A new biography of Sir Walter Ralegh (c. 1554-1618), a handsome, wily, politically astute, and powerful figure in Elizabethan England.
Beer (Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, 2016, etc.) creates a sharp, sympathetic, and discerning portrait of a charming man of “dark, Celtic, good looks” who became a favorite of Elizabeth I only to fall precipitously from grace under the queen’s successor, James VI of Scotland. Without a noble background, Ralegh’s unlikely rise to prominence was fueled by his “energy, vision and intelligence” mixed with “arrogance, violence and deception.” An improbable naval hero (he could not sleep onboard ship, he claimed), he survived sea battles; a womanizer, who married in secret without the queen’s approval, he rose above sex scandals. He was a “cultural relativist in a century of religious absolutism” and a “poster boy” for “a more decent form of British imperialism, concerned not with “trade and plunder” but with settlement. For a time, his loyalty to Elizabeth ensured that he would survive the rivalries that rent the fabric of the court; in 1584, he gained a coveted patent “to discover unknown lands, to take possession of them in the Queen’s name, and to hold them for six years.” His plan to found the colony of Virginia was, Beer acknowledges, “only a tiny part of a larger geo-political struggle; Protestant England’s war with Catholic Spain”—the adversary nation that Ralegh hated vehemently. The author is forthright about her subject’s failings and clear in her admiration, as well, especially for his talent for rhetoric: “He was the master of persuasion, a man who could make you believe that defeat was victory, that black was white.” In 1592, imprisoned by Elizabeth, he bribed his way to freedom; two years later, he was “a freewheeling adventurer” once again, in South America on a quest for gold. After Elizabeth died, he became “a small cog in the very large machine of international power politics,” imprisoned, condemned, and beheaded.
A penetrating, spirited recounting of a courtier’s roiling life and times.