Sir Walter Raleigh: Biography, Facts, Poems & Timeline

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Sir Walter Raleigh was one of those people who others absolutely adored or despised. Find out which opinion you have of him by completing this lesson on the life and work of this Elizabethan jack of all trades.

A Brief Biography

Do you have a friend or relative who can work on cars, fix the shower, and cook a four-course meal? A person like this with a wide range of skills is often referred to as a 'jack of all trades,' a name that could certainly apply to Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the busiest members of Queen Elizabeth I's court.

Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554-1618), renowned English courtier, explorer, scholar, author, and poet
Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh was born sometime around 1554 at Hayes Barton in Devon, England. Even before he'd reached college age, Walter was off adventuring, fighting alongside French Protestants during the Wars of Religion in 1569. He returned to England for his education, though, attending Oriel College at the University of Oxford beginning in 1572.

In 1580, Raleigh really caught the attention of Elizabeth I by participating in her campaign to quell an uprising in the Irish province of Munster. A few years later, he led a scouting expedition for settlements in North America on her behalf. In 1585, he was knighted Sir Walter Raleigh and soon became one of the queen's favorites - though despised by many others - receiving numerous titles and positions that allowed him access to large sums of money.

By the end of the decade, Raleigh was looking to settle down and had his eye on Bessy Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth's maids of honor. The couple kept their relationship a secret from the jealous queen, but she found out when their first child was born in 1592. Elizabeth imprisoned both of them, but Sir Walter was able to secure release with the funds at his disposal. He attempted to regain favor with the queen through an expedition to find the mythical city of El Dorado, but he was never accepted at the court again.

This was especially true when King James I took over for Elizabeth in 1603. The king severely distrusted Raleigh and, almost immediately after taking the throne, charged him with treason and sentenced him to death. This sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the Tower of London, where Raleigh and his family and servants stayed until 1616. Finally free, Sir Walter tried again to regain royal favor by finding El Dorado, but instead ended up in a skirmish with the Spanish that led James I to recall his original death sentence. Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618, but not before he was able to lead a fascinating life and produce some beautiful works that you'll learn more about by reading on.

Fun Facts

  • Between 1584 and 1589, Sir Walter attempted on two separate occasions to establish a permanent English settlement in North America, naming the land he found 'Virginia' after England's Virgin Queen (Elizabeth I). Raleigh's second failed attempt at colonization is well-known today as the Lost Colony of Roanoke because the settlers disappeared without a trace; nevertheless, he's still commemorated in the area. Today, the land he tried to settle is part of North Carolina, the capital city of which bears the explorer's name.
  • While the Spanish introduced Europe to potatoes and tobacco, Raleigh helped popularize them in Britain and Ireland upon his return from a trip to South America. In particular, he's credited with introducing the practice of smoking at court.
  • When he wasn't trotting the globe, Raleigh was a consummate scholar of mathematics and chemistry, even devising some of his own medicinal compounds. His interests and outspokenness about them led many in the country to accuse the knight of atheism. These accusations were later dispelled when Sir Walter put out one of his most famous prose works, History of the World, which traced humanity's development from Creation until the 2nd century B.C. Although it helped clear charges of atheism, it didn't get him and his family out of the Tower of London, where he wrote the book during his last imprisonment.

Poetry by Raleigh

Now that we've covered Sir Walter Raleigh's role as an explorer and scholar, let's examine some of his poetry. Yes, this jack of all trades was also a poet, penning dozens of works, many of which were destroyed. Two of his most well-known poems include the following:

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