Sir Walter Raleigh 1554–1618
(Also spelled Ralegh.) English courtier, poet, and prose writer.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Raleigh's role in the Age of Spenser. For further information on Raleigh, see LC, Vol. 31.
Few of Queen Elizabeth I's courtiers symbolized the Elizabethan era so comprehensively as Sir Walter Raleigh. His flamboyant personal style, adventurous spirit, outspoken political views, and wide-ranging ambition epitomize the Renaissance ideals of exploration and learning. A man of action, Raleigh is also recognized as a highly accomplished literary stylist and craftsman in both verse and prose. His The History of the World (1614), an unfinished chronicle undertaken while he 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, confirmed in modern times the poetic ability praised by his contemporaries, among them his friend Edmund Spenser. Some critics have also compared Raleigh's poetry with that of John Donne and Philip Sidney and have discovered that it in some ways anticipates the seventeeth-century metaphysical style.
Raleigh was born c. 1554 in Hayes, Devonshire, England, into a family of moderate prosperity. (The family name has been spelled in various ways including Raleigh and Ralegh both in Raleigh's own time and later; scholars now agree that the most authentic spelling is most likely "Ralegh.") Although not of the nobility, Raleigh's family had ties to Elizabeth's court through marriage. Raleigh's early education is not documented, but his lifelong anti-Catholic stance, while in keeping with Elizabeth's policies, is attributed to a strict Protestant upbringing. As a very young man 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 biographer 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 ship 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 support from his influential patrons), led to his 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, more likely, it was his knowledge of Irish affairs, his eloquence and learning, and his high recommendations from other important courtiers that quickly established Raleigh as a favorite of the Queen. For the next two decades, Raleigh held a position of power and prestige in the political life of England. Elizabeth granted him many important posts and privileges, including the patent for licensing wine sales, a monopoly that brought Raleigh much wealth and influence. In 1584 he was elected to Parliament, and 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...
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