Walter Raleigh was born in Hayes Barton, Devon.
As early as 1569 (16) he was in France, fighting on the side of the Huguenots. Returning to England, he attended Oriel College, Oxford, then the law schools of the Middle Temple.
In 1578 (25) after a short spell in Flanders, where English soldiers were assisting the Dutch in their fight against the Spanish, he made his first voyage as the captain of the Falcon, one of the Queen’s ships, in a fleet under the overall command of his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert. The fleet was driven back to port, but Raleigh went on, arriving at the island of Cape Verde on the coast of Africa some time later. When he made his way back to England his ship was damaged and many of his company had been killed.
On his return he was able to secure a position at court as an Esquire of the Body Extraordinary. In 1580 (28) he was sent to Ireland under Lord Grey, with a body of 100 men under his command, and quickly saw action when a landing of some 700 men was made in Smerwick on the Dingle Peninsula, flying banners displaying the Keys of St Peter, and under an Italian commander. After a bombardment lasting several days the invaders raised the white flag, but Grey was not prepared to give quarter. The bombardment continued, and the defendants soon came out crying for mercy and begging for water. Raleigh was one of the two captains deputed to execute the order to put the defendants (apart from those who might be ransomed) to death, in all some 600 men. The priests among them had their arms and legs smashed on an anvil in the town by the local blacksmith. They were then put in a shed for 2 days without food or water, then hung, drawn and quartered. The women were hung despite their pleas of pregnancy.
Captain of the Queen's Guard
On his return to England he managed to gain the Queen’s favour, and she gave him land, a title and the control of certain profitable monopolies, finally making him Captain of the Queen’s Guard. But his position as favourite began to be challenged by the Earl of Essex, who was incensed at finding himself in the position of competitor in love with a man he regarded as his social inferior.
Ireland once more : he meets Edmund Spenser
In 1589 (36) apparently under the Queen’s displeasure, he was again in Ireland, and he visited Edmund Spenser, an encounter described by Spenser in his long poem Colin Clout’s Come Home Again. Having read Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Raleigh was in no doubt as to the quality of the verse, and persuaded Spenser to accompany him to England to present it to the Queen. Delighted with the poem, Elizabeth awarded Spenser £100, and Raleigh found himself back in favour, a position strengthened by Essex’s fall from grace on his marriage to Frances Sidney, the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, which was not revealed to Elizabeth until she noticed the pregnancy.
Marriage and royal displeasure
In July 1592 (40), however, Raleigh himself was imprisoned in the Tower when Elizabeth discovered he had got Elizabeth Throckmorton pregnant, and secretly married her. He was released in December, but debarred from court, a ban which was not removed until 1597 (45).
Expedition to South America
After organising various naval exploits, in 1595 (43) he set sail for South America, presenting a report on his return concerning the ‘Discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana; with a Relation of the great and golden City of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado...’30 The account was published in 1596 (44), and was so popular that it ran to four editions in that year, but many disbelieved its tales, and Elizabeth was unimpressed.
Attack on Cadiz : back in favour
In the same year, he joined the Earl of Essex to command an attack on the Spanish port of Cadiz. On his return he became, along with Essex and Robert Cecil, one of the three most powerful men in the kingdom.
New king : different rules : long lease granted on a room in the Tower of London
On the death of Elizabeth (1603, 51), his enemies moved against him, and he was accused of treason by the new government of James I. He was tried and kept in the Tower for the next 12 years, during which time he befriended Prince Henry, James’ eldest son, to whom he dedicated his History of the World (for which he wrote one million words, covering the period up to 130 BC).
Release and final expedition
In 1616 (64) he was released to head another expedition to South America, which ended in disaster. His eldest son, Wat, was killed in an action against the Spanish, and it was alleged that he allowed an attack on a Spanish port contrary to Royal instruction. James I, who was trying to establish peaceful relations with Spain, was persuaded by the Spanish Ambassador to put Raleigh on trial on his return. His conviction was a foregone conclusion, and he was sentenced to death.
Last words from the scaffold
His own last words from the scaffold to the watching crowd were : ‘And now I entreat you all to join with me in prayer, that the great God in Heaven, whom I have grievously offended, being a great sinner of a long time and in many kinds, my whole course a course of vanity, a seafaring man, a soldier and a courtier - the temptations of the least of these were able to overthrow a good mind and a good man; that God, I say, will forgive me, and that he will receive me into an everlasting life. So I take my leave of you all, making my peace with God.’31
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