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The Madre de Deus — a scene that didn’t find its way into the final version of a Woman of Noble Wit

The Madre de Deus – a scene that didn’t find its way into the final version of a Woman of Noble Wit When I wrote A Woman of Noble Wit I was determined to tell her story, not his. But I found that in the later stages of Katherine’s life her famous boys were taking over far too much of the action. So I decided to end the main narrative on the accession of Queen Elizabeth, with a short “afterward”. That meant I had to leave out quite a few scenes, including this one.

It is September 1592 and we find Katherine Raleigh, now a widow in her seventies, dozing in the garden behind her house close by the Place Gate, near Exeter Cathedral.


Katherine woke with a start. She hauled herself into a more comfortable position on the wooden bench and drew a deep breath of apple-scented air into her lungs. As she surveyed the trees growing along the red-stone walls, boughs weighed down with rosy fruit, a satisfied smile spread slowly across her face. For an instant she felt young again, as if the lines and wrinkles that bore testimony to her tally of years were all smoothed away. She could almost believe that her husband, her dear Walter, was just beyond the door waiting to join her in the sun.

Then she remembered. She heaved a heavy sigh and, sitting up, tilted her head to one side, straining her ears to identify the sounds that had brought her so abruptly from her afternoon rest. Voices and laughter were echoing from the kitchen; someone had come a-calling.

Katherine shaded her eyes with her hand and peered toward the kitchen door, hoping her visitor might be her grandson Arthur Gilbert. Humphrey’s boy was always a favourite in her house; unlike his elder brother. Katherine snorted and tapped her foot on the paving beneath her seat. That boy! Young John Gilbert was always into some scrape or another. He would soon exhaust what was left of the Gilbert family fortune if he ran on unchecked. Her lip curled. So full of himself when last she saw him, just before he sailed with the fleet his Uncle Walt had kitted out that very spring to search the oceans for Spanish prizes. Privateering they called it, since it had the queen’s sanction. And her investment too, if reports were to be believed. Katherine’s brow puckered as she struggled to bring it to mind. Ah! That was it! Walt had been recalled to London only a day after they set sail. News of his clandestine marriage had reached Queen Elizabeth’s ears.

“Foolish boy to think he could so deceive his royal mistress!” she murmured, folding her arms across her chest. “What will become of him? Imprisoned in that dread fortress Tower!”

Her visitor was not Arthur Gilbert. It was John, Katherine’s eldest son, who came striding through the garden toward her. He was puffing a little with the exertion and she noticed that his fine black velvet doublet was straining across an increasing girth.

“You’ve put on weight, my boy,” Katherine chuckled. “You’ll go the way of my sister Kat!” But then she screwed up her eyes to study him more closely and her eyebrows drew together. “Tis to be hoped that visit to Bath last year has cured your ills,” she said, her voice now laden with concern. He merely shrugged. 

John reminded her more and more of Otho’s old uncle, his namesake, though he was of a much heavier frame than that old man had been. She closed her eyes for a moment and was back in the garden at Greenway Court watching a little boy counting out an old man’s pennies. She felt the tears pricking her eyes; strange how her mind was forever going back to times long past, though she could barely recall what she ate for dinner.

“Wake up Mother,” John called. “I’ve brought gifts for you. Some are from foreign shores, but here’s one from the queen.”

At that another figure, taller and much leaner, emerged from the shadows into the sunlight. Katherine raised a hand to her mouth and let out a little yelp of joy. She could hardly believe her eyes. Her youngest, her Walt, was bounding along the garden path, a striking figure in his fine embroidered doublet with that magnificent pearl dangling and bouncing beneath his ear.

He came to an standstill before her, swept off his feathered cap and bent low to plant a kiss on her wrinkled cheek.

“I thought you a prisoner still,” she exclaimed as he straightened up and thrust his chest out. Katherine screwed up her eyes and peered into Walt’s face. Perhaps only a mother would see the new worry lines etched beside the sparkling eyes. Beneath the bravado of his broad grin, for all his swagger and display, his fine clothes and airs and graces, she could see that her boy was shaken to his core.

“Have my prayers been answered?” she asked, leaning forward. “Has the queen relented?”

“I remain in keeping Mother dear, my freedom is but fleeting — as shall be my visit here,” he answered with an edge in his voice. “My release is at an end! Even now, after all I’ve recovered for her!” he complained, throwing up his arms as he began to pace up and down, clicking his heels on the stone cobbles. “It seems I was the only one in all England who could bring order to Dartmouth! Now the spoils are secured. The queen will get some return on her investment. But I’m still to be held a prisoner!”

“John, whatever is he talking about?” Katherine demanded. So John told her all about the Portugese ship, Madre de Deus, captured in the Atlantic by Walt’s fleet.

“Mother you should have seen her. Dartmouth has never seen such a vessel!” he declared. It was many years since she had seen her usually dour eldest son so animated. While John waxed lyrical about the Madre de Dios, Walt couldn’t keep still. She watched as he fiddled with his lace-edged cuffs, turned and resumed his impatient marching back and forth between her herb beds.

“Be still, my boy,” she urged, catching hold of his arm as he passed. “You remind me of those caged beasts I saw in the King’s menagerie that time I went to London. I can’t concentrate on your brother’s tale with you jiggling about in front of me.”

“What a prize Mother! Sixteen hundred tons and stuffed full of precious cargo,” John went on, ignoring the interruption. “The heady scent of those exotic spices hung in the air; You could smell it miles before you even reached the town. Peppers, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg all mixing with the fragrance of costly perfumes. I felt quite light headed even before I saw the bales of rich silks. Not to mention the jewels — gold and silver, rubies and pearls — and two great crosses of gold all studded with diamonds, with all.” He held out a parcel. She peeled back the wrapping to find it contained a quantity of luxurious black silk “See Mother, I’ve brought you silk for a fine new gown and here’s pearls to trim it.”

“What does an old woman like me want with a new gown?” she scolded, running her fingers over the soft cloth. “But tell me! How has this ship and its splendid cargo, brought Walt from his prison cell?”

John explained how, as news of the captured vessel and the valuable goods it carried spread, the little town of Dartmouth had been overtaken by looters.

“People flooded in, all thinking they could take a share. It was chaos! It’s a wonder no-one was killed! There was no stopping them. The cargo that should have gone to those who invested in the voyage was vanishing fast.”

Walt’s eyes were frosty as he chipped in with a mirthless laugh. “Robert Cecil was despatched to assess the value and put a stop to the riotous thieving. Robert Cecil!” He spat the name through his teeth. “Hah! The men of Devon paid no heed to him!” 

“I went down to see what I could do,” John continued. “How I did whoop to see Walt there; sent down from London. Queen Elizabeth knew he would command respect.” John’s pride in his younger brother had not diminished.

“What a welcome I had! ’Twas a true homecoming! Of course, I soon had it all in order,” Walt boasted. “I have promised the queen she shall have four score thousand pounds of the spoils. A fair return on her small investment in the project. It will mean a loss for Carew and me, but perhaps it will serve to pay my ransom,” he said with a rueful smile. 

“That will not go down well with your brother. Carew will be loathe to lose his share,” Katherine laughed as Walt flicked an anxious glance at the man standing ready at the garden gate.

“I may not tarry, Mother. I remain in charge. I must return to London.”

And that was it, a swift embrace and in a moment he was gone. No mention of that poor girl left in the Tower, nor the babe.

Katherine turned to John, who stood with his mouth open, amazed at his brother’s breezy exit.

“This does not surprise me,” she chortled. “It reminds me of times I caught him out in some wilful act when he was a boy. He’d disappear as soon as he could.” Her mind went back to those days when Walt would go off for hours, seeking the company of the Budleigh fishermen, listening to their tales, or riding out over Woodbury Common. Anywhere her sharp tongue could not lash him.

“He knows well how I would berate him, how I would counsel him to pocket his pride and do what is right by Bess and the child. He would not stay to hear me out.” She stroked the silky fabric spilling from the bundle on her lap and squinted up at John. “Do you truly believe the queen will relent?”

But John could not say. He sat down and passed a hand across his brow.

“There is more to tell. The boy’s gone and got himself caught up in all the looting and quarrelling over the spoils,“ he groaned.

“The boy? You mean young John Gilbert?” she queried, though she didn’t really need to ask. 

“I’d better tell you. You’ll hear soon enough. He picked a quarrel with Sir John Burgh. He’s the chap appointed to lead the squadron after Walt was called back. Burgh’s already fought one duel in France over a dispute.”

She patted his hand and nodded.

“I know,” she soothed. “that miscreant boy’s heir to all the Gilbert lands and wealth you’ve fought so hard to secure. But I doubt there’s much you can do to keep that one out of trouble.” John sighed and his shoulders slumped.



The Madre de Deus was a Portuguese vessel captured by a fleet of English privateers in the Azores in 1592. Sir Walter Raleigh had been the driving force behind the enterprise and would have sailed with the privateers had he not been called back to answer to the queen for his behaviour in marrying Bess Throckmorten without consent.

By the time the Portuguese carrack was brought triumphantly into Dartmouth harbour on 9 September the hugely valuable cargo she was carrying from the East Indies had already been plundered by the sailors and captains. The pilfering continued after she docked and looters poured into the town.  There were also angry squabbles amongst the investors over who should get what. The queen sent Robert Cecil to assess the value of the remaining cargo and sort matters out. He reported that he could smell spices 7 miles from the town, but Cecil made no headway in resolving the disputes.

It was Sir John Hawkins, then head of the Royal Navy, who advised that Raleigh was the best man to restore order and salvage some return for the investors. Sir Walter was released from the Tower on 15 September and sent to Dartmouth, accompanied by a keeper to ensure that he didn’t abscond. (I have imagined  that he called on his mother in Exeter on his way back to custody in London.)

When he arrived in Dartmouth he found the sailors doing a brisk trade with local merchants and jewellers. It proved impossible to retrieve everything the sailors had stolen, but he did manage to sell off what was left in the ship’s hold. Amongst the investors Queen Elizabeth perhaps got more than her fair share of what he was able to recoup.

Walt and Bess were released from the Tower of London in December 1592 and he spent the next few years gradually clawing his way back into the queen’s favour. Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603. Raleigh was arrested on 19 July of that year at what is now the Old Exeter Inn in Ashburton. He was charged with treason against King James I and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for more that thirteen years. In 1617 he was released by King James I to lead a second expedition to Guyana in search of  El Dorado. He but returned empty handed and was executed on 29 October 1618.

Sadly, the child born in 1572 did not survive, but Walter and Bess had two more sons. Walter, known as Wat, was born in 1593 and died in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers at San Tome in Guyana during Raleigh’s last disastrous voyage.  Carew (not to be confused with Katheirne’s son of the same name) was born within the walls of the Tower of London in 1605. He survived his father, settled at West Horsely in Surrey, died in 1665 and was buried alongside Sir Walter in St Margaret’s Church Westminster

Sir John Gilbert II

The dispute between young John Gilbert and Sir John Burgh, who had command of Raleigh’s ship the Roebuck during the Azores venture in 1592, rumbled on for two years. At times it became violent with one of Gilbert’s messengers reportedly stabbed. Burgh is recorded as threatening to “kill a man in his bed” — the man in question is thought to have been young John Gilbert. In 1594 Burgh challenged Gilbert to a duel, insisting he “should not to use boyish excuses, or he would beat him like a boy”. Gilbert accepted the challenge and they fought with single rapiers, either near Smithfield or Clerkenwell. Burgh was injured and Gilbert maintained that he rode to Hackney for a surgeon. If so, the errand was unsuccessful since Burgh died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Later in the same year young John Gilbert sailed with Raleigh on his first great voyage of exploration to Guyana.

In 1595 Gilbert received a pardon for his offences from the Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke. When Katherine’s son, the first Sir John Gilbert died in 1596, only two years after his mother’s death, young John Gilbert inherited the Gilbert estates. He continued to play his part in various maritime ventures and after the battle of Cadiz he was knighted by the Earl of Essex.

Letters between the second Sir John Gilbert and his uncle, Sir Walter Raleigh, shed light on the younger man’s character and the increasingly strained relations between them. In a letter to his nephew dated November 1602 Raleigh used these words:

“Use your fortune wisely in this hard worlde. I here yow spend vaynly and use carowsing. It is tyme to look to your estate now…”

By 1606 Gilbert was disposing of some of the lands he had inherited including the manor of Broadwoodkelly, his father Otho Gilbert’s birthplace, which was sold in that year. In the summer of 1608 Sir john Gilbert II contracted smallpox in London and died. He was buried in Marldon, Devon on 19 July 1608 and the next heir, his brother, Raleigh Gilbert had to be re-called from the Popham colony in North America to take up his inheritance.


Sources include :

The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh, Agnes Latham and Joyce Youings

The Younger Sir John Gilbert, john Roberts, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association 1968, Vol 100 pp205-218