The Magazine

Courtier Prince

The adventurous history of an Elizabethan favorite.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ (1870) by Sir John Everett Millais

‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ (1870) by Sir John Everett Millais

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.