In the summer of 1618, Diego Sarmiento de Acuna, Count of Gondomar, Ambassador of Philip III to the Court of James I had a clever idea. For four years the proposal that James’s son Prince Charles should marry the Infanta Maria had been batted to and fro between London and Madrid in an attempt to bring about an Anglo-Spanish alliance. It was very much Gondomar’s own project, but James had proved far more enthusiastic than Philip. James now learned that the Spanish Government was planning to undertake a major naval expedition against the Muslim corsairs of Algiers and offered to contribute a number of warships to the expedition. British warships were as welcome in Spain as the Algerine corsairs, but how could Gondomar reject the offer politely? His solution was audacious: if His Majesty was so committed to the worthy aim of the elimination of piracy, what better way could there be of demonstrating that commitment than bringing to justice the notorious pirate Sir Walter Ralegh?
Gondomar had already returned to Spain by the time of Ralegh’s execution in October (he couldn’t stand the British climate), but it was widely seen as his work. He had, quite unwittingly, created a martyr. Ralegh became the last of the great Elizabethans, sacrificed to the ‘Spanish Match’. His enduring popularity can be seen in the posthumous success of his various writings. The History of the World, first published in 1611, went through five editions by 1634 and his Instructions to his Son five editions in the early 1630s. By the middle of the century further titles went to press under his name, many of them spurious. In 1650 there appeared the Judicious and Select Essays and Observations; in 1642 The Prince or Maxims of State; in 1651 Skeptick; and in 1657 the Remains, which was republished in seven editions. Anecdotes and obiter dicta, already in circulation long before his death, also proliferated: the most famous, the story of his cloak, first appeared in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England of 1662. Ralegh’s collected works have been published twice, first in 1751 and then in eight volumes by Oxford University Press in 1829. His apotheosis came as the subject of what is possibly the most famous Victorian historical painting, Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh. In the last few decades, however, he has become a central subject in New Historicist approaches to Elizabethan studies, notably in Stephen Greenblatt’s Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles, the most stimulating modern study of Ralegh.
This collection of letters was assembled by the late Agnes Latham, who edited Ralegh’s poems in 1951. It was originally intended as a volume in a proposed new edition of his complete works, but the larger project was suspended and the letters have been put through the press separately by Joyce Youings. Professor Youings’s contribution is no small one, for many of these letters are full of local references and she probably knows more about the Elizabethan West Country than anyone else alive. Elsewhere her touch is not as sure as it might be. Describing Sir Robert Kerr (anglicised to Carr), James I’s favourite, who obtained Ralegh’s estate, as ‘a penniless Scotsman from Roxburghshire’ does not tell us a great deal and it misses the irony that Kerr was no more and no less than the Scottish equivalent of an equally penniless Devonian such as Ralegh. But one may be more sensitive to these nuances north of the Tweed. More serious, perhaps, is the omission of any reference to the most important Ralegh discovery in recent years, Mark Nicholls’s publication in 1995 of the prosecution summary of the evidence in the Main Plot trial of 1603.
This is not the first edition of Ralegh’s letters. Edward Edwards published 159 letters in his Life of Ralegh in 1868, but chiefly from the main repositories: the British Library, the Public Record Office and the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House. The present collection numbers 228. As Youings acknowledges, Edwards’s trawl was very thorough, so the new discoveries have come from a variety of other sources, chiefly local collections, some of which have migrated to the US. It is possible that further individual items may still come to light, but for all immediate purposes this collection can be considered definitive.
For all the diligence of the editors, the new letters, however useful they may be to a biographer, do not dramatically change our view of Ralegh. His letters fall into three rough groups. There is very little from his early life apart from a few items from his military service in Ireland in 1581, and then a number of letters – business letters, essentially – to his half-brother Sir John Gilbert about privateering, shipping and local matters. There is nothing about the Virginia (Roanoke) Plantation, his rise at Court in the 1580s, or his intellectual activities. Only in his correspondence with Sir Robert Cecil in the 1590s do the letters come alive, but most of these were published by Edwards and are well known. The final group, dating from the Main Plot trial, his long imprisonment and the Second Guiana Voyage of 1617-18, have had an even wider circulation. Many were copied (with varying degrees of accuracy) in contemporary commonplace books or were published in the posthumous printed works bearing his name.
Apart from these last letters the profile of Ralegh’s surviving correspondence is what one would expect from an Elizabethan. Its fragmentary nature explains why it is so difficult to get at the person behind the mask. Rarely did individuals keep copies of their private correspondence and we are dependent on the survival of the collections of their correspondents. Even then potentially sensitive material was regularly destroyed on receipt. Yet such were Ralegh’s range of interests and the controversies surrounding him that even the fragments are potentially valuable. This is neatly illustrated by Latham’s major discovery: the will Ralegh drew up before departing on the Islands Voyage in 1597, the only one to have survived. Among the clauses of the will is a provision for an illegitimate daughter, the child of an affair with the daughter of an Irish official in 1589. The only other known reference to her is in the ‘suicide letter’ that Ralegh wrote to his wife before attempting to take his own life, following his arrest in July 1603. This letter survives only in 17th-century copies, and some Ralegh biographers have argued that both it and the whole suicide incident were fabrications, partly on the grounds that the daughter was mentioned nowhere else. The will confirms not only her existence, but the attempted suicide as well.
The suicide is central to any effort to understand Ralegh, for even if a classical virtue, it was a Christian sin, and it reinforced the rumours of religious heterodoxy that surrounded him throughout his life. If the charges of atheism and the tales of the ‘school of the night’ were exaggerated, they nevertheless reflect the basic fact of Ralegh’s unconventionality. This is something his biographers (even Greenblatt) have failed to address: far from being the paragon of the age, Ralegh was the odd man out. This is what makes his career as a courtier so fascinating. He was one of the four great favourites of Elizabeth I, but quite unlike the other three in a number of ways. There were roughly ten years between each of them (the Earl of Leicester being Elizabeth’s age – born either in 1532 or 1533 – Sir Christopher Hatton born c.1540, Ralegh himself in 1554, and the Earl of Essex in 1565), but they fall neatly into an older and younger generation. The turning point was 1587, for in that year Ralegh and Essex obtained their chief court offices, Captain of the Guard and Master of the Horse, offices that Hatton and Leicester had held previously.
As well as being peers, Leicester and Essex were, like so many other Elizabethan courtiers, of the Court by birth. Hatton and Ralegh, by contrast, came from minor provincial gentry, and were of Elizabeth’s own creation. Ralegh had only one Court connection, his ‘Aunt Ashley’ (as he termed her in 1600), his mother’s elder sister Katherine Ashley (née Champernowne), who was appointed Elizabeth’s governess by Henry VIII in 1544. Ashley was undoubtedly the person closest to Elizabeth for the next twenty years, but she died in 1565, when Ralegh was only 11, so her direct influence on his advancement was minimal. What is so striking is how rapidly this took place. At the end of 1581 Ralegh was still soldiering in Ireland, though he made sure he was not forgotten. In 1585 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Stannaries (the Cornish tin mines), an office normally given to a peer. Hatton, by contrast, rose very slowly. He first came to the Queen’s attention as a law student in 1566, but he was not considered a major favourite until 1573 – some nine years in the making to Ralegh’s three.
Ralegh’s success was no small puzzle to contemporaries. There is undoubtedly something in the legend of his cloak (however apocryphal), for it was typical of the flamboyant gestures at which he excelled. No less important was another anecdote of Fuller’s, that of the exchanges of verses with Elizabeth, for this may be the key to their relationship (‘an intense, highly poetic courtship often carried out in verse’, as Greenblatt describes it). Ralegh was the most prominent of the Elizabethan ‘Court poets’, with the possible exception of Philip Sidney. Although his poetry has never been considered particularly accomplished, it was precisely the kind of sub-Spenserian ‘poesie’ that Elizabeth loved, and that none of her other favourites could provide. They wrote her long, highly stylised letters, but the sum total of their known poetical activities was two translations of the Psalms that Leicester undertook in the Tower in 1554.
Given the intensity of Ralegh’s pursuit of her, it is no surprise to find the trajectory of his career altered by Elizabeth’s discovery of his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton in 1592, which cost him a year in the Tower. The prudent Hatton had never married and kept his mistresses so well hidden that even their existence is still debated. Leicester married in 1578, but such was the nature of his relationship to Elizabeth that after some fireworks things settled back quite quickly. Only Essex (who married Sidney’s widow around 1590) was equally cavalier over his marriage and, unlike Ralegh, he suffered little for it. Yet there was another – even more dramatic – contrast between the two generations. Leicester and Hatton became quite close friends, but Ralegh and Essex hated each other from 1587 onwards, an enmity that endured till Essex’s death and haunted Ralegh till his own.
Far from being an innocent catapulted into the corrupt world of the Court, Ralegh may well bear a great deal of responsibility for the poisonous atmosphere of the 1590s. He had a notoriously sharp tongue. Soon after Leicester’s death a famous mocking epitaph began to circulate (‘Here lies the noble warrior that never drew a sword’), and equally quickly Ralegh’s name (rightly or wrongly) was attached to it. His cold-blooded advice to Sir Robert Cecil on eliminating Essex – ‘to relent towards this tyrant you will repent it when it shall be too late ... The less you make him the less he shall be able to harm you and yours’ – is without rival in Elizabethan political correspondence. It is tempting to argue that, far from being accomplished courtiers, both Ralegh and Essex violated the norms of courtly behaviour. This point was made in Sir Henry Wotton’s perceptive early 17th-century assessment of Essex, in which he observed that Essex was not temperamentally suited to be a courtier, ‘no good pupil to my lord of Leicester, who was wont to put all his passions in his pocket’. Catherine de’ Medici said that one should avoid making open enemies because one would need them as friends in the future. Contemporaries – friendly or hostile – appear to have been unanimous in describing Ralegh as proud, arrogant and aggressive: ‘in pride’ he ‘exceedeth all men alive’.
It was Ralegh’s reputation that sealed his fate in that Marlovian episode, the Bye and Main Plots of 1603. The ‘Bye Plot’ was a plan – devised by a group of Catholic priests and an odd assortment of characters that included George Brooke, brother of Ralegh’s friend Lord Cobham – to kidnap James I and force him to grant religious toleration. Under interrogation Brooke claimed that his brother had bragged to him that he and his friends ‘were but upon the Bye, but he and Sir Walter Ralegh were upon the Main’. The ‘Main Plot’ was supposedly a conspiracy to depose James, replace him with his cousin Arabella Stuart, make peace with Spain and grant toleration to Catholics. Cobham had been in touch with both Arabella Stuart’s household and a Habsburg agent. The only evidence against Ralegh was Cobham’s confession that he had intended to go to Spain, obtain a subsidy of 500,000 crowns, and, on his return, meet Ralegh on Jersey, where they would decide how to spend the money in fomenting discontent.
Ralegh’s clever defence in his trial against the hectoring attack of Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney-General, was based in large part on the apparent absurdity of his involvement in a pro-Spanish plot, given his prominence in the war against Spain. Yet there was another side to it, as Mark Nicholls has shown. The heart of the Crown’s case was that Cobham was Ralegh’s ‘disciple’: ‘these treasons could not be either plotted or performed but out of an extraordinary spirit, wit and policy, but Cobham of himself is far from them, but Ralegh owner of them all.’ Ralegh was clearly not telling all that he knew. He sheltered behind the important technicalities that Cobham was the only witness against him and that Cobham’s evidence was verbal. He even tried to lie his way out by claiming that he and Cobham were no longer friends. Coke’s bluster was a reflection of the fact that, whatever Ralegh was up to, the case against him was a weak one at law. Yet Ralegh did not face this ordeal with equanimity. ‘Oh God I cannot resist these thoughts,’ he wrote in the suicide letter. ‘I cannot live to think how I am derided, to think of the expectation of my enemies, the scorns I shall receive, the cruel words of lawyers, the infamous taunts and despites, to be made a wonder and a spectacle.’
His long imprisonment was undoubtedly tedious, but it was not harsh: his wife lived with him in a house within the Tower precincts for much of it and she gave birth there to their younger son Carew Ralegh in 1605. In prison he undertook a suitably heroic project – writing The History of the World – but (like the earlier Virginia project) it was abandoned half finished. To gain his freedom he returned to Guiana. Ralegh’s obsession with Guiana and El Dorado is one of the strangest aspects of his life. The underlying premise – that since Spanish power was dependent on the wealth of the Americas, the way to beat Spain was to found a rival New World empire – was one of the truisms of the age. Ralegh’s contribution was his conviction (as he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil in 1595) that ‘there are not more diamonds in the East Indies than are to be found in Guiana.’ When he revived the Guiana project in 1607 he claimed there was an ‘abundance’ of gold ‘sufficient to please every appetite’, which he proposed to refine on the spot, the mountain of gold ‘being near the river’s side and easy of carriage’.
For all Ralegh’s maritime interests, he was, as his correspondence reveals, a notoriously poor sailor, constantly seasick and unable to sleep aboard ship. His first Guiana voyage in 1595 should have made him cautious; instead he was sustained by the conviction that El Dorado was just round the next bend in the river. The Second Guiana Voyage ranks alongside Scott’s South Polar expedition in the annals of great British disasters. Everything that could go wrong did, and Ralegh’s age and ill health are not a sufficient explanation. There was a total refusal to appreciate that much had happened in the twenty years since 1595, not least in the extent of Spanish settlement. Although Ralegh’s passionate conviction carried some with him, scepticism about the whole project was widespread. It is not surprising that the sceptics either considered him to be deranged (which his behaviour on his return appeared to confirm), or regarded Guiana as a front for something else (an accusation that he acknowledged).
Lloyd George famously quipped about Churchill’s history of the First World War that, ‘Winston has written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis.’ The same could be said about Ralegh’s History of the World. His ambition and egotism were palpable. For all his talents and bravura, it is not difficult to see why he was so isolated at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. Although it is conventional to portray him as brought down by lesser men, he had few friends and a wide range of enemies. His ambiguous legacy is summed up in his famous paean to Guiana: ‘a country that hath yet her maidenhead’. Does this make Ralegh the first of the environmentalists? I doubt it.