Magazine article The Spectator

Still Cloaked in Mystery

Magazine article The Spectator

Still Cloaked in Mystery

Article excerpt

SIR WALTER RALEIGH by Raleigh Trevelyan Allen Lane, 20, pp. 640, ISBN 0761399326X

Elizabeth I was nearly 50 when her fancy was taken by a `tall, handsome and bold man' in his late twenties named Walter Raleigh. It is not clear how this obscure adventurer from the west country gained her attention. The legend that he laid his cloak over a `plashy place' for her to walk on is usually dismissed as apocryphal, but Raleigh's personal seal depicted a coat of arms enveloped by a cloak. Perhaps, therefore, the story is true.

By 1584 Raleigh had been appointed Captain of the Guard and every vintner in the country had to pay him L1 a year licensing fee. Such material success made others jealous, but Raleigh's unpopularity cannot be ascribed to envy alone. He was a supremely arrogant man who positively exulted in being disliked. One contemporary alleged, `No man is more hated ... His pride is intolerable, without regard to any.' Though he could be a fascinating conversationalist, setting aside two hours every day for `inquisitive discourse', his manner was generally sneering and sarcastic, and he made many enemies with his `bitter scoffs and reproachful taunts'.

In his verse Raleigh addressed the Queen as Cynthia, the moon goddess who controlled the tides. In doing so he sought to remind Elizabeth that England's destiny lay in overseas expansion. He himself was a pioneer of colonisation, establishing a vast 'plantation' in Ireland and sending out settlers to Virginia. Although these ventures all failed, Raleigh has a good claim to be regarded as the founding father of the British empire. Later he became distracted by the search for El Dorado, the city of gold he believed was hidden in the Venezuelan jungle. It was this that caused his ultimate downfall, but the expedition he led to Guiana in 1595 in search of gold and glory was perhaps his finest exploit.

Though there was much that was magnificent about Raleigh, in some ways he was unsound. It is significant that Elizabeth never made him a privy councillor. Knowing how intoxicated he was with his own cleverness, she decided that the presence at the Council table of a man who delighted in `perpetually differing' for the sake of it would not be advantageous.

Raleigh seemed to believe himself exempt from normal rules. …

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