How does a fiction writer tackle the well-known myths attached to historical figures? Especially when the protagonist was an expert in self-promotion, and the other person involved was Gloriana herself, Queen Elizabeth of England? Author RN Morris found an ingenious answer, as he tells Historia.
The one thing everyone knows about Walter Raleigh is that he spread his cloak across a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could walk across it without getting her feet wet.
Of course, when you look into it, you realise that it’s by no means certain that Raleigh did in fact drop his cloak for Her Majesty, despite the fairly persuasive evidence provided by the illustration on the cover of the Ladybird book of Sir Walter Raleigh.
It’s a compelling image. Walter Raleigh is shown as the perfect example of chivalry, sacrificing a perfectly good article of clothing for his sovereign’s comfort. It’s also, for someone who is writing a novel about Walter Raleigh, an annoyingly dominating image.
Unless you can offer a new spin on the old tale, there’s a danger that your narrative will become bound by this and similar apocryphal stories (and there are plenty of them in Raleigh’s life). Whether the incident ever happened doesn’t matter. It exists as an idea – what’s more, as an idea that has attained the status of a myth.
Like it or not, I had to find some way to deal with it in my story.
The key words here are: my and story. The Walter Raleigh of Fortune’s Hand is my Walter Raleigh. Fortune’s Hand is a work of fiction, a story, not an academic treatise. In my novel, the historical figure of Walter Raleigh has to become a fictional character.
As the writer, I have to be in control of the story. The problem was, I soon got the sense that someone else was trying to wrest control of it from my hands. That someone, of course, is Walter Raleigh.
Amongst other things, Raleigh was a poet. But he was a poet who did not confine himself to merely writing poems. He turned his life into a poem, a glorious, and at times violent, epic poem ambitiously conceived and executed with elan.
More than a self-made man, he is the epitome of the self-declared man.
Much of his life was spent canvassing backers so that he could launch incredibly speculative ventures across the ocean. What these backers were investing in was the myth of Raleigh.
In a phrase from current political discourse, he was creating a narrative. He was obviously very good at it, because there was never any shortage of men willing to put either their fortunes or their lives at risk in pursuit of his dreams, while Raleigh, more often than not, stayed at home. (At odds with his mythology, Raleigh was an indifferent sailor. He suffered terribly from seasickness. Naturally that went in the novel.)
In one scene that didn’t make it into the final edit of the book, a young Raleigh discusses with his half-brothers Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Adrian Gilbert what his motto should be as he launches his career. The courtier’s motto was a very important accessory. It was intended to define the man and serve as a manifesto for his future.
I have the characters discussing various options, much like a marketing department brainstorming advertising slogans. At first, Raleigh considers adopting a typical courtier’s motto, “Neither will I seek death, nor flee the end.” It’s a fairly middle of the road sentiment balancing prudence with courage. It answers the brief, but is rather dull. Eventually, he settles on the much more pithy and provocative “Why not?” It’s full of swagger, but there’s also a sly, knowing wink that undercuts the bravado.
In a similar vein to coining mottos was the naming of ships. The ship that Raleigh commissioned from Phineas Pett (motto: Fast ships, Quickly Built) for his ill-fated final voyage was Destiny.
Without doubt there was more than a hint of bitter irony in the choice of name. This was his final throw of the dice, his last desperate attempt to fulfil his destiny. It was almost as if he was trying to use words to shape the future, to command it even. It is perhaps fitting that the voyage itself was in pursuit of a myth. Raleigh was looking for the rumoured city of El Dorado, so perhaps he was as much a victim of myth-making as the master of it?
There is evidence, however, that Raleigh didn’t necessarily believe in El Dorado, or rather it didn’t matter to him whether it was real. (Raleigh’s relationship to the truth strikes me at times as similar to Donald Trump’s.) It was the idea of the city’s existence that was important.
That was what would draw the backers and guarantee the support of his sovereign, now the hostile James VI and I. For Raleigh, it didn’t matter whether he found the fabled city, or attacked Spanish gold mines, or raided Spanish treasure galleons (the latter two expressly forbidden by James). Each of these was a kind of El Dorado, in that they were equally the source of fabulous wealth.
And so to return to the incident of the cloak. If it happened at all, I suspect it was not a spontaneous act of chivalry, but a premeditated act of political theatre, an advertisement of Raleigh’s ability to take his sovereign safely across the somewhat bigger puddle of the Atlantic Ocean to America.
So, did I put it in the novel? Very obliquely. I have Raleigh commission a tailor to make him a marvellous suit of clothes, complete with cloak, from a bolt of turquoise damask.
Later, wearing his splendid new suit, he is finally introduced to his queen. He is caught admiring the richness of Elizabeth’s dress, which is decorated with birds and butterflies flying between vines. He wittily interprets the symbolism of her gown – clothes are never without significance in the Elizabethan court – seeing in her dress the future destiny of the nation. She is clothed in Terra Incognita.
Invited to offer a similar interpretation of his own clothes, he lifts his arms and spreads his turquoise cloak and says: “I am the Ocean. I am your passage to the future, Majesty, the means by which all our destinies will be met.”
What I was trying to get at here was that Raleigh was creating not just his own myth, but England’s myth too. Today, that myth is being challenged and contested. We no longer uncritically celebrate the rampant predations of men like Raleigh.
In my own book, while exploring the forces that drove Raleigh, I am naturally conscious of the problematic aspect of his conduct and the policy it fulfils. Which is why it was important to me to confront and critique Raleigh’s myths, rather than simply recount them.
Fortune’s Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by RN Morris is published on 12 September, 2020.
Sir Walter Ralegh by the ‘H’ monogrammist, 1588: via Wikimedia
The Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c1592: via Wikimedia
Sir Walter Raleigh (attrib William Segar), 1598: via Wikimedia
Map of Guyana by Jodocus Hondius, 1598: via Wikimedia
Raleigh and the cloak, illustration from An Island Story; a child’s history of England by HE Marshall (1906): Internet Archive via Flickr