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Sir Walter Raleigh
Raleigh Trevelyan
London: Penguin-Allen Lane, 2002.
£25.00, 622 pages, ISBN 0-71-399326-X (hardback).

Detlev Mares
Technische Universität Darmstadt


If you happen to approach English Renaissance culture and Tudor politics for the first time, you could do worse than start with a biography of Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was one of the quintessential figures in Elizabethan politics and culture. As a courtier and favourite of the Queen, he had made a quick rise to the centre of power in the early years of the British empire; his talent as a poet served him well to fulfil his manly duty of lavishing praise and admiration on the Virgin Queen. He was, of course, a renowned explorer and adventurer, being involved in early attempts at establishing settlements in Virginia and leading expeditions into Guyana, where he followed the course of the Orinoco river in search of El Dorado, the fabled land of gold. At the same time, he also was a gifted administrator, organising the land defence during the Armada crisis of 1588 and taking a leading part in the raid of Cadiz in 1596. All this besides being one of the big landowners in Ireland, responsible for strengthening English settlement in this closest part of the colonial empire. And finally, his life does not lack romance and drama, with years spent in alienation from Elizabeth after marrying one of her ladies in waiting. Even more drama is provided by the long period he spent in the Tower, accused of being a traitor by James I and eventually executed in 1618.

Raleigh Trevelyan (who does not fail to play on the theme of his first name to account for a special relationship with Sir Walter) craftily exploits the dramatic dimensions in Raleigh's life in a gripping narrative of intrigue, adventure and culture in Elizabethan England. The book is full of colourful detail and countless anecdotes about a man who was among the most erudite minds of his time, but who could also be a severe, even ruthless commander. Trevelyan strives to show both sides of the man, his generosity and religious tolerance as well as his self-serving politics and his yearning for glory and recognition. Some facets of these two sides can be seen in an incident of 1591. At Tyburn, Raleigh supervised the execution of a young Jesuit who was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. When Raleigh heard the priest pray for the Queen, he stopped the execution and interrogated the man, obviously prepared to show leniency if the Jesuit confirmed his attachment to the Queen. But when the priest insisted on the superiority of the Pope over the Queen in religious matters, Raleigh had no qualms to order the execution to proceed, although his religious views were deist and freethinking rather than an expression of common Christianity (167/168).

Trevelyan also emphasizes Raleigh's manifold qualities by dealing at some length with his productions as a writer. Raleigh was not only well-acquainted with Edmund Spenser, who alluded to his friend in The Faerie Queene (141); as a poet, he also was in a sort of intellectual conversation with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare (119-123), although his own works were mainly written for private amusement. However, in his later years, Raleigh also wrote treatises and larger works, which partly aimed at a larger audience. The main examples are his account of his Discoverie of Guiana voyage (1596) and his masterpiece, The History of the World. It was mainly composed with the help of friends from intellectual circles during his years in the Tower and published in 1614 (427-432). Strangely, the bibliography at the end of Trevelyan's book does not include a list of Raleigh's own writings.

Trevelyan's narrative gathers particular speed when it comes to describing the famous battles Raleigh took part in or his exploration trips. The Guyana chapters show a fine sense of cultural differences between the native population and the British, whose concepts of time and distances might differ considerably from the ones of the inhabitants of the area that was explored. A fair number of illustrations and several maps in this well-produced book add to the pleasure of reading these chapters.

However, the narrative sweep of the book also has its drawbacks when it comes to the systematic analysis of issues. The wide array of people and themes covered in the book tends to favour the surface level over the exploration of more fundamental questions. For example, there might be some interest in the question of whether the relationship between Raleigh and the Queen went up to or even beyond "touching". But behind this question lays the politically more important one why it was deemed a political necessity for Elizabeth to be seen as the Virgin Queen. Despite his detailed account of the favourite's role at court, Trevelyan hardly probes into this. Neither does he always try to make the culture of the time accessible to the modern reader. Several times he mentions the astrologer and scientist John Dee. Trevelyan stresses Dee's role as an adviser in the preparation of exploratory journeys, but his magical interests leave the author bemused. Classifying much of Dee's thought as "nonsense" (66) does not help to understand the intimate connection between science and magic in much Renaissance thinking. Trevelyan does not go deeply either into the financial and economic background of Raleigh's privateering and exploration ventures. Admittedly, there are few sources which would allow the historian to reconstruct the procedures involved in preparing such enterprises. But several times Trevelyan mentions the importance of friendship, family relationship and personal liaison for privateering and colonizing ventures. Again, a more systematic expansion on these themes might have yielded fascinating insights into the career of Walter Raleigh. The same goes for the narrow line between privateering and national commitment, which is not explicitly dealt with.

Thus, analysis is not the strongest aspect of this biography, and probably it was not meant to be so in the first place. It would have helped to clarify the deeper structures that were the foundation for Raleigh's personal experiences, but the purpose of the book rather seems to have been to provide a large-scale, source-based and lively account of an adventurous and dramatic life. In this, Trevelyan succeeds brilliantly. The book, even at its size, is a pleasure to read and a quarry of information and insights into Elizabethan culture and politics. The cast of characters is impressive; besides the protagonist and the other names already mentioned, the pages of the book are peopled by the like of Francis Drake, Francis Bacon, Robert Cecil, Burleigh, Ben Jonson and dozens of today lesser-known characters. Thus, Trevelyan uses the life of Sir Walter Raleigh to introduce the reader to the political and cultural elite of Elizabethan England. Someone approaching English Renaissance culture and Tudor politics for the first time could do much worse than start with this biography of Sir Walter Raleigh.


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