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Sir Walter Ralegh or Raleigh Portrait, 1588

Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618)

SIR WALTER RALEGH (or Raleigh),* British explorer, poet and historian, was born probably in 1552, though the date is not quite certain. His father, Walter Ralegh of Fardell, in the parish of Cornwood, near Plymouth, was a country gentleman of old family, but of reduced estate. Walter Ralegh the elder was three times married. His famous son was the child of his third marriage with Catherine, daughter of Sir Philip Champernown of Modbury, and widow of Otho Gilbert of Compton. By her first marriage she had three sons, John, Humphrey and Adrian Gilbert. Mr. Ralegh had been compelled to give up living in his own house of Fardell. His son was born at the farmhouse of Hayes near the head of Budleigh Salterton Bay, on the coast of Devonshire between Exmouth and Sidmouth.

The name is written with a diversity exceptional even in that age. Sir Walter, his father, and a halfbrother used different forms. The spelling "Raleigh" was adopted by Sir Walter's widow, and has been commonly used, though there has been a tendency to prefer "Ralegh" in recent times.* It was almost certainly pronounced "Rawley." In 1568 he was entered as a commoner of Oriel College, Oxford, but he took no degree, and his residence was brief. In 1569 he followed his cousin Henry Champernown, who took over a body of English volunteers to serve with the French Huguenots. From a reference in his History of the World it has been supposed that he was present at the battle of Jarnac (13th of March 1569), and it has been asserted that he was in Paris during the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572. Nothing, however, is known with certainty of his life till February 1575, when he was resident in the Temple. During his trial in 1603 he declared that he had never studied the law, but that his breeding had been "wholly gentleman, wholly soldier."

In June 1578 his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert obtained a patent for six years authorizing him to take possession of "any remote barbarous and heathen lands not possessed by any Christian prince or people." The gentry of Devon had been much engaged in maritime adventure of a privateering or even piratical character since the reign of Henry VIII. In the reign of Elizabeth they were the leaders in colonial enterprises in conflict with the Spaniards in America. During 1578 Humphrey Gilbert led an expedition which was a piratical venture against the Spaniards, and was driven back after an action with them and the loss of a ship in the Atlantic. Ralegh accompanied his half-brother as captain of the "Falcon," and was perhaps with him in an equally unsuccessful voyage of the following year.

Gilbert was impoverished by his ventures, and Ralegh had to seek his fortune about the court. In the course of 1580 he was twice arrested for duels, and he attached himself to the queen's favourite, the Earl of Leicester, and to the Earl of Oxford, son-in-law of Burghley, for whom he carried a challenge to Sir Philip Sidney. By the end of 1580 he was serving as captain of a company of foot in Munster. He took an active part in suppressing the rebellion of the Desmonds, and in the massacre of the Spanish and Italian adventurers at Smerwick in November. His letters prove that he was the advocate of a ruthless policy against the Irish, and did not hesitate to recommend assassination as a means of getting rid of their leaders. In December 1581 he was sent home with despatches, as his company had been disbanded on the suppression of the Desmonds.

His great fortune dates from his arrival at court where he was already not unknown. Ralegh had been in correspondence with Walsingham for some time. The romantic stories told by Sir Robert Naunton in the Fragmenta Regalia, and by Fuller in his Worthies, represent at least the mythical truth as to his rise into favour. Sir Walter Raleigh Lays Down His Cloak for Queen Elizabeth IIt is quite possible that Ralegh, at a time when his court clothes represented "a considerable part of his estate," did (as the old story says) throw his mantle on the ground to help the queen to walk dry-shod over a puddle, and that he scribbled verses with a diamond on a pane of glass to attract her attention, though we only have the gossip of a later generation for our authority. It is certain that his tall and handsome person, his caressing manners and his quick wit pleased the queen. The rewards showered on him were out of all proportion to his services in Ireland, which had not been more distinguished than those of many others. In March 1582 he was granted a reward of £600, and the command of a company, nominally that he might be exercised in the wars, but in reality as a form of pension, since he was allowed to discharge his office by deputy and remained at court.

In February 1583 he was included in the escort sent to accompany the Duke of Anjou from England to Flanders. In 1583 the queen made him a grant of Durham House in the Strand (London), the property of the see of Durham, which had however been used of late as a royal guest-house. In the same year the queen's influence secured him two beneficial leases from All Souls, Oxford, which he sold to his advantage, and a patent to grant licences to "vintners," — that is, tavern keepers. This he subleased, and when his agent, one Browne, cheated him, he got the grant revoked, and reissued on terms which allowed him to make £2000 a year. In 1584 he had a licence for exporting woollen cloths, a lucrative monopoly which made him very unpopular with the merchants. He was knighted in 1584. In 1585 he succeeded the earl of Bedford as Warden of the Stannaries [i.e., tin mines]. Ralegh made a good use of the great powers which the wardenship gave him in the mining districts of the west. He reduced the old customs to order, and showed himself fair to the workers. In 1586 he received a grant of 40,000 acres of the forfeited lands of the Desmonds, on the Blackwater in Ireland. He was to plant English settlers, which he endeavoured to do, and he introduced the cultivation of the potato and of tobacco. In 1587 he received a grant in England of part of the forfeited land of the conspirator Babington.

During these years Ralegh was at the height of his favour. It was the policy of Queen Elizabeth to have several favourites at once, lest any one might be supposed to have exclusive influence with her. Ralegh was predominant during the period between the predominance of Leicester and the rise of the Earl of Essex, who came to court in 1587. It is to be noted that Elizabeth treated Ralegh exclusively as a court favourite, to be enriched by monopolies and grants at the expense of her subjects, but that she never gave him any great office, nor did she admit him to the council. Even his post of Captain of the Guard, given in 1587, though honourable, and, to a man who would take gifts for the use of his influence, lucrative, was mainly ornamental. His many offices and estates did not monopolize the activity of Ralegh. The patent given to his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert was to run out in 1584. To avert this loss Ralegh, partly out of his own pocket and partly by securing the help of courtiers and capitalists, provided the means for the expedition to Newfoundland in 1583, in which Gilbert, who had been reduced to sell "the clothes off his wife's back" by his previous misfortunes, finally perished. Sir Humphrey's patent was renewed in favour of Sir Walter in March 1584.

Ralegh now began the short series of ventures in colonization which have connected his name with the settlement of Virginia. It has often been said that Ralegh showed a wise originality in his ideas as to colonization. But in truth the patent granted to him, which gave him and his heirs the proprietary right over all territory they occupied subject to payment of one-fifth of the produce of all mines of precious metals to the crown, is drawn closely on Spanish precedents. Nor was there any originality in his desire to settle English colonists, and encourage other industries than mining. The Spaniards had pursued the same aim from the first. In April 1584 Ralegh sent out two captains, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, on a voyage of exploration. They sailed by the Canaries to Florida, and from thence followed the coast of North America as far as the inlet between Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in the modern state of North Carolina. The name of Virginia was given to a vast and undefined territory, but none of Ralegh's captains or settlers reached the state itself. In the same year he became member of parliament for Devonshire, and took the precaution to secure a parliamentary confirmation of his grant. His first body of settlers, sent out in 1585 under Sir Richard Grenville, landed on what is now Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Sir R. Grenville showed himself mainly intent on taking prizes, going and coming. The settlers got on bad terms with the natives, despaired, and deserted the colony when Sir Francis Drake visited the coast in 1586. Attempts at colonization at the same place in 1586 and 1587 proved no more successful, and in 1589 Ralegh, who represented himself as having spent £40,000 on the venture, resigned his rights to a company of merchants, preserving to himself a rent, and a fifth of whatever gold might be discovered.

After 1587 Sir Walter Ralegh was called upon to fight for his place of favourite with the Earl of Essex. During the Armada year 1588 he was more or less in eclipse. He was in Ireland for part of the year with Sir R. Grenville, and was employed as vice-admiral of Devon in looking after the coast-defences and militia levy of the county. During this year he received a challenge from Essex which did not lead to an encounter. In 1589 he was again in Ireland. He had already made the acquaintance of Edmund Spenser and now visited him at his house at Kilcolman. It was by Ralegh's help that Spenser obtained a pension, and royal aid to publish the first three books of the Faerie Queen. The exact cause of Ralegh's partial disgrace at court is not known, but it was probably due to the queen's habitual policy of checking one favourite by the promotion of another. In 1589 he accompanied the expedition to the coast of Portugal, which was intended to cause a revolt against King Philip II, but failed completely. In 1591 he was at the last moment forbidden to take part in the voyage to the Azores, and was replaced by his cousin Sir R. Grenville, whose death in action with the Spaniards was the subject of one of Sir Walter's most vigorous pieces of prose writing.

In 1592 he was again at sea with an expedition to intercept the Spanish trade, but was recalled by the queen. The cause of his recall was the discovery that he had seduced one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throgmorton. Ralegh denied in a letter to Robert Cecil that there was any truth in the stories of a marriage between them. On his return he was put into the Tower, and if he was not already married was married there. To placate the queen he made a fantastic display of despair at the loss of her favour. It must be remembered that the maids of honour could not marry without the consent of the queen, which Elizabeth was always most reluctant to give and would be particularly unwilling to give when the husband was an old favourite of her own. Ralegh proved a good husband and his wife was devoted to him through life. As the ships of the expedition had taken a valuable prize, the Portuguese carrack "Madre de Dios," and as there was a dispute over the booty, he was released to superintend the distribution. He had been a large contributor to the cost of the expedition, but the queen, who sent only two ships, took the bulk of the spoil, leaving him barely enough to cover his expenses.

Ralegh now retired from court to an estate at Sherborne in Dorsetshire, which just before his disgrace he had extorted from the bishop of Salisbury, to whose see it belonged, by a most unscrupulous use of the royal influence. A son was born to him here in 1594, and he kept up a friendly correspondence with Sir Robert Cecil, afterwards earl of Salisbury, the secretary of state. But a life of constant retirement was uncongenial to Ralegh, and as his profuse habits, together with the multiplicity of his interests, had prevented him from making any advantage out of his estates in Ireland, he was embarrassed for money. In 1595 he therefore sailed on a voyage of exploration with a view to conquest, on the coast of South America. The object was undoubtedly to find gold mines, and Ralegh had heard the wild stories of El Dorado which had been current among the Spaniards for long. His account of his voyage, The Discoverie of Guiana, published on his return, is the most brilliant of all the Elizabethan narratives of adventure, but contains much manifest romance. It was received with incredulity.

He was now the most unpopular man in England, not only among the courtiers, but in the nation, for his greed, arrogance and alleged scepticism in religion. In 1590 he was named with the poet Marlowe and others as an atheist. At court he was not at first received. The share he took in the capture of Cadiz in 1596, where he was seriously wounded, was followed by a restoration of favour at court, and he was apparently reconciled to Essex, whom he accompanied on a voyage to the Azores in 1597. This cooperation led to a renewal of the quarrel, and Ralegh, as the enemy of Essex who was the favourite of the soldiers and the populace, became more unpopular than ever. In 1600 he obtained the governorship of Jersey, and in the following year took a part in suppressing the rebellion of Essex, at whose execution he presided as Captain of the Guard. In 1600 he sat as member for Penzance in the last parliament of Elizabeth's reign. In parliament he was a steady friend of religious toleration, and a bold critic of the fiscal and agrarian legislation of the time.

The death of the queen and the accession of James I were ruinous to Ralegh. James, who looked upon Essex as his partisan, had been prejudiced, and Ralegh's avowed desire for the prolongation of the war with Spain was utterly against the peace policy of the king. Ralegh was embarrassed for money, and had been compelled to sell his Irish estates to Richard Boyle, afterwards 1st earl of Cork, in 1602. He was expelled from Durham House, which was reclaimed by the bishop, dismissed from the captaincy of the Guard, deprived of his monopolies, which the king abolished, and of the government of Jersey. In his anger and despair he unquestionably took some part in the complication of conspiracies which arose in the first months of James's reign, and was committed to the Tower on the 19th of July 1603. Here he Woodcut of Sir Walter Ralegh in the Tower of Londonmade what appears to have been an insincere attempt to stab himself, but only inflicted a small wound. His trial at Winchester, November 1603, was conducted with such outrageous unfairness as to shock the opinion of the time, and his gallant bearing in face of the brutality of the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, turned public opinion in his favour. It is now impossible to reach the truth, but on the whole it appears probable that Ralegh was cognizant of the conspiracies, though the evidence produced against him was insufficient to prove his guilt. Much was kept back by the council, and the jury was influenced by knowing that the council thought him guilty.

The sentence of death passed on Ralegh, and others tried at about the same time, was in most cases not carried out. Ralegh was sent to the Tower, where he remained till the 9th of March 1616. His estate of Sherborne, which he had transferred to his son, was taken by the king, who availed himself of a technical irregularity in the transfer. A sum of 8000 offered in compensation was only paid in part. Ralegh's confinement was easy, and he applied himself to chemical experiments and literature. He had been known as one of the most poetical of the minor lyric poets of an age of poetry from his youth. In prison he composed many treatises, and the only volume of his vast History of the World published. He also invented an elixir which appears to have been a very formidable quack stimulant. Hope of release and of a renewal of activity never deserted him, and he strove to reach the ear of the king by appealing to successive ministers and favourites. At last he secured his freedom in a way discreditable to all concerned. He promised the king to find a gold mine in Guiana without trenching on a Spanish possession. It must have been notorious to everybody that this was impossible, and the Spanish ambassador, Gondomar, warned the king that the Spaniards had settlements on the coast. The king, who was in need of money, replied that if Ralegh was guilty of piracy he should be executed on his return.

Ralegh gave promises he obviously knew he could not keep, and sailed on the 17th of March 1617, relying on the chapter of accidents, and on vague intrigues he had entered into in Savoy and France. The expedition, on which the wreck of his fortune was spent, was ill-appointed and ill-manned. It reached the mouth of the Orinoco on the last day of 1617. Ralegh was ill with fever, and remained at Trinidad. He sent five small vessels up the Orinoco under his most trusted captain, Lawrence Keymis, with whom went his son Walter and a nephew. The expedition found a Spanish settlement on the way to the supposed mine, and a fight ensued in which Sir Walter's son and several Spaniards were killed. After some days of bush fighting with the Spaniards, and of useless search for the mine, Keymis returned to Sir Walter with the news of his son's death and his own utter ruin. Execution of Sir Walter Ralegh Stung by Ralegh's reproach Keymis killed himself, and then after a miserable scene of recriminations, hesitations and mutiny, the expedition returned home. Ralegh was arrested, and in pursuance of the king's promise to Gondomar was executed under his old sentence on the 29th of October 1618. During his confinement he descended to some unworthy supplications and devices, but when he knew his end to be inevitable he died with serenity and dignity.



*[AJ Note: Ralegh's name can be found spelled in over 70 different ways in contemporary documents. Ralegh himself signed it variously, finally settling on "Ralegh" — it is to be noted, however, that Ralegh himself never spelled it with an "i", as "Raleigh."]





      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XXII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 879.




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