The History of the World – Sir Walter Raleigh, 1614. 

Sir Walter Raleigh was an English explorer, soldier and writer. At age 17, he fought with the French Huguenots and later studied at Oxford. 

He became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I after serving in her army in Ireland. He was knighted in 1585, and within two years became Captain of the Queen’s Guard. 

Between 1584 and 1589, he helped establish a colony near Roanoke Island (present-day North Carolina), which he named Virginia. 

After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, he was accused of treason by King James I, imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually put to death for treason.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London Sir Walter Ralegh spent seven years producing his massive History of the World. 

Created with the aid of a library of more than five hundred books that he was allowed to keep in his quarters, this incredible work of English vernacular would become a best seller, with nearly twenty editions, abridgments, and continuations issued in the years that followed.

Early Life

Historians believe Walter Raleigh was born in 1552, or possibly 1554, and grew up in a farmhouse near the village of East Budleigh in Devon. The youngest of five sons born to Catherine Champermowne in two successive marriages, his father, Walter Raleigh, was his mother’s second husband. Like young Walter, his relatives, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Humphry Gilbert were prominent during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Raised as a devout Protestant, Raleigh’s family faced persecution under Queen Mary I, a Catholic, and as a result, young Walter developed a life-long hatred of Roman Catholicism.

At the age of 17, Walter Raleigh left England for France to fight with the Huguenots (French Protestants) in the Wars of Religion. 

In 1572, he attended Oriel College, Oxford, and studied law at the Middle Temple law college. During this time, he began his life-long interest in writing poetry. 

In 1578, Raleigh set out with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert on a voyage to North America to find the Northwest Passage. Never reaching its destination, the mission degenerated into a privateering foray against Spanish shipping. His brash actions were not well received by the Privy Council, the monarch’s advisors, and he was briefly imprisoned. 

A Favorite of Queen Elizabeth I

Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh fought in the service of Queen Elizabeth I in Ireland, distinguishing himself with his ruthlessness at the siege of Smerwick and establishing English and Scottish Protestants in Munster. 

Tall, handsome, and superbly self-confident, Raleigh rose rapidly at Elizabeth I’s court, upon his return, and quickly became a favorite. She rewarded him with a large estate in Ireland, monopolies, trade privileges, knighthood, and the right to colonize North America. 

In 1586, he was appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard, his highest office at court. Extravagant in his dress and conduct, the legend that he spread his expensive cloak over a puddle for the Queen has never been documented, but many historians believe him capable of such a gesture.

An early supporter of colonizing North America, Sir Walter Raleigh sought to establish a colony, but the queen forbid him to leave her service. Between 1585 and 1588, he invested in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, attempting to establish a colony near Roanoke, on the coast of what is now North Carolina, and name it “Virginia” in honor of the virgin queen, Elizabeth. 

Delays, quarrels, disorganization, and hostile Indians forced some of the colonists to eventually return to England. However, they brought with them potatoes and tobacco, two things unknown in Europe at the time. 

A second voyage was sent in 1590, only to find no trace of the colony. The settlement is now remembered as the “Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.”

Fall from Grace

Sir Walter Raleigh forfeited Elizabeth’s favor with his courtship of and subsequent marriage to one of her maids-of-honor, Bessy Throckmorton, in 1592. The discovery threw the queen into a jealous rage and the couple were briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

Upon his release, Raleigh hoped to recover his position with the queen and in 1594, led an unsuccessful expedition to Guiana (now Venezuela) to search for “El Dorado”, the legendary land of gold. The expedition produced a little gold, but subsequent forays to Cadiz and the Azores reinstated him with the queen.

Later Life and Death

Sir Walter Raleigh’s aggressive actions toward the Spanish did not sit well with the pacifist King James I, Elizabeth’s successor. Raleigh’s enemies worked to taint his reputation with the new king and he was soon charged with treason and condemned to death. However, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the Tower in 1603. 

There Raleigh lived with his wife and servants and wrote his History of the World in 1614. 

He was released in 1616 to search for gold in South America. Against the king’s approval, he invaded and pillaged Spanish territory, was forced to return to England without booty, and was arrested on the orders of the king. 

His original death sentence for treason was invoked, and he was executed at Westminster.


A Note on the Frontispiece. 

The frontispiece reproduced here from the first edition of The History of the World (1614) was engraved by Renold Elstracke from a design by Ralegh.

It has been called ‘the most elaborate of its kind known in English bibliography’.

The design is a visual interpretation of Cicero’s celebrated ‘definition’ in De oratore: ‘Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis.’

Cicero’s five phrases are inscribed on the two columns which flank Experience, on the gown of History who supports the earth in her hands and tramples on Death and Oblivion, and on the two columns which flank Truth.

In the upper part of the design, the earth (with interesting details of Adam and Eve at the moment of disobedience, and ships at war in the Atlantic) is further flanked by two representations of Fame – good and ill –whose conflict is resolved by the omniscient eye of Providence which gazes downwardly into the composition and outwardly into the historical process. The implications of the design are stated in the explanatory verses supplied by Ben Jonson and based on the Ciceronian dictum. His poem was originally printed facing the title page:


From Death and darke Obliuion (neere the same)

The Mistresse of Mans life, graue Historie, Raising the World to good, or Euill fame,

Doth vindicate it to Æternitie.

High Prouidence would so; that nor the good Might be defrauded, nor the Great secur’d,

But both might know their wayes are understood,

And the reward, and punishment assur’d.

This makes, that lighted by the beamie hand Of Truth, which searcheth the most hidden springs,

And guided by Experience, whose streight wand Doth mete, whose Line doth sound the depth of things:

Shee chearefully supporteth what shee reares; Assisted by no strengths, but are her owne, Some note of which each varied Pillar beares, By which as proper titles shee is knowne, Times witnesse, Herald of Antiquitie,

The light of Truth, and life of Memorie.


The History of the World – Sir Walter Raleigh, 1614. 

Edited by C. A. Patrides. 

Ralegh and The History of the World: 

An Introduction

Is it unreasonable to wonder whether Ralegh ever existed? Even the spelling of his name varies more spectacularly than that of any other Elizabethan, which may well be symbolic of the confluence of fact and fiction in nearly all reports of his divers activities.

According to a celebrated story first told by Thomas Fuller, Ralegh gained access to the court of Elizabeth in or about 1582 by means of a gesture which may not be true but is certainly characteristic: Captain Raleigh coming out of Ireland to the English Court in good habit (his Cloaths being then a considerable part of his estate) found the Queen walking, till meeting with a Plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon. Presently Raleigh cast and spred his new Plush Cloak on the ground, whereon the Queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many Suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a foot Cloath.

Ralegh was then probably twenty-nine years old. When at the end of his life on 29 October 1618 he ascended the scaffold in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, it is reported in one of the many surviving accounts that putting off his doublet, and gowne, he desired the headsman to shew him the Axe, which not being suddenly granted unto him, he said I prithee, let me see it, dost thou thinke that I am afraid of it, so it being given unto him, he felt along upon the edge of it, and smiling, spake unto M. Sheriffe saying, this is a sharpe medecine, but it is a physician that will cure all diseases.

The ‘truth’ of either story is of slight consequence, for the better part of Ralegh’s career is far stranger than fiction. ‘He had in the outward man’, we are told, ‘a good presence, in a handsome and well compacted person, a strong naturall wit, and a better Judgement, with a bould and plausible tongue, where he could set out his parts to the best advantage.’

The outward appearance was wedded to an excellent mind, for Ralegh had an enthusiasm for learning which in time placed him among the most extravagantly ‘universal’ men of the English Renaissance. Posterity, awe-stricken, confessed with David Lloyd in 1665 that so contemplative he was, that you would think he was not active; so active, that you would say he was not prudent. A great Soldier, and yet an excellent Courtier: an accomplished Gallant, and yet a bookish man; a man that seemed born for any thing he undertook. 

Ralegh pursued so many activities that he cannot be confined within any single category. ‘Authors are perplex’d’, reported Anthony à Wood, ‘under what topick to place him, whether of Statesman, Seaman, Souldier, Chymist, or Chronologer; for in all these he did excell.’ 

Yet even this list hardly exhausts Ralegh’s variegated activities. He was also historian, philosopher, and theologian. He was a poet whose verses have been enthusiastically described as ‘extraordinary by any standards’–though Aubrey’s judgement is perhaps nearer the mark (‘He was somtimes a Poet, not often’).  Moreover, he pursued commercial enterprises which enriched his country if not himself; he was a noted patron of literature and the sciences; he designed ships; and he was a politician distinguished for his remarkably liberal tendencies. 

We are also assured that he was ‘a pioneer in naval medicine, dietetics, and hygiene’.  As Aubrey said, ‘He was no Slug’.  

Ralegh crossed the trajectories of nearly every Elizabethan and Jacobean personality of major stature. As Sidney’s acquaintance he penned one of the most noteworthy tributes to the ‘Scipio, Cicero and Petrarch of our time’.  He countered Marlowe’s ‘smooth song’ of ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ with the sombre lyric of ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’–and was in time to share with him the widespread disapprobation of their ‘atheism’.  

His friendship with Spenser is immortalised in ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’, even as he was the recipient of the letter which expounds Spenser’s ‘whole intention’ in The Faerie Queene. 

His other friends included the historian Camden and possibly the poet Chapman, the geographer Hakluyt as well as the mathematicians John Dee and Thomas Hariot, and Henry Percy the ‘Wizard Earl’ of Northumberland. 

Ben Jonson also emerges in Ralegh’s life, first as tutor to young Wat Ralegh and later as author of the verses on the emblematic frontispiece of The History of the World (above, p. xvi). 

It may be that Shakespeare likewise put in a brief appearance,  and so –all too tangentially –did John Donne.  

In all, Ralegh’s position as the Queen’s ‘favourite’–literally and metaphorically –placed him at the very centre of life in Elizabethan England, even though his actual authority was never very substantial and declined altogether after his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. 

But initially the Queen appears to have appreciated the talents of her favourite, to the utter frustration of other courtiers: ‘she tooke him for a kind of Oracle, which netled them all’. When he complained that Fortune hath taken the away my loue my liues soule and my soules heaven above fortune hath taken the away my princess my only light and my true fancies mistres –she would promptly answer: Ah silly pugge wert thou so sore afraid, mourne not (my Wat) nor be thou so dismaid, it passeth fickle fortunes powere and skill, to force my harte to thinke thee any ill …

Yet so unable was Ralegh patiently to bear the vicissitudes of the royal favours –‘Shee is gonn, Shee is lost! Shee is fovnd, she is ever faire!’–that when upon his marriage she left on a progress without him, he wrote to Secretary Cecil in the full expectation that his letter would be perused by royal eyes: My heart was never broken till this day, that I hear the Queen goes away so far off. …I that was wont to behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her fair hair about her pure cheeks, like a nymph; sometime sitting in the shade like a Goddess; sometime singing like an angel; sometime playing like Orpheus. Behold the sorrow of this world! Once amiss, hath bereaved me of all. … In words as in deeds, the Elizabethans tended to exuberance.

Sir Walter’s rhetoric may have moved the royal heart but did not touch the ‘netled’ courtiers. Deeply envied and feared for ‘that awfulness and ascendancy in his Aspect over other mortalls’, he generated mistrust far beyond the circle of courtiers; repeatedly denounced for his ‘bloody pride’, he became –as a follower of Essex phrased it –‘the best-hated man of the world, in Court, city and country’.  

In time he was undone by two ‘friends’: Sir Robert Cecil, who undermined him in the eyes of King James; and Sir Francis Bacon, who provided the legal basis –such as it was –for his execution in 1618.

Ralegh at the end of his life described himself as ‘A Seafaring man, a Souldior and a Courtier’. The estimate is, I think, significant in that the common denominator of all three offices is the service of England. True, Ralegh asserted in one of his poems that he sought new worlds ‘for golde, for prayse, for glory’.  Yet his passionate championship of the colonisation of America, joined to his extraordinary zeal in mounting and leading expeditions across the Atlantic, must be seen as major contributions to those momentous enterprises which in time were translated into the fact of the British Empire. 

Ralegh was by no means the only Elizabethan to be obsessed with the colonisation of the new world. The challenge attracted a host of his contemporaries once they were stirred by Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s planting of the first English colony in North America in 1583, or roused by Hakluyt’s endless propaganda in favour of the imperial idea. But Ralegh remains instrumental because as Gilbert’s half-brother he was directly involved in the exploit of 1583 and, on Gilbert’s death, inherited his patent; while through the dedication of Hakluyt’s propaganda to him he was publicly identified with all aspects of the American enterprise. 

Above all, it was generally if erroneously assumed that he enjoyed the confidence of his remarkable Queen, now said to be ‘very famous and admirable’ even in distant Guiana where she was known –so Ralegh tactfully reported –as ‘Ezrabeta Cassipuna Aquerewana, which is as much as Elizabeth, the great princesse or greatest commaunder’. Chapman inevitably broke into song: Guiana, whose rich feet are mines of golde, Whose forehead knockes against the roofe of Starres, Stands on her tip-toes at faire England looking, Kissing her hand, bowing her mightie breast, And euery signe of all submission making, To be her sister, and the daughter both Of our most sacred Maide. (‘De Guiana, Carmen Epicum’, ll. 18–24) 

At the accession of James I, however, Ralegh’s fortunes declined disastrously. For he was then brought to trial, and sentenced to death. The charge was no less astonishing than the procedure at his trial. Arrested on ‘evidence’ which was not produced until some months later and then withdrawn, he was accused of being an agent of Spain! According to the indictment, ‘he did conspire and goe about to deprive the King of his government, and to raise up sedition within the Realme, to alter Religion, and to bring in the Romish Superstition, and to procure forraigne enemies to invade the Kingdomes’. 

The trial, held on 17 November 1603, has been described as ‘criminal procedure seen at its worst’, ‘an outrage’. Not only was the evidence lacking, but the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke –the glory of English law, and its shame –behaved in a manner hardly calculated to instil faith in justice. 

An eyewitness, Sir Thomas Overbury (whose murder ten years later became the other great scandal of the reign of James I), marked the Attorney-General’s ‘vehement words’ and added that everyone present ‘wished that hee had not behaved himself so violently and bitterly’. Even Secretary Cecil decided openly to appear scandalised –as he might well have been, considering that later he himself was to be in the pay of the King of Spain! 

However, neither Cecil nor the Attorney-General need be singled out for condemnation, just as James I does not merit our partisan denunciations as an ‘uncouth, uncivilised, yet cunning and learned monster from a Northern fairy-tale’! 

For Ralegh’s contemporaries the attempts of King James to seek accommodation with Spain automatically meant the immediate removal of all representatives of Elizabeth’s consistently anti-Spanish policy. In short, as Aubrey remarked sometime later, Ralegh ‘fell a Sacrifice to Spanish Politicks’. 

The condemned man’s last thoughts were for his wife. ‘My love I send you’, he wrote, ‘that you may keepe it when I am dead; and my councell, that you may remember it when I am noe more. …’ Elizabeth Ralegh in turn appealed to their ‘friend’ Cecil. Always wont to consult him in ‘hast and skrebbling’–and consistently alarming spelling –she would plead: ‘For God sake, let me heer from you the trewth; for I am much trobled’. Presently she wrote: ‘If the greved teares of an unfortunat woman may resevef ani fafor, or the unspekeabell sorros of my ded hart may resevef ani cumfort, then let my sorros cum before you. …I am not abell, I protest befor God, to stand on my trembling leges.’

But the sentence of death was not carried out. King James relented at the last possible moment, less because he was inclined to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy and more because he was impressed by the outcry over the conduct of Ralegh’s trial. 

The prisoner was therefore conveyed to the Tower where he was to remain for nearly thirteen years, from 16 December 1603 to 19 March 1616. Ralegh was throughout this period ‘civilly dead’. To the mounting irritation of the King, however, he did not behave as if he was. He addressed a series of petitions to every person of influence. He secured the Queen’s intercession and, more important still, he befriended the ‘rising sun’ of the Jacobean court, the gifted heir to the throne Prince Henry. 

He even wrote and published The History of the World (1614) which despite its initial anonymity was known to have been authored by Ralegh. But as one of his contemporaries observed, ‘Sir Walter Rawleigh was one that it seemes fortune had picked out of purpose, of whom to make an example, and to use as her Tennis-Ball, thereby to shew what she could do’. 

Prince Henry, the ‘greatest hope’ that Ralegh had for his eventual release, died after a brief illness on 6 November 1612 –‘how and by what means’, it was rumoured, ‘is suspected by all’. 

The King himself was so far from pleased with The History of the World that he suppressed it ‘for divers exceptions, but specially for beeing too sawcie in censuring princes’.  Worse, Spain’s formidable ambassador Sarmiento (later Count of Condomar) insinuated his way into the King’s confidence, so that when Ralegh was released from prison to mount another expedition to Guiana, some details of his preparations were immediately transmitted to Spain. 

The inevitable disaster encompassed many individuals besides Ralegh. Young Wat Ralegh died during an engagement with the Spaniards, a leading member of the expedition committed suicide, the men dispersed. The grief-stricken Ralegh in a moving letter to his wife reported their shattering loss. ‘My braynes’, he wrote, ‘are broken.’ He added: ‘Comfort your hart (deerest BESSE), I shall sorrow for us bothe. I shall sorrow the lesse, because I have not longe to sorrowe, because not longe to live. …’ 

He was arrested some time after his return to England. A half-hearted attempt to escape abroad proved abortive owing to betrayal. 

There was no trial. A hearing convened on 28 October 1618 decided –reputedly at Bacon’s intervention –that the sentence of death passed on Ralegh fifteen years earlier could now be carried out. One of the further charges presently added was Ralegh’s violation of Spanish territory. 

The inconsistency was ironic in the extreme. It was most forcefully stated by his nephew: ‘Ralegh was condemned for being a friend to the Spanyard, and lost his life for being their utter enemie’. 

Ralegh’s execution on the day following the hearing, on 29 October 1618, relieved King James of the last visible reminder of the Elizabethan age. 

But in fact Ralegh in death posed a far greater threat than he ever did when alive. As a modern historian remarks, ‘The ghost of Ralegh pursued the House of Stuart to the scaffold’. 

The judgement sounds extravagant, and invites scepticism. Yet it is well to recall the widespread persuasion that (as John Pory reported within two days of Ralegh’s execution) ‘his death will doe more hurte to the faction that sought it, then ever his life could have done’.  

It was a persuasion compounded of several factors: the outrage over the injustice meted to Ralegh at the trial of 1603, the sympathy generated by his long years of imprisonment, the general approbation extended to The History of the World, the shock which followed rumours that his last expedition had been foredoomed, the popular outcry over the inconsistent charges which led to his execution, and the deep impression made by his courage on the scaffold. 

But in the end the historical facts of Ralegh’s life proved less important than the interpretation gradually imposed on them. Given the mounting opposition to King James, Ralegh was presently canonised as the principal martyr of royal authoritarianism, repression and injustice. In a typical outburst, Francis Osborne used Ralegh to denounce the court of ‘our Espaniolised English’: as the foolish Idolaters were wont to Sacrifice the choycest of their Children to the Devill, the common enemy of Humanity; so our King gave up this incomparable jewel to the will of this Monster in Ambition, under the pretence of an superannuated Transgression; Contrary to the opinion of the most honest sort of Gown-men.  

In like manner, Sir John Eliot’s celebration of the sufferings of ‘our Raleigh’ was a pointed affirmation that his courage ‘chang’d the affection of his enemies, & turn’d their ioy to sorrow, & all men else it fill’d wth admiration’. 

Even more explicitly, Sir Anthony Weldon in a scurrilous pamphlet praised Ralegh ‘whose least part was of more worth then the whole race of the best of the Scots Nation’, firmly denounced James as ‘the Fountain of all our late Afflictions and miseries’, and for good measure described Scotland as ‘a nasty barren Country (rather a Dunghill then a Kingdome)’. 

So drastically was Ralegh made to conform to republican sentiment that a widely circulated report even claimed that upon the death of Elizabeth he had planned to ‘sett up a Commonwealth’. 

It is of course pointless to insist that Ralegh was not a republican, however opposed he may have been to the abuses of the royal prerogatives under James. The emerging new order required a symbol, and Ralegh appeared ideally suited for transubstantiation. His popularity thus guaranteed, any number of books were promptly attributed to his pen,  even as several others expressly invoked his ghost. When ‘A.B.’ decided to provide a translation of Leonardus Lessius’ De providentia numinis (1613), he thought it wise to rename the work Rawleigh his Ghost (1631). As he explained: I am the more easily perswaded, that the very Name of him (by way of this feigned Apparition, and the like answerable Title of the Translatiõ) may beget in many an earnest desire of perusing this Booke; and so become the more profitable. … 

The popularity of Ralegh’s own great work, The History of the World, would under the circumstances appear to have been inevitable. Yet its ten editions and several reprints during the seventeenth century cannot be attributed exclusively to the fame of its author. The decisive factors were rather the comprehensive vision of the historical process and the lucid and sustained prose which together produced a unified work of literature. 


The History of the World has been termed ‘the first serious attempt in England, and one of the first in modern Europe, at a history the scope of which should be universal in both time and space’. In fact, however, its general framework is not in the least original; it belongs to the tradition of Christian historiography which reaches its terminal point some fifty years later in Paradise Lost.  

Ralegh’s prose work and Milton’s poem are the two greatest formulations in English of the mode of thinking which over the centuries interpreted history as a progressive manifestation of the divine purpose in a linear movement extending from the creation to the Last Judgement. 

The interpretation originated with the great prophets who looked on history as the arena wherein God acts in judgement or in mercy. Once extended by St Paul and accepted by the early apologists, the theory was further developed by Eusebius of Caesarea who argued that the Christian faith was established even before the creation of the world. 

But the most influential formulation was ventured by St Augustine who in De civitate Dei maintained that all events are inexorably progressing towards their final consummation in God. 

Subsequent commentators were even more insistently bent on imposing order on historical events, and often co-ordinated history in terms of Four Monarchies or Six Ages. The links forged through the centuries involve any number of works written or compiled, but the principal performances remain the Historia sacra of Paulus Orosius, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum of St Bede, the Chronica of Otto of Freising, the colossal Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais, and the composite Flores historiarum of Roger of Wendover which was continued along drastically original lines in the Chronica maiora of Matthew Paris

The advent of Protestantism did not terminate the tradition; quite the contrary, since Luther himself provided an outline of historical events in terms of the Six Ages, Melanchthon lent his assistance to a similar performance by Johann Carion, Sleidanus wrote the enormously popular De quatuor summis imperiis, and a legion of minor writers promptly fell in step. In England, Ralegh’s own endeavour had been preceded by attempts like Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), Lodowick Lloyd’s The Consent of Time (1590), John More’s Table from the Beginning of the World (1593), William Perkins’s Specimen digesti (1598), and Anthony Munday’s Briefe Chronicle (1611), and was to be followed by works like Henry Isaacson’s Saturni ephemerides (1633), James Ussher’s Annals (1650–54), William Howell’s Institution of General History (1661), and Robert Baillie’s Operis historici (1668). 

The common denominator of these works is their linear conception of history from the creation, and their insistent proclamation that history is a record of divine mercies and judgements. 

Ralegh’s celebrated Preface to The History of the World is a lucid testimony to his espousal of the commonly-accepted providential theory of history. Known in time as ‘A Premonition to Princes’, the Preface asserts that ‘Events are always seated in the inaccessible Light of Gods high Providence’. 

The quoted statement is not Ralegh’s; it is borrowed from Sir William Sanderson’s restatement of Ralegh’s thesis in 1656, precisely because Sanderson was favourably disposed to Ralegh the historian even while he was militantly opposed to Ralegh the political figure. ‘The Scales of Gods Providence’, continued the impressed Sanderson, ‘are never at rest, always moving; now up, now down; to humble, and to exalt.’

He went on: Reade but the story of some Centuries of our Christian world, abreviated in the Preface of Sir Walter Ralegh’s History: How long was it, that wickedness had leave to lord it? With what strength of policy, the Tyrants of each time, sold themselves to settle the work of sin? And though in the period of that portion of time (compared with everlasting) and of our neighbour-affairs, (with the succeeds of the vast Universe) In these (I say) he religiously observes (perchance in some) the most notorious impieties punished and revenged. …

Significantly, while Ralegh during the trial of 1603 was censured for his alleged ‘heathenish, blasphemous, atheistical, and profane opinions’, in 1618 he was assured by Sir Edward Montague, the Lord Chief Justice: ‘Your faith hath heretofore been questioned, but I am satisfied you are a good Christian, for your book, which is an admirable work, doth testify as much’. 

But if both friends and enemies understood the general import of Ralegh’s work and responded with enthusiasm, King James, as we have seen, thought that Ralegh had been ‘too sawcie in censuring princes’. 

The royal displeasure may appear singularly odd since Ralegh had simply restated widely-accepted assumptions. But however enthusiastic the common reception of the ‘lessons’ repeatedly drawn from history, monarchs were always concerned lest the fondness for ‘parallelism’ should lead to treasonous equations of the past with the present. 

Their concern was not imaginary. Thomas Heywood in 1612 explicitly observed that ‘If wee present a forreigne History, the subiect is so intended, that in the liues of Romans, Grecians, or others, either the vertues of our Country-men are extolled, or their vices reproued’. 

We have indeed ample evidence to substantiate the inclination of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans to discern contemporary references in works of history no less than in dramatic literature. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that both Elizabeth and James restricted the activities of historians considerably, and sometimes decisively. 

Hardly unaware of these developments, Ralegh in his Preface piously disclaimed any interest in reproaching the present through the past, but wittily proceeded to leave the question wide open: 

It is enough for me (being in that state I am) to write of the eldest times: wherein also why may it not be said, that in speaking of the past, I point at the present, and taxe the vices of those that are yet lyuing, in their persons that are long since dead; and haue it laid to my charge. But this I cannot helpe, though innocent. And certainely if there be any, that finding themselues spotted like the Tigers of old time, shall finde fault with me for painting them ouer a new; they shall therein accuse themselues iustly, and me falsly. (below, p. 80) 

The reaction of one spotted tiger we know! King James suppressed Ralegh’s work not only because it was said to censure princes but especially because it appeared to be a veiled denunciation of his reign. 

Part of the ‘evidence’ consisted of Ralegh’s several comparisons of the early seventeenth century with the expired glories of the Elizabethan age. 

But even more crucial was his unremitting series of ‘parallels’–some intentional, some accidentally relevant –for instance the portrait of the irresolute King Rehoboam who was ‘transported by his familiars and fauourites’, and especially the account of the great Queen Semiramis and her incompetent successor Ninias (‘esteemed no man of war at all, but altogether feminine, and subjected to ease and delicacy’). 

King James knew well enough whom Ninias was supposed to represent! 


The providential theory of history espoused in the Preface to The History of the World extends well into the work itself. But Ralegh’s concern is not merely to affirm that history is a record of divine judgements. His principal aim is to assert the unity of historical events by an emphasis on the order pervading their entire course since the creation of the world. 

True, the fundamental assumptions of the Christian faith do not appear to concern him; his vision is obviously not Christocentric, and the Last Judgement –so common an element in other universal histories –is not accommodated within his scheme. 

One is tempted to conclude that Ralegh was not ‘orthodox’ but (as we have been told often enough) a thoroughgoing sceptic, perhaps even an ‘atheist’, and at any rate not ‘a religious person’. Ralegh’s reputed ‘atheism’ need not detain us long since it is refuted in chapter after chapter of The History of the World. At the same time, however, some readers are still of the opinion that ‘it cannot be urged that Ralegh was in any profound sense a religious person’; his religion was rather ‘a habit of thought than an ecstatic union with the Deity’, ‘there was so much more of speculation than of faith in his attitude’. 

But must one subordinate reason to faith, or experience ecstasy, before he can be called religious? The student of Ralegh’s thought is constantly subjected to similarly odd assumptions which yield equally odd conclusions. He is justly alarmed by the sharply divergent views propounded in recent years. Should he accept one historian’s opposition between ‘orthodoxy’and ‘scepticism’? Should he assent to the emphasis which a scholar places on orthodoxy at the expense of the sceptical strain? Should he agree with another historian who pursues Ralegh’s ‘scepticism’ all too relentlessly?

Threatened as we are by ever more exaggerated readings of the inquiring mind of Ralegh, we would be well advised to remember the relative nature of the terms at our disposal. ‘His scepticism’, we have been wisely reminded, ‘was academic –and, by Montaigne’s standards, shallow.’

‘Orthodoxy’ is likewise relative. The History of the World, judged in the light of Christian theology, can only be found wanting; but judged in the light of Christian historiography –its natural milieu –it will be discovered to conform to the patterns of thought already established by tradition. Ralegh’s vision may not extend to the end of history but there was adequate precedent in the equally restricted conception of Eusebius. The Last Judgement must in any case be regarded as inevitable once we are given the pattern of history’s linear progress so strenuously insisted upon by Ralegh, and especially the division of history into Four Monarchies which he so firmly asserts in the final pages. 

By the same token, The History of the World while not Christocentric is resolutely theocentric –precisely the burden of the traditional universal history! However, it would be foolish to deny that Ralegh’s silences on Christ or the Last Judgement are in themselves most eloquent. Indeed, it was noted at the time of his execution that ‘he spake not one word of Christ, but of the great and incomprehensible God’, which a wit promptly saw as evidence that Ralegh was ‘an a-christ, not an atheist’. 

This is as much as to say that Ralegh was by nature non-devotional. His place in the manifestation of the religious impulse in seventeenth-century England is not with Herbert or Crashaw but with Milton or the Cambridge Platonists. So far indeed, he is entirely ‘modern’. 

But was Ralegh ‘modern’ in the historiographical sense as well? Matthew Arnold thought him, on the contrary, quite ‘ancient’, which is to say obsolete, largely because he accepted the Bible as an authority of unquestionable validity. 

If we are also shocked by Ralegh’s uncritical attitude to the Bible, it should be held in mind that his behaviour is fully representative of his age. Well aware that ‘divine testimonies doe not perswade all naturall men to those things, to which their owne reason cannot reach’, he was also convinced that ‘both the truth and antiquitie of the bookes of God finde no companions equall, either in age or authority’. 

Ralegh may often permit his Icarian reason to rise into perilous domains but in the end circumscribes it within the bounds of Scriptural authority.

Equally representative of his age is the attitude he displays towards authorities other than the Bible. Like most historians of his own day, he invokes authorities to establish the consensus of opinion; and where he finds them in disagreement, he simply selects the interpretation most suitable to his particular purposes. 

In this respect the first four chapters of The History of the World are of fundamental importance, for Ralegh’s treatment of the vast commentaries on Genesis sets the tone of the entire work as he moves through them without pausing to consider their relative merits. 

His attitude to individual writers is similarly uncritical. Marsilio Ficino, for instance, is repeatedly cited as an authority on morality and religion, but we may well doubt whether Ralegh was even aware of his importance as a Platonist. 

But this is not to say that The History of the World is merely a composite work based on an uncritical accumulation of authorities. The evidence on hand supports neither Aubrey’s belief that Ralegh had simply ‘compiled’ his work, nor Ben Jonson’s claim that ‘The best wits of England were Employed for making of his historie’. Ralegh was by nature ‘an undefatigable reader’: even before his imprisonment, we are told, he never embarked on the high seas but ‘he carried always a Trunke of Bookes along with him’. 

Once in prison he naturally depended on the assistance of friends and acquaintances for the provision of ‘old books, or any manuscrips, wherin I cann read any of our written antiquites’. The research and the writing were almost entirely his own. The research itself yielded no mean contributions in several spheres. 

The translation of his raw material into the prose of his great History demonstrates how disinclined he was slavishly to imitate the sources consulted, for the information available to him was constantly modified and adapted to the purposes of his overall design. The celebrated digression on ‘conjectures’ is in this respect not irrelevant (below, pp. 212 ff.). 

Ralegh’s apparent credulity is repeatedly qualified even through mere phrases, witness the opening clause of the following sentence: if we may beleeue Herodotus, the Armie of Xerxes, being reviewed at Thermopylæ, consisted of fiue millions, two hundred eightie three thousand two hundred twenty men –(III vi 2) –besides, adds Ralegh dismissively, ‘besides Laundresses, Harlots, and Horses …’. 

But the total control which Ralegh exercised over The History of the World is nowhere more clearly evident than in the unity he imposed on its various parts. 


The History of the World was never completed. Ralegh wrote and published only Part One whose narrative ends abruptly in 168 B.C., with a page or two added on the rising Roman Empire; and despite reports that he had also written a second part which he then destroyed, we may rest assured that the work was simply abandoned. 

But critics are generally agreed that Ralegh’s History is as unaffected by its incompleteness as is The Faerie Queene

Yet The History of the World would appear to lack unity. David Hume was perhaps the first –though certainly not the last –to differentiate sharply between the ‘Jewish and Rabbinical learning’ in Books I–II, and ‘the Greek and Roman story’of Books III–V. The distinction is now widely accepted as self-evident: nearly all scholars respond to Ralegh’s work much the same way that Henry James reacted to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (‘all the Jewish burden of the story tended to weary me’). 

The most crucial argument involves the claim that in the History ‘the theological system which dominates the first part is much less in evidence in the second’. ‘Ralegh’s providential interpretation of events is commonest’, we are told, ‘when he is following the Bible’; but ‘when he follows secular sources, he is more apt to offer human causes’. ‘His precepts looked back’, writes another scholar, ‘his practice looked forward. In precept he stressed the role of God as a cause, but in practice he pursued the secondary causes of accident and motive.’

Lately, it has even been suggested that Ralegh was ‘on the side of the Moderns against the Ancients’: Ralegh’s importance is that he employed a secular and critical approach to the study of world history which was in very large part a study of Biblical history; and that he did this in English, in a work which was a best-seller. So he contributed, perhaps more than has been recognized, to that segregation of the spiritual from the secular which was the achievement of the seventeenth century. 


So much for the claims of our scholars. Let’s now look at Ralegh’s work. 

The precise way that Books I–II could be said to prepare for ‘the Greek and Roman story’ in Books III–V will be suggested later; here we may usefully remind ourselves that the opening books contain something more than ‘Jewish and Rabbinical learning’. They also contain a host of mythological references and any number of quotations from authors of every age to the Renaissance. These references and quotations jointly testify to one ‘truth’ in particular, that within the historical process mankind forms an interdependent entity, a spiritual unity. 

Ralegh details his conviction in divers ways. There is the premeditated fusion of pagan myths and Christian verities until the suggestiveness of the first yields to the certainty of the second. There is the patient exposition of the series of events which led from the creation of Adam to the rise of individual tribes and finally nations. There are the incessant reminders that the history of nations is coeval. 

In the following quotations –all of which are opening sentences of sections in Book II –Ralegh’s immediate interest is to co-ordinate his chronological framework but he simultaneously endeavours to consolidate the various families of men into a unity: 

And in this age of the World, and while Moses yet liued, Deucalion raigned in Thessalie, Crotopus then ruling the Argiues …(II vi 5) Neare the beginning of Salomons raigne, Agelaus the third of the Heraclidæ in Corinth; Labotes in Lacedæemon; and soone after Syluius Alba the fourth of the Syluij, swaied those Kingdomes: Laoesthethes then gouerning Assyria: Agastus and Archippus the second and third Princes after Codrus, ruling the Athenians. …(II xviii 6) The first yeare of Manasses was the last of Romulus. …(II xxvii 6) There liued with Ioas, Mezades and Diognetus in Athens: Eudemus and Aristomides in Corinth: about which time Agrippa Syluius, and after him Syluius Alladius, were Kings of the Albans in Italie. Ocrazapeo, commonly called Anacyndaraxes, the thirtie seuenth King succeeding vnto Ophratanes, began his raigne ouer the Assyrians, about the eighteenth yeare of Ioas, which lasted fortie two yeares. In the sixteenth of Ioas, Cephrenes, the fourth from Sesac, succeeded vnto Cheops in the Kingdome of Ægypt, and held it fiftie yeares. …(II xxii 6) 

When all is said, however, the cardinal way Ralegh asserts the unity of mankind is through the providential theory of history. The theory of providential causation espoused in The History of the World is not a conclusion which Ralegh attained late in life. In 1591 –which is to say over twenty years before the publication of the History –he had related the engagement between the Revenge and the Spanish fleet in purely secular terms, but in the end ascribed the final destruction of the enemy to the intercession of God: 

Thus it hath pleased God to fight for vs, & to defend the iustice of our cause, against the ambicious & bloody pretenses of the Spaniard, who seeking to deuour all nations, are themselues deuoured. A manifest testimonie how uniust & displeasing, their attempts are in the sight of God, who hath pleased to witnes by the successe of their affaires his mislike of their bloudy and iniurious designes, purposed & practised against all Christian Princes, ouer whom they seeke vnlawfull and vngodly rule and Empery. 

This astonishing claim is certainly not warranted by Ralegh’s rousing narrative of mere men at war. It therefore surprises, perhaps even it shocks –yet one may well ask whether Ralegh had not actually intended the reader to be surprised, even to be shocked. The theory of providential causation is after all not a readily apparent ‘fact’; it is a mystery which defies comprehension. ‘We oft doubt’, says the Chorus in Samson Agonistes, ‘What th’unsearchable dispose / Of highest wisdom brings about’; ‘Oft he seems to hide his face, / But unexpectedly returns’. 

It may well be, I suggest, that Ralegh’s assertion of divine intervention in the fight between the Revenge and the Spanish fleet is not in the least gratuitous; he meant it because he planned it. Significantly, the role played by purely ‘human causes’ is not denied; it is simply placed within the larger context of supernatural causation. 

But we prefer explicit assertions, whether of God’s total subordination of the created order to his omnipotent purposes, or man’s unobstructed pursuit of his own destiny. We incline favourably to the deployment of terms like predestination or free will, oblivious of the fact that these are not merely philosophical concepts but states of experience beyond definition. 

It is not as if we have not been warned against over-simplifications in Christian theology and in all great literature! The classical concept of moira is instructive, for we could mistake it for ‘fate’, perhaps even for predestination: the Delphic oracle spoke, therefore Oedipus acted as he did. But a man forewarned of his destiny who nevertheless thoughtlessly kills an elderly man and foolishly marries a woman twice his age without ever pausing to reflect on the past, is surely ‘fated’ so long as we take ‘fate’ to mean the destiny of man as it has been predicted by the gods but is enforced by the individual himself. 

Christian thinkers arrived at an identical balance. St Paul exhorted the faithful to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2: 12 f.). 

In the Johannine Apocalypse the Lamb is reported as saying, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me’ (Rev. 3: 20). 

The same balance controls St Augustine’s brilliant ‘inconsistency’ in upholding man’s free will at one moment and denying it the next, no sooner asserting that our salvation is both ‘from the will of man and from the mercy of God’ than adding that ‘the whole process is credited to God, who both prepareth the will to receive divine aid and aideth the will which has been thus prepared’. 

During the controversies ushered in by the Reformation the balance was upset, as Protestants charged that Catholics made free will ‘the absolute Lord of its own actions’, and Catholics charged that Protestants ‘leaue vs as a stone or blocke to be moued by God onely’. 

But the principal thinkers of that turbulent era never really abandoned the traditional ‘inconsistency’ of the Bible and St Augustine. 

There was Luther, beguiled into dazzling contradictions as he defended the folly of his God against the wisdom of Erasmus. There was even Arminius, widely maligned as Pelagius redivivus, who unhesitatingly asserted that God’s grace ‘goes before, accompanies, and follows’, ‘excites, assists, operates’ whatever we do. There was Hugo Grotius, never in doubt that man possesses free will (‘not an errour of Pelagius, but Catholick sense’), yet as convinced that grace does not depend on man’s free will because ‘Grace worketh how far, and how much it pleaseth’. Similarly, John Donne was assured not only that the will of man is ‘but Gods agent’, but also that ‘neither God nor man determine mans will …but they condetermine it’. 

The same ‘inconsistency’ appears in Shakespeare’s plays, manifesting itself at one end of the pendulum’s swing in Cassius’ statement that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, and in the other in Florizel’s words in The Winter’s Tale that we are ‘the slaves of chance’. 

Yet occasionally the pendulum stands still over statements like Hamlet’s: There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will. (v ii 10–11) Hamlet’s ‘fate’ is the universal concept of moira which attributes primacy to God yet senses that somehow man’s faculties and godlike reason must hew –perhaps only rough-hew –his own destiny. 

Human experience confirms that the course of our lives must be attributed to ‘human causes’, but it confirms also belief in supernatural causation, even in the unexpected intervention of God ‘to fight for us’– as Ralegh said of the destruction of the Spanish –‘& to defend the iustice of our cause’. 

Ralegh’s account of the fight of the Revenge in 1591 asserts providential causation abruptly, unexpectedly, well past the half-way mark of the narrative. 

Another work, the popular Instructions to his Son, has a different strategy: the worldly wisdom of its early sections may appear to be ‘coldly prudential’, even ‘calculating’, but it terminates in the firm proclamation of the final chapter, ‘Let God be thy protector and director in all thy Actions’. 



The History of the World – Sir Walter Raleigh, 1614. 

Edited by C. A. Patrides. 

get it at 

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