Sir Walter Ralegh was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who showered him estates, jewels, monopolies, and political appointments earning him the reputation of “the most hated man in England.” A man of many talents, he helped convince Elizabeth she should be empress of a great empire, on the condition that he be the one to shape her realm from the first. In Walter Ralegh, eminent historian Alan Gallay tells the fascinating story of how Ralegh helped create the largest empire the world has ever seen.
A courtier, buccaneer, soldier, explorer, and statesman — as well as a poet, historian, naval strategist, and scientist — Ralegh is best known in the US for trying, and failing, to found Roanoke, the first English colony in America. But that event does not even begin to suggest the world-historical import of his adventures. Inspired by the mystical religious philosophy of hermeticism, Ralegh (popularly, and mistakenly, spelt “Raleigh”) believed that England could build an empire without the conquest of native peoples, an empire in which English settlers and American Indians would live together, or, alternatively, where natives became allies and England would not interfere with their way of life. Playing a lead role in England’s simultaneous attempt to colonise North America, South America, and Ireland, Ralegh shaped the English Empire at its birth, motivated by the wild idealism that the answer to English fears of national decline resided in the Americas, where natives blessed by God would reveal the mysteries of the universe.
In the end, colonialism left a legacy of brutal exploitation far different from Ralegh’s idealisations. Examining Ralegh’s life, Gallay reveals that Elizabethans had complex and often contrary views on colonisation, seeing it as a means of achieving transcendence or, just as often, of achieving wealth and glory through war and subjugation. From Ralegh’s introduction of the potato to Ireland to his creation of the most famous medicine of seventeenth-century England, from his failed colonial experiment on Roanoke island to his search for El Dorado, Gallay chronicles Ralegh’s legendary life and offers a new origin story for the English Empire.