Every hero has an origin story, rife with obstacles overcome, devastations endured and triumphs achieved. As historian, professor and author Alan Gallay elucidates in Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire, Sir Walter Ralegh is no different. In fact, Gallay argues, although Ralegh did join his contemporaries in continual and violent efforts to gain land and power for Queen Elizabeth I, his philosophy and approach were different from—and more admirable than—the rest, and should be remembered as such.
Gallay, the Lyndon B. Johnson chair of U.S. history at Texas Christian University and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717, has long immersed himself in studies of the Atlantic region of the American South. And, as he notes in his acknowledgments, he’s wanted to write about Walter Ralegh for 15 years. This book is the culmination of long-term, intensive research. It’s Gallay’s case for considering Ralegh not as a failure (due to the widely known fate of the Roanoke Colony in Virginia and to Ralegh’s unsuccessful search for the legendary city of El Dorado) but as an intelligent, creative and influential man.
According to Gallay, many biographies of Ralegh “fail to see the Tudor context in which he lived and in which the [British] empire unfolded.” The author devotes considerable attention to said context, from explaining that Queen Elizabeth I was viewed as a vengeful goddess to detailing the ways in which Ralegh and his fellow colonizers disagreed on how to view the occupants of the land they colonized. (Ralegh preferred the utopian goal of partnering. His fellow courtiers leaned toward enslavement.) Gallay also describes British forays into Ireland, North America and South America in extensive, sometimes suspenseful, detail, and takes an in-depth look at the politics behind Ralegh’s imprisonments in the Tower of London and his eventual punishment by death.
Gallay has crafted a richly detailed portrait of a courtier, poet, author and alchemist who, he argues, should inspire readers to approach history from a different angle. Rather than teleology, or “reading history backward from what occurred at its end,” we’d do well to start from the beginning and learn how people like Ralegh’s “activities and ideas paved the way forward.”