The Last Kingdom: Fun but Silly


I enjoyed reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, all in all. Although I fancied the series, I hadn’t been intending on reading the book until Amazon offered it to me for free. It follows the Danish conquest of England, kingdom by kingdom, until it finally falters in the Wessex of Alfred the Great, following the main events with brio and with a great measure of historical accuracy (and Cornwell is decent enough in his afterword to explain where and why he deviated from the historical record slightly). Being a native of the North East, I was pleased to see the action develop from the old Northumbrian stronghold of Bebbanburgh/Bamburgh, with Gyrruum/Jarrow and Dunholm/Durham also featuring in the action. The period detail is convincing, with the description of a filthy Dark ages Lundene/London, infested with Kites, and half made up of crumbling Roman ruins, being quite thrilling. And all that war, and Viking marauding is quite fun too, if you don’t take it too seriously.

The more I read, the more the impression formed that Cornwell preferred the Danes to the English, which, for a series about the defence and (eventual) triumph of the English, is a bit odd. The protagonist, Utred, is fostered by a Danish lord after his father is slain at the siege of York, and he spends as much of the novel fighting for the Danish conquerors as for the English. This allows us to see the conquest from the point of view of both the Danish conquerors and their English enemies. And the Danes though brutal and often murderous, are drawn much more sympathetically than the English. They are stronger, more resourceful, better seafarers, better warriors and better builders than their English hosts. That makes sense, I suppose – after all, they did conquer a great deal of England, and it is only natural that a motivated warrior people fight better than a settled population of farmers and priests. But the Danes aren’t just better at war – often they are better people, more straightforward, more honest and more resolute than the dissembling, craven, priest-ridden English.

Sure, the Danes are shown to be murderous and greedy – but the narrator is not particularly disapproving of these traits, and while we see a lot of pillaging and marauding, the raping side of the whole pillaging business is kept in the background. When a vile deed is perpetrated by a Dane, they oft seem to be justified, either by their own warrior code, or because their victims deserved it: Utred’s foster father murders a village elder on the spot for lying about where treasure is hid, while he lets those who tell the truth live, and admires those, like Utred, who defy him; when a nunnery on the north bank of the Tyne is pillaged and its nuns raped (the likes of which which probably happened), it is said this is revenge for the monks of Jarrow molesting the women of a Viking settlement down river (which probably didn’t happen).

This last event is all of a part with a seam of anti-clericalism that runs through the book. Priests are lisping, giggly, pedantic and, needless to say, cowardly. In Cornwell’s world it seems that Christianity had weakened the fibre of the English spirit, because he very much likes the pagan Danes better. The East Anglian King Edmund, for example, is shown not as a martyr for Christianity in England, as the church teaches, but the victim of his own vainglorious boasting about miracles, an episode told not without relish. Alfred himself always has his clerics in tow, and his guilt at having sinned through adultery is mocked by the narrator. When a young East Anglian girl joins the Danish retinue, and becomes Utred’s companian and lover, she tells a story of how the local prelate molested her, and she is glad to hear of his death. Of course, it is possible – even likely – that there were such instances of clerical abuse back then – as some instances abuse of the vulnerable by those who care for them has no doubt happened in every palce and era, sadly, – but rape by a marauding Viking must have been a much bigger threat in East Anglia in that period. Cornwell ‘s animus against Christianity is focused through these somewhat anachronistic figures – paedophile priests from recent church scandals and giggly, hypocritical monks a la the late middle ages – but for his protagonist Utred, the complaint against the church is that at every turn they want to restrain his freedoms, stick him behind a desk to study when he wants to be out fighting and sleeping around – it is a curiously modern, post-sexual revolution form of anti-clericalism.

Utred likes the Dane’s approach to religion. They have no organised worship, and simply pray to their Gods Odin and Thor on the eve of battle. Some of the more sympathetically drawn English characters share the old faith of the Danes, though showing outward loyalty to the Christian faith. One is the blacksmith he grew up with in the Castle of Bamburgh. It is well known that the Christian faith had not penetrated every corner of England by the Viking invasions, especially in the case of out of the way areas, such as Matlock, in which Utred meets a pagan family at one point (though I wonder if such areas may still have been semi-Celtic back then); but it stretches credulity that the heirs of Saint Oswald, at the Capital of England’s most Christian Kingdom, a short row away from its most impressive monastic community would have among them adherents of Wotan and Thor.

When the English do win a victory, Cornwell has it so that they owe this victory to lessons learned from the Danes. In the decisive battle of the book, the English pull off a shock victory – not through the wisdom of their leaders, who have led them into an ill-advised siege on a barren hill, but through the ingenuity of the Danicised Utred and his daring mission through the enemy camp.

All this does the dark ages English a disservice, I think. It depicts the English as a pallid and enervated next to their stronger Danish cousins, in hoc to a prudish Christianity, divided and bickering among themselves, and unable to stand up against the invaders. While aspects of Danish culture and life are described with relish, the English are indistinct by comparison. Whatever it was that in their culture that enabled them to eventually turn the tables on their conquerors is not apparent. In the same way, the story hardly reveals anything Great about Alfred – he is said to be clever,  though something of a teetotaller and a pedant. But in reality he must have been a great man to have inspired the victories he did.

As this is book one of a long series, I guess the protagonist could change his tune down the line, and discover a love for his own country and a fierce hatred of its enemies, but it seems unlikely; the narrator, after all, is already speaking many years in the future, and he shares the same prejudices as his young self. As I read, though- as I’ve said- I quite enjoyed it, I started to wish there was a book out there that told the story from a viewpoint more sympathetic to the English, as the survival and unification of a great people in the face of a ruthless enemy, a story charged with an appreciation of the English and their customs, and their religion… but this isn’t that book.


A little after thought on the TV series

I wrote the lion’s share of the above blog post over a year ago, before succumbing to blogger’s ennui and neglecting to post it, and at the time I had not seen the TV series of the same name. Since then, I have watched the first five or six episodes on Amazon Video, before getting bored and giving up. I thought it would be at least as interesting as the book, but in fact in was a good deal slower – which I guess shows Cornwell’s talent for well-paced story-telling as well as the programme-makers lack of it. One of the things I had most enjoyed about the book was seeing 9th century England described as the marauding Vikings headed south from Bamburgh to York, Nottingham, Bury Saint Edmunds, London and Winchester. The description of the wild kite-haunted London, a kind of Anglo-Danish border town, was particularly well done. In the series, however, this is mostly edited out: it does a decent job of Bamburgh, which then – as now – is basically a castle and a village, and it captures some of the grandeur of the walled city of York, but the rest of the places are hardly shown –and the scene in London is edited out altogether. Most of the urban scenes take place in a kind of generic muddy medieval village, which is supposed to be Winchester I think. I realize it’s expensive to make sets, or even decent CGI, of medieval cities, but still. There was a general lack of a sense of place that could have been heightened in cheaper ways – they could have given the Northern characters Northern accents, the Southern characters Southern accents, for example, but the accents were all over the place. The acting was pretty good – there were some big name actors involved – but nothing to write home about. Oh, and the opening music was pretty damned awful – like something you might hear in one of those ‘alternative clothing shops’ by the hippy green in Newcastle, if they’re still there.

So, as for the TV series, it was not bad, but not that good either, which isn’t much of a recommendation.


Your Grace

Holbein's Henry VIII
‘That’s Your Majesty to you!’

‘You’re talking to the King of the Seven Kingdoms – you’ll address him as ‘Your Grace’

I love it when Sir Davos says that to John Snow at the end of series 4 of Game of Thrones, with Liam Cunningham (actually an Irishman) doing that great Geordie accent of his. There is something very appropriate about the accent, given his strangely touching loyalty to Stannis and the traditional loyalty of Newcastle to their sovereign, especially to Charles I, during the English Civil War. One of the theories behind the name ‘Geordie’ is that it was given to the inhabitants of the city for their loyalty to King George during the Jacobean rebellions – though I don’t believe that. I think it came from the commonness of the name George – diminutive form Geordie – among working class men there, much the same way Scottish men became ‘Jocks’, that being the diminutive form of the name John north of the border. It’s an odd thing the way Johns became Jockos in Scotland and Jackies in the North East.

Why, however, does George R.R. Martin have his kings styled Your Grace rather than Your Majesty?

Actually, Your Grace is the older usage – and its use in A Game of Thrones certainly fits with the mediaevalish setting. Your Majesty is a post-reformation formulation. So the question is really, why did we start saying Your Majesty rather than Your Grace?

Charles V started it early in the 16th century. As Emperor of Spain, Austria, the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire (which abounded with minor princes, dukes and palsgraves) as well as, effectively, most of South and much of North America, he felt like Your Highness or Your Grace didn’t quite do him justice. He became Your Majesty, and so as not to look inferior to him Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England swiftly followed suit.

It is an example of the lengths kings would go to to promote and maintain their sense of greatness. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy, a Bishop uses the term when talking to an audience gathered for an execution – the audience must be quickly told who is referred to lest they imagine another power than the king’s is being invoked.  It also comes up in Sovereign, the third (and, of the three I have read to date, the best) of Samson’s Shardlake series. Shardlake is told to use the correct term when he meets the king.

In Sovereign, Shardlake travels to York to help the Law commissions there. The King is visiting the north for the first time since the uprising – known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the Pilgrimage of Grace, the north rose to demand a return of the country to Catholicism, which they naively imagined the king would fondly welcome, having been tricked into making England protestant by his evil counsellors. They were defeated through a combination of force and trickery, and the reprisals for those involved were devastatingly bloody. But Henry pursued a policy of reconciliation alongside the retribution, and the main part of this was a massive effort to redress a backlog of local grievances in time for his visit to York, the capital of the North – and the centre of the rebellion, York. It is for this great legal project that the lawyer Shardlake is brought to the north. Of course, once he gets there, there are a couple of murders he must solve – this is a crime novel after all.

By far my favourite scene in the book, is the king’s appearance at York, where he appears to hear his terrified subjects’ official apology for their recent rebellion. It gives the reader a vivid sense of what it was like to be in the presence of a powerful monarch, back when people really did believe in that a king was the next thing down from a God.

‘Men of York, I will hear your submission!’ The voice that came from that enormous figure was oddly high-pitched, almost squeaky. Looking sidelong, I saw Recorder Tankerd, crouched on his knees, unroll a long parchment. He looked up at the king and took a long, shuddering breath. He opened his mouth but for a long, terrible second, no sound came. That moment’s silence was utterly terrifying.

(From C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, Chapter 17)

The majesty of Henry VIII exists to a great degree in the minds of his subjects. This is sustained by the conventions of royal protocol – particularly how people are discouraged from looking at him directly, thus letting the images in their head prevail over the reality. But there are, in Samson’s descriptions too, some discordant details – glimpses of the sordid reality peaked through the illusion of majesty – his strangely high-pitched voice and, a little later, the stench of the king’s gout-ridden leg as Shardlake approaches him.

Dragon Fire, Greek Fire, Dark Fire

I notice dragon’s fire has played a major part in recent episodes of Game of Thrones, but this article is about dragon fire, the mysterious substance Tyrion discovered hidden in the vaults under King’s Landing.

You’ll remember dragon fire from the dramatic finale of series two, when Stannis’s invading fleet is repelled by Tyrion’s deft tactics and Littlefinger’s diplomacy in making sure the troops of Highgarden rally to the Lannisters’ cause. The decisive blow to the fleet was the use of dragon Fire, an ancient weapon stored deep in the vaults of King’s Landing.  You’ll also remember it from the giant green explosion that wiped out the Sept, the ancient temple of the Gods, in Kings Landing at the end of series six.

Before the Battle of Blackwater, dragon fire had not been used in Westeros since many generations past, and had been dormant until Danaerys hatched her dragons on the other side of the world… The Lannisters knew nothing of this, of course, but happily reaped the benefits.

Dragon fire was surely inspired by the mysterious antiquity / early mediaeval weapon, Greek fire. Greek fire was a weapon that the Byzantines used in their battles against the invading muslims, a rushing liquid fire. Actually, Tyrion’s other successful ploy, the spreading of a grand chain across the river, is also a tactic that the Byzantines used against the Turks (in their case, unsuccessfully). Martin has obviously done a bit of reading around Byzantine history – and indeed the visual style chosen for King’s Landing in the series owes a lot to the Byzantines.

Greek fire disappeared from history for the rather prosaic reason that people seemed to lose the recipe. The attempted recovery of the formula is at the centre of the plot of the second of C.J. Samson’s Shardlake mysteries, Dark Fire. Thomas Cromwell has fallen from favour at court, having set up Henry VIII with the disastrously plain Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by the Howards, who seek to undo the reforms of Cromwell and Cranmer, agitate for Cromwell’s downfall. When Cromwell catches a whiff that someone in London has cracked the ancient formula of the ‘dark fire’ of the Greeks, he gets Shardlake on the case, hoping to recapture the king’s affection through the discovery.

Naturally, Shardlake has to solve some murder’s on the way, this being a detective story. We know of course, that Cromwell won’t succeed, because of course, no one ever did manage to recreate Greek fire, but that doesn’t stop it being an absorbing story. Somewhat as in Game of Thrones, there is an ancient flask or two of the ancient substance hanging around, which lets Samson describe what it might have been like – ‘alive with fire, brighter than a thousand candles’…not quite as dramatic as dragon fire, but still…

Andals, Vandals, Visigoths and Vicissitudes 

In Westeros, the Andals are the people who, in ancient times came across the narrow sea from Essos, and settled the Seven Kingdoms. They were not the first people to populate the continent, however – there were earlier peoples, who were subjugated or pushed to the fringes of the continent.
There is a lot of the early history of England in this. In the early dark ages, during what historians call the great migrations, the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from Denmark and Northern Germany and settled the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, subjugating or pushing the Celtic and Pictish inhabitants to the fringes, or intermingling with them, depending on which historian you ask.
But the word ‘Andal’ brings to mind another germanic tribe of the great migrations era, one who travelled somewhat further afield…
The Vandals were first recorded living in Poland, but during the great migration worked their way down to Spain. I guess you could think of them as the dark ages equivalent of those sun burnt North Europeans who leave the cold north for the sun and sand of the Costa del Sol, except with swords. Given that their name has become synonymous with thuggery and destruction, we can take it that they didn’t rub along especially well with the Latins, Basques and Phoenicians who already inhabited the Iberian peninsula.
The Vandals then moved on to North Africa, where they were a force to be reckoned with for some two hundred years. It was Vandals who were besieging Algeria when Saint Augustine died, and it was in a daring sack of Rome that their reputation for cultural destruction was sealed. They conquered Sicily and Sardinia, and a good strip of what is now Tunisia. The decaying Roman Empire had to make peace with them and accept them as a regional power, but they eventually met their match in the great East Roman General Belisarius, who won their territory for The Byzantium Empire and took their men for galley slaves.
Robert Graves, who covers this episode in his (much recommended) historical novel Belisarius, depicts the Vandals as rather louche, having grown comfortable on the relative luxury of the south. They must at least have been very good warriors, and decent seafarers too. But it is true they left no lasting legacy or cultural achievements.
Another group of southward bound germanic invaders, the Visigoths, who stopped in Iberia for good, adopted the local lingua franca – Latin – and turned it into the tongue that would become Spanish. One linguistic legacy of the Visigoths was the loss of ‘f’s from some common Latin-origin words – apparently they had trouble with the consonant, and that’s why Latin facere became faire in French, and Facir in Italian (and gave English the word facility among others), but became hacer in Spanish.
Some years ago I spent a year teaching English in a town in Andalusia. One of the students in my class was blonde, and could easily have passed for a Dutch or English woman. She explained that in her village, up in the mountains, a lot of people were blond, and local lore had that down to them being the descendants of Visigoth sheep herders, while the darker skinned lowlanders were of a Latin-Moorish-Jewish stock.
But could her ancestors have been Vandals? One of the few contemporary descriptions of the Vandals, from the Roman historian Procopius, reads ‘they all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon’ – a tribe of blonds, then. And Andalusia, after all, was named, by the Moors, after the Vandals. Andalusia or Al Andalus should properly be Vandalusia or Al Vandalus, but the Moors or the Visigoths they conquered lopped the ‘v’ off the name.
Perhaps George Martin thought about all this and realised that the back formation from Andalusia is the Andals, and thought it a cool sounding name. Or maybe it is just a linguistic coincidence – but it’s a good excuse to tell the story of history’s best known property damagers.

Those Pesky Huguenots

Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing the bloody religious wars of France in the 16th and early 17th centuries, get a good press as immigrants who settled in England quickly and without trouble. It was a little surprising  then, reading Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, to see Burgess have the poet Christopher Marlowe give the French immigrants a good rhetorical kicking. He is talking to the spymaster Francis Walsingham, who is sending him on a mission to the low countries. For Walsingham, the Huguenots are brothers in faith, and indeed brothers in arms in the great continental showdown between Protestantism and Catholicism. Marlowe, who has lived alongside them, takes a rather dimmer view:
Canterbury [Marlowe complains] is my town and it is infested with Huguenots.
 —Infested, you say infested? They are our brethren in arms, they are of the reformed faith. You do not know of the Bartholomew butchering? You will use another word.
 —Indiscreet, I apologise. But it is only honesty to say that the Huguenots are not liked in Canterbury. They were moved inland from the coast to check their buccaneering. The city is full of them. They have taken possession of the river for water for their weaving. They bring no trade, they have their own bakers and butchers.
 —Would you, Walsingham browed at him, rather have a Catholic Englishman than a French protestant?
 —You try to trick me. But it is true to say that some men of Canterbury are driven back to the secret practice of the old faith because they do not like these Huguenots with their French prayer-books. That is in the nature of how humanity behaves. Blood is thicker than belief.
As if to underline the point that ‘blood is thicker than belief’, Marlowe find that the French he meets in Europe have scarcely more fellow feeling for English Catholic exiles than the Protestant Englishmen do for their French brethren, mocking their plight and making fun of their queen. Religion aside, the French are French, it seems, and the English Are English.
The Huguenots have a bit part in Burgess’s novel, but they are at the centre of Robert Merle’s epic 13 book Fortunes of France series, which Pushkin Press have recently begun to translate into English. The series tells the life-story of Pierre de Siorac, a young Huguenot from the Perigord region of France, as he navigates his way through the bitter religious wars, plagues and upheavals of the 16the century.The first novel relates the story of the protagonist’s father and  brother who made their fortune as soldiers and buy a castle in Perigord with their spoils. Early in the book, visiting a neighbour, they come into contact with a beautiful young woman:
at that very moment a gracious maiden entered the great hall, clothed in a very low-cut morning dress, her blonde hair falling freely about her shoulders… His heart gave a mighty leap at the sight of this white breast sculpted with the grace of a swan, while, for her part, the maiden returned his gaze with her large blue eyes. As he limped forward to exchange greetings with her, Sauveterre caught sight of a medallion on her breast which displeased him mightily.
The medallion is of the Virgin Mary, anathema to these two staunch Calvinists. The boy’s father falls for the woman despite the medallion she wears and her steadfast Catholicism. She gives birth to the protagonist, but the married couple’s differing faith is a constant source of tension, The man’s brother saw it all coming, of course, chastising him gently:
“Would it not have been wiser to marry a woman of your own faith? Though her breast lay underneath her medallion, it nevertheless hid her Catholic icon from your sight.”
It seems blood isn’t the only thing stronger than belief…
A Dead man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage Classics 2010
The Brethren, Fortunes of France Volume 1, Robert Merle, Translated T. Jefferson Kline, Pushkin Press, 2015

Raleigh on his Execution

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he is the two-dimensional swash-buckler I had previously, rather idly, thought him to be (probably because of the Blackadder episode, in which he is portrayed as a pompous idiot). He was an English renaissance man if ever there was one, one of his many achievements being some elegant and witty poetry.

Perhaps in his glory days, Raleigh was something of a boaster – he surely had much to boast of. But in A Dead Man in Deptford we meet an older, wiser Raleigh. When the experienced adventurer meets the young playwright for the first time, he apologises for his presumption in having written a wry answer to Marlowe’s early lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. (I have blogged on these two poems before, here and here). He asks him to take it as the voice of experience replying to the voice of innocence, rather than a whole-hearted debunking. Marlowe, who we can imagine being a lot less disingenuous than his shepherd, agrees, and they become fast friends.

Raleigh keeps interesting company. He introduces Marlowe into his circle of cultured gentlemen, who smoke, drink and discuss the great questions of the universe, as well as the more pressing matters of court intrigue. Foremost among this group is the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, known to contemporaries as the Wizard Earl, in whose smoke-filled London home, Syon House, the men meet. The Wizard Earl is another interesting character of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: son of the 8th Earl, who had risen against Elizabeth for Mary Queen of Scots and the old faith, he was himself, less an orthodox Catholic, but interested in magic, the occult and all stripes of ancient learning . Playing the more rationalistic foil to Percy, is his friend and employee, the great scientist Thomas Harriot.

Raleigh’s arch-enemy at this time is the rising star in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Devereux, who really is the self-regarding swash-buckling loud mouth of stereotype. A shallower, vainer individual is hard to imagine – as the poetry he left shows (see my post here). Essex was the ageing queen’s favourite at court, jealous of the memory of her older, more deserving favourite, Sir Walter – and himself fighting for prominence with Elizabeth’s more sober counsellors, the Cecils – to whom Marlowe’s sometime employer, the spymaster Francis Walsingham answers. Burgess weaves an interesting plot out of these connections, as the ascendant playwright gets caught up in a power struggle between two (or three) court factions, and his patron.

From these wranglings among court factions, Burgess provides a plausible explanation for Marlowe’s mysterious death in a Deptford pub. It is not clear that the historical Marlowe ever really met Raleigh or Northumberland, but it is entirely conceivable: they too were accused being atheists. Real atheists were hard to come by in the sixteenth century: the term was used rather loosely, as much against occult dabblers, Catholics or various kind of rebels as that very small minority of people who could conceive of – and speak of – a world without a creator. Marlowe, certainly, and Northumberland, perhaps, could be numbered among actual atheists, but with Raleigh we can’t be sure: certain poems he left betray a cynicism towards the claims of Christianity, but this must be balanced against others – notably the sweet love lyric As You Came from the Holy Land, in which a forlorn lover searches for the woman he met on the way home from a pilgrimage to Walsingham. It may be a love poem, but the setting is religious, and, intriguingly, Catholic. It’s provenance is doubtful, so perhaps he didn’t write it, or perhaps he did write it, but in the voice of a pre-reformation pilgrim. At a distance of four hundred years or so, it’s hard to know.

Burgess’s narrative ends, of course, with the death of the playwright, but there is much in the lives of his supposed associates that would make compelling drama. Both Northumberland and Raleigh lived out Elizabeth’s reign, despite the hostility of the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth’s first Minister, Burghley, the elder Cecil tired of the young favourite’s antics at court and made him Governor of Ireland – a great honour, and a poisoned chalice. When Essex failed in his brief in Ireland, he lost the queen’s favour and never regained it. In a desperate attempt to regain his previous fame, he raised a band of rebels to take London. When this was defeated he was tried, convicted of treason and executed. At some point during his downward spiral, he wrote that famously sulky poem.

Raleigh was made governor of Jersey in the channel islands, then, early in the reign of James I, was involved in a plot to put a rival contender on the throne. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by the King and left in prison indefinitely.

Northumberland met a similar fate. He was thrown in prison in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot. In truth, he hadn’t been involved. Unfortunately, another Percy, one of his kinsmen and employees, was one of the main plotters, and had used Northumberland’s offices in London to gain close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. The Percy family and a long history of rebellion and the attorney general Edward Coke was out to get him, exploiting the earl’s natural shyness and his stutter at the trial. Life wasn’t so bad in prison if you were a celebrity, mind – the earl still held his smoky gatherings of intellectual free thinkers, while Raleigh, for his part, began working on a history of the world.

He didn’t finish because in 1616 he was plucked out of prison by the King, who had been persuaded by some courtiers to let him lead a mission to find the lost city of El Dorado and claim it for the British. The Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Count of Gondomar, was unhappy with this, and Raleigh had to make the not especially realistic promise that no Spaniard would be hurt in the venture. The mission was a disastrous failure, and the English, having been shot at first, had attacked a Spanish outpost. Raleigh returned home in disgrace. Gondomar demanded that Raleigh be handed over to the Spanish for trial and, most likely, execution. James could not agree to the handover, but he agreed to the execution. He, naturally, had no fondness for the old adventurer, and now that Raleigh’s glory days were behind him, he was expendable.This time there was no reprieve.

Raleigh left not one but three poems written on the night before his execution.

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

A very elegant epitaph, that, and very appropriate to Raleigh’s life, what with the talk of wanderings and stories, for few men had wandered as far and wide as Raleigh nor had such impressive stories to tell. The last couplet with its final ‘I trust’ might be read as a devout confession of faith in God, or a wry expression of doubt.

In his second poem, Raleigh’s mind turns from death in general to the approaching, violent, method of his own demise:

Cowards fear to die, but Courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

The meaning of ‘snuff’ here is the charred end of a candle wick, which Raleigh thinks better put out than left to smoulder uselessly. This is the warrior in Raleigh speaking, the adventurer on the bough of his ship in hostile territory facing death, though the hostile territory in question is his own England. It’s a simple enough message: if you’re gonna die, be a man about it!’, but it is delivered with relish, and with echoes of Shakespeare. In the context of Raleigh’s life, the epigram has a wider resonance: he had been smouldering away in prison the last twelve or thirteen years before his last mission, which was his finalchance for glory, or a more fitting end, which is what he got, kind of.

He was as brave on the gallows as on the page, calling ‘Strike, man, strike!’ to the waiting executioner.

The last poem is a translation of Catullus. For poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the joys of translating and mimicking Roman poetry was to escape briefly from the conventional pieties of the age. In contrast to the first poem, the third betrays no belief in the afterlife. But then, it is Catullus speaking, not Raleigh – perhaps, in terms of faith, he was keeping his options open to the last.

The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.



A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage, 1994

Poems found in The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs, Ed. Geoffrey Grigson, 1977

Details of the trial of Northumberland are from The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Hynes, The History Press,1994

Details of the last adventures and trial of Raleigh are from The Cradle King: A Life of King James VI & I, Alan Stewart, Random House, and The History of England Volume III: Civil War, Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, 2014