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Sir Walter Ralegh’s life is romantic, irresistible, and of central importance to our island story. His death is a convoluted and contested tale of bargaining, failure and betrayal. Through the Elizabethan golden age and Ralegh’s famous adventures to the final act, Anna Beer presents his stranger-than-fiction life in all its richness.
How could a man once the Queen’s favorite find himself consigned to the Tower by her successor? Should his legacy be fame or infamy? Who was the real Sir Walter Ralegh?
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- Rachel Redford
A star at which the world hath gazed
At the final treason trial of Walter Raleigh (I can't adjust to Beer's choice of the unconventional spelling!) which resulted in his execution in 1618, the judge called him 'a star at which the world hath gazed'. It is this dramatic star quality which Beer captures (that is in the glorious, celestial sense, not the X-factor kind of star!), from his early ascendency as Queen Elizabeth's multi-talented, flamboyant and favoured courtier, through his (ultimately doomed) voyages of exploration; three imprisonments in the Tower (one for 13 years after being found guilty of involvement of a plot to overthrow the new King, James vi in 1603), to his final piece of intensely moving theatre at the scaffold powerfully presented by Beer. Raleigh's career was crammed with the barbarism of the age (as commissioned officer in the English army in Ireland; in Virginia and South America), but there was a great deal more to him. His writings are prodigious including the 800-page History of the World (a typically grandiloquent, ambitious title!) written in the Tower; a torrent of brilliant letters from which Beer quotes; superb travel writing from his voyages of exploration - and a mass of poetry. (Beer's references have sent me to these startlingly timeless poems). Beer's writing style is studded with colloquial expressions ('what happened in Ireland stayed in Ireland'; 'the dinner party from hell'), but it works in a life of one so vibrant and mercurial. The narration is pleasant and appropriate BUT there are irritating mispronunciations. Sherborne, so essential to the Raleigh story, occurs many, many hundreds of times and a moment on Google would have told Marian Hussey that it is pronounced SHERB'N not SHER-BORNE. (She could have corrected Azores at the same time). That apart, it's a fabulous slice of history well told, even if I'm not sure Beer does answer her question 'Patriot or Traitor?', but perhaps that's up to us to decide.