Sir Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh is remembered as an aristocrat, writer, poet, politician, soldier, spy, adventurer and explorer.

He was born around 1552 in Hayes Barton, Devon, to parents Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne.

At the time of his birth, England was ruled by the Catholic Queen Mary I. As Raleigh was raised in a devoutly Protestant family, this caused his family to be persecuted for their religious beliefs, and the young Raleigh developed a hatred for the Catholic church, which was never to leave him.

Little is known of Raleigh’s early life, but he is believed to have spent some time in Ireland.

In 1569 Raleigh travelled to France to serve with the Huguenots (French Protestants) against Spain, and in 1572 he attended Oriel College, Oxford for only a year, later finishing his law studies at the Inns of Court (Middle Temple).

Between 1579 – 1583 Raleigh was in Ireland taking part in the Desmond Rebellions, and following this he became one of the principal landowners in Munster, but had little success getting English tenants to settle on his Irish estates.

After returning to England he became a regular at court and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1584 Queen Elizabeth granted Raleigh a Royal Charter, to explore the New World (Americas) giving him seven years in which to establish a settlement and Raleigh sent expeditions funded by himself and his friends, to the New World although he didn’t sail with them.

His first expedition in 1585 was unsuccessful, but in 1587 he sent an expedition to Roanoke Island (now North Carolina), establishing the Roanoke Colony. Once established the expedition returned to England. When they returned three years later, the colonists had disappeared, and are now known as the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke Island’.

In 1585, Raleigh was knighted by the Queen who also bestowed many titles on him. He became a member of parliament in 1585 and was given the position of Captain of the Queen’s Guards in 1587.

In 1591 Raleigh secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, a lady in waiting to the queen. A year later when Queen Elizabeth discovered the unauthorised marriage, she had Raleigh and his wife imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Raleigh was later released and in 1595 to gain favour with the queen, he set off on an expedition in Guyana and eastern Venezuela, to find El Dorado, the fabled ‘land of gold’ or ‘great golden city’. Although unsuccessful, when he returned he published his book about the voyage ‘The Discovery of Guiana’.

In 1596 Raleigh took part in the Capture of Cadiz and acted as Rear Admiral during the ‘Islands Voyage to the Azores’ in 1597 against the Spanish with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

When having returned later in 1597 Raleigh acted as member of parliament for both Dorset and Cornwall and then as governor of the Island of Jersey for the period 1600 – 1603.

It had taken many years for Raleigh to restore his good opinion with the queen, however following her death in March 1603, and James I succeeding to the throne, he was charged with treason for his involvement in the Main Plot (to replace James I on the throne), arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

At his trial in November 1603, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, but James I spared his life and continued his imprisonment.

Raleigh lived with his wife and children in the Tower of London and his youngest son Carew was born within its confines.

While imprisoned Raleigh spent his time writing and he completed the first volume of ‘The Historie of the World’ about ancient Greece and Rome, first published in 1614.

In 1617 James I, pardoned Raleigh and sent him on a second expedition to find El Dorado. A condition of his pardon was to avoid any hostilities against Spanish colonies or shipping, however a contingent of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost on the Orinoco River, resulting in the fatal shooting of Raleigh’s son Walter.

On Raleigh’s return to England, his death sentence was reinstated and his execution took place on 29 October 1618.

When allowed to see the axe that would kill him, his words were ‘This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases’.

Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster. He is buried in St Margaret’s, Westminster.

He is remembered as a charismatic man, a great explorer and being the man that made smoking tobacco popular at court and he also introduced potatoes to England.

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