Ralegh's Last Journey: A Tale of Madness, Vanity and Treachery by Paul Hyland, HarperCoLlins £9.99
ir Walter Raleigh was one of a number of adventurers who adorned Elizabethan England, flourishing in a dizzy spectacle of romantic exploits under the leadership of that first giant English CEO, Gloriana. But great leaders don't last forever, and a change in management can have catastrophic consequences for their followers. With the accession of the "wisest fool in Christendom", James I, the enterprising West Country gentleman fell from favour.
There was always a whiff of danger about Raleigh, which was expressed not only in his pursuit of new land and lucre: he was also investigated for atheism, no minor matter in 17th-century England.
In 1603 he was implicated in the Bye plot to replace James with Arabella Stuart. He was convicted of treason and served time in the Tower. But he managed to convince the Stuart monarch to give him one last chance to redeem his fortunes, with an expedition to Guiana in search of a gold mine. Ralegh's Last Journey (which adopts an alternative spelling of the surname) describes this unhappy venture and Raleigh's return in disgrace, followed by his failed attempt to escape to France, imprisonment and execution.
Hyland clearly adores his subject. His Raleigh is an honourable, ageing genius, whose boldness is offset by his naivety. Although he is a popular hero around whom cheering crowds materialise, he is cursed by terrible luck, scheming court pygmies and a king who has it in for him.
The sometimes ponderous narrative is seasoned by many passages of contemporary writing, including Raleigh's dreamy verse — variously inspired by his wife and the late Queen — and the more pungent prose of his apologists.
ERverything seemed to go wrong for poor aleigh during his last expedition; he and his crew fell sick, losing 42 men, the gold mine was not found, and he lost his beloved 24year-old son, Wat. His men were ambushed by Spaniards; Raleigh quarrelled bitterly with his friend, Laurence Keymis, who went on to commit suicide. He was also being watched by his "chymist", Manoury, who sent his observations to the Privy Council. Instead of the fabled riches of El Dorado, a fearfully depressed Raleigh brought back tObacco — not g good idea, given James's fanatical hatred of the weed.
Raleigh knew that his fate was sealed. He embarked on a harebrained attempt to stave off the King's displeasure. persuading Manoury to induce illness in him with poison. While afflicted he penned his Large Appologie for the ill successe of his enterprise to Guiana. But none of this prevented him being placed under house arrest by James. The condemned man hired a boat to take him to France, but a kinsman betrayed him.
Raleigh was imprisoned in that familiar setting, the Tower. 1-lis jailers compiled a list of his possessions, which included a diamond ring given to him by Queen Elizabeth and a miniature of his wife, Lady Elizabeth. There were also three charts of the West Indies, which Raleigh regretted handing over. "I would not have parted with those for three hundred pounds," he said.
Raleigh was hauled before the Privy Council. He gave a masterful defence of his actions, but the sentence was never in doubt. As he placed his head on the block he knelt the wrong way, facing west, towards Devon and the New World. The Dean of Westminster reprimanded him, saying a man about to face his maker should face east, towards the Promised Land. Sir Walter changed his position and delivered his last bon mot: "So the heart be right, it is no matter which way the head lieth."
The story of Raleigh's fall has all the ingredients of a good read: hubris, treachery and tragedy. Alas, the author trawls drearily through the final years without offering any insights into this curious character and his motivations. Raleigh's end was pitiful, but it left me strangely unmoved.