A new biography of the Englishman who was both celebrated and excoriated in his Tudor era as a model colonizer.
Beloved by Queen Elizabeth, Walter Ralegh (c. 1552-1618) was handsome, dashing, imaginative, and intelligent. In addition, he could write beautiful poetry. “Imagination was a powerful, creative force in his life,” writes Bancroft Prize winner Gallay (Chair, History/Texas Christian Univ.; Colonial and Revolutionary America: Text and Documents, 2017, etc.). Cutting his teeth during the Desmond Rebellions, the Irish attempts to halt Elizabeth’s colonization of the Munster province in Ireland in advance of the certain Spanish invasion, Ralegh showed himself to his queen as the ultimate courtier. His service to Elizabeth was absolute, and in 1584, she “granted [him] a patent to found and possess a colony in America.” Famous for planting a colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia—and then abandoning it when war with Spain called him back—Ralegh, as the author ably delineates, was determined to promote a colony far different from the brutally disastrous Spanish model. Ralegh did not believe in enslaving the Native peoples; rather, he worked toward a benevolent, mutually beneficial partnership between the two. Naturally, there was much propaganda involved in this colonizing effort; so too in Ireland, where great circumstantial evidence suggests Ralegh had a significant role in the introduction of the potato crop, brought from America, as well as tobacco. There was also plenty of self-promotion during his search for El Dorado in South America, which was part of his effort to vindicate himself under the new king, James I. Though Gallay is unfortunately not interested in Ralegh’s personal life, he manages to convey the enormous sense of how the gallant courtier, alchemist, humanist, and author helped create the cult of the goddess queen—who summarily ejected him out of her orbit.
An enriching, sympathetic consideration of an extraordinary character in the fraught time of Tudor England.