Sir Walter Raleigh: Biography, Facts & Poems

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Sir Walter Raleigh was an English adventurer, explorer, military leader, and literary figure in England. He was obsessed with finding El Dorado, and he was also the founder of the Roanoke Colony.

Sir Walter Raleigh: An Explorer is Born

In an age of bold and daring adventures, Sir Walter Raleigh had few peers. With literary excellence in abundance, Raleigh was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. However, his end was tragic, as he was twice scorned by his political superiors - first by his search for love and second by his search for gold. Raleigh was born in 1552 in England from his father's third marriage. He attended the University of Oxford in 1568 but left after one year to serve in an English volunteer unit alongside the Huguenot army in France. The Huguenots were French Protestants; his family had suffered considerably under Queen 'Bloody' Mary's four-year persecution of Protestants, and so he took his chance to exact revenge.

Walter Raleigh as a Boy
Raleigh in Youth

Ireland and Queen Elizabeth

In 1578, Raleigh traveled with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert on a voyage to find the Northwest Passage, but the voyage was sidetracked when they engaged in privateering against the Spanish. After losing a ship, they returned to England where they were scolded by the Privy Council. Here, Raleigh hit a low point. He was arrested twice for dueling, but his fortune shifted when the Desmond Rebellions broke out in Ireland.

This Irish revolt against English influence was crushed, and Raleigh used especially brutal tactics in conquering the cities of Smerwick and Munster. Queen Elizabeth was highly impressed by Raleigh, and she awarded him a vast estate in Ireland, had Raleigh knighted, and made him Captain of the Guard. He quickly became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. His new-found position afforded him several advantages, but it also put him in the crosshairs if he messed up. Raleigh soon found out he was walking on thin ice.

Painting of Walter Raleigh
Raleigh in Pose

Raleigh in North America

In 1784, Raleigh launched a series of naval expeditions from Europe to North America. His most notable expedition, though, led to the establishment of the famed Roanoke Colony in 1785. This was the first attempt by the English to establish a New World colony. Though Roanoke failed, his efforts where not futile, for they inspired the founding of the later Jamestown Colony. Raleigh also named the Virginia territories after Queen Elizabeth, the 'virgin queen' and he is credited - though some dispute this - with being the first to introduce the potato and tobacco crops into Ireland and England. Though this may sound like a bland achievement, the potato created another staple food source for Europe, and the tobacco markets proved quite lucrative. A man of many talents, he also fought against the famed and faled 1588 Spanish Armada invasion of England, which brought him more acclaim.

Raleigh grew careless, though, and soon took his newfound liberties too far when he had a secret affair with Bessy Throckmorton, a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth. Outraged at his treachery, she had Raleigh imprisoned in the Tower of London, which originally served as a castle but was later converted into a prison and famously housed many English notables. Given the tower's enormous size, it was more like Raleigh was under house arrest than confined to a tiny cell. He married Throckmorton and they lived in the tower together, but Raleigh was too valuable a sea explorer to keep locked up, and the queen eventually released him.

Walter Raleigh alongside his son Walter
Raleigh and his Son

Imprisonment Under a New Ruler

Raleigh's fortune worsened when James I became king. James did not care for Raleigh, as he suspected he was part of the so-called Main Plot, which was an attempt to replace James as king. James sentenced Raleigh to death, but commuted his sentence to imprisonment and, for the second time, Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1603-1614. Raleigh used his time well, though. He had already established himself as a fine poet, which was another endearing reason that Queen Elizabeth liked him, but wrote some of his most beloved works while imprisoned.

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