Sir Walter Ralegh

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Article abstract: Ralegh’s vision and enterprise paved the way for English settlement in North America.

Early Life

Walter Ralegh’s birth date is even more uncertain than that of his contemporary William Shakespeare, but the dates of their deaths are precisely recorded, because by then they were among the most famous men of their time. Similarly, their family names are spelled in various ways. More than seventy spellings are recorded for Ralegh, the form he preferred in the second half of his life.

Ralegh is often designated as having been born in 1552, though 1554 accords with depositions he made in lawsuits. In any case, his birth occurred in the farm, or Barton, of Hayes, near East Budleigh on the south coast of Devon. His father was a gentleman farmer, who, like some of his relatives and other adventurous men of southwestern England, made money from maritime ventures, including privateering. Young Walter assuredly learned much about seafaring, as imaginatively depicted in Sir John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Walter and another boy sitting on the beach, listening enthralled to a sailor’s tale. Famous as he was to become by seafaring, however, Walter first made his mark as a soldier on land. At the end of the 1560’s, he was campaigning in France as one of the volunteers fighting for the Protestant Huguenots against the Catholics, an experience which helped to shape his anti-Catholic attitude for the rest of his life. By 1572, he was an undergraduate at Oriel College in Oxford University, but within two years he left without taking a degree, a common practice then. In 1575, he enrolled in the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London, though he did not complete his legal education. No doubt he acquired knowledge of city and court ways.

Life’s Work

In 1578, Ralegh sailed from Plymouth in Devon as captain of one of the ships under the command of his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who held the charter to settle new lands for the Crown. The expedition aimed to explore and colonize the coast of North America. Bad weather drove the other ships back to England, but Ralegh persevered and reached the Cape Verde Islands, four hundred miles west of Africa.

After obtaining a minor post at court, in 1580 he was given command of a company of soldiers sent to help suppress rebellion in Ireland. He was involved in savage fighting, he befriended the poet Edmund Spenser, and he got Alice Gould pregnant. (He provided in his will for their illegitimate daughter and found Alice a well-to-do husband.) According to one account, “Ralegh coming out of Ireland to the English Court in good habit (his clothes then being a considerable part of his estate) found the Queen walking [in] a plashy place.” He immediately “spread his new plush cloak on the ground, whereon the Queen trod gently, rewarding him afterward.” This story, reported some eighty years later in Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England (1662), may be apocryphal, but it contains two indisputable truths: paintings and miniatures of Ralegh show that he dressed in the most opulent styles of the period, and he quickly became one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite courtiers. In 1583, she gave him Durham House, a mansion on the north bank of the Thames, east of Westminster Abbey, and in 1584 the profitable monopolies of “the farm of wines” (by which he was authorized to charge every vintner in the realm one pound a year to sell wine) and the license to export woolen broadcloths. Also in 1584, he became...

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a Member of Parliament for Devon and soon afterward Vice Admiral of Devon and Cornwall, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Lord Warden of the Stannaries (the tin mines of Cornwall). In January, 1585, the queen bestowed a knighthood on him and later made him captain of her guard.

Ralegh was adept at flattering the queen in Petrarchan poems praising her beauty, power, and influence. More tangibly, he would present to her the new lands of “Virginia,” now North Carolina, where the expedition he equipped had landed in 1584. The following year, he sent about one hundred men to Roanoke Island on its coast, but they returned after the hardships of the first winter proved too severe for them. In 1587, a third expedition brought more than one hundred men and women to the site. The first child was born to the colonists on August 18 and christened Virginia Dare. Dealing with the Spanish Armada prevented a relief expedition from coming out until 1590, by which time the colonists had vanished. Although this lost colony was Ralegh’s last colonizing attempt in North America, his efforts paved the way for the establishment there of an English-speaking empire in the early seventeenth century and prevented the northward spread of the Spanish Empire.

By the end of the 1580’s, Ralegh could have been more than satisfied both by his personal advancement and by England’s success at Spain’s expense. Yet his fortunes were being undermined. The dashing and ambitious Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, arrived at court and soon became the aging queen’s latest favorite. Meanwhile, Ralegh became involved with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was a dozen years younger than he and some thirty years younger than the queen. By November, 1591, if not earlier, Ralegh was secretly married to Throckmorton. A son was born in March, 1592, but seems not to have survived for long. A second son, Walter, was born in 1593 and a third, Carew, in 1604.

In 1592, Queen Elizabeth had put Ralegh in command of an expedition against Panama, though forbidding him to sail beyond Spain. While he was at sea, she learned of his secret marriage, and on his return she had him and his wife imprisoned separately in the Tower of London. When the expedition returned with a captured Portuguese galleon laden with riches from the East Indies, Ralegh was sent to Dartmouth to make sure that the queen’s share of the booty—and his share, which she appropriated—were not looted. In effect, he was obliged to buy his pardon.

Released from prison but banished from court, Ralegh and his wife withdrew to the Dorset estate of Sherborne, which he had begged from the queen while still in favor and which he now set about rebuilding. This activity, however, did not satisfy his ambitions. After Sir Humphrey Gilbert drowned on the voyage home from Newfoundland in 1583, Ralegh had acquired Gilbert’s charter to explore and settle new lands. He now focused on South America, source of the wealth carried to Spain in the ships which Sir Francis Drake, Ralegh, and others captured at sea. In one such action Sir Richard Grenville lost his life in a heroic (though perhaps ill-judged) rearguard action at the Azores in 1591; Ralegh glorified this event in A Report of the Truth of the Fight About the Isles of Açores This Last Summer (1591; also known as The Last Fight of the Revenge), his first published book. (Individual poems by or attributed to him were published from 1576 onward, but he never published a collection of his poems.) Ralegh was convinced that in the hinterlands of Guiana, now Venezuela, lay the fabulously rich empire of El Dorado. In 1595, he led an expedition to Guiana and on his return promptly wrote and published The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana . . . (1596), in which he argued that abundant gold could be found there, and that friendly Indians were eager to overthrow their cruel Spanish oppressors and welcome the benign rule of Elizabeth.

Whatever the queen thought of this argument, Ralegh was soon employed on a different venture. He was given command of a squadron in the 1596 expedition against Cadiz, under the leadership of Lord Admiral Howard and Essex. Ralegh boldly led his ships against the harbor defenses and suffered a leg wound which left him using a cane for the rest of his life. His spirited initiative was not shared by the commanders, whose temporizing failed to secure the fullest spoils possible.

The following year, he and Essex led another expedition to seize a Spanish treasure fleet off the Azores. Again, Essex’s inadequacies and Ralegh’s courage were revealed, the only gain being the temporary capture of the port of Fayal, which Ralegh achieved by leading his men ashore under fire. These events did nothing to assuage the rivalry between the two courtiers. When the irrationally ambitious Essex raised his abortive rebellion against the queen in 1601 and was executed for doing so, suspicion that Ralegh had contributed to his doom was widespread.

While Essex was ruining himself, Ralegh was improving the trade and fortifications of the isle of Jersey, of which the queen made him governor in 1600. This was to be his last advancement, however, because with her death in 1603 his fortunes plummeted. The new sovereign, James I, was strongly biased against Ralegh, reportedly greeting him with the words, “I have heard rawly of thee” and soon depriving him of his positions. Rumored to be discontented, as he might well have been, Ralegh was suspected of treasonous conspiracies against the new king from Scotland. In 1593, he had been exonerated when tried for atheism for his association with the “School of Night,” a group of skeptics and freethinkers which included Christopher Marlowe. In 1603, the charges were to be even more implausible but more far-reaching. Ralegh was accused of being in Spanish pay to seek a new policy of peace toward Spain and to be part of a conspiracy to depose James and replace him with his cousin Arabella Stuart. Though Ralegh’s position on these matters is not entirely clear, his trial was conducted with appalling injustice and venom, and in spite of the splendid speeches he made in his defense, a rigged jury guaranteed that he would be found guilty and sentenced to death.

Perhaps because executing the “last Elizabethan” hero was deemed to be impolitic, Ralegh was not put to death but imprisoned in the Tower of London again, this time for almost thirteen years. Again refusing simply to languish in royal disfavor, Ralegh wrote letters containing exaggerated professions of regard for James and humiliating pleas for pardon. He had hundreds of books brought in and embarked on writing The History of the World (1614). This monumental undertaking went as far as 133 b.c.e., and although Ralegh does not refer to the sovereigns he served, James denounced the book as “too saucy in censuring princes” and tried to suppress its publication. James’s enmity was not shared by his queen, Anne of Denmark, and their son Prince Henry, both of whom often visited Ralegh in the Tower. Ralegh served as tutor to Prince Henry, for whom he wrote The History of the World and whose premature death in 1612 at the age of eighteen caused Ralegh to stop work on the book. The death was a double blow to Ralegh, not only because of the prince’s announcement that “No one but my father would keep such a bird in a cage,” but also because the manly and chivalric prince seemed likely to be the inspiring monarch that James was not.

James’s attempts to secure a substantial dowry from a proposed marriage between his younger son Charles and a Spanish princess had been frustrated by 1616. Hearkening to Ralegh’s continual claim that gold could be extracted from Guiana, James released Ralegh to organize and lead an expedition there. At the same time James secretly assured the Spaniards that if Ralegh came into conflict with them, his life would be forfeit. Ralegh was now in his sixties and had suffered several strokes. By the time the expedition neared Guiana in late 1617 he was so ill with fever that he had to delegate command of the party that went up the river Orinoco to his trusted second-in-command, Lawrence Keymis. At the fort of San Thomé, the party got into a fight with the Spaniards, during which Ralegh’s son Walter was killed. No gold was found; after returning to the ships, Keymis committed suicide.

Ralegh returned to England a shattered man and was soon imprisoned yet again in the Tower. After having been condemned to death in 1603 on the charge of conspiring to make peace with Spain, he was now to be executed for making war with Spain. The sentence of fifteen years earlier was carried out on October 29, 1618. A huge crowd gathered in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster and Ralegh, elegantly dressed, delivered a speech of nearly an hour in which he defended himself against the charges brought against him and committed himself to the mercy of God. Declining a blindfold, he laid his head on the block and told the hesitant executioner, “What dost thou fear? Strike man, strike!” The headsman needed two blows to sever Ralegh’s head, which was carried away by his widow, while his body was buried in the nearby church of St. Margaret’s, Westminster.


Often disliked as a proud, ambitious upstart during his rise, Sir Walter Ralegh, by the courage and grace with which he faced his end, won widespread sympathy as a political martyr. Among those who witnessed his execution were some of the men who would lead the Great Rebellion of the 1640’s against the autocratic despotism of the Stuart monarchy. Ironically, therefore, the beheaded victim of King James became an influence on those who would behead James’s son King Charles I thirty years and three months later.

Ralegh’s life has an aura of mystery to it. He had the characteristics of both a hero and a scoundrel. Further, his vision of the possibilities of empire for England in the Americas, although persuasively supported by his gift as a writer and his daring as an explorer and soldier, would not be realized in his lifetime. Still, he captured the imagination of the English people, and his enterprises and plans were brought to completion by others. Thus, Ralegh can be seen as a colorful, gifted person who failed to be the historical force he might have become.


Adamson, J.H., and H.F. Folland. The Shepherd of the Ocean: An Account of Sir Walter Ralegh and His Times. Boston: Gambit, 1969. Sets Ralegh’s life in its historical and political contexts and devotes ample space to summarizing his literary work and relationships.

Armitage, Christopher M. Sir Walter Ralegh: An Annotated Bibliography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Contains nearly two thousand items by and about Ralegh, from 1576 to 1986.

Hammond, Peter. Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Pitkin Books, 1978. A concise biography, with abundant pictures of people and places of significance in Ralegh’s life.

Jones, H.G., ed. Ralegh and Quinn: The Explorer and His Boswell. Chapel Hill: North Caroliniana Society, 1987. A wide-ranging set of papers from the 1987 International Conference on Ralegh, at which David Beers Quinn, emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool, was honored for his many publications in the field.

Lefranc, Pierre. Sir Walter Ralegh, écrivain: L’Oeuvre et les idées. Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1968. Considers Ralegh’s mind and art, analyzes the evidence for his authorship of the poems and prose attributed to him, and evaluates his development as a writer.

Mills, Jerry Leath. Sir Walter Ralegh. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986. A year-by-year listing, from 1901 to 1984, of books and articles about Ralegh, with often extensive annotation by the compiler.

Ralegh, Sir Walter. The History of the World. Edited by C.A. Patrides. London: Macmillan, 1971. The most substantial modern selection from this huge work, with an analysis of Ralegh’s achievement as a writer of history.

Ralegh, Sir Walter. Selected Prose and Poetry. Edited by Agnes M.C. Latham. London: University of London Athlone Press, 1965. A selection by the editor of the standard edition of The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh (1929).

Ralegh, Sir Walter. Selected Writings. Edited by Gerald Hammond. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986. A convenient modern selection of Ralegh’s poems, prose works, and letters.

Wallace, Willard M. Sir Walter Ralegh. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959. Covers Ralegh’s life and pays considerable attention to his literary work.

Wallace, Willard M. The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1829. 8 vols. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1965. Volume 1 contains the early biographies of Ralegh by W. Oldys and T. Birch; volumes 2-7 contain The History of the World; and volume 8 contains miscellaneous essays, poems, and letters, many now considered to have been foisted on Ralegh after his death.