Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh by Anna Beer

A wife's wit and wantonness
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The Independent Culture

The traditional picture of Walter Ralegh's wife, Bess, handed down to us by his (male) biographers is of the innocent Maid of Honour deflowered by the handsome Captain of the Queen's Guard, the loving wife standing by her man during his absences in prison and on voyages, and the devoted widow keeping her husband's embalmed head with her at all times. When Anna Beer set out to examine these clichés from Bess's point of view, a quite different picture emerged, that of a highly intelligent and politically sophisticated woman who'd lived an influential life with courage and energy.

She was born in 1565, the only daughter of parents who already had six sons. At six, she lost her father, the diplomat Nicholas Throckmorton, and her mother became her major influence. She grew up in a close-knit and loving family seeing a powerful female running a great estate.

Throughout, Beer makes clever use of accounts, books and diaries to flesh out the minutiae of Elizabethan and Jacobean life. The Throckmortons were an important Leicestershire family and country life at Beaumanor, her childhood home, would not have been dull. One contemporary recalled that "I wore my Hair color'ed velvet every day and learned to sing and play on the Bass Viol."

Her mother, determined that Bess should find a job at court, stalled the customary arranged marriage for her. At 19 she was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber with an annual salary of £33 6s 8d, and board and lodging for herself and three servants. To put this in context, her brother Arthur later paid £2 to his wife's wet nurse for three months' work. It was a licentious court, where the elderly Sir William Knollys complained that he was kept awake at night by young women who "frisk and hey about".

At 25, she became pregnant by Walter Ralegh. They married so secretly that no date is recorded. Beer's role is merely that of a camera, and she never voices a judgement on her characters, but it is possible to see why they were attracted to each other. They were both people without family money who had their own way to make, and Ralegh cites "wit" as well as "wantonness" in a poem listing a woman's desirable qualities. Bess had this in spades. At best Walter had enormous energy, intellect and charm. She was to find him at worst depressive and mendacious.

The elderly queen was furious. Male biographers have, predictably, put it down to sexual jealousy. But Beer quotes the historian Susan Damon (she uses other historians intelligently, and is generous in her attribution) as pointing out that Elizabeth needed women about her whose loyalty was beyond doubt. Marriage spoilt this neutrality. Secret marriages demonstrated complete untrustworthiness. Furthermore, the Raleghs had called the baby Damerei, after a supposedly Plantagenet ancestor, blood which made him a contender for the throne. Bess went to the Tower and was only released when her baby died.

As a married woman, everything Bess had was now her husband's. She could not enter a contract, own land or borrow money, and her frustration is evident from her letters. Even so, Ralegh relied more and more on her networking skills and financial acumen as the years passed. She stayed at home with their second son, Wat, in London, or oversaw the building of their grand new house at Sherbourne, while Ralegh, ever restless, went on expedition after expedition overseas.

Bess was one of the estimated 10 per cent of women who were literate. She became a vigorous and enthusiastic letter-writer with her own spelling system. "Watter" is her "hosban". Her joyfully unpunctuated periods bring her own accents and intonations vividly before us.

To mention the succession at the end of Elizabeth's life just wasn't done. Instead, people started to cultivate her likely successor, James VI of Scotland. Beer manages to guide you through the tangle of 17th-century politics without losing you on the way. Robert Cecil, ignoring the fact that the Raleghs had brought up his motherless boy, contrived to remove a potential rival by having Walter tried and condemned for treason in 1603.

Reprieved from execution by the new king, James I, Walter spent 12 years in the Tower, writing and feeling sorry for himself and relying on Bess to conduct his business and bring up Wat, and Carew, born in 1605. She raised two enormous bribes of £1,500 to secure his release for an ill-fated expedition against the Spanish, during which Wat was killed. Ralegh refused the chance to escape to France, and was executed in 1618. As a traitor, his heirs were attainted, and his possessions reverted to the crown.

Widowed, Bess could use the law for herself, and did. The reversal of the attainder became her main object. She flooded the public sphere with pamphlets and manuscripts aimed at Ralegh's rehabilitation. It wasn't until 1628 and the payment to James's successor, Charles I, of an eye-watering, borrowed, £4,000 that the king signed the bill reversing the attainder. Bess had rewritten history.

Once again, the traditional biographer has her fading into widowhood, but Beer's research shows Bess going to parties in her sixties, carrying on with litigation, and running surprising friendships with John Donne and the playwright Ben Jonson, both of whom must have relished her sharp mind.

Despite her tone of studied neutrality, Beer obviously thinks highly of her heroine, and has shown us why. She's also made an interesting discovery. A document in the British Library shows that, by 5 August 1629, Bess was supporting her brother Nicholas "to the tune of £10,000". Within months of her son's being able to inherit, Bess suddenly became immensely wealthy. She had been watched during Sir Walter's trial in 1616 so that she didn't convey goods covertly away from her house. Very probably she had. And the prospect causes the reader to emit a delighted sisterly cheer.