Sir Walter Raleigh 1554–1618
(Also spelled Ralegh) English courtier, poet, prose writer.
Few of Elizabeth I's courtiers symbolized the Elizabethan era as comprehensively as did Sir Walter Raleigh. His flamboyant style, adventureous spirit, outspoken political views, and boundless ambition have come to represent the Renaissance ideals of exploration and learning. As well as having been a man of action, Raleigh has become recognized in modern times as a highly accomplished literary stylist and technician in both verse and prose. Raleigh's History of the World (1614), an unfinished chronicle undertaken while Raleigh was imprisoned, was a standard reference in England and the American colonies for a century after its publication and influenced political and religious thought throughout the seventeenth century. His poem The Ocean to Cynthia (1592?), undiscovered until the 1870s, established in modern times the poetic ability praised by his contemporaries, among them Spenser. Some critics have compared Raleigh's poetry with that of Donne and Sidney, and have discovered in his verse an anticipation of the seventeenth century metaphysical style.
Raleigh was born c. 1554 in Hayes, Devonshire, England, into a family of moderate prosperity. Although not of the nobility, Raleigh's family had ties to Elizabeth's court through marriage. Raleigh's early education is not documented, although his lifelong anti-Catholic stance, while in keeping with Elizabeth's policies, is attributed to a strict Protestant upbringing. As a teenager, Raleigh was in France during the Civil Wars, where he fought for the Huguenot forces. Upon his return to England, Raleigh studied at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1572 to 1574. He left without taking a degree and enrolled in one of the four Inns of Court which, according to Steven May, were social clubs as well as law schools, "and thus the proper addresses for gentlemen in search of patronage and career openings at court or in the state at large." Raleigh's earliest poetry, a series of commendatory verses for George Gascoigne's The Steele Glas (1576) dates from this period. In 1578, Raleigh took part in his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition on the
Falcon in search of the Northwest Passage. The journey was derailed by privateering and piracy; the Falcon was defeated by the Spanish off Cape Verde, giving Raleigh his first naval military experience. In 1580, Raleigh was appointed head of an infantry company in the Irish Wars and quickly distinguished himself in battle. Upon his return to England in 1581, Raleigh's military successes, including the capture of important enemy documents, as well as influential patronages, led to a meteoric rise in Elizabeth's favor. Legend has it that Raleigh first caught the Queen's attention by covering a muddy patch in her path with his cloak, but it was more likely his knowledge of Irish affairs, his eloquence and learning, and high recommendations from other important courtiers that quickly established Raleigh as a favorite of the Queen. Elizabeth granted him many important posts and privileges, including the patent for licensing wine sales, a monopoly that brought Raleigh much wealth and influence. For the next two decades, Raleigh held a position of power and influence in the political life of England, and in 1584 he was elected to Parliament. In 1587 he gained official standing in Court as captain of the Queen's Guard, an important post for its intimate access to the Queen. Raleigh was one of the first to realize that England's hope for domination over Spain lay in the establishment of a lucrative colonial empire. He sponsored England's first voyages to the New World, sending colonists to Virginia in 1585 and 1587, and popularized his efforts in England through the introduction of tobacco to court circles. Although the colonists of 1585 came home safely aboard Francis Drake's ship, the latter colonists at Roanoke mysteriously disappeared. Raleigh never...
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