Sir Walter Ralegh Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

0111204963-Ralegh.jpg Sir Walter Ralegh (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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...

(The entire section is 2746 words.)