INDY Week invited Christopher Armitage to play a little game of Stump the Professor regarding the life and legend of Sir Walter Raleigh. We were no match against this good-humored scholar, who is a Professor of Distinguished Teaching at the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 1987, Armitage published Sir Walter Ralegh: An Annotated Bibliography (UNC Press), which covers 400 years of writings by and about the storied explorer. Armitage’s forthcoming book is Literary and Visual Ralegh: Essays on the Writings and the Visual Images of Sir Walter Ralegh (Manchester University Press, 2013).
Q: Sir Walter Raleigh organized exploration of North Carolina’s Outer Banks but never actually set foot in the New World. If he arrived today in the city named in his honor in 1792, where might he feel most at home?
A: In the city abounding with references to him, Sir Walter would surely be struck that a locale was called Hayes Barton, because he was born in Hayes Barton, Devon. There, however, “Barton” meant “farm,” a term that doesn’t exactly fit that area in our city. If he were looking for accommodation today, he’d notice hotels which include his name, but I suspect the lure of luxury might lead him to the Umstead.
Q: It appears that Raleigh changed the spelling of his name late in life to Ralegh. What’s up with that?
A: ‘Til well into the 17th century, spelling, even of one’s name, could be varied at will. The biographer Willard Wallace lists 73 spellings of Ralegh’s name in European languages. But after he was knighted in 1585, Ralegh regularly spelled his name without an “i” in the middle.
Q: He was knighted two years before the disastrous settlement of Roanoke Island, where all colonists disappeared leaving only the word CROATOAN carved into a tree. What is the greatest misperception about his leadership?
A: Ralegh did not accompany any of the three colonizing expeditions that he dispatched to our coast, though he virtually bankrupted himself over them. The image of him stepping ashore on the Outer Banks is a recurrent fiction, one instance of which is the beautiful stained glass window in St. Margaret’s Church beside Westminster Abbey, a gift from The American Friends of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Q: Was Sir Walter really a lover of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I? Their romance in The Golden Age made for some steamy moments between actors Clive Owen and Cate Blanchett.
A: Despite Hollywood movies, the Virgin Queen probably was one. She was adept at keeping dangling the variety of English and foreign suitors who came a-courting, usually for political motives. Because she left no children, her death in 1603 meant the end of the Tudor monarchy.
Q: Raleigh seems to have been a stickler for refinement and propriety, having once said, “Better were it to be unborn than to be ill bred.” Pretty highfalutin for a fellow who ran off with one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, no?
A: Ralegh’s most egregious lapse of propriety was his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, who were expected to remain in that condition, especially when it was her condition. The couple was banished from court, thus obliging him to start from square one again in his climb to great place. He is said to have fathered a daughter in Irelandcertainly he provided for one in his will. Other anecdotes about his sexual activities, not suitable for repeating in a family newspaper, can be read in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives.
Q: Sir Walter was very keen on fashion. Did he have a personal tailor who kept him on trend, or was it possible to buy stylish clothes off the rack?
A: Portraits and statues of him always show him dressed in the height of fashion. This practice, along with his height and commanding presence, did much to create and maintain his reputation. His tailors are unrecorded.
Q: Did one of Raleigh’s servants really have the nerve to throw a bucket of water on him after mistaking billowing smoke from his tobacco-filled pipe with him being on fire? Is he rightly credited for popularizing tobacco use in England?
A: Tobacco had arrived in Europe long before this anecdote materialized. Whether Ralegh’s smoking (he is also said to have smoked a pipe a few hours before his execution) contributed to the rise in smoking would be hard to measure: There were no TV ads in his era.
Q: Raleigh’s account of his search for El Dorado has been described as exaggerated. He later wrote The History of the World while imprisoned. Would his credibility be an issue with publishers today?
A: The Discovery of Guiana (1596) is a clear piece of imperialist propaganda, in which the gold of El Dorado is continually alleged to be found around the next bend of the river Orinoco. The History of the World (1614), approximately a million words long but breaking off before the Christian era, was written while Ralegh was a prisoner in the Tower of London at the order of King James I. Ralegh hoped the book would teach James’ eldest son, Henry, how to become a good ruler, but he died at the age of 18two years before its publication, which King James tried to prevent.
Q: For all his fame and wealth, Raleigh was eventually beheaded in 1618. There is some debate about his final words. What were they, and what did he mean?
A: Ralegh gave a brilliant performance on the scaffold, making a fine speech, declining a blindfold and telling the hesitant executioner, “What do you fear? Strike, man.” Two blows were needed to chop his head off.
Q: If Sir Walter had a Twitter account, how would he describe the city that bears his name?
A: O fairest land, rich in soil, water & basketball, since 1773 no Tea Party’s worth a fig; lay thy textile cloak at the foot of Elizabeth II.
This article appeared in print with the headline “The namesake.”