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Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Walter Raleigh


Little is known about Sir Walter Raleigh's birth. The date favored by the majority of historians is January 22, 1552.

He was born at a thatched house (now a farmhouse) near the village of East Budleigh, not far from Budleigh Salterton in Devon.

Walter was the youngest of five sons born to Catherine Champernowne in two successive marriages. Catherine Champernowne was a niece of Kat Ashley, Queen Elizabeth I's governess, who introduced the young men at court.

John Everett Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh (1871)

One of his half brother's was Sir Humphrey Gilbert who founded the colony of Newfoundland.


In 1569, Raleigh left for France to serve with the Huguenots in the French religious civil wars

Raleigh registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford in 1572, but he left a year later without a degree.

Raleigh returned to London and proceeded to finish his education  at England's law school, the Inns of Court. Many English gentlemen spent a year or two there, especially if they expected to own landed estates in the future, because lawsuits were ubiquitous.

In 1578 Raleigh set out with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert to raid Spanish ports in the West Indies but they ran into bad weather and turned back.

Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland. In 1580 he captained a force of 100 foot soldiers to put down a Munster revolt.

Raleigh was presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1581 and quickly became one of her favorites. In his role as Elizabeth's favorite, Raleigh was quick to seek benefits and rewards.

In 1585, Raleigh was knighted and was appointed warden the tin mines of Cornwall and Devon, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice-admiral of the two counties. He sat in parliament as member for Devonshire in 1585 and 1586.

Raleigh also controlled Crown monopolies in wines and exports of cloth, which added to his considerable fortune.

Having been granted a royal charter to establish a colony in Virginia, Raleigh organised several expeditions, attempting to establish a settlement there. Raleigh himself never visited North America. Instead, he sent others to found the Roanoke Colony, later known as the "Lost Colony"

In 1588, England was threatened by the Great Armada of Spain, the largest fleet ever assembled in Europe, and Raleigh was given responsibility for the defense on land of the channel ports

After the Armada was defeated, Raleigh led a reprisal raid at Cadiz.

Raleigh temporarily fell out of favor with the Queen in 1593 and spent the mid 1590s travelling extensively, including an expedition to the Caribbean coast of South America searching for El Dorado, the legendary gold mines of Guiana.

In 1597 Raleigh was chosen member of parliament for Dorset, and in 1601 for Cornwall. He was unique in the Elizabethan period in sitting for three counties.

Sir Walter Raleigh by William Segar

From 1600 to 1603, as governor of the Channel Island of Jersey, Raleigh modernized its defenses.

Raleigh's last great adventure was a second search search for El Dorado in 1617 at the age of 65.


On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth granted Raleigh a royal charter authorizing him to found a colony in North America in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there. Raleigh and Elizabeth intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain.

Raleigh put together a persuasive brochure encouraging Europeans to move to the New World. Eventually, a voyage was created, and the ships landed at Roanoke Island. They dropped the 225 settlers off on August 17, 1585 promising to return a few months later with supplies for them.

Ten months passed with no sign of the relief fleet. However, Sir Francis Drake was on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, stopped at the colony and offered to take the colonists back home. Many accepted and on this return voyage, the Roanoke colonists introduced tobacco, maize, and potatoes to England.

Raleigh's First Pipe in England from Frederick W Fairholt's Tobacco, its history and associations

The relief fleet arrived shortly after Drake's departure with the colonists. Finding the colony abandoned, it returned to England with the bulk of his force, leaving behind a small detachment of fifteen men both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh's claim to Roanoke Island

In 1587, Raleigh dispatched a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay.
This time, a more diverse group of settlers was sent, including some entire families, under the governance of Raleigh's friend the artist John White, who had accompanied the previous expedition to Roanoke.

The group were ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there by Grenville the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, the English garrison had disappeared.
Rather than proceeding to their original Chesapeake Bay destination, the colonists decided to establish the new colony on Roanoke.

Governor White attempted to re-establish relations with the Croatoan and other local tribes, but they refused to meet with him. The colonists persuaded White to return to England to explain the colony's desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing plus White's newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

Roanoke Island has many bugs and mosquitoes and is covered with very thick woods. It was not the ideal spot to leave the colonists. Because of the continuing war with Spain, White was unable to mount another resupply attempt for an additional three years.

When the ships eventually returned to Roanoke Island with supplies, they couldn't find any of the colonists, but there was no sign of bloodshed. Adding to the mystery, they found the word "CROATAN" carved into a tree.


Walter Raleigh was 6 ft tall, and blessed with good looks. He had brown eyes, a lofty forehead and well into his middle age thick dark, curly hair.

Sir Walter Ralegh, by 'H' monogrammist (floruit 1588)

Walter Raleigh loved to wear the richest fabrics adorned with strings of pearls. His typical apparel was short, stiffly padded hoses, crisp ruff round his neck and shoes with small bows to match his suit.(44)

He once quipped: "No man is esteemed for gay garments, but by fools and women."

A renaissance gentleman, Raleigh was bold but quick tempered, proud, arrogant, outspoken, intellectual and reckless. He had the talent to dazzle, excite and persuade, but made many enemies because of his pride and arrogance.

Raleigh spoke in a broad Devonshire accent. The Queen called him "Water" teasing his accent and the way he pronounced his name.


Raleigh's family was highly Protestant in religious orientation and had a number of near escapes during the reign of 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, Raleigh grew up with a hatred of the Catholic Church and when Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, he was not reluctant to express his views.

Raleigh made many enemies because of his pride, arrogance and religious skepticism.


Raleigh has been widely speculated to be a key figure in introducing the potato to Ireland. It is said, he planted them at his Irish estates but the people were unimpressed. It was generally agreed that Raleigh's potatoes were a health hazard leading to consumption, flatulence and unnatural carnal lust.

The arrogant Raleigh only ate white bread as believed brown bread was only fit for lower orders.


In 1591, Raleigh seduced one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton and got her pregnant. They got secretly married the same year (Nobody at court could marry without Elizabeth’s permission).

Portrait of Bess Raleigh, ca. 1600 by Robert Peake the Elder

Bess gave birth to a son, believed to be named Damerei, who was given to a wet nurse at Durham House, but he died in October 1592 of plague. Bess resumed her duties to the queen.

In 1592 the unauthorized marriage was discovered and the Queen ordered Raleigh to be imprisoned and Bess dismissed from court. Both were imprisoned in the Tower of London in June 1592. By early 1593 he had been released

Raleigh and his wife remained devoted to each other. They had two more sons, Walter (known as Wat) born in 1593 and Carew in 1605.

Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602

There is as a tradition that Raleigh first caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth by laying down his cloak over a large puddle for her highness to step over.

As a newly fledged courtier wanting to woo Elizabeth but not daring to Raleigh scratched with a diamond the following on the window of the Royal Palace "Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall." The Queen completed the couplet "If thy heart fail thee, climb not at all."

Raleigh soon became close with the English monarch, who was attracted by his intelligence and knowledgeable conversation.


In 1580 Raleigh was twice arrested for duelling.

Raleigh was thrown into the Tower of London for a time in 1593 with Bessie Throckmorton by Elizabeth I due to his love affair with Bessie. He was released after one of his ships brought back a huge treasure from the captured Spanish vessel "Madre de Rios”.

After the death of Elizabeth I, James of Scotland came to the throne. The Scottish monarch was not impressed by Raleigh's anti Spanish sentiments and Raleigh was arrested on July 19, 1603, three months after the death of the queen.

When taken from the Tower of London to Winchester in 1603 to stand trial for treason the mob stoned Raleigh and jeered him all the way. (The trial would normally have been held in London itself but at that time plague was rife). Raleigh's sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in the tower.

On one occasion during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, Raleigh grabbed a knife during dinner and plunged it into his chest. It glanced off his rib cage and he survived.

The Tower of London was Raleigh's home for thirteen years during which he lived in two small rooms. His wife and son were often permitted to stay there with him, coming and going freely and he was visited by many great scholars and poets.

Raleigh's cell, Bloody Tower, Tower of London. By Kjetil Bjørnsrud -

In 1616 Sir Walter Raleigh was freed from the Tower of London to allow him to lead a gold-seeking expedition in South America.


Raleigh wrote prose on matters historical, nautical, geographical and military. His writings were amongst the most widely-read and best of his time.

His 1596 pamphlet Discovery of Guiana implanted in English minds the dream of El Dorado, the city of God.

Raleigh embarked on a History of the World whilst in the tower. He didn't complete it, he got as far as the Second Macedonian War in 130BC.

Raleigh was also a noted poet, including many poems written in the Tower.


Wherever he traveled Raleigh took a large trunk of books with him.

Raleigh had a black greyhound named Hamlet.


Raleigh's childhood home Hayes Barton was a typical Devon farmhouse of its period. It was built in 1484.

Raleigh received 40,000 acres in south Ireland, as a reward for putting down the Munster revolt. This made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, but he had limited success inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

Raleigh made the town of Youghal his occasional home during his 17 years as an Irish landlord, frequently being domiciled at Killua Castle, Clonmellon, County Westmeath.

During his time as Warden of Cornwall Raleigh stayed at Raleigh Court, South Quay, Padstow.

In 1592, Raleigh was given many rewards by the Queen, including Durham House in the Strand and Sherborne Castle, a Dorset estate he had long coveted. Bess commissioned the latest craftsmen and architects to transform it into a masterpiece. It was probably the first house to be rendered on the outside.

Raleigh later lost Sherbourne Castle when he was in the Tower. King James gave it to one of his male favorites.


Raleigh was fascinated by medicine and would often make up his own remedies.

Whilst exploring the River Orinoco in South America, Raleigh reported on the arrow poison which paralyzed the victim. It was a syrup from a creeper, an early anesthetic.

In his 50s whilst in the Tower of London Raleigh suffered a partial stroke and for a time he could barely walk.


Raleigh's 1616 expedition to the Orinoco failed miserably. The aged adventurer stayed in Trinidad sick whilst the rest of the expedition carried on and annoyed the Spanish, who killed Raleigh's son, Wat. King James I wanting to keep friendly with the Spanish put Raleigh back into the tower and reinstated the fifteen-year-old death sentence against him.

The day before his execution Raleigh wrote the following epitaph:

Ever such is time, that takes on trust
Our Youth, our joys, our all we have
And pays us but with age and dust
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
The Lord shall raise me up. I trust!

Raleigh was executed outside the Palace Yard, London on October 29, 1618. He defiantly took a pipe of tobacco to the scaffold against the wishes of the anti-smoking King James and just before his execution Raleigh had a smoke to settle his spirits. He actually died with a pipe in his mouth.

Raleigh just before he was beheaded – an illustration from circa 1860

On the scaffold Raleigh tested the axe's edge quipping "It is a sharp remedy but a sure one for all ills." Someone protested that the block should be placed so that his head should point towards the east. “What matter how the head lie, so that the heart be right” said Raleigh.

Raleigh led the crowd in prayer for a full 15 minutes. His last words were "I have a long journey to make and must bid the company farewell."

After his execution, Raleigh's widow Bess had his head embalmed and carried it in a red leather bag wherever she went until her death 29 years later. It was then buried at West Horsley.

Raleigh's body is buried on the south side of the altar at St Margaret’s church next to Westminster Abbey.

Sources A History of Fashion by J Anderson Black and Madge Garland, Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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