Sir Walter Raleigh at a Supper Party

Honest scholarship demands we use sixteenth century documents when we interpret the informer Richard Baines' accusations of atheism against Christopher Marlowe. One of these documents is Sir Francis Bacon's essay "Of Atheism”, in which he defines what being an atheist meant in the late 16th century when he writes, “all that impugn a received religion, or super-stition, are by the adverse part branded with the name of atheists.” We have a rare opportunity to glimpse the "atheistic" thinking of Marlowe's friends and associates through the memory of one Reverend Ironside, who preserved a supper conversation* between himself, Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother Carew. So disturbed was Ironside by the supper talk between the three of them that he wrote “a full record of this dangerous conversation” down afterward, and later gave it to the Privy Council. This table talk took place only two months after Baines' charges of atheism against Marlowe had been handed to the Privy Council. As history has recorded, within a year of Marlowe's alleged death Ironside's recollections led to Whitgift investigating Raleigh on similar charges.

The supper party was given by the Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset. During the course of conversation at the table Sir Ralph Horsey reproached Carew for his “loose talk”, saying the Latin equivalent of “Evil talk corrupts good manners”. Carew asked the Reverend Ironside what he meant, and Ironside replied, “The wages of sin is death.” Carew pointed out that death is common to all, saint or sinner. To this Ironside responded that life, which is properly the gift of God through Jesus Christ, is life eternal, “so that death, which is properly the wages of sin, is death eternal, both of the body and soul also.”


At this point, Carew said, “Soul. What is that?” Ironside replied, “Better it were that we would be careful how the souls might be saved than to be curious about finding out their essence.”

Sir Walter Raleigh now joined in, saying that Ironside should answer his brother’s question. He said, “I have been a scholar some time at Oxford, I have answered under a Bachelor of Arts, and had talk with divers; yet hitherto in this point {regarding what the soul of man is} have I not by any been resolved. They tell us it is primus motor, the first mover in a man."

Ironside replied with a quote from Aristotle, which Raleigh rejected as “obscure and intricate.”

Then Ironside said, “Plainly the reasonable soul is a spiritual and immortal substance breathed into man by God, whereby he lives and moves and understandeth, and so distinguished from other creatures.”


“Yes,” said Raleigh, “But what is that spiritual and immortal substance?”

“The soul,” replied Ironside.

To this circular reasoning, Raleigh said, “Nay, then, you do not answer like a scholar.”

Ironside concluded his part in the dialogue saying, “Nothing more certain in the world than that there is a God, yet being a spirit, to subject him to the sense otherwise than perfected it is impossible.”

“Marry,” said Raleigh, “There two be alike, for neither could I learn hitherto what God is.”

Click here to read Raleigh's poem The Lie

Below: Christopher Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd and Raleigh's reply.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Christopher Marlowe, not printed until 1599

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields

Woods or steepy mountain yields
And we will sit upon the rocks, 

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks 

By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses 

And a thousand fragrant posies, 

A cap of flower, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool

Which from our pretty lambs we pull; 

Fair lined slippers for the cold 

With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds, 

With coral clasps and amber studs; 

And if these pleasures may thee move, 

Come live with me and be my love.
The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing

For thy delight each May morning: 

If these delights thy mind may move, 

Then live with me and be my love.

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
Sir Walter Raleigh, 1600

If all the world and love were young,

And truth in every shepherd's tongue, 

These pretty pleasures might me move 

To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold, 

When rivers rage and rocks grow cold; 

And Philomel becometh dumb;

The rest complain of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields

To wayward winter reckoning yields; 

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,

Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of roses, 

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies, 

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, 

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
Thy belt of straw and ivy buds, 

Thy coral clasps and amber studs, 

All these in me no means can move 

To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,

Had joys no date nor age no need,

Then these delights my mind might move

To live with thee and be thy love.