Sir Walter Raleigh is one of the best-known Elizabethans. He is famous for bringing back potatoes and tobacco with him from North America to Europe, and of course, for laying his cloak down in a puddle so Queen Elizabeth would not get her feet wet.
If you are not familiar with Raleigh, you should definitely listen to the Bob Newhart sketch in which the comedian has a phone conversation with the great man.
As you might have guessed, none of those myths is true. Potatoes were growing in Italy since at least 1585 (the year Raleigh first sent an expedition to North America). Tobacco was probably introduced to Europe by Jean Nicot, after whom nicotine is named (though Raleigh did popularize smoking — we can give him that at least).
Raleigh never actually visited North America himself, though twice he sent boatloads of people to set up a colony on Roanoke Island. The first settlement was established in 1585, but most of the colonists returned the following year with Sir Francis Drake.
A second group, financed by Raleigh in 1587, was led by John White. White returned that same year to England to seek assistance, and by the time he returned to Roanoke Island it was 1590, and all that was left of the colony was the word “CROATOAN” carved in a tree.
And the cloak in the puddle? Pure myth. Though Raleigh was extremely close to Elizabeth, and though she was famously known as the virgin queen, it is possible that her relationship with Raleigh, like her earlier relationship with Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, was more than purely professional.
The relationship soured considerably after Raleigh committed the double crime of first impregnating one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting — Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton, and then secretly marrying her in 1591, a few months before she gave birth to their son Damerei. Damerei died of the plague in October 1592, but when Elizabeth learned about the wedding in June of that year, she sent both Raleigh and Throckmorton to the Tower of London.
However, in August, Raleigh was released from the Tower so that he could lead an attack on the Spanish coast, in which he captured a Portuguese ship laden with treasure, named Madre de Deus. Among the spoils from the boat that he brought back to Elizabeth were jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, ambergris, cloth, tapestries, tons of spices, cochineal and ebony.
Once he’d brought back this prize, Raleigh was sent back to the Tower, where his wife was still imprisoned. However, by 1593, he was a free man and had been elected as a Member of Parliament.
Although Raleigh never visited North America, he did make several trips to central and South America. In 1594, he led his first trip to the continent in search of the fabled El Dorado, where he hoped to find mountains of gold. He didn’t. But on his return to England in 1595, he published The Discovery of Guiana which included exaggerated stories of the fabulous wealth he discovered there. In fact, the full title of the book shows the nature of his invented claims: The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado).
Raleigh’s exaggerated (or invented) claims about discovering a city of gold helped him the next time he was locked up in the Tower.
But for the meanwhile, he was gradually earning back the monarch’s favor.
In 1600, the queen appointed him governor of Jersey (an English island in the French Channel that is much closer to mainland Europe than to England). But after 44 years on the throne, Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, and just a few months later, on July 19, Raleigh lost his position when he was arrested and charged with treason for allegedly plotting to overthrow King James (the First of England, but the Sixth of Scotland).
Elizabeth died without an heir, and although she never named a successor, she had invested a lot of time and effort ensuring that her cousin’s son would take the throne. She wanted to ensure that the country would not have another Catholic ruler (her half-sister Mary had attempted to reverse their father’s reformation and return the country to Catholicism, She put many of the leading Protestants to death and thus earned the nickname “Bloody Mary.”)
Despite uniting the crowns of Scotland and England and gaining a lot more power and authority, James was not a huge fan of Elizabeth. And for good reason — Elizabeth had ordered the execution of her own cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (not to be confused with the aforementioned Queen Mary of England) — who was James’s mother. Elizabeth had once been close to Mary, but eventually was convinced her cousin was plotting to overthrow her and take her throne.
So James took his time coming down from his palace in Edinburgh to take up the English crown, showing his dislike of his mother’s cousin by delaying the funeral until his arrival more than a month after Elizabeth’s death.
James also got rid of many of Elizabeth’s closest counselors, including Raleigh, who was sent back to the Tower after his conviction for involvement in a plot to overthrow the new king (another of Elizabeth’s councillors, Robert Cecil had spent some time with James before Elizabeth died, convincing him that Raleigh was against his accession to the throne). The plot was called the Main Plot (because there was another plot called the Bye Plot which was not the main one), and the evidence against Raleigh was not totally compelling. Having been found guilty of treason, Raleigh should have been executed, but James spared his life and locked him up instead.
Raleigh remained in the Tower until 1616 but he used his time productively, writing The Historie of the World and many other works. Although he was a prisoner, it wasn’t such a hard life. His third son Carew was conceived and born in February 1605, while Raleigh was in the Tower (his second son Wat — short for Walter — had been born on November 1, 1593).
However, in 1617, Raleigh was given a second chance. The King decided he would quite like some of that gold that Raleigh had discovered in El Dorado, so James pardoned him and gave him a ship to go off to South America.
I’ll pause the story here on an optimistic note. If you want to know what happened to Raleigh you’ll have to read to the end of this piece. Or if you prefer, just imagine that he discovered the city of gold and returned to fame and fortune in England, and spent his dotage enjoying long walks in the countryside with his wife, spending quality time with his two boys, and possibly even bouncing some grandchildren on his knee.
While you have those happy thoughts in your head, I want to tell you that the reason I wrote about Raleigh and his second chance is that in this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 9:6-7) an entire group of people who failed to perform a commandment are given a second chance.
There were people who were impure from contact with a human body, and were unable to offer the paschal lamb on that day. So they came before Moses and before Aharon on that day. And those people said to him, ‘We are impure through contact with a human body. Why should we miss out, to not offer the paschal lamb of God at its appointed time among the other Children of Israel?’
So Moses asks God and God says that they can have a second chance to offer the sacrifice a month later, on what is now called Pesach Sheni. Anyone who was impure when it was time to offer the first Passover sacrifice, or was too far away, can bring their offering on the 14th day of the second month.
Why does the Torah give a second chance to fulfill this obligation? There is no other festival which has a backup date for those who missed out the first time.
Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 380) explains that Passover is a festival which bears testimony to miracles, and God’s involvement in the world. It commemorates public miracles that showed all of Egypt and the entire world of God’s love for His people. It demonstrates that God has the ability to do anything. He created the world, He runs the world and He looks after the world.
All the other festivals and many other commandments remind us that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Every Shabbat the prayers say, “A reminder of the exodus from Egypt.”
The problem with miracles is that they fade very quickly. Has it ever happened to you that something completely miraculous happened? You were convinced that it was such an unlikely event that it must have been part of some plan?
But by the time you’ve told a couple of people, and certainly after a day or two, the memory fades and is explained away. Something that seemed completely incredible, unlikely and miraculous becomes just another ho-hum event, tossed in the attic of the mind and reasoned away.
So the Torah demands that once a year Jews set aside a day to talk about leaving Egypt. They offer a sacrifice to remind them of the sacrifice they offered in Egypt — the one that distinguished them from the Egyptians and saved them when they painted the blood on the doorposts and lintel. And that annual reminder is something that can’t be missed. If someone is unable to join in with the rest of the Jewish people he or she needs a second opportunity to relive the experience. The paschal lamb awakens all the memories of all the miracles, and opens the door of the memory palace, allowing the person to revisit all the personal miracles that he or she has experienced.
That was all well and good back in the day, when there were sacrifices and a Temple. But nowadays we have neither a Temple, nor the appetite for sacrifices. So how are we to remember and revisit miracles?
Perhaps the answer is to always keep our eyes open to the constant miracles around us. The cry of a baby, the beauty of a flower, the majesty of a sunset, the taste of summer fruit. Every minute of every day we see miracles. But we become so inured to them that we hardly notice them. Occasionally we are struck by the breathtaking brilliance of something. But to quote the Police, you experience the incredible complexity and impossibility of the world with every breath you take.
We no longer have the annual sacrifice. Not the first chance nor the second chance. But we can enjoy the incredible world in which we live if we just take a second look and think about it. And as Maimonides explains, the more we learn about the world the more incredible it seems to us.
And now, in case you were wondering, here is the tragic story of what happened to Raleigh on his quest for the gold of El Dorado.
During the voyage, a group of his men under the command of his close friend Lawrence Keymis, ignored Raleigh’s orders and attacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana situated on the Orinoco River. During the attack Raleigh’s son Wat was fatally wounded. Raleigh couldn’t forgive Keymis for causing his son’s death, and Keymis committed suicide.
The attack on the Spanish was in violation of peace treaties in place at that time and violated Raleigh’s conditional pardon. When he returned to England the Spanish ambassador demanded that King James carry out the death sentence that had been passed against Raleigh many years earlier.
Raleigh was beheaded in Westminster Palace on October 29, 1618. As he examined the axe that would remove his head he said, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.” His last words, just before the axe fell, were said to be “Strike man, strike.”
Some say that his wife carried his head around with her in a velvet bag until her death — some 29 years later. He is now buried (body and head) in St Margaret’s on the grounds of Westminster Abbey.
I guess not every second chance works out for the best and not every story has a happy ending.