Figure 1:Gatehouse of Wolfeton House, Dorset.
In late-Elizabethan England those who pursued a career in scholarship, science and thinking generally required a patron for room, board and access to a library. A patron, driven by his or her interests, may surround himself with scholars from different disciplines. Walter Raleigh, as a renaissance man, gathered around him some remarkable men. He did not concern himself with their rank or lineage, but their abilities. One of the greatest scientists of the time was Thomas Harriot, whom Raleigh brought into his London residence, Durham House. He was useful in the design of ships and focused his mathematical genius on navigation. He was also pushing the boundaries in optics and chemistry. In his spare time, Harriot was commissioned to educate Sir Walter in scientific study.
At Durham House, Raleigh was host to an eclectic group that brought into question the beliefs of the day. It was a dangerous occupation to question the workings of the universe and in 1593, Raleigh’s enemies referred to Durham House as a ‘school of atheism’. Raleigh also entertained a variety of guests. One being Cayaworaco, a son of a South American King.[i]
In 1593 the hunt to expose atheists meant that Christopher Marlowe was under investigation. The Privy Council was looking into his activities and called Marlowe to report daily before them in mid-May. Richard Baines, an informer, had accused Marlowe of atheism. Baines also linked Marlowe to Raleigh and Harriot. Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford during a supposed argument over a bill on 30 May 1593.[ii]
In the summer of 1593 Sir George Trenchard of Wolfeton House (outside Dorchester, Dorset) hosted a supper party. It was at this dinner that Raleigh and his brother Carew had debated the nature of the soul with the Reverend Ralph Ironside. Ironside was the vicar of Winterborne, Dorset. They upset Ironside by exposing his circular theological arguments.[iii]
Raleigh had been fired up with discussion of the nature of God and the certainty of mathematics. There were those present who remembered the conversation and later it was used against him. In March 1594 those who had been present at the supper party in the previous summer were questioned. The enquiry was by the Court of High Commission into Raleigh’s religious beliefs. Although a close-run thing, Raleigh convinced the court that he was no atheist and that hearsay was no evidence. [iv] To prove his religious credentials to those in authority, Raleigh then led a raid in April 1594 to Chideock in Dorset. There he arrested John Cornelius, a catholic priest. Cornelius became a martyr but not before Raleigh had spent a whole night conversing with him.[v]
The late 16th C represented a time of change in terms of thinking and understanding. Early modern England was had been emerging under the Tudors with its new identity from the Medieval period. Humanism brought the concept of learning and thinking about the world and not just through a religious lens. One of the themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the conflict between the old medieval world of statecraft and the new idea of a renaissance prince. Hamlet had studied at Wittenberg and is very concerned his education doesn’t finish as he is reluctantly persuaded by Claudius and Gertrude not to return to university. Raleigh, a renaissance man, pushed up against the established ideas of his day by investigating new ideas and learning.
The Dorset Landscape in Raleigh’s Day
In conjunction with this historical context, I find myself wondering how Raleigh travelled to Wolfeton House from Sherborne and what might that experience have been like. Wolfeton lies on the north side of the shire town of Dorchester. The journey is about 17 miles. Sherborne was well chosen by Raleigh as it lies near one of the west’s main highways from London to Exeter. The most important towns in Dorset were Sherborne, Wimborne, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. This reflected the flow of economic produce going northwards in the county by road. Because of the lack of navigable river links, the road system was key rather than distribution from the coastal ports.[vi]
The land in Dorset still had tracts of open fields rather than the enclosures that were happening elsewhere in southern England. Woodland was also more extensive than it is now.[vii] The main road system was reasonably well developed. Travellers on horseback could reach Exeter from London within 4 days.[viii] The Romans had left their road system, which was built upon in the medieval period, particularly with the addition of sturdy bridges. Medieval society and its economy thrived on the movement of goods and people. At the height of the wool export trade, in the early fourteenth century, trains of packhorses carried panniers of wool across the arteries of England to the ports. The wool trade was still part of the economic life blood of the west country in the Tudor period.
[i] Anna Beer, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh (London: Oneworld, 2018), pp. 33-35.
[ii] Beer, pp. 35-36.
[iii] Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. Sept 2015, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23039> [accessed: 5 August 2020]
[iv] Beer, p. 36.
[v] Nicholls and Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’.
[vi] John Speed, Britain’s Tudor Maps County By County (London: Batsford, 1988; repr. 2016), p. 40.
[vii] Speed, p. 7.
[viii] Speed, p. 9.
Beer, Anna, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh (London: Oneworld, 2018)
Nicholls, Mark and Penry Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. Sept 2015, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23039> [accessed: 5 August 2020]
Speed, John, Britain’s Tudor Maps County By County (London: Batsford, 1988; repr. 2016)