The Ridolfi plot

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk: the principal victim of the Ridolfi Plot

On May 16 1568 the catholic regnant Scottish queen Mary Stuart arrived in England. She had been deposed, marginalised  and effectively disowned by the protestant establishment in Scotland, where her young son James VI, aged 13 in 1569, was now a minority king.

Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, and therefore had a strong claim to the crown of England, the strongest after Elizabeth’s in fact, and the stronger of the two for those who regarded Elizabeth’s dubious legitimacy as the child of Anne Boleyn sufficient to bar her from the throne. Mary made her ambitions quite clear by proudly quartering the English coat of arms with her own when she learned of Mary Tudor’s death in 1558. A later report has her joining a group discussing a portrait of Elizabeth. Was it a good likeness of the queen of England? “Nay, it is not like her, for I am the Queen of England,” Mary replied.

Mary’s arrival in England created a problem for Elizabeth’s government. As the Spanish ambassador astutely observed the following week:

They must be somewhat embarrassed… although these people are glad enough to have her in their hands, they have many things to consider. If they keep her as if in prison, it will probably scandalise all neighbouring princes, and if she remain free and able to communicate with her friends, great suspicions will be aroused.

The English chose scandal and prison; but the government also explored ways of peacefully restoring Mary to Scotland that would also bind her politically to England. One possible solution was for Mary to marry an English nobleman. Elizabeth, once apparently a supporter of such a strategy, now forbade it: it gave Mary too great a purchase on the English throne. Which was no doubt one of the attractions for Mary, and she found the ideal candidate, certainly in his own mind, in the shape of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk.
Continue reading

Re-imagining Elizabethan London

Hollar's "Exact Surveigh" of 1667

I have lived in London most of my life, and one of the pleasures for me in researching and writing The Favourite, an exploration of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Walter Ralegh, is that so much of their story is also a London story. Or, more accurately, London is always there in the background, discreetly attracting my attention with its prodigies. I am forever tempted to go in search of it.

Of course, Ralegh’s London no longer exists, precious little of it having survived the Great Fire of 1666, although the Victorians also contributed along the way, destroying Ralegh’s Islington home, for instance.

But the extent of the fire’s devastation is still unsettling; eye-witness descriptions are reminiscent for the modern reader of footage of Hiroshima or Dresden. In the aftermath of the fire there was ‘Nothing but stones and rubbish… from one end of the City almost to the other’ wrote one Lincoln’s Inn lawyer, while a man from the bleak lunar hills of Westmoreland found himself gazing upon a ruined reflection of his home: ‘The houses are laid so flat to the ground that the City looks just like our fells, for there is nothing to be seen but heaps of stones’.

Despite having read such comments many times before, I was nevertheless stunned to sit in the library and look for the first time at Wenceslaus Hollar’s ‘before and after’ maps of London. Those of the City before the fire, in common with the maps and drawings of his predecessors like Visscher and Agas, are profligate with detail: they provide not merely a street plan but also a bird’s-eye view of the city from some notional perspective in the air.

Along each street you can see something of each house, even if often it is only the pitch of the gabled roof or the number of floors, windows flecked with ink; behind the houses are a patchwork of courtyards, paths and gardens studded with trees. It is impossible to know to what extent these kind of details are intended as accurate representations, as opposed to the merely illustrative or emblematic, but they are nonetheless vivid testimony to the profusion of buildings in Tudor and Stuart London, and to life lived, in a lovely Elizabethan word sadly fallen from the language, ‘pestered’ close together – meaning overcrowded,  clogged, pressed against one another. That ‘pestered’ also seems to imply of pestilence and plague – despite being in fact derived from a different word-root – adds a poignant undertow to the image of these packed and compact lives.

On Hollar’s ‘Exact Surveigh’ of 1667, however,  commissioned by Charles II, things are different. The area skirting the fire damage is, as before, cramped with detail. But the great heart of the map is mostly blank – shockingly so. Hollar gives us the skeletal streets through the City and the sites of the churches and a few other buildings; elsewhere, white space. At first sight, Hollar’s print inverts the implied convention that the centre of any map should be the point of most interest and complexity, with both fading the further you get towards the margins. This map focuses the eye on emptiness, the absence of information. The City, and its history, had been erased. It must have been the simplest and saddest map Hollar ever drew.
Continue reading

Sir Walter Ralegh and the Babington plot

Mary, Queen of Scots

I was not, truth be told, expecting to write much, if at all, about the world of espionage when I first set out to research The Favourite, my recent book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Ralegh. After all, Ralegh’s protestant credentials in the fight against imperial Spain would appear, at first sight, unimpeachable. What could possibly connect his world with that of Babington?

As it happens, quite a lot. As I have tried to show in The Favourite, the young Ralegh was a much more ambivalent figure than traditional histories suggest. In particular, during his first years in London at Middle Temple in the mid-to-late 1570s, when he was scratching around half-heartedly on the far margins of the court along with many contemporaries, necessity demanding they pretend to a status they could barely afford, ever threatened by poverty and debt,  his reputation extended little further than drunkeness: louche, reckless and wanton.

And many of Ralegh’s companions were, largely, Catholics and their fellow travellers, since he quickly became part of the circle around the Earl of Oxford, a group largely defined by a sour, sullen and reactionary opposition to the Elizabethan settlement. In one sense, this suggests a personal indifference on Ralegh’s part – which I suspect was also widespread – to the schism that separated the faiths, enjoying with his friends a fellowship defined by circumstance far more than ideology, and sharing a voluble, almost fashionable, disaffection rooted more in youth and under-employment than in the practical matters of revolt.

He sounds to me one with some of Babington’s ale-house seditionaries, such as Chidiock Tichbourne, who said sorrowfully on the scaffold, ‘Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most flourishing estate: of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet Street, and elsewhere about London but of Babington and Tichbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for: and God knows, what less in my head than matters of state?’
Continue reading

The Babington plot: the capture and execution of the conspirators

Scene from an execution

On Tuesday 20th September 1586, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London – one of them, a priest named John Ballard, on a single sled, the others two-a-piece – and then dragged westward on their final slow journey through the city’s autumnal streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open fields ‘at the upper end of Holborn, hard by the highway-side to St Giles’. The scaffold was probably situated somewhere a little to the north west of what is now Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then known as Cup Field. The crowd gathered there to watch them die numbered in thousands. The authorities had fenced off the site to stop horsemen blocking the view, and had also raised the gallows ‘mighty high’, so that everyone could see justice being done.

The names of the men were – Ballard aside – Anthony Babington, John Savage, Robert Barnwell, Chidiock Tichbourne, Charles Tilney, and Edward Abingdon. (Seven more conspirators and their accomplices would die the following day: Edward Jones, Thomas Salisbury, John Charnock, Robert Gage, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy and Henry Donne, elder brother of the poet.) Most of them were minor courtiers, well-connected, wealthy; it was said they wore fine silks on this, their last day.

Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason; six weeks before that, they had still been free men. But then had come intimations of arrest – one story is that Babington was alerted by catching sight of a message delivered to a dining companion named Scudamore and realising that Scudamore was, in fact, one of Walsingham’s men – followed by dispersal and desperate flight. Babington and four others took to what was then still wild woodland beyond the city at St John’s Wood.

The authorities searched the houses of some thirty known recusants around London. Almost all were outside the city walls in places such as Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Highgate,  Enfield, Islington, Newington and Westminster. One conspirator, John Charnock, was captured on the road from Willesden, where he too had slept in the woods.
Continue reading

What’s in a name? Walter Ralegh vs Walter Raleigh

One of the questions I get asked most about Sir Walter Ralegh, somewhat to my surprise, is the correct spelling of his name. The reason is that ‘Raleigh’, the spelling in widest circulation – and not only on the internet – is rarely used by anyone who has ever written about him in any depth. Nevertheless, ‘Raleigh’ is the spelling in popular usage, and there seems to be a marked resistance to the suggestion that it might be wrong.

Perhaps that is simply due to familiarity and repetition. After all, he is a well-known figure and most of us will have come across him at some point in our schooling. I think my first encounter with him was through the Ladybird title pictured left, which may cause the odd ripple of nostalgia in readers of a certain age. Arguably, however, our attachment to the spelling and its associations help cement in our minds a stale, old-fashioned and, I believe, deeply misleading image of Ralegh as a national hero and prophet of empire very much in the Victorian mode.

In fact, at least as far back as William Oldys, Ralegh’s first biographer in 1736, students of Ralegh have written it as I do, without the ‘i’. (The exception that springs to mind is Raleigh Trevalyan’s life, for which the author’s familial relationship with Ralegh, as evidenced in his forename, lead him to a more personal choice.) True, the ‘Raleigh’ spelling does crop up fairly regularly in contemporary transcripts and endorsements of his correspondence, but there is nothing to particularly suggest why it should have taken such firm root.
Continue reading

Sir Walter Ralegh’s final voyage to El Dorado

Sir Walter Ralegh's map of El Dorado

Despite the great and humiliating failure of his 1595 voyage of exploration and conquest to El Dorado, the legendary golden city at the head of the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela, Ralegh never abandoned his faith in his vision. He may, perhaps, have privately doubted the existence of the golden city; he never seems to have doubted the gold. It represented everything he needed and wanted: renewed wealth and power, royal favour, a chance to bloody the nose of imperial Spain.

Indeed, just four months after Ralegh returned from Guiana, as that part of South America was then known, he sent his redoubtable, brilliant loyal lieutenant, Lawrence Keymis, back there. Keymis’ brief was to open a mine at a site called Caroni, where Ralegh had scrabbled with his men for gold in the dirt.

Keymis, however, brought back bad news. The Spanish had built a town named San Thomé upriver, blocking access to the headwaters. And even if men could be got past San Thomé, Keymis reported, the Spanish had stationed men at Caroni too.

Nevertheless, Ralegh continued to finance expeditions to the region. Indeed, he regarded it as territory which he had claimed for England – and in which it was the Spanish who were now interlopers. The Spanish, naturally, demurred from this position. Which would have mattered rather less if James I, on his accession in 1603, hadn’t shifted English foreign policy towards an accord with Spain.

If Ralegh had entertained hopes that his fortunes would revive their former glory under the new monarch, he was quickly, and brutally, disabused. By the end of 1603 he had been convicted of plotting James’ overthrow – ironically in collusion with the Spanish – and was lucky to escape execution. He spent the next 12 years in the Tower of London.

He was released on 19 March 1616, with James I’s approval, to lead an expedition to the region, known as Manoa, and locate the fabled gold. His conviction – and the attendant death penalty – still hung over his head, however. This was, to say the least, one last bold throw of the dice for Ralegh. More so, because the terms under which he sailed were impossible to comply with. James wanted Ralegh to avoid any conflict with the Spanish. Yet he was to sail with 1,000 men into territory which Spain had both claimed and garrisoned. The Spanish, not unreasonably, regarded this as something close to a declaration of war.
Continue reading

Sir Walter Ralegh writing to his wife on the death of their son

Sir Walter Ralegh and his son, Wat, in happier times c.1602

I have blogged here about Ralegh’s disastrous return to El Dorado in 1617-18. Aside from the failure to find gold – a failure that Ralegh must have known might at best find him returned to the Tower of London when he returned home, and at worst cost him his head – he lost his young son there. Ralegh heard the news on 13 February 1618, but he couldn’t find the strength to write to his wife Bess for over a month. This is from the letter he eventually wrote, on 22 March:

I was loath to write because I knew not how to comfort you; and God knows, I never knew what sorrow meant till now. All that I can say to you is, that you must obey the will and providence of God; and remember, that the Queen’s majesty bore the loss of Prince Henry with a magnanimous heart, and the Lady Harrington of her only son.

Comfort your heart, dearest Bess, I shall sorrow for us both. I shall sorrow the less, because I have not long to sorrow, because not long to live… My brains are broken and ’tis a torment to me to write, and especially of misery… The Lord bless and comfort you, that you may bear patiently the death of your valiant son.

And from the postscript:

I protest before the majesty of God, that as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins died heartbroken when they failed of their enterprise, I could willingly do the like, did I not contend against sorrow for your sake, in hope to provide somewhat for you; and to comfort and relieve you. If I live to return, resolve yourself that it is the care for you that hath strengthened my heart