Knowing what I did of the life of Sir Walter Raleigh before reading this work
by Anna Beer, I must confess I would never have imagined that he had a wife
at all. It's not surprising to learn that her life was a protracted
struggle for even the smallest semblance of power or recognition, living for
so many years in the shadow of a famous man, and one who was by any account
a courtier if not lover of Queen Elizabeth I.
Walter's marriage to the then-pregnant Bess was kept secret from the
"virgin" Queen whose society paradoxically demanded the appearance if not
the fact of chastity. In fact, when Lizzy got word of the goings-on with
one of her favorite men-in-waiting, and one of her ladies-in-waiting as Bess
had been at the time of the marriage, she packed both parties off to the
Tower of London, the holding pen for the rich and famous. Walter got out by
continual wheedling, large bribes, and the composition of clever verse, and
left his beloved wife to languish there, finally sprung by the efforts of
her brother, not her husband.
Such was the tenor of their life together always. Raleigh's affairs, so to
speak, at court always took precedence over the needs and desires of his
wife. He even had the paucity of good will to whine when his wife managed
to secure some property for herself and his heir whilst he was imprisoned
later, pending his execution. It's almost as though he begrudges her the
use of the property, while acknowledging that "I am but a dead husband to
one and a dead father to the other."
It's hardly the stuff of great romance. Raleigh sometimes wrote to his wife
with words of love, but as often, or perhaps more often, to his Queen. Whom
he wished to flatter more is anybody's guess. His own life was taken up in
trying to make a financial success and be a hit in royal circles, when "to
get anywhere near the throne, to get anywhere near the royal presence,
sometimes took Queen Elizabeth's subjects months of bribes, gifts, and
letters." Raleigh and Bess's families were constantly enjoined in this
desperate fight for recognition and the powers and wealth that it brought.
It could be said that Raleigh worked his machinations for Bess's sake, but
leaving a young new wife in prison while he pressed on to the next adventure
would seem to belie this.
Raleigh's last stay in the Tower was interrupted by his being allowed to
attempt an attack against the Spaniards in Guinea, a battle which he lost
and which took the life of his eldest son, Wat. In his letter to Bess on
that occasion we see his more tender side: "I am loath to write because I
know not how to comfort you. And God knows, I never knew what sorrow meant
Disgraced and in danger, Raleigh returned to London where his determined wife
set about to save him, first by begging custody of him under house arrest,
then by putting him on a boat to France. The attempt failed mainly because
Raleigh himself, perhaps tormented by a guilty conscience in the loss of his
son, turned back. His return to the Tower was certain - his execution a
For nearly fifteen years, Bess kept housekeeping both at the family home and
in the Tower, risking the life of her young child by inhabiting its
plague-ridden damps - "He spent fourteen days laying 'next to a woman with
running plague sore and only a paper wall in between.''" When Bess makes
the remarkably sensible decision to leave the Tower for the sake of Wat's
health, Raleigh moans "now that my wife and child have abandoned me, and in
what fearful estate the Lord knows."
Finally Bess is witness to her husband's execution. Enormously popular with
the people but out of favor with monarchs, Raleigh made a dignified end, his
head sliced off with two blows of the ax which, he had joked on the
scaffold, "is a sharp medicine, but it is a sure care for all diseases."
Legend has it that Raleigh's body was buried but his head was secured in a
velvet bag by his devoted wife Bess and maintained as a keepsake.
It is but one of many ironies of this tale of medieval marriage and mayhem
that nowhere is recorded the death and burial of Raleigh's faithful wife;
"It is merely a sentimental hope that it was at Beddington, the place that
she herself did "desiar to be berred.'" Poor Bess never learned to spell,
and it is wonderful that she accomplished as much as she did, managing not
to be cut off as a widow and trying always to gain advantage for her
remaining son. Remarkably for the times, she attained the age of 81.
Living in an age when women couldn't own property and had always to rely on
men as go-betweens in the simplest of legal matters, Bess played her cards
Much of this book is based on historical rumor, with rich domestic detail
from observations by other women of comparable station, as Bess was not a
diarist and only scraps of her own writing survive. Despite this handicap,
Anna Beer has painted in fine detail the hardships and accomplishments of a
well-born medieval lady laboring under the dubious boon of marriage to a