This book not only illuminates Sir Walter Raleigh’s life, but also illuminates his times in a way that brings real benefit to the reader. The author, Raleigh Trevelyan (who died in 2014), does an excellent job of making Raleigh’s story compelling, maintaining focus on his protagonist while bringing in enough of the historical and political background to put Walter Raleigh in the context of his times. (Although if you don’t like poetry, you may not like frequent quotations of Raleigh’s poetry—but those also illuminate the points at hand, and so are well worth paying attention to.)
Raleigh is today mostly remembered for the story of placing his cloak in a muddy puddle so Queen Elizabeth could walk across without getting her clothes dirty. But like so many in those days when merit, constant deadly risk and hard, constant work created a path to rise in the world, he was a polymath: poet, diplomat, warrior, sailor, courtier, and family man. Trevelyan brings all those characteristics of Raleigh, and more, to life.
Almost all of what we see of Elizabethan times is through the lens of Elizabeth herself, or through the lens of viewing Shakespeare. Both Elizabeth and Shakespeare appear here (Shakespeare only a few times and on the edges), but they are not the main focus. Instead, the main focus is on people less grand, and that focus makes Raleigh’s story even more interesting. All sorts of characters are here. Raleigh’s half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, who led butchery in Ireland, claimed Newfoundland for the Crown, and foundered in his ship in a storm, shortly after exclaiming “We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!” The putative sorcerer John Dee of Mortlake. Francis Bacon. Pocahontas. Edmund Spenser. Robert Devereaux, second earl of Essex, executed by Elizabeth for a pathetic rebellion. Christopher Marlowe. And many more.
A considerable portion of the book is taken up with Raleigh’s voyages to the Americas, in particular to what is now Venezuela and Guyana, searching for gold. Nowadays we associate South and Central America with Spanish colonialism, but the British vied in some parts of South America with the Spanish, though without lasting effect. Raleigh was also largely responsible for the disappeared colony at Roanoke, Virginia and participated in a number of other schemes. Americans typically learn about these events through the prism of the colonists themselves, rather than the organizers, so these sections of the book may be of particular interest to Americans.