Sea Dog Sir Walter Raleigh, Explorer: Facts, Route & History

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  • 0:00 Sir Walter Raleigh Overview
  • 0:32 Early Years
  • 1:00 Queen Elizabeth's Sea Dogs
  • 2:04 Sir Raleigh's American…
  • 3:46 Sir Raleigh's Fall from Favor
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

Sir Walter Raleigh was a famous sea dog, favorite to the English Queen Elizabeth I, and explorer during the Age of Exploration. Learn about sea dogs, Raleigh's important expeditions to the New World, Raleigh's life, and how he brought changes to both England and the Americas.

Sir Walter Raleigh Overview

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) was an adventurer, navigator, explorer, scholar, courtier to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and one of the Queen's famous 'sea dogs' (pirate/privateer). Raleigh is known today for being a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, organizing some important expeditions to the New World, starting the English colony called Roanoke, and introducing both the potato and tobacco to England.

Early Years

Raleigh was born in a well-connected upper class family in Devon, England, sometime around 1552. He studied law and also joined the army. While serving in the English army, Raleigh quickly became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh was notorious for his charm, wit, and flirtatious ways, which gained the attention of many of the ladies at court, especially the Queen. He was knighted in 1585 and advanced to captain of the queen's guard within two years.

Queen Elizabeth's Sea Dogs

The Elizabethan era was known not only as the Age of Exploration but also as the Golden Age of Pirates. Many of the English explorers were considered privateers because they attacked their enemies' ships and colonies (especially the Spanish). Terminology is tricky when it comes to pirates and privateers; the difference between a pirate and a privateer is that a privateer attacks the enemies of his country with the permission of his government, while a pirate attacks everybody regardless of nationality (even their own countrymen). A sea dog was a privateer who worked for the benefit of Queen Elizabeth of England.

Raleigh was just one of many famous sea dogs under the English Queen. Other sea dogs included Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, and John Hawkins. Raleigh and these other elite captains were all beloved by the queen. While Queen Elizabeth was secretive about her part in the sea dogs' adventures for political reasons, she loaned them ships and took her share of the loot that Raleigh and the other sea dogs brought home.

Sir Raleigh's American Expeditions

England became very interested in America due to the abundance of gold and other wealth that the sea dogs stole from the Spanish in the New World. They started forming overseas trading companies and became interested in making permanent colonies in the New World. While Raleigh supported the notion of establishing colonies in America, his main goal was to find El Dorado, a mythical city of immense wealth.

Since Raleigh was a favorite of the queen, she signed a royal charter that allowed Raleigh to take whatever he could find in the New World. The charter also stated that the colonists of his perspective colony had English rights and would always be considered English people. Raleigh made his first expedition to America in 1584 with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert. This voyage failed at making a colony; however, he did manage to do some privateering on the trip and brought home some gold for his queen.

In 1585, Raleigh organized another trip and planned to take 300 colonists with him. However, at the last minute, Queen Elizabeth would not allow him to go on the voyage, so someone else went in his place. The colonists landed on Roanoke Island, but returned to England when they ran out of provisions.

Raleigh was determined to explore and colonize America, so in 1587, he explored from present-day North Carolina down to Florida and named the entire region 'Virginia' in honor of Queen Elizabeth, who was known as the 'Virgin Queen'. He also sponsored a second colony on Roanoke Island. This was one of the first attempts at a permanent settlement from the English in North America. These colonists mysteriously vanished a year later and are known today as The Lost Colony.

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