Today (December 27) in London History – a glimpse of their intimacy

A first foray. Thinking about starting a series, a London (historical) diary. This piece – about something that happened between Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I on this day, December 27, 1584 – is a toe in the water.


London Calling. 

This piece is about Walter Raleigh and Good Queen Bess and something that happened between them on this day, December 27, 1584. She was 51 years old at the time. Ageing. He was young enough to be her son – 29 or 30. Just come into his prime.

Walter Raleigh.

This was a man. A man to be reckoned with – on both the international stage and in the innermost, secret longings of the heart. His astonishing life can be neatly summed up in the chapter titles of each stage of his biography. Here they are.

The Soldier 

The Favourite

The Colonist

The Revolutionary (Potatoes and Tobacco)

The Propagandist

The Betrayer

The Court Poet

The Atheist

The Explorer

The Rival

The Suspect

The Traitor

The Prisoner

The Tower Scholar

The Desperado

The Accused

The Condemned

The Dead Man Walking

The Beheaded

And as long as we’re at it, maybe a footnote or two about a couple of those chapter headings.  The Revolutionary – well, that refers to potatoes and tobacco. Raleigh is credited with introducing them to England.

And Raleigh’s way with words weaves together several of those chapters: among them, The Court Poet, The Tower Scholar, The Dead Man Walking.

Consider the lines Walter Raleigh wrote the night before his execution. Here’s the poem.

Even such is Time who takes in trust

Our youth, our Joyes and all we have,

Then payes us bake with age and Dust,

Who in a darke and silent Grave

When wee have wandred all our wayes

Shuts up the storie of our Dayes.

But from Times rage, the Grave and Dust

My God shall raise me up I trust.

But let’s get to the anniversary event. What happened on

December 27, 1584?  The ground had been prepared, remember, by the famous incident of Raleigh spreading his cloak over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth – Her Majesty – could walk across without dirtying her shoes. Ditto the tale of the two of them scratching couplets on a windowpane. And the portrait that we have of him – dark-haired, pale and refined features – this was an extremely handsome man. He was well built, six feet tall – tall for that time.  Think of that raw tale of Raleigh pleasuring a scarcely reluctant maid of honour against the trunk of a tree – Raleigh had it. He had her, the maid of honour. He had them, women. Had a hold on them. All of them, including the ageing Queen.

We’re there now. We’re in the English court on December 27, 1584. Her Majesty is there. She’s surrounded by courtiers. She barely sees the others. She’s tries not to show it but she’s all eyes for Walter Raleigh. There’s one other person there. A distinguished foreign visitor. He witnesses something extraordinary. He wrote down what he saw. I’m quoting now. 

Chatting with the courtiers, She (the queen) pointed ’with her finger at his (Raleigh’s) face, that there was a smut [smudge] on it, and was going to wipe it off with her handkerchief; but before she could he wiped it off himself’

Yes, an extraordinary moment. (A moment that was, incidentally, reenacted in our time. At her first state opening of parliament a nervous Mrs. Thatcher reached over and brushed a speck of lint off the lapel of one of her cabinet ministers, Geoffrey Howe.)

But, yes, Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth – and that smut, that smudge, on his face. 

It’s a glimpse of their intimacy, a glimpse of the hold he had on her. 

It’s a spellbinding moment. Queen Elizabeth forgot herself. Forgot her queenly self. Suddenly she’s just an ageing woman in the force field of a virile young man. She forgot her majesty, forgot her role, forgot her dignity. All of that goes by the way in that moment. All the trappings fall away. There’s a nakedness – something unguarded and vulnerable – a presence far more deeply interfused – in that female finger answering a call that’s deeper than that imposed by court protocol – that queenly finger going almost of its own accord toward the smudge on the face of that handsome, virile young man. And then a split second later doubling back to get her handkerchief to wipe it off. There’s frailty, there’s vulnerability, there’s age, there’s longing, there’s forgetting herself, there’s tenderness, there’s mothering, there’s wanting to be a young woman in that young courtier’s arms – all of that is there in that letting down her guard moment. The distinguished foreign visitor realised he’d seen something out of the ordinary. That happened, this day, December 27th, 1584. 

C’est tout. From London. December 27th, 2021.

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