Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review
"Sir Walter Raleigh: Being a True and Vivid Account of the Life and Times of the Explorer, Soldier, Scholar, Poet, and Courtier -- The Controversial Hero of the Elizabethian Age"
by Raleigh Trevelyan

What struck me most about the contents of Sir Walter Raleigh, a lengthy biography by Raleigh Trevelyan, was why a man so talented and so proactive in defending his country against all her enemies would have had his head chopped off for treason.

First observation: don’t make powerful enemies. Raleigh was a brilliant, exciting, unique individual. He was very literate, knowledgeable in many subjects, quick-witted, courageous, and virile: simply put, superior to most men. His great mistake was that he flaunted his talents, was exceedingly ostentatious in his attire, and strived always to sway people to his way of thinking. Raleigh rose rapidly in Queen Elizabeth’s court after the Queen became acquainted with him. Rarely allowing him to leave her sight, she bestowed upon him special economic privileges, heeded his advice as much as she did any councilor, and permitted him to select subordinates to implement his plan to establish an English outpost in North America. His enemies resented that he was not of noble birth. His disdain for them, exhibited especially by his dismissal of their malice, infuriated them. They circulated vicious stories about him. He was a liar, an opportunist, a thief, an atheist, a traitor.

Second observation: don’t underestimate the scorn of a woman. Elizabeth bestowed her favoritism on several virile young men during her lengthy reign: Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester), during the early years; Sir Christopher Dutton during the late 1570s and early 1580s; Raleigh; and, finally, Robert Devereux (the Second Earl of Essex). Raleigh’s downfall occurred after the Queen discovered that he had secretly married one of her maids of honor, whom he had impregnated. Elizabeth did not give her favorite courtiers permission to marry. Rarely did she permit a maid of honor to marry. Dudley had done so and been punished. Raleigh’s punishment was worse: several months in the Tower of London in 1592 and, after his release, banishment from the Court for nearly five years, although Elizabeth did permit him to lead an expedition to Guiana in 1595 to search for gold. It wasn’t until Raleigh’s worst enemy, Essex, had fallen substantially out of favor that Elizabeth allowed Raleigh back to Court, in June 1597; and he remained more or less in the Queen’s good graces up to her death March 24, 1603.

Third observation: a monarch’s will trumps justice. As Elizabeth’s death neared, Raleigh’s enemies filled the ears of their future king with incessant lies. Raleigh was selfish, disloyal, an atheist, dangerous. Everything about Raleigh, James I disliked. Raleigh fell instantly out of favor. The economic privileges that he had received from Elizabeth were withdrawn. Raleigh’s worst enemies were appointed to the Privy Council. James wanted above anything else a peace treaty with Spain. Because Spain hated Raleigh, he had to be eliminated. He was tried and conviction of treason before the end of 1603 for having consented to spy for Spain. He had been offered an annual pension of 1,500 pounds. (Unbeknownst to James at least two of his Privy Council advisors were receiving such pensions) Raleigh had refused the offer. The confederates of this treasonous act lied at Raleigh’s trial. It didn’t matter. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. James, fearing a public outcry, stayed the execution. He imprisoned Raleigh in the Tower, where he stayed for nearly 15 years.

Raleigh was released in 1617 on his promise to find and mine gold in Guiana. James, in serious debt, needed his treasury replenished. He warned Raleigh that he would execute him should Raleigh attack Spanish forces. (The desired peace treaty with Spain had been signed in 1604) Raleigh tried his best to avoid confrontation during his journey to Trinidad. An old man, he was too sick to journey up Guiana’s Orinoco River. That task fell to a subordinate, who lacked good judgment. Raleigh warned the subordinate not to engage the one Spanish village on the river. Attacked by a small Spanish reconnaissance party, he and his ill-disciplined men retaliated, took the village, and burned it. Various false accusations were made against Raleigh at his trial. None carried sufficient weight to convict him, Raleigh’s prosecutors concluded. But Raleigh had to be executed. The Spanish ambassador (James’s very close friend) and King Philip III demanded it. And James wanted it. He needed the 500,000 pound dowry that Philip had promised him should his son Charles marry Spanish royalty. Consequently, James lifted his stay of execution. For the trumped up verdict of Raleigh having committed treason by agreeing in 1603 to receive a pension from Spain for spying, Raleigh was beheaded October 29, 1618.

Although tedious at times due mostly to the book’s wealth of detail (which included many excerpts of Raleigh’s poetry), I found this biography well worth reading.