Sir Walter Raleigh: Explorer, Soldier, Queen Favorite
Sir Walter Raleigh was an explorer, adventurer, courtier, and author who is perhaps most well-known for his time at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Raleigh was born in Hayes Barton, Devonshire, England in 1554. He was born into a seafaring family and, after a time, took up the family practice. Raleigh was 6 feet tall, which was quite tall for the time. He had a brother, named Carew, and a sister, named Margaret.
Young Walter's military skills and preference led him to get involved in a struggle in France with the Huguenot forces there, when he was just a teenager, and then to suppress Ireland in a particularly brutal way, in 1580, presiding over a massacre of unarmed Italian and Spanish troops. He parlayed that experience into an appointment by England's Queen Elizabeth I as an advisor on Irish affairs. Raleigh impressed the queen, who knighted him in 1585 and, two years later, named him captain of her personal guard.
Raleigh was known first and foremost as a sailor and an explorer. He sailed with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. He is most famous in North America for his establishment of the colony on Roanoke Island, which he named Virginia, in what is now North Carolina. What happened to the colonists on that island is one of American history's great mysteries. Raleigh himself never visited the colony but sent a friend, John White, to lead the settlement. Some of the first settlers of Roanoke did return to England, and they brought tobacco with them. Thus, Raleigh is credited with introducing tobacco, later dubbed "brown gold" because it was such a cash crop, to England; some stories say that he even convinced the queen to smoke it.
Yet he also enjoyed literature. He studied at Oriel College in Oxford for two years and then studied the law in London. He became known for his poetry as well as for his colorful personality. Examples of his poetry appeared as early as 1576, when he was just 22. He wrote much of his poetry in the late 1580s, when he was much at court with the queen. The famous story of a gentleman's laying his cloak across a puddle so the queen did not step in the puddle has Raleigh being that gentleman.
Raleigh, along with Sir Richard Grenville, played a part in the building up the defense of Devon and Cornwall against the Spanish Armada. Raleigh also financed the construction of the ship Ark Raleigh, which was sold to the Crown and eventually became Ark Royal, one of the ships that led the English fleet that engaged the Armada.
Raleigh's relationship with his queen was up-and-down. He had secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the queen's handmaidens, in 1591. The queen discovered this the following year. Not only had one of her favorite leading men married one of her own ladies of court, they had done it without royal approval, which was the custom and was usually considered a requirement. The queen responded by having them locked up in the Tower of London, in separate cells. Elizabeth released Raleigh after a few months–not coincidentally after one of his ships had returned towing a capture Spanish ship laden with riches–but exiled him from court.
Raleigh and his wife had three sons: Damerei, Walter, and Carew. He also served in Parliament for a time, in the 1590s.
In 1595, he sailed to South America in search of "El Dorado," the fabled land of gold; he returned without finding it but did write a book about his exploits, The Discovery of Guiana. Two years later, he conducted an audacious raid on Spanish forces at Cadiz. Convinced of his sincerity, Elizabeth restored his court privileges and reappointed him captain of her guard. The queen also named Raleigh governor of the Isle of Jersey, and he upgraded the islands defenses and then suppressed a rebellion there in 1601.
Elizabeth died in 1603. Succeeding her was James I, who united the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. (He was already James VI of Scotland.) James disliked Raleigh and, after discovering that he was part of a plot to overthrow the king, levied charges of treason against him. As with most people facing such charges in those days, Raleigh was found guilty and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting a death sentence. He wasn't executed right away; in fact, he was in prison for 13 years before he convinced James to let him out. During his captivity, he wrote what many historians consider to be his literary masterpiece, The History of the World. This sprawling work ran to five volumes and covered world history up to 130 B.C. It was published in 1616.
What convinced James to release Raleigh was the latter's promise of boatloads of gold and silver in the New World. The English treasury didn't have a lot in it at this point, and the king reluctantly agreed to let Raleigh go on another expedition to the Orinoco River basin in South America, in 1617. He issued a stern warning, however, not to stir up trouble with Spain, which had so recently set a massive armada against England in part because of trouble caused by Sir Francis Drake.
Raleigh didn't keep either of his promises. He didn't find gold or silver, and he attacked Spanish forces near Santo Tomé. He was personally devastated because his oldest son died in the battle. When he returned to England, King James reinstated the death sentence. This time, Raleigh could not avoid it. He was beheaded on Oct. 29, 1618.
He is remembered for his explorations, his poetry, his founding of the Roanoke colony, his introduction of tobacco into the English society and economy, and his colorful personality. He is memorialized in the names of many buildings, schools, cities, and other things. To this day, some tobacco products still bear his name.
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