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Of Raleigh And The First Plantation
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
In 1587 Raleigh sent out his second colony—actually it was the fourth voyage he had set forth—under John White. This had a somewhat different plan: it was not intended to supersede Roanoke but to supplement it with a settlement on the Chesapeake, and Raleigh gave White, as governor with twelve assistants, a charter to found the city of Raleigh in Virginia—a measure of self-government. Raleigh’s directions were never carried out, for the sailors refused to carry the colonists to the Chesapeake and insisted on landing them on Roanoke. The colonists insisted on John White returning for further supplies, and that was the last that was ever heard of them. Some think that they perished on their way through the forest to the Chesapeake, and that is likely enough: in their fate forerunners to how many countless pioneers who perished in the American wilderness.
In the spring of 1588, Raleigh sent out a couple of small pinnaces, which never got across the Atlantic in the disturbed conditions of that memorable summer. At Bideford, Grenville was fitting out his strongest expedition yet, three tall ships and four barques. But with the Armada on the way he was not allowed to go: his Virginia voyage countermanded, he was ordered to take his ships around to Plymouth and serve under Drake. In 1589, everything in the West Country went into the big Lisbon expedition under Drake and Norris, which was England’s riposte to the Armada.
These years were full of work and activity for Raleigh and Grenville. As Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, Raleigh was responsible for the land defenses of the county most exposed to invasion. He was kept busy in the west, at court, and in Ireland. In 1591 Grenville was killed in the last fight of the Revenge, celebrated by Raleigh in unforgettable prose. The next year, with tension relaxed, Raleigh fell into utter disgrace with the Queen. Everything that he had so far been able to do was due to his favor with her: he had no independent position or footing, he was not a peer of the realm with estates and a feudal dependence, he had no fortune of his own. It all depended on his position with the Queen.
A man like Raleigh had a difficult razor-edge to walk. The Queen liked very masculine types—though they also had to be intelligent. The language in which this maiden lady delighted was the language of love: a difficult situation for these high-spirited, highly sexed men, supposed to be in love with her, though of course it was a platonic relationship, always at a certain distance. Nothing more exacting than to be admitted to so privileged an intimacy and at the same time to keep your distance and your head. For their vestal virgin who presided over it all was a jealous deity: they could have neither the Queen nor anybody else. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, particularly the hot flesh and blood of these Elizabethan courtiers. One after the other lost his balance, toppled over, and fetched up for a spell in the Tower.
Raleigh was pretty free with women; at last he fell seriously in love with one and was caught; another Elizabeth, a Throckmorton and—what made it worse—a maid of honor to the Queen. It became evident, I think, that Raleigh had, in the technical sense, behaved badly: he compromised her, or they compromised each other. To the Queen, for psychological reasons that one can understand though perhaps not wholly sympathize with, the offense was unpardonable—after such protestations of love, a passion on an altogether higher plane, for her. Raleigh made it worse by denying that he had any intention of marrying the lady. The Queen clapped them both in the Tower and had them ignominiously married, no one knows when or how. She never admitted Lady Raleigh to her presence again; for her, poor lady, it was a prelude to a lifetime of trouble. I hope that Raleigh’s fine phrase when condemned to death by James—“I chose you, and I loved you, in my happiest times”—made up a little for it with her. They seem to have remained always in love; perhaps it was just as well, though Raleigh may have had some doubts when, for the next five years, the Queen kept him away from court and all influence, in the prime of his powers.
In the last years of the Queen’s reign Raleigh came back to his place at court, though things were never quite the same between them again. In 1600 he was made governor of Jersey, and local tradition there credits him with beginning the trade between the Channel Islands and Newfoundland. Raleigh was preparing to renew his contacts when James came to the throne, and Raleigh not long after was condemned for treason. He spent practically the rest of his life in the Tower; not a very good base from which to conduct colonial enterprises. However, he maintained his interest and his belief in the future of Virginia. “I shall yet live to see it an English nation,” he wrote grandly from imprisonment.