The Favourite is an examination of the relationship between Sir Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I. Ralegh is not usually viewed as engaging the queen’s affections with the same intimacy as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. In the popular imagination, Ralegh’s defining moment as a courtier is to lay his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth to step on. Lyons sees this famous event as the ideal starting point to chart Ralegh’s ambivalent rise to become the queen’s favourite by the mid 1580’s.
Lyons’ new approach uses rigorous research, including letters from Ralegh’s friends and enemies, to construct convincing psychological portraits of both Ralegh and his queen. In fact, Lyons discovers surprising similarities between the pair: they were both raised by sisters with Elizabeth being raised and educated by none other than Ralegh’s mother’s sister Kat Champernowne/Astley. Armed with this knowledge, Lyons surmises that Ralegh’s thirst for knowledge and the queen’s identification with him can be traced to the Champernowne sisters high regard for education; a valuable commodity denied to the lower classes in sixteenth century England.
Yet The Favourite is much more than a real-life account of the young Ralegh and his aging queen. Elizabethan London is meticulously mapped by absorbing narrative, its roads and buildings such as the Middle Temple (where Ralegh studied) and the Inns of Court are intricately described. The book is rich in detailed accounts about Ralegh’s brothers, the omniscient Elizabethan court, and the queen’s potential husbands. It also portrays an England overwhelmed by malcontents and cut purses, the threats from Catholicism, Spain and Scotland as well as being under constant pressure from New English settlers to subdue the Irish rebels and finally conquer Ireland. Lyons even finds compelling evidence that the Smerwick massacre, often solely attributed to the then Lord Deputy of Ireland Arthur Grey de Wilton, was exacerbated by the actions of Ralegh and other officers who spared no one in Blackwater Fort – a bloodbath Lyons illustrates by simply stating how small the fort is compared to how many people were packed inside.
At times, Ralegh is seemingly lost in all the political intrigue surrounding England, and the continous plots to assassinate a queen who refuses to take the necessary precautions to protect herself. Yet Lyons always brings Ralegh back into sharp focus to reflect on England’s and Queen Elizabeth’s fragility. He also hints at a sequel to The Favourite as Ralegh is told about a City of gold called El Dorado by the conquistador, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. Ralegh views this mythical city as a limitless treasure trove that could solve his own, Elizabeth’s and England’s problems.
Like James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (2006) and Jonathon Bate’s Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare (2009), Lyons’ book narrows the gap between academic monographs and historical non-fiction. The Favourite is well-researched using authentic primary texts and the very best of secondary sources. Its insights obtained from Ralegh’s work, contemporary documents and even from Elizabeth’s nickname for Ralegh are breathtakingly original. The book adds to our knowledge about Ralegh and Elizabeth, as well as providing a gripping and thought-provoking narrative.
Lyons, Mathew. The Favourite: Ambition, Politics and Love – Sir Walter Ralegh in Elizabeth I’s Court. London: Constable & Robinson, 2011.
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