Perhaps no one in English history better represents the heroic character than Sir Walter Raleigh, for Sidney has got to be almost as shadowy as Arthur himself. Raleigh’s somewhat antique and Roman virtues appear in his numerous military and naval adventures, in his knightly conduct toward the Queen, in his poems and his employments in the Tower, and not least in his death, but more than all in his constant soldier-like bearing and promise. He was the Bayard of peaceful as well as war like enterprise, and few lives which are the subject of recent and trustworthy history are so agreeable to the imagination. Not withstanding his temporary unpopularity, he especially possessed the prevalent and popular qualities which command the admiration of men. If an English Plutarch were to be written, Raleigh would be the best Greek or Roman among them all. He was one whose virtues if they were not distinctively great yet gave to virtues a current stamp and value as it were by the very grace and loftiness with which he carried them; — one of nature’s noblemen who possessed those requisites to true nobility without which no heraldry nor blood can avail. Among savages he would still have been chief. He seems to have had, not a profounder or grander but, so to speak, more nature than other men — a great, irregular, luxuriant nature, fit to be the darling of a people. The enthusiastic and often extravagant, but always hearty and emphatic, tone in which he is spoken of by his contemporaries is not the least remarkable fact about him, and it does not matter much whether the current stories are true or not, since they at least prove his reputation. It is not his praise to have been a saint or a seer in his generation, but “one of the gallantest worthies that ever England bred. ” The stories about him testify to a character rather than a virtue. As, for instance, that “he was damnable proud. Old Sir Robert Harley of Brampton-Brian Castle (who knew him) would say, it was a great question, who was the proudest. Sir Walter or Sir Thomas Overbury, but the difference that was, was judged on Sir Thomas’s side;” that “in his youth his companions were boisterous blades, but generally those that had wit;” that on one occasion he beats one of them for making a noise in a tavern, and “seals up his mouth, his upper and nether beard, with hard wax. A young contemporary says, “I have heard his enemies confess that he was one of the weightiest and wisest men that the island ever bred;” and another gives this character of him — “who hath not known or read of this prodigy of wit and fortune, Sir Walter Raleigh, a man unfortunate in nothing else but in the greatness of his wit and advancement, whose eminent worth was such, both in domestic policy, foreign expeditions, and discoveries, in arts and literature, both practic and contemplative, that it might seem at once to conquer example and imitation.
And what we are told of his personal appearance is accordant with the rest, that “he had in the outward man a good presence, in a handsome and well-compacted person;” that “he was a tall, handsome, and bold man;” and his “was thought a very good face,” though “his countenance was some what spoiled by the unusual height of his forehead.