When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the courageous but overmatched Jimmy Stewart gets credit for laying out a desperado in a gunfight when, in fact, it was John Wayne who fired the kill shot. The legend is irresistible and carries Stewart to a Senate seat. With Sir Walter Ralegh (1554?-1618), too, the legend is so attractive and so engrained that it is a challenge to keep the story straight.

Begin with his surname. The title of this excellent biography follows popular precedent in its spelling; witness the capital of North Carolina, a once-top-selling brand of cigarette, the touring bicycle. In the body of the book, however, the authors use the spelling that their subject favored for most of his life: Ralegh.

The Ralegh legend is rich in alluring half-truths and outright fabrications; indeed, these are what he tends to be best known for. It has been frequently said that he introduced potatoes and tobacco to the Old World—wrong on both counts, though it is possible that he did bring potatoes to Ireland, and likely that he made smoking fashionable at the English royal court. Not so likely is the story that Ralegh bet Queen Elizabeth he could determine how much the smoke from one pound of tobacco weighed: Weigh the tobacco first, then the ash, and the difference is the weight of the smoke. Ralegh himself denied that he smoked at the beheading of his rival the Earl of Essex, though he did take a few puffs the morning of his own execution for treason.

Ralegh’s erotic flair, which reputedly took him as far as the queen’s bedchamber, constitutes a beguiling aspect of the legend. Nicholls and Williams cite a tale from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives about Ralegh’s romp in the woods with a maid of honor who did not let honor impede a good time: “ ‘Oh Sir Walter, will you undo me?’ swiftly gives way to ‘Nay, sweet Sir Walter,’ and finally to a rhythmic, breathless, ‘Swisser Swatter,’ as his attentions proceed.” Such anecdotes belong to the apocrypha, however, and his later reputation as a rake is undeserved, or overblown.

The famed romance with Elizabeth was probably gossip vastly enhanced. The cloak he supposedly spread over a “plashy place” to keep the queen’s dainty foot dry was inscribed into myth by a writer born over 20 years after the imagined gallantry. A sound modern scholar observes that in the 1580s the queen was in such danger of assassination that venturing out among the crowd would have been unthinkable. From dashing gestures that never took place, world-historical rumors get started; accordingly, the sex lives of virgin queens ought to be handled with circumspection. Nicholls and Williams appear to indicate (though they do leave some tantalizing room for speculation) that Ralegh became the queen’s favorite, at least for a while, without becoming her bunkmate. (Elizabeth was a woman of potent emotion, however, and she imprisoned Ralegh and his bride in the Tower for a time because she disapproved of the marriage, chiefly on political grounds.) So the part of the Ralegh story that everyone knows best is unlikely to be true.

But the truth about the man is so impressive that no embellishments are necessary. He was a “soldier, voyager, visionary, courtier, politician, poet, historian, patriot, and ‘traitor,’ ” Nicholls and Williams write, and the variety of talents and the superabundance of energy marked him—with Francis Bacon, whose accomplishment was of an order higher still—as the quintessential English Renaissance Man. Ralegh embodied the virtues prescribed in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528 in Italian, translated into English in 1566)—most notably, the idea of sprezzatura or effervescence, the art of making difficult things look easy. He was, as Aubrey wrote, “no Slug.”

As the youngest son of a distinguished family from Devon, Ralegh set out early to make his mark. At 15 he fought in France as a volunteer with the Huguenot armies in the French religious wars. A boy soldier who evidently loved the excitement of combat, he understood how vicious and even pointless war could be, especially civil war. “By it no nation is bettered,” he would write years later in his History of the World. In 1570, he returned to England and two years later began studies at Oriel College, Oxford; some accounts, not exactly reliable but not exactly preposterous, have him commuting between the university and the French battlefield. Legal studies at the Middle Temple followed in 1575.

Perhaps through the pull of his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, notable for his classical learning and martial bloodlust, Ralegh found a place at the royal court and, once more, at war—this time in the subjugation of Ireland: “For younger sons like Walter, Ireland was an opportunity state, and a captaincy in Elizabeth’s army was a promising route to benefiting from its opportunities.”

Ralegh saw his opportunities and he took them, wherever they appeared: keeping the restive southwest of England under the queen’s thumb, serving as a knight of the shire for Devon in parliament, investing in the doomed colony of Roanoke, collecting the prizes of seagoing plunder but preferring not to risk his own skin as a privateer, and leading a 1595 expedition to South America in search of Manoa, the fabled city of gold ruled by the emperor El Dorado.

He was quickly in and out of Guiana (in the border region of modern Venezuela and Guyana), and wrote a book that amounted to a prospectus of imperial conquest and pelf. The reality did not live up to his pitch. Reports that the golden city lay within reach were blatant trumpery; there was no such place. Ralegh looked closer to home to secure his name and fortune, taking part in the English fleet’s 1596 attack on Cadiz, during which he received “a greevous blow in my legg, larded with manie splinters which I daylie pull out.”

The handsome booty he sailed home with consoled him. In 1600, the governorship of Jersey, a pretty sinecure, came his way. Privateers in whom he had a stake preyed on Venetian and Brazilian ships laden with sugar and other luxuries. Ralegh presided over his elegant Devon estate, Sherborne, and put in orders to his freebooting underlings for porcelain and silk stockings. After all, he and his wife had their needs.

A courtier thrives at his peril, however, for rivals only await the chance to insert the knife. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died after a reign of 44 years, and Ralegh’s sweet life crumbled. Perhaps a remark more witty than prudent to the new King James I helped ruin Ralegh, as Aubrey suspects. When James crowed that he could have won the throne by force if necessary, Ralegh wished the need had arisen: “Because that then you would have known your friends from your foes.” Moreover, Ralegh gave precisely the wrong advice on Spanish policy, promoting war when the king did not want to hear of it. Captaincy of the guard, well-paying monopolies, and a stately London house were all pulled out from under him.

And then, in July, came the fateful accusation of entanglement in an outlandish conspiracy—“the so-called Bye Plot aimed to kidnap the king and to hold him hostage against promises of wholesale changes in government and an openly acknowledged toleration of Catholicism in England.” As though that weren’t enough, there followed Ralegh’s implication in the vague but sinister Main Plot, which aimed to encourage rebellion and an invasion by Spain, thus ending in the king’s death and the accession of Arabella Stuart to the throne. Under duress, Ralegh sold out his good friend Lord Cobham, and the furious Cobham returned the favor. A suicide attempt ensued, but the knife missed Ralegh’s heart. Cobham’s testimony—later recanted, then confirmed—secured Ralegh’s conviction for treason. In the eyes of the law, he was a dead man.

To his wife he wrote, “Thy mourning cannot availe mee: I am but dust.” The king, however, did not please to return Ralegh to dust just yet. Ralegh spent 13 years as a prisoner in the Tower, with two rooms, a laboratory, a private garden, hundreds of his own books, seemingly unrestricted conjugal visitation, and friends popping in regularly or readily available among the inmates, including Cobham, with whom he reconciled.

He did get depressed and sometimes gasped for breath, but he found ways of enduring, even profiting from, confinement. Ralegh had always been a writer; in the Tower, no longer pressed by affairs, he became torrentially prolific, producing tracts on politics, naval warfare, courtly behavior, and, above all, his million-word History of the World, which took in the Old Testament, the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, the Greek wars with Persia, and broke off with the ascent of Rome until the second Punic War.

As in Machiavelli, prudence and Providence constitute Ralegh’s great themes; but quite unlike Machiavelli, he shows human wisdom humbled by the divine: “There is not therefore the smallest accident, which may seem unto men as falling out by chance, and of no consequence; but that the same is caused by God to effect somewhat else by; yea, and oftentimes to effect things of the greatest worldly importance.” The History had its day—Milton, Cromwell, and Gibbon all thought highly of it—but the last complete edition was published as long ago as 1829.

Prison had its comforts but it was still prison, and writing was not enough. A confidence man who needed to believe his own line of patter in order not to despair, Ralegh dreamed of a redemptive return to Guiana, and spread the word of the treasure abounding there. In 1616, James released him from the Tower, and Ralegh promptly took to the high seas. But the gold-seeking expedition failed utterly, and Ralegh came home to charges of chicanery and disloyalty. The original sentence of treason hung over his head, and this time his head was taken. On the scaffold, he delivered a 45-minute farewell: “[H]e commanded that stage; exploiting the moment through gestures, embracing friends, kissing the axe, working the crowd, fixing the event in memory.” When the executioner hesitated, Ralegh asked him what he feared. His final words were, “Strike, man.” An onlooker exclaimed that in England there was “not such another head to cut off.”

What remains of him that is real? Principally, his poetry. His output is sparse—he was a busy man—but he is the arch-poet of loss and regret, making lovely songs out of heartbreak, as in the sonnet “Farewell to the Court”: As in a countrey strange without companion, / I only waile the wrong of deaths delaies, / Whose sweete spring spent, whose sommer wel nie don, / Of all which past, the sorrow onely staies.

His mind runs to grimness, seeing the baleful aspect in all human striving, whether for honor, empire, wealth, fame, or love. Experience made him the anti-thesis to Machiavelli—who preached the virtue of boundless desire—though one suspects Ralegh’s inborn temperament was quite Machiavellian. And in his greatest poem, “As you came from the holy land,” which may be based on a medieval ballad, Ralegh distinguishes between illusory happiness and the real thing, aware of what the knowledge has cost him:

I have loved her all my youth

Butt now ould as you see

Love lykes not the falling frute

From the wythered tree .  .  .

But true Love is a durable fyre

In the mynde ever burnynge:

never sick never ould never dead

from itt selfe never turnynge.

This was a man who would prefer the facts about himself to the legend.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.

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