The OED suggests that the word ‘star’ was not used of ‘a person of brilliant reputation or talents’ until the 19th century. Nonetheless Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) struck his contemporaries as pretty much a ‘star’ in this sense. The attorney general said during his final trial: ‘He hath been as a star at which the world hath gazed; but stars may fall, nay they must fall when they trouble the sphere wherein they abide.’ During his life Ralegh built up a reputation for fabulous wealth and bad behaviour that persisted well after his death. In the late 17th century, John Aubrey (who was good on anecdotes though not quite so strong on truth) recorded that he once got one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour up against a tree. She protested with ‘Will you undoe me? Nay, sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter! Sir Walter! At last as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cryed in the ecstasy, Swisser-Swatter Swisser-Swatter.’ Ralegh even fulfilled the chief obligation of modern-day stars by having a fashionable drug of choice: tobacco. This led to his becoming the only Elizabethan courtier to be immortalised in a Beatles song: ‘Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette/And curse Sir Walter Ralegh,/He was such a stupid get.’ This is a little unfair to Sir Walter, who was not in fact the first person to bring tobacco (or indeed potatoes) back from the New World. Nor is it very likely he threw down his cloak so that Queen Elizabeth could step over a puddle. But his career – described with immense care and judiciousness by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams in what will surely become the standard biography – is still almost unbelievable even when the ornaments of myth are stripped from it.
Ralegh started with very little. As a younger son of his father’s third marriage and his mother’s second he should have had, at best, a respectable career among the gentry of his native Devonshire. But his birth gave him two attributes. The first was that he looked good. He was six feet tall and had a beard which turned up of its own accord. The second was that his family connections were better than they seemed. His aunt on his mother’s side was Kat Astley, who at her death in 1565 was the chief gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s privy chamber, and whom Elizabeth trusted more than any other woman. He was also related on his mother’s side to sailors and adventurers. Sir Humphrey Gilbert was his half-brother, and more distantly related were Arthur Gorges, a goodish poet who could also captain a ship, and Ferdinando Gorges, a confirmed sailor and adventurer. After a standard-issue early career at Oxford, then the Inns of Court, Ralegh began to mix in courtly circles in the late 1570s.
The court in this period was less a physical space than a social network. To get on usually required talking to your cousin So and So (in Ralegh’s case probably his half-brother Humphrey), who might talk to his good Lord Such and Such, who might get you a moment with the even more elevated Lady Herself, who might if you were lucky be a gentlewoman of the queen’s bedchamber, and who might see about your petition for the reversion of an office or talk to the master of the wards about that tasty estate down the road you had your eye on. Ralegh was very good at the mixture of charm, flattery and aggression required to excel in this environment. He became esquire of the body in 1581. By 1583 he had really made it. In that year the queen granted him the right to reside in splendour at Durham Place on the Strand. She also gave him a patent for the licensing of vintners, which was roughly comparable to someone today being given all the VAT charged at Majestic Wine, or indeed being made chairman of a bank. It yielded about £600 a year, or thirty times the annual income of a schoolmaster. By the later 1580s Ralegh had acquired enough weight to throw it around. In 1587 he wrote to the warden of All Souls telling the college to hand over some woodlands in Middlesex to a kinswoman of his. Ralegh swaggeringly raps the knuckles of the low-life dons: the queen ‘greatly disdayned to wryte twyse to subjects of your qualytie’, he declares, and then threatens that ‘I and other of my lady’s frends and kindsfolks that are neare about Her Majestie must prosecute yt to the uttermost of oure powers.’ It is not surprising that he was liked only by those from whom he sought favour.
The romantic and the dewy-eyed might want to invent a love affair between the ageing queen and the handsome nephew of her former governess to explain Ralegh’s rise to fortune. Mathew Lyons, whose eyes incline to dewy, even wonders if the queen had sex with her favourite. But there is no way that Elizabeth swisser-swattered with Sir Walter. She may have liked his pearl earrings and the turned-up beard, and few ageing queens would object to receiving poems comparing them to ‘the valley of Perue/ whose summer ever lasteth’, but she was relatively pragmatic in her affections. Ralegh knew, and she knew, that her principal concern was to keep large areas of land productive and peaceful with as little expenditure as possible. Her favourites were indeed personally appealing, but they were also people to whom she made grants of land or patents in the expectation that they might use some of the revenue to keep or extend the queen’s peace, while deploying the rest to make more money for themselves or to entertain their royal mistress.
Ralegh was extremely good at leveraging his assets, as the phrase goes now. He could see what Elizabeth wanted and could cook up plausible and cheap schemes to achieve it. It’s likely that these abilities fuelled his rise to favour. In 1580, just before he became really powerful, Ralegh served under Lord Grey in Ireland. Here he witnessed the massacre of a Spanish garrison at Smerwick, where Grey butchered the inhabitants after their surrender, despite having offered clemency at least to the officers. Grey believed the best way to secure Ireland was to set up an extensive and expensive network of garrisons. On his return from Ireland, Ralegh proposed a cheaper scheme, which required fewer garrisons, and perhaps (though this was never the primary concern of Elizabethan foreign policy) a little less murder of the Irish. Loyalty could be won by offering pardons to the rebels, and large areas of land could be granted to English courtiers, ideally ones with upward-turning beards, who might pacify the land by cultivation. Grey protested that Ralegh’s plans were riddled with ‘inconveniences and impossibilities’, but they appealed to Elizabeth. Fewer garrisons meant lower costs, while the policy of offering pardons was well attuned to the queen’s favoured image of herself as a clement conqueress. By 1586 she had granted Ralegh control over 42,000 acres of land in Munster, much of which he let out to planters who had unrealistic hopes of financial and agricultural return. By 1590 he had delegated the day to day running of his Irish estates to an agent. Practical details and sustained effort were generally not his thing.
According to Aubrey, Ralegh ‘spake broad Devonshire to his dyeing day’. This sounds like a social impediment rather than an asset, but Ralegh even managed to turn his West Country origins to his advantage. A statesman in 16th-century England who looked west saw both dangers and opportunities. A Spanish invasion launched from the south of Catholic Ireland against south-west England was one of the worst Elizabethan nightmares. There was also a low-level threat of rebellion among the independent-minded Cornish. As Nicholls and Williams suggest, by 1585 Elizabeth had effectively made Ralegh a ‘regional viceroy’ over the West Country, as vice-admiral of the West, lord lieutenant of Cornwall and lord warden of the Cornish stannaries. It was reassuring to have a big man with a West Country burr, who owed everything to the queen’s favour, running both the military organisation and much of the economy of the West Country.
Further west lay more enticing prospects: colonies in the Americas, opportunities to intercept Spanish gold or restrict Spanish trade with the New World. Ralegh, as well as being a West Countryman, was related to notable sailors. By befriending (and from about 1583 employing) the notable mathematician and navigational theorist Thomas Harriot, Ralegh established himself as someone who had the capital, connections and theoretical expertise to exploit the wealth of the Americas. In 1584 he snapped up the patent to colonise ‘remote heathen and barbarous landes’ which had been granted to Humphrey Gilbert, who had drowned on a voyage to the New World the year before. Ralegh’s propagandist Richard Hakluyt declared that American colonies would provide ‘manifolde ymployment of numbers of idle men’. Money was raised for a fleet of seven ships, which set sail from Plymouth in April 1585 under Richard Grenville. Ralegh himself was forbidden to leave the queen’s side.
This colonial adventure turned out to be a fairly typical Elizabethan mess, in which unrealistic hopes met bad weather, piracy, practical failure and confusion. A hundred or so men were left on the island of Roanoke to establish some kind of encampment. They hitched a lift home with Francis Drake after deciding that supply ships were not going to arrive. Further settlers went out to Virginia in 1587 on the promise of five hundred acres each, and were again left to fend for themselves while English shipping was preoccupied with fighting off the Spanish Armada. By the time a relief fleet arrived in Roanoke in March 1590 there was nothing left of the colony except smoking ruins. This was a standard Ralegh venture. It was bold, imaginative and expensive (Ralegh claimed to have spent £40,000), and it ended in smoke.
Ralegh was very close to being, in the language of the time, a ‘projector’, someone who proposed scams which attracted investors by the hope of a quick return. He was good at simultaneously believing in implausible plans and knowing they were probably not going to work, while conveying hope and vague promises to potential investors. This aspect of his career offers tempting analogies with his poems, about which Nicholls and Williams include a sensible if largely descriptive chapter. Ralegh’s best verse combines the jaded worldliness of the earlier court poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt with delicate structures of fantasy. The effect is very often that of an imagination projecting a fragile and wonderfully unreal creation while knowing that it will end in failure or disaster. The delicious poem ‘Nature that washt her hands in milke’ imagines Nature making a fantasy mistress who is the imaginative equivalent of Turkish Delight, with ‘a violet breath, and lips of jellie’. Then time turns her to dust. The enthused cynicism of a colonist, or a ‘planter’ in the terminology of the period, who invents a perfect world full of growing plenty and then watches it come to nothing, repeatedly finds parallels in Ralegh’s poetry. Metaphorical ‘flowers of love’s own setting’, or ‘tender stalks’, often give a shoot of life to his poems, several of which juxtapose the uplifting prospect of biological growth with a despairing conclusion:
For as the seedes in springtime sowne
Die in the ground ere they be growne
Such is conceit, whose rooting failes.
This preoccupation with transience can amount to not much more than jaded realism (‘like truthless dreames, so are my joyes expired’; ‘What is our life? A play of passion’), but it is a deep part of Ralegh’s imagination, and it seems to have been recognised by his contemporaries. Many of the poems that came to be ascribed to Ralegh, some of which he may not in fact have written, create a bubble of delight and at the same time watch it burst. ‘The Lie’ vividly describes the glowing splendours of the court and then takes them away in a single breath: ‘Say to the cowrtt it glowes/and shynes lyke rotten wood.’ ‘Sir Walter Ralegh’s Pilgrimage’ (‘Give me my Scallop shell of quiet’) travels along paths ‘strewd with Rubies thicke as gravell’ to arrive at ‘Heavens bribeles hall/ Where noe corrupted voyces braule’. Ralegh’s ‘Nymph’s Reply’ to Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ combines imaginative description of delicate beauties with destruction and loss:
Thie belt of strawe, and bedds of roses,
Thie capp, thie kirtle, and thy Poses:
Soone weare, soone wither, soone forgotten,
In follie ripe, in reason rotten.
The authorship of this poem is by no means certain, but it is significant that it was to Ralegh, the great Elizabethan projector, that such a disillusioned epilogue to a fabulously imagined Elizabethan poem came to be attributed. He was the great poet of fantasies that evaporate. ‘As you came from the holy land’ is another typical piece. It is a ballad in dialogue in which a speaker asks a pilgrim if he has seen his ideal mistress:
Such a one did I meet, good Sir
Suche an Angelyke face
Who lyke a queene lyke a nymph did appere
By her gate by her grace:
She hath let me here all allone
All allone as unknowne
The dream mistress who disappears is a familiar element of folklore, but it also haunted the imaginations of Elizabethan court poets: the hero of The Faerie Queene, by Ralegh’s fellow Irish colonist Edmund Spenser, is in search of Gloriana, whom he has seen only once in a dream, and who vanishes as he wakes. It is not hard to find the roots of this fascination with elusive mistresses of the imagination. The queen could willingly accept flattering compliments and reciprocate with patents and grants and dreams of distant lands of gold, but she also could stubbornly refuse to do what those who praised her wanted her to do. Wake up and she could be gone.
Ralegh saw this other side of Elizabeth in 1592, when he secretly married one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. Husband and wife were imprisoned, and the queen whom Ralegh had praised as Belphoebe, Diana, a goddess supreme, never fully forgave him. Ralegh wrote a letter to Sir Robert Cecil from the Tower which was probably intended to be shown to the queen in order to win back her favour. The letter displays Ralegh at his best and worst. It’s a monstrous blast of self-pity, tempered by his characteristic half-belief in his own unrealistic fantasies:
My hart was never broken till this day that I here the Queen goes away so farr off whom I have followed so many yeares with so great love and desire, in so many jurneys, and am now left behinde her and in a darke prison all alone … I that was wont to behold her ridinge like Alexander, huntinge like Diana, walkinge like Venus, the gentle winde blowinge her faire heare about her pure cheekes like a nimpth … All wounds have skares but that of fantasye, all affections their relentinge but that of woman kinde.
‘All wounds have skares but that of fantasye’ is purest Ralegh. Its primary sense is that all wounds heal over except wounds to the imagination, but the way it’s put also suggests almost the opposite: that wounds to the imagination leave no mark behind because they are merely imaginary. The bubble had burst.
Ralegh’s longest poem, The Ocean to Cynthia, a brilliantly bitter, formless complaint at his mistreatment, was probably composed at about the same time as this letter. Nicholls and Williams say it’s possible that the poem was written during Ralegh’s later imprisonment, but its similarities to the letter to Cecil combined with its references to a ‘now’ in which Elizabeth/Cynthia is alive make it hard to believe that it was written after her death. The poem turns everything into a great raw wound of ‘conceit’, in which passion is grounded on imagination and imagination is founded on faithlessness:
Unlastinge passion, soune outworne consayte
Whereon I built, and onn so dureless trust,
My minde had wounds, I dare not say desaite
Weare I resolved her promis was not Just?
The Ocean to Cynthia surges on for more than five hundred lines. It remained among the papers of the Cecil family until the 19th century. Possibly Ralegh sent the poem to Sir Robert in the misguided hope that he might show it to the queen, and in the even more misguided hope that this might change her mind about her former favourite. Alternatively he may simply have left it among his writings in the Tower after his release. For in September 1592 Ralegh persuaded the queen he was again useful in the West: his fleet had captured the Madre de Dios, a 1600-ton Portuguese ship, the hugely valuable cargo of which was being looted in Dartmouth. Promising Elizabeth £80,000 from the spoils (a ransom suitable for a king rather than a very lucky courtier) he shot off west.
Over the next few years Ralegh was obliged to concentrate on West Country business, while he watched the Earl of Essex rise to royal favour. The two men had an uneasy truce, during which Ralegh sailed under Essex’s command in less than successful voyages against Spain in Cadiz and in the Azores in 1596-97. But by 1595 Ralegh had developed another venture of his own, which was to prove the greatest and least substantial of his visionary bubbles, and which was eventually to kill him. He raised £60,000 on dubious securities from a backer whom he effectively swindled, and set off to Guiana in search of the city of the mythical ruler El Dorado, so called because he was believed to be anointed with gold dust. Sir Philip Sidney (for whom Ralegh composed an elegy) said that nature’s ‘world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden’. In Ralegh’s case the imaginary and the literal search for gold were more or less indistinguishable, although he probably did want to bring back some kind of real wealth for his still disgruntled Belphoebe. In his printed description of the voyage, which was designed to encourage backers for further missions, he declared that in Guiana ‘every stone that we stooped to take up promised eyther golde or silver by his complexion.’ That is pure Ralegh: it conveys enthusiasm and hope to his readers while covertly acknowledging that hope is really all he has to offer. Since he can’t honestly say every stone was gold he dishonestly says that each one ‘promised’ to be.
The accession of James VI of Scotland to the English crown in 1603 was never going to improve Ralegh’s position. Ralegh’s enemies had primed the new king to believe that he was not a loyal subject, and James had his own ideas about who to favour and how to rule. Aubrey claims that when James met Ralegh for the first time he declared ‘on my soule mon I have heard rawly of thee.’ Ralegh is unlikely to have done more than smile politely at the joke. Within the first few months of the new reign he was accused of seeking a pension from the Spanish in return for helping them depose James. He was found guilty of treason and condemned to death, despite the fact that the chief witness against him (his former friend and supposed co-conspirator Lord Cobham) refused to testify. James commuted the death sentence to imprisonment in the Tower. Here Ralegh, with a library of more than five hundred books, set about writing a history of the world, as well as a string of policy documents and political dialogues. This period of his life created a complement to the myth of Ralegh the extravagant and ruthless courtier, which was Ralegh the freethinking opponent of Stuart rule.
He was, though, probably not much more idealistic in his last imprisonment than he had been during the rest of his career. The bulk of his Tower writings were pieces of political advice, some of which were calculated to appeal to James’s son Henry, prince of Wales, who was thought to be keener on establishing a seagoing empire than his father. Henry’s death in 1612 was a blow; but five years later Ralegh managed to persuade the king, and perhaps also himself, that he had seen goldmines in Guiana in 1595. On the back of this hope he once more raised money, gathered a fleet, and headed west. As John Chamberlain drily put it in a letter, ‘he doth but go (as children are wont to tell theyre tales) to seeke his fortune.’
The fleet bound for Guiana was forced by bad weather and adverse winds to shelter off the coast of Ireland for two months, and when it took to the open sea it had to fight persistent westerly winds. It eventually staggered to the coast of South America. Ralegh lay at anchor while his lieutenant Lawrence Keymis took four ships up the Orinoco in search of goldmines. They took the town of San Thomé from the Spanish, which was contrary to the explicit orders contained in their commission. During the siege Ralegh’s sprightly and ungovernable son Wat was killed. Despite this setback the English struggled further upstream. With no mines and not even a promise of gold in sight they returned to the main body of the fleet. Ralegh accused Keymis on his return of disobedience and incompetence. Keymis shot himself, but the bullet lodged in a rib, so he then stabbed himself in despair. Perhaps hoping to use the dead Keymis as scapegoat to explain the failure of the mission, Ralegh returned home through some further foul Atlantic seas. He was well and truly swisser-swattered.
James decided that he should have a private hearing rather than a public trial, which might well have become an occasion for Ralegh’s charisma to display itself. Despite having exceeded his commission by attacking Spanish interests, Ralegh was not found guilty of any new crime. The king, however, wanted him out of the way. In what Nicholls and Williams describe as ‘an act of mean legality’, it was decided to execute the original penalty of death for treason which had been given at the decidedly dubious trial of 1603. On 29 October 1618 Ralegh made a long speech in Old Palace Yard before his execution, lamenting his sinful life as a ‘souldier, a Captain, a Sea-Captain and a Courtier, which are all places of Wickedness and Vice’. His head was struck off with two blows of the axe. One of the less hostile of the many epigrams that met his death drily recorded that ‘From the highest Kinge/not from the west, all rich promotions springe.’