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Walter Raleigh

Related subjects British History 1500-1750; Historical figures

Portrait of Walter Raleigh, near age 32, by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1585
Portrait of Walter Raleigh, near age 32, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1585

Sir Walter Raleigh ( 1552 or 1554 – 29 October 1618), is a famed English writer, poet, courtier and explorer. He was responsible for establishing the first English colony in the New World, on June 4, 1584, at Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina. When the settlement failed, the ultimate fate of the colonists was never authoritatively ascertained, and it became known as "The Lost Colony".

Early life

Raleigh was born in the year 1552 in the house of Hayes Barton, not far from Budleigh Salterton in Devon. He was a half brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and also had a full brother named Carew Raleigh. Raleigh's family was strongly Protestant in religious orientation and experienced a number of near-escapes during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, Raleigh's father had to hide in a tower to avoid being killed. Thus, during his childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Catholicism, proving himself quick to express it after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558.

In 1568 or 1572, he was registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, but does not seem to have taken up residence, and in 1575 he was registered at the Middle Temple. His life between these two dates is uncertain but from a reference in his History of the World he seems to have served with the French Huguenots at the battle of Jarnac, 13 March 1569. At his trial in 1603 he stated that he had never studied law.

In 1578, as captain of the ship Falcon, Raleigh went on an expedition with Humphrey Gilbert against the Spanish. He was also perhaps with him on an unsuccessful voyage the following year.

Ireland

Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions. He was present at the siege of Smerwick, where he oversaw the slaughter of some 700 Italian soldiers after they had surrendered unconditionally. Upon the seizure and distribution of land following the attainders arising from the rebellion, Raleigh received 40,000 acres (160 km²), including the coastal walled towns of Youghal and Lismore. This made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, but he enjoyed limited success in inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

During his seventeen years as an Irish landlord, Raleigh made the town of Youghal his occasional home, where he was mayor from 1588 to 1589. He is credited with having planted the first potatoes in Ireland, but it is far more likely that the plant arrived in Ireland through trade with the Spanish. His town mansion, Myrtle Grove, is assumed to be the setting for the story that his servant doused him with a bucket of water after seeing clouds of smoke coming from Raleigh's pipe, in the belief he had been set alight. But this story is also told of other places related to Raleigh: the Virginia Ash inn in Henstridge near Sherborne, Sherborne Castle, and South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, home of Raleigh's friend, Sir Walter Long.

Amongst Raleigh's acquaintances in Munster was another Englishman who had been granted land there, the poet Edmund Spenser. In the 1590s, he and Raleigh travelled together from Ireland to the court at London, where Spenser presented part of his allegorical poem, the Faerie Queene, to Elizabeth I.

Raleigh's management of his Irish estates ran in to difficulties, which contributed to a decline in his fortunes. In 1602, he sold the lands to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Boyle subsequently prospered under kings James I and Charles I, such that following Raleigh's death, Raleigh family members approached Boyle for compensation on the basis that Raleigh had struck an improvident bargain.

The New World

Engraved portrait of Raleigh.
Engraved portrait of Raleigh.

Raleigh's plan for colonization in the " Colony and Dominion of Virginia" (which included the present-day states of North Carolina and Virginia) in North America ended in failure at Roanoke Island, but paved the way for subsequent colonies. His voyages were funded primarily by himself and his friends, never providing the steady stream of revenue necessary to start and maintain a colony in America. (Subsequent colonization attempts in the early 17th century were made under the joint-stock Virginia Company which was able to pull together the capital necessary to create successful colonies.)

Raleigh put together several voyages to travel to and explore the New World. The first English colony in the new world was established by Sir Walter Raleigh on 4 June 1584 at Roanoke Island of old Virginia (now North Carolina). The settlement was forced to abandon the island for a number of reasons. Most of the first settlers were not skilled farmers or gardeners; the soil on the island is very sandy, dry and infertile; and the settlers' primary motivation for venturing to America was to seek fortune in gold or other precious products. When it became obvious that this was not going to happen, they wanted to leave. Relations broke down between the settlers and the local native tribes as the colonists placed heavy demands on the natives' crops.

In 1587, Raleigh attempted a second expedition again establishing a settlement on Roanoke Island. This time, a more diversified group of settlers was sent, including some entire families, under the governance of John White. After a short while in America, White was recalled to England in order to find more supplies for the colony. He was unable to return the following year as planned, however, because the Queen had ordered that all vessels remain at port in case they were needed to fight the Spanish Armada. It was not until 1591 that the supply vessel arrived at the colony, 4 years later, only to find that all colonists had disappeared. The only clue to their fate was the word "CROATOAN" and letters "CRO" carved into separate tree trunks, suggesting the possibility that they were either massacred, absorbed or taken away by Croatoans or perhaps another native tribe. Other speculation includes their being swept away or lost at sea during the stormy weather of 1588 (credited with aiding in the defeat of the Spanish Armada). However, it is worth noting that a hurricane prevented John White and the crew of the supply vessel from actually visiting Croatoan to investigate the disappearance, and no further attempts at contact were recorded for some years. Whatever the fate of the settlers, the settlement is now remembered as the "Lost Colony of Roanoke Island".

Later life

Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602.
Raleigh and his son Walter in 1602.

In December 1581 Raleigh came back to England from Ireland with despatches as his company had been disbanded. He took part in Court life and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. The various colourful stories told about him at this period are unlikely to be literally true. In 1592, Raleigh was given many rewards by the Queen, including Durham House in the Strand and the estate of Sherborne, Dorset. He was appointed Captain of the Guard, and as Lord Warden of the Stannaries of Devon and Cornwall. Raleigh was knighted in 1585. However, he was not given any of the great offices of state. In the Armada year of 1588 he was employed as Vice Admiral of Devon, looking after the coastal defenses and military levies. He does not seem to have taken part in the sea battles.

In 1591, Raleigh was secretly married to Elizabeth ("Bess") Throckmorton (or Throgmorton), eleven years his junior, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting and pregnant for the third time. She gave birth to a child who was given to a wet nurse at Durham House, but does not seem to have survived, and Bess resumed her duties. When, during the following year, the unauthorized marriage was discovered, the Queen ordered Raleigh imprisoned and Bess dismissed from court. He was released from prison to divide the spoils from a captured Spanish ship, the Madre de Dios ("Mother of God").

It would be several years before Raleigh returned to favour. The couple remained devoted to each other and during Raleigh's absences, Bess proved a capable manager of the family's fortunes and reputation. They had two sons, Walter (known as Wat) and Carew. Raleigh retired to his estate at Sherborne where he built a new house, completed in 1594, known then as Sherborne Lodge but is now extended and known as Sherborne (new) Castle. He made friends with the local gentry, such as Sir Ralph Horsey of Clifton Maybank and Charles Thynne of Longleat. During this period at a dinner party at Horsey's, there was a heated discussion about religion which later gave rise to charges of atheism against Raleigh. He was elected to Parliament, speaking on religious and naval matters.

A year after coming into possession of a Spanish account of a great golden city at the headwaters of the Caroni River in 1594, he explored South America in search of Manoa, the golden city. Once back in England, he published an account of his voyage claiming to have found the city when in fact, he never even made it all the way up the river. Raleigh took part in the capture of Cadiz in 1596, where he was wounded. He also participated in a voyage to the Azores in 1597.

From 1600 to 1603, Raleigh was the Governor of the Channel Island of Jersey, and he was responsible for modernizing the defenses of the island. He named the new fortress protecting the approaches to Saint Helier Fort Isabella Bellissima — or, in the less ebullient English version, Elizabeth Castle.

Raleigh's "cell", Bloody Tower, Tower of London
Raleigh's "cell", Bloody Tower, Tower of London

Though royal favour with Elizabeth had been restored by this time, it did not last. Elizabeth died in 1603, and Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 19 July. Later that year, on 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason due to his supposed involvement in the Main Plot against King James. He was left to languish in the Tower of London until 1616. While imprisoned, he wrote many treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World, about the ancient history of Greece and Rome.

In 1616, Sir Walter was released from the Tower of London in order to conduct a second expedition to the Orinoco River in South America, in search of El Dorado. In the course of the expedition, Raleigh's men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, sacked the Spanish outpost of San Thome. During the initial attack on the town, Raleigh's son Walter was struck by a bullet and killed. On Raleigh's return to England, the outraged Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Spanish ambassador, demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh's death sentence.

Death

The Spanish ambassador's demand was granted. Raleigh was beheaded with an axe at Whitehall on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch," he asked his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries". According to many biographers — Raleigh Trevelyan in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2003) for instance — Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike man, strike!"

His widow claimed the corpse and had it buried in the local church in Beddington, Surrey, the home of Lady Raleigh. "The Lords," she wrote, "have given me his dead body, though they have denied me his life. God hold me in my wits".

Although his popularity had waned considerably since his Elizabethan heyday, his execution was seen by many, both at the time and since, as unnecessary and unjust. It has been suggested that any involvement in the Main Plot appears to have been limited to a meeting with Lord Cobham.

Poetry

Walter Raleigh is generally considered one of the foremost poets of the Elizabethan era. His poetry is generally written in the relatively straightforward, unornamented mode known as the plain style. C. S. Lewis considered Raleigh one of the era's "silver poets," a group of writers who resisted the Italian Renaissance influence of dense classical reference and elaborate poetic devices. In poems such as "What is Our Life" and "The Lie" Raleigh expresses a contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) attitude more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of the dawning era of humanistic optimism. However, his lesser-known long poem "The Ocean to Cynthia" combines this vein with the more elaborate conceits associated with his contemporaries Spenser and Donne, while achieving a power and originality that justifies Lewis' assessment, and contradicts it by expressing a melancholy sense of history reminiscent of "The Tempest" and all the more effective for being the product of personal experience. Raleigh is also Marlovian in terms of the terse line, e.g. "She sleeps thy death that erst thy danger sighed".

Raleigh in culture

  • The 1955 film, The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis, Richard Todd, and Joan Collins, dramatizes the relationships between Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh, and his wife.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh appears as a secondary character (bass) in Benjamin Britten's 1953 opera Gloriana.
  • Raleigh's name is quoted in The Beatles' White Album song I'm So Tired, where the lyrics chide him for bringing the tobacco plant to England - "Although I'm so tired, I'll have another cigarette. And curse Sir Walter Raleigh. He was such a stupid git!". (A northern English expression meaning idiot).
  • Raleigh, North Carolina, takes its name from Sir Walter. The Hayes Barton neighbourhood takes its name from his birthplace. There are other cities and towns in the New World named "Raleigh", and a misspelling of it in Rolla, Missouri
  • Raleigh County in southern West Virginia is named for Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • There is a noted brand of American pipe tobacco called "Sir Walter Raleigh".
  • The name "Sir Walter Raleigh" is sometimes used in the odd Prince Albert in a can joke.
  • In February 2006, a bronze statue of Raleigh by sculptress Vivien Mallock was unveiled in the Devonshire village of East Budleigh. Costing some £30,000, it was a source of controversy as it had been part-funded by the British American Tobacco company.
  • The title of his comedy History of the World, Part I by Mel Brooks is a reference to Raleigh having finished only the first volume of his Historie of the World at the time he was executed.
  • Raleigh plays an important part in Anthony Burgess's novel A Dead Man in Deptford in which he is suggested as one of the persons who might have been responsible for the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
  • In the second series of the television program Blackadder, Lord Blackadder tells Queen Elizabeth that he'll sail around the Cape of Good Hope to show up, as Blackadder calls him, Walter "Ooh What A Big Ship I've Got" Raleigh. Blackadder also refers to him as "Sir Walter Rather-a-Wally Raleigh". Raleigh is played by Simon Jones.
  • One of Bob Newhart's stand-up comedy routines depicts one side of a telephone conversation between a skeptical businessman in London (played by Newhart) and "Nutty Walt" Raleigh who tries unsuccessfully to convince him of the merits of tobacco.
  • Raleigh's relationship with Bess Throckmorton and Elizabeth I is the subject of a forthcoming film, The Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, and Clive Owen as Raleigh.
  • Raleigh is the subject of a chapter in William Carlos Williams' historicist essay titled In the American Grain (1925). Other chapters in the book are devoted to Hernán Cortéz, Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernando De Soto, Samuel de Champlain, and figures of American culture and politics.
  • Raleigh's name is mentioned in the Brobdingnagian Bards song "If I Had a Million Ducats" (a parody of "If I Had A Million Dollars" by Barenaked Ladies).

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