Who Is Sir Walter Raleigh?

More than a friend to Elizabeth I, and courageous explorer of the New World, Sir Walter Raleigh had a dark side, and lived on the edge much of the time, until his beheading by an angry Crown in 1618.

Sir Walter Raleigh's adventurous life in 16th century England focuses on two pivotal experiences: his prominence at Court, particularly that of Elizabeth I, and his seafaring explorations of the Americas. Born in 1552 in Hayes Barton, Devonshire, England, Raleigh went to fight in the French War of Religions on the Huguenot side at the age of roughly 15 or 16, then later studied at Oriel College in Oxford, and at the Middle Temple law college. He took up arms again in 1580, this time against the Irish rebels for independence in Munster.

Always an outspoken man, Raleigh gained the notice of the Queen around this time for his unabashed criticism of English policy in Ireland, and soon he came under closer scrutiny of the Court. Apparently his candid ways were gilded with charm, however, and he soon became a favorite of the Queen, who knighted him in 1585. As Elizabeth's reigning favorite, he began to earn royal favors including vast amounts of land in Munster, wealth and influential positions, one of which was as the monopoly holder of licenses for ale of wines, export of broadcloths and warden of the Cornish tin mines.

So powerful was Raleigh at this time that it was often assumed Elizabeth would marry him, for there seemed no favor too large for her to grant him. He became vice-admiral of Devon and Cornwall and had a seat in Parliament. He was ultimately captain of the queen's guard, a position that many consider may have put him close enough to the Queen that more personal favors on her part were also part of his benefits. Apparently Sir Walter's gallant and chivalrous ways extended to more than bridging a watery gutter for passing noble ladies in the streets of London.

After Raleigh was appointed governor of Jersey in 1600, however, his fortunes became precarious. Raleigh apparently wanted a home, a wife and family, and after acquiring a house in Dorset, secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, daughter of a noble family. When the jealous Queen discovered Raleigh's duplicity after the couple had a child, she imprisoned both Elizabeth and Raleigh in the Tower of London.

Always a ruthless survivor and manipulator, Raleigh bought his release with profits he'd made from a privateering voyage in which he'd invested. He was free, but never regained his influence at Court. Now his faults were highlighted by those who had been jealous of him. His extravagant spending and his pride were known all over England, and, apparently because he enjoyed playing Devil's Advocate in good stimulating philosophical discussions, he was accused by the Catholic order of Jesuits of keeping a school of Atheism.

Although not an atheist in the modern sense, Raleigh's philosophy was that of a skeptic, and, as an intellectual, he favored unorthodox thought, was a serious student of mathematics for use in navigation, as well as chemistry and medical formulae. These personal traits and a similarly named "School of Night" apparently appear in Love's Labour Lost, a Shakespearean play thought to be a satire on Raleigh's life.



Raleigh first made the journey to the New World in 1578 with his half-brother, Sir Humhrey Gilbert, where he began to dream a starting an English colony there. Focussing on his studies, and then on his sea voyages to the New World, Sir Walter later attempted to establish a colony on Roanoke Island in the New World in land that is now North Carolina), although he did not set foot there himself.

He did sail, however, to Guyana in South America, in the heart of Spain's colonial empire. Indian tales of a fabulous city of gold, Eldorado, in the South American interior caught the adventurer's fancy, and led him to explore further at great peril. Although he did discover gold mines, he was unable to obtain funding for further expeditions inland, although he attached himself to other colonizing dignitaries at places like Cadiz, creating a furor with the Spaniards and the peace-loving James I.

Sir Walter's adventuring days were coming to an end. Convicted of plotting to overthrow the King, most likely unfairly, he was once again consigned to the Tower and ordered to die for his offences, but Raleigh was not so easily put down. He maneuvered for his release, and eventually earned permission from the King to revisit Guyana in hopes of reaping its wealth for James. The trip was doomed, however, and a fever overtook his soldiers. Going against the King's wishes, Raleigh's lieutenant attacked a Spanish settlement on Guyana and burned it. Sir Walter's son died in a skirmish and in a final bitter defeat, no gold was ever found as a result of Raleigh's persistent searching.

King James eventually re-imprisoned Sir Walter, intending to execute him. Meanwhile, Raleigh wrote some brilliant defenses of his actions, leaving a literary legacy as well as a spirited reputation for a life of adventure, flashy argument, and a taste for favors and gold. Other works he completed in prison and which outlive him include The Discoverie of Guiana, The Last Fight of the Revenge, and The History of the World.

In 1618 Raleigh was finally executed, but his role in history has long been appreciated as that of a popular rakish and imaginative hero with a somewhat shady reputation""neither all good, nor all bad. He had a knack for irritating his bettors, upsetting the apple cart, and daring to go one step further than the average man.

Generally speaking, he is respected for his practical abilities, and his literary skill, although many wonder if he ever lived up to his potential, or if his flair for dramatics, wealth and a life of privelege spoiled Sir Walter Raleigh from fulfilling that potential or meeting that dream that spurred him on.

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