for even this was at one period questioned. It is unfortunate that we have not as conclusive evidence as to his school-days as we have relating to his birthplace, which is found in a letter written by him to a friend in Devonshire, under date of July 26, 1584. It relates to Hayes Barton, as it was called, in the parish of East Budleigh, Devonshire, and is as follows:

"I wrote to Mr. Prideaux to move yow touchinge the purchase of a farme sometime in my father's possession. I will most willingly give whatsoever in your conscience you shall deeme it worth; and if at any time yow shall have occasion to use me, yow shall fynd me a thankf ull f rind to yow and yours.

"I am resolved, if I cannot entreat yow, to build at Colliton. But for the naturall disposition I have to that place, being born in that house, I had rather seate myself there than any where els."

This letter, written when Raleigh was already great and powerful at court, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, an object of envy, shows the depth of his affection for the scenes of his youth, and as well identifies the place of his birth. The mists about him clear somewhat when, arrived at the age of sixteen, he is sent to Oxford, where he was entered at Oriel College, and is supposed to have resided at least a year. Some of his biographers put his Oxford term at three years; but it is doubtful if he was there more than two years, as at eighteen he is found serving as a soldier in France. Neither is it believed that after leaving Oxford he studied law, as some have stated, for he himself has said that he read "not a word of law or statutes "previous to his long term of imprisonment in the Tower of London.

A mist of doubt, if not a veil of mystery, obscures his soldier life in France as well, but we know that he was there and spent a "good part of his youth in war and martial services." He sailed for France with his mother's nephew, Henry Champernoun, who had raised, and then commanded, a company of "gentleman volunteers," whose services he placed at the disposal of the Huguenots.

He left behind him at the university, it is said, a reputation as a "wit and a scholar," short as was his connection with that famous seat of learning, while in France he made a record as a good soldier. Rather, it may be said, he made no record as a poor one, for the evidence as to his behavior and exploits is of a negative character, and mainly drawn from his own narratives. In the famous History of the World, which he wrote when a prisoner in the Tower, occurs this passage, corroborative of his participation in active warfare:

"I remember it well, that when the Prince of Conde was slain, after the battle of Jarnac, . . . the Protestants did greatly bewail his loss in respect of his religion, person, and birth; yet, comforting themselves, they thought it rather an advancement than a hindrance to their affairs; for so much did his valor outreach the advisedness of Coligni, that whatsoever the Admiral intended to win by attending the advantage, the Prince adventured to lose by being over-confident in his own courage."

Again, after stating that "it is less dishonor to dislodge [retreat] in the dark than to be beaten in the light," he says: "And yet that worthy gentleman, Count Ludowick of Nassau, brother to the late famous Prince of Orange, made the retreat at Moncontour with so great resolution as he saved one half of the Protestant army, then broken and disbanded—of which myself was an eye-witness, and was one of them that had cause to thank him for it."

As to the length of Raleigh's stay in France there is some disagreement, also as to the value of his services to the Huguenot cause; but as the troop of which he was a member remained six years engaged in intermittent warfare, doubtless his term of service extended through that period and he acquitted himself with credit. With the carelessness of a soldier, he ignores entirely the great actions in which he must have participated, and only incidentally allows us a glimpse of himself and the minor affairs in which he took part. Insight is afforded as to the character of these affairs—at least, of some of them by the following paragraph from his history: "I saw, in the third Civil War of France, certain caves in Languedoc which had but one entrance, and that very narrow, cut out in the midway of high rocks, which we knew not how to enter by any ladder or engine; till at last, by certain bundles of straw, let down by an iron chain and a weighty stone in the midst, those that defended the cave were so smothered as they rendered themselves, with their plate, money, and other goods therein hidden." From this it appears that many of his excursions were predatory, and that cruelties were practised which would not be tolerated now. His subsequent career in Ireland, to which reference will be made in the next chapter, shows that he must have passed through scenes that hardened him to the appeals of suffering humanity. But, together with his comrades, he fought "with his neck in a noose," so to speak, certain to be hanged if captured, and expecting no mercy from his opponents. Although he does not directly refer to that consummation of horrors, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, he is known to have been in France when it took place, in 1572; and if he should be found intolerant toward the sect that instigated and the people who perpetrated it, the reason is not far to seek.