Sir Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh, alongside Sir Francis Drake, are the two best-known explorers of the Elizabethan era. Sunday marks the 399th anniversary of his death. He is reputed to have introduced Tabacco into this country and even if this is an exaggeration, he was certainly an avid smoker and so popularised it.

Sir Walter Ralegh by ‘H@ (National Portrait Gallery)

Ralegh was born in the West Country of England in 1554 to a landowning family. Little is known of his early years but he left England in 1569 to fight for the Huguenots in the French Civil War. Just a few years later he was back and studying at Oriel College Oxford, but shortly transferred to the Inns of Court in London where he was registered as a lawyer in 1575. However, he was later to claim that he had never been trained as a lawyer or practised law.

From 1579, he was part of the British Army fighting against Irish, Spanish and Italian forces in Ireland and as a result of these campaigns was given a very large land grant in Munster. In 1584 Queen Elizabeth the first granted him a charter to explore and colonise “remote, heathen and barbarous lands” and to establish a settlement there. There is no evidence that Ralegh himself took part in these expeditions, but the site chosen for the colony was Roanake island, which he placed under the command of John White. A second expedition was sent in 1587 to the colony and shortly afterwards White decided to return to England to obtain or supplies. His return was first delayed by the Spanish Armada and then by a decision to go back to the colony via Cuba in search of treasure. When they finally arrived back at the colony, they found it deserted and the fate of the settlers is still a mystery. This failure left Ralegh in debt to the Crown.

Map of Ralegh’s Roanoke expeditions from

In 1581, he commissioned the building of a new ship, which he called “Ark Raleigh”. However, because of his debt to the Crown, the ship was “purchased” by Queen Elizabeth the first in remittance of some of his debt. She renamed the ship “Ark Royal”. He also sold off his land holdings in Ireland.

10 years later, Ralegh was back in favour and was appointed the captain of the yeomen of the guard. However, this was not to last very long as the following year he was imprisoned in a tower following a relationship with one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, whom he later married. After three months he was released to lead a raid on the Spanish shipping lines, where he captured a large prize ship Madre de Deus. However this obvious he did not please the Queen enough as on his return to England he was immediately sent back to the Tower where he stayed for another six months. On his release, he retired to his Sherborne estate.

Sir Walter Ralegh (from

Only one year later he led an expedition to Guyana and eastern Venezuela in search of the lost golden city of El Dorado, but he was unable to find it. He was present at the Battle of Cadiz in 1596 and the Azores in 1597, before returning home to take his seat as the member of Parliament for Dorset. Four years later he was re-elected to the government, this time as the MP for Cornwall. During this time he also served as governor of the Channel Islands.

In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and a few months later Ralegh was arrested for treason, the accusation being he had become involved in a plot to replace King James I. He was tried at Winchester Castle and found guilty. But the king spared him and sent him back to the tower where he was to stay for the next 13 years. During this time he wrote poetry, history and accounts of his voyages.

In 1617 he was pardoned and led a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. One of the conditions of this pardon was that he should take no offensive action against Spanish interests, with whom Britain was now at peace. However, during this expedition, an attack was carried out on a Spanish colony, probably without Ralegh’s knowledge or authority. On his return to England, the Spanish ambassador insisted that this act breached the pardon that Ralegh had been given and that the king should reinstate the death sentence originally passed in 1603. James I had no choice but to agree. Ralegh was beheaded at Westminster on 29 October 1618. His body was initially buried in Beddington Surrey but was later relocated to a tomb in St Margaret’s Westminster.

Walter Ralegh was an amazing man. He showed an almost unique capacity for surviving calamities which would have finished the public career of many others, but finally, his luck ran out – ironically for something which he did not do and probably had no knowledge of, when it happened.

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