Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh; drawing by David Levine

Sir Walter Ralegh may not yet have inspired a great biography, but historians have not failed for want of trying: Edmund Gosse, Charles Kingsley, Martin Hume, and Henry Thoreau are among the dozens of writers who have produced biographies of him, though Edward Gibbon (perhaps significantly) gave up the attempt. Most of them, moreover, recognized Ralegh as the most Elizabethan of the Elizabethans, as the martyr, destroyed by the first Stuart, who epitomized for succeeding generations the reign of Good Queen Bess; yet they could not describe his life with the insight and plausibility that they brought to his era. If, in the last two or three decades, this situation has begun to alter, we still have some way to go before reaching the standard of the lives of Elizabeth herself.

The Victorians found it difficult to avoid sternness when dealing with a dilettante, even one who was acknowledged as a national hero. The Dictionary of National Biography had to recognize popular sentiment by according Ralegh twenty pages, only ten fewer than Elizabeth received, and more than three times as many as Lord Burghley, the Queen’s indispensable minister. But of the sober Burghley the Dictionary said, “Without him the reign…would not have been as glorious as it was,” and it saluted him as illustrious, attractive, and blessed with a paramount genius. For Ralegh, on the other hand, there was a grudging and ambiguous verdict: “It is by his long, costly, and persistent effort to establish this first of English colonies [Virginia] that Ralegh’s name is most favorably known.” Considering that the Roanoke settlement was a disaster, such a conclusion was barely complimentary.

That he had shown personal heroism in large measure, particularly on the high seas, nobody doubted. Most biographers also agreed that Ralegh was a clever courtier, that he wrote some passable poetry, that his History of the World was impressive in an oldfashioned way, and that he was an invaluable promoter of empire. In England at the height of imperialism, when swashbuckle dominated the country’s history, Ralegh, with his cloak, his tobacco, his piracy, and his arrogant chauvinism, could not help but seem heroic.

Yet historians were uneasy. No character in history has endured so relentlessly the adjective “flawed,” as if the appropriate metaphor for Ralegh’s life were an ostentatious jewel, reduced in value by its imperfections. His biographers were made uneasy by his hauteur, his vanity, his posturings, his unreliability, his penchant for deception and intrigue, his frivolity, the hatred he aroused, the grief and disaster he brought on friends and relatives, the easy distraction that left him familiar with many fields but master of none—in sum, the apparent lack of real substance. How could they grant the kind of approval reserved for Elizabeth or Burghley to a dilettante who never seemed properly serious, and whose sporadic attempts at seriousness seemed merely to add one more veneer to his shallowness?

Such concerns die hard. Even Lacey in his admiring new biography keeps referring to Ralegh as an overgrown schoolboy; he cannot resist emphasizing the weakness of his subject’s character: “boisterous, devil-may-care and thoughtless,…quick to anger and forget,…in the last resort, a dilettante.” But in fact we have now come close to an entirely different understanding of the great Elizabethan’s achievements. The transformation is the result of more than twenty years of reinterpretation, whose result has been to make Ralegh the epitome of an age—not only of confident seadogs, courtly conventions, and romantic courage but also of melancholic introspection, intellectual experiment, and revolutionary thought.

The change in the view of Ralegh began with a reinterpretation of the exploits for which he was best known, his efforts overseas. In David Quinn’s Raleigh and the British Empire (1947), the heedless adventurer became the hard-working promoter of English colonization. What Quinn showed was that the subjugation of Ireland, to which Ralegh and his Devon kin greatly contributed, was a sort of dry run for the subjugation of America. By tempering dreams of gold and Eastern spices with the commercial and geopolitical advantages of settling Englishmen in strategic places, the conquerors of Ireland, however brutal, created the eventual shape of the wider empire. Ralegh may have failed in his immediate objective of “planting” Virginia—partly because he lost interest, partly because the war with Spain took precedence, and partly because he and his associates made errors of inexperience—but his efforts helped to crystallize the aims of the many successful colonizers of the following generation.

In addition, always alive to the power of propaganda, Ralegh did more than any other Elizabethan to popularize the vision of empire that captured his countrymen’s imaginations around 1600 and that survived for some three centuries. His patronage was crucial in drawing forth from Thomas Hariot, one of the most inventive minds of the age, a rose-colored description of Virginia that long remained the foundation for the English obsession with that unpromising stretch of Atlantic seaboard; from John White, an extraordinary observer, the sketches and drawings that to this day evoke aboriginal America with unmatched power; and, above all, from the poet of England’s maritime destiny, Richard Hakluyt, the elegant prose that “most vehemently inflamed unto virtue” those who appreciated the nation’s true mission.


Ralegh clearly did so much to define and promote English colonialism that renewed respect for him was inevitable. Since the explorers before Jamestown had come to be appreciated not simply as expensive failures but as inventors of the model that brought success to the subsequent empire, Ralegh had to assume a new importance. And if now he could be considered seriously as a pioneer colonizer—if there was recognition for the originality of the man who wrote “whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself”—might not his other interests merit re-examination?

E.A. Strathmann in Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study in Elizabethan Scepticism (1951) dealt with another of the charges that had made the Victorians uneasy: that Ralegh had succumbed to skepticism, free-thinking, perhaps atheism. After all, had he not associated with strange magicians, the astrologer John Dee and those curious experimenters Hariot and the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland, whose peculiar dabblings smacked as much of witchcraft as of science? And had he not been part of the irreverent “school of night,” one of whose members, Christopher Marlowe, had called Moses a mere juggler, because Hariot had better tricks up his sleeve? Had not Ralegh himself said that he could not understand “what the reasonable soul of man is”? Such a doubter was unavoidably suspect, especially since he himself had become a well-known mixer of strange herbal potions. Evidence of more orthodox opinions in his last years came too little and too late.

Strathmann and other recent scholars have put this side of Ralegh’s career in an entirely new light.1 They have exploded the charge of atheism, and instead have placed him among the most advanced experimenters in skepticism, Hermeticism, and the latest ideas of science. For we now realize that the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century were often provoked by magical and Hermetic ambitions, the passion for experiment, and cosmological yearnings. That is exactly what moved Sir Walter and his colleagues, and indeed Hariot is beginning to emerge as a major luminary of seventeenth-century science, fit to be compared with Kepler, his contemporary and correspondent. The most recent research has suggested that Ralegh and his coterie may even have been tolerant, indifferent Deists—which is something of an exaggeration; what is clear is that they can no longer be dismissed as triflers, amused by the occult, and faintly heretical. They were at the forefront of the most audacious inquiries of an age that was undergoing an intellectual revolution.

Ralegh’s literary reputation has also risen, thanks to Agnes Latham’s The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh (1951) and Pierre Lefranc’s Sir Walter Ralegh, Ecrivain (1968). Where once he seemed elegant and witty, he now appears as an archetype of the growing melancholy and disillusion of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The reign of Gloriana, which bequeathed many of the financial and constitutional problems the Stuarts struggled with in vain, is coming to be considered less serene—troubled by social conflict and by the wars, factions, economic problems, and uncertain succession that bedeviled the second half of the reign—and it is appropriate that in the process our sense of Ralegh, too, should change. At last he is regarded as an appropriate friend of Spenser and Marlowe, worthy of the admiration they expressed for his poetry—“himself as skillful in that art as any,” according to Spenser.

Ralegh had experience with sorrow—otherwise he could not have written the sonnet “Farewell to the Court,”

Like truthless dreams, so are my thoughts expired,
And past return are all my dand- led days;
My love misled, and fancy quite retired,
Of all which past, the sorrow only stays.

His cleverness with language, not to mention his enjoyment of a good joke, does not hide his seriousness. Consider what he wrote in response to Marlowe’s famous “Come live with me and be my love”:

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee, and be thy love….

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten
In folly ripe, in reason rotten….

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no age nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

His prose, especially in the tract on Grenville and his ship, the Revenge, and his portrayal of Guiana, is as powerful as Hakluyt’s. This fuguelike sentence from The Last Fight of the “Revenge” is a stunning example of Elizabethan English at its best:


Sir Richard [Grenville] finding himself in this distress, and unable any longer to make resistance, having endured in this fifteen hours fight, the assault of fifteen several Armadas, all by turns aboard him, and by estimation eight hundred shot of great artillery, besides many assaults and entries; and that himself and the ship must needs be possessed by the enemy, who were now all cast in a ring round about him (the Revenge not able to move one way or other, but as she was moved with the waves and billow of the sea), commanded the master gunner, whom he knew to be a most resolute man, to split and sink the ship; that thereby nothing might remain of glory or victory to the Spaniards: seeing in so many hours fight, and with so great a Navy they were not able to take her, having had fifteen hours time, above ten thousand men, and fifty and three sail of men of war to perform it withall: and persuaded the company, or as many as he could induce, to yield themselves unto God, and to the mercy of none else; but as they had, like valiant resolute men, repulsed so many enemies, they should not now shorten the honor of their Nation, by prolonging their own lives for a few hours, or a few days.

Ralegh’s masterpiece is The History of the World, written during his twelve-year imprisonment in the Tower. Only one third was finished when he abandoned it, but the impact of its more than ten editions on the seventeenth century was enormous, and even the Victorians were able to praise its seriousness in unfolding the work of God in history. Recent commentators, however, have seen the links between the History and Ralegh’s own experience of politics. The prey of capricious monarchs, forced to spend nearly half his adult life in prison, and only too familiar with the cruelty of the great, he once described the glittering court as glowing like rotten wood. Now, in the History, he laid out a subversive philosophy which inspired the revolutionaries of the next generation—Cromwell, Lilburne, and Milton—in their disillusionment with monarchy.

Of all Ralegh’s many sides, this is the one that was glimpsed most dimly until recent years, beginning in 1965, when Christopher Hill gave him a major place in Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. Hill showed that the combination of ringing patriotism, historical sensitivity, social conscience, and a belief in retribution even for wicked monarchs served to make the History favorite reading for Puritan and gentry “patriots.” Ralegh’s purpose thus took on new depth, for beneath the surface melancholy of his ending we can now perceive a more inflammatory meaning:

O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered thou only hast cast out of the world and despised.

A passage like that, properly understood, explains why Cromwell could advise his placid son Richard: “Take heed of an unactive vain spirit! Recreate yourself with Sir Walter Raleigh’s History.”

Some of Ralegh’s qualities are to be found in Lacey’s biography. Drawing heavily on the gossips who made Ralegh one of the most talked about men in England, Lacey re-creates the underside of Elizabethan politics. He explains why the most dazzling figure at court could also be its most mordant critic. By exposing the viciousness (as well as the talents) of Elizabeth and those close to her, by displaying Leicester, Essex, Cecil, Coke, the Howard clan, and even Ralegh’s cousin Grenville at their worst and best, he makes believable the circles in which Sir Walter moved. We see the evil as well as the brilliance, and we also understand the sources of Ralegh’s revolutionary impulse.

Lacey’s crisp style is appropriate to the subject; and, although other recent biographies have more adeptly grasped Ralegh’s anti-Spanish mania, his legal maneuverings, and his posings, and have better appreciated the quality of his writing,2 none has so convincingly captured the paradoxes in his personality: sensitive in private and arrogant in public, acute in observing politics and inept as a politician, symbol of an age and hated by his contemporaries, grandiose and conspiratorial, tolerant and passionate, relentless and distractable, obsequious and proud. We see the explorer who was never a settler—Ophelia’s “courtier, soldier, scholar,” not to mention alchemist, pirate, and family man.

Unfortunately, it is not yet the biography Ralegh deserves, although it creates a figure who has the ring of truth. Regrettably, Lacey, an intelligent journalist, is less successful in following the paths opened up by recent scholarship. He tries to give Ralegh’s skepticism, his interests in magic and science, and his unorthodox political thinking their due, but he does not seem sufficiently aware of their importance in seventeenth-century thought. Lacey betrays a superficial knowledge of these subjects, and their treatment lacks the conviction of his descriptions of court life, exploration, colonization, personality, and shifting public opinion.

Ralegh was not just a patriot/revolutionary, or a many-sided courtier, or, as one recent interpreter believes, a perpetual player of roles throughout a life that he regarded as a drama. This piecemeal view takes us no further than the old belief that his “flawed” personality somehow expresses his essence. If there is to be any advance over such characterizations, then his poetry, his colonial adventures, his interest in science, his ambitions at court, and all the rest of the activities he pursued with such frenetic, bursting energy must be of a piece.

At the heart of the mosaic, I would suggest, lies a headlong, heedless idealism. Ralegh lived in an age when suddenly everything seemed possible. A mere generation before, the concept of a nation, of a distinct and special place called England, had been elusive, dim, immaterial. There can be no doubt that by the time Ralegh reached his thirties England and her destiny were a potent inspiration—thanks to the shrewdness of an image-building queen; the buoyant consequences of the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the emergence of a flexible and expressive vernacular language, put to use in poetry, prose, and drama of extraordinary power; a national religious Reformation; and much else besides. And not only his country but the boundaries of the entire world and the most hallowed traditions of thought had been transformed by explorers, scientists, and reformers. Inspired by the promise of new worlds to conquer, abroad, at home, and within himself, Ralegh’s natural ambition, straining to encompass all of experience, hurled itself against every frontier of action and of thought that it could find.

The result was a life of titanic energy. There was no enterprise that he could deny himself. A driven man, like the Faustus of his contemporary Marlowe, he was always compelled to push one step further. He had to be the most glittering courtier of the reign, polishing his elegance, his manners, his wit, and his gallantry beyond any previous standard—displaying that splendid new ideal, the gentleman, at its best. At the same time, he had to be the greatest captain of an expanding nation, not only for the sake of heroism and military prowess but also in order to be the pioneer who brought unimagined realms under England’s flag. And if, to be a fully rounded gentleman, skill in verse was deemed important, as Castiglione’s Courtier suggested, then Ralegh would be second to none. Caught up with kindred spirits, ever curious, never satisfied, he pressed on into even more difficult territory—the domain of the scientists and the Hermeticists bent on discovering the key to nature, the secrets that would explain all of existence. There was not a single new concern of the age, not a single “frontier” activity, in which he did not engage.

The ceaseless, almost boyish curiosity is apparent in nearly everything Ralegh did. It dominates his writing, his fertile experimentation with language and style, and the constant exuberance of form (if not always of content). In his overseas and scientific explorations the quality is self-evident. But it is also there in his career at court—in his constant testing of his capacity to outshine everyone around him, to maintain his position with Elizabeth by sheer presence and audacity. That his musings on religion would get him into trouble with the authorities could have been predicted, as could his inclination toward unorthodox opinions on political authority.

What we seem to have, therefore, is the archetype “Renaissance man” who blended the active and the contemplative life with the curiosity of the early scientist and the grasp of the incorrigible idealist. But it was another dimension of his career that gave Ralegh both depth and uniqueness. This final piece in the mosaic is the one most consistently underplayed by interpreters of Sir Walter’s life; yet it is precisely the neglect of this trait that oversimplifies him, reduces him almost to a caricature of the Elizabethan courtier—a symbol without substance, a schoolboy idol without humanity.

Contrary to surface impressions, both Ralegh and his age were infused by a profound pessimism. Alongside the bounding self-confidence and the imperious quest for unattainable goals like E1 Dorado, there intrudes a persistent note of misgiving, of melancholic introspection. At the very time when new worlds and possibilities seemed to be opening up, when celebration and assurance seemed the order of the day, the nagging streak of doubt only intensified. It was much more than fashionable cynicism, or artificial world-weariness, that prompted the poem “Farewell to the Court,” the somberness of the ending of The History of the World, or the tinge of futility that touches even the most heroic passages of The Last Fight of the “Revenge.”

This ambiguity pervades the writing of the period, and it is perhaps Ralegh’s most striking quality that he embodies so perfectly the divided outlook of his day. The moral of Dr. Faustus was never far from mind: the enormously talented man who, however, dared “more than heavenly power permits.” In Montaigne, in Shakespeare, in Bacon alike, the message was clear: stay within your limits, be aware that man, little lower than the angels, is also a quintessence of dust. The prodigality and the preening were always accompanied by anxiety and emptiness, for the double meaning of vanity was richly appreciated—man could accomplish everything and nothing. In Montaigne’s words, “There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our own legs.”

It was as if Ralegh determined to live out this dilemma. He would be the exemplar of talent, even genius—able by sheer force of will to rise to the top of the Elizabethan court, to win fame as a writer, bon viveur, soldier, and explorer, and to assault the outermost secrets known to the science of the time. Yet he would also be the epitome of cynicism, of deprecation, of doubt. It is this double-sidedness, rather than his many-sidedness, that makes Ralegh the most vivid exemplar of his generation. Men were facing a series of extraordinary changes—economic, demographic, political, religious, and intellectual—that on the one hand made them feel that anything was possible, and on the other hand convinced them that nothing would be comfortable, solid, or acceptable again. The self-determination, the free will of the Counter-Reformation were inter-twined with the abject self-denial of Calvinism.

Ralegh became caught up in both tendencies, and we will appreciate his achievement only if we perceive the despair as well as the grandiloquent idealism. It was out of the restless tension between these irreconcilable preoccupations that the man’s staggering energy and versatility emerged. Locked in permanent combat, the two passions haunted his public and private persona. As one might expect, he summed them up better than anyone else. For though his purpose was “To seek new worlds, for gold, for praise, for glory,” he felt he would be left only with “the broken monuments of my great desires.” This tormented mood is not the one that Ralegh’s name usually evokes, but it is one that transforms the cardboard fop into a great interpreter of the travails of existence:

Lost in the mud of those high flowing streams
Which through more fairer fields their courses bend,
Slain with self thoughts, amazed in fearful dreams,
Woes without date, discomforts without end,
From fruitful trees I father with- ered leaves
And glean the broken ears with miser’s hands,
Who sometime did enjoy the weighty sheaves
I seek fair flowers amid the brinish sand.

This Issue

April 3, 1975