My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen….Sir Walter Raleigh

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 “My Lords….Ladies …..aaaand…..Ge….e…..ntle…….e….en.   When you hear that phrase you assume that there will be a fight. What is a lord? What is a lady aaaaand what is a gentleman?  To the Anglo Saxons it was a bread and butter issue: Hlaf  a loaf.  Hlaford,   a lord, the man who ensures a supply of bread. Hlafdie, the lord’s wife, the lady who distributes the bread. It paid to know on which side your bread was buttered.  A gentleman was defined in later mediaeval times, as one entitled to bear arms and thereby entitled to wear a coat of arms. He followed the noble calling of arms. He was expected to follow his lord into battle. The last thing he was expected to be was gentle. Raiding, and conquest secured the supply of food. ‘An army marches on its belly.’ (Napoleon). Julius Caesar saw the year as consisting of winter quarters, grass growth for the horses and weather for campaigning and finally, harvest for either capturing or destroying the crops of the enemy. It’s a straightforward annual cycle, determined mostly by the weather. Greed,  megalomania, fanaticism and madness can play a part in this too. ‘You look after the enemy and I will take care of the winter.’ (Adolf Hitler).

Nothing so becomes a gentleman as his sword. The sword is a symbol of power and authority, an extension of the arm, a device for sundering limbs, for slicing windpipes and internal organs and for spilling blood. It is also a work of art, a thing of sinister beauty.  To the Samurai it was an object worthy of veneration. Wieland and Vulcan were blacksmiths to the gods. The Scythians prayed to the sword and to the North Wind. If one doesn’t get you, the other will. Conquered people are ‘put to the sword,’  a final solution.  The sword is integral to a ‘guard of honour.’ A knight or a gentleman, uses his sword only to defend the weak, to defend ‘womanhood,’ to defend his country and his own honour.  Or does he?

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Sir Walter Raleigh is presented to us as a ‘dashing’ Elizabethan gentleman. Throwing his good cloak over a puddle to protect the queen’s shoes, assured him a place in popular imagination as a gallant gentleman. It was a good investment, unlike some of his other ventures.  Like many another, he came to Ireland to win fame and fortune with his sword. He did well here….eventually.  Elizabeth’s young gentlemen were referred to as mastiffs, on account of their ferocity.  Raleigh’s half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was accustomed to making  an avenue to his tent at the end of each day’s campaigning, from the heads of his victims. “Nothing so cows a man as the sight of his children, his wife, his brothers….”  Fear and revulsion. You can see the logic of his tactic.  Perhaps the name, ‘Fort of Gold’ was what lured Raleigh to west Kerry, a region in one of its sporadic revolts against Elizabeth. In the conquest business, it is important to be in at the kill. To the victor the spoils.

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This small declivity on a clifftop is The Fort of Gold, a bloody awful place to be  as the nights lengthen and the rain sweeps in from the Atlantic.  A small Spanish/Italian force landed here in the autumn of 1580. They had magnificent armour and swords. They had little or no artillery. Their line of retreat was to the rocks below. They came to assist the Irish rebels and to place an illegitimate son of the Pope on the throne of Ireland.  The Pope’s bastard wisely stayed at home, waiting for news. The mastiffs closed in. Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s Deputy, pounded the fort with his cannon. The young gentlemen distinguished themselves in the trenches.  Lord Grey offered terms and safe conduct out of Ireland. The invaders agreed.

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(Cannon in Youghal, a town later granted to Raleigh.)

Even a lord can break his word. Raleigh took charge of the surrender and the pillaging of the armour and weapons. The few Irish taken prisoner, male and female, were executed in the most hideous manner. Under Raleigh’s direction, almost eight hundred foreign soldiers were beheaded by the soldiers in the fields below the fort, The Field of the Cutting and The Black Fields. There was an enquiry into Grey’s breach of faith. His star faded. Raleigh defended his actions on the grounds that he was merely following orders. That has a contemporary ring to it. Anyway, he was the queen’s favourite dancing partner. He gained a town, some castles and forty thousand acres of confiscated land. Young Ned Denny, who coined the nickname ‘mastiffs’, became Sir Edward Denny, lord of extensive estates in Kerry. His Lady wife, eight years later, personally counted the heads of shipwrecked Spaniards from the Armada, two hundred in all, and was paid for each one. Raleigh went on to failed ventures in the Americas, in pursuit of fortune and eventually lost his own head in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. He trembled from ague. “I would not have mine enemies think that I quaked from fear.” He tested the edge of the axe. His personal courage was never in doubt. If the axe hadn’t got him, the tobacco, his constant companion, surely would have.

The sword is the staple of popular films and television programmes. It is everywhere in children’s stories and in legend. The Sword of Light. Excalibur. Gladiators spill blood and maim, always in slow motion. Film critics use the term ‘gore fest’ as a recommendation.

The time of fear and revulsion has come round again with ISIS, the sword as ‘the key to Heaven and Hell.’  This is not a new thing. With modern media it no longer happens somewhere far away.

The lord Katsu, one of the greatest of the Samurai, never drew his sword in anger.

He adapted his scabbard to make it almost impossible to draw the weapon.

He never killed anyone—- for which he was greatly criticised.

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