Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh books and biography


Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh, by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1585.
Walter Raleigh, by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1585.
Not to be confused with Walter Raleigh (professor).

Sir Walter Raleigh[1] (1552 or 1554 – 29 October 1618) is a famed English writer, poet, courtier and explorer. He was responsible for establishing the first English colony in the new world.


Early Life

Raleigh was born in 1552 in the house of Hayes Barton, not far from Budleigh Salterton in Devon. He was the half brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and had a full brother named Carew Raleigh. Raleigh's family was strongly Protestant in religious orientation and experienced a number of near-escapes during the reign of the Catholic queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, Raleigh's father had to hide in a tower to avoid being killed. During childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Catholicism, proving himself quick to express it after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. In 1572, he became an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, and in 1575, he was registered at the Middle Temple.

The New World

Engraved portrait of Raleigh.
Engraved portrait of Raleigh.

Raleigh's plan for colonization in "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. His voyages were funded primarily by himself and his friends, never providing the steady stream of revenue necessary to start and maintain a colony in America. (Subsequent colonization attempts in the early seventeenth century were made under the joint-stock Virginia Company which was able to pool together the capital necessary to create successful colonies.)

Raleigh put together several voyages to travel to, explore and colonize the New World. The first English colony in the new world was established by Raleigh and located at Roanoke Island. The settlement was forced to abandon the island for a number of reasons. Most of the first settlers were not skilled farmers or gardeners; the soil on the island is very sandy, dry and infertile; and the settlers' primary motivation for venturing to America was to seek fortune in gold or other precious products. When it became obvious that this was not going to happen, they wanted to leave. Relations broke down between the settlers and the local native tribes as the colonists placed heavy demands on the natives' crops.

In 1587, Raleigh attempted a second expedition again establishing a settlement on Roanoke Island. This time a more diversified 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 in order 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 in case they were needed to fight the Spanish Armada. It was not until 1591 that the supply vessel arrived at the colony, only to find that colonists had disappeared. The only clue to their fate was the word "CROATOAN" and letters "CRO" carved into separate tree trunks, suggesting that they were either massacred, absorbed or taken away by Croatoans or perhaps another native tribe. Other speculation includes their being swept away or lost at sea during the stormy weather of 1588 (credited with aiding in the defeat of the Spanish Armada). Whatever the reason, the settlement is now remembered as the "Lost Colony" [1].

Walter Raleigh has been taught by US history classes as the main reason certain voyages to the New World were financed and carried out.


Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland and benefited from the subsequent seizure and distribution of land. He received 40,000 acres (1600 km²), including the coastal walled towns of Youghal and Lismore. He also became one of the principal landowners in Munster, but enjoyed limited success in inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

For the seventeen years he was an Irish landlord, Youghal became Raleigh's occasional home. He was mayor of the town, from 1588 to 1589, and one story credits him with planting the first potatoes in Ireland there. It is far more likely, however, that the potato plant arrived in Ireland through trade with the Spanish. Myrtle Grove in Youghal is also assumed to be the setting for another apocryphal Raleigh story; of the time his servant, having never before seen the smoking of tobacco, throwing a bucket of water over Raleigh in the belief he had been set alight.

Amongst Raleigh's acquaintances in the area was another Englishman granted land in Munster, the poet Edmund Spenser. In the 1590s, he and Raleigh travelled together from Ireland to the court at London, where he presented part of his allegorical poem, the Faerie Queene, to Elizabeth I. Raleigh's Irish estates ran in to difficulties, which contributed to a decline in his fortunes and, in 1602, he sold the lands to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Boyle subsequently prospered under kings James I and Charles I, such that following Raleigh's death, Raleigh family members approached him for compensation on the basis that Raleigh had struck an improvident bargain.

Later life

Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602.
Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602.

In 1591, Raleigh was secretly married to Elizabeth ("Bess") Throckmorton, eleven years his junior, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting and pregnant for the third time. When, during the following year, the unauthorised marriage was discovered, the Queen ordered Raleigh imprisoned and Bess dismissed from court. It would be several years before Raleigh returned to favour. The couple remained devoted to each other and during Raleigh's absences, Bess proved a capable manager of the family's fortunes and reputation. They had two sons, Walter and Carew.

Raleigh's "cell", Bloody Tower, Tower of London

From 1600 to 1603, Raleigh was the Governor of the Channel Island of Jersey, and he was responsible for modernising the defenses of the island. He named the new fortress protecting the approaches to Saint Helier Fort Isabella Bellissima – or, in the less ebullient English version, Elizabeth Castle. Though royal favour with Elizabeth had been restored by this time, it did not last. Elizabeth died in 1603, and later that year, on 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason due to his supposed involvement in the Main Plot. He was left to languish in the Tower of London until 1616. While imprisoned, he wrote A Historie of the World about the ancient history of Greece and Rome.

In 1616, Sir Walter was released from the Tower in order to conduct a second expedition to the Orinoco River in South America, in search of El Dorado. In the course of the expedition, Raleigh's men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, sacked the Spanish outpost of San Thome. During the initial attack on the town, Raleigh's son Walter was struck by a bullet and killed. On Raleigh's return to England, the outraged Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Spanish ambassador, demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh's death sentence.


The Spanish ambassador's demand was granted. Raleigh was beheaded with an axe at Whitehall on 29 October 1618. His last words, after he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, were "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases." According to Shepherd of the Ocean, a biography of Raleigh by J.H. Adamson and H.F. Holland, his wife had the head "embalmed and kept it by her side, frequently inquiring of visitors if they would like to see Sir Walter." Raleigh's head was [subsequently] interred with his body at St. Margaret's Church next-door to the Westminster Abbey.

Although his popularity had waned considerably since his Elizabethan heyday, his execution was seen by many, both at the time and since, as unnecessary and unjust. It has been suggested that any involvement in the Main Plot appears to have been limited to a meeting with Lord Cobham. [citation needed]


Walter Raleigh is generally considered one of the foremost poets of the Elizabethan era. His poetry is generally 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 attitude more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of the dawning era of humanistic optimism. However, his lesser-known long poem "The Ocean to Cynthia" combines this vein with the more elaborate conceits associated with his contemporaries Spenser and Donne, while achieving a power and originality that justifies Lewis's assessment, and contradicts it by expressing a melancholy sense of history reminiscent of "The Tempest" and all the more effective for being the product of personal experience. Raleigh is also Marlovian in terms of the terse line, e.g. "She sleeps thy death that erst thy danger sighed".

Raleigh in culture

  • The 1955 film, The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis, Richard Todd, and Joan Collins, dramatizes the relationships between Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh, and his wife.
  • Raleigh's name is quoted in The Beatles' White Album song I'm So Tired, where John Lennon calls him a "stupid get", commonly misheard as "stupid git" (following on from the line "Although I'm so tired, I'll have another cigarette.")
  • Raleigh, North Carolina, takes its name from Sir Walter. The Hayes Barton neighborhood takes its name from his birthplace. There are other cities and towns in the New World named "Raleigh", and a misspelling of it in Rolla, Missouri
  • Raleigh County in southern West Virginia is named for Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • There is a noted brand of American pipe tobacco called "Sir Walter Raleigh".
  • The name "Sir Walter Raleigh" is sometimes used in the odd Prince Albert in a can joke.
  • In February 2006, a bronze statue of Raleigh by sculptress Vivien Mallock was unveiled in the Devonshire village of East Budleigh. Costing some £30,000, it was a source of controversy as it had been part-funded by the British American Tobacco company.
  • The title of the comedy History of the World, Part I by Mel Brooks is a reference to Raleigh having finished only the first volume of his Historie of the World at the time he was executed.
  • Raleigh plays an important part in Anthony Burgess's novel A Dead Man in Deptford in which he is suggested as one of the persons who might have been responsible for the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
  • In the second series of the television program Blackadder, Lord Blackadder tells Queen Elizabeth that he'll sail around the Cape of Good Hope to show up, as Blackadder calls him, Walter "Ooh What A Big Ship I've Got" Raleigh. Blackadder also refers to him as "Sir Walter Rather-a-Wally Raleigh". Raleigh is played by Simon Jones.
  • One of Bob Newhart's stand-up comedy routines depicts one side of a telephone conversation between a sceptical businessman in London (played by Newhart) and "Nutty Walt" Raleigh who tries unsuccessfully to convince him of the merits of tobacco.
  • Raleigh's relationship with Bess Throckmorton and Elizabeth I is the subject of a forthcoming film, The Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, and Clive Owen as Raleigh.
  • Raleigh is the subject of a chapter in William Carlos Williams' historicist

essay titled In the American Grain (1925). Other chapters in the book are devoted to Hernán Cortéz, Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernando De Soto, Samuel de Champlain, and figures of American culture and politics.

See also

  • The School of Night


  1. ^ Many alternate spellings of his surname exist, including Rawley, Ralegh, 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". The name is correctly pronounced "rawley", though in practice "rally" is the usual modern pronunciation, but only in England.


  • Raleigh Trevelyan, Sir Walter Raleigh, 2003.
  • J.H. Adamson and H.F. Holland, Shepherd of the Ocean
  • C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, 2004

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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