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Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh

Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh

Excerpt from "The Letters patents, granted by the Queenes Majestie to M. Walter Ralegh, now Knight, for the discovering and planting of new lands and Countries, to continue the space of 6 yeeres and no more"

    Originally published in Hakluyt's Voyages, 1600

    Reprinted by the Viking Press, 1965

In the years before Elizabeth I (1533–1603) took the throne England had paid relatively little attention to exploration of North and South America. Spain and Portugal, however, had grown extremely rich from the vast quantities of gold and silver that they took from the New World, as the Americas were called, where they enjoyed exclusive trading rights under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. As its population and economy expanded rapidly in the 1500s, England realized the need to become more competitive in foreign trade. English merchants, eager to gain access to faster trade routes to Asia, began conducting voyages of discovery across the Atlantic. Their initial aim was to discover a shorter route to India. As reports of these voyages reached England, interest grew in exploring and claiming territories in the New World. Many businessmen who promoted exploration hoped to find the same kind of treasure that had made Spain the wealthiest kingdom in Europe.

"Walter Ralegh his heires and assignes [designated heirs], and every of them, shall have, holde, occupie and enjoy … all such landes, territories, and Countries, so to be discovered and possessed as aforesaid, and of all such Cities, Castles, Townes, Villages, and places in the same."

Queen Elizabeth supported the idea of English exploration of the New World, but such voyages were extremely costly. Her treasury had nowhere near the wealth available to Spain's Philip II (1527–1598), who could outfit numerous voyages each year. In addition, English ventures into the Americas posed a military risk. For decades Spain had been England's primary political rival; soon after Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 hostilities worsened as Roman Catholics petitioned Catholic kingdoms such as Spain for help in removing Elizabeth, a Protestant whose rule they considered illegitimate, from power. Though technically at peace, Spain and England were enemies. Spain had no intention of allowing England to share in the huge profits being made from the Americas.

Elizabeth wanted to weaken Spain's power and claim some of the riches of the New World for England. Yet she could not risk openly provoking King Philip. She gave permission to English sea captains to sail to the Caribbean and attack Spanish ships and ports. Soon seafarers were returning to England with wealth from Spanish ships. The queen secretly welcomed them, but she publicly maintained that they had acted on their own. Francis Drake (1540–1596) in particular became notorious for his ruthless piracy, or theft at sea. In 1577 Elizabeth sent Drake on a secret mission to circumnavigate, or sail around, the globe, with the intention that he would attack vulnerable Spanish outposts on the unguarded Pacific coast of South America. The success of his mission caused Spain considerable worry, increasing hostilities between the two nations.

Meanwhile many English businessmen were beginning to call for the establishment of English colonies in North America. Among them were Humphrey Gilbert, an explorer and businessman; Gilbert's half-brother, Walter Raleigh (1552–1618); and writer and geographer Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616). They saw colonization primarily as an economic venture that would open up hugely profitable new opportunities for English merchants. But the queen's advisors pointed out that colonization could also improve England's security by preventing Spain from gaining access to new territories in North America.

In 1578 the queen granted Gilbert a charter to explore and settle territories in the New World that were not already claimed by a Christian monarch. His first expedition was forced to turn back after a Spanish attack. In 1583 he was able to launch a bigger expedition, which reached Newfoundland in Canada that summer. Gilbert claimed this land for the queen and intended to establish a permanent colony there. But he died on the return trip to England when his ship was lost in a storm. In 1584 Raleigh succeeded in petitioning the queen to bestow on him a charter similar to the one she had given Gilbert. It authorized Raleigh to explore and settle lands unclaimed by a Christian monarch, to enjoy any profits from those lands, and to govern those who settled there. It further specified that one-fifth of any wealth Raleigh obtained from these possessions should go to the crown.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Letters patents, granted by the Queenes Majestie to M. Walter Ralegh":

  • Sixteenth-century Europeans knew almost nothing about the lands of the North American continent.
  • England feared Spain's power, and sought ways to weaken Spain's economic and naval dominance. By claiming its own territorial rights in North America, England would prevent Spain from gaining control of the entire continent.
  • Expeditions to the New World were expensive and risky. England had little money to pay for such ventures. Granting charters to private explorers, who were responsible for financing their voyages, allowed England to benefit from exploration without assuming huge costs.

The Letters patents, granted by the Queenes Majestie to M. Walter Ralegh, now Knight, for the discovering and planting of new lands and Countries, to continue the space of 6 yeeres and no more

ELIZABETH by the grace of God of England, France and Ireland Queene, defender of the faith, &c. [etc.] To all people to whom these presents shal come, greeting. Knowing ye that our especial grace, certaine science, & mere motion, we have given and granted, and by these presents for us, our heires and successors doe give and grant to our trusty and welbeloved servant Walter Ralegh Esquire, and his heires and assignes [designated heirs] for ever, free liberty & licence from time to time. And at all times for ever hereafter, to discover, search, finde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince, nor inhabited by Christian people, as to him, his heires and assignes, and to every or any of them shall seeme good, and the same to have, holde, occupy & enjoy to him, his heirs and assignes for ever, with all prerogatives, commodities, jurisdictions, royalties, priviledges, franchises and pre-emimences, thereto or thereabouts both by sea and land, whatsoever we by our letters patents may grant, and as we or any of our noble progenitors [direct ancestors] have heretofore granted to any person or persons, bodies politique or corporate: and the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignes, and all such as from time to time, by licence of us, our heires and successors, shal toe or travaile thither to inhabite or remaine, there to build and fortifie, at the discretion of the said Walter Ralegh, his heires & assignes, the statutes or act of Parliament made against fugitives, or against such as shall depart, remaine or continue out of our Realme of England without licence, or any other statute, act law, or any ordinance [law] whatsoever to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding….

And further that the said Walter Ralegh his heires and assignes, and every of them, shall have, holde, occupie and enjoy to him, his heires and assignes, and every of them for ever, all the soyle of all such landes, territories, and Countries, so to be discovered and possessed as aforesaid, and of all such Cities, Castles, Townes, Villages, and places in the same, with the right, royalties, franchises, and jurisdictions, as well marine as other within the sayd landes, or Countreis, or the seas thereunto, adjoining, to be had, or used, with full power to dispose thereof, and of every part in fee simple or otherwise, according to the order of the lawes of England, as neere as the same conveniently may be, at his, and their wil and pleasure, to any persons then being, or that shall remaine within the allegiance of us, our heires and successors: reserving always to us, our heires and successors, for all services, dueties, and demaunds, the fift part of all the oare of golde and silver, that from time to time, and at all times after such discoverie, subduing and possessing, shall be there gotten and obtained: All which lands, Countries, and territories shall for ever be holden of the sayd Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignes, of us, our heires and successors, by homage, and by the sayd payment of the sayd fift part, reserved only for all services….

And forasmuch as upon the finding out, discovering, or inhabiting of such remote lands, countries, and territories as aforesaid, it shalbe [shall be] necessary for the safety of all men, that shall adventure themselves in those journeyes or voyages, to determine to live together in Christian peace, and civill quietnesse eches [each] with other, whereby every one may with more pleasure and profit enjoy that whereunto they shall atteine [attain] with great paine and peril, wee for us, our heires and successors, are likewise pleased and contented, and by these presents doe give & grant to the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignes for ever, that he and they, and every or any of them, shall and may from time to time for ever hereafter, within the said mentioned remote lands and countries, in the way by the seas thither, and from thence, have full and mere power and authoritie to correct, punish, pardon, governe, and rule by their and every or any of their good discretions and policies, aswell [as well] causes capitall, or criminall, as civil, both marine and other, all such our subjects, as shall from time to time adventure themselves in the said journeys or voyages, or that shall at any time hereafter inhabite any such lands, countries, or territories as aforesaid, or that shall abide within 200. leagues of any of the sayde place or places, where the sayde Walter Ralegh, his heiress or assignes, or any of them, or any of his or their associats or companies, shall inhabite within 6. yeeres next ensuing the date hereof, according to such statutes, lawes and ordinances as shall be by him the sayd Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignes, and every or any of them devised, or established, for the better government of the said people as aforesaid. So always as the said statues, lawes, and ordinances may be, as nere as conveniently may bee, agreeable to the forme of the lawes, statues, government, or pollicie of England, and also so as they be not against the true Christian faith, nowe professed in the Church of England, nor in any wise to withdrawe any of the subjects or people of those lands or places from allegance of us, our heires and successours, as their immediate Soveraigne under God….

What happened next …

Raleigh acted quickly. In 1584 he sent a scouting expedition to North America to identify possible locations for a colony. Unlike the Spanish, who had focused mostly on exploiting natural resources in their territories, Raleigh wanted to establish a colony where English families would settle permanently. Once a good site was chosen Raleigh would hire workers to set up buildings, plant crops, and complete other necessary tasks. Then the settlers themselves would arrive to begin new lives in their new American home.

The scouting expedition returned to England with positive reports about the area along the coast of what is now Virginia and the Carolinas. Eager to establish a colony there, Raleigh set out to obtain funding from wealthy businessmen. He also hoped to convince the queen to lend financial support for the venture. He asked his friend, writer and geographer Richard Hakluyt, to write an argument describing all the potential benefits of establishing colonies in the New World. Hakluyt's A Discourse on Western Planting impressed Elizabeth, but she offered Raleigh no money for his project.

By 1585 Raleigh had finally gathered enough money to launch a colonizing expedition. The first group of colonizers arrived on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and set about building the colony. But they had arrived too late to plant crops. The ship and captain returned immediately to England for additional supplies. Meanwhile the colony soon ran short of food; in addition, they refused to work, choosing instead to search for gold. Though the English had initially established good relations with the native people, the colonists' demands soon alienated the Indians. Conflicts escalated, and when Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke in 1586 he agreed to take the desperate colonists back with him to England.

Despite the failure of this first colony Raleigh tried again in 1587. His second expedition carried several families who were instructed to establish a settlement in the Chesapeake Bay area. But their captain refused to take them farther than Roanoke. Here they began building a colony, but as with the first Roanoke voyagers, they arrived too late for planting. As before, the ship and captain returned to England for more supplies. But because of war with Spain, it was unable to make the trip back to Roanoke until 1590. When it finally reached the island, it found no trace of the settlers. Raleigh's second colony had disappeared.

Though Raleigh had failed to establish a colony in North America, his mistakes helped future settlers plan more realistically for the harsh conditions they would face in the New World. They also devised better ways to fund colonial ventures. In 1606 Elizabeth's successor, James I (1566–1625), chartered a pair of joint stock companies to establish settlements in North America. The Virginia Company of London established Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, which became England's first permanent settlement in America. The Virginia Company of Plymouth established a settlement in Popham, Maine, but this colony did not succeed.

Did you know …

  • Advances in cartography (mapmaking) played a key role in England's ability to launch voyages of exploration. A new map made by Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), which accounted for the earth's spherical shape, greatly improved the accuracy of navigational charts used at sea.
  • In addition to his hopes of building a colony there, Raleigh considered Roanoke Island an ideal location from which to raid Spanish ships that were returning to Europe crammed with gold, silver, and other treasure. He used this as a selling point in attracting investors.
  • Some of the ships bringing fresh supplies to the Virginia colonists were delayed because they went after Spanish treasure ships instead of staying on their original course.

Consider the following …

  • If you had been an advisor to the queen, would you have recommended that she provide financial support for Raleigh's venture? Write a report to the queen explaining your reasons either for or against investing in the project.
  • By granting charters for the exploration and settlement of new lands, England gave individuals an investment in the success of any colonies established in these territories. All Spanish expeditions, however, were funded by the crown, and individual explorered did not face financial risk. If you were an explorer, which policy would be more likely to convince you to launch an expedition to the Americas?

For More Information


Fecher, Constance. The Last Elizabethan: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

Hakluyt, Richard. Hakluyt's Voyages. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.

Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.


"First English Settlement in the New World." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Sir Walter Raleigh's American Colonies." British Explorers. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Sommerville, J. P. "Elizabeth I: Exploration and Foreign Policy." (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Heathen: Non-Christian.

Prerogatives: Exclusive rights.

Royalties: The right to exploit specified natural resources.

Franchises: The official right to sell goods in a certain area.

Pre-eminences: The right to purchase something first.

Fee simple: Legal ownership.

Discretions: Judgments.

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