Sir Walter Raleigh

The English statesman Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552-1618) was also a soldier, courtier, explorer and exponent of overseas expansion, man of letters, and victim of Stuart mistrust and Spanish hatred.

Born into a prominent Protestant Devonshire family, Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) spent time at Oriel College, Oxford, before leaving to join the Huguenot army in the French religious war in 1569. Five years in France saw him safely through two major battles and the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day. By 1576 he was in London as a lodger (not a law student) at the Middle Temple and saw his verses, prefixed to George Gascoigne's Steele Glas, in print. His favorite poetic theme, the impermanence of all earthly things, was popular with other Renaissance poets. However, Raleigh's verse differs from theirs: for their richly decorated quality and smoothly musical rhythms, he substituted a colloquial diction and a simplicity and directness of statement that prefigured the work of John Donne and the other metaphysical poets.

After 2 years in obscurity Raleigh accompanied his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage ostensibly in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient but which quickly degenerated into a privateering foray against the Spanish. On their return in 1579, Raleigh and Gilbert faced the displeasure of the Privy Council. Raleigh's subsequent conduct did little to placate the Council: he engaged in several altercations and was imprisoned twice in 6 months for disturbing the peace. Once out of jail, and at the head of a company of infantry, he sailed to serve in the Irish wars.

In Ireland, Raleigh spent less than 2 years on campaign. He helped condemn one of the leaders of the rebellion, bombed a Spanish-Italian garrison into surrender, and then oversaw their massacre. After some minor but well-fought engagements, he was appointed a temporary administrator of Munster. Not satisfied, he criticized his superiors and by the end of 1581 had been sent back to London with dispatches for the Council, £20 for his expenses, and a reputation as an expert on Irish affairs.


Progress at Court

Extravagant in dress and in conduct (whether or not he spread his costly cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth to step on, his contemporaries believed him capable of the gesture), handsome, and superbly self-confident, Raleigh at first rose rapidly at court. His opinion on Ireland was sought and apparently taken by Elizabeth; when he obtained a new commission for service there, the Queen kept him home as an adviser. He received more concrete tokens of royal favor as well: a house in London, two estates in Oxford, and, most lucrative, the monopolies for the sale of wine licenses and the export of broadcloth all came from Elizabeth in 1583-1584.

Raleigh was knighted in 1584 and the next year became warden of the stannaries (or mines) in Devon and Cornwall, lord lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice admiral of the West (Devon and Cornwall). Although he was hated for his arrogance at Westminster, in Devon and Cornwall his reforms of the mining codes and his association with local privateering ventures made him very popular; he sat for Devonshire in the Parliaments of 1584 and 1586.

In 1586 Raleigh succeeded Sir Christopher Hatton (newly made lord chancellor) as captain of the Queen's Guard—his highest office at court.


Overseas Ventures

The patent under which Gilbert had led his expedition of 1578 had authorized him not merely to explore but to claim unknown lands (in the Queen's name, of course) and to exploit them as he saw fit. By 1582 Gilbert had organized a company to settle English Catholics in the Americas. Although forbidden by Elizabeth to accompany his half brother, Raleigh invested money and a ship of his own design in the venture. After Gilbert's death on the return from Newfoundland, Raleigh was given a charter to "occupy and enjoy" new lands. A preliminary expedition sailed as soon as Raleigh had his charter, reached the Carolina shore of America, and claimed the land for the court-bound empire builder.

At the same time, Raleigh sought to entice Elizabeth into a more active role in his proposed colonizing venture: not only did he name the new territory Virginia (after the Virgin Queen) but he sponsored Richard Hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting and brought this great imperialistic treatise to Elizabeth's attention. Although unconvinced, she gave a ship and some funds; Raleigh remained at court and devoted his energies to financing the scheme. The first settlers were conveyed by Raleigh's cousin Sir Richard Grenville. Quarrels, lack of discipline, and hostile Indians led the colonists to return to England aboard Francis Drake's 1586 squadron, bringing with them potatoes and tobacco, both hitherto unknown in Europe.

John White led a second expedition the next year. The coming of the Armada delayed sending supplies for more than 2 years. When the relief ships reached the colony in 1591, it had vanished. Raleigh sent other expeditions to the Virginia coast but failed to establish a permanent settlement there; his charter was revoked by James I in 1603.


Retirement from Court

Raleigh played a minor role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He organized the Devon militia and was a member of Elizabeth's War Council but did not participate in the naval battle. When he returned to court, he clashed with Elizabeth's new favorite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. After the Privy Council halted an incipient duel between them, Raleigh left for Ireland, where he cultivated his estates and the friendship of his neighbor, the poet Edmund Spenser, whom he introduced to Elizabeth in 1590.

The next year Raleigh was to have gone to sea in search of the Spanish plate fleet, but again Elizabeth refused permission. Grenville, who went in his stead, was trapped by Spanish galleons, and Raleigh raised a new fleet to avenge his cousin. At sea finally, he was immediately summoned back by Elizabeth. Upon his tardy return he was imprisoned in the Tower, for the Queen had discovered his alliance with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of her own maids of honor. (Raleigh later married Elizabeth Throgmorton.) After the return of an enormously wealthy prize taken by Raleigh's sailors, and after Elizabeth took an inordinate share of the profits, she permitted the Raleighs to go to their estate of Sherborne in Dorset.

Forbidden access to the court, Raleigh devoted time to study and speculation about the nature of matter and the universe. During this time he sat in Parliament, joined the Society of Antiquaries, assisted Hakluyt in preparing his Voyages, and joined Ben Jonson and Shakespeare at the Mermaid Tavern in London.

By the end of 1594 Raleigh had regained enough of Elizabeth's favor to obtain her consent for a prospecting expedition to Guiana (Venezuela). From this he brought back many samples of gold ore and a belief in the existence of a rich gold mine.

In 1596 Raleigh and his rival Essex led a brilliantly successful raid on Cadiz, and he seemed to have finally placated Elizabeth. He was readmitted to court, continued to serve in Parliament, was given a monopoly over playing cards, held more naval commands, and became governor of the island of Jersey, where he proved again to be an excellent administrator. With Essex's execution for treason, Raleigh's place as favorite seemed secure. But the Queen herself was near death, and Raleigh's enemies lost no time in poisoning the mind of James Stuart, her heir apparent and successor, against him.


His Imprisonment

Upon James I's accession, Raleigh was dismissed as captain of the guard, warden of the stanneries, and governor of Jersey. His monopolies were suspended, and he was evicted from his London house. Soon after, he was implicated (falsely) in a plot against James and, upon being committed to the Tower, tried to commit suicide. A farcical trial before a special commission at Winchester at the end of 1603 resulted in a death sentence, followed by a reprieve and imprisonment in the Tower for 13 years.

James stripped Raleigh of all his offices and even took Sherborne on a technicality to give to his own favorite, Robert Carr. The remainder of his property was restored, and Raleigh was well treated: his family joined him in a large apartment in the Bloody Tower; his books were brought as well. Raleigh attracted the sympathy and friendship of James's eldest son, Henry, who sought his advice on matters of shipbuilding and naval defense. Raleigh dedicated his monumental History of the World, written during this period of imprisonment, to the prince. Henry protested Raleigh's continued incarceration but died before he could effect his release.


Last Voyage

From 1610 on, Raleigh, aware of James's need for money, sought permission to lead another search for the gold mine of his earlier Guiana voyage and at last got his way. Freed early in 1616, he invested most of his remaining funds in the projected voyage. The expedition, which sailed in June of the following year, was a disastrous failure. No treasure and no mine were found, and Raleigh's men violated James's strict instructions to avoid fighting with Spanish colonists in the area. Still worse, during the battle with the Spaniards, Raleigh's older son, Walter, was killed.

Upon his empty-handed return Raleigh was rearrested; James and Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, wished him tried on a charge of piracy, but as he was already under a sentence of death, a new trial was not possible. His execution would have to proceed from the charge of treason of 1603. James agreed to this course, and Raleigh was beheaded on Oct. 29, 1618.

Further Reading on Sir Walter Raleigh

Raleigh's History of the World, first published in 1614, has been reissued many times. A Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of Acores (1591) and The Discovery of … the Empire of Guiana (1596) are published in Works of Sir Walter Ralegh (8 vols., 1829), which also contains works published posthumously. The standard edition of Raleigh's poetry is The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, edited by Agnes M. C. Latham (1929).

There is no completely satisfactory biography of Raleigh. Edward Edwards, The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh Based on Contemporary Documents … Together with His Letters (2 vols., 1868), lacks much material that is now available. Among the most useful works are Edward Thompson, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Last of the Elizabethans (1935), and Willard M. Wallace, Sir Walter Raleigh (1959). Raleigh's role in natural philosophy and his connection with Thomas Hariot are treated in Robert Kargon, Atomism in England (1966). His contact with Christopher Marlowe is explored at length in M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night: A Study in the Literary Relationships of Sir Walter Relegh (1936), and in Ernest Albert Strathmann, Sir Walter Raleigh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism (1951). A. L. Rowse's The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (1950) and The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955) provide a valuable general view of the period.