Sir Walter Raleigh




As a youth Raleigh served (1569) as a volunteer in the Huguenot army in France. In 1572 he was listed as an undergraduate at Oxford, where he may have studied before going to France, and his name appears in the registry of the Middle Temple in 1575. In 1578, Raleigh and his brother Carew joined their half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert in outfitting a heavily armed fleet, ostensibly for a "voyage of discovery." Storms and desertions soon ended the project. In 1580, Raleigh served in Ireland, suppressing the rebels in Munster.

When he returned to England in 1581, Raleigh immediately went to court and soon became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Whether he placed his cloak in the mud for Queen Elizabeth I or not, it seems fairly certain that his personal charm had much to do with his friendship with her. As an important courtier he was granted a wine monopoly (1583), was knighted (1585), and was given vast estates in Ireland. Made warden of the stanneries (the tin mines of Cornwall and Devon) in 1585, Raleigh exhibited a genuine talent for administration, but he had already alienated too many important people to achieve real political power. He was appointed captain of the queen's guard in 1587, a significant office because it required constant attendance on Elizabeth.

Raleigh conceived and organized the colonizing expeditions to America that ended tragically with the "lost colony" expeditions on Roanoke Island, NC. He was later named a member of the commission for the defense against Spain, but it is doubtful that he participated in the naval operations against the Spanish Armada (1588). Probably because of his conflict with Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, Elizabeth's new favorite, Raleigh left court in 1589. At Kilcolman Castle, Ireland, he became a close friend of Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene, begun under the aegis of Sir Philip Sidney, was continued under Raleigh's patronage.

After the Queen's quarrel with Essex over the earl's marriage, Raleigh returned to prominence at court and was granted an estate at Sherborne (1592). Later that year he set out on a privateering expedition, but he was recalled by Elizabeth and imprisoned in the Tower of London when she learned of his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, a maid of honor at court. Late in 1592, Raleigh's expedition returned to England with a richly loaded Portuguese carrack. Disputes broke out over the division of the spoils, and Raleigh was released to quell the disturbance, thereby winning his freedom.

Barred from the court, Raleigh sat in Parliament. He achieved great notoriety for his connection with the poetic group known as the "school of night." Led by Thomas Harriot and including Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman, the group's skeptical attitude and critical interpretation of Scripture won them a reputation for atheism.

In 1595, Raleigh embarked on an expedition with the adventurer-scholar Laurence Kemys to find the fabled city of El Dorado. They penetrated 300 mi (480 km) up the Orinoco River into the interior of Guiana, bringing home specimens containing gold. Raleigh published his Discovery of Guiana the following year. In 1596 he commanded a squadron in the English expedition against Cádiz.

Raleigh was made governor of Jersey in 1600, but his fortunes ebbed when he drifted apart from his former ally Robert Cecil (later earl of Salisbury) in the political tempest over Essex's treason and death. He met his downfall upon the accession (1603) of James I, who had been convinced by Raleigh's enemies that Raleigh was opposed to his succession. Many of Raleigh's offices and monopolies were taken away, and, on somewhat insufficient evidence, he was found guilty of intrigues with Spain against England and of participation in a plot to kill the king and enthrone Arabella Stuart. Saved from the block by a reprieve, Raleigh settled down in the Tower of London and devoted himself to literature and science. There he began his incomplete History of the World.

Raleigh was released in 1616 to make another voyage to the Orinoco River in search of gold, but he was warned not to molest Spanish possessions or ships on pain of his life. The expedition failed, but Laurence Kemys captured a Spanish town. Raleigh returned to England, where the Spanish ambassador demanded his punishment. Failing in an attempt to escape to France, he was executed under the original sentence of treason passed many years before.

Raleigh was the author of a number of political essays and philosophical treatises, and of a body of poetry that was highly praised by his contemporaries.

Is his name properly spelled Rawleyghe as he signed it once in 1587, Rauley as he signed it until 1583, or Ralegh as he signed it more or less consistently from 1584 until his death in 1618? The spelling we prefer today is one he may never have used. How should his name be pronounced - rawly or rolly? Both questions and their several answers are appropriate to any consideration of this well-known, yet oddly enigmatic man.

One of the great streams of events in modern history has been the expansion of western Europe, which carried European influence all over the world and brought the influence of distant places back to Europe in the backwash. Sir Walter Raleigh played a pivotal role in the expansion of England into the New World.

We know little about his birth or childhood, other than that he was born about 1554 at Hayes Barton in Devonshire. In 1569 he was in France fighting for the Huguenots. In 1572 he was at Oriel College, Oxford; and 1575 he was at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court.

His career was exciting -- fighting for his fellow Protestants in France; exploring the New World with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert; subduing and colonizing Ireland; catching the fancy of Queen Elizabeth I and becoming important at court. Did he really put his cape in the mud for the Queen to walk upon as legend goes? Probably not, but it makes an interesting story. On 25 March 1584 he received a patent to lands discovered in the name of the Crown of England. On 27 April 1584 an expedition commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sailed from Plymouth with Simon Fernandez as pilot. They arrived off the coast of what is now North Carolina on 13 July 1584, took possession of the area in the name of the Queen, explored the region, and returned to England, with two young Indian men, Manteo and Wanchese. As a result of this expedition, Raleigh was knighted on 6 January 1585. Later in 1585 Raleigh sent to America a colony under Sir Richard Grenville with Ralph Lane as its governor. The men in this colony, who included John White and Thomas Harriot, gathered a great deal of information and explored as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. But in 1586 they returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. Although disappointed by their unexpedited return, Raleigh did not give up. In 1587, he sent a second colony, one including women and children, with John White as its governor. The disappearance of this colony sometime between John White's departure from Roanoke Island in August 1587 and his return in 1590 is one of the enduring mysteries of American history.

The Roanoke Island colonies, however, were not Sir Walter's only colonial interests. He continued his involvement in Ireland, and in 1585 he acquired a plantation in Munster, an area where land had been confiscated from rebels. Much of the land he held was in County Waterford and in County Cook - sites to which he sent colonists in 1587, the same year he sent the second colony to Roanoke Island. Among the colonist in Ireland were Thomas Harriot and perhaps some of the other men who had returned from the Ralph Lane colony. Sir Richard Grenville was also active in Ireland. An Irish rebellion at the end of the sixteenth century forced many of these colonists to return to England. According to David Beers Quinn in Raleigh and the British Empire, Raleigh did go beyond his contemporaries in his efforts to promote colonies. His desire to end a Spanish monopoly in the Americas was sincere, but success would have brought Raleigh wealth, prestige and power as the ruler, under the Crown, of a huge area in America.

According to Quinn "The picture of Raleigh as an idealist, pouring out his money in pursuit of a dream of empire for the good of his country and of future generations, is of course false. He was an acute and hard-dealing businessman. Colonization was a business which he undertook to promote." The Roanoke colonies were only part of his efforts -- he also made attempts at colonization in Ireland and on the northern coast of South America, in what is now Venezuela. Raleigh never came to North Carolina, but he did visit both Ireland and South America.

At the height of his career, Sir Walter angered Queen Elizabeth I by secretly marrying Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of her ladies in waiting. Elizabeth I had Raleigh put in the Tower of London and expelled the new Lady Raleigh from court.

In the reign of King James I, Raleigh was never in favor. His anti-Spanish attitudes were unpopular with the new ruler, who sought peace with Spain. Under James I, Raleigh spent many years in the Tower of London - ironically, for conspiracy with the Spanish against the Crown and while imprisoned he wrote his Historie of the World. His rights to the New World reverted to the Crown; thus other men founded Jamestown. But the aging adventurer made one last attempt in America, his ill-fated expedition to the Orinoco River in 1618. With the failure of this expedition and attacks on the Spanish, Raleigh's fate was sealed. Spain complained bitterly. He returned to England knowing that execution awaited him. According to tradition, he showed no fear of the axe and declined the blindfold saying "Think you I fear the shadow of the axe when I fear not the axe itself?" Lady Raleigh had his head embalmed and kept it with her until her death. Their son, Carew, inherited it and the head was buried with him.

Sir Walter's ghost is said to appear at Sherborne Castle on St. Michael's Eve (20 September). He strolls through the grounds of the castle, granted to him by Elizabeth in 1592, and sits under the tree which bears his name. It was here where he supposedly, while smoking a pipe of the first tobacco brought from America, that he was "extinguished" by a terrified servant who doused him with a pitcher of beer.

A fascinating character, Raleigh has been portrayed as a genius, as an idealist, a pirate, a statesman, a scientist, a writer, a gentleman and a rogue. He was probably all of these and more truly a representative figure of the Elizabethan Age. 


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