BOOK REVIEW / Sexual chemistry in court: 'Play of Passion: The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh' - Stephen Coote: Macmillan, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
PART OF Stephen Coote's achievement, in this lucid re-telling of Walter Ralegh's life story, is to show how it took place in a world where 'the erotic and the political coincided'. The spectacular rise to favour of Walter Ralegh - and his eventual cataclysmic fall - is a kind of political love story between Renaissance England's most brilliant courtier and his Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth's self-imposed chastity, which she required also of her Maids of the Privy Chamber, had the effect of displacing sexuality outwards into political life, where the Queen's favour meant power and riches. Poet-courtiers like Ralegh devised a new idiom of power, a public discourse founded on the need to worship the purity of Elizabeth: the 'Cynthia' of Ralegh's The Ocean to Cynthia and the heroine of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. This, combined with the unsettling sense of there being no obvious heir to the throne, gave to court life an intensely erotic intrigue. Public life was suffused with sensuality, and favours both personal and political were seductively advanced or coquettishly withdrawn.

The Queen and Ralegh danced teasing, ambiguous minuets of intimacy: Coote quotes a contemporary memoir of the Queen 'pointing with her finger at his face, that there was a smut on it, and was going to wipe it off with her handkerchief; but before she could, he wiped it off himself'. We could compare Princess Margaret brushing a speck from poor Captain Townsend's uniform in the 1950s. But England's court life now is an empty parody of former significance: upon Sir Walter Ralegh's favour, that speck of power, really did depend the Irish and American colonies, our naval mastery, our trade, and the future of world history.

Coote does well to call Ralegh 'the improviser of Renaissance magnificence'. He was an ambitious and charismatic man who understood the new forces at work in 16th-century England and could construct from them a formidable new imperial identity. It is nowhere mentioned in Coote's notes or bibliography, but Stephen Greenblatt's study Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) has clearly been influential. Like Sir Philip Sidney, Ralegh was a fiercely Protestant opponent of the papist powers abroad. He amassed vast new wealth and power, both for his country and for himself, through plunder, privateering and plantation - and could claim as its defensive principle that it would check Catholic Spain's expansionist tendencies. His intellectual curiosity founded new secular schools of thought in science, technology and navigation. When Mary, Queen of Scots was found guilty of conspiracy, she was condemned as 'an imaginer . . . of Her Majesty's destruction.' Ralegh was a thrillingly successful 'imaginer' of her exaltation.

Even given the brutality, duplicity and self-interest that invariably accompanied imperial excursions, it is impossible not to thrill at the gallantry and courage that Ralegh brought to his naval adventures. The sighting of the Spanish Armada in 1588 (and the appointment of Ralegh to command the Ark Royal to lead the fleet at Britain's darkest hour) is still deeply and obscurely moving: Coote's fluent narrative does it full justice.

With the succession of James VI of Scotland, Ralegh's star - on the wane since the jealous Elizabeth discovered he had married one of her maids - finally fell, leading him ultimately back to the Tower (in which he had been imprisoned 10 years earlier) and to execution. There is now something uncomfortably familiar in reading about the reign of a woman who sanctions ruthless free trade and military might, replaced by a less charismatic man who favours conciliating Europe - whose succession, moreover, at first apparently smooth, shows itself to be riven with factional discord. So much of our present is revealed in Ralegh's past. At home, he was centuries ahead of his time, pleading for free trade in corn - though insisting on those monopolies the Queen had granted him personally. Abroad, he struck what Coote perceptively calls 'the authentic pose of the khaki imperialist on a remote frontier: the voice of England for 350 years'. In Ralegh's career we can read the genealogy of our national identity - and what a sad thing it is, now that the Renaissance glory is all gone.

But not quite all gone. A fragment of one achievement, in which Ralegh played a major role, remains: the plantation of Ireland, the foundation stone of Elizabethan empire and a place where ambitious blades like the young Captain Ralegh could make a reputation for themselves by enforcing and expanding English rule. Coote recounts how the Irish were beaten, starved and crushed into submission and, for what it's worth, quotes Ralegh's own grim analysis: 'Certainly the miseries of war are never so bitter and many as when a whole nation . . . labour to root out the established possessors of another land.'