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Biography Court Elizabeth London

The life of Sir Walter Ralegh

Today’s fragments form an overview of the life of one of England’s most famous explorers and courtiers.

Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) was born at Hayes, near East Budleigh, in Devon. He was the second son of Walter Ralegh and his third wife, Katherine. The Raleghs were an old-established Protestant family; Walter senior was the deputy vice-admiral under Mary I from 1555 to 1558, and Katherine Ralegh’s children from her first marriage included the famous mariner and soldier Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose career greatly influenced Walter.

Little is known of Walter’s early life. It is thought he was an ‘indefatigable Reader’, and remarks gleaned from his History of the World, which he published in 1614, suggest he served as volunteer with the Huguenot armies in France from about 1569.

Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford in 1572, and left without a degree, being admitted to the Middle Temple in 1575. His first published poem appeared in George Gascoigne’s The Steel Glass in 1576.

Walter’s mother’s elder sister, Katherine Astley, had been governess to Elizabeth I from 1544, and she became her chief gentlewoman in 1558. It may have been this connection which offered Ralegh his initial introduction at court. In 1578, Walter’s step-brother Humphrey secured a patent to discover ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’ and Walter sailed in his fleet as captain of the Falcon. The expedition was beleaguered with storms and desertions, but Ralegh continued on into the Atlantic in search of adventure, eventually returning to Plymouth in 1579.

In 1580, he secured a captain’s commission and was sent to Ireland to tackle the Desmond rebellion.  Serving under Arthur Grey in county Kerry, Ralegh oversaw the slaughter of a force of Italian and Spanish adventurers who had landed in support of the Irish rebels. It was at this time that he fathered his first child, of which little is known; it has been suggested that Ralegh later betrothed the child to Daniel Dumaresq, his page, and that the girl died of plague.


Walter returned to court in 1581, and soon attracted the attention of the queen. He was a tall man, with dark hair and attractive features. The famous story of him spreading his cloak over a puddle to allow the Queen to walk without getting her feet muddied is probably no more than gossip recorded by Thomas Fuller. Nonetheless, Walter quickly became one of the queen’s favourites, and he wrote her elegant, courtly poems, one of which, Farewell false love, was read widely during the early 1580s. In 1583, Elizabeth granted Ralegh one of her favourite palaces, Durham Place on the Strand. It came complete with a lantern tower which had views across London ‘as pleasant perhaps as any in the world.’

Humphrey Gilbert died in 1583, and Ralegh took up his half-brother’s ambitious plans to colonise the New World. In 1585, having secured his patents, Ralegh set off on his expedition, taking four ships and 600 men, including his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Ralegh’s grand plans to reach Virginia came to fruition under Grenville, who left men to settle on Roanoke Island, while he himself went on to pursue a private voyage in search of wealth and plunder. By the summer of the following year, the colonists were on the point of starvation, and many chose to return home with Sir Francis Drake, who had anchored at Roanoke on his return from the Caribbean. In 1587, Ralegh embarked on another expedition to the New World, however this enterprise was as unsuccessful as his last; the colonists suffered the same fate as the inhabitants of Roanoke, and by 1590 the settlement was deserted.

There is an historical myth which claims it was Ralegh who introduced both tobacco and the potato to England. However there is nothing in print to link the potato, which originated in Peru and arrived in Spain by 1570 and wider Europe thereafter, with Ralegh until at least 1699. Likewise, Ralegh’s links with tobacco, which is first mentioned by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and was introduced into Europe by Andre Thevet in the mid fifteenth century and was being smoked in England by c.1571. While Ralegh was not responsible for the introduction of smoking in England, he is thought to have popularised it at court.

In 1591, Ralegh began a liaison with Bess, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, and daughter of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. On discovering Bess was pregnant later that same year, Ralegh and she were married in secret, knowing full well that news of their union would greatly displease Elizabeth I. Ralegh worked hard to quash rumours of the marriage, but the couple’s son was born in March 1592, after which Bess returned to court, while Ralegh set sail on yet another expedition. By May, he was back in England, and news of his illicit marriage broke. His son was brought to him by his nurse at Durham Place, perhaps the only time the two were together. Ralegh’s wife was placed in the custody of Sir Thomas Heneage, and Ralegh was committed to the custody of Cecil. Ralegh made a variety of pleas to the Queen which only worsened the situation, and on 7th August 1592, both he and his wife were committed to the Tower. Fortunately, one of Ralegh’s overseas expeditions returned home the following month with a huge treasure hoard, and Ralegh was released to oversee the division of the loot. Elizabeth I allowed him to keep a tiny share of the spoils, and it appears she had softened her attitude towards Ralegh, even permitting Bess to be released from the Tower in December of that year.



Unfortunately Ralegh and Bess’s son died in infancy, but their second child, Walter, was born in November 1593. The couple was still banished from court (and Ralegh would remain so until 1597), but Ralegh spent his time in politics, representing Dorset in Parliament. During these years he also began to plan an expedition to discover El Dorado, the mythical lost city of gold. In 1595, he set sail from Plymouth, arriving at a Spanish colony on Trinidad, before travelling on to Orinoco. However, despite his efforts, he arrived home seven months later empty-handed, to the mockery of both Queen and court.

The following year, he was still much in disgrace but the mounting fear of an attack from Spain brought a demand for Ralegh’s maritime experience and he returned to court. The Queen, fearing an invasion, insisted on including Ralegh in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, which became one of the triumphs of her reign.

In 1603, Elizabeth died, and Ralegh, having by now made some dangerous enemies at court, was quickly rebuffed by the new king, James. He was stripped of his monopolies and told to leave Durham House. In the summer of the same year he was detained for questioning on treason charges, and placed under house arrest. Implicated in the Main plot, which intended the death of the King and a Spanish invasion, Ralegh was sent to the Tower. In intense despair, he attempted a failed suicide bid, and lived as a prisoner at the Tower until 1612. He was permitted two rooms in the Bloody Tower (which can still be seen today), books, and a garden. During his imprisonment he wrote his major work, The History of the World, which he began writing in 1607. It was eventually published in 1614.


Ralegh’s room, preserved at the Tower of London

Ralegh was finally released from the Tower in 1616, and he at once began plans for another expedition to find El Dorado. He set sail in August, but illness, desertion, and a demoralised crew ensured that Ralegh eventually returned to England empty-handed, and something of a broken man. This last failure was a hard blow, ‘My braines are broken,’ he wrote to Bess on 22nd March, ‘and tis a torment to me to write.’

In 1618, Ralegh was once more arrested, this time over reports that activity during his final expedition had placed the peace between England and Spain in jeopardy. Placed under house arrest, Ralegh made a failed escape bid to France, and was once again sent to the Tower. Despite moving speeches and entreaties, Ralegh’s pleas for clemency were ignored, and he was executed on 29th October 1618 at Westminster. His head, severed after the second blow, was placed in a leather bag, and kept by his wife, while his body was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

In the years following his death, Ralegh’s popularity as a poet and adventurer grew. His works were published and republished, and he developed a cult status as a gentleman explorer and pioneer which continues to this day.

Source: Mark Nicholls, DNB.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Custom Entertainment London

Whores, Pimps and Panders – Bartholomew Fair

These fragments follow on from the post on tumbling and rope-tricks at Bartholomew Fair, and come from a curiously grumpy little pamphlet which takes its reader on a guided tour of the fair in order to highlight its dangers.

Bartholomew Faire begins on the twenty fourth day of August, and is then of so vast an extent that is contained in no lesse than four parishes, namely Christ Church, Great and Little Saint Bartholomewes, and Saint Sepulchres.  Hither resort people of all sorts, High and Low, Rich and Poore, from cities, townes, and countreys.  And all conditions, good and bad, vertuous and vitious, Knaves and fooles, Cuckholds and Cuckoldmakers, Bauds, Whores, Pimps and Panders, Rogues and Rascalls, the little loud-one and the witty wanton.

And now that we may the better take an exact survey of the whole Faire.  First let us enter in to Christ Church Cloysters which are now hung so full of pictures that you would take that place or rather mistake it for Saint Peters in Rome. Being arrived through the long walke to Saint Bartholomewes hospital, that place appeares to me a fucking Exchange, and may be so termed not unfitly, for there many a handsome wench exchanges her maidenhead for a small favour.  She comes not hither with her sweet-heart, to serve her owne turne only, but also to satisfie his desire; according to the old saying one good turne deserves another.

Let us now make a progresse into Smith-field, which is the heart of the Faire, where in my heart I think there are more motions in a day to be seene, than are in a terme in Westminster Hall to be had.  But whilst you take notice of the severall motions there, take this caution along with you, let one eye watch narrowly that no one make a motion into your pocket.  The Faire is full of gold and silver drawers, just as Lent is to the Fishmonger so is Bartholomew Faire to the Pickpocket.  The Citty-Marshalls are as dreadfull to these youngsters as the Plague is to our London actors, that refraines them from playing, so they hinder them from working. You may quickly know these nimble youths and likely find them very busie bodies in quarrells, sometimes in discourse with their wenches for most part to be found in a crowd or throng of people.  Their buttocks walke up and down the Faire very demurely.

It is remarkable and worth your observation to behold the strange sights and confused noise of the Faire.  Here a Knave in a fools costume with a trumpet sounding, or on a drumme beating, invites you and would perswade you to see his puppets.  There’s a Rogue like a wild woodman desires your company to view his motion; on the other side Hocus Pocus with three yards of ribbin in his hand shewing his art.  You shall see a gray goose-cap with a larke in his mouth, standing in his boothe shaking a rattle or scraping a fiddle with which children are taken.  All these together make such a distracted noise that you would think Babell were not comparable to it.  Here there are also your gamesters in action. Some turning of a whimsey, others throwing for pewter, who can quickly dissolve a round shilling into a three half penny saucer.

Well fare the Ale houses therein, yet better may a man fare in the pig markets of Pasty Nooke or Pye corner where pigges are in all houres of the day on the stalls piping hot, and would cry come eate me, but they are so damnable deare, and the reckonings for them are so saucy that a man had as good licke his fingers in a baudy house, as at this time come into one of those houses, where the fat greasy Hostesse instructs Nick Froth her tapster to aske a shilling more for a pigs head of a woman big with child, than of another ordinary customer.

Farewell to the Faire. Preserve your Purses, whilst you please your eyes.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Custom Entertainment London

A jig upon the rope

These snippets are from an advertisement for rope trick entertainments at Bartholomew Fair, an annual event which took place at Smithfield and began on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August.

At Mr Barnes’s Booth, between the Crown-Tavern and the Hospital-Gate over-against the Cross Daggers in West Smithfield, where you will see the English flag out on top of the Booth, during the time of Bartholomew-Fair, is to be seen the Famous Rope-Dancers in Europe. By these incomparable Companies (all joyn’d in one Booth) will be presented the Variety of Agility of Body, as Dancing, Tumbling, Vaulting and Walking the Slack Rope, the like was never seen since the Age of Man.

1. You will see the Morocco Woman and her Company who Vault upon the High Rope to admiration.

2. You will see the French Company who perform things too tedious here to relate.

3. You will see the two Famous High-German Children who are the Wonder of the World of their Sex performing such things the like was never seen before.

4. You will see the English Company, Mr Appleby and Mr Barnes who are the two Only Famous Men in the whole World for Tumbling and Rope Dancing; where Mr Barnes dances with a Child standing on his shoulders and two at his feet, with Rolls, Baskets, Boots, and dances a Jig upon the Rope with such Variety of steps that few or no Dancing Masters in England exceed him on the ground, keeping exact time to the Musick.  He likewise walks the Slack Rope, not bigger than a Penny Chord, and swings himself several Yards distance, standing upright, with the Pole in his hand.  Also you will see such Tumbling performed by the English Company as throwing Hoops over Halbards, over 16 mens Heads, over an Horse with a Man on his back, and two Boys standing upright on his Shoulders.  In short there is no Agility of Body, as Walking, Vaulting or Tumbling, but what is performed in this Booth.

You will likewise be entertained with Good Musicke and the Merry Conceits of Pickle-Herring and his son Punch. 

Actor Biography London Playwrights Poetry Shakespeare

The life of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was baptised in Holy Trinity, parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26th April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but rumour developed in the 18th century that he was born on 23rd April, St George’s Day.  There is no evidence to support this, but given his baptism date, it is likely he was born between 21st and 23rd April, in Henley St, Stratford upon Avon, in part of a building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

By the time Shakespeare’s father married Mary Arden, some time between 1556-8, he had established himself as a successful glover and whittawer (a dresser of light-coloured leather).  He bought a house and garden in Henley Street in 1556, and continued to buy property in the town.  The couple’s first child, Joan, was born in September 1558 and probably died in infancy.  A second child, Margaret, baptised in December 1562, was buried the following April.  A year later Mary gave birth to William.  At the time of his birth Stratford was in the grip of a devastating plague outbreak which killed one in eight of the town’s population.  Mary and John would go on to have five more children: Gilbert (1566-1612), another Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571- 1579), Richard (1574-1613) and Edmund (1580-1607).


John Shakespeare had risen through the ranks to become one of fourteen burgesses of Stratford.  In 1565 he became an alderman and in 1568 he was elected bailiff for the year, one of the highest offices in the town. In spite of this rapid professional expansion and success, by the end of the 1570s John Shakespeare was in financial difficulties.  In 1578 he mortgaged some of his wife’s inheritance, which he lost in 1580.  He stopped attending council meetings after 1576, and was replaced as alderman in 1586.  In 1592 his name appeared on a list of nine people wanted by the authorities for recusancy, that is, refusing to attend church.  His excuse was listed as ‘for feare of processe for Debtte’.  Some scholars have concluded from this that John was attempting to conceal his secret Catholicism, and in 1790 a bricklayer claimed to have found a manuscript in the roof of Henley St detailing John Shakespeare’s commitment to Catholicism.  However doubts remain about its authenticity, and even if it were genuine, there is no reason to assume William shared his father’s Catholic convictions.

During John Shakespeare’s tenure as bailiff, two theatre companies visited Stratford, and there is every reason to suppose that William would have attended these performances as other children did.  During the period that William was in continuous residency in Stratford, at least thirteen different visits by companies of players provided him with the opportunity to experience live dramatic theatrical performances in the town.

 King’s New School

No records survive of Shakespeare’s education, but it is widely assumed he attended King’s New School, Stratford; a successful grammar school.  During his schooling he would have learned a huge amount of Latin literature and history; he would have read Cicero, and Seneca, Virgil and Ovid, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence.  The teaching methods of the time would have ensured he was trained in the arts of composition, rhetoric, and memory.

Shakespeare probably left school at around the age of 15, and several options would have been open to him, including becoming an apprentice in his father’s glove trade.  Many rumours place Shakespeare in Lancashire after leaving school, either as a school teacher or as a servant and player in a wealthy household.  However if we rely on the evidence, all we know for certain was by 1582 Shakespeare was in Stratford, marrying Anne Hathaway at the age of 18.  Anne was nine years older than William, and pregnant by the end of the summer 1582; the marriage was performed after only one reading of the banns, rather than the usual three, a sure sign that it was rushed in order to conceal a pregnancy.  Six months after the marriage, on 26th May 1583, Susanna Shakespeare was baptised, followed on 2nd February 1585 by twins Hamnet and Judith.  After the birth of the twins, up until 1592, details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy.  One rumour which has passed down through the centuries is that he was caught poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate at Charlecote, and was forced to escape to London to avoid prosecution.

The next documented evidence we have about his life is from a pamphlet printed in London in 1592 by Robert Greene, or possible Henry Chettle, who attacks Shakespeare as an ‘upstart Crow’ and a ‘player’.  Whatever Shakespeare had been involved with between 1585 and 1592, it is clear that by 1592 he was known as an actor, and in addition, according to the pamphlet, a playwright.  No evidence remains of how skilled Shakespeare was as an actor. He is named as first in a list of Principle Actors in the first folio of 1623, and also appears in the lists of actors in Ben Jonson’s Workes in 1616.

It is possible Shakespeare had joined the Queen’s Men.  They performed in Stratford in 1587 and their repertory included plays which would later serve as sources for Shakespeare’s own plays, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III and Henry V.  By 1592 Shakespeare had almost certainly completed his Henry VI cycle, and The Taming of The Shrew also dates to this time. Between 1592 and 1594 the theatres were closed due to the plague.  While they were closed it was tradition for the theatre companies to tour the provinces. However the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593, dedicated to the earl of Southampton, suggests Shakespeare was continuing to write.  By 1594, with the reopening of the playhouses, Shakespeare was writing all his plays for the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Payments to the company for their court performances over Christmas 1594 name Shakespeare, Will Kemp, and Richard Burbage as the leading actors; highlighting their pre-eminence among the company’s players.  From 1594-5 the Chamberlain’s Men performed The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s plays were now also starting to appear in print.  Over the next two years he wrote The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, but in 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, and many scholars see his subsequent outpouring of grief in plays like Twelfth Night and Hamlet.


Shakespeare’s continued success as a playwright enabled him to purchase New Place in Stratford in May 1597.  It was reputed to be the second biggest house in the town, with five gables, ten fireplaces, two barns, two gardens and two orchards.  The prices was in excess of £120.  He made many of his investments in Stratford rather than London. In May 1602 he paid the hefty sum of £320 for 107 acres of land in Old Town, Stratford; and the year before he had acquired a cottage in Chapel Lane in order to extend New Place. By 1605 he was able to pay £440 for a share in the tithes of Stratford, bringing in £60 a year. So in less than ten years Shakespeare had made enough money from the playhouses to invest almost £900 in his home town, over £90,000 in today’s terms.

Shakespeare continued to live in London during this period.  In 1596 he was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and by 1599 he had moved to the parish of the Clink, close to the site of the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside.  The Globe had been constructed and built by the Chamberlain’s Men, and the first play performed there, soon after its opening in 1599, was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With the accession of James I in 1603 the Chamberlain’s Men were elevated to new heights when the king became their patron. For the king’s entry into London in 1604 Shakespeare and other players were each given four and a half yards of red cloth, possibly so they could march in the royal procession.  The newly-formed King’s Men performed regularly at court; between 1604 and 1605 they had played over eleven different plays for the king, including Measure for Measure, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Globe

From 1605-6m Shakespeare produced some of his greatest tragedies; King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra.  Records of Shakespeare’s friends and family provide other suggestions about his life at this time.  Augustine Phillips, a fellow sharer in the King’s Men, died in 1604, leaving‘my ffellowe william Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould’  It is reasonable to assume that his fellows in the theatre company were among his closest friends. William Barksted, a minor playwright, wrote warmly of Shakespeare as ‘so deere lov’d a neighbor’

During this time his daughter Susanna married the doctor John Hall.  Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund came to London to become a player, but only a year later both he and his infant son were dead. In 1608 Shakespeare became a grandfather when Susanna gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  By 1609 almost half of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in print, and the King’s Men had acquired the lease to the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor playhouse which was far smaller than the Globe, but offered a much greater scope for stage devices and machinery, as well as music.  It also charged much higher admission prices than the Globe. This new playhouse presented some technical challenges for Shakespeare, which he responded to in The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest between 1609-11.

By 1613 Shakespeare had invested in London property, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, close to the new theatre. It was large enough for him to let part of it out, and it was probably here that he now resided whenever he was in London.  In June of the same year the Globe theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII.  The shareholders decided to rebuild it, with each sharer contributing between £50 and £100.  However by the time Shakespeare made his will in 1616 he was no longer a shareholder in the Globe, and it is likely he decided to end his involvement in the playhouse at the time it burned down.

Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon

Where Shakespeare spent the final years of his life is uncertain.  There is no evidence he retired to Stratford.  In November 1614 Thomas Greene, Stratford’s town clerk from 1603 to 1617, who repeatedly refers to Shakespeare as his cousin, was in London and noted that, Shakespeare ‘commyng yesterday to towne I went to see him howe he did.’  In January 1616 Shakespeare drafted his will, and in April of the same year he died.  What Shakespeare died from is unclear.  John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s recorded that ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted’  He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity; inside rather than outside, since his ownership of Stratford tithes made him a lay rector.  The epitaph, possibly written by him, and warning future generations to leave his bones where they lie, was inscribed on the grave, though the grave may not originally have been where the stone is now placed.  Anne lived until 1623 (she was buried on 8th August) but her tombstone makes no mention of her husband.

 Shakespeare memorial, Westminster Abbey


Sources: Multiple, including Park Honan; Peter Holland.  See Useful Reading. For more on Shakespeare and the Globe see some earlier posts.


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