The history of the world
A soldier, explorer, courtier, and writer, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) is one of the most colorful and remembered figures of Elizabethan and early Stuart times. He first came of note in 1578, when he captained the Falcon in a pirating expedition against the Spanish that was led by his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Soon after, Raleigh was captain of a foot company that took part in suppression of Irish rebels, for which he was rewarded with a vast estate and became a principal landowner in Munster. In the 1580s he came to the attention and became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. With a patent for proprietary rights over taken “barbarous and heathen lands,” Raleigh began a series of unsuccessful ventures to colonize North America, including the failed settlement at Roanoke Island led by Sir Richard Greenville in 1585. His voyages in the 1590s took him to South America in search of El Dorado’s gold and to Spain, where he was wounded in the capture of Cádiz.
Because of Raleigh’s desire for war with Spain, he was no favorite of peace-seeking King James. Raleigh was confined to the Tower of London under a suspended death sentence after he was deemed to be complicit in a conspiracy to kill the King soon after he took power in 1603. While in the Tower, Raleigh wrote his vast History of the World, which never got beyond a first volume that reached down to 130 BCE. The million-word work took three years to print, and when it was finally published anonymously, late in 1614, it was almost immediately suppressed. The book was dedicated to Prince Henry, who was on cordial terms with Raleigh and visited him in the Tower. King James, however, was offended by Raleigh’s criticism of kings in his Preface, although this did not prevent him from allowing confiscated copies of the book to be sold for the profit of the Crown when Raleigh was temporarily released in 1616. He was executed in 1618.
Raleigh’s sentiments against the absolute power of kings is evident not just in the Preface, but throughout the work in his comments about ancient rulers that set themselves above the law. Raleigh used the book to teach moral lessons from history in well-written and occasionally lively prose. History of the World remained one of the most influential books throughout the 17th century because of its anti-absolutism, its Providential view of history, and readers’ admiration for the author, who was part of England’s Golden Age under Elizabeth and nobly faced a tragic death. The book ran through ten editions between 1614 and 1687; the present copy is a first edition.
Chrzanowski 1614r *