Ralegh's Last Journey by Paul Hyland

Sir Walter's tragicomic walk to the scaffold

We think we know everything there is to know about Sir Walter Ralegh: courtier, adventurer, hero and favourite of the Virgin Queen. But Paul Hyland shows that even a familiar subject has hidden sides. Not once in this very scholarly work is everyone's favourite story mentioned - Ralegh's laying down of his cloak so that Queen Elizabeth I did not get her feet wet.

The dashing Sir Walter we have grown up with is shown to be very different to the egotistic, vain, deluded and defeated man of his last months. This is a little-known slice of a well-known life. According to Hyland, we can't even say his name correctly. It was "not pronounced 'Rally', like the bicycle with three gears, or rah-rah-Rahley' like three cheers, but 'Rawley'".

Ralegh's Last Journey follows the final 20 weeks of Sir Walter's life, from the arrival back at Plymouth after his last, failed voyage to his execution in 1618. It is mapped out in extraordinary detail; there's barely a conversation had, or meal eaten, that Hyland does not document. And despite Ralegh's slow journey to London being a march towards death, there are plenty of adventures, many verging on farce.

Ralegh calls on the French physician Dr Guillaume Manoury for potions to induce illness, in particular "vomits". These caused his face to break out in huge yellow and purple blisters. He also feigned madness, crawling on all fours and biting the floor.

When those escorting him entered his room, it was the cue for a fit. They tried to straighten one of his arms, then a leg. But as soon as one limb was forced down, the other flexed. Ralegh hoped to provoke sympathy, and that would-be captors would be too afraid to come near him for fear of catching the terrible mystery disease.

He also hoped his enemies, including King James I, would believe he was too ill to make a dash for freedom. The self-inflicted suffering worked. It was declared that Ralegh could not be exposed to the air without risking death. Ironically, his life had to be preserved in order to kill him properly.

The fake illness could only delay his death, not prevent it. In a final dash for freedom, he donned a broad-brimmed hat and dark false beard "as if for a bit part in a pantomime". But those on whom he relied, including his relative Sir Lewis Stucley and Dr Manoury, betrayed him. For £932, six shillings and threepence (half a million pounds in today's money), Stucley thwarted Ralegh's escape and delivered him to the Tower.

We have recently been treated to biographies either of little-known figures, or the well-known about whom the biographer argues that we, in fact, know little. Thankfully, this book neither tries to discover nor reinterpret. Instead, it challenges many of the assumptions behind the writing of a life. There is no cradle here, just grave. Ralegh's Last Journey demonstrates that the subject's path to death is as important as the path through life.

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