BORN: 1552 • Devonshire, England
DIED: October 29,1618 • London, England
English statesman; explorer; poet
An influential statesman in the court of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), Walter Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) played a major part in advancing English colonization, or settlement, of North America. He was also a soldier, explorer, poet, and historian. Though he achieved great success with the queen's early support, he later fell out of her favor and had to struggle to regain his status and power. After Elizabeth's death Raleigh's political enemies conspired to turn the new king, James I (1566–1625; see entry), against him. Raleigh spent thirteen years in prison, and he was executed for treason in 1618.
"No one is wise or safe, but they that are honest."
An adventurous youth
Walter Raleigh, born in 1552, was the youngest child of parents with important connections in Devon, a county in southwestern England. His father, also named Walter, was related by his first marriage to the explorer Francis Drake (1540–1596; see entry). Twice widowed, the elder IMAGES. Raleigh married Katherine Champernowne in 1548 or 1549. Katherine had three sons by an earlier marriage to Otho Gilbert, and three children by Raleigh: a son, Carew; a daughter, Margaret; and another son, Walter.
Few details are known about young Walter's childhood. He grew up in the country, and historians believe it is likely that he learned about seafaring from his father and half-brothers. It is also likely that he enjoyed hearing about the adventures of local pirates and adventurers such as John Hawkins (1532–1595; see entry). Another important influence was his half brother, Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583), who was seventeen years older than Raleigh and had served with honor in English military campaigns in France and Ireland.
In 1568 Raleigh registered at Oriel College, Oxford University, but he did not remain there long. In 1568 or 1569 he went to France to help fight on behalf of the Huguenots, French Protestants whose challenge of Roman Catholic political power led to the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Raleigh participated in two major battles, as well as the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in which Catholic mobs slaughtered Huguenots.
Raleigh returned to England around 1572 and resumed his studies at Oxford. He left the university in 1574 without completing a degree. He then entered Lyon's Inn, a law school in London, and later studied at another law school, the Middle Temple. Though Raleigh did not become a lawyer, he made important political and social contacts at these schools. In 1576 his earliest known poem was published in the preface to friend George Gascoigne's (1539–1578) book, The Steel Glass.
Raleigh's early attempts to build fame and fortune did not meet with success. In 1577 and 1579 Raleigh joined his half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, on an expedition to search for the Northwest Passage, a route through northern seas that the English hoped would provide a shortcut to Asia. They did not find this passage, but they did raid Spanish ships. This action earned Raleigh the displeasure of the queen's advisors. During a six-month period after his return from sea in 1579, Raleigh was imprisoned twice for disturbing the peace.
In 1580 he headed a company of soldiers that was sent to Ireland. Irish rebels there, with help from Spanish and Italian troops, were fighting against English control of the region of Munster, in southern Ireland. Obeying the orders of his commanding officer, Raleigh led the massacre of captured Spanish and Italian troops at Smerwick, Kerry. This action, which some historians consider disgraceful, earned him honor as a military hero. He was later appointed a temporary administrator of Munster.
Gains the queen's favor
Soon after Raleigh's return to England in 1581, the queen made him her advisor on Irish affairs. Raleigh was intelligent, witty, and handsome. He dressed in extravagant fashions and demonstrated self-confidence and good manners. In fact Raleigh's manners were so polished that he is said to have once draped his own beautiful cloak over a mud puddle so that the queen could step on it and avoid dirtying her shoes. The queen greatly enjoyed the company of men with Raleigh's qualities, and she grew particularly fond of him. She gave him many favors, including a house in London and two country estates in Oxford. She also helped him financially by granting him the exclusive right to sell wine licenses and to export broadcloth, a cloth that was commonly used for making shirts. He also became warden, or overseer, of stannaries (mines) in the counties of Devon and Cornwall. Raleigh reformed the mining codes there, which increased his popularity in the region. In 1585 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Cornwall and vice admiral of the West (Devon and Cornwall).
The queen made Raleigh a knight in 1584. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) He continued to serve the government in several powerful positions. He was elected to Parliament, England's legislative body, in 1584 and again in 1586 as a representative from Devonshire. Raleigh received his highest office at the royal court in 1586, when he was made captain of the queen's personal guard.
During the 1580s Raleigh joined his half-brother in organizing a project to establish an English colony in North America. Raleigh did not obtain the queen's permission to accompany his half-brother on the voyage, but he was able to invest money in the project. He also contributed a ship that he had designed himself. After Gilbert's death on the return voyage, the queen granted Raleigh a charter to occupy new lands. Though he was still forced to remain at court, he immediately sent an expedition that landed in the region near North and South Carolina and claimed the territory for himself. He called this land Virginia in honor of the queen.
Plantations in Virginia
Raleigh was eager to obtain the queen's permission for a new idea: the establishment of plantations, or colonies, in Virginia. Rather than exploiting the area for its natural resources, Raleigh wanted to establish a permanent settlement for English families. The plantation would
Though it is not certain that Raleigh was the individual who first brought tobacco to England, he was the person who made smoking fashionable there. At first tobacco was considered a type of medicine that was good for headaches, toothaches, cancer, and even bad breath. It was usually smoked in pipes. The most common type of pipe was a walnut shell with a straw for a stem, but Raleigh had a silver pipe that, reportedly, he once persuaded the queen to try. She disliked smoking and said it made her feel sick to her stomach.
Tobacco quickly became very popular in England. By 1614 approximately seven thousand shops in London sold it. Though doctors, by this time, were beginning to warn that tobacco was addictive and caused major health problems, its popularity continued to grow. In 1624 England established a royal monopoly, or exclusive trading rights, on tobacco. In the mid-1660s, when the Great Plague struck London, people believed that smoking tobacco could protect them from infection. (The Great Plague was an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed more than one-fifth of London's population.) Eton, a school near the city, even made smoking a requirement in hopes of keeping the plague away.
By the 1700s snuff became a more popular way to enjoy tobacco. (Snuff is powdered tobacco inhaled through the nose.) Cigars became fashionable in the 1800s, and by the 1900s cigarettes were the most popular tobacco product.
include a school for seafarers and teach settlers the language of the native people. To help convince the queen to support this plan, Raleigh enlisted the help of writer Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616; see entry). Hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting explained the benefits of such a project and argued in its favor. Though the queen was not entirely convinced, she provided Raleigh with a ship and some money. But she would not let him make the voyage himself. She insisted that he remain in England where he could be close by if she wished to consult him.
Raleigh's cousin, Richard Grenville (1542–1591), brought the first colonists to Virginia. But the project did not go well. The settlers argued among themselves and refused to work or obey orders. They also encountered hostile native people. Discouraged, they returned to England in 1586 with a fleet under the command of Francis Drake. They brought back two crops that had never before been seen in England: potatoes and tobacco.
The next year Raleigh launched a second expedition, under the command of John White. The colonists settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. But a political emergency diverted Raleigh's attention from this new project. Spain, hoping to overthrow Elizabeth and make England a Catholic country, launched a massive naval attack against the English fleet in 1588. Raleigh was called to Devon to help organize a militia. He also served on the queen's war council, though he did not take part in the actual battle. The Spanish Armada (navy) was defeated, but the crisis had prevented Raleigh from organizing a voyage to bring new supplies to the colonists. By the time supply ships finally reached North America in 1591, the Roanoke colony had disappeared. Though Raleigh sent other expeditions to Virginia, none of them succeeded.
Provokes the queen's displeasure
After the defeat of the Armada, politics at court shifted. The queen's new favorite advisor, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex; 1566–1601; see entry), was jealous of the influence Raleigh had on Elizabeth. In fact Raleigh and Devereux almost fought a duel once after they had quarreled. Even more troublesome, however, was the fact that Raleigh had secretly married one of the queen's maids of honor, Elizabeth Throgmorton (d. 1647). When the queen found out about this, she was furious.
Elizabeth had decided that her favorite servants should not marry because she wanted to keep all their attention for herself. When she discovered that Raleigh and her serving maid had married, she sent them both to prison in the Tower of London. (The Tower of London was a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.) She released Raleigh after two months. A ship had docked in England to unload captured Spanish goods, but the crew would not obey its commanding officers. Elizabeth needed Raleigh to supervise this unruly crew, but she removed him as captain of her guard. She also, in effect, exiled him from court. In addition, she never allowed Lady Raleigh into her presence again.
The Raleighs had three sons. The first died in infancy. Two others, Carew and Walter (known as Wat), survived.
Raleigh retired to his estate in Dorset, in southern England, and he devoted his time to study and writing. He joined the Society of Antiquaries, a historical association, and he also helped Hakluyt prepare his writings about English voyages of exploration.
By late 1594 Raleigh had begun to gain back the queen's favor, and she allowed him to make a voyage to Guiana (now Venezuela). Finding gold ore there, he became convinced that the region would be a rich source of this precious metal. His written account of this expedition, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana, showed his belief in the natural wealth of this region. He hoped one day to return there to establish mining operations, but he had to wait many years to receive permission.
In 1596 the queen sent Raleigh and his rival, Devereux, on a naval raid against the Spanish city of Cadiz. The year before Spain had attacked Penzance, a port city on the remote southwestern coast of England, and now England hoped to retaliate. In the battle to capture the city, Raleigh received a serious leg wound; he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. As the English occupied Cadiz and stole its riches, its governor approached Devereux and Raleigh with a deal: he would pay them two million ducats if they allowed the merchant ships in the harbor—loaded with rich cargoes—to escape. They refused, demanding to be paid twice as much. The governor then ordered all the Spanish ships burned.
When news of this waste reached London, the queen was outraged. She blamed Devereux for making bad decisions on this campaign, but she did not criticize Raleigh's conduct. She allowed Raleigh back into her court, and she gave him more naval commands. He was also appointed governor of the island of Jersey, in the English Channel. When Devereux was executed on a treason charge in 1601, Raleigh did not come to his defense. But Raleigh's new success did not last long. When the queen died in 1603, Raleigh's political rivals saw their chance to act against him.
On the advice of Lord Henry Howard (1540–1614) and secretary of state Robert Cecil (1563–1605; see entry), who had greatly resented Raleigh's influence over the queen, King James I dismissed Raleigh as captain of the guard, warden of stanneries, and governor of Jersey. He also took away Raleigh's exclusive trading rights and forced him to move out of his London house. When Raleigh's enemies reported, falsely, that he had plotted against the king, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Near despair, Raleigh tried to take his own life. He was put on trial in Winchester in late 1603, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The king, however, allowed the sentence to be postponed. Raleigh remained in prison for thirteen years.
As a wealthy and influential man, Raleigh was treated well during his imprisonment. He lived in a large apartment at the Tower, which contained not only dungeons and prison cells but also royal apartments, the royal mint (where the country's money was made), and even a zoo. Raleigh's wife and family were able to join him at the Tower; in fact, his second son was conceived there. Raleigh was allowed to have his library with him, and he spent his time studying and writing. He developed his interest in science; his experiments with chemistry resulted in a substance he called "Balsam of Guiana," which he sold as a popular medicine. Also during this time he began writing The History of the World, which he dedicated to James's son, Prince Henry (1594–1612). Henry liked Raleigh and considered him a father figure, but he was not able to convince the king to pardon Raleigh. (A royal pardon would release Raleigh from punishment for his convicted crime.) After Henry died of typhoid fever in 1612, Raleigh abandoned his plan to finish The History of the World, and published it in incomplete form. Though it is only a fragment of the book he had intended to write, it is considered one of his most impressive prose (non-poetry) works.
In 1616 Raleigh was released from prison but not pardoned. The king allowed him, finally, to send an expedition to Venezuela to look for gold. Raleigh led the expedition himself, but when he reached the Venezuelan coast, he developed a serious fever. This illness forced him to stay aboard the ship and he could not lead his men upriver to explore. Against the king's strict orders, Raleigh's men fought with Spanish colonists in the area and burned a Spanish settlement. Raleigh's son, Wat, died during the fighting. Finding no gold, the failed expedition returned to England.
Death and legacy
Angry that his orders had been disobeyed on this expedition, the king immediately had Raleigh arrested again. Spain urged the king to execute him as a pirate. But because Raleigh was still under a death sentence for treason, he could not be tried on this new charge. The king ordered him to be executed for the treason charge that had been brought in 1603. He was beheaded on October 29, 1618.
Those who witnessed his execution said that Raleigh behaved with outstanding dignity and bravery. Dr. Robert Tounson, a priest who ministered to him in his last hours, later wrote in a letter, quoted by Raleigh Trevelyan in Sir Walter Raleigh, stating that Raleigh was "the most fearless of death that ever was known; and the most resolute and confident, yet with reverence and conscience." On the morning of his execution Raleigh enjoyed a good breakfast, smoked a pipe, dressed carefully, and walked to the scaffold. There he spoke to the crowd who had come to watch him die. He repeated that he had always been loyal to the king, and he defended himself against various lies that his enemies had told about him. Then he knelt and prayed. He refused a blindfold. When the executioner held up Raleigh's severed head, according to Trevelyan, he could not bring himself to say the usual words, "Behold the head of a traitor."
In addition to the major role he played in politics and exploration, Raleigh also made significant contributions to English literature. He was a friend of the poet Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; see entry), author of the epic poem The Faerie Queene, and helped promote Spenser's career. Raleigh's many prose works attracted attention during his own life and remained popular into the 1800s. His poems, which employed a simpler and more direct style than was typical in his day, contained elements that later poets such as John Donne (1572–1631) would also use.
Though his life contained many failures, Raleigh played a major role in Elizabethan England's policy of exploration. He served England successfully as a military leader and as an administrator. Though he failed to establish a permanent colony in North America, he is still remembered for this effort. The capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, is named for him.
For More Information
Fecher, Constance. The Last Elizabethan: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
"Factsheet 1: Smoking Statistics: Who Smokes and How Much." Action on Smoking and Health. http://www.ash.org.uk/html/factsheets/html/fact01.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Sir Walter Raleigh." BBC: Historic Figures. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/raleigh_walter.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Sir Walter Raleigh." British Explorers. http://www.britishexplorers.com/woodbury/raleigh.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Sir Walter Raleigh." Schools History. http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/walterraleigh.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Tobacco Timeline." Tobacco History Links. http://www.tobacco.org/History/history.html (accesssed on July 11, 2006).
"Walter Raleigh." u-s-history.com. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/hll38.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh
The English statesman Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552-1618) was also a soldier, courtier, explorer and exponent of overseas expansion, man of letters, and victim of Stuart mistrust and Spanish hatred.
Born into a prominent Protestant Devonshire family, Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) spent time at Oriel College, Oxford, before leaving to join the Huguenot army in the French religious war in 1569. Five years in France saw him safely through two major battles and the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day. By 1576 he was in London as a lodger (not a law student) at the Middle Temple and saw his verses, prefixed to George Gascoigne's Steele Glas, in print. His favorite poetic theme, the impermanence of all earthly things, was popular with other Renaissance poets. However, Raleigh's verse differs from theirs: for their richly decorated quality and smoothly musical rhythms, he substituted a colloquial diction and a simplicity and directness of statement that prefigured the work of John Donne and the other metaphysical poets.
After 2 years in obscurity Raleigh accompanied his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage ostensibly in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient but which quickly degenerated into a privateering foray against the Spanish. On their return in 1579, Raleigh and Gilbert faced the displeasure of the Privy Council. Raleigh's subsequent conduct did little to placate the Council: he engaged in several altercations and was imprisoned twice in 6 months for disturbing the peace. Once out of jail, and at the head of a company of infantry, he sailed to serve in the Irish wars.
In Ireland, Raleigh spent less than 2 years on campaign. He helped condemn one of the leaders of the rebellion, bombed a Spanish-Italian garrison into surrender, and then oversaw their massacre. After some minor but well-fought engagements, he was appointed a temporary administrator of Munster. Not satisfied, he criticized his superiors and by the end of 1581 had been sent back to London with dispatches for the Council, £20 for his expenses, and a reputation as an expert on Irish affairs.
Progress at Court
Extravagant in dress and in conduct (whether or not he spread his costly cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth to step on, his contemporaries believed him capable of the gesture), handsome, and superbly self-confident, Raleigh at first rose rapidly at court. His opinion on Ireland was sought and apparently taken by Elizabeth; when he obtained a new commission for service there, the Queen kept him home as an adviser. He received more concrete tokens of royal favor as well: a house in London, two estates in Oxford, and, most lucrative, the monopolies for the sale of wine licenses and the export of broadcloth all came from Elizabeth in 1583-1584.
Raleigh was knighted in 1584 and the next year became warden of the stannaries (or mines) in Devon and Cornwall, lord lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice admiral of the West (Devon and Cornwall). Although he was hated for his arrogance at Westminster, in Devon and Cornwall his reforms of the mining codes and his association with local privateering ventures made him very popular; he sat for Devonshire in the Parliaments of 1584 and 1586.
The patent under which Gilbert had led his expedition of 1578 had authorized him not merely to explore but to claim unknown lands (in the Queen's name, of course) and to exploit them as he saw fit. By 1582 Gilbert had organized a company to settle English Catholics in the Americas. Although forbidden by Elizabeth to accompany his half brother, Raleigh invested money and a ship of his own design in the venture. After Gilbert's death on the return from Newfoundland, Raleigh was given a charter to "occupy and enjoy" new lands. A preliminary expedition sailed as soon as Raleigh had his charter, reached the Carolina shore of America, and claimed the land for the court-bound empire builder.
At the same time, Raleigh sought to entice Elizabeth into a more active role in his proposed colonizing venture: not only did he name the new territory Virginia (after the Virgin Queen) but he sponsored Richard Hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting and brought this great imperialistic treatise to Elizabeth's attention. Although unconvinced, she gave a ship and some funds; Raleigh remained at court and devoted his energies to financing the scheme. The first settlers were conveyed by Raleigh's cousin Sir Richard Grenville. Quarrels, lack of discipline, and hostile Indians led the colonists to return to England aboard Francis Drake's 1586 squadron, bringing with them potatoes and tobacco, both hitherto unknown in Europe.
John White led a second expedition the next year. The coming of the Armada delayed sending supplies for more than 2 years. When the relief ships reached the colony in 1591, it had vanished. Raleigh sent other expeditions to the Virginia coast but failed to establish a permanent settlement there; his charter was revoked by James I in 1603.
Retirement from Court
Raleigh played a minor role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He organized the Devon militia and was a member of Elizabeth's War Council but did not participate in the naval battle. When he returned to court, he clashed with Elizabeth's new favorite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. After the Privy Council halted an incipient duel between them, Raleigh left for Ireland, where he cultivated his estates and the friendship of his neighbor, the poet Edmund Spenser, whom he introduced to Elizabeth in 1590.
The next year Raleigh was to have gone to sea in search of the Spanish plate fleet, but again Elizabeth refused permission. Grenville, who went in his stead, was trapped by Spanish galleons, and Raleigh raised a new fleet to avenge his cousin. At sea finally, he was immediately summoned back by Elizabeth. Upon his tardy return he was imprisoned in the Tower, for the Queen had discovered his alliance with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of her own maids of honor. (Raleigh later married Elizabeth Throgmorton.) After the return of an enormously wealthy prize taken by Raleigh's sailors, and after Elizabeth took an inordinate share of the profits, she permitted the Raleighs to go to their estate of Sherborne in Dorset.
Forbidden access to the court, Raleigh devoted time to study and speculation about the nature of matter and the universe. During this time he sat in Parliament, joined the Society of Antiquaries, assisted Hakluyt in preparing his Voyages, and joined Ben Jonson and Shakespeare at the Mermaid Tavern in London.
By the end of 1594 Raleigh had regained enough of Elizabeth's favor to obtain her consent for a prospecting expedition to Guiana (Venezuela). From this he brought back many samples of gold ore and a belief in the existence of a rich gold mine.
In 1596 Raleigh and his rival Essex led a brilliantly successful raid on Cadiz, and he seemed to have finally placated Elizabeth. He was readmitted to court, continued to serve in Parliament, was given a monopoly over playing cards, held more naval commands, and became governor of the island of Jersey, where he proved again to be an excellent administrator. With Essex's execution for treason, Raleigh's place as favorite seemed secure. But the Queen herself was near death, and Raleigh's enemies lost no time in poisoning the mind of James Stuart, her heir apparent and successor, against him.
Upon James I's accession, Raleigh was dismissed as captain of the guard, warden of the stanneries, and governor of Jersey. His monopolies were suspended, and he was evicted from his London house. Soon after, he was implicated (falsely) in a plot against James and, upon being committed to the Tower, tried to commit suicide. A farcical trial before a special commission at Winchester at the end of 1603 resulted in a death sentence, followed by a reprieve and imprisonment in the Tower for 13 years.
James stripped Raleigh of all his offices and even took Sherborne on a technicality to give to his own favorite, Robert Carr. The remainder of his property was restored, and Raleigh was well treated: his family joined him in a large apartment in the Bloody Tower; his books were brought as well. Raleigh attracted the sympathy and friendship of James's eldest son, Henry, who sought his advice on matters of shipbuilding and naval defense. Raleigh dedicated his monumental History of the World, written during this period of imprisonment, to the prince. Henry protested Raleigh's continued incarceration but died before he could effect his release.
From 1610 on, Raleigh, aware of James's need for money, sought permission to lead another search for the gold mine of his earlier Guiana voyage and at last got his way. Freed early in 1616, he invested most of his remaining funds in the projected voyage. The expedition, which sailed in June of the following year, was a disastrous failure. No treasure and no mine were found, and Raleigh's men violated James's strict instructions to avoid fighting with Spanish colonists in the area. Still worse, during the battle with the Spaniards, Raleigh's older son, Walter, was killed.
Upon his empty-handed return Raleigh was rearrested; James and Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, wished him tried on a charge of piracy, but as he was already under a sentence of death, a new trial was not possible. His execution would have to proceed from the charge of treason of 1603. James agreed to this course, and Raleigh was beheaded on Oct. 29, 1618.
Raleigh's History of the World, first published in 1614, has been reissued many times. A Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of Acores (1591) and The Discovery of … the Empire of Guiana (1596) are published in Works of Sir Walter Ralegh (8 vols., 1829), which also contains works published posthumously. The standard edition of Raleigh's poetry is The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, edited by Agnes M. C. Latham (1929).
There is no completely satisfactory biography of Raleigh. Edward Edwards, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh Based on Contemporary Documents … Together with His Letters (2 vols., 1868), lacks much material that is now available. Among the most useful works are Edward Thompson, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Last of the Elizabethans (1935), and Willard M. Wallace, Sir Walter Raleigh (1959). Raleigh's role in natural philosophy and his connection with Thomas Hariot are treated in Robert Kargon, Atomism in England (1966). His contact with Christopher Marlowe is explored at length in M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night: A Study in the Literary Relationships of Sir Walter Relegh (1936), and in Ernest Albert Strathmann, Sir Walter Raleigh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism (1951). A. L. Rowse's The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (1950) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955) provide a valuable general view of the period. □
Born: c. 1552
Died: October 29, 1618
English explorer, statesman, and courtier
The English statesman Sir Walter Raleigh was also a soldier, explorer, and a man of letters (a distinguished writer). As a champion of overseas expansion into the New World, Raleigh was a victim of mistrust and Spanish hatred.
Born into a wealthy family, Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) was the son of a farmer who earned a great deal of money in shipping ventures. Through his father, Raleigh gained an interest in seafaring. Raleigh spent time at Oriel College, Oxford, England, before leaving to join the Huguenot (Protestant) army in the French religious war in 1569. Five years in France saw him safely through two major battles and the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, where beginning August 24, 1572, more than seventy thousand French protestants were killed. By 1576 he was in London as a lodger at the Middle Temple and saw his poems in print. His favorite poetic theme, the temporary state of all earthly things, was popular with other poets of the Renaissance, a time of great cultural change led by the works of great artists and writers.
After two years in obscurity, Raleigh accompanied his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage apparently in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient (Eastern Asia). The voyage quickly developed into a privateering mission against the Spanish, where Raleigh hired out his ship to attack the Spanish. On their return in 1579, Raleigh and Gilbert faced the displeasure of the Privy Council, the advisors to the King. Raleigh's behavior did little to please the council, and he was imprisoned twice in six months for disturbing the peace. Once out of jail, and at the head of a company of soldiers, he sailed to serve in the Irish wars.
Progress at court
Extravagant in dress and behavior, handsome, and superbly self-confident, Raleigh rose rapidly at court, which consisted of the royal family and its advisors. His opinion of Ireland was accepted by Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603), and she kept him home as an adviser. He received royal favor as well, including a house in London and two estates in Oxford.
Raleigh was knighted (given the honorary distinction of knighthood) in 1584 and the next year became the chief officer of the stannaries (or mines) in Devon and Cornwall, lord lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice admiral of the West. Although he was hated for his arrogance, his reforms (improvements) of the mining codes made him very popular. He sat for Devonshire in the Parliaments (meetings of the governing body of England) of 1584 and 1586 and then went on to succeed Sir Christopher Hatton as captain of the Queen's Guard—his highest office at court.
By 1582 Humphrey Gilbert had organized a company to settle English Catholics in the Americas. Although forbidden by Elizabeth to accompany his half brother, Raleigh invested money and a ship of his own design to the mission. After Gilbert's death on the return from Newfoundland, a region that is now a province of eastern Canada, Raleigh was given a charter (authority from the queen) to "occupy and enjoy" new lands. Raleigh sailed as soon as he had his charter and reached the Carolina shore of America, claiming the land for himself.
At the same time, Raleigh sought to persuade Elizabeth into a more active role in his proposed colonizing venture, which would settle lands newly discovered in America. Although unconvinced, she reluctantly gave a ship and some funds. Raleigh remained at court and devoted his energies to financing the operation. The first settlers were transported by Raleigh's cousin Sir Richard Grenville (1542–1591). Fights, lack of discipline, and hostile Indians led the colonists to return to England with Francis Drake (c.1543–1596) in 1586, bringing with them potatoes and tobacco—two things unknown in Europe until that time.
John White (died c.1593) led a second expedition the next year. The coming of the Spanish Armada (a large fleet of warships) delayed the sending of supplies for more than two years. When the relief ships reached the colony in 1591, it had vanished. Raleigh sent other expeditions to the Virginia coast but failed to establish a permanent settlement there. His charter would eventually be withdrawn by James I (1566–1625) in 1603.
Retirement from court
In 1591 Raleigh was to have gone to sea in search of the Spanish fleet, but Elizabeth refused permission. Instead, Grenville was sent and soon trapped by Spanish forces. Raleigh raised a new fleet to avenge his cousin. Upon his return Raleigh was imprisoned for a short time in the Tower of London because the queen had discovered his relationship with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of her own maids of honor. (Raleigh later married Elizabeth Throgmorton.)
In 1596 Raleigh and his court rival, Robert Devereux (1566–1601), led a brilliantly successful raid on Cadiz, Spain, and he seemed to have finally satisfied Elizabeth. He was readmitted to court, continued to serve in Parliament, held more naval commands, and became governor of the island of Jersey. With Devereux 's execution for treason (crimes against one's country), Raleigh's place as Elizabeth's favorite seemed secure. But the queen herself was near death, and Raleigh's enemies lost no time in poisoning the mind of James Stuart (1566–1625), her successor, against him.
After James I took the throne, Raleigh was dismissed from his posts and forced out of his London house. Soon after, he was falsely connected to a plot against the king and was once again sentenced to the Tower, where he attempted to kill himself. Raleigh was sentenced to death, a sentence that would later be dropped. He was imprisoned for thirteen years.
Raleigh attracted the sympathy and friendship of James's eldest son, Henry, who sought his advice on matters of shipbuilding and naval defense. Raleigh dedicated his monumental "History of the World," written during this period of imprisonment, to the prince. Henry protested Raleigh's continued imprisonment but died before he could effect his release.
Freed early in 1616, Raleigh invested most of his remaining funds in the projected voyage to search for gold mines in South America. The expedition, which sailed in June of the following year, was a disastrous failure. No treasure or mines were found, and Raleigh's men violated James's strict instructions to avoid fighting with Spanish colonists in the area. Still worse, during the battle with the Spaniards, Raleigh's eldest son, Walter, was killed.
Upon his return Raleigh was arrested once again. James and Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, wanted him tried on a charge of piracy, but since he was already under a sentence of death, a new trial was not possible. His execution would have to proceed from the charge of treason of 1603. James agreed to this course, and Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618.
For More Information
Kargon, Robert. Atomism in England. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1966.
Korman, Susan. Walter Raleigh: English Explorer and Author. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
Wallace, Willard M. Sir Walter Raleigh. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.
Raleigh, Sir Walter (1552–1618)
Raleigh, Sir Walter (1552–1618)
Explorer and historian who helped to establish the first English settlement in North America, helping England to stake its future claim to colonies on the continent. He was the son of a country squire who owned an estate in Devonshire near Plymouth, a harbor on the English Channel. Although he was sent to Oxford for university studies, he left a short time later and then enlisted with a company of English infantry fighting alongside the French Huguenots (Protestants) on the continent of Europe. Historians know little of his career as a soldier, however.
By 1575 Raleigh was living in London but keeping family ties in Devon, which was becoming a center of English efforts to explore and colonize the New World. He joined his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on an expedition against the Spanish. This voyage ended in failure, however, and Raleigh made efforts to secure an appointment at the court of Elizabeth I. In 1579, he helped to put down a rebellion in Ireland, where he dealt ruthlessly with Irish Catholics and ordered a massacre of several hundred enemy mercenaries. For his service he was rewarded with towns and estates in County Munster, where he promoted English settlement in Ireland as a way of keeping the rebellious island under English control.
Raleigh returned to England in 1581 and received lucrative patents, or licenses, from the queen. He was granted a knighthood in 1584 and in the next year became a warden of productive tin mines in western England. After Elizabeth granted him forty thousand acres in Ireland, Raleigh brought in English farmers and introduced cultivation of tobacco and the potato. Seeking to establish lucrative settlements in North America, he promoted an expedition to Newfoundland in 1583 and in 1584 a voyage that reached the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. He became a member of Parliament in the same year, and in 1585 sent out a company of settlers under the leadership of Sir Richard Grenville. This group settled on Roanoke Island, but the small colony soon ran afoul of the surrounding Indian tribes and abandoned their homes. As an individual, Raleigh was unable to sustain an entire colonial enterprise on his own, and the effort to colonize Virginia would pass to a jointstock company that was able to raise money for the venture from several wealthy investors.
On returning to Ireland, Raleigh again took up the cause of English settlement on the island, and became acquainted with the poet Edmund Spenser, whom he helped to win a royal pension and to publish the first three books of his epic poem The Faerie Queene. He was losing favor at Elizabeth's court, however, and was prevented several times from taking part in expeditions against the Spanish. On returning from one aborted voyage, he was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for seducing and secretly marrying Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of the queen's maids. Raleigh retired from the royal court and, finding himself short of money, voyaged to South America in 1594 in search of the legendary gold mines of El Dorado. Failing in this purpose, he returned to England, where he published an account of his voyage, The Discovery of Guiana. He returned to the queen's favor after an expedition against the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1596. When the Earl of Essex, the queen's favorite, brought Raleigh along on a voyage to the Azores, the two men quarreled. After returning to England, Essex was accused of conspiring against Elizabeth and was executed under Raleigh's supervision.
Raleigh was appointed governor of the island of Jersey in 1600. But the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the accession of King James I proved disastrous, as Raleigh found himself out of favor for his political and religious views and had already been forced to sell his Irish estates in order to raise money. He was accused of conspiracy against the king, arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death. He languished in the Tower of London for thirteen years, working on a History of the World, as well as essays and poetry that earned him a reputation
as one of England's finest writers. In 1616 he proposed to the king that he undertake another voyage to South America in search of gold. Although the king was warned by the Spanish that Spain already had valid claims on this territory, James was in need of funds and released Raleigh from prison. The expedition set out in March 1617, but clashed with a Spanish settlement along the Orinoco River in Guiana. Raleigh sailed home, where he was arrested again. The king made good his promise to execute Raleigh should his expedition fail or find itself trespassing on the claims of Spain, and the sentence was finally carried out on October 29, 1618.
See Also: Elizabeth I; exploration; Spenser, Edmund
Ralegh, Sir Walter
J. A. Cannon