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Anna Beer, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh
by Judith Owens

 Anna Beer. Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018. 336 pages.

Anna Beer’s biography of Sir Walter Ralegh begins with a dramatic prelude: ‘A scaffold is being built beneath his window, “twelve feet square and railed about.” He knows what is coming, because he has been told’ (1). In setting this scene, which is not that of Ralegh’s 1618 execution, but rather the stage for his scheduled 1603 execution, subsequently stayed by James I, Beer signals her intention to tell a gripping story. Her biography concludes in equally dramatic—and moving—fashion, with a chapter divided by subheadings that lead us inexorably through Ralegh’s last hours: 28 October 1618, evening; 29 October, 4 of the clock; 29 October, past seven of the clock; 29 October, approaching nine of the clock; 29 October, nine of the clock.        

Such particularity of personalising detail strikes a keynote in Beer’s biography. She mines the same sources that other biographers have worked, but with an eye especially for the glint of a suggestive detail. While she covers familiar ground, she situates much-repeated facts in ways designed to convey the texture of life. Unsurprisingly, given that Beer has written a biography of Bess Throckmorton Ralegh, she devotes some attention to Lady Ralegh’s efforts to mitigate the effects of her husband’s falls from grace. Repeatedly, Beer offers us glimpses of what she believes must have been Ralegh’s states of mind and emotion as he careened through roles and projects, triumphs and defeats: the condemned Ralegh of 1603 writing to his wife in ‘agony’ (6); the prisoner ‘in complete despair’ (174), ‘frustrated and embittered’ by the Queen’s treatment of him (140); the driven Ralegh, a newly-bereaved father, ‘consumed with anger towards Keymis’ (251); the explorer Ralegh in a ‘fleeting moment of contentment’, looking at rainbows over the Orinoco with ‘wonder’ (250).

In Part I, individual chapter titles, ‘Soldier’, ‘Courtier’, ‘Coloniser’, ‘Sailor’, ‘Lover’, ‘Explorer’, ‘Writer’, and ‘Rival’, gesture toward the extraordinary breadth of endeavours that defined Ralegh (and ensured him a lasting reputation). But each of these relatively short chapters is anchored by the overriding question registered in the title of the biography, with its orientation toward political Ralegh: was he a patriot or a traitor? In thought, if not in deed, Beer’s Ralegh is never far from Court, sovereign, and political power. Thus his ‘fascination with realpolitik and the art of war’ begins with his early service as a soldier in France (12); his command in Ireland finds him ‘want[ing] to write about high-level policy’ and he ‘begins to offer political advice’ in his letters (15). ‘Without getting his Irish commission, Captain Ralegh would not have come to Elizabeth’s attention but without writing about it, he would not have stuck’ (21).

Thus, too, imprisoned in the Tower for his clandestine marriage, it is ‘[s]oldier Ralegh and sailor Ralegh’ who effects his release by brokering a ‘financial deal’ over the Madre de Dios, while the ‘husband who would not even acknowledge [his wife] (there is continued and complete silence about Bess in Sir Walter’s letters for fully the next three years)’ writes hundreds of lines of poetry that ‘captured the intensity of his feelings for his Queen’ (94-96). Thus the courtier Ralegh, who, lacking ‘a political network’ (28), relies on charisma to gain access to the innermost recesses of the Court and ‘want[s] nothing more than to be at [the] heart’ of this ‘slippery, dangerous, exciting, glamorous world’ (25). Even the explorer Ralegh, whose voyage in search of El Dorado offered an ‘escape’ from ‘the political elite’ and ‘the political factions that he himself had helped to create’ and promised an arena in which he could be ‘in sole command,’ has to be sure that his undertaking ‘was dressed in the clothes of gaining an empire for his Queen’ (98). After his last, disastrous voyage, facing certain ‘exemplary punishment’ (258), with avenues of escape available to him, Ralegh ‘turn[s] the Destiny towards home’ (253).

Beer’s thematic focus clarifies the contours of Ralegh’s life, heightening the drama of a biography intended for ‘a readership beyond academia’, to quote from Beer’s academic webpage ( The organisation of her book supports these aims: Part I retraces the path that led to the scaffold scene that introduces Beer’s biography; Part II traces the now-technically-dead man’s life in the years following the stay of execution in 1603 and concludes with the actual execution in 1618; adding a particularly dramatic flourish to the biography, the Chronology at the back of the book concludes with the year 1603. Beer’s prose style supports her dramatic aims as well. She writes briskly, decisively and with considerable brio. Paragraphs are short, unencumbered by footnotes (since this is not a scholarly biography) and often honed to a short declarative statement, sometimes one that is stringent, more often one that is wryly pointed. Of Ralegh’s deftness in turning a naval defeat into a moral victory, by the strokes of his pen: ‘Ralegh was very, very good at this kind of thing’ (77). Of his seeming emotional indifference toward an illegitimate daughter: ‘What happens in Ireland, stays in Ireland’ (83). Of his part in the downfall of his rival Essex, who had reportedly described Queen Elizabeth as ‘crooked’ in disposition and ‘carcass’: ‘(Ralegh took note of that carcass line. He was canny that way)’ (144). Of his failure to persuade his men to return to San Thome, where his son Wat had been killed: ‘His men were having none of it and the expedition sailed north, to Newfoundland. The mission was over’ (251). Of Ralegh’s turning to France for support of the 1616 Guiana expedition that did not have James’ full commitment: ‘He even sends a map’ (240).

While Beer’s penchant for pithy short statements keeps events in sharp focus, it occasionally betrays short cuts—in writing and thinking. In the space of a few pages, for example, Beer refers to an editor of Ralegh’s Discoverie of Guiana as a ‘Ralegh-sceptic’ (229), as ‘sceptical as ever’ (234), and as ‘no supporter of Ralegh’ (236), after having introduced this scholar earlier as someone who ‘trusts her subject as far as she can throw him’ (116). Such repetitiveness may be merely a sign of haste in writing or proofreading as Beer draws closer to the end of her biography. But it also suggests a tendency to fall back on already-worked-out ideas. Here, that tendency appears as a stylistic tic. Elsewhere, it points to some curtailing of thought and analysis. In her recounting of Ralegh’s determined effort during his 1603 trial for treason to broadcast his innocence to all, and especially to James, by addressing a letter to Privy Counsellors, Beer writes that ‘James read “every word” of it (Cecil wrote to Ralegh’s keeper to let him know). And did nothing’ (185). It fits Beer’s dramatic narrative to showcase James as implacable in his hatred of Ralegh. In another recent biography of Ralegh, Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, whose handling of this episode cuts a wider swath, suggest that it is ‘likely’ that Ralegh ‘had all along been marked out for clemency’.[1]

Readers of The Spenser Review might well be disappointed to see that Beer’s drawing of dramatic lines that occasionally cut through complexities leads to a rather reductive take on Spenser’s portrait of Ralegh as Timias in The Faerie Queene. After briefly, in four paragraphs, sketching the story of Timias and Belphoebe, Beer sums up this way: ‘Spenser’s image of Ralegh, a man in thrall to loose delights, endures’ (136).

While it’s admittedly unfair to ask for more nuanced literary analysis from Beer in this book, the bluntness of her reading of Spenser’s Ralegh is all the more surprising given her own frequent allusions to Ralegh as a man whose breadth of interests, range of talents and stores of energy—intellectual and physical—make him someone who exceeds the bounds of a biography fitted to the single question: Patriot or Traitor? Beer’s Ralegh is, by turns, self-interested (to an extreme), driven, restless, generous, canny, pragmatic and visionary (to an extreme); he is self-pitying (to extreme), melancholy, theatrical, sincere. He is eloquent; he invariably goes too far in petitioning for anything. He falls into despair repeatedly; he is repeatedly filled with hope. He is self-deluded (in the extreme). He is undoubtedly a liar. His curiosity about the world is insatiable. He is a ‘man who lived a life less ordinary’ (291). 

Beer does not, finally, offer a decisive verdict on political Ralegh. But offered the choice between two vastly different constructions of Ralegh’s ‘final performance’ (286) before the executioner’s block—one that makes for ‘painful reading’ and shows ‘an old man wilfully shutting out the sight of his impending death, crawling around on his knees’ (287); one, more widespread, that shows an ‘unflinching’ Ralegh who takes command and orders the hesitant executioner to strike—Beer opts for the latter: ‘Ralegh did not shrink or move. It was over’ (288).


Judith Owens

University of Manitoba


[1]Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend (Continuum, 2011), 225.


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Cite as:

Judith Owens, "Anna Beer, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh," Spenser Review 49.2.12 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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