Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend

Article excerpt

Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend, London, Continuum International Publishing, 2011, pp. xviii + 378, Illustrations, Maps, hb. £25.00/$34.95, ISBN: 978-1441-11209-5.

When the facts become legend, print the legend. That journalist's rule of thumb sums up the biographer's most insidious temptation. And yet some scholars are so hardy as to persevere. With this lucidly written biography, Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams have produced a work that is long overdue: a sober, perspicacious study of a man remembered for his brilliance and daring.

Significantly, the dust-jacket portrait is William Segar's portrait of Ralegh in middle life, grizzled and burly and formidable, rather than the dark-haired gallant of the Hilliard miniature. The authors see Ralegh's years at court as a constant struggle to hold Queen Elizabeth's attention and her Privy Councillors' esteem. This effort was never entirely successful, and it was all but ruined by the debacle of Ralegh's marriage. Marrying Bess Throckmorton was not a rash act, given the family connections that she brought, but it was a calculated risk whose enduring consequences Ralegh miscalculated. He regained much of his standing, 'distinguished short-term appointments and sensitive commands' (p. 186), but never quite all that he had lost. In the last years of the Queen's reign, Ralegh increasingly spent time with two powerful noblemen who valued him, Lord Cobham and the Earl of Northumberland, while his one-time friend Robert Cecil covertly turned toward Scotland. Ralegh lacked discretion, as Cecil rightly saw it, and in the end that flaw proved fatal:

In Tudor and Jacobean England, misunderstanding and faulty judgement in politics at the very highest level might be forgiven in a courtier-statesman of high birth . …

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