BOOK REVIEW / From galliards to massacres: 'A Play of Passion: The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh' - Stephen Coote: Macmillan, 17.99

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IT WAS just after Christmas in the year 1584, and a Pomeranian tourist was visiting the English court at Greenwich. Queen Elizabeth had often performed a lively galliard in her time, but now she was pushing 50 and preferred to loll on cushions after dinner and watch as others danced. She beckoned Ralegh to her, taking out her handkerchief to remove a smut from his face and the observant visitor noted in his diary that 'she was said to love this gentleman beyond all others; and this may be true, because two years ago he could scarcely keep one servant, and now with her bounty he can keep 500'.

Recording this fleeting moment of intimacy, the diarist sensed the easy rapport between Ralegh and his monarch that was the source of his success. By then, he was 28 and a seasoned and cynical veteran. He had gone to France at 15 to fight for the Huguenots in the French Wars of Religion, an expedition that ended with mass slaughter at Navarrens; in London, his belligerence had been punished by short spells in prison for fighting near the tennis court at Whitehall and elsewhere; he was just back from Munster where he had helped to kill several hundred people in the systematic and hideous massacre of Smerwick. But the Queen loved him.

For this was also the man who, most famously, spread his new plush cloak upon a plashy place, as Thomas Fuller put it, whereon the Queen stepped gently. And, possibly, the man who seduced one of her ladies to such effect that her cries of 'Sweet Sir Walter]' degenerated to a faint 'Swisser Swatter . . .' That scabrous tale comes from the unreliable pen of John Aubrey and Ralegh's biographer includes it reluctantly, only as evidence of the man's reputation. In fact, as he points out, Elizabeth's court was far too dangerous a place for such risks to be taken. Even a respectable marriage could provoke her wrath. She liked her admirers to be as virginal as she was, and she had spies everywhere.

Ralegh had won her attention by recognising that, most of all, she wanted to be loved by her people and she disliked spending money. Newly returned from Ireland, he had suggested that she keep the Irish in order by winning the loyalty of lesser chieftains, and that she should pass on the expense of maintaining a garrison to the wealthy Earl of Ormonde. She gave him fantastic presents, including a splendid house on the Strand and the income from two highly lucrative monopolies, on the sale of fine woollen cloth and the farm of sweet wines. In return, as her Captain of the Guard, he defended her kingdom from the Spaniards and her person from danger.

He was, for years, the most hated man in England. His wealth, at the expense of those merchants forced to pay him tax, coupled with his famous arrogance, assured him of that. Tall, swaggering, handsome and clever, he was also the object of enormous envy, but as long as the Queen favoured him, he was unconcerned. He came from an impoverished West Country family that had turned to privateering, , and he was a brilliant sailor. His knighthood came when he promised to conquer lands in America and name them Virginia after his Queen. Though he eventually crossed the Atlantic twice to South America, in search of the mythical figure of El Dorado, she never allowed him to sail on colonising trips. Hers was a restraining and possessive love.

Ralegh was much more than a courtier, a braggart and a pirate. He was a scholar, a poet, a scientist, a devoted husband and father, a brave explorer, a far-seeing statesman, a skilled administrator and, in the end, a hero. He could easily have settled for a pleasant life as landowner at Sherborne, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall or Governor of Jersey, but all these things failed to satisfy him. He wanted always to be at the centre of things, a place of unparalleled danger, particularly at the start of the Stuart era, when James I, one of the most unprincipled kings ever to reign, determined to destroy him.

This is a fine biography - instructive, convincing and exciting as any fiction. Stephen Coote has tackled his complex, demanding and fascinating subject with an admirable mixture of elegant scholarship and compelling narrative. He threads through the labyrinth of political intrigue with urbane clarity and he views Ralegh steadily, never minimising his faults or making excuses for him.

The book ranges from rural Devon to hostile Cadiz to the South American jungle. It is peopled by devious plotters like Walsingham, Bacon and Cecil; primitive Indians like those brought by Ralegh from the Orinoco to have lessons with him in the Bloody Tower; children, like his adored and naughty son Wat. It is illuminated, again and again, by the poetry and prose of Ralegh himself. He was a wonderful writer, whether reporting on the loss of the Revenge at Flores in the Azores; or giving his version of the history of the world and the power of princes; or predicting the principles of British imperial rule, or, most touchingly, recording his own emotions. Wat was killed defending his father's honour in Guiana and Ralegh wrote: 'God knows, I never knew what sorrow meant till now.'

Only at the very end, for half a sentence, does emotion threaten to get the better of Coote. Nobody could blame him. The scene was altogether too much for me, too. After a parody of a trial whose outcome was assured before it began, Ralegh spent his last night on earth at Westminster and was visited by his magnificent wife Bess. She it was who had boldly rolled up to the Tower in her coach to see him (and gone home pregnant), who confronted the king in person to demand justice, who was to take his head away in a red leather bag the next day. 'After midnight she left,' writes Coote, 'and in the chilly silence, as her warmth and perfume faded from his clothes, he thought of her as he had when he was a younger man.' His poem to her lacked its final lines, and as dawn approached, the man condemned as an atheist finished it:

'And from which earth, and grave, and dust,

The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.'