Christian Science Monitor -- January 13, 2004
Sir Walter Raleigh
by Ian Garrick Mason
Henry Holt, 622pp, $35.00
At the hour of his execution, Sir Walter Raleigh ran his thumb along the blade of the headman’s axe. “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases,” he quipped to the assembled crowd. Such style partly explains why ever since his death in 1618, whether being portrayed as republican martyr or patriotic hero, Raleigh has held a special place in the hearts of his countrymen. The truth, of course, was more complex: as historian Raleigh Trevelyan (who was baptized Raleigh “because of a tenuous family connection” to the great man) shows in a nicely balanced new biography, “it is impossible to give an outright verdict on Raleigh.”
Born into an old Devon family who had turned to privateering -- a form of government-sanctioned piracy practiced by English adventurers against Spanish shipping -- the young Raleigh was ambitious and bold. Fighting alongside relatives in the Huguenot wars in France and then serving the crown in Ireland during an uprising against English rule, he quickly distinguished himself as a confident and ruthless military leader. Handsome and well-spoken, he managed to catch the eye of Queen Elizabeth, who took him into her intrigue-filled Court as her newest favorite. There he prospered -- “none of Raleigh’s rivals could compete with his sycophantic versifying”, writes Trevelyan -- and prestigious appointments and lucrative monopolies soon followed.
Raleigh, however, was not looking for a comfortable sinecure. Eager to take risks, he raised financing for colonial expeditions to the New World. The first of these set up a small colony on Roanoke Island (off modern-day North Carolina), although this was ultimately abandoned. Later, fired by Spanish rumors of a gold-laden “El Dorado” somewhere in Guiana, he personally led an expedition up the Orinoco river, where he managed to build relationships with the native chiefs, but failed to discover any gold. Such projects were financed by investors like himself, other nobles, and often even the Queen, all of whom hoped for quick profits -- even if those profits came more often from raiding Spanish treasure ships on the way back from Mexico than from the establishment of self-supporting colonies.
Yet glory -- both his and his Queen’s -- was also a key motivator for Raleigh. At the battle of Cadiz, he and the other English commanders literally blocked each other’s ships in order to ensure that their own would be the first in the van of battle against the defending Spanish. And during an operation in the Canary Islands, Raleigh got fed up waiting for the Earl of Essex’s ships to arrive and rowed ashore with his men to mount his own ground attack on a Spanish fort. Despite coming under heavy musket and cannon fire, neither he nor a fellow officer would take off their highly-visible coloured scarves, “not willing to do the Spaniards so much honour” as the officer recalled. For profit and for glory: Raleigh seems an ideal representative of Elizabethan England, poised as it was between the not entirely complementary worlds of medieval chivalry and modern commerce.
Unfortunately for him, Raleigh also came to mark a junction point between the arbitrary power of kings and the gradually strengthening rule of law. His rapid rise and proud manner had gained him many enemies, and as Queen Elizabeth aged, thoughts of succession came to dominate the minds of senior courtiers. Raleigh made himself vulnerable by remaining aloof from the inevitable politicking, and by the time James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as James I, the king’s mind had already been poisoned against Raleigh by the whispering of his enemies. Put on trial on trumped up charges of high treason, Raleigh defended himself brilliantly, but to no avail. Even he could not beat a system so stacked against the accused. Yet as Trevelyan concludes, his trial “was a first flicker in the change of attitude towards rights of individuals against the power of the mighty State.”
His death sentence indefinitely postponed by the king, Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirteen years, during which time he wrote the first massive volume of his History of the World. Finally, he was released to lead another expedition for Guiana’s gold. He wasn’t pardoned, though, and when the voyage ended in failure and death -- including the loss of his eldest son and the unauthorized razing of a Spanish town -- Raleigh was executed on the original treason charge in order to placate a furious Spain.
Regarded at first as merely an ambitious and ruthless courtier, the intelligence and dignity he displayed at his trial and later execution led many to turn against King James’s Spanish-oriented rule, and transformed contemporaries’ views of Raleigh. On the day before his death, Raleigh ran into an old friend in the palace yard where his scaffold was being erected. The friend told him that he would attend his execution if he could somehow find a place in the large crowd that was expected. “I do not know what you may do for a place,” said Raleigh with a sardonic smile. “You must make what shift you can. But for my part, I am sure of one.” His place on the scaffold was undeserved. His place in history was not.