Sir Walter Raleigh: in Life and Legend

Colin Burrow writes:

The OED suggests that the word ‘star’ was not used of ‘a person of brilliant reputation or talents’ until the 19th century. Nonetheless Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) struck his contemporaries as pretty much a ‘star’ in this sense. The attorney general said during his final trial: ‘He hath been as a star at which the world hath gazed; but stars may fall, nay they must fall when they trouble the sphere wherein they abide.’ During his life Ralegh built up a reputation for fabulous wealth and bad behaviour that persisted well after his death. In the late 17th century, John Aubrey (who was good on anecdotes though not quite so strong on truth) recorded that he once got one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour up against a tree. She protested with ‘Will you undoe me? Nay, sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter! Sir Walter! At last as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cryed in the ecstasy, Swisser-Swatter Swisser-Swatter.’ Ralegh even fulfilled the chief obligation of modern-day stars by having a fashionable drug of choice: tobacco. This led to his becoming the only Elizabethan courtier to be immortalised in a Beatles song: ‘Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette/And curse Sir Walter Ralegh,/He was such a stupid get.’ This is a little unfair to Sir Walter, who was not in fact the first person to bring tobacco (or indeed potatoes) back from the New World. Nor is it very likely he threw down his cloak so that Queen Elizabeth could step over a puddle. But his career – described with immense care and judiciousness by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams in what will surely become the standard biography – is still almost unbelievable even when the ornaments of myth are stripped from it.

(LRB 8 March 2012)