Raleigh400 Event 1 – a historian’s view

13th December 2018

Yesterday evening, 12th December saw all the hard work and planning come together when a combination of 120+ sixth form students and some of the most senior liverymen from the City came together to explore Raleigh’s history, his entrepreneurial legacy and explore whether he would be relevant today, in the 21st century. In a nod to the historical context, Raleigh400 supporter, the Guild of Entrepreneur’s own Honorary Historian James Mellor, came along to document the event. 

He has penned these words, as well as providing a sketch; James is an accomplished cartoonist. This is what he wrote.

An Early Modern Entrepreneur

Would you hire Sir Walter Raleigh?  A loose cannon focussed on the short-term wins with a tendency not to follow orders might be a liability for a team.  On the other hand, someone innovative, dynamic and driven could be a very useful character for the right situation.  This was one of the questions to the panel of history and business experts at the first Raleigh400 event and one which really got panellists and students talking.

Ten schools with connections to the City were invited to bring students to the thoroughly enjoyable event arranged by the the Master of the Guild of Entrepreneurs, Peter Hewitt and hosted at Drapers’ Hall which, as the first of the Raleigh400 series, was an investigation into the past.  Following a welcome address by the Master (a descendent of Raleigh), students were invited to discuss the similarities and differences between entrepreneurship in the Early Modern world and today.

The past may be a foreign country, but aspects of it can often seem familiar.  Raleigh’s nation stood on a threshold.  The reformation had served to isolate England from European business.  Trade was increasingly difficult and, in some cases, impossible.  Individuals like Raleigh and his backers saw opportunities elsewhere: New trading companies, new trade routes and the New World itself.

Key differences were also identified by the students.  Raleigh was not the upstart of myth but well connected in court, particularly favoured by the monarch.  Self-made men were not commonplace in Tudor England.  There was much discussion about the Elizabethan barriers to entrepreneurial endeavours and advancement in general based on social class and gender and to what extent they have been removed.

Raleigh’s ideas and connections came together with the Guilds and Livery Companies, among which were individuals who recognised the value of his proposals and financed his expeditions to Derry and Virginia.  Students were able to learn about these in more detail from Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University.  The lecture also encouraged students to consider business in an age before business ethics, how our interpretations are shaped by the world we are viewing the past from and what we can learn from how Raleigh is remembered in the countries he visited.

The subsequent panel discussion allowed for the visitors to hear expert opinions not only on whether Sir Walter would have been hired by Lord Sugar, but on Early Modern investment and enterprise and factors that motivate entrepreneurs then and now.  Students also fed their opinions and findings back to the panel and the variety of perspectives aptly reflected the fact that students of history, business studies and economics were all present.

The question of whether a 21st Century business might hire Raleigh brought the man hypothetically into the modern world.  An interesting observation shared by the students was how they believed he would have thrived here.  A brilliant self-promoter, able to put a positive spin on all his endeavours, and able to tell the story of each as a pitch to raise interest and funds for the next – social media seems made for him.

James Mellor
Hon. Historian
Guild of Entrepreneurs