Raleigh (1554-1618) was only one of my characters who was beheaded! He was the very definition of a “Renaissance man.” He was a dashing soldier, an Elizabethan privateer, a colonizer of Virginia, a friend of Sir Philip Sidney and the patron of Edmund Spenser, one of Queen Elizabeth’s four principal courtiers, a writer of admirable poetry and prose, an explorer of South America, and one of the most important state prisoners in the history of England.
My Raleigh speaks from the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned from 1603-1616 for treason by King James I. It’s difficult to discern just what his crimes were from our perspective, but he was a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth and he made it clear when she died on March 24, 1603, that he would prefer the thrown not be cast away on a Scotsman who was the son of the late Mary Queen of Scotts.
Raleigh was the mastermind of England’s intended colonization at Roanoke in today’s North Carolina. He gave the name of his new world discoveries “Virginia” after his patron, the Virgin Queen. In 1595 he attempted to find El Dorado, the fabled city of gold somewhere along the Orinoco River in South America. He found no gold, but the account he wrote of his adventure, The Discovery of Guiana (1596) was a classic of exploration literature.
Raleigh is a larger-than-life figure around whom much legendary material has accumulated. He may—or may not—have thrown down his cloak (the most expensive thing he owned) to enable Queen Elizabeth to walk safely over a puddle. He probably was not doused with a bucket of water when his servant failed to realize that the smoke coming out of his mouth was from tobacco not a clothing fire. He may or may not have scratched love verses to Elizabeth on a windowpane at Windsor Castle.
He was a freethinker at a time when suspicion of heresy could get you burned at the stake. He gathered freethinkers around him in Devonshire and at Dorset House in London. Accordingly, one of the charges invariably leveled at him when he was crosswise with the Queen or King was that he was a dangerous heresiarch (or an actual atheist).
It’s not easy to make the Elizabethan and Jacobean world come alive 450 years later, but it is definitely worth it. Raleigh is the character I get to swashbuckle in, with a codpiece and a rapier and the obligatory pleated Renaissance blouse. Although I concentrate on Raleigh’s New World adventures, I spend plenty of time providing a portrait of the English court in its greatest era.
The dramatic monologue is set on the evening before Raleigh’s execution on October 29, 1618. As he walked to the site of execution, Raleigh gave his night cap to a stranger, explaining that he doubted he would need it any longer.
Clay’s Personal Notes:
I took on the character of Raleigh for two reasons. First, I made a deal with my friend John Tucker of Virginia that if he would bring me to the Outer Banks to do several of my characters in a single week, I’d finish up with my inaugural performance as Sir Walter Raleigh. Second, I’ve known since my Oxford days that Raleigh was much more than an explorer, soldier, and Elizabethan courtier. While he was on death row in the Tower of London he wrote The History of the World. Actually, he only managed to write the history of the world up until the Second Macedonian War (200-197 BCE), but two more volumes were intended, and what we have is one of the great unread treasures of English literature. The History of the World stands as one of the greatest books ever written in prison—a surprisingly rich genre that includes Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, among many others.
My original “field” was English literature of the Renaissance: later Shakespeare, John Donne, the Metaphysical and Cavalier Poets. Taking on Raleigh allowed me to return to the studies that mattered to me in 1980 as much as Jefferson and Lewis & Clark matter to me now. With any character there is a certain amount of memorization. Raleigh’s English prose deserves to be included, along with the King James Bible, in the small club of “greatest writers of the Renaissance.” I love delivering in rich English prose (though alas not in Raleigh’s Devonshire accent) his poetry and certain passages from his letters and The History of the World.
I’m also deeply interested in the history of exploration, and Raleigh was a key figure in the English exploration and colonization of North (and South) America.