Author, lecturer and Walter Raleigh expert Anna Beer discusses her interest in the famed explorer and why she thinks he fell from favour so fast
We speak to Anna Beer ahead of her Oxford Literary Festival talk, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh. Want to attend, see details below as well as exclusive All About History discount ticket offer.
What drew you to Sir Walter Raleigh in the first place?
Coincidentally, it was his account of his first journey in search of the gold of El Dorado. I was studying English Literature at University, getting a bit bogged down with everything, when suddenly I read this account written 400 years earlier of this incredible expedition and it just felt so real and so exciting and I was hooked – what made it even more interesting was the fact that they didn’t find any gold!
I loved the writing and I realised that I was not just reading about a journey or an expedition, I was reading the work of somebody who was incredible with words. I mean, he makes a completely failed expedition sound fantastic – I think they were only in their canoes up the Orinoco [River] for about eight or nine days and yet you feel like it is a huge undertaking, magnificent and glorious. He just had a way of bringing it all to life.
I then discovered his poetry and his political prose. Raleigh was imprisoned twice, the second time for 13 years. It is not to everybody’s taste to read hundreds and hundreds of pages of history and political analysis but it told me something about the man, that he was imprisoned for so long in a small space and can’t get out, apart from on occasion when he was allowed to walk on the battlements of the Tower of London, and so he travelled in time in his mind to the past, to the Roman and Greek eras, and travelled in space by drawing maps of the places in the historical stories he is writing about.
These incredible notebooks survive and I think that was the point at which I realised that I was going to devote my entire life to this man – for all his faults! He was a very flawed man, the highs were high but the lows were lower, he was a liar and many other things beside, but that vision and that courage to travel across the Atlantic Ocean – I would have been terrified.
Why was Raleigh so keen to go against the Spaniards?
The simple answer is that Spain was the most powerful country in Europe at the time and their power and ambition to invade England – which they repeatedly tried to do – could be paid for by the gold from South America. Raleigh saw that gold corrupting everything in the European political balance, as it gave Spain a hugely unfair advantage over all the other countries.
Spain wanted to invade England and remove Elizabeth I who was a Protestant queen and once she was excommunicated by the Pope in the 1570s, it basically gave permission to any Catholic leader of another country to say you know, she needs to be removed, we need to put our own person in. So that was Spain’s justification which brings me on to the religious side of things – for many of Raleigh’s contemporaries, the war against Spain was an ideological, religious war, Protestant England against Catholic Spain.
However, one of the interesting things about Raleigh is that he is just not interested in that. He was interested in the economic politics of it, he wanted to stop the flow of money, of gold, coming into Spain, and that is why he looked to establish an English settlement, an English colony, an English harbour and port in the area that we know today as Venezuela and Trinidad. This is not just because he wants to settle there but because it is going to interrupt the supply of gold and the riches of South America, which is why he is also leading expeditions against the Spanish in the mid-Atlantic and actually attacking Spain in its own backyard in Cadiz.
England is not a big player at this time, they are small, they are poor, they are isolated in the sense that they are one of the few Protestant monarchies in Europe and the threats were all around. Raleigh tried to get raids done on ports in Brittany in Northern France, from which the Spanish were attacking the South West of England, as well as in Ireland, which is another launching pad from which the Spanish could invade England.
Raleigh fears Spain for all those reasons but he also secretly admires the Spanish. He complains to both Queen Elizabeth and King James that Spain have got it right, they are ruthless, they are single-minded, they know what they are doing and they are winning and so there is a lot of admiration there, but he is determined to fight with the weapons that England have got, which is naval power and ingenuity, to try disrupt at least Spain’s flow of money.
Raleigh was a trusted favourite under Elizabeth I and she depended on him and his ability to spout propaganda, so where did it go wrong under her successor, James I?
That’s a really good question. Raleigh got into big trouble with Elizabeth as well, due to the sexual politics of the Elizabethan court, so he wasn’t indispensable. Throughout his career, it’s tough for him: he doesn’t come from a great family, so it is easier to get rid of him. I’ve tried to explore this in my book but when it comes to James, while as an historian you don’t really want to go down to an argument that James just didn’t like Raleigh, I think there really was an element of that.
The sensible answer is that on both sides there was a lot of distrust and when James was in Scotland, he was being groomed to be king of England by certain people in England, like Robert Cecil. They started this secret correspondence with James and they are just feeding him vitriol about Raleigh, saying that he cannot be trusted, that he is ruthlessly ambitious and he will destroy you. So, it is hardly a surprise that when James comes down to England and everyone is rushing up to be his new best friend that Raleigh tries to make a connection and is completely sidelined – there has got to be a sense that, considering they hadn’t met yet, that James’s mind was poisoned against Raleigh by the people who are going to be powerful under him.
At the same time, Raleigh does himself no favours and believes that as the underdog, attack is the best form of defence and that England needs to be much more offensive against Spain. That was a message that sometimes Elizabeth I listened to but most of the time she didn’t. James was never going to listen because he wanted peace with Spain and so politically and militarily he disagreed with Raleigh.
There is also the issue of sexual politics because James, as everyone around him knew, had a preference for male lovers even though he had a wife and children. Raleigh was too old for him and far too straight and although he could have been really clever and found a beautiful young man, as his rivals did, and place them in the path of James, he didn’t do that. Raleigh would have been far more comfortable with James’s cousin, Arabella Stuart, on the throne, a woman on the throne. Above all, though, he said some very stupid things. Whether he actually plotted to overthrow James is another question – every reader will need to decide what they think having read my book!
Doesn’t Raleigh’s trial and imprisonment seem suspect?
Yes it was and the trial, as I see it, was a show trial. A new regime was coming in, James was coming in, and Raleigh sort of gives himself up on a plate as the scapegoat. There is a really cynical argument that it was engineered so that the new king could have this dramatic trial, remove his enemies and consolidate his power. The problem for James was that at his trial, Raleigh was not going to go quietly, he just defended himself brilliantly and turned himself overnight from the best-hated man in England to a hero.
That really sums it up, best-hated man, and I believe that. In my book I keep saying it because people did not like him, he had risen far too high, he was arrogant, you couldn’t trust him, and if he had just gone quietly in that trial then we would never know about him. It was that trial in Winchester, 1603, that turned things around and gave James more of a problem than any loose talk about overthrowing the monarchy gave – Raleigh, as a prisoner, was more dangerous to James than he was as a free man.
Do you believe that Raleigh’s execution was unjustified and does that make him a sympathetic figure?
That is the million-dollar question. Like I said, I think the trial at Winchester was a show trial and it should have unravelled, because Raleigh showed in his defence that the verdict against him was legally unsound. Then you have got 15 years in which he is a condemned man, he is legally dead and at any point James can pull the trigger and say that, according to the verdict in 1603, Raleigh was a traitor and that he deserves to die.
So, in a sense, his eventual execution at the end of October in 1618 was justified because he had been condemned as a traitor in 1603 but I think that original verdict is flawed. I think Raleigh knew it and therefore that makes the execution unjust as it were, if not directly illegal.
Less abstractly, one of the powerful things about the day of Raleigh’s execution is that he never admits to his crimes and in fact, he says that the only person who is going to judge him is God, which is an inflammatory thing to say. He is not doing the conventional scaffold speech of the condemned man admitting his guilt, God save the king and that he deserves to die, but he claims he is innocent right up to the end.
Unjust or just, legal or illegal, is difficult to say but certainly the sympathy he gained through his behaviour in the last hour of his life meant that people would re-examine the legal charge against him. Raleigh’s incredible speech brought this huge wave of sympathy towards him, so in a weird way he is getting rid of the question of whether it was legal or unjust, he is just saying that he is a good man who doesn’t deserve to die.
Why does Raleigh’s legacy remain highly controversial?
His colonial and imperial legacy is probably the most problematic. This is a man who became a kind of poster boy for 19th century and particularly early 20th century imperialist and colonialist apologists for British imperialism. He was seen as the conceptual founder of the British Empire, the visionary mind behind it. The facts are that Raleigh was active in Ireland (for example with the massacre at Smerwick) and early attempts to colonise both North and South America. One man’s ideas or actions don’t make an empire, so whilst it is absurd to celebrate him as the ‘founder’, it’s equally reductive to blame one individual for Britain’s colonial actions – he was just one man among many scrambling for a foothold in the Americas.
But it is a problematic legacy and ironically Raleigh is most problematic when he is being convincing. He will write about exploration and how much he admires the indigenous peoples and it is a very persuasive view of a benign exchange but it is a big lie, as we now know, in that these people’s lives and lands were going to be destroyed forever. In North Carolina, where the Roanoke colony was attempted, and beyond there is still very deep anger amongst the indigenous peoples – and quite rightly too – that we have this heroic narrative.
His legacy is also controversial in a completely different way in that after his death, political thinkers and activists, particularly Parliamentarians and Republicans, took Raleigh’s ideas and ran with them. They made him far more politically feisty than he actually was, or at least more politically coherent than he actually was, so that is another legacy. Oliver Cromwell admired Raleigh’s work, John Milton did, a lot of the big thinkers of the late 19th century with the Whig movement admired him because they thought he was almost a Parliamentarian, certainly not a democrat, but a man who supported Parliament against the absolute power of the king. That is controversial, simply because they took elements of his thinking and writing and turned him into this champion of opposition to the crown.
Want to hear more from Anna Beer? Then you should attend the Oxford Literary Festival where she will be presenting a talk entitled Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh in association with All About History.
The talk is on Sunday, 7 April 2019 from 4:00pm, tickets start at £7 and you can use our discount code for savings (see below)