Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) was an English adventurer, writer and nobleman. After growing close to Elizabeth I during his time in the army, Raleigh was knighted in 1585 and became captain of the guard. During Elizabeth’s reign, Raleigh organized three major expeditions to America, including the ill-fated Roanoke settlement. He later drew the queen’s wrath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Raleigh was implicated as an enemy of her successor, James I, and given a death sentence. The sentence was commuted, and Raleigh was freed to lead an expedition to the New World, but its failure sealed his fate.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s Early Life

Sir Walter Raleigh was born in 1552 to Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne. He was raised in a farmhouse near the village of East Budleigh in Devon, England. Raleigh studied at Oxford before serving in the Huguenot army in France (1569). A rival of the Earl of Essex for the queen’s favors, he served (1580) in Elizabeth’s army in Ireland, distinguishing himself by his ruthlessness at the siege of Smerwick and by the plantation of English and Scots Protestants in Munster. Elizabeth rewarded him with a large estate in Ireland, knighted him (1585) and gave him trade privileges and the right to colonize America.

Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth

In 1587, Raleigh explored North America from North Carolina to present-day Florida, naming the region Virginia in honor of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen.” (Raleigh never stepped foot in Virginia himself.)

In 1587 Raleigh sent an ill-fated second expedition of colonists to Roanoke. In 1588 he took part in the victory over the Spanish Armada. He led other raids against Spanish possessions and returned with much booty. Raleigh forfeited Elizabeth’s favor by his courtship of and subsequent marriage to one of her maids-of-honor, Bessy Throckmorton, and he was committed to the Tower of London in 1592. Hoping, on his release, to recover his position, he led an abortive expedition to Guiana to search for El Dorado, a legendary land of gold. Instead, he helped to introduce the potato plant and tobacco use in England and Ireland.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Tower of London And Beheading

Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, distrusted and feared Raleigh, charged him with treason and condemned him to death but commuted the sentence to imprisonment in the Tower in 1603. It was there that Raleigh lived with his wife and servants and wrote his History of the World (1614). Walter and Elizabeth (“Bessy”) Raleigh had three children: Carew Raleigh, Damerei Raleigh and Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh was released in 1616 to search for gold in South America. He invaded and pillaged Spanish territory when James I was seeking peace with Spain and was forced to return to England without booty. Raleigh was arrested on the orders of the king. His original death sentence for treason was invoked, and he was executed at Westminster on October 29, 1618. He is buried in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster.

A gifted poet, writer, and scholar, many of his poems and writings were destroyed. A pioneer of the Italian sonnet form in English, he was a patron of the arts, notably of Edmund Spenser in his composition of The Faerie Queene (1589–96).