Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh
One of Britain’s most famous explorers, Sir Walter Raleigh, led many expeditions to America and introduced tobacco and the potato into England.
A soldier, warrior, politician, writer and poet too, Raleigh was equally famed for his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, in whose court he served. Raleigh first came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 when he went to Ireland to fight against rebels in Munster. On his return, he was invited to the Queen’s court where he made a lasting impression.
Once he gained influence at court, Raleigh - who was also motivated by his support for Protestantism and an intense dislike of Spain - promoted the idea of creating English colonies in North America to challenge Spanish colonial policy.
The Queen rewarded Raleigh with the right to colonise North America, and he even chose the name of the first English colony in America, Roanoke Island (now north Carolina), naming it Virginia in honour of the virgin queen. Raleigh was also granted large estates in Ireland, monopolies, trade privileges, and a knighthood.
But the charm of Raleigh often landed him in trouble and he fell out of favour with the Queen, which led to him being imprisoned in the Tower of London. On his release, he continued his colonial ventures in an attempt to win back the Queen’s trust - setting off to South America in search of the mythical golden land of El Dorado.
He failed to impress the Queen’s successor, James I of England and VI of Scotland. Having spent time imprisoned in the Tower of London again on two further occasions - during which time he wrote poetry and his book The Historie of the World - Raleigh was charged with treason. He was executed outside the Palace of Westminster in 1618.
1. Raleigh's early life
Sir Walter Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) was born into a well-connected gentry family at Hayes Barton in Devon in around 1552.
He grew up in a family of devout Protestants, who were persecuted during the brief reign of Catholic Mary I (1553-8). From an early age Walter developed a dislike of Catholicism. Raleigh was the youngest of five sons of Catherine Champernowne and Walter Raleigh, both in their second marriages.
Raleigh's half-brothers John Gilbert, Humphrey Gilbert, and Adrian Gilbert, and his brother Carew Raleigh were also prominent during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. His half-brother Humphrey Gilbert was a prominent explorer and Member of Parliament, as was his brother Carew Raleigh.
At the age of 17, Raleigh left England for France to fight with the Huguenots (French Protestants) in the Wars of Religion. In 1572, he attended Oriel College, Oxford, and studied law at the Middle Temple law college. During this time, he began his lifelong interest in writing poetry.