Reviewed by: Elisabeth Stevenson
Author: Richard Dale
Publisher: The History Press
Who Killed Sir Walter Ralegh? is an engaging and fascinating analysis of the Elizabethan court in general, and the intrigue surrounding the imprisonment and eventual execution of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1618. The book combines pace, precision and thoughtfulness.
The author, barrister and Southampton University academic Richard Dale, sets up Sir Walter Ralegh and Robert Cecil as men ruthlessly searching for power and influence at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Ralegh is the great courtier - an adventurous risk-taker, full of charm and wit - Cecil is the man in the background whose control of patronage and knowledge of all those at court makes him a very different force to be reckoned with.
For both men, the key to their success lay in their relationship with Elizabeth I. Ralegh’s rise to favour at court, his changing financial fortunes, and his dazzling adventures in the new world are described with a liveliness and precision which brings him fully to life.
However, Ralegh is not only a 16th-century ‘Flashman’; his great gambles were made because the stakes were very high, and his opponents fearsome. Ralegh sought admiration, and the detailed account of Ralegh’s trial shows him as a man of some integrity and conscience.
Cecil is the less appealing but by no means less interesting of the two men. His rise to power under the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign was swift, following in the footsteps of his father, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. By the time of Ralegh’s trial in 1603 he was principal secretary to King James I, with influence over foreign policy as well as domestic affairs.
Dale describes Cecil’s education, and the advice given to him by his father on how to deal with both those superior and inferior to him. Burghley advised his son ‘not to affect popularity too much; seek not to be Essex and shun to be Ralegh’.
Cecil’s solid financial wealth, his education and his father’s patronage put him on firm ground as a privy councillor, although his physical deformity excluded him from some of the traditional aspects of court life such as dancing. Dale notes that Cecil’s cousin described him as having a ‘personal spur to himself’ to overcome his physical limitations, and to ‘watch and observe the weakness of others that they may have somewhat to repay’.
Although Cecil and Ralegh are the two main ‘players’ in the book, there are clear and thoughtful explanations of the motivations and actions of those around them. This is not only a thoughtful and precisely written work, but also an adventure story that sweeps the reader into another world.
Elisabeth Stevenson is a history teacher and assistant deputy head at Greycoats School, Westminster, London