RALEGH, Sir WALTER (1554-1618, poet, writer, explorer and courtier)
THIS IS ONE OF ONLY TWO AUTOGRAPH LETTERS SIGNED BY RALEGH THAT ARE EVER LIKELY TO COME ON THE MARKET; the other, no. 27, has been lost to sight since it was sold in 1975. Agnes Latham and Joyce Youings, The Letters of Sir Walter Ralegh, 1999, print the texts of 228 letters by Ralegh in all (including transcripts, contemporary and later, facsimiles and letters signed), of which only 134 are autograph letters signed (a number of them damaged and worn). Of these autograph letters signed, only the present letter, no. 59, and no. 27 are in private hands; all the others are either in institutional or long-established noble collections, mainly the Cecil Papers at Hatfield, the Public Record Office, the British Library and the Bodleian Library.
This is the only letter by Ralegh to Bess of Hardwick recorded by Latham and Youings, who describe it as being written 'in Ralegh's neatest hand'. The only two autograph letters signed that have been on the market in thirty-five years and more have been the present one and no. 27. It should be noted that the transcript of this letter given by Latham and Youings is riddled with errors of detail.
'Right excelent Ladye, if I had not hoped longe or this to have bynn restored to that poure [i.e. power] of fortune, as I might therby rather have shewed good effects of my desire to honor and serve yow, then have [con]sorted with thos yt only make payment with cerremony and p[ro]testations I had not so longe foresloed [i.e. delayed] your Ladeshippes attendance, or left my sealf for so many dayes under ye judgment of ingratetudes for the disposition w[hic]h I have ever norished to p[er]fome sumewhat the better to valew my sealfe in your favorable oppinion, beinge as yet Left poureless [i.e. powerless] ether through myne own ill desteny, or the strength of cou[n]terworkinge, hath also withelde mee from thos whom I have most honored, & p[er]swaded mee rather to acc[om]panye myne own disgrace then agayne and ever more to present butt the withered le[a]ves of an unp[ro]sperus and blasted fortune, other fault or forgettfullness I humble beseech yow to excuse, and yt yow wilbe pleased to beleve that as your virtue and excelent spirritt have bynn the adamants [i.e. strengths] w[hi]ch have drawne mee to honor and reverence the same, so did I never admire any of thos the more whom the tyme had bewtefied and declared for happye, or ever p[re]ferred yt polletike care of sealf estate as in respect therof to relinquishe any dewtye or indevor yt might wittness my uttermost thanckfullness and zelous affection, esteeming the contrary only to p[ro]ceed from a cowardly forgettfullness or forep[ro]ved fryndlines, and fo[r]gonn honorable regardes. butt havinge now right honerable Ladye so longe deferred the p[er]formance of my dewtye, lookinge each day after other to have founde mean[s] therby to have made ye better offer of my service I am driven first to entreat your favorable consaite [i.e. esteem] by thes messengers/ beinge ever as reddye to be disposed and as farr cu[m]manded as any in whom yow have most interest or greatest pour [i.e. power] over. Your Ladeshipps to be cu[m]manded, W Ralegh.'
Ralegh's disgrace followed the Queen's displeasure at his secret marriage in 1591 to Elizabeth ('Bess') Throckmorton (1565-c.1647), one of her Maids of Honour, which was kept from Elizabeth until the summer of 1592. On its discovery, Ralegh was initially placed in the charge of Robert Cecil, and his wife in the charge of Sir Thomas Heneage, before both were removed to the Tower on 7 August. Ralegh was released after five weeks on the business of saving the spoils of the Madre de Dios for the Crown, but remained banned from the Court until 1597. He attended Parliament in 1593 and left for Guiana in 1593. His wife Bess languished in the Tower until 22 December 1592.
Elizabeth Talbot, called Bess of Hardwick (?1527-1608), Countess of Shrewsbury, who survived four very wealthy husbands, died at over eighty years of age, one of the richest people in England. For sixteen years, with her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, she was the custodian of Mary Queen of Scots. She later built Hardwick Hall. She is said to have been a friend of Ralegh (which is testified to in the present letter) and of his wife. In 1603 Ralegh was implicated in the Main Plot which was said to have had as its aim the replacement of James I on the throne by Arabella Stuart, Bess of Hardwick's granddaughter and protégé. She had a house close to that of Arthur Throckmorton's in Mile End, from which Ralegh wrote the present letter.
Sir Walter Ralegh was the quintessential Elizabethan and Renaissance man: a man of action as well as a man of the intellect. He was the brightest jewel in the most brilliant age of English History. He excelled as a writer, both as a poet and prose writer, as a soldier and a 'sea-faring man', as a businessman, administrator, courtier, free-thinker, patron of the Arts and Sciences, and as a chemist. More than anyone else he was responsible for the English colonisation of America.
If his genius flowed more perhaps from his dazzling individuality than the sort of god-given talent of Shakespeare, Leonardo or Mozart, we nonetheless recognise him to have been a great man because of the quality and range of his achievement - and his interest for us is heightened by our inability to penetrate entirely his essential mystery; it seems that 'the fox', as he was sometimes called, continues to elude his captors.
He appears to have been a man who expected automatic advancement (including to the peerage) because of his accomplishments, but was often disappointed through his own lack of political guile, coupled with an unerring ability to provoke the jealousy of others. He became Elizabeth I's confidant and Captain of her Guard, but never attained political office, nor fulfilled his desire to be a Privy Councillor; he also consistently failed to overcome the prejudice fostered against him in James I's mind by his political enemies. His arrogance was legendary, typified perhaps by his refusal - and it was noted - to modulate his broad Devon accent in favour of a more courtly style. In his million-word History of the World, the second half of which he is reputed to have thrown in the fire, Ralegh revealed himself as a master of English prose, as encapsulated in the final lines: 'O eloquent, just and mighty Death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded. What none hath dared, thou hast done. And whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised. Thou hast drawn together all the far stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty and ambitions of man and covered it all over with these two narrow words Hic jacet.'
PROVENANCE: Bess of Hardwick; Richard Frank (1698-1762, antiquary); Bacon-Frank papers at Campsall Hall, Yorkshire, HMC, 6th Report, p. 456; sold at Sotheby's, London, on 14 August 1942, Lot 15; owned by Harry J. Sonneborn, President of the McDonald's Hamburger empire; his sale at Parke-Bernet, New York, June 1974, Lot 483; Boston University.