On the main road leading east from Sherborne (A30) at the crossroads at Henstridge is an inn, namely the Virginia Ash Inn. Although Henstridge is just in Somerset and not Dorset, I am going to include it in this series of articles in reference to the legends of Raleigh around the potato and tobacco.
The building is 18th C but is reputedly built on the foundations of former Tudor inn. It is supposedly in this inn where Sir Walter Raleigh was seated enjoying a pipe of tobacco. A servant, who had never encountered smoking thought he was on fire and doused him with a bucket of water. The current name of the inn stems from this event.[i]
Raleigh had founded a colony in North America which was named after his Queen, namely Virginia. There were two plants that Raleigh sought to promote as hailing from Virginia. These were the potato and tobacco.
However, the introduction of tobacco and potatoes to England by Raleigh from Virginia is a common myth. Both plants originate in South America. The potato, originating in Peru, was introduced to Europe, via Seville around 1570. The confusion starts in England when John Gerard, writing in his 1597 work Herballstated that he received potato roots from Virginia, the implication being the plant was brought over to England by a recent expedition.[ii] The potato had possibly been collected by Thomas Heriot, a botanist who had accompanied Sir Francis Drake on his voyage around the world. In 1578 Drake had raided Spanish ships anchored in Chilean harbours and it was probably at that time the plants were collected.[iii]
It is not until 1699 that the association between Raleigh and the potato makes it into print, when John Houghton wrote about it in his weekly bulletin. He asserted that Raleigh had first brought the potato to Ireland and then it spread into England. There is no real evidence for this claim. Perhaps a more credible source is in a manuscript journal for the Royal Society, dated December 1693, where the president Sir Robert Southwell wrote that his grandfather brought potatoes into Ireland having been given them by Raleigh.[iv]
With tobacco the situation is different. Smoking was the new, exclusive and fashionable habit. Sir John Hawkins possibly introduced tobacco to England in 1564 but then and for the following couple of decades or so, it was rare and exclusively for the extremely wealthy. In 1578 Drake brought back tobacco to England and he showed Raleigh how to smoke it using a long-stemmed clay pipe of Native American origin. In 1579 Raleigh staged in Plymouth a demonstration by some of the colonists of inhaling and swallowing smoke. It was a great success.[v]
What Raleigh did was make smoking a pipe a new fashion in England.
In his work The History And Antiquities of the County of Dorset, the Reverend John Hutchins (1698-1773) wrote of Raleigh and the potato and tobacco:
It ought not to be omitted that to this accomplished and much-to-be-lamented man, his country is indebted for the acquisition of that most valuable and useful root the potatoe. In Gough’s edition of Camden’s Britannia it is expressly affirmed that Sir Walter Raleigh planted potatoes at Youghall in the county of Cork, where he had an estate ; and it is now generally admitted that they were first brought by him into the British islands on his return from Virginia in 1584. He is also said to have first introduced the smoking of tobacco into England. Parkinson affirms, “that he had known Sir Walter Raleigh, when he was prisoner in the Tower, make choice of the common or English tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) to make good tobacco of. Which he knew so rightly how to cure, as they call it, that it was held almost as good as that which came from the Indies, and fully as good as any other in England.”[vi]
(Camden’s Britannia to which Hutchins refers was translated and edited by the antiquarian Richard Gough in 1789. William Camden’s first edition of Britannia was published in Latin in 1586.)
Whatever the truth the potato and tobacco have long been accredited to Sir Walter. It was tobacco that kept him company during his long imprisonment. His pouch, which is in the Wallace Collection, bears the inscription:
Comes meus fuit in illo miserrimo tempore
(He was my friend at that most miserable time)
James I, under whose reign Raleigh was executed, had a particular dislike of tobacco smoking. He wrote a treatise against it in 1604: A Counterblaste to Tobacco.
[i] Virginia Ash Hotel’, Historic England List Entry 1174635, (1961), < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1174635> [accessed 28 August 2020]
[ii] 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 May 2019]
[iii] Trea Martyn, Elizabeth In The Garden (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p 166.
[iv] Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’.
[v] Martyn, pp. 166-167.
[vi] John Hutchins, The History And Antiquities of the County of Dorset, 3rd edn: Corrected, Augmented, and Improved by William Shipp and James Whitworth Hodson, 4 vols (London: John Bowyer Nichols, 1873), IV, p. 276.
Hutchins, John, The History And Antiquities of the County of Dorset, 3rd edn: Corrected, Augmented, and Improved by William Shipp and James Whitworth Hodson, 4 vols (London: John Bowyer Nichols, 1870), IV
Martyn, Trea, Elizabeth In The Garden (London: Faber and Faber, 2008)
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 May 2019]
‘Virginia Ash Hotel’, Historic England List Entry 1174635, (1961), < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1174635> [accessed 28 August 2020]