Friday, April 19, 2013

Perfidious Albion

Last June, Queen Elizabeth the Second, fresh (if that is the word for an 87-year-old woman) from the soggy festivities of her Diamond Jubilee, shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a member of Northern Ireland's parliament, and former commander of the IRA. I'm fairly certain that it wasn't the Queen's idea. I think she would've been more pleased if McGuinness were confined to the Tower of London, awaiting her majesty's pleasure, as so many men and women had done during the reign of the Queen's namesake, Elizabeth the First.

Reading recently from an introductory note to his book, The Discovery of Guiana, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was one such victim of the Virgin Queen's perfidy, made me wonder why Old Bess is still regarded as an "enlightened" monarch. She could, in fact, be terrifyingly fickle in her favors, even if her quite justified paranoia often resulted in the imprisonment and death of numerous friends as well as enemies.

Raleigh, for example, was as loyal and creditable a courtier as Elizabeth could have asked for. The introduction, lays out the panoply of his life in broad strokes:

"He first saw military service in the Huguenot army in France in 1569, and in 1578 engaged, with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the first of his expeditions against the Spaniards. After some service in Ireland, he attracted the attention of the Queen, and rapidly rose to the perilous position of her chief favorite. With her approval, he fitted out two expeditions for the colonization of Virginia, neither of which did his royal mistress permit him to lead in person, and neither of which succeeded in establishing a permanent settlement.

After about six years of high favor, Raleigh found his position at court endangered by the rivalry of Essex, and in 1592, on returning from convoying a squadron he had fitted out against the Spanish, he was thrown into the Tower by the orders of the Queen, who had discovered an intrigue between him and one of her ladies whom he subsequently married. He was ultimately released, engaged in various naval exploits, and in
1594 sailed for South America on the voyage described in [The Discovery of Guiana].

On the death of Elizabeth, Raleigh's misfortunes increased. He was accused of treason against James I, condemned, reprieved, and imprisoned for twelve years, during which he wrote his "History of the World," and engaged in scientific researches. In 1616 he was liberated, to make another attempt to find the gold mine in Venezuela; but the expedition was disastrous, and, on his return, Raleigh was executed on the old charge in 1618."

There are two books, a part of V.S. Naipaul's splendid novel, A Way in the World, and Charles Nicholl's The Creature in the Map, that dwell on that last disastrous expedition of Raleigh's up the Orinoco River. They provide a vivid picture of the sad remains of all Raleigh's fortunes. Raleigh had passed on Spanish stories of the City of Gold, El Dorado. His claims that he had found it, and that he could exploit its riches for the glory of England, were what undid him. Raleigh himself, in the opening passage of The Discovery of Guiana, provides a deeply melancholy commentary on the downturn of his luck. Addressing his benefactors, Lord Charles Howard and Sir Robert Cecil:

"For your Honours' many honourable and friendly parts, I have hitherto only returned promises; and now, for answer of both your adventures, I have sent you a bundle of papers, which I have divided between your Lordship and Sir Robert Cecil, in these two respects chiefly; first, for that it is reason that wasteful factors, when they have consumed such stocks as they had in trust, do yield some colour for the same in their account; secondly, for that I am assured that whatsoever shall be done, or written, by me, shall need a double protection and defence. The trial that I had of both your loves, when I was left of all, but of malice and revenge, makes me still presume that you will be pleased (knowing what little power I had to perform aught, and the great advantage of forewarned enemies) to answer that out of knowledge, which others shall but object out of malice. In my more happy times as I did especially honour you both, so I found that your loves sought me out in the darkest shadow of adversity, and the same affection which accompanied my better fortune soared not away from me in my many miseries; all which though I cannot requite, yet I shall ever acknowledge; and the great debt which I have no power to pay, I can do no more for a time but confess to be due. It is true that as my errors were great, so they have yielded very grievous effects; and if aught might have been deserved in former times, to have counterpoised any part of offences, the fruit thereof, as it seemeth, was long before fallen from the tree, and the dead stock only remained. I did therefore, even in the winter of my life, undertake these travails, fitter for bodies less blasted with misfortunes, for men
of greater ability, and for minds of better encouragement, that thereby, if it were possible, I might recover but the moderation of excess, and the least taste of the greatest plenty formerly possessed. If I had known other way to win, if I had imagined how greater adventures might have regained, if I could conceive what farther means I might yet use but even to appease so powerful displeasure, I would not doubt but for one year more to hold fast my soul in my teeth till it were performed. Of that little remain I had, I have wasted in effect all herein. I have undergone many constructions; I have been accompanied with many sorrows, with labour, hunger, heat, sickness, and peril; it appeareth, notwithstanding, that I made no other bravado of going to the sea, than was meant, and that I was never hidden in Cornwall, or elsewhere, as was supposed. They have grossly belied me that forejudged that I would rather become a servant to the Spanish king than return; and the rest were much mistaken, who would have persuaded that I was too easeful and sensual to undertake a journey of so great travail. But if what I have done receive the gracious construction of a painful pilgrimage, and purchase the least remission, I shall think all too little, and that there were wanting to the rest many miseries. But if both the times past, the present, and what may be in the future, do all by one grain of gall continue in eternal distaste, I do not then know whether I should bewail myself, either for my too much travail and expense, or condemn myself for doing less than that which can deserve nothing. From myself I have deserved no thanks, for I am returned a beggar, and withered; but that I might have bettered my poor estate, it shall appear from the following discourse, if I had not only respected her Majesty's future honour and riches."

Raleigh's great mistake was, according to Charles Kingsley, that "he tries to be too many men at once." George Orwell caught something of the temper of the man when he wrote of one episode of his longest stay in the Tower:

"When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent enquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about: whereupon, so it is said - and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be - he burned what he had written and abandoned his project."("As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944)

[In his biography of Raleigh (he spells the name Ralegh), William Stebbing discounted the veracity of this account, calling it "insolently mythical": 

"John Pinkerton, writing under the name of Robert Heron, Esq., in 1785, in his eccentric Letters on Literature, is its source. According to him, Ralegh, who had just completed the manuscript of a second volume, looking from his window into a court-yard, saw a man strike an officer near a raised stone. The officer drew his sword, and ran his assailant through. The man, as he fell, knocked the officer down, and died. His corpse and the stunned officer were carried off. Next day Ralegh mentioned the affray to a visitor of known probity and honour. His acquaintance informed him he was entirely in error. The seeming officer, he said, a servant of the Spanish Ambassador, struck the first blow. The other snatched out the servant's sword, and with it slew him. A bystander wrested away the sword, and a foreigner in the crowd struck down the murderer, while other foreigners bore off their comrade's body. The narrator, to Ralegh's assurances that he could not be mistaken, since he had witnessed the whole affair as it happened round the stone, replied that neither could he be, for he was the bystander, and on that very stone he hd been standing. He showed Ralegh a scratch on the cheek he had received in pulling away the sword. Ralegh did not persist in his version. As soon as his friend was gone, he cast his manuscript into the fire. If he could not properly estimate an event under his own eyes, he despaired of appreciating human acts done thousands of years before he was born. 'Truth!' he cried, 'I sacrifice to thee.'" Stebbing mentions that Pinkerton's account "led astray both Guizot and Carlyle. Carlyle talks of 'the old story, still a true lesson for us.'" I think Stebbing is being disingenuous. Orwell, and perhaps Carlyle, probably discounted the story's veracity, while finding enough truth in it to inspire them to pass it on.

Orwell believed that Raleigh was probably wrong in abandoning his history of the world since, at the time he was writing, the modern habit of discounting the existence of objective truth had not appeared. It was still possible in Raleigh's time to produce "a world history which had some resemblance to the real course of events." By Orwell's time, "in no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners."]

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