This book by Mathew Lyons has recently come out in its paperback edition. It tells the story of how Walter Ralegh, an energetic, restless young man from the west country worked out how to curb his wilder instincts and harness and direct his talent, bravery and ambition in a way which made him indispensable to a vulnerable monarch.
We learn how this rudderless youth – though not without family connections – became involved in dangerous military adventures in France where his story might have ended there and then; who tried Oxford and then the Middle Temple, but had the attention span for neither; who ill-advisedly fell in with a broadly pro-Catholic cabal led by the Earl of Oxford.
So in a dangerous post-Reformation age when wealth and success were often only gained at huge personal risk, when all were spying on and double-crossing one another, when men’s political well-being constantly shifted, Ralegh had made an inauspicious start. But lessons had not been lost. When given an opportunity in 1580 to join a force sent to neutralise a Spanish threat building up near Smerwick in Ireland, Ralegh was instrumental in crushing the enemy with a relatively small force and with decisive, ruthless efficiency.
Elizabeth felt her and England’s vulnerability deeply, and here was a man who showed mettle and ability. There followed a decade – the 1580s – when the queen showered her new Favourite with honour, lucrative sinecures and juicy contracts, much to the chagrin of many of the higher status nobility at court and indeed outside of it. But the Tudor era was an age of opportunity and social mobility for some. Ralegh epitomised this.
How to explain the Ralegh-Elizabeth dynamic? They had a similar “world view”: Elizabeth “got” Ralegh and vice-versa. The author talks about how Elizabeth and Ralegh, among the scheming power groups, having been their own private group: a cabal of two.
The paradox was that Ralegh needed to be close by his benefactor to influence her, cajole her, flirt and flatter. Yet to perform the services she so badly needed for her own security and wealth, he had perforce to be at a distance.
It’s a difficult analysis for a reviewer to describe, so let’s quote the author:
She had taken a man of indifferent loyalty under the shadow of her wings and he had emerged a man willing to articulate thoughts for her that other men discarded or suppressed, and do things that other men would not. He was her creature in a way no other man had been.
Ralegh was a complex, ambiguous character – impossible to pigeon hole, unique. Probably beyond the grasp even of his contemporaries with the possible exception of the queen herself he has been reeled in a little by this elegant and most thoughtful treatment. Enlightening and entertaining, a lovely read.
The Favourite: Ralegh and His Queen (402pp) by Mathew Lyons is published in paperback by Constable Robinson at £8.99 retail, but available for a bit less. Editions also in hard cover and Kindle editions.