Elsewhere we’ve called attention to the new biography of Sir Walter Raleigh authored, with Penry Williams, by Mark Nicholls. A fellow and former president of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Nicholls contributed our George Percy and George Somers entries. We asked him a few questions about the new book.
Why is Sir Walter Raleigh still important?
One of the most colourful figures at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh is remembered as a gallant courtier with hidden—or not so hidden—depths. Every generation has come up with its own reasons for remembering him. Seventeenth-century English Puritans and eighteenth-century Americans fighting against the British crown saw him as a victim of arbitrary royal tyranny, bravely defying a hostile courtroom and demonstrating great courage during his last moments on the scaffold. His History of the World was admired by Oliver Cromwell, John Milton and John Locke, among many others. In Millais’s lovely painting The Boyhood of Raleigh he is the archetypal Devon lad, enchanted with adventure and the sea, someone who in later life laid the foundation of a British empire in North America. Today, some are intrigued by his religious scepticism, while some hold him personally responsible for popularising the smoking of tobacco. Others denounce him as a symbol of the suppression of the native Irish through Tudor colonisation. In the Blackadder TV series he is a vain, bragging sea dog, an Elizabethan ‘type’. Raleigh’s gesture in spreading a cloak so that the Queen might walk across a puddle at Greenwich still inspires conscious emulation. His larger than life figure is taken to represent much that was good, bad, and incidental to English court politics at one of the most vivid and momentous points in the country’s history.
What was missing from other biographies?
Our biography looks at Raleigh through the eyes of contemporaries, presenting new material from the archives of friends such as the Earl of Northumberland. Penry Williams and I have revisited key moments in Raleigh’s life—for example his trial for treason in 1603—and have presented an interpretation which is in step with the latest scholarship on the politics of the period. We have also tried to consider Raleigh’s writings and to suggest ways in which they help us understand his actions and motives. Our book seeks to present a picture of both the man and his legacy: the ways in which successive generations in Britain and America view him and relate him to their own times.
What surprised you about Raleigh or his world as you worked on the book?
It seems an odd thing to say about someone so active, insistent and larger than life, but his frailty and weakness, particularly in the snake-pit of court politics, became a particular fascination. As a younger son with a relatively modest background, Raleigh lacked the family connections, the land and the deep pockets that gave people status at the very pinnacle of Tudor society. He had to make his own fortune and this he did, only to lose it again when luck changed. One contemporary called him ‘fortune’s tennis-ball’, tossed about, buffeted by opportunities and circumstance.
How did you and Penry Williams collaborate?
We drafted chapters and sections on the different aspects of Raleigh’s life and then passed them back and forth between us, commenting, suggesting adjustments, polishing out the overlaps and repetitions. Our life of Sir Walter in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gave us a model for collaboration which, with some adaptations, we took into the book.
What do people think they know about Raleigh that’s not true? What should they know?
There are so many false legends: That he travelled to North America. That he was the first person in England to smoke tobacco. That he introduced the potato to the British Isles. That he fought against the Spanish Armada. That he was a clever statesman and politician. That he enjoyed a string of conquests among the ladies at Elizabeth’s court. That he was a natural ‘sea dog’ like Sir Francis Drake or Martin Frobisher. None of these is true, alas. We should remember him rather as one of the most versatile men of his age: a soldier, sailor, courtier, poet, historian, parliamentarian, and dynast. A questioner of truth, and a man prepared to work hard—extremely hard—to achieve his goals. His is a very human story, of someone who prospered thanks to his great talents, and who ultimately fell because of character flaws and misjudgement of the political moment.
IMAGES: Illustrations of Sir Walter Raleigh from The Story of Sir Walter Raleigh by Margaret Duncan Kelly, with pictures by T. H. Robinson (1906)