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

§ 5. The History of the World

It is a testimony to the extent of Ralegh’s belief in himself as well as to the soaring nature of his imagination, that he, a prisoner in the Tower, in broken health and already over fifty years of age, should have projected a work of such gigantic scope. History, as a branch of literature, did not then exist in England; indeed, except for the work of the antiquaries, the Elizabethan age is specially poor in historical work of any kind. The age of the great chroniclers was over. There were some writers of historical poems, some annalists, many industrious antiquaries. But the annalists and the antiquaries still wrote in Latin. Only Richard Knolles had produced his Generall Historie of the Turkes, published in 1603, and John Speed a Historie of Great Britaine, published in 1611, in English. Ralegh’s plan was on an entirely different scale from anything that had been dreamt of before. He wished to bring the history of the past together, to treat it as a whole, to use it as an introduction to the history of his own country; and his great book was to be for the people, not only for the learned. It was written in the pure strong English of which he had such easy command. Not quite free yet from the habit of using too long sentences which, sometimes, have a tendency to become involved, he is free from elaborate and fanciful conceits. The subject seems to command the style. He can tell a story well, he can sketch a character with force and vigour. He shows at least some sense of the unity of history, for the motives of men in the past are judged by him in the same way as the motives of men in the present, and, at all events when he began, his intention was to lead up from the past to the present. But, though he had the mind to conceive a work on such a vast scale, he had not the experience or the training to enable him to plan it out in such a way that, under any circumstances, it would have been possible to complete it. The large folio which he did complete, and which consisted of five books, began with the Creation and reached only to 130 B.C., when Macedonia became a Roman province. He projected two other folio volumes, but these do not seem even to have been begun. After the publication of the first volume, his mind was diverted to other schemes, to his hope of regaining his liberty and accomplishing a second voyage to Guiana. The death of prince Henry, in 1612, also deprived him of one of his chief motives for writing the history.

We do not know in what year he actually began to write, but, on 15 April, 1611, notice was given in the registers of the Stationers’ company of “The History of the World written by Sir Walter Rawleighe.”

It was published, according to Camden, on 29 March, 1614; but it is possible that it may not really have been published till the beginning of 1615. Many scholars and learned men were ready to help him in his work. Sir Robert Cotton freely lent him books from his great library. Robert Burhill, a divine of wide learning and acquainted with Greek and Hebrew, languages unknown to Ralegh, was frequently consulted by him. John Hoskins, a wit and scholar and also a prisoner in the Tower for a supposed libel on James I, is credited, by tradition, with having revised the book for him. The fact that Ben Jonson was, also, for a short time a fellow prisoner in the Tower, and was known to have been connected with Ralegh, led some to believe his boasts, made some years later over his cups, that he had contributed considerable portions of the History. But there is no evidence for these assertions, which rest only on his own word.

In his search for accuracy, Ralegh frequently consulted Thomas Harriot the mathematician, an old friend of his, on points of chronology and geography. But, though no doubt he profited by the advice and learning of his friends, no one can read the History without feeling that it is the work of one man, inspired by one mind and purpose. Moreover, though he naturally read and studied much specially for it during his years in the Tower, we see in it also the result of the reading of his whole life. In The History of the World, as well as in his occasional writings, we are struck with the freedom with which Ralegh handles his material, with the ready hold that he has on the resources of his vast reading. About the middle of the nineteenth century, some old books, amongst them Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, were found behind the wainscot of a room in Ralegh’s favourite Irish house at Youghal. Comestor is one of the authors quoted by Ralegh, and, though it is possible that these old books were placed in their hidingplace before his day, yet it is by no means improbable that his study of Comestor may have begun at Youghal during the months he spent in Ireland. It has been computed that six hundred and sixty authors are cited by him in his History, and there exists a letter to Cotton asking for the loan of thirteen books, none of which is included amongst the works of the six hundred and sixty authors quoted.

In writing his history, Ralegh was inspired by a distinct purpose. He says in his preface, that he wishes to show God’s judgment on the wicked; to him all history was a revelation of God’s ways. His preface is to us now, perhaps, the most interesting part of the book. In it he runs through, and passes judgment upon, the kings of England from the time of the Conquest, then makes a rapid survey of the history of France and of Spain. From the teaching of history he draws his philosophy of life:

  • For seeing God, who is the author of all our tragedies hath written out for us and appointed us all the parts we are to play; and hath not, in their distribution been partial to the most mighty princes of the world … why should other men, who are but as the least worms, complain of wrongs? Certainly there is no other account to be made of this ridiculous world, than to resolve, that the change of fortune on the great theatre is but the change of garments on the less: for when on the one and the other, every man wears but his own skin, the players are all alike.
  • As we think of the picture of his own times, of the account of Elizabeth and her court, of the stirring tales of adventure that the ready pen and quick insight of Ralegh might have given us had he spent his time in prison in writing his own memoirs, we can but be filled with regret that he should have chosen, instead, to have written long chapters on the Creation, the site of the Garden of Eden, the ages of the patriarchs. But Ralegh had not done with life, his ambitious, restless spirit still aspired to play a part in the world outside and his book was intended to add to his friends, not to his enemies. In his preface, he explains his choice of subject:

  • I know that it will be said by many, that I might have been more pleasing to the reader, if I had written the story of mine own times.… To this I answer, that whosoever in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may happily strike out his teeth. There is no mistress or guide that hath led her followers and servants into greater miseries.… It is true, that I never travelled after men’s opinions, when I might have made the best use of them; and I have now too few days remaining to imitate those, that, either out of extreme ambition or extreme cowardice, or both, do yet (when death hath them on this shoulders) flatter the world between the bed and the grave. 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 tax the vices of those that are yet living in their persons that are long since dead; and have it laid to my charge. But this I cannot help, though innocent.
  • It is but seldom that he even illuminates his pages with any illustrations drawn from his own experiences. Sometimes, he indulges in a digression, as when he breaks forth into a dissertation on the nature of law, after telling of the giving of the law to Moses, or when, in a later book, he makes long dissertations on the way to defend the coast, on the nature of government, on mercenary soldiers, on the folly and wickedness of duels and the false view of honour they involve. He has a long digression, also, about the bands of Amazons, said to be living in the districts round Guiana, and gives his reasons for believing in the possibility of their existence.

    The first two books of the History, containing twenty-eight chapters, are occupied with an account of the Creation and the history of the Jews. Side by side with that history, they give the contemporary events in Greek mythology and Egyptian history. The questions treated of, and the method of treating them, alike show how different were the interests of his day and ours. His discussion as to the nature of the two trees in the Garden of Eden is enlivened by a description of Ficus Indica as he had seen it in Trinidad, dropping its roots, or cords, into the sea “so as by pulling up one of these cords out of the sea, I have seen five hundred oysters hanging in a heap thereon.” In none of Ralegh’s writings do we find any sign that he possessed a sense of humour; had he done so, he would not, perhaps, have indulged in such an elaborate disquisition as to the capacity of the ark to hold all the animals which were driven into it. Naturally, no thought of criticising the Bible narrative entered his mind, as he said “Let us build upon the scriptures themselves and after them upon reason and nature.” But there is some attempt at criticism in comparing one author with another, some attempt to trace the development of thought, and to bring things together, a remarkable feat in his day, as we may realise when we remember that, before him, there was practically no attempt at critical history in English. He was much interested in questions of chronology, and provided his book with elaborate chronological tables as well as with many maps. But it is a relief when he passes from his discussions on chronology to tell a story, such as the story of the Argonauts, which he does simply and well.

    The book moves more freely as he reaches Greek and Roman times. The characters of some of the great men are given with much insight and point, and he brings his commonsense to bear in criticising the conduct of leaders and generals. As the book goes on, his references to modern history in illustration of his story grow more frequent. We feel that not only has he read much, but that he has weighed and pondered what he has read in the light of his own experience. In reflecting on the end of Hannibal and Scipio, he says:

  • Hence it comes, to wit from the envy of our equals, and jealousy of our masters, be they kings or commonweals, that there is no profession more unprosperous than that of men of war and great captains, being no kings.… For the most of others whose virtues have raised them above the level of their inferiors, and have surmounted their envy, yet have they been rewarded in the end either with disgrace, banishment, or death.
  • Whenever he touches upon any matter of personal experience, the interest at once quickens and the writing appears at its best. War is always his main theme; to him, history is an account of wars and conquests. Questions as to methods of government or the social conditions of the people have little interest for him, though he seems to see the importance of combining geography with history by the descriptions he gives of the nature of the countries, the towns and cities of which he writes. On the whole, the best part of the book is his account of the Punic wars; there he feels fully the interest of his story. Curiously enough, he misses the tragic interest of the Athenian expedition to Sicily, which, in his telling, he even manages to make dull.

    Never does he lose sight of his moral purpose. His whole object in writing was to teach a great moral: “it being the end and scope of all history to teach by example of times past, such wisdom as may guide our desires and actions.” So he carries us through the history of the “three first Monarchies of the world”; leaving off when the fourth, Rome, was “almost at the highest.” He ends with these noble words on death:

  • O eloquent, just and mighty death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded! What none have dared, thou hast done! And whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised! Thou hast drawn together all the far fetched greatness, all the pride, cruelty and ambition of men; and covered it all over with these two narrow words: Hic jacet.
  • Though, in his preface, Ralegh said of James I that

  • if all the malice of the world were infused into one eye, yet could it not discern in his life, even to this day, any one of those foul spots, by which the consciences of all the fore named princes (in effect) have been defiled; nor any drop of that innocent blood on the sword of his justice, with which the most that forewent him have stained both their hands and fame,
  • James I was displeased with the book. Perhaps he was clever enough to discern the value of this fashionable language of adulation; perhaps, as some said, he thought that Ralegh had criticised too freely the character of Henry VIII, when he said “if all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted out of the story of this king.” To the fanatical believer in the divine right of kings, any censure of princes was, in itself, a crime. James appears, in consequence, to have tried to suppress the book. In a letter written to Venice on 5 January, 1615, it is said, “Sir Walter Ralegh’s book is called in by the King’s commandment, for divers exceptions, but specially for being too saucy in censuring princes.” There is, also, a letter from the archbishop of Canterbury, dated 22 December, 1614, to the Stationers’ company, saying that he had received “expresse directions from his Majestie that the book latelie published by Sr Walter Rawleigh, nowe prisoner in the Tower, should be suppressed and not suffered for hereafter to be sould.” The book mentioned in this letter can be none other but the History. But the suppression seems not to have been carried out; at any rate, the royal command did not affect the distribution of the book. The first two editions appeared anonymously without any title-page, but with an elaborate allegorical frontispiece, representing Magister Vitae, standing on Death represented by a skeleton, and Oblivion as a man asleep. Experience, as an old woman, and Truth as a young woman, hold aloft a globe, on one side of which fama bona and, on the other, fama mala are blowing trumpets. On the other page is a sonnet, presumably by Ben Jonson, as he afterwards published it under his name, containing these lines:
  • From death and dark Oblivion (neere the same)
  • The Mistresse of Man’s life, grave Historie
  • Raising the world to good or Evill fame
  • Doth vindicate it to Æternitie.
  • The book seems to have been immediately popular. From 1614 to 1678, ten separate folio editions of it appeared, and of the first edition, certainly, and probably of others, there were several distinct issues. For the first time, English readers could enjoy an account of the Persian, Greek and Punic wars, written in the finest prose, as well as learned and yet popular discussions of those questions of biblical history and chronology which then interested the reading public. Wilson, in his life of James I, written in 1653, says “Rawleigh while he was a Prisoner, having the Idea of the World in his contemplation, brought it to some perfection in his excellent and incomparable history.” The moral purpose of the book also commended it to many. It was a favourite book amongst the puritans of the next generation. Oliver Cromwell recommended it to his son Richard, saying, “Recreate yourself with Sir Walter Ralegh’s History; it is a body of history, and will add much more to your understanding than fragments of story.”

    No doubt the popularity of the History was increased by the sudden revulsion of feeling in favour of Ralegh, which was called out by his tragic end, and the noble manner of his death. Men were glad to find in it the mind of one of the most distinguished amongst the soldiers and statesmen of the great days of Elizabeth. Many of the reasons which led to the popularity of the History no longer prevail with us. We value it, chiefly, as a noble monument of Elizabethan prose, and as a revelation of the character and mind of its author. But its place in the development of English historical writing should not be overlooked.