A BBC History Magazine Book of the Year
A writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer, Sir Walter Ralegh lived more lives than most in his own time, in any time. The fifth son of a Devonshire gentleman, he rose to become Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, only to be charged with treason by her successor.
Less than a year after the death of his Queen, Ralegh was in the Tower, watching as the scene was set for his own execution.
Patriot or Traitor is the dramatic story of his rise and fall.
Cultural historian Beer (Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music) sheds light on the underattended elements of Walter Ralegh's life in this well-told but questionably sourced biography. In addition to the oft-discussed vanished Roanoke colony and Ralegh's later quest for gold in South America, this volume covers Ralegh's less-known compassion for the natives he encountered on his voyages and the part he played in sophisticated Tudor politics (the ambitious, multitalented courtier briefly rivaled the famed earl of Essex in the Elizabethan court before losing his head first figuratively, then literally under the new Stuart king). While Ralegh comes through in this account as a Renaissance man of exploration, poetry, and politics, his charisma remains elusive, and the absence of vital citations results in uncertainty regarding source reliability and bias. Beer's understanding of Ralegh shines through in her analysis of his popular poetry, which he artfully used to attract Elizabeth I's attention, and his bitter, far less successful work aimed at James I. The narrative's poignant assessment of Ralegh's desperate pleas of relevancy to James and his last, tragic grasp at greatness provides a strong finish. Beer reminds readers of Ralegh's political rise, seafaring adventures, and fraught relationships with notable monarchs in an examination more literary than scholarly.