Sir Walter Raleigh

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Sir Walter Raleigh


English Adventurer and Writer

Walter Raleigh's place in history results primarily from his eccentric character and his ambiguous relationship with Queen Elizabeth I rather than his actual accomplishments. The latter include his unsuccessful attempts to found a settlement in North Carolina and his exploits in South America.

His family was Protestant, and in 1569, at an early age, he fought in the French Wars of Religion in support of the Protestant Huguenots. He studied at Oriel College of Oxford University and at the Middle Temple (law college) in London.

Raleigh's participation in the successful suppression of an uprising in Ireland in 1580 brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I. By 1582, he was clearly the favorite of Elizabeth. She knighted him in 1585, and he rapidly grew wealthy and influential as the result of gifts of monopolies, properties, and positions from the Queen. One of these grants was the right to establish a colony on land claimed by the English in the area of present-day North Carolina and Virginia. Although the Queen, wishing to keep him nearby, forbade him to travel to America, he financed a number of groups of settlers who attempted, during the period 1584-1589, to form a settlement near Roanoke Island. All these attempts were unsuccessful, the last group disappearing mysteriously.

In 1587, he was named Captain of the queen's guard, and the following year financed one of the ships that fought the Spanish Armada. Some time later, however, he began a romantic relationship with Elizabeth Throckmorton. They managed to keep their marriage a secret from the Queen, who was jealous of Raleigh's attention and affection, until the birth of their son in 1592. In her jealous anger, Queen Elizabeth imprisoned the pair in the Tower of London. Raleigh, however, bought his way out with profits from a voyage he'd funded, and moved away from the court.

In 1595, he financed and led an expedition to present-day Guyana in South America. Since Guyana was in the center of territory claimed by Spain, this journey can be viewed as a continuation of Raleigh's antipathy for the Spanish as well as of his dream of establishing English colonies in the New World. In 1596, he participated in an attack on Cadiz, and he commanded a successful assault on Fayal in 1597. These anti-Spanish exploits regained some of the Queen's favor. He served in Parliament in 1597 and 1601 and was named Governor of Jersey in 1600.

His return to a position of influence came to an abrupt end when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and James I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became king. Raleigh's enemies quickly convinced the King that Raleigh was plotting to overthrow him. Raleigh was arrested in 1603 and convicted of treason. The death sentence, however, was changed to life imprisonment in the Tower of London where he lived comfortably for twelve years with his family and their servants. During this time, he studied chemistry and mathematics, and performed scientific experiments. He also continued his writing of poetry and prose. His work, The History of the World, was published in 1614.

He was released from prison, but not pardoned, in 1616 with the condition that he finance and lead a second expedition to Guyana in search of gold but to do so without angering the Spanish. Raleigh's troops, however, burned a Spanish settlement, and his son was killed in the fighting. In addition, no gold was found. When he returned to England, the King invoked the suspended sentence, and in 1618 he was beheaded. His wife carried his embalmed head with her until her death 29 years later.