Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552–1618)

Sir Walter Raleigh was an English soldier, explorer, poet, and courtier who funded three voyages to Roanoke Island (1584–1587) and whose ostentatious manner of dress and love for Queen Elizabeth became legendary. Born a commoner in Devon, England, Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) nevertheless had connections to Elizabeth through his mother and may have exploited those relationships to win a place at court. He wrote poems to the queen and advised her on policy in Ireland, where in 1580 he had helped to slaughter papal troops. Soon he became one of Elizabeth's favorites, using his wealth and power to pursue dreams of colonizing the Americas, first at Roanoke and then at Guiana. Raleigh's mission, as he wrote in his long poem "The Ocean to Cynthia" (likely penned in the 1590s), was "To seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory." In so doing, he relied on the genius of English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Hariot, the master propagandist Richard Hakluyt (the younger), and the iconic artist John White. Raleigh also relied on the faithful protection of Elizabeth, protection that conspicuously disappeared when he secretly married one of her maids of honor. After the queen's death in 1603, Raleigh was accused of plotting against her successor and spent much of the rest of his life in the Tower of London. A second failed expedition to Guiana, during which he disobeyed the king's instructions, resulted in his beheading in 1618. MORE...


Early Years

Raleigh was born at Hayes Barton in East Budleigh in Devon, England, sometime around 1552. He was the youngest child of Walter Raleigh's six children by his three wives. Raleigh (the elder) first married Joan Drake, a relative of Sir Francis Drake, then Isabel Dorrell—although some historians believe that this second wife was Elizabeth, the daughter of Giacomo di Ponte of Genoa, Italy. Finally, in either 1548 or 1549, Raleigh married Katherine Champernowne, the widow of Otho Gilbert.

Like her new husband, Champernowne was a zealous Protestant, and she had significant social connections. Her aunt Katherine "Kat" Astley (sometimes spelled Ashley) served as governess and confidante to the future Queen Elizabeth. Another aunt was related to the Boleyns. With her late husband Gilbert, Champernowne had three sons, all of whom were later close to the younger Walter Raleigh: John Gilbert (sheriff and vice-admiral of Devon), Humphrey Gilbert (a soldier and explorer), and Adrian Gilbert (an astrologer, chemist, and garden designer). Raleigh and Champernowne, meanwhile, had three children of their own: Carew, Margaret (Margery), and Walter.

The spelling of Raleigh's name varied, even with Raleigh himself. Over the course of his life, he signed his name "Rauley," "Rauleygh," and "Raleigh," preferring "Ralegh" after 1584. Among his contemporaries, however, the spelling "Raleigh" achieved more common usage and was sometimes punctuated by a final e. But even as the spelling changed, pronunciation of the name remained consistent: "Rawley."

Little is known of Raleigh's early years. He may have been tutored with his brother Carew by the vicar John Ford. He also may have attended the school of Ottery Saint Mary. Whatever the case, many historians believe that on March 13, 1569, Raleigh participated in the Battle of Jarnac during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), fighting with an English force commanded by his relative, Henry Champernowne, in aid of French Huguenots, or Protestants. Scholars suggest that Raleigh's presence is implied by his writing in The History of the World (1614), and present-day biographer Raleigh Trevelyan argues that the worldview of that book was shaped, in part, at Jarnac, which was a bloody defeat for Protestants: "His [Walter Raleigh's] scepticism remained with him all his life, as his other writings, especially his poetry, make clear: death the inevitable and final leveller is a constant theme."


In 1572, Raleigh's name appeared in the register of Oriel College, University of Oxford, but he never took a degree. Three years later he was studying at the Middle Temple, one of London's Inns of Court, and it is likely there that he first met Thomas Hariot and Richard Hakluyt (the younger), both of whom later played crucial roles in his colonizing projects. Ambitious and charismatic, Raleigh was not a brilliant scholar like Hariot, and unlike Hakluyt he showed no inclination to join the ministry. (One of his roommates during these years recalled him as being "riotous, lascivious, and incontinent.") Instead, he found a mentor in his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a fearless and sometimes reckless character who had been knighted for his scorched-earth treatment of Irish rebels.

On June 11, 1578, Queen Elizabeth issued Gilbert a six-year patent to explore North America and to plant colonies in those places not already claimed by other European powers. In September, Raleigh accompanied Gilbert's fleet bound for the New World, but after several ships deserted, the brothers turned back.

Two years later, Raleigh won his first position in the court of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps taking advantage of his family connection to Kat Astley. As an Esquire of the Body Extraordinary, he performed minor chores for the queen while otherwise causing trouble. In February 1580, for instance, he fought a duel with Sir Thomas Perrot that landed both men in the Fleet prison. Then, after another dispute and short confinement, Raleigh landed this time in Ireland, where the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579–1583), led by the FitzGerald family and supported by papal troops from Spain and Italy, was in full swing. In November 1580, Raleigh joined English troops in a three-day siege of the Catholic fort at Smerwick, County Kerry. When the papal troops surrendered, the fort's women were hanged, its priests gruesomely executed, and its soldiers put to the sword, much of the work being done by men under Raleigh's command.


"He was a tall, handsome, and bold man," John Aubrey wrote of Raleigh in his Brief Lives, compiled late in the seventeenth century, "but his [blemish] was that he was damnably proud." This last quality manifested itself in various ways. Upon returning from Ireland, Raleigh presented the queen with a manuscript, written with William Cecil, first baron of Burghley, entitled The Opinion of Mr. Rawley, upon motions made to hym for the meanes of subduing the Rebellion in Monster (1582), insisting on a better way of subduing the Irish. He courted Elizabeth's favor, slipping her bits of verse that fashioned her into a modern-day Diana (or Cynthia, the epithet of Diana's Greek counterpart, Artemis), goddess of the moon and symbol of chastity. She, in turn, elevated him at court, nicknaming him "Water," after his thick Devonshire accent, and appearing to admire his six-foot frame and light brown eyes. Perhaps in imitation of Elizabeth's own sartorial splendor, Raleigh costumed himself with such ruffled and pearl-encrusted extravagance that his fellow courtiers grumbled at the sheer nerve of it.

Elizabeth made Raleigh a commander of footmen in Ireland—with full rank and salary—but kept him by her side at court. She granted him the so-called Farm of Wines, a license that allowed him to reap £1 per year from every vintner in England for the privilege of retailing wine. She also presented him the keys to Durham House on the Thames River, a palatial mansion where he commenced planning his various colonial ventures. In the meantime, with his six-year patent threatening to expire, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia but was lost at sea. In 1584 his privileges transferred to Raleigh.

Raleigh gathered at Durham House an impressive circle of talents with whom to plan a settlement in the New World. From the University of Oxford he called Thomas Hariot, an innovative mathematician who likely had never been at sea but who nevertheless lectured experienced mariners on the emerging science of transatlantic navigation. Richard Hakluyt (the younger) served as house propagandist, providing an intellectual basis for Raleigh's ambitions of empire. William Sanderson, whose wife Mary was Raleigh's half sister, kept the books. And captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe actually set sail, reconnoitering the coast of present-day North Carolina in 1584 and bringing home with them two Algonquian-speaking Indians. Hariot immediately set to work learning their language.

In November 1584, Raleigh was elected to Parliament from Devon, and the next month, with support from his relatives Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake, guided a bill through the House of Commons confirming his patent to colonize America. The queen then knighted him on January 6, 1585, bestowing on her favorite the title Lord and Governor of Virginia—just as Raleigh had bestowed on the new colony a name fit only for his chaste Diana.

Raleigh funded two attempts to establish permanent settlements at Roanoke Island, in the region now known as the Outer Banks. The first, in 1585–1586, resulted in John White's iconic images of Virginia Indians and Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588). The second expedition, led by White in 1587, resulted only in the disappearance of the so-called Lost Colonists.

The Spanish Armada

Raleigh, meanwhile, continued to be enriched in both wealth and power through his standing at court. In July 1585 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Stannaries, allowing him to exercise judicial and military authority for Cornwall and Devon, including the power to convene the Stannary Parliament, which served the interests of local tin miners. Later that year he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, the first commoner to hold the position and, two months later, was made Vice-Admiral of Cornwall and Devon. Once the Desmond Rebellion (1569–1573 and 1579–1583) finally collapsed, Elizabeth granted Raleigh 42,000 acres of land in Ireland, and in April 1587 appointed him Captain of the Guard, responsible for her personal safety.

In June of that year, as war with Spain threatened England, Raleigh launched the 1,100-ton warship Ark Royal, which had been named the Ark Raleigh before its sale to Queen Elizabeth. In November, the queen appointed Raleigh to her eleven-man Council of War, and Raleigh convened the Stannary Parliament in order to obtain promises for soldiers, munitions, weapons, and horses for the defense of England. When the Spanish finally attacked in August 1588, their Grand Armada was scattered in the English Channel by Sir Francis Drake. But Raleigh again made trouble at court, this time by accepting a challenge to a duel from his young rival for the queen's affections, twenty-one-year-old Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. The Crown intervened, but Raleigh's star began to fall, and in August 1589 he retired to his estates in Ireland.


Raleigh's poetic aspirations dated back to his Middle Temple days. In 1576, he published a commendatory verse at the beginning of The Steele Glas, a satire by the influential English poet, soldier, and critic George Gascoigne; later, while in thrall of Elizabeth, he composed verse celebrating her beauty and chastity. In September 1589, Raleigh visited in Ireland the poet Edmund Spenser, who served as secretary to Raleigh's first commander there, Arthur Grey, fourteenth baron Grey de Wilton. Spenser's epic, The Faerie Queene, would not be published until the following year, but Raleigh—the model for the character Timias, a squire who woos the "heavenly born" Belphoebe—received a preview and found himself energized by the poem's elaborate mythology. He arranged for Spenser to meet Elizabeth and composed a commendatory sonnet that the poet-critic Edmund Gosse argued, in 1886, "alone would justify Raleigh in taking a place among the English poets."

Raleigh's poetic lines, wrote the critic C. F. Tucker Brooke, were like his mind: "fierce, swift and restless as a bird of prey … They are highly poignant, often bitter or defiant, savoring more of fierce insight than of ordered meditation. They are rich in epigram and very clever in conceit, and they have a tang that makes them unforgettable." The overstuffed courtier, kowtowing to his queen, is shown in his poems to be an almost bloodthirsty observer of a crooked world. In "The Lie," likely composed in the 1590s, Raleigh writes: Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What's good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Marriage and Later Years

Queen Elizabeth's affection died hard, and she continued to hold fast to Raleigh at court. In January 1591, she appointed him vice admiral of a naval expedition to the Azores but sent Raleigh's relative, Sir Richard Grenville, in his place. Grenville was killed by the Spanish and then immortalized in Raleigh's Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of the Azores, published later that year. In January 1592, Elizabeth granted Raleigh a ninety-nine-year lease to Sherborne Castle in Dorset, but this likely occurred before the queen learned that the courtier had secretly married, on November 19, 1591. His bride was Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton, who, as a royal attendant, was forbidden to marry without the queen's permission. Soon after their marriage, the couple had a son, but he died in infancy. Two more followed: Walter, or "Wat," born in October 1593; and Carew, baptized in February 1605.

The queen was furious with Raleigh and Throckmorton for marrying and briefly imprisoned them both in the Tower of London, but he was back in Parliament by 1593. Raleigh was later caught up in a scandal and charged with atheism, but he survived well enough to earn from Elizabeth letters patent to explore Guiana, on the north coast of present-day South America. There, from February until September 1595, he searched in vain for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, which he believed to be on the Orinoco River. The book he published upon his return, The Discoverie of the large and bewtiful Empire of Guiana (1596), was perhaps more successful than the voyage itself. Regardless, it did not win him back his queen's favor; it would take the decline of his chief rival, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, for Elizabeth to cast her eye Raleigh-ward again.

In 1596, Raleigh and Essex commanded a fleet that sacked the Spanish port city of Cádiz. The following year, in what became known as the Islands Voyage, they failed to duplicate their success in the Azores, and Essex was largely blamed. A failed campaign in Ireland in 1599, during which Essex acted against Elizabeth's orders, led to his imprisonment. As Raleigh was named governor of Jersey, a small island off the coast of Normandy, Essex—a sympathizer of Scotland's James VI—was tried and then beheaded for conspiring against the queen. When Elizabeth died in 1603, however, Raleigh lost any power he had regained. That same James VI became James I of England, and when he met Sir Walter, he reportedly punned, "Raleigh, Raleigh, I have heard but rawly of thee."

Trial and Execution

Under James, Raleigh no longer had his most important connections to wealth and power. After leading the procession at Elizabeth's funeral, he was removed as Captain of the Guard; the king then rescinded Raleigh's right to collect levies on wine and even took back Durham House for the Crown. Finally, in 1603, Raleigh was accused of treason in the aftermath of two plots against James: one involving Catholic priests (the Bye Plot), and the other involving an attempt at winning Spanish assistance (the Main Plot). One of Raleigh's associates confessed to the plots and then recanted, but the whole affair was apparently more than enough for James to rid himself of this aging and ruffled vestige of the old regime.

The trial was held on November 17, 1603, at Winchester Castle, in the Great Hall that held King Arthur's Round Table. With Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham presiding, Attorney General Sir Edward Coke so aggressively attacked Raleigh—"thou art a monster; thou hast an English face, but a Spanish heart"—and Raleigh so eloquently defended himself that he seemed to win the crowd, if not the day. The jury found him guilty in just fifteen minutes.

Although sentenced to be hanged, drawn, quartered, and beheaded, Raleigh was granted a last-minute reprieve and spent more than a decade in the Bloody Tower section of the Tower of London. There he befriended and tutored the king's eldest son, Henry, and he set about writing his eloquent and often cynical History of the World, in part as a teaching tool. (Other writers also appear to have contributed to the work.) Although dedicated to the Prince of Wales, the first part was not published until 1614, two years after the young man's untimely death. Raleigh refused to finish the book and likely despaired that his last, best patron was gone; yet he still managed to win release from the Tower in 1616 and the next year, with promises of gold made to a cash-starved Crown, he undertook a second voyage to Guiana. He did so with strict orders to respect Spanish rights in the region, but when his men destroyed the Spanish village of Santo Tomé de Guyana—a fight that killed Raleigh's son Wat and led to the suicide of one of Raleigh's commanders—the old courtier's fate was sealed.

The Spanish demanded Raleigh's head and, after Raleigh returned to England, they received it. On October 29, 1618, having made one final revision to an old poem and entrusted it to his Bible, he climbed the scaffold before a large crowd that included his old compatriot Thomas Hariot. According to witnesses, the condemned man ran his thumb along the executioner's blade and said, "This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases." Afterward, Raleigh's wife, Bess, claimed his head, embalmed it, and stored it in a special case for the remaining twenty-nine years of her life.

Death had finally leveled Sir Walter Raleigh, but his legacy was enormous. His love of exploration helped plant among the English the ambition to colonize the Americas, and his love of Queen Elizabeth gave those colonies a name: Virginia. He introduced England to the tobacco his men had found there (the smoke puffing from Raleigh's pipe made the queen nauseous, however), and some have argued that he even introduced Ireland to the potato late in the sixteenth century. Raleigh was, in addition, one of the era's most accomplished poets and chroniclers—a man "with a bold and plausible tongue," according to a contemporary observer, who wooed the queen with his verse but, in the end, could not escape the axe.

Major Works

  • The Opinion of Mr. Rawley, upon motions made to hym for the meanes of subduing the Rebellion in Monster (1582)
  • Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of the Azores (1591)
  • The Discoverie of the large and bewtiful Empire of Guiana (1596)
  • A Discourse touching a War with Spain, and of the Protecting of the Netherlands (1603)
  • The History of the World (1614)
  • Apologie for the Voyage to Guiana (1618)

Time Line

  • ca. 1552 - Walter Raleigh is born at Hayes Barton in East Budleigh, Devon, England, the son of Walter Raleigh and Katherine Champernowne.
  • March 13, 1569 - Walter Raleigh possibly participates in the Battle of Jarnac during the French Wars of Religion, fighting with an English force commanded by his relative, Henry Champernowne, in aid of French Huguenots. The Catholics win the battle.
  • 1572 - Walter Raleigh appears in the register of Oriel College, University of Oxford. He does not take a degree.
  • February 27, 1575 - Walter Raleigh's name appears on the register of the Middle Temple, one of London's Inns of Court.
  • 1576 - Walter Raleigh publishes a commendatory poem at the beginning of The Steele Glas, a satire in verse by George Gascoigne. He signs himself as "Walter Rawely of the Middle Temple."
  • September 1578 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert, commanding eleven ships and 500 men, departs from Dartmouth, England, bound for North America. Three ships desert the mission even before weighing anchor, and Gilbert makes it only as far as the African coast. Walter Raleigh, in a ship piloted by the Azorean-born pirate Simon Fernandes, also turns back.
  • 1580 - Walter Raleigh wins his first position in the court of Queen Elizabeth, as an Esquire of the Body Extraordinary.
  • December 1581 - Walter Raleigh returns to England from the fighting in Ireland.
  • February 1, 1582 - The Privy Council authorizes £200 in back pay to Walter Raleigh for his service in Ireland.
  • May 4, 1583 - Queen Elizabeth grants Walter Raleigh the "Farm of Wines," allowing him to reap £1 per year from every vintner in England for the privilege of retailing wine.
  • March 24, 1584 - Queen Elizabeth grants Walter Raleigh, her "well beloved servant," a patent to explore and settle the coast of North America. She also grants him the privilege of exporting undyed woolen broadcloths, netting him £3,500 in the first year alone.
  • July 1585 - Upon the death of the earl of Bedford, Sir Walter Raleigh is appointed Lord Warden of the Stannaries. As such, he exercises judicial and military authority for Cornwall and Devon, including the power to convene the Stannary Parliament, which serves the interests of local tin miners.
  • April 1587 - Sir Walter Raleigh is appointed Captain of the Guard, responsible for Queen Elizabeth's personal safety.
  • January 1588 - The Stannary Parliament convenes at Lostwithiel with Sir Walter Raleigh likely presiding. The Parliament promises 5,560 Cornishmen as well as munitions, weapons, and horses for the defense of England against an impending Spanish attack.
  • December 1589 - Twenty-one-year-old Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, challenges Sir Walter Raleigh, his rival in Queen Elizabeth's court, to a duel. The Crown does not allow it to go forward.
  • January 1591 - Queen Elizabeth appoints Sir Walter Raleigh vice admiral of a naval expedition to the Azores but does not allow him to go. Sir Richard Grenville takes his place and is killed by the Spanish. Later in the year, Raleigh publishes Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of the Azores.
  • January 1592 - Queen Elizabeth names Sir Walter Raleigh admiral of a fleet assigned to attack Spanish shipping at Panama. She also grants him a ninety-nine-year lease of Sherborne Castle in Dorset, England.
  • February 19, 1593 - Parliament convenes, with Sir Walter Raleigh representing the borough of Mitchell in northern Cornwall. The House of Commons remains in session until April 10.
  • February 1595 - Sir Walter Raleigh sails on his first voyage to Guiana with letters patent from Queen Elizabeth to explore the area on the north coast of present-day South America.
  • 1596 - Early in the year Sir Walter Raleigh's account of his first voyage to Guiana, The Discoverie of the large and bewtiful Empire of Guiana, is published.
  • September–October 1597 - An English fleet led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh unsuccessfully attacks the Portuguese-held Azores in what comes to be known as the Islands Voyage.
  • March 27, 1599 - Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, leads English troops to Ireland to quell a rebellion there. His campaign is a failure and contributes to his eventual imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth.
  • August 1600 - Queen Elizabeth appoints Sir Walter Raleigh governor of Jersey, a small island off the coast of Normandy.
  • February 25, 1601 - Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, is beheaded for leading a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in London.
  • December 7, 1602 - Sir Walter Raleigh sells his land in Ireland to Richard Boyle for £1,500.
  • July 20, 1603 - By this day, Sir Walter Raleigh is imprisoned in the Tower of London by order of King James I.
  • February 15, 1604 - Carew Raleigh, third son of Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton, is baptized at the Tower of London, where his father is imprisoned.
  • November 6, 1612 - Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales and the eldest son of King James I, dies.
  • March 29, 1614 - The History of the World is published while its author, Sir Walter Raleigh, is confined in the Tower of London.
  • March 19, 1616 - Sir Walter Raleigh is released from the Tower of London.
  • August 19, 1617 - A fleet under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh sets sail for Guiana in present-day South America.
  • January 2, 1618 - In the early morning hours Englishmen skirmish with Spanish soldiers at Santo Tomé de Guyana on the Orinoco River in Guiana. Wat Raleigh, the son of Sir Walter Raleigh, is killed. The English eventually destroy the village.
Further Reading
Bednarz, James P. "The Collaborator as Thief: Ralegh's (Re)Vision of 'The Faerie Queene.'" ELH: English Literary History 63, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 279–307.
Brooke, C. F. Tucker. "Sir Walter Raleigh as Poet and Philosopher." ELH: English Literary History 5, no. 2 (June 1938): 93–112.
Nicholls, Mark, and Penry Williams. Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend. London and New York: Continuum International, 2011.
Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.
Cite This Entry
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    Wolfe, B. Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552–1618). (2014, June 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

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First published: December 6, 2011 | Last modified: June 13, 2014

Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.