Colin Burrow

  • Sir Walter Ralegh in Life and Legend by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
    Continuum, 378 pp, £25.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 1 4411 1209 5
  • The Favourite: Sir Walter Ralegh in Elizabeth I’s Court by Mathew Lyons
    Constable, 354 pp, £14.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 84529 679 7

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.

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