The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh

Courtier, soldier, explorer, colonist, scholar, family man, libertine: in his life Elizabeth's favourite played many parts, and posterity has accentuated each according to the needs of the time, as Robert Lawson-Peebles explains.

Raleigh in 1588

Nobody has ever doubted that Sir Walter Ralegh is a significant figure. The nature of his significance has however changed over time, and those changes are reflected in images of the man even more various than the spellings and pronunciations of his name. In part, the sheer variety of the images of Ralegh derives from the ways that he projected himself.

Self-presentation is often an important component of success, indeed seemed to be a requirement in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Historians and critics have remarked on the vital part played by the theatre and theatricality in Elizabethan culture. Role-playing was central to an ambitious man like Ralegh, and he played his parts to the hilt. But later ages asked him to play yet further roles, only some of which would he have recognised. Here we shall examine some of the ways in which Ralegh's reputation has been shaped and then reshaped to meet the demands of quite different times.

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