The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

III. Sir Walter Ralegh

§ 2. Prose Writings

The authenticity of many of Ralegh’s prose works is almost as difficult to decide with any certainty as that of his poems. He seems to have written papers on many varied subjects, but only two of them, and The History of the World, were published during his lifetime. Ralegh manuscripts were collected by literary men, were to be found in many libraries, and were much valued. It is said in the Observations on the Statesmen and Favourites of England, by David Lloyd, published in 1665, that John Hampden, shortly before the Civil Wars, was at the charge of transcribing 3452 sheets of Ralegh’s writing. Archbishop Sancroft speaks of “a great MS. in folio,” by Sir Walter, lent to him by Mr. Ralegh, the author’s grandson. He also possessed another MS., a Breviary of the History of England under William I., which he attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh, and which he said had been “taken from the papers of an old Presbyterian in Hertfordshire, which sort of men were always the more fond of Sir Walter’s books, because he was under the disfavour of the Court.” One of his MSS., called The Arts of Empire, was first printed by Milton in 1658, under the title of The Cabinet Council by the ever-renowned knight, Sir Walter Ralegh. It does not seem as if Ralegh, ambitious in other respects, aspired to the fame of an author. He read and wrote for his own delight and recreation. He loved books and the society of men of letters of all kinds. He was a friend of Sir Robert Cotton, the antiquary, who collected the famous library at Cotton House, which became the meeting place of the scholars of the day. There and elsewhere, Ralegh consorted with the other men of learning of his times. He was a member of the Society of Antiquaries, which archbishop Parker had founded in 1572, and which lasted till 1605, and he is said to have suggested those gatherings at the Mermaid tavern, in Bread street, where Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and other playwriters met the antiquaries and literary men of the day, such as Cotton, Selden and Donne. Here began Ralegh’s friendship with Ben Jonson, which led him, later, to choose him as travelling tutor for his son. Always of an open mind and liberal views, Ralegh also mixed freely with sceptical and freethinking men. He often met together with Marlowe, Harriot and others for discussions, in which religious topics were treated fearlessly and without reserve. A Roman Catholic pamphleteer, writing in 1592, says that the meetings of this little group of friends were called “Sir Walter Rawley’s School of Atheism.” In 1593, the attention of the privy council was called to their discussions, and a special commission was appointed to examine Ralegh, his brother Carew and others as to their alleged heresies. What was the result of this investigation we do not know, but it is impossible to read Ralegh’s writings without being convinced of the depth and sincerity of his religious convictions. Sir John Harington says of him in Nugae Antiquae: “In religion he hath shown in private talk, great depth and good reading.”

Ralegh was, at all times, a generous patron of learning. He advised Richard Hakluyt with regard to his great collection of voyages, and assisted his enterprise with gifts of money and manuscripts. He was with the fleet that, under the command of the earl of Essex, made, in 1596, a descent upon Faro in Portugal, and it was, no doubt, he that suggested the seizure and careful preservation of the great library of bishop Hieron Osorius, which was afterwards given, probably, again, at Ralegh’s suggestion, to the library newly founded at Oxford by Sir Thomas Bodley. The Bodleian library was opened in 1602, and, in 1603, Ralegh showed his love for books by making it a gift of fifty pounds.