The besiegers advanced and slowly seized all weapons. Then the signal was given to start the massacre.
Around six hundred Italian and Spanish men had landed a few days earlier at Ard na Caithne, in South-West Ireland, bringing arms and munitions for the rebels in the mountains. However, English ships had trapped the small Spanish fleet at sea, and troops had blocked access to the rebels in the mountains, so forcing the new arrivals to head towards an ancient, abandoned fort. With no way out, no water and an honourable agreement rejected, after three days of cannonades the six hundred surrendered unconditionally. However, only the highest-ranking men were spared, so that they could go back and report the events.
Naturally, this was an episode that was part of ongoing religious wars. The Protestants were English (in their own way), the Catholics were Irish, Italian and Spanish. The Council of Trent had concluded just seventeen years earlier. However, what was more of concern was power-related issues. Behind this small, anonymous expedition that aimed to thwart Elizabeth I’s ambitions lay the figures of Pope Gregory XIII and King Philip II of Spain. Ard na Caithne means ‘strawberry tree’ in Irish. The English called the site ‘Smerwick’. The siege with its tragic ending in 1580 is only one of the episodes that occurred during what historians call the ‘Second Desmond rebellion’. However, what is particularly interesting is that according to historians, the troops who carried out the massacre were led by two captains, one of whom was Walter Raleigh.
Raleigh (but also Rawley, Rauley, Rauleygh, Ralegh as he signed himself during his lifetime – although it is said that ‘Rawley’ is the correct pronunciation), was born in 1552 (or perhaps 1554) and raised in a farmhouse called Hayes Barton, a small village near East Budleigh in the County of Devonshire, on the western coast of the Channel. Walter Raleigh senior, his father, was part of the landed gentry, working with his children looking after the sheep and managing small cargo ships. A free spirit without prejudice, active and well established in society, he had acquired a series of important relatives thanks to his three wives. Walter junior was the youngest of six children, in addition to the three children had by his mother from her first marriage. His childhood must have been exciting, as in his family and village the topic of discussion concerned the sea, sailing, exploration and other adventures, Plymouth harbour being quite close. However, topics also extended to arms and wars. A childhood that was frequently difficult, with so many brothers and sisters, but above all because it was the period of Bloody Mary’s persecution of the Protestants. When Walter was young, his father had risked being killed and recalling that period or listening to the accounts in his family confirmed his hatred of Catholics.
Growing up fast, the young Raleigh was well-connected, confident, courageous and proud almost to the point of being arrogant. A relative on his mother’s side, Henry Champernowne, was preparing to leave for France heading a contingent on horseback in order to provide support for the Huguenots against the Catholics. Walter was only 15 (or 17) but was eager to take part and travel the world. Thus, he joined the army. He spent three years in France, from 1569 to 1571, active in several battles, including the Battle of Jarnac, when the troops suffered a terrible, bloody defeat. This experience affected him greatly, which led to a deep-rooted scepticism and a sense of all earthly things being finite.
Once he returned to England, he studied Aristoteles at Oriel College, Oxford University in 1572, and excelled in oratory and philosophy, without graduating, however. Three years later he was admitted to the Middle Temple, the renowned professional society that served to train lawyers, amongst other things. Although Raleigh found that studies did not suit him, being a passionate man of action, he made several valuable friends there that would later join him on several occasions. In the typically Elizabethan atmosphere of the English Renaissance, encountering intellectuals and scientists, the coarse soldier discovered an unexpected and delicate poetic vein. Yet, his spirit of adventure above all prevailed, the same that animated his half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, who was thirteen years older, being his mother’s son by her first marriage. Gilbert was knighted in 1569 for his military achievements in Ireland. He was fond of his strong, impetuous younger brother and had taken him under his wing. In 1578, when granted a royal charter for an expedition to North America, Gilbert entrusted Raleigh with the command of one of the ships. Unfortunately, the expedition was badly organised, and failed. No one crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but the last ship to return, the one that had sailed furthest of all, was the one commanded by Raleigh.
One of his mother’s aunts, Kat Astley, had been the governess of the future Queen since she was four years old, and now as friend and confidant frequently visited the Queen’s private chambers. It is likely that thanks to Kat’s connections, Walter was admitted to Queen Elizabeth’s court, albeit initially in a low- ranking position, joining around a thousand other fellow courtiers who moved from one Palace to another, forging relations, taking part in amusements and performing more serious tasks. Walter’s introduction to court in 1580 caused quite a stir. The latest arrival behaved as if he were the most important courtier, standing out in a dandy milieu paying excessive attention to fine apparel. A swaggerer and troublemaker, he fought a dual with a rival for a futile question, and both landed in prison for six days. Shortly after, another duel took place involving tennis, and this time the dual was halted at the last minute. Raleigh went again to prison. If his aim was to attract attention, it certainly worked: as a prize, or maybe punishment, he was sent to Ireland with one hundred men under his command. He took part in the siege of Smerwick, as in other sites of the bloody dispute between religions and countries. At the end of 1581 he returned to court life. As a war veteran, he convinced the Queen’s powerful advisor, William Cecil, to write a report on better ways of solving the Irish issue. The Queen began to grant him honours and privileges, while he paid great attention to her as a gentleman and wrote elaborate praise in verse.
He did not accompany Gilbert on a voyage to Newfoundland, who never came back, being lost at sea. It was the year 1583. Raleigh’s position at court was now well-established, both politically and financially. In his palace on the Thames he met investors and experts of all kinds to plan future ventures in the New World.
Apart from his taste for adventure and the prevailing idea of civilising countries, there was a concrete reason for this: America was not to be appropriated by the Spanish alone. On the North-Eastern coast there was plenty of land to colonise, but the main aim was to establish secure bases for the English ships from which to sail out, attack and capture the Spanish settlements and above all their ships full of precious cargo to be taken back to Europe. The same occurred with ships from other countries if the cargo was worth it. In short, they were pirates, whom the Spanish called perros del mar, in English ‘sea dogs’. However, in England they preferred to talk of ‘privateers’: private initiatives dedicated to raiding and exploration, as well as various types of trafficking, including slavery. Those who survived the endeavours and returned home bearing treasures donated a substantial part to the Queen, who often gained more in revenue in this way than through the imposition of taxes and levies. Thus, she more or less tacitly encouraged the incursions. Furthermore, constant pressure of piracy wore down the Spanish fleet, as the trade relations forged by the English undermined Spanish monopoly on overseas trade. In addition, one could always justify all this by invoking the usual religious war. Moreover, in order to be successful, these semi-legal entrepreneurs needed to refine navigation techniques, weapons, ship design and structure, thereby providing a positive outcome for the navy. In case there was a skirmish with the Spanish, their vessels would be capable of collaborating.
The most famous privateers were John Hawkins and Francis Drake, both from Devon and relatives of Raleigh, who was younger by ten years and was heading in the same direction. This is the reason why the Queen found him interesting, not only for his prowess, character or excessive elegance. His passionate verse, which compared Elizabeth to Diana, both chaste goddesses, were highly appropriate for the image that Elizabeth wished to offer of herself.
The year 1584 was highly successful for Raleigh. He managed to purchase an area of Ireland for a paltry sum, 16,000 hectares (42,000 acres) in the South-Eastern part of the island, including Lismore and the fortified town of Youghall. By selling land hitherto owned by the Irish rebels at a few pennies per acre to trustworthy English men, the authorities intended to anglicise the land.
Above all, in the same year Raleigh was granted a royal charter to explore the western coast of North America in view of future settlements, taking over from his dead half-brother. He had been expecting this for some time, and in fact the first expedition was already organised and a fleet left almost immediately in April. This mission was primarily exploratory to identify the site which would be most suitable for future settlements and to acquire general information about the area. Roanoke Island in modern North Carolina seemed to be the most suitable site. Good relations were established with the local Native Americans, so much so that two natives, leaders of their tribe, sailed back to England in 1584.
It was a triumph. In November Raleigh was elected Member of Parliament and backed by two highly influential people like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville, requested support for the following expeditions that he was organising. On January 6th, 1585, he was knighted and became Sir Walter Raleigh. Subsequently, he became Governor of Virginia, the name he had given to the territory colonised by the English in honour of the “Virgin Queen”, as Elizabeth was known.
Preparations for the second expedition finished in April. Some people had even learnt the language of the Native Americans. A larger fleet set sail on April 9th, bearing numerous seamen and soldiers ready to establish a settlement. However, a storm almost immediately hit the ships damaging them, so that only two finally arrived at Puerto Rico and two Spanish ships were captured. Near Roanoke the flagship ran aground in shallow waters and lost most of its valuable supplies. Thus, between June and July, fewer people than expected settled on the Island and found themselves in rather precarious circumstances. Yet, they managed to explore the vast territory for its resources. However, the colonists’ approach to the natives was often hostile and relations with them deteriorated rapidly. From September onwards, following the departure of the last ship, they had to face the cold, hunger and attacks. With the arrival of spring, the situation was still extremely difficult. However, in late spring Francis Drake arrived unexpectedly with his fleet returning from a long voyage of exploration and piracy, finding the colonists utterly exhausted. Initially, Drake had thought of leaving them with fresh supplies and additional support, but eventually he brought them back to England. Ironically, a ship sent by Raleigh to rescue them arrived a few days later, but as they found nobody, they left. Two weeks later a fleet with a year’s supplies and four hundred men landed and observing the situation they departed again, leaving behind a small garrison to guard the settlement.
When the colonists arrived in Plymouth in July 1586, they had to face Walter Raleigh, who was furious at their departure. However, some goals had been reached. Amongst other things they brought back maps, illustrations and precious information on sites and the inhabitants on the island. A thorough report on their experience in Virginia was published shortly. Moreover, the ship that had brought them to Roanoke had then attacked and looted a galleon on the return journey, so they had returned laden with treasures, essential for those who funded the voyage. In addition, that day in Plymouth the survivors had also brought back a small, fragrant souvenir of their American adventure. It was not exactly a novelty for the English, as tobacco and pipes had already existed in the ports for at least twenty years, but it was only really limited to ports. Walter Raleigh had already encountered this unique substance, whether in France, Ireland or even through Francis Drake. Yet, one of the Roanoke survivors offered it to him in a pipe, and it was a revelation. His silver-mounted clay pipe, pouch and all the smoking accessories became a further addition to his already extravagant way of presenting himself at court, arousing curiosity and emulation. Thus, this sparked off a new trend for pipes and tobacco that would shortly capture the hearts of the English.
Among those who returned from America were people with experience and qualities much esteemed by Raleigh, who succeeded in convincing them to settle on his property in Ireland. The land needed to be increased in value, by planting tobacco, for example. Tobacco seeds, together with the leaves and pipes had been brought back from America. Unfortunately, the nicotiana rustica variety was less pleasant than the nicotiana tabacum, which was in the hands of the Spanish. It is uncertain whether in this period of the sixteenth century tobacco plantations actually existed in Youghall, but it may have been likely: one only has to see how much tobacco was grown in South-East Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.
Despite the ill-fated expedition in America, in two years Walter Raleigh became increasingly successful. He held various administrative positions that granted him further power and wealth, appointed by a queen who thus intended to support him, as long as he went ahead with his missions. Besides, he was quite a skilled administrator. In April 1587 he was appointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard, a much more challenging position. Thus, his imperious manner finally suited his position, and being the Queen’s favourite enabled him to meet her frequently, thereby making him powerful, feared and envied.
Meanwhile, Sir Walter wasted no time in organising expeditions. Preparations for his third, most ambitious voyage to Virginia were almost ready. Over a few years he went from being a soldier, seadog, elegant courtier to being an entrepreneur. Moreover, by request of Elizabeth he no longer travelled overseas, and so delegated and organised the missions. His colonial ventures required ships, men, information, skills, materials, provisions, arms and many other items, but all this needed funding. He himself provided some of the funds, the Queen also financed the mission and the rest was provided by financiers and ship-owners, who needed convincing, however. This is why he had the right formula to justify the venture: after exhausting important issues on the opportunity of settling in America, which, however, would not raise immediate revenue, he went onto more practical questions, such as the percentage of precious cargo seized from raids on ships. Indeed, with such arguments sailors were persuaded to join the crew, as a successful raid would change their lives, payment for a harsh life on board the vessels. They were so keen on raiding the ships that even if the captain was reluctant to take the initiative, they would try to persuade him otherwise. However, attacking vessels was highly dangerous, for if the raid were unsuccessful, serious damage could be caused that jeopardised the whole venture. On May 8th, 1587, the third most complex, most challenging expedition set sail.
Then everyone’s attention turned to Spain and its imminent threat of attack. Walter Raleigh attended the war cabinet that met in November, twelve men in all. These were terrible, intense months in which Raleigh played a minor role. In August 1588 the great Spanish fleet, the Armada Invencibile, suffered a crushing defeat, thanks to Francis Drake, his men and the privateer ships.
Meanwhile, what was the fate of the hundred or so men, women and children who had set sail in May 1587 with great hopes and fears to seek their fortune in America? Even if well-managed, colonisation is still an intrusion. The men who had been brought back to England by Drake had personally experienced this. Hoping to gain profit and be respected had provoked the natives’ hostile reactions that compromised relations, which initially had seemed idyllic. However, the English desperately relied on the natives for this fragile settlement which was barely secure, short of provisions, with no means or time to become self-sufficient on the island. In order to avoid repeating the same mistake and find deeper water for the ships, it was decided to move the colony further north. However, before leaving, the garrison that had remained behind in Roanoke in 1586 had to be recovered. But the garrison had completely disappeared, and only one skeleton of a man was left. The decision was made by the captain of the flagship to land in Roanoke, rather than go north, thus delaying the transfer. Unfortunately, conditions in Roanoke declined again and following long discussions it was established that John White, in charge of the colony, would set sail for England and return with backup.
Having left on August 27th, 1587, White landed in Plymouth on November 5th. He immediately prepared to set sail again, but the war with Spain was looming and all the ships were needed to combat the enemy. Many attempts failed to organise a new expedition, and eventually with Raleigh’s help they succeeded in leaving on April 22nd, 1588, in two small vessels considered to be unsuitable for battle. However, the captains and crew were intent on plundering Spanish ships, and instead of sailing straight to America, they lingered on the French coast. Unfortunately, the Spanish managed to defend themselves extremely well, and the result was that twenty sailors were killed, provisions for the colony wasted and extensive damage to the ships was caused. Thus, the ships sadly turned back. John White, wounded in the conflict, had left behind his daughter and a granddaughter who had just been born over eight months earlier in Roanoke
It was only in the summer of 1590, when conflict with Spain had lessened, that White managed to organise a privateering exhibition to America with the aid of Raleigh. Their priority was still to raid Spanish ships, and this happened frequently. Before heading home, they finally sailed to Roanoke. On August 18th, after overcoming many setbacks, they managed to arrive on the island, but the colonists had vanished. No houses, objects, nor bodies were found, only a cryptic word carved into the palisade. This situation led the privateers to believe that the colonists had moved elsewhere, but the rough weather conditions prevented any search party from setting out. Even the Spanish, between 1587 and 1588, had actively sought the English colonists with negative results on the strength of rumours and clues that the settlement was permanent and thus a threat to the Spanish. Following the 1588 defeat, they no longer searched for them.
The question of the venture in Virginia was still open: Raleigh intended to continue, although with increasing difficulty. However, his personal life took him elsewhere. He had always been successful with ladies, but these were only affairs, typical of the life of a pirate. However, in his fortieth year he fell in love. Unfortunately, the Queen was extremely jealous of her maids-of-honour and Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton was one of these. Consent to marry needed to be obtained from the Queen, and they were sure that it would be denied. What could an enamoured, impatient pirate do who was also going to be a future father? They secretly got married in November 1591. The unsuspecting Queen continued to shower Sir Walter with gifts, honours, gratifications and positions.
The most challenging venture in January 1592 was to organise a pirate fleet against the Spanish and Portuguese, who were at that time joined under Philip II. Despite all the English achievements the war still had not ended in 1588. The pirate-entrepreneur set to work organising a fleet of sixteen ships from various provenances, two of which belonged to the Queen. On March 29th, his son Damerai was born, and on May 6th 1592 his fleet set sail. As an admiral, Raleigh was on board ship, but a missive from the Queen forced him to disembark. Initially, the destination was the American coast, but then the fleet went to the Azores and there a series of complex naval manoeuvres took place involving biding their time, changing position, engaging with the enemy, and capturing or destroying the ships. Then a carrack appeared on the horizon, an enormous cargo ship that had never before been seen. Coordinating their manoeuvres, the small and agile English vessels gradually wore down the Spanish defence until the English eventually seized the ships. On September 7th they triumphantly sailed into harbour with the Madre de Deus. Meanwhile, in England the inevitable occurred: on August 7th, having discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage, the Queen arrested the scoundrel together with the traitor and imprisoned them in the Tower of London.
The Madre de Deus was a 1450-ton Portuguese carrack, which had departed from Goa in India, not America. It was laden with jewellery, pearls, gold and silver coins, ambergris, bales of fine cloth, tapestries and rugs, a wide variety of spices, cochineal dye, ivory, raw silk, elephant tusks, Chinese porcelain, exotic animal hide and rare perfumes. Docked in Dartmouth harbour, the vessel towered above the other ships and houses.
Since the day the ship had been seized in the Azores, it had been plundered by captains and mariners alike. The vessel was barely guarded in Dartmouth harbour, in the hands of a few drunk mariners in the surrounding taverns. Rumours of the vessel instantly went round, even as far as away London, and soon people, viewing the enormous bounty, pilfered what they could. The Queen was informed and decided she needed Walter Raleigh, and so released him.
As can be imagined, Raleigh and his men acted decisively, and succeeded in recovering a large part of the spoils, but not all. Nevertheless, ten ships were needed to haul the booty to London and the people who unloaded the cargo were made to wear light clothes without pockets. Raleigh was granted his freedom, as was Bess, but were refused admission to court. In October of the same year, the plague hit London and their child, Damerai died.
No longer at the centre of court activity, Raleigh still did everything he could to return there, but avoided the most obvious decision, which was to humbly request the Queen’s pardon, together with his wife, Bess. He increased his circle of intellectuals and London artists, restructured his castle in Sherborne, Dorset, which the Queen had granted him before August 7th, and also looked after his various properties in Ireland.
As was his wont, Raleigh imprudently voiced his opinions in Parliament and elsewhere, even on sensitive issues such as religious matters and thus was accused of atheism. Another topic was the succession to the throne, not an immediate problem, but certainly of importance as the Queen got older. As she had no children or close relatives, the focus was on the more distant relatives, among whom the most suitable was King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Stuart. Sir Walter made no bones of his dislike for the King.
Meanwhile, Raleigh enjoyed life with his new son, Wat, born in 1593. He may have taken advantage of a relatively peaceful period to dedicate his time to weighing up his past. Who knows how many times he thought about the mistakes made in Virginia and whether his absence contributed to the disaster there? Mixing colonisation and piracy had rendered everything more difficult and dangerous and it is likely that those who had reduced his funds were aware of this. Shortly after, other English colonies would be established on the American coast, but this time backed by a more solid sponsor: the Virginia Company, two joint-stock companies protected by the State, modelled on the example of the East India Company.
Although arrogant and obstinate, Raleigh was also a practical man. He flanked major ventures with minor ones. In June 1586, when the Roanoke colony was still standing, he had sent two small ships owned by him to roam the seas in the Azores. This roaming bore fruit, some missions were successful, others a failure, in terms of the sighting of enemy ships and attacks. When both vessels safely docked back in Plymouth, they were welcomed triumphantly. The loot included sugar, wax, elephant tusks, hides, timber from Brazil and a Spanish gentleman. On April 26th embarking on the Nuestra Señora de Guía in Rio de Janeiro and then captured by the English, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was a navigator, explorer, astronomer, captain and poet, who had established two colonies in Patagonia, amongst other things. The latter were in critical condition, like the English colonies in Virginia, and thus had to seek help from Spain. Raleigh brought him to Windsor Castle instead, to meet the Queen and her most expert advisors. Being good humanists, they discussed in Latin. What was interesting were the maps of the Straits of Magellan and other documents, salvaged from the sea where they had been thrown in by Sarmiento. However, they were most astonished by the Spaniard’s account of the golden city, and of the numerous expeditions in search of it in the wild territories of Guyana. The last expedition had left sixteen years earlier in the Orinoco River Valley, but nobody had returned, except for just one person. Due to a series of events he had found himself hungry and alone in the jungle. The natives had rescued him and kept him with them for a long time. They had brought him blindfolded to the fabulous city and left him to marvel briefly at the enormous wealth, before blindfolding him again and taking him away. He then appeared amongst the Spanish and told them what he had seen. This was likely to be a legend, but Raleigh never forgot it.
Years after year he dwelled on this tale, doing as much research as possible on the subject. However, now that he had fallen from grace with the Queen, this was an ideal opportunity to win back her favour. Thus, in 1594 Captain Jacob Whiddon, one of Raleigh’s men, set sail for a preliminary survey on the Island of Trinidad, Spanish territory on the North-East coast of South America, and not far from the mouth of the Orinoco River. Unfortunately, they were caught, imprisoned and slaughtered. Whiddon just about managed to return. From his dramatic account it was deduced that some truth must lie somewhere in the fable. The Spanish obviously tolerated no competitors in the race to find El Dorado. With the Queen’s consent, Raleigh wasted no time and started laying plans.