Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Raleigh—"The Revenge"

S OME of you may have seen a picture of a brown-faced sailor sitting by the seashore, telling stories of travel and adventure to two boys. The one boy lies upon the sand with his chin in his hands listening but carelessly, the other with his hands clasped about his knees listens eagerly. His face is rapt, his eyes the eyes of a poet and a dreamer. This picture is called The Boyhood of Raleigh,  and was painted by one of our great painters, Sir John Millais. In it he pictures a scene that we should like to believe was common in Sir Walter Raleigh's boyhood, but we cannot tell if it were really so or not. Beyond the fact that he was born in a white-walled thatched-roofed farmhouse, near Budleigh Salterton in Devonshire, about the year 1552, we know nothing of Raleigh's childhood. But from the rising ground near Hayes Barton, the house in which he was born, we catch sight of the sea. It seems not too much to believe that many a time Walter and his brother Carew, wandered through the woods and over the common the two and a half miles to the bay. So that from his earliest days Walter Raleigh breathed in a love and knowledge of the sea. We like to think these things, but we can only make believe to ourselves as Millais did when he went to Budleigh Salterton and painted that picture.

When still quite a boy, Walter Raleigh went to Oriel College, Oxford, but we know nothing of what he did there, and the next we hear of him is that he is fighting for the Huguenots in France. How long he remained in France, and what he did there beyond this fighting, we do not know. But this we know, that when he went to France he was a mere boy, with no knowledge of fighting, no knowledge of the world. When he left he was a man and a tried soldier, a captain and leader of men.

When next we hear of Raleigh he is in Ireland fighting the rebels. There he did some brave deeds, some cruel deeds, there he lived to the full the life of a soldier as it was in those rough times, making all Ireland ring with his name. But although Raleigh had won for himself a name among soldiers, he was as yet unknown to the Queen; his fortune was still unmade.

You have all heard the story of how Raleigh first met the Queen. The first notice we have of this story is in a book from which I have already quoted more than once—The Worthies of England.

"This Captain Raleigh," says Fuller, "coming out of Ireland to the English Court in good habit (his clothes being then a considerable part of his estate), found the Queen walking, till, meeting with a plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon. Presently Raleigh cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground, whereon the Queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a foot cloth."

Thomas Fuller, who wrote the book in which this story is found, was only a boy of ten when Raleigh died, so he could not have known the great man himself, but he must have heard many stories about him from those who had, and we need not disbelieve this one. It is one of those things which might very well have happened even if it did not.

And whether Raleigh first came into Queen Elizabeth's notice in this manner or not, after he did become known to her, he soon rose in her favor. He rose so quickly that he almost feared the giddy height to which he rose. According to another story of Fuller's, "This made him write in a glasse window, obvious to the Queen's eye,

'Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.'

"Her Majesty, either espying or being shown it, did underwrite:

'If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.'

"However he at last climbed up by the stairs of his own desert."

Honors and favors were heaped upon Raleigh, and from being a poor soldier and country gentleman he became rich and powerful, the lord of lands in five counties, and Captain of the Queen's Own Body-Guard. Haughty of manner, splendid in dress, loving jewels more than even a woman does, Raleigh became as fine a courtier as he was a brave soldier. But soldier though Raleigh was, courtier though he was, loving ease and wealth and fine clothes, he was at heart a sailor and adventurer, and the sea he had loved as a boy called to him.

Like many another of his age Raleigh, hearing the call of the waves ever in his ears, felt the desire to explore tug at his heart-strings. For in those days America had been discovered, and the quest for the famous North-West passage had begun. And Raleigh longed to set forth with other men to conquer new worlds, to find new paths across the waves. But above all he longed to fight the Spaniards, who were the great sea kings of those days. Raleigh however could not be a courtier and a sailor at one and the same time. He was meanwhile high in the Queen's favor, and she would not let him go from her. So all that Raleigh could do, was to venture his money, and fit out a ship to which he gave his own name. This he sent to sail along with others under the command of his step-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who was setting out upon a voyage of discovery. It was on this voyage that Sir Humphrey found and claimed Newfoundland as an English possession, setting up there "the Arms of England ingraven in lead and infixed upon a pillar of wood." But the expedition was unfortunate, most of the men and ships were lost, Sir Humphrey himself being drowned on his way home. He was brave and fearless to the last. "We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land," he said, a short time before his ship went down. One vessel only "in great torment of weather and peril of drowning" reached home safely, "all the men tired with the tediousness of so unprofitable a voyage to their seeming." Yet though they knew it not they had helped to lay the foundation of Greater Britain.

Nothing daunted by this loss, six months later Raleigh sent out another expedition. This time it was to the land south of Newfoundland that the ships took their way. There they set up the arms of England, and named the new possession Virginia in honor of the virgin Queen. This expedition was little more successful than Sir Humphrey Gilbert's, but nothing seemed to discourage Raleigh. He was bent on founding a colony, and again and yet again he sent out ships and men, spending all the wealth which the Queen heaped upon him in trying to extend her dominions beyond the seas. Hope was strong within him. "I shall yet live to see it an English nation," he said.

And while Raleigh's captains tried to found a new England in the New World, Raleigh himself worked at home to bring order into the vast estates the Queen had given to him in Ireland. This land had belonged to the rebel Earl of Desmond. At one time no doubt it had been fertile, but rebellion and war had laid it waste. "The land was so barren both of man and beast that whosoever did travel from one end of all Munster . . . . he should not meet man, woman, or child, saving in cities or towns, nor yet see any beast, save foxes, wolves, or the ravening beasts." And barren and desolate as it was when Raleigh received it, it soon became known as the best tilled land in all the country-side. For he brought workers and tenants from his old Devon home to take the place of the beggared or slain Irish. He introduced new and better ways of tilling, and also he brought to Ireland a strange new root. For it is interesting to remember that it was in Raleigh's Irish estates that potatoes were first grown in our Islands.

Raleigh took a great interest in these estates, so perhaps it was not altogether a hardship to him, finding himself out of favor with his Queen, to go to Ireland for a time. And although they had known each other before, it was then that his friendship with Spenser began. Spenser read his Faery Queen  to Raleigh, and perhaps Raleigh read to Spenser his poem Cynthia  written in honor of Queen Elizabeth. But of that poem nearly all has been lost. Elizabeth was not as yet very angry with Raleigh, still he felt the loss of her favor, for Spenser tells us:—

"His song was all a lamentable lay,

Of great unkindness and of usage hard,

Of Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea,

Which from her presence faultless him debarred.

And ever and anon with singults rife,

He criéd out, to make his undersong,

'Ah! my love's Queen, and goddess of my life,

Who shal me pity when thou doest me wrong?' "

But Raleigh soon decided to return to court, and persuaded Spenser

"To wend with him his Cynthia to see,

Whose grace was great and bounty most rewardful"

You know how Spenser was received and how he fared. But Raleigh himself after he had introduced his friend did not stay long at court. Quarrels with his rivals soon drove him forth again.

It was soon after this that he published the first writing which gives him a claim to the name of author. This was an account of the fight between a little ship called the Revenge  and a Spanish fleet.

Although with the destruction of the Invincible Armada the sea power of Spain had been crippled, it had not been utterly broken, and still whenever Spanish and English ships met on the seas, there was sure to be battle. It being known that a fleet of Spanish treasure-ships would pass the Azores, islands in the mid-Atlantic, a fleet of English ships under Lord Thomas Howard was sent to attack them. But the English ships had to wait so long at the Azores for the coming of the Spanish fleet that the news of the intended attack reached Spain, and the Spaniards sent a strong fleet to help and protect their treasure-ships. The English in turn hearing of this sent a swift little boat to warn Lord Thomas. The warning arrived almost too late. Many of the Englishmen were sick and ashore, and before all could be gathered the fleet of fifty-three great Spanish ships was upon them. Still Lord Thomas managed to slip away. Only the last ship, the Revenge, commanded by the Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Grenville, lost the wind and was caught between two great squadrons of the Spanish. Whereupon Sir Richard "was persuaded," Sir Walter says, "by the Master and others to cut his main-sail, and cast about, and to trust to the sailing of the ship. . . . But Sir Richard utterly refused to turn from the enemy, alleging that he would rather choose to die, than to dishonour himself, his country, and her Majesty's ship, persuading his company that he would pass through the two squadrons, in despite of them."

For a little time it seemed as if Sir Richard's daring might succeed. But a great ship, the San Philip,  came between him and the wind "and coming towards him, becalmed his sails in such sort, as the ship could neither make way, nor feel the helm: so huge and high-carged was the Spanish ship. . . . The fight thus beginning at three of the clock of the afternoon continued very terrible all that evening. But the great San Philip  having received the lower tier of the Revenge,  discharged with cross-bar shot, shifted herself with all diligence from her sides, utterly misliking her first entertainment. . . . The Spanish ships were filled with companies of soldiers, in some two hundred, besides the mariners; in some five, in other eight hundred. In ours there were none at all beside the mariners, but the servants of the commanders and some few voluntary gentlemen only." And yet the Spaniards "were still repulsed, again and again, and at all times beaten back into their own ships, or into the seas."

In the beginning of the fight one little store ship of the English fleet hovered near. It was small and of no use in fighting. Now it came close to the Revenge  and the Captain asked Sir Richard what he should do, and "Sir Richard bid him save himself, and leave him to his fortune." So the gallant Revenge  was left to fight alone. For fifteen hours the battle lasted, Sir Richard himself was sorely wounded, and when far into the night the fighting ceased, two of the Spanish vessels were sunk "and in many other of the Spanish ships great slaughter was made."  "But the Spanish ships which attempted to board the Revenge,  as they were wounded and beaten off, so always others came in their places, she having never less than two mighty galleons by her sides and aboard her. So that ere the morning, from three of the clock the day before, there had fifteen several Armadas assailed her. And all so ill approved their entertainment, as they were, by the break of day, far more willing to hearken to a composition than hastily to make any more assaults or entries.

"But as the day increased so our men decreased. And as the light grew more and more, by so much more grew our discomforts. For none appeared in sight but enemies, saving one small ship called the Pilgrim,  commanded by Jacob Whiddon, who hovered all night to see the success. But in the morning bearing with the Revenge, she was hunted like a hare amongst many ravenous hounds, but escaped.

"All the powder of the Revenge  to the last barrel was now spent, all her pikes broken, forty of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt. In the beginning of the fight she had but one hundred free from sickness and four score and ten sick, laid in hold upon the ballast. A small troop to man such a ship, and a weak garrison to resist so mighty an army. By those hundred all was sustained, the volleys, boarding and enterings of fifteen ships of war, besides those which beat her at large.

"On the contrary, the Spanish were always supplied with soldiers brought from every squadron; all manner of arms and power at will. Unto ours there remained no comfort at all, no hope, no supply either of ships, men, or weapons; the masts all beaten overboard, all her tackle cut asunder, her upper work altogether razed, and in effect evened she was with the water, but the very foundation of a ship, nothing being left overhead for flight or defence.

"Sir Richard finding himself in this distress and unable any longer to make resistance, having endured in this fifteen hours' fight the assault of fifteen several Armadas, all by turns aboard him, and by estimation eight hundred shot of great artillery besides many assaults and entries; and (seeing) that himself and the ship must needs be possessed of the enemy who were now all cast in a ring round about him, the Revenge  not able to move one way or another, but as she was moved by the waves and billow of the sea, commanded the Master Gunner, whom he knew to be a most resolute man, to split and sink the ship, that thereby nothing might remain of glory or victory to the Spaniards: seeing in so many hours' fight, and with so great a navy, they were not able to take her, having had fifteen hours' time, above ten thousand men, and fifty and three sail of men of war to perform it withal. And (he) persuaded the company, or as many as he could induce, to yield themselves unto God, and to the mercy of none else, but as they had, like valiant resolute men, repulsed so many enemies, they should not now shorten the honour of their nation, by prolonging their own lives by a few hours, or a few days. The Master Gunner readily condescended and divers others. But the Captain and the Master were of another opinion, and besought Sir Richard to have care of them, alleging that the Spaniard would be as ready to entertain a composition as they were willing to offer the same. And (they said) that there being divers sufficient and valiant men yet living, and whose wounds were not mortal, they might do their country and their Prince acceptable service hereafter. And whereas Sir Richard alleged that the Spaniards should never glory to have taken one ship of her Majesty, seeing they had so long and so notably defended themselves; they answered that the ship had six foot water in hold, three shot under water, which were so weakly stopped as with the first working of the sea, she must needs sink, and was besides so crushed and bruised, as she could never be removed out of the place.

"And as the matter was thus in dispute, and Sir Richard refusing to hearken to any of those reasons, the Master of the Revenge  (while the Captain won unto him the greater party) was convoyed aboard the General Don Alfonso Baçan.  Who (finding none overhasty to enter the Revenge  again, doubting lest Sir Richard would have blown them up and himself, and perceiving by the report of the Master of the Revenge  his dangerous disposition) yielded that all their lives should be saved, the company sent for England, and the better sort to pay such reasonable ransom as their estate would bear, and in the mean season to be free from galley or imprisonment. To this he so much the better condescended as well, as I have said, for fear of further loss and mischief to themselves, as also for the desire he had to recover Sir Richard Grenville, whom for his notable valour he seemed greatly to honour and admire.

"When this answer was returned, and that safety of life was promised, the common sort being now at the end of their peril the most drew back from Sir Richard and the Master Gunner, (it) being no hard matter to dissuade men from death to life. The Master Gunner finding himself and Sir Richard thus prevented and mastered by the greater number, would have slain himself with a sword, had he not been by force with-held and locked into his cabin. Then the General sent many boats aboard the Revenge,  and divers of our men fearing Sir Richard's disposition, stole away aboard the General  and other ships. Sir Richard thus over-matched was sent unto by Alfonso Baçan to remove out of the Revenge,  the ship being marvellous unsavoury, filled with blood and bodies of dead, and wounded men, like a slaughterhouse.

"Sir Richard answered he might do with his body what he list, for he esteemed it not. And as he was carried out of the ship he swooned, and reviving again desired the company to pray for him.

"The General used Sir Richard with all humanity, and left nothing unattempted that tended to his recovery, highly commending his valour and worthiness, and greatly bewailing the danger in which he was, being unto them a rare spectacle, and a resolution seldom approved, to see one ship turn toward so many enemies, to endure the charge and boarding of so many huge Armadas, and to resist and repel the assaults and entries of so many soldiers.

"There were slain and drowned in this fight well near one thousand of the enemies, and two special commanders. . . . besides divers others of special account.

"Sir Richard died as it is said, the second or third day aboard the General  and was by them greatly bewailed. What became of his body, whether it were buried in the sea or on the land, we know not. The comfort that remaineth to his friends is, that he hath ended his life honourably in respect of the reputation won to his nation and country and of the same to his posterity, and that being dead, he hath not outlived his own honour."

This gallant fight of the little Revenge  against the huge navy of Spain is one of the great things in the story of the sea; that is why I have chosen it out of all that Sir Walter wrote to give you as a specimen of English prose in Queen Elizabeth's time. As long as brave deeds are remembered, it will be told how Sir Richard Grenville "walled round with wooden castles on the wave" bid defiance to the might and pride of Spain, "hoping the splendour of some lucky star." The fight was a hopeless one from the very beginning, but it was as gallant a one as ever took place. Even his foes were forced to admire Sir Richard's dauntless courage, for when he was carried aboard Don Alfonso's ship "the captain and gentlemen went to visit him, and to comfort him in his hard fortune, wondering at his courageous stout heart for that he showed not any sign of faintness nor changing of colour. But feeling the hour of death to approach, he spake these words in Spanish and said, 'Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind, for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do, and hath fought for his country, Queen, religion, and honour, whereby my soul most joyful departeth out of this body, and shall always leave behind it an everlasting fame of a valiant and true soldier that hath done his duty as he was bound to do.' When he had finished these or other like words he gave up the Ghost, with great and stout courage, and no man could perceive any true signs of heaviness in him."

Poets of the time made ballads of this fight. Raleigh wrote of it as you have just read, and in our own day the great laureate Lord Tennyson made the story live again in his poem The Revenge. Tennyson tells how after the fight a great storm arose:

"And or ever that evening ended a great gale blew

And a wave like the wave that is raised by an earthquake grew,

Till it smote on their hulls and their sails and their masts and their flags,

And the whole sea plunged and fell on the shot-shatter'd navy of Spain.

And the little Revenge  herself went down by the island crags

To be lost evermore in the main."

So neither the gallant captain nor his little ship were led home to the triumph of Spain.

It is interesting to remember that had it not been for the caprice of the Queen, Raleigh himself would have been in Sir Richard Grenville's place. For he had orders to go on this voyage, but at the last moment he was recalled, and Sir Richard was sent instead.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Jonson—"The Sad Shepherd"  |  Next: Raleigh—"The History of the World"
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.