Round the (Next) Bend

Simon Adams

  • The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh edited by Agnes Latham and Joyce Youings
    Exeter, 403 pp, £45.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 85989 527 0

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.

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