The best place for Sir Walter Raleigh, the English historian A.L. Rowse once observed, was the Tower of London. This well-written life by namesake and descendant Trevelyan makes a long but engaging rebuttal.
When Raleigh died in 1618, executed, in a casebook example of double jeopardy, for crimes supposedly committed many years before, he was a deeply unpopular man. “His performance on the scaffold,” writes retired publisher Trevelyan (Rome ’44, not reviewed, etc.), “was a great piece of theater, but it is impossible not to be won over by it, as indeed were all, or nearly all, his spectators.” As a result, and thanks to his wife Bess Throckmorton’s ceaseless labors, Raleigh’s reputation was almost immediately restored, and over the next half-century or so Raleigh became a hero of the republican cause. Not that he was an antimonarchic exemplar; Trevelyan acknowledges that good Sir Walter served the Crown as it suited, though without the anti-Catholic zeal of so much of Elizabeth’s court. (“There are no such things as wars of religion,” he wisely observed, “only civil wars. The condition of man was never bettered by them.”) Raleigh, however, was also careful to look after his own interests first, and his exploits as a privateer and explorer earned him envy and infamy. Trevelyan catalogues Raleigh’s many accomplishments: he was a poet of some distinction; he was a chemist and sort-of-doctor who fitted up his cell in the Tower of London as a laboratory and concocted a cure-all called “Balsam of Guinea,” the popularity of which “lasted for the rest of the century”; he was a great soldier, sailor, and explorer, a parliamentarian and historian; and, perhaps most famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), he introduced tobacco to England, and possibly the potato to Ireland. All signal achievements, to be sure, but not enough to save the great swashbuckler from the intrigues of the English court.
Trevelyan rightly concludes that “we cannot fail to be awed by the vastness of his aspirations.” Readers with an interest in the man and his time will find this vast account a pleasure.