Sir Walter Ralegh
The Real Boyhood? What do we know of young Walter’s life in East Devon?
Hayes Barton, the house in which Ralegh was born, is not open to the public but is only a few miles north of Budleigh Salterton, and to the west of the village of East Budleigh.
This 1891 painting by the artist and landscape gardener Alfred Parsons RA is part of the Fairlynch art collection and depicts Place Court in Colaton Raleigh, a nearby village on the River Otter, where the young Walter is said to have been baptised.
Various episodes of Ralegh’s early life are recalled in the exhibition, including the little-known part that his father, Walter Ralegh Senior, played in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549. In one story, told by the 16th century chronicler John Hooker, Ralegh’s father, a churchwarden at All Saints Church in East Budleigh, and a follower of the Protestant religion supported by King Edward VI’s government, is said to have criticized a Clyst St Mary parishioner’s use of her rosary as a superstitious custom. The beads were an important part of traditional Roman Catholic practice before the Reformation, and Ralegh’s criticism is said to have provoked an anti-government riot in the village on the outskirts of Exeter, causing the inhabitants to rise up ‘like a swarm of wasps’.
At the Battle of Clyst St Mary which followed, in August 1549, an estimated 1,000 Cornish and Devonian Catholic rebels were killed by government forces. Following the encounter, it is said that 900 bound and gagged rebels had their throats slit in ten minutes. Some 2,000 died at the battle of Clyst Heath a few days later.
Pictured is one of various rosaries found on board the 16th century warship Mary Rose which sank in the Solent in July 1545.
A further reference in the exhibition to the Ralegh family’s involvement in religious matters concerns the Protestant martyr Agnes Prest, burned at the stake in Southernhay, Exeter on 15 August 1557.
A panel in the Sir Walter Ralegh Room mentions the episode, recorded in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), when Walter’s mother Katherine visited the prisoner the night before her death. She was struck by the way in which Agnes Prest ‘did talk so godly and so earnestly’.
You can see the memorial to this Protestant martyr, with the plaque pictured above, at the junction of Denmark Road and Barnfield Road in Exeter.
The Protestantism of the Ralegh family inspired young Walter to spend some of his teenage years in France, fighting for the Huguenots (French Protestants) between 1569 and 1572 during the country’s Wars of Religion.
It is thought that he was in France at the time of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572, depicted here in a painting by the 16th century Protestant artist Francois Dubois.
This beautiful pewter replica of a 1570s communion cup was specially commissioned by the Museum in 2015. It was created by the Birmingham firm of A.E. Williams, established in 1779.
The original, one of over one hundred similar pieces created by the Exeter goldsmith John Jones, is interesting because it reflects the moderate religious settlement supported by Queen Elizabeth I.
Church ornaments before the Reformation had been highly ornate. Under Edward VI such vessels were banned in favour of plainer items; some Protestant reformers even advocated the use of wooden communion cups. The Elizabethan settlement was an attempt to placate the Queen’s more conservative Catholic subjects, and to avoid what had happened in France.
Ralegh no doubt shared his Queen’s belief. As a teenager he had seen at first-hand a country torn apart by sectarianism while fighting for the Huguenots. ‘The greatest and most grievous calamity that can come to any state is civil war,’ he would write in his History of the World, written later when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.