Sir Walter Raleigh and his Son, 1602. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Born 1554?
Died 29 October 1618
London, England
Occupation soldier, courtier, explorer
Nationality English

Signature File:Sir Walter Raleigh Signature.svg

Sir Walter Raleigh , sometimes spelled Ralegh,[1]; (?1554 – 29 October 1618) was an English poet, aristocrat, writer, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England.



Raleigh was born to a Protestant family in Devon, the son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine (Champernowne). He was the half brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Adrian Gilbert. Raleigh's family were fundamentally Protestant in religious orientation and had a number of near escapes during the reign of the Catholic queen Mary I of England. During childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Catholicism, and was quick to express it when Elizabeth I came to the throne.

By 1581, after a number of naval engagements, Raleigh had become established as a courtier and Elizabeth's favourite. Raleigh's flamboyant manner is illustrated by the story that he once took off an expensive cloak and threw in over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth to walk across -- it probably never happened, but it was the sort of thing everyone had come to expect of Raleigh, and Elizabeth always favored that kind of showmanship.

His position of influence was greatly extended as he became one of Elizabeth's spymasters, along with Francis Walsingham, and was largely responsible for the uncovering of the Babington plot, which was a Catholic plot to dethrone Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots; as a result of this Elizabeth granted him a 40,000-acre estate in Ireland. Mary was implicated in the Babington Conspiracy and was subsequently executed.

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 imprisoned in the Tower, this time for allegedly being involved in the Main Plot against King James I, who was not favourably disposed toward him. In 1616 he was released in order to conduct 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.


File:Millais Boyhood of Raleigh.jpg

Little is known about Raleigh's birth. Some historians believe Raleigh was born on January 22, 1552, although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography currently favours a date of 1554.[2] He grew up in the house of Hayes Barton,[3] a farmhouse in the village of East Budleigh, not far from Budleigh Salterton, in Devon. He was the youngest of 5 sons born to Catherine (Champernowne) in two successive marriages. His half brothers – John Gilbert, [Humphrey Gilbert]], and 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.[4]

Raleigh's family was strongly 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, Raleigh's 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 the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England came to the throne in 1558.

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. His life between these two dates is uncertain, but, from a reference in his History of the World, he seems to have served with the French Huguenots at the Battle of Jarnac, 13 March 1569. At his trial in 1603, he stated that he had never studied law.


Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions. He was present at the siege of Smerwick, where he oversaw the slaughter of Italian and Spanish soldiers after they had surrendered.[2] 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, County Waterford. This made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, but he enjoyed limited success in inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

During his 17 years as an Irish landlord, frequently domiciling at Killua Castle, Clonmellon, county Westmeath, Raleigh made the town of Youghal his occasional home. He was mayor there from 1588 to 1589. He is credited with having planted the first potatoes in Ireland (Citation needed), but it is far more likely that the plant arrived in Ireland through trade with the Spanish. 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 (1565-1610).

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 WorldEdit


Raleigh's plan in 1584 for colonisation in the "Colony and Dominion of Virginia" (which included the present-day states of North Carolina and Virginia) in North America ended in failure at Roanoke Island, but paved the way for subsequent colonies.[5] His voyages were funded primarily by himself and his friends, and never provided the steady stream of revenue necessary to start and maintain a colony in America. (Subsequent colonisation attempts in the early 17th century were made under the joint-stock Virginia Company, which was able to collect 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. After a short while in America, White was recalled to England to find more supplies for the colony. He was unable to return the following year as planned, however, because the Queen had ordered that all vessels remain at port for potential use against the Spanish Armad. The threat of the Armada was only partially responsible for delaying White's return until 1590. After England's victory over the Spanish fleet in 1588, the ships were given permission to sail. Unfortunately for the colonists at Roanoke, the small fleet made an excursion toward Cuba. They tried to capture the treasure-laden Spanish merchant ships reported to be proliferate in those waters at that time. White is said to have objected to this unplanned foray, but was helpless to dissuade the crews. They had been told of the enormous riches to be had by the experienced Portuguese pilot hired by Raleigh to navigate the voyage. It was not until 1590, 3 years later, that the supply vessel arrived at the colony, only to find that all colonists had disappeared.

The only clue to their fate was the word "CROATOAN" and letters "CRO" carved into separate tree trunks. This suggested the possibilities that they had been massacred, or absorbed or taken away by local Croatan or perhaps another native tribe. Other speculation includes their having starved, or been swept away or lost at sea during the stormy weather of 1588. A hurricane prevented John White and the crew of the supply vessel from visiting Croatan to investigate the colonists' disappearance. 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".

File:Sir Walter Raleigh's House at Blackwall.jpg


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. The various colourful stories told about him at this period are unlikely to be actually true.[6][7]

In 1585 Raleigh was knighted and was appointed warden of the stannaries (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.[8]

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 (£Template:Inflation as of 2011),Template:Inflation-fn (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.[9]


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.

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 1591 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. He was released from prison to divide the spoils from the captured Spanish ship Madre de Dios (Mother of God).

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.

Raleigh was elected a burgess of Mitchell, Cornwall, in the parliament of 1593.[2] 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.

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[10] (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.[11]

File:Circular silver seal-matrix of Sir Walter Raleigh.jpg

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.

In 1597, he was chosen member of parliament for Dorset, and, in 1601, for Cornwall.[8] He was unique in the Elizabethan period in sitting for three counties.[2]

1600 to 1618Edit

File:Bloodytower interior.jpg

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.

Royal favour with Queen Elizabeth I had been restored by this time but 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. On 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason, due to alleged involvement in the Main Plot against King James.

Raleigh conducted his defence with great skill. The chief evidence against him was the signed and sworn confession of one 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 on that the evidence against him was the 17th century equivalent of "hearsay." But the tribunal refused to allow Cobham to testify and be cross examined.[12] Although hearsay was frowned upon under the common law, Raleigh was tried under civil-law, which allowed hearsay. King James spared his life, despite a guilty verdict.

He remained in the tower until 1616. While imprisoned, he wrote many treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World (London, 1628)[13] about the ancient history of Greece and Rome. His son Carew was conceived and born (1604) while Raleigh was legally "dead" and imprisoned in the tower.

In 1616, Raleigh was released 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 killed by a bullet. On Raleigh's return to England, the outraged Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, successfully demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh's death sentence.

Execution and aftermathEdit

Execution of Sir Walter Raleigh

Raleigh's execution; from The Popular History of England, 1853. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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 - Raleigh Trevelyan in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2003) for instance - Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"[14]

Having been one of the people to popularise tobacco smoking in England, he left a small tobacco box, found in his cell shortly after his execution. Engraved upon the box was a Latin inscription: Comes meus fuit illo miserrimo tempo (It was my companion at that most miserable time).[15]

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.[16] "The Lords", she wrote, "have given me his dead body, though they have denied me his life. God hold me in my wits."[17] After his wife's death 29 years later, Raleigh's head was returned to his tomb and interred at St. Margaret's Church.[18]

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. Any involvement in the Main Plot appears to have been limited to a meeting with Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham.(Citation needed) One of the judges at his trial later said: "[T]he justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of the honourable Sir Walter Raleigh."[19]


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.

A minor poem of Raleigh's captures the atmosphere of the court at the time of Queen Elizabeth I. His response to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" was "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd". "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" was written in 1592, while Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to The Shepherd" was written four years later. Both were written in the style of traditional pastoral poetry. They follow the same structure of six four-line stanzas employing a rhyme scheme of a-a-b-b.

Critical introductionEdit

by John W. Hales

Amongst all the restless, fervid, adventurous spirits of the Elizabethan age, perhaps there is none so conspicuous for those characteristics as Sir Walter Raleigh. A soldier from his youth; at an early period connected with the great maritime movements of his time; ever the foremost hater and antagonist of Spain and all its works; one of the first, if not the first, to fully conceive the idea of colonisation and to attempt to realise it, and at the same time taking an active—too active—part in the party intrigues and contentions of a court where the struggle for place and favour never ceased raging, yet amidst all his schemes and enterprises, noble and ignoble, finding leisure also for far other interests and pursuits; capable of a keen enjoyment of poetry; himself a poet of a true and genuine quality,— he is in a singular degree the representative of the vigorous versatility of the Elizabethan period.

His high imaginativeness is perceptible in the political conceptions and dreams which abounded in his busy brain. It can scarcely be doubted that, had his energies received a different direction, he would have won a distinguished place amongst the distinguished poets of his day. He whom Spenser styles ‘the summer’s nightingale’ might have poured forth a full volume of song of rare strength and sweetness. But, as it was, he found little time for singing; the wonder is he found any—that one so cumbered about much serving did not become altogether of the world worldly, that so occupied with actualities he still was visited even transiently by visions of divine things.

We are apt to pity his misfortunes; and yet it may be they were the blessings of his chequered life. His disgraces and confinements in the Tower would after all seem to have been the times when his nobler self was asserted, and he communed with his own heart.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage’....

It is impossible not to connect two at least of his most famous pieces — "The Lie" and "The Pilgrimage" — with similar passages of his life, when, for one reason or another, he was "under a cloud," as he thought, but really in a clearer air. His imprisonments were in fact his salvations. Through the Traitor’s Gate he passed to a tranquillity and thoughtfulness for which there seemed no opportunity outside. In his cell in the White Tower his soul found and enjoyed a real freedom.

‘Then, like a bird, it sits and sings,
Then whets and claps its silver wings,
And till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.’

It is a significant tradition attached to several of his verses, that they were written the night before he was beheaded. Of only one poem is it likely to be true; in respect of several it can be certainly disproved; but it illustrates the impression often produced by his poetry. The sweet clear voice comes to us, as it were, through a barred and grated window; and calls up the image of a solitary figure soothing and quieting itself with the thought, too often forgotten elsewhere and in other days, that there is a higher life than that of the courtier, a more splendid preferment than an earthly sovereign can give.

His poetic writings are but scanty in amount. One at least, his Cinthia, is lost; part of a continuation of it, extant in a Hatfield MS., has been lately printed for the first time. His fame has been damaged by the unauthorised ascription to him of inferior and worthless pieces; and, on the other hand, by taking away from him what he undoubtedly wrote. In respect of both rejection and appropriation, Dr. Hannah has performed for him a much-needed service in his excellent volume, The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh: Collected and authenticated; with those of Sir Henry Wotton and other courtly poets from 1540 to 1650.[20]


Raleigh was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1585.[8]

He is buried in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, where a brass memorial and a stained glass window commemorate him.[21]

The state capital of North Carolina was named Raleigh in 1792 for Sir Walter, sponsor of the Colony of Roanoke. The "Lost Colony" is commemorated at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Also, one of eleven boarding houses at the Royal Hospital School has been named after him.

Raleigh County, West Virginia, is also named in his honour.

Five of his poems ("The Silent Lover i," "The Silent Lover ii," "His Pilgrimage," "The Conclusion," and "Her Reply" [The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd]) were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[22]

In popular cultureEdit

In 1939, Vincent Price was cast as Sir Walter Raleigh in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. The film cast also included Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.

In late 1940s through early 1950s, actor and comedian Andy Griffith appeared as Sir Walter Raleigh with other cast members in the stage play "The Lost Colony".

In popular culture, he cursed and referenced to as "a stupid git" (by the speaker who is smoking "another cigarette") in the song "I'm So Tired" by The Beatles on their 1968 release, The White Album.

In 1986, Simon Jones portrayed Raleigh in the episode "Potato" of the BBC sitcom Blackadder II.

His Historie of the World, of which only the first volume was completed before his execution, is the source of the title of the Mel Brooks comedy film History of the World, Part I.

Raleigh was also portrayed in films by Richard Todd in The Virgin Queen in 1955, and by Clive Owen in Elizabeth: The golden age in 2007.




  • The perogative [sic] of parliaments in England. London: Thomas Cotes, 1640.
  • Judicious and Select Essayes and Observations ... with his apologie for his voyage to Guiana. London: T.W. for Humphrey Moseley, 1650.
  • The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana (edited by Sir Robert H. Schomberger). London: Hakluyt Society, 1848.

Collected editionsEdit


  • Choice Passages from the Writings and Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (edited by Alexander Balloch Grosart}. London: E. Stock, 1892.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[23]

Poems by Walter RaleighEdit

  1. The Lie

See alsoEdit

Richard Burton reads Sir Walter Ralegh's poem 'The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage'03:01

Richard Burton reads Sir Walter Ralegh's poem 'The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage'



  1. Many alternate 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.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Nicholls, Mark; Williams, Penry (September 2004). "Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 May 2008.  Template:ODNBsub
  3. Hayes Barton, Woodbury Common.
  4. Ronald, p. 249.
  5. Markham, Jerry W. (2001). A financial history of the United States. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe. pp. 22. ISBN 0-7656-0730-1. 
  6. Fragmenta Regalia
  7. Fuller's Worthies
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 J. K. Laughton and Sidney Lee, Ralegh, Sir Walter (1552?-1618), military and naval commander and author, 1896
  9. Archaeologia, p. 151
  10. Sir Walter Raleigh. The Discovery of Guiana Project Gutenberg.
  11. "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.
  12. 1 Criminal Trials 400, 400-511, 1850
  13. Raleigh, Walter. "The Historie of the World". Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  14. Raleigh Trevelyan, Sir Walter Raleigh, (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2003), p. 552.
  16. Williams, Norman Lloyd. "Sir Walter Raleigh", Cassell Biographies, 1962)
  17. Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization, vol. VII, Chap. VI, p.158
  18. Lloyd, J & Mitchinson, J: "The Book of General I.
  19. Historical summary, Crawford v. Washington (page 10 of .pdf file)
  20. from John W. Hales, "Critical Introduction: Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?–1618)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 8, 2016.
  21. Walter Raleigh, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 12, 2016.
  22. Alphabetical list of authors: Montgomerie, Alexander to Shakespeare, William. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 19, 2012.
  23. Search results = au:Walter Raleigh, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 19, 2015.

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