The Winning Walter Raleigh

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

Sir Walter Raleigh 
Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams 


Sir_Walter_Raleigh“The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observ’d of all observers”—among all his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s words applied best to Sir Walter Raleigh. A man of middling birth, boundless enter­prise, prodigious talent, sparkling charisma, and overweening ambition, Raleigh studied at Oxford and the Middle Temple; fought in France and Ireland and on the Spanish Main; captured Cádiz; privateered in the Atlantic; served in Elizabeth’s court (where, until he married for love, he was for a time the Queen’s favorite) and as lord lieutenant of Cornwall; founded the ill-fated Roanoke colony; and searched for El Dorado. He was also a great writer in an age that saw the flowering of the English language: he wrote prose in a vigorous style (including The History of the World, the nearly million-­word work that Cromwell, Milton, Locke, and Gibbon would admire) and poetry for the ages (including the dedicatory sonnet for his friend Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and an epitaph on another friend, Sir Philip Sidney). But he was also an inveterate intriguer, a chronic liar, and a convicted traitor. A man of terrible judgment whose life ended in failure, he redeemed himself with a famously, piercingly eloquent speech on the scaffold and a surpassingly brave, mocking death. Attractive if not necessarily admirable, lovable if not necessarily likable, Raleigh is a great subject for a great biography. Here it is. Stylishly written, judicious in its verdicts, based on archival research and the latest scholarship, this book probes the infighting at court, grand affairs of state, religious and cultural developments, and Raleigh’s literary achievement with equal rigor and acuity. To their expected sobriety, Nicholls, a Cambridge historian, and Williams, a historian at Oxford, marry brio—­fitting enough, given their subject, who urged his son, “Awaken thyself to industrye and rowse upp thy spiritts for the world,” and about whom the great 17th-century biographer John Aubrey remarked, “He was no Slug.”

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