Walter Raleigh

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Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Ralegh by 'H' monogrammist.jpg
Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh inscribed right: Aetatis suae 34 An(no) 1588 ("In the year 1588 of his age 34") and left: with his motto Amore et Virtute ("By Love and Virtue"). National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 7
Born (1552-01-22)22 January 1552 (or 1554)
Hayes Barton, Devonshire
Died 29 October 1618(1618-10-29) (aged c. 65)
London, England
Occupation Writer, poet, soldier, courtier, explorer
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Throckmorton
Children Walt[1]

Arms of Raleigh family: Gules, five fusils conjoined in bend argent

Sir Walter Raleigh (/ˈrɔːli/, /ˈræli/, or /ˈrɑːli/;[2] c. 1554 – 29 October 1618) was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer. He is also well known for popularizing tobacco in England.

Raleigh was born to a Protestant family in Devon, the son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne. Little is known of his early life, though he spent some time in Ireland, in Killua Castle, Clonmellon, County Westmeath, taking part in the suppression of rebellions and participating in the Siege of Smerwick. Later he became a landlord of property confiscated from the native Irish. He rose rapidly in the favour of Queen Elizabeth I, and was knighted in 1585. Instrumental in the English colonisation of North America, Raleigh was granted a royal patent to explore Virginia, which paved the way for future English settlements. In 1591 he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, without the Queen's permission, for which he and his wife were sent to the Tower of London. After his release, they retired to his estate at Sherborne, Dorset.

In 1594 Raleigh heard of a "City of Gold" in South America and sailed to find it, publishing an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of "El Dorado". After Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 Raleigh was again imprisoned in the Tower, this time for being involved in the Main Plot against King James I, who was not favourably disposed toward him. In 1616 he was released to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. This was unsuccessful and men under his command ransacked a Spanish outpost. He returned to England and, to appease the Spanish, was arrested and executed in 1618.

Raleigh was one of the most notable figures of the Elizabethan era. In 2002 he featured in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.[3]

Early life

Little is known about Raleigh's birth. Some historians believe he was born on 22 January 1552, although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography currently favours a date of 1554.[4] He grew up in the house of Hayes Barton,[5] a farmhouse in the village of East Budleigh, not far from Budleigh Salterton, in Devon, England. He was the youngest of five sons born to Catherine Champernowne in two successive marriages. His half brothers, John Gilbert, Humphrey Gilbert, Adrian Gilbert, and full brother Carew Raleigh were also prominent during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Catherine Champernowne was a niece of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth's governess, who introduced the young men at court.[6]

Raleigh's family was highly Protestant in religious orientation and had a number of near-escapes during the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, his father had to hide in a tower to avoid execution. As a result, during his childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Roman Catholicism and proved himself quick to express it after Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. In matters of religion Elizabeth was more moderate than her sister Mary.

In 1568 or 1572, Raleigh was registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford but does not seem to have taken up residence. In 1575, he was registered at the Middle Temple. At his trial in 1603, he stated that he had never studied law. His life between these two dates is uncertain but in his History of the World he claimed to be an eye-witness at the Battle of Moncontour (3 October 1569) in France.[7] In 1575 or 1576 Raleigh returned to England.[8]


Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions. He was present at the siege of Smerwick. Upon the seizure and distribution of land following the attainders arising from the rebellion, Raleigh received 40,000 acres (160 km2), including the coastal walled towns of Youghal and Lismore. This made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, but he enjoyed limited success in inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

Sir Walter Raleigh's Seal of Office

During his seventeen years as an Irish landlord, frequently being domiciled at Killua Castle, Clonmellon, county Westmeath, Raleigh made the town of Youghal his occasional home. He was mayor there from 1588 to 1589. His town mansion, Myrtle Grove, is assumed to be the setting for the story that his servant doused him with a bucket of water after seeing clouds of smoke coming from Raleigh's pipe, in the belief he had been set alight. But this story is also told of other places associated with Raleigh: the Virginia Ash inn in Henstridge near Sherborne, Sherborne Castle, and South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, home of Raleigh's friend, Sir Walter Long.

Amongst Raleigh's acquaintances in Munster was another Englishman who had been granted land there, the poet Edmund Spenser. In the 1590s, he and Raleigh travelled together from Ireland to the court at London, where Spenser presented part of his allegorical poem, the Faerie Queene, to Elizabeth I.

Raleigh's management of his Irish estates ran into difficulties, which contributed to a decline in his fortunes. In 1602, he sold the lands to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, who subsequently prospered under kings James I and Charles I. Following Raleigh's death, members of his family approached Boyle for compensation on the ground that Raleigh had struck an improvident bargain.

The New World

Engraved portrait of Raleigh

Raleigh's plan in 1584 for colonisation in the "Colony and Dominion of Virginia" in North America ended in failure at Roanoke Island, but paved the way for subsequent colonies.[9] These expeditions were funded primarily by Raleigh and his friends, but never provided the steady stream of revenue necessary to maintain a colony in America. (Subsequent colonization attempts in the early 17th century were made under the joint-stock Virginia Company, which was able to raise the capital necessary to create successful colonies.)

In 1587, Raleigh attempted a second expedition, again establishing a settlement on Roanoke Island. This time, a more diverse group of settlers was sent, including some entire families, under the governance of John White.[10] After a short while in America, White returned to England to obtain more supplies for the colony, planning to return in a year. Unfortunately for the colonists at Roanoke, one year became three. The first delay came when Queen Elizabeth I ordered all vessels to remain at port for potential use against the Spanish Armada. After England's 1588 victory over the Spanish fleet, the ships were given permission to sail.[11]:125–126

The second delay came after White's small fleet set sail for Roanoke and his crew insisted on sailing first towards Cuba in hopes of capturing treasure-laden Spanish merchant ships. Enormous riches described by their pilot, an experienced Portuguese navigator hired by Raleigh, outweighed White's objections to the delay.[11]:125–126

When the supply ship arrived in Roanoke, 3 years later than planned, the colonists had disappeared.[11]:130–33 The only clue to their fate was the word "CROATOAN" and letters "CRO" carved into tree trunks. White had arranged with the settlers that if they should relocate, the name of their destination be carved into a tree or corner-post. This suggested the possibilities that they had relocated to Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island). But a hurricane prevented John White from investigating the island for survivors.[11]:130–33 Other speculation includes their having starved, or been swept away or lost at sea during the stormy weather of 1588. No further attempts at contact were recorded for some years. Whatever the fate of the settlers, the settlement is now remembered as the "Lost Colony of Roanoke Island".

Raleigh's house at Blackwall, London. Photo c. 1890, National Maritime Museum, ID: H0657.

Later life


In December 1581, Raleigh returned to England from Ireland to despatches as his company had been disbanded. He took part in Court life and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Various colourful stories are told about him at this period, but they are likely apocryphal.[12][13]

In 1585 Raleigh was knighted and was appointed warden of the stannaries, that is of the mines of Cornwall and Devon, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice-admiral of the two counties. Both in 1585 and 1586, he sat in parliament as member for Devonshire.[14]

Raleigh commissioned the shipbuilder R. Chapman, of Deptford to build a ship for him. Originally called Ark, it became Ark Raleigh, following the convention at the time by which the ship bore the name of its owner. The Crown, in the form of Queen Elizabeth I, purchased the ship from Raleigh in January 1587, for the sum of £5,000 (£1,000,000 as of 2013).[15] (This took the form of a reduction in the sum Sir Walter owed the queen: he received Exchequer tallies, but no money.) As a result, the ship was renamed Ark Royal.[16]

Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602


In 1592, Raleigh was given many rewards by the Queen, including Durham House in the Strand and the estate of Sherborne, Dorset. He was appointed Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. However, he had not been given any of the great offices of state. In the Armada year of 1588, Raleigh was appointed Vice Admiral of Devon, looking after the coastal defences and military levies.[citation needed]

In 1591, Raleigh was secretly married to Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton (or Throgmorton). She was one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, eleven years his junior, and was pregnant at the time. She gave birth to a son, believed to be named Damerei, who was given to a wet nurse at Durham House, but died in October 1592 of plague. Bess resumed her duties to the queen. The following year, the unauthorised marriage was discovered and the Queen ordered Raleigh imprisoned and Bess dismissed from court. Both were imprisoned in the Tower of London in June 1592. He was released from prison in August 1592 to help set up an expedition for an attack on the Spanish coast. Although recalled by the Queen, the fleet captured an incredibly rich prize, the Madre de Deus (Mother of God) off Flores of which he had to divide the spoils. Bess was released in December.[citation needed]

It would be several years before Raleigh returned to favour. The couple remained devoted to each other. During Raleigh's absences, Bess proved a capable manager of the family's fortunes and reputation. They had two more sons, Walter (known as Wat) and Carew.[citation needed]

Raleigh was elected a burgess of Mitchell, Cornwall, in the parliament of 1593.[4] He retired to his estate at Sherborne where he built a new house, completed in 1594, known then as Sherborne Lodge. Since extended, it is now known as Sherborne (new) Castle. He made friends with the local gentry, such as Sir Ralph Horsey of Clifton Maybank and Charles Thynne of Longleat. During this period at a dinner party at Horsey's, there was a heated discussion about religion. The argument later gave rise to charges of atheism against Raleigh. He was elected to Parliament, speaking on religious and naval matters.[citation needed]

Republic of Guyana, 100 Dollar Gold Coin 1976 Commemorating the book Discovery of Guiana 1596 and 10 Years of Independence from British Rule

In 1594, he came into possession of a Spanish account of a great golden city at the headwaters of the Caroní River. A year later he explored what is now Guyana and eastern Venezuela in search of Manoa, the legendary city. Once back in England, he published The Discovery of Guiana[17] (1596) an account of his voyage which made exaggerated claims as to what had been discovered. The book can be seen as a contribution to the El Dorado legend. Although Venezuela has gold deposits, there is no evidence Raleigh found any mines. He is sometimes said to have discovered Angel Falls, but these claims are considered far-fetched.[18]

Mass-produced commemorative silver seal matrix of Sir Walter Raleigh, showing his heraldic achievement, arms on a shield couché: Five fusils conjoined in bend a martlet for difference; supporters: two wolves; crest: a stag; above the crest is shown the date "1584" and below the shield on a scroll is the Latin motto: Amore et Virtute ("By Love and Virtue"). The circumscribed legend is: Propria Insignia [19] Walteri Ralegh Militis Domini & Gubernatoris Virginiae ("Private seal of Walter Ralegh, Knight, Lord and Governor of Virginia") British Museum

In 1596 Raleigh took part in the capture of Cádiz, where he was wounded. He was also the second-in-command of the Islands Voyage to the Azores in 1597.[citation needed]

In 1597, he was chosen member of parliament for Dorset, and, in 1601, for Cornwall.[14] He was unique in the Elizabethan period in sitting for three counties.[4]

From 1600 to 1603, as Governor of the Channel Island of Jersey, Raleigh modernised its defences. This included construction of a new fort protecting the approaches to Saint Helier, Fort Isabella Bellissima, or Elizabeth Castle.[citation needed]

Trial and imprisonment

Raleigh's cell, Bloody Tower, Tower of London

Royal favour with Queen Elizabeth had been restored by this time but his good fortune did not last. The Queen died in 1603, and Raleigh was arrested at Exeter Inn, Ashburton, Devon and imprisoned in the Tower of London on 19 July 1603. On 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason, due to his involvement in the Main Plot against King James.[citation needed]

Raleigh conducted his defence. The chief evidence against Raleigh was the signed and sworn confession of his friend Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham. Raleigh frequently requested that Cobham be called in to testify so that he might recant, "[Let] my accuser come face to face, and be deposed. Were the case but for a small copyhold, you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to a verdict; and I am here for my life!" Raleigh essentially was objecting that the evidence against him was "hearsay"; but the tribunal refused to allow Cobham to testify and be cross examined.[20] Although hearsay was frowned upon under common law, Raleigh was tried under civil law, which allowed hearsay. King James spared his life, despite a guilty verdict.[citation needed] In October 1994 documents which had previously been imperfectly catalogued at the Bodleian Library were discovered during random checking of papers held there. These included Raleigh's own deposition and Cobham's statement to the tribunal, and provide strong evidence that Raleigh denounced King James and spoke in favour of a Spanish invasion, and went so far as to advise on the best invasion location (he recommended Milford Haven); he also requested a Spanish pension of £1,500 a year in return for his spying.[21]

He remained imprisoned in the Tower until 1616. While there, he wrote many treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World (published 1628)[22] about the ancient history of Greece and Rome. His son, Carew, was conceived and born (1604) while Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower.

Second voyage to Guiana, 1617–1618

In 1616, Raleigh was released in order to conduct a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. During the expedition, Raleigh's men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, attacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana (San Tomé) on the Orinoco River. In the initial attack on the settlement, Raleigh's son, Walter, was fatally shot. On Raleigh's return to England, an outraged Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, successfully demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh's death sentence. Raleigh was brought to London from Plymouth, by Sir Lewis Stukeley, and passed up numerous opportunities to make an effective escape.[23][24]

Execution and aftermath

Raleigh just before being beheaded – an illustration from c. 1860

Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch", he said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." According to many biographers – for instance, Raleigh Trevelyan in Sir Walter Raleigh (2002) – Raleigh's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"[25]

Having been one of the people to popularise tobacco smoking in England, he left a small tobacco pouch, found in his cell shortly after his execution. Engraved upon the pouch was a Latin inscription: Comes meus fuit in illo miserrimo tempore ("It was my companion at that most miserable time").[26][27]

Raleigh's head was embalmed and presented to his wife. His body was to be buried in the local church in Beddington, Surrey, the home of Lady Raleigh, but was finally laid to rest in St. Margaret's, Westminster, where his tomb may still be visited today.[28] "The Lords", she wrote, "have given me his dead body, though they have denied me his life. God hold me in my wits."[29] It has been said that Lady Raleigh kept her husband's head in a velvet bag until her death.[30] After his wife's death 29 years later, Raleigh's head was returned to his tomb and interred at St. Margaret's Church.[31]

Although Raleigh's popularity had waned considerably since his Elizabethan heyday, his execution was seen by many, both at the time and since, as unnecessary and unjust, as for many years his involvement in the Main Plot seemed to have been limited to a meeting with Lord Cobham.[32] One of the judges at his trial later said: "The justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of the honourable Sir Walter Raleigh."[33] This view has been less widely held since the discovery of some of the 1603 tribunal's paperwork in the Bodleian Library in 1994, which strongly supports the case against Raleigh.[21]


Raleigh's poetry is written in the relatively straightforward, unornamented mode known as the plain style. C. S. Lewis considered Raleigh one of the era's "silver poets", a group of writers who resisted the Italian Renaissance influence of dense classical reference and elaborate poetic devices.

In poems such as "What is Our Life" and "The Lie", Raleigh expresses a contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) attitude more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of the dawning era of humanistic optimism. But, his lesser-known long poem "The Ocean to Cynthia" combines this vein with the more elaborate conceits associated with his contemporaries Edmund Spenser and John Donne, expressing a melancholy sense of history.

Raleigh wrote a poetic response to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" of 1592, entitled "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd". Both were written in the style of traditional pastoral poetry and follow the structure of six four-line stanzas employing a rhyme scheme of AABB, with Raleigh's an almost line-for-line refutation of Marlowe's sentiments.[34] Years later the 20th century poet William Carlos Williams would join the poetic "argument" with his "Raleigh was Right."


The state capital of North Carolina and its second largest city was named Raleigh in 1792 for Sir Walter, sponsor of the Roanoke Colony. In the city a bronze statue, which has been moved around different locations within the city, was cast in honor of the city's namesake. The "Lost Colony" is commemorated at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.[citation needed]

One of eleven boarding houses at the Royal Hospital School has been named after Raleigh. Raleigh County, West Virginia, is also named in his honor.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Many alternative spellings of his surname exist, including Rawley, Ralegh, Ralagh and Rawleigh. "Raleigh" appears most commonly today, though he, himself, used that spelling only once, as far as is known. His most consistent preference was for "Ralegh". His full name is /ˈwɔːltər ˈrɔːli/, though, in practice, /ˈræli/, RAL-ee or even /ˈrɑːli/, RAH-lee are the usual modern pronunciations in England.
  3. ^ "100 great Britons - A complete list". Daily Mail. 21 August 2002. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c Nicholls, Mark; Williams, Penry (September 2004). "Ralegh, Sir Walter (1554–1618)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 May 2008.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  5. ^ Hayes Barton, Woodbury Common.
  6. ^ Ronald, p. 249.
  7. ^ Edward Edwards, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Volume I (London: Macmillan, 1868), p. 26.
  8. ^ Edwards, p. 33.
  9. ^ Markham, Jerry W. (2001). A Financial History of the United States. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe. p. 22. ISBN 0-7656-0730-1. 
  10. ^ Blacker, Irwin (1965). Hakluyt's Voyages: The Principle Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation. New York: The Viking Press. p. 522. 
  11. ^ a b c d Quinn, David B. (1985-02). Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. UNC Press Books. ISBN 978-0-8078-4123-5. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  12. ^ Fragmenta Regalia
  13. ^ Fuller's Worthies
  14. ^ a b J. K. Laughton and Sidney Lee, Ralegh, Sir Walter (1552?–1618), military and naval commander and author, 1896
  15. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2013), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  16. ^ Archaeologia, p. 151
  17. ^ Sir Walter Raleigh. The Discovery of Guiana Project Gutenberg.
  18. ^ "Walter Raleigh – Delusions of Guiana" at The Lost World: Travel and information on the Gran Sabana, Canaima National Park, Venezuela web page. Retrieved 5 July 2008.
  19. ^ circumscribed legend mis-engraved as TNSIHNIA for INSIGNIA
  20. ^ 1 Criminal Trials 400, 400–511, 1850.
  21. ^ a b Autograph papers held at the Bodleian Library, dated 1603, previously catalogued in the papers of Thomas Carte
  22. ^ Raleigh, Walter. "The Historie of the World". Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  23. ^ Wolffe, Mary. "Stucley, Sir Lewis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26740.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  24. ^  "Stucley, Lewis". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  25. ^ Trevelyan (2002) p. 552
  26. ^ Gene Borio. "Tobacco Timeline: The Seventeenth Century-The Great Age of the Pipe". Retrieved October 29, 2012. 
  27. ^ "Sir Walter Raleigh's tobacco pouch". Wallace Collection. Retrieved 1 November 2012. 
  28. ^ Williams, Norman Lloyd. "Sir Walter Raleigh", Cassell Biographies, 1962)
  29. ^ Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization, vol. VII, Chap. VI, p.158
  30. ^ "Full text of "Raleghana"". Retrieved October 29, 2012. 
  31. ^ Lloyd, J & Mitchinson, J: "The Book of General I.
  32. ^ ed. Ronald Christenson, Political Trials in History: From Antiquity to the Present, p. 385-7. Transaction Publishers (1991). ISBN 978-0-88738-406-6
  33. ^ Historical summary, Crawford v. Washington (page 10 of .pdf file)
  34. ^ "Notes for "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"". Dr. Bruce Magee, Louisiana Tech University. Retrieved 29 October 2012. 


  • Adamson, J.H. and Folland, H. F. Shepherd of the Ocean, 1969
  • Dwyer, Jack Dorset Pioneers The History Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7524-5346-0
  • Edwards, Edward The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Volume I (London: Macmillan, 1868).
  • Fuller, Thomas Anglorum Speculum or the Worthies of England, 1684
  • Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, 1954
  • Naunton, Robert Fragmenta Regalia 1694, reprinted 1824.
  • Nicholls, Mark and Williams, Penry. ‘Ralegh, Sir Walter (1554–1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Pemberton, Henry (Author); Carroll Smyth (Editor), Susan L. Pemberton (Contributor) Shakespeare And Sir Walter Raleigh: Including Also Several Essays Previously Published In The New Shakspeareana, Kessinger Publishing, LLC; 264 pages, 2007. ISBN 978-0548312483
  • Ronald, Susan The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2007. ISBN 0-06-082066-7
  • Stebbing, William: Sir Walter Ralegh. Oxford, 1899 Project Gutenberg eText
  • Trevelyan, Raleigh Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Holt & Co. (2002). ISBN 978-0-7139-9326-4
  • The Sir Walter Raleigh Collection in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

External links

Texts by Raleigh

Court offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Bedford
Lord Warden of the Stannaries
Succeeded by
The Earl of Pembroke
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir Francis Godolphin
Sir William Mohun
Peter Edgcumbe
Richard Carew
Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall
Succeeded by
The Earl of Pembroke
Political offices
Preceded by
Edward Seymour
Vice-Admiral of Devon
Succeeded by
The Earl of Bath (North Devon) and
Sir Richard Hawkins (South Devon)
Preceded by
John Best
Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Erskine
Preceded by
Sir Matthew Arundell
Custos Rotulorum of Dorset
Succeeded by
Viscount Howard of Bindon
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Anthony Paulet
Governor of Jersey
Succeeded by
Sir John Peyton