New College of the Humanities

Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend

Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend
Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
Continuum 400pp £25
ISBN 10 144111209

Buy this book

Just let me get this out of the way, Messrs Nicholls and Williams. Raleigh, Ralegh, Rawleigh or Rawley – I don’t care how you spell it. What you shouldn’t do is to use ‘Raleigh’for your title, because it is the version ‘preferred by many modern popular sources on both sides of the Atlantic’; and ‘Ralegh’ throughout your text, because that’s the way your subject actually spelled his name. It is confusing and it leaves me wondering if you have been bullied by your publisher’s sales team.

Fortunately, the portrait of Walter Ralegh who emerges from the pages of Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend is so vivid, so intriguing, that one can forgive the authors a lot.

The bare facts of Ralegh’s life are well known. In the 1580s the good-looking Devon boy with a fetching beard attracted the attention of a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth; although sadly, Thomas Fuller’s lovely tale of how Ralegh spread his cloak over a ‘plashy place’so that his sovereign could walk across is ‘history as it should have been’, say Nicholls and Williams. Ralegh used his wealth (and the wealth of others) in an attempt to establish a colony in Virginia – again, the story that he introduced tobacco and potatoes to Britain is history as it should have been rather than history as it was. And after his banishment from court for marrying the pregnant Bess Throckmorton, one of the queen’s maids of honour, he struggled to regain Elizabeth’s favour by hunting for the fabled South American empire of El Dorado. Distraught at his fall from grace after the queen’s death he became involved in an absurd plot to topple James I and replace him on the throne with the sad, spectral Arabella Stuart, a venture which led to his conviction for treason and 13 years imprisonment in the Tower, all the time waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall in the shape of James I’s signature on a death warrant.

In 1616 Raleigh secured his release on licence and undertook one last, desperate voyage in search of gold and royal favour. It failed: his son was killed when the expedition launched an illegal attack on the Spanish settlement of San Thomé; his captain committed suicide; and when he limped back to England James decided it was time to sign that death warrant.

Sir Walter Ralegh was executed at Westminster on the morning of October 29th, 1618, after a moving if rather long speech from the scaffold. His head was popped into a red leather bag and carried off by his wife Bess who kept it by her for the rest of her life. One wonders quite where she put it.

Nicholls and Williams are excellent on the narrative, which follows Ralegh, as Fuller has it, ‘in all his undertakings in Court, in Camp, by Sea, by Land, with Sword, with Pen’. One moment he’s sailing up the Orinoco and negotiating with native chieftains, the next he is penning exquisite love lyrics to his queen or arguing some fine point of law with his prosecutors. Their discussion of the poetry is a little hesitant, perhaps; and their account of his prose reminds us why no one reads it any more (although that’s hardly their fault). But they really come into their own in the accounts of the in-fighting at court and in the way they bring out Ralegh's charisma and his duplicity. Their final assessment is exactly right. He was ‘a great Elizabethan, diminished by his lying, his self-regard, his pride’. He’s hard to love, but impossible to dislike.

From the archive:

The many faces of Sir Walter Ralegh

Adrian Tinniswood's latest book is Pirates of Barbary (Vintage, 2011)

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5