Monday, 29 February 2016

Bess - The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter by Anna Beer

An interesting biography of a little known lady, although wife to the legendary Sir Walter Ralegh
 (sometimes spelled Raleigh). Born Elizabeth Throckmorton, she was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber to Elizabeth I, and Walter Ralegh was one of the Queens favourites. Most likely Bess and Ralegh met at court, she got pregnant and they secretly married in 1591. It so upset the Queen  when she discovered it, that she put them both under house arrest.

Walter Ralegh was an important person at the time, as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (before he fell from grace) and was often away fighting wars or looking for gold in the new colonies in the Americas. That meant they were separated for most of their marriage life. Bess therefore had to learn how to care for their houses, family, children and just to survive on her own. Most time they spent together at the end of Ralegh’s life, when he was imprisoned in the Tower for many years. She stayed with him there, part of the time, and their last son Carew was born during the imprisonment. For many years Ralegh had the threat of being executed hanging over his head, and, in 1618, he finally was. I remember the rooms in the Tower that the Ralegh's occupied, from my visit there. It was later renamed 'The Bloody Tower' being the place where the 'Princes in the Tower' were staying.

Sir Walter Ralegh's quarters in the Tower
From this time onwards, Bess made a tremendous effort to reinstate the Ralegh inheritance for their only surviving son. She became a master of court cases and a very shrewd woman, building up her fortune from nil. She lived on into her eighties, although it is not known how and when she died.

Anna Beer manages to convey a very personal portrait of a remarkable woman. Just to survive in the intrigues of court in those days, seems to have been a full time occupation. Sometimes the story of the times that are woven into the story of Bess, is taking up a little bit too much of the space, but, at the same time it makes us understand the kind of society Bess had to survive in. It also gives us an idea how life was for women at the time, and what they could do if they set their mind to it.

Much more have been written on Sir Walter Ralegh, but here we get his story connected to his wife’s. Anna Beer implies that Bess' influence over her husband was much bigger than previously thought. She has made thorough research through archives, court papers and letters, and found new evidences of a life little documented, and weaves from these facts, a fascinating portrait of an unusual woman as well as the reality of life in those days.

Anna Beer is a British author, mainly writing biographies. As a biographer she is interested in "the relationship between literature, politics and history” (she has also written a biography of John Milton).

I downloaded this e-book for free from Endeavour Press.

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