Interview: What Not to Say to Sir Walter Raleigh

Richmond Palace (Liz Callan Photography)

We got the call late… far too late to do any proper research. With just a few  hours grace to get to the venue and meet one of the most famous explorers the world has ever seen, we were a bit daunted to say the least.

As we charged out of the tube station a slim ray of sunshine peered out jauntily from behind the Orange Tree Theatre. The White Swan pub was only a few minutes away and we are already late for our appointment to meet Sir Walter Raleigh.

Kathryn: After having a crack at those books, I can safely say I still know absolutely nothing about Sir Walter Raleigh. This is going to be the worst interview ever conducted in the history of bad interviews.

Nick: Maybe you read the wrong books? You should have just watched Blackadder instead. I can’t wait to ask him if he ever had to drink his own urine.

Kathryn: So you think we should go with piss-drinking urban legends then?

Nick: And the cloak thing…

Kathryn: Wasn’t that an urban legend too?

Nick: I told you, my research consisted of watching a Blackadder episode. It won’t hurt to ask him. What have you got?

Kathryn: I’ve been reading about whether the Queen’s favourite, Dudley, murdered his wife… just to get a flavour for the period.

Nick: And?

Kathryn: I should have re-watched Blackadder. Perhaps they weren’t too far wide of the mark?

The 230-year-old pub, where we’re set to meet Sir Walter, is not far from the remains of Richmond Palace. The now ruined palace was once a favourite haunt of Elizabeth I and a suggested location for Sir Walter’s act of cloak-puddle gallantry…  giving him home-court advantage and hopefully putting him at ease from our ill-researched series of questions.

Outside the door of the White Swan, we pause for a moment to regroup ourselves, then with a collective sigh, step inside. We recognise Sir Walter Raleigh immediately. He is the wizened spectre with pointy beard and drooping ruff, propping up the bar and nursing a pint of Otter Ale.

“Good morrow,” he calls – obviously identifying us too – and raises his glass as we make our uncertain approach.

Kathryn (fiddling with hair nervously): Hello.

Nick (sounding slightly more Northern than usual): What-oh?

Sir Walter: So-so, although the prices here would shame the devil!

Raleigh, fully at his ease, launches into a bitter a tirade about today’s inflated beer prices and we feel we could be talking to any old gent in a Richmond pub.

In a bid to deflect him, and get the conversation going properly, we buy a round and begin our questioning.

Kathryn: Didn’t that business with the cloak happen somewhere round here, in Richmond?

Sir Walter (clearly peeved): Verily, that cloak scene ne’er took place!

Okay, we were prepared for the denial, but not the rancour that accompanied it.

Sir Walter: I am an esteemed man; one of the most renowned figures of Elizabethan England. I was patron of Edmund Spencer [author of the Fairae Queen, a homage to Elizabeth I] and a favourite at the Queen’s court…

As Sir Walter continues to lament it becomes apparent that he is angry on two accounts: firstly his poor treatment at the hands of Queen Elizabeth; secondly, that despite a lifetime of achievement he is mostly remembered for his cloak. The two seem to have melded together in his mind to form a 395-year seethe.

Sir Walter: Fie! That wench was a vile canker-blossom’d creature. Bess – that good Queen – denounced me for I wed her maid! Overnight she became a jealous beast with rage possessed and threw us both into the tower of London.

We should have seen the signs and steered the conversation with more force, after all, perhaps it’s no little wonder that Sir Walter Raleigh is a tad embittered? In his time he was preposterously well known and has even been credited with bringing the first potatoes and tobacco back to England. Although, when we try this line of questioning he modestly – and curtly – admits to neither, before resuming his cloak theme.

Sir Walter (with a grimace): I did make smoking popular to court. And I  founded Virginia [named after Elizabeth, the Virgin queen]… but my grandest accomplishments were as a soldier, a captain, writer, poet and historian. When I was locked in the tower [1603 -1616] I made it my work to document ‘The History of the Entire World‘. I should not be remembered for a cloak I ne’er owned; a cloak I ne’er threw to the ground – for a wench who did not merit such respect!

The rant continues… and continues… and continues. It is hard to know how to respond to all this, so we mostly listen. All our questions are briskly dismissed in favour of further cloak rants. This truly is the worst interview in the history of bad interviews. Here we have the opportunity to delve 400 years back in time, to ask important questions, to hear the ghosts of the past speak… and all we’re coming back with is a cloak rant.

Okay, so Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak is the thing that seems to have stuck in people’s minds… but doesn’t this happen a fair bit throughout history though? Picture Louis XIV and all you can see is a massive wig; how many people can name something he actually did? Henry VIII, bit of Reformation, knocked a few of his six wives off… but is the first thing that comes to mind for most a velvet be-ruffed fat-man suit?  Even whole movements get associated more with their garbs then their ideals, like the romantics and the punks… or the psychedelia of the peace movement.

Walking back across a damp Richmond Green, towards the tube station, we discuss the irony of it all. In many ways Sir Walter Raleigh was a pretty useful bloke: he travelled the world, founded colonies, patronised the arts and wrote extensively. But much of his writing and achievements are long forgotten, today he is mainly remembered for a decidedly ‘Valentine’s act’ involving his cloak.

Now in a world of mass media, prolific photo journalism and large scale exhibitionism, there are multitudinous items of iconic clothing dotted about in popular culture. Like Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress or Michael Jackson’s glove. Just as Sir Walter Raleigh was famous in his own day, how many people will remember Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ in 500 years time? Will they be able to name his songs… or only have  vague knowledge of him as a 20th Century icon and oddball? What will the over-riding image of him be? A moonwalk? A glove? Certain rumours?

Passing down Duke Street on the way to the Quadrant we decide to pop into The Duke for a quick pint as this is one of the few pubs in west London which still serves Leffe (Nick’s favourite). Sitting down on the sofa near the doorway we continue our chat:

Nick: I can totally see his point… long as it was. How would Lincoln feel about being remembered as that guy in the stovepipe hat, as opposed to the guy who came out with the Emancipation Proclamation?

Kathryn: I’m sure his writing must have been better than an Emancipation Proclamation.

Nick: Yes, but it isn’t remembered like Shakespeare.

Kathryn: True, most people can both picture Shakespeare and quote him too. None of Wally’s stuff created a lasting impression on popular culture.

Nick: And if Shakespeare didn’t churn out social commentary that’s still relevant today, he’d be remembered as that bloke with the ruff who wrote a few plays?

Kathryn: Oh god, it’s depressing that Noel Coward, who only died 30 years ago, is probably more associated with a silk dressing gown and an extra-long cigarette holder than for the plot of ‘Private Lives’ or lyrics to ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.

Nick: Well, he did wear that get-up in The Italian Job… and I guess that’s how most people picture him.

Using this rationale it appears that fashion is held up as the prime example of ephemera. Models like Kate Moss and singers like Madonna are world famous for typifying a look then moving on to typify another one. But whilst these individuals might be serial clothes horses galloping on the winds of fashion; they themselves are rapidly defined by one look or garment.  Will Madonna’s  music survive or will her cone bra?

And does this actually mean that all historical ne’er-do-wells, like Raleigh, get remembered for all the wrong reasons… like a cross-century game of Chinese whispers? Does this mean that unless you lay down an example of pure unadulterated genius – that manages to somehow stay relevant – you’re getting passed down through history based on your appearance? And you’ll be lucky to get that. The (presumably many) men responsible for actually sticking puddle-suckers down for Queen’s and gentry over the years didn’t even get a look in.

Standing on Richmond station platform waiting for the district line to chug in, our minds return again to Sir Walter Raleigh himself. As we waved goodbye from the doorway of the White Swan he had clearly already forgotten us. And sitting in the rear corner seat looking cross and dishevelled, he was already muttering under his breath… and presumably denouncing any involvement with that “damned cape”!

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