Sir Walter Gets His Due; or, “He was no Slug”

Published:April 17, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Our contributor Mark Nicholls (see George Percy and George Somers) has co-authored, with Penry Williams, a new biography of Sir Walter Raleigh. Ironically, Nicholls did not author our Raleigh entry, but perhaps he should have: The Atlantic has just published a rave review of Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend, implying this to be the great man’s first great biography:

Stylishly written, judicious in its verdicts, based on archival research and the latest scholarship, this book probes the infighting at court, grand affairs of state, religious and cultural developments, and Raleigh’s literary achievement with equal rigor and acuity. To their expected sobriety, Nicholls, a Cambridge historian, and Williams, a historian at Oxford, marry brio—fitting enough, given their subject, who urged his son, “Awaken thyself to industrye and rowse upp thy spiritts for the world,” and about whom the great 17th-century biographer John Aubrey remarked, “He was no Slug.”

Not that we thought he was. In fact, I had as much fun writing the Raleigh entry as I’ve had at the encyclopedia:

He courted Elizabeth’s favor, slipping her bits of verse that fashioned her into a modern-day Diana (or Cynthia, the epithet of Diana’s Greek counterpart, Artemis), goddess of the moon and symbol of chastity. She, in turn, elevated him at court, nicknaming him “Water,” after his thick Devonshire accent, and appearing to admire his six-foot frame and light brown eyes. Perhaps in imitation of Elizabeth’s own sartorial splendor, Raleigh costumed himself with such ruffled and pearl-encrusted extravagance that his fellow courtiers grumbled at the sheer nerve of it.

Read the rest: it’s sheer soap opera.

IMAGES: Detail from oil portrait of Raleigh painted ca. 1590 (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation); detail from oil-on-wood panel of Queen Elizabeth, painted late in the sixteenth century (Library of Virginia)