Popular historian Ronald (The Sancy Blood Diamond, 2004, etc.) struggles mightily to find a fresh promontory from which to observe Elizabeth I’s favorite rovers: John Hawkins, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Essex.
They helped fill her coffers, weaken Spain, lay the foundation for Britain’s empire. Is there anything new to say about these celebrated folks and their often execrable behavior? This author’s success is moderate. Her framework is the oft-told biography of the Virgin Queen. Ronald quickly assesses the sorry economic and geopolitical state of the country in 1558, when young Elizabeth assumed the throne. The country needed cash, and Spanish treasure ships were queued up across the Atlantic delivering the bounties of the New World. Enter those aforementioned English pirates. Ronald offers the biography of each, narrates the necessary adventures, pauses periodically to quote (sometimes at excessive length) from relevant documents or to sketch biographical, political and geographical background. She rehearses a bit of the story of the first successful English slave trader, John Hawkins (for much more, see Nick Hazlewood’s The Queen’s Slave Trader, 2004). Then the text, like Elizabethan history itself, comes alive with Francis Drake swaggering onto the stage and quite literally stealing his way into the queen’s heart. Ronald chronicles Drake’s voyages with confidence, knowledge and patent admiration for his naval skills: At one point she describes him as “one hell of a captain and navigator.” Eventually, he circumnavigated the globe, defeated the Spanish Armada, sort of retired, died. Mary, Queen of Scots, Essex and Raleigh lost their heads, but by the time James I mounted the throne in 1603, England was poised for global greatness. What will certainly strike many readers is Elizabeth’s serial dissembling—lying was one of her greatest talents—and the use by all European powers of deception, theft and violence as their principal instruments in the cacophonous symphony of international relations.
Oft-told stories about people as familiar as family still retain their power to animate and educate.