‘Rawleigh is a great name in our history, and fills a space in our imagination,’ wrote Isaac D’Israeli in 1841. Walter Ralegh’s various extraordinary careers – colonist in Ireland and the New World, soldier, courtier, unfortunate lover, poet, perhaps the most ambitious English historian before Gibbon – have ensured that he has been lionised as the most brilliant of those thrusting Elizabethans who advanced their fortunes through exploration, military heroics and literary endeavour. Recent assessments, however, have been swayed less by the swashbuckling glamour: nowadays, we debate Ralegh’s legacy as a pioneer of British imperialism, his leading role in one of the worst Elizabethan atrocities – the massacre of surrendered Catholic soldiers at Smerwick in southwest Ireland – and his abandonment of the fledgling English colony at Roanoke for a futile (and ultimately fatal) quest for the gold of El Dorado. Many of Ralegh’s most famous poems are dubiously attributed; some scholars view his bloated History of the World as syncretic rather than original, and it is rarely read today. The most famous stories are myths: Ralegh popularised the smoking of tobacco in England but he did not introduce it; the tale of his gallantry with cloak and puddle is almost certainly a posthumous fabrication (he did, though, spend wildly on his wardrobe); it is very unlikely that he had any dealings with potatoes.
Such is Ralegh’s abiding magnetism that his life has been chronicled scores of times. The authoritative work to date is the admired biography by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, published in 2011. Anna Beer’s vivid new account appears on the quatercentenary of Ralegh’s execution. She frames her narrative around the strangest events of an extraordinary life: Sir Walter’s trial for treason in 1603 for plotting with Spain to depose King James I and his beheading fifteen years later (the journey to the executioner’s block delayed by the peculiar ‘mercy’ of the king). Beer suggests that Ralegh, whom James had immediately dismissed from office on coming to the English throne, was guilty of foolish treasonable conversation, involving fantasies of regime change. Up until that time, this ‘patriot’ had been the most hawkish advocate of war against the so-called ‘tyranny’ of the king of Spain; his metamorphosis into ‘the rankest traitor in all England’, a ‘spider of Hell’ in the words of the prosecutor at his trial (Edward Coke at his most hyperbolic), machinating for a Spanish-led invasion, remains an impenetrable mystery. The only certainty is that the episode betrays Ralegh’s striking gift for making enemies and his dreadful political instincts.
As Beer astutely observes, the activities for which Ralegh is most famous – his colonial and military exploits, and his major historical and political writings (products of the boredom of imprisonment) – were concerns secondary to his overarching ambitions, which were political and dynastic. The obscure fifth son of a Devon gentleman, Ralegh amassed a fortune when he shot to prominence as Elizabeth I’s favourite in the 1580s, living in ostentatious luxury at Durham House on the Strand and building a substantial family estate in Dorset. Elizabeth made him captain of the guard and an important regional governor. His clandestine marriage to and impregnation of one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, Bess Throckmorton, was an act of social advancement, supposed to tie him to one of the greater gentry families of the land. An unusual and beautiful double portrait of Sir Walter and his son Wat from 1601 demonstrates Ralegh’s intention to bequeath his estate and influence to his descendants.
The marriage and the lies that he told about it were the first of Ralegh’s great miscalculations. The queen’s maids of honour were her intimate companions and marriages without the queen’s ‘privity’ were forbidden. Ralegh and Bess were imprisoned in the Tower when the truth emerged. Ralegh never achieved a position on the Privy Council, a place among the Knights of the Garter or a noble title. The Sherborne estate, which he took pains to place in trust for young Wat, defaulted to the crown upon Ralegh’s conviction for treason, a scribe apparently having made a fatal clerical error in the deed of conveyance. The most pathetic tragedy was the demise of the heir himself. In a desperate gamble, Ralegh obtained his release from the Tower in 1616 on the promise that he would enrich the crown by finally discovering the gold of El Dorado. The hot-blooded young Wat, who accompanied his father on the expedition, died leading an attack against the Spanish at San Thomé on the Orinoco River, in violation of the terms of Ralegh’s commission requiring him to respect the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty. In the manner of his death, Wat handed King James the excuse to implement the death sentence that had long hovered over his father.
To write any account of a life of such sensational drama, which extended in so many directions, is a daunting task. In this work of synthesis rather than discovery, Beer deftly summarises the very varied historiographies that lie behind Ralegh’s activities in Ireland and the New World, as friend and patron of scientists and mariners, as consumer of stockings, and so on. The author of an important biography of Bess Throckmorton, her writing on Ralegh’s familial relationships is particularly judicious and refreshingly unromantic. She offers perceptive readings of Ralegh’s letters, bringing to light the astonishing arrogance of his unsolicited political advice to senior statesmen, such as the Earl of Leicester, and the bare-faced lies contained in his letters to Robert Cecil.
Rattling through Ralegh’s eventful life, Beer is not compelled to offer decisive judgements on the controversial debates: the ethics of colonialism, the contested literary canon, the causes of the enmity he evoked among his contemporaries. She is suggestive on perhaps the most fascinating subject of all, Ralegh’s religion: if he did not maintain the famous ‘school of atheism’ at Durham House, as contemporaries alleged, her Ralegh is a politique and a ‘deist’, even a ‘cultural relativist’ in an age of ‘fundamentalism’.
It is a shame that the work is strewn with so many factual errors. To give a couple of examples: William Cecil was not ‘Lord Secretary’ in 1583; Ralegh did not write to justify the assassination of the Earl of Tyrone in 1598, for the rebel earl was bracingly alive at the time, waging the Nine Years’ War against the English until 1603.
The work is studded with generous samples of Ralegh’s beguiling prose, which has the unfortunate effect of throwing into relief some of the less elegant cadences of 21st-century popular history. Above all, Beer is happiest commending Ralegh as a writer: his poems, she plausibly argues, offer the most enriching insight into this most flawed and brilliant of men.