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pirate, explorer, and sponsor of the fabled Roanoke Colony
Walter Raleigh was born in 1552, at Hayes Barton, a family home in Devonshire. He attended Oxford University, but left before graduating to join a band of gentlemen volunteers who were helping the Huguenots in France. In 1578, he returned to England and joined his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage of discovery and piracy in America.
Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I
In 1580, Raleigh became a Captain in the army in Ireland. There he distinguished himself by his ruthlessness at the siege of Smerwick. The next year, he went to Queen Elizabeth's court with dispatches, and he quickly became the queen's favorite. His part in foiling the "Babington Conspiracy" -- which was aimed at replacing Queen Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots -- ended up with the queen granting him an estate of 42,000 acres in Ireland. She also gave him trade priveleges and the right to colonize in America. She knighted him in 1585.
Like most prominent English people of his day, Raleigh was deeply interested in exploration, especially of the New World. He sent several expeditions to America, and spent a fortune trying to establish an English colony there. It was he who funded the first English exploration of the coastal region from present-day North Carolina to Florida. He was also the one who dubbed the region Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth, known as "The Virgin Queen."
Raleigh's first colonizing expedition left Plymouth in April 1585. It established a colony on Roanoke Island in Pamlico Sound, but sickness and fear took their toll and the colony's survivors returned to England in 1586.
In 1587, Raleigh made a second attempt to colonize Roanoke Island, with 117 colonists, including 17 women. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare had the distinction of being the first English child born in North America. All seemed well when John White, the governor, went back to England for supplies. He was delayed by war with Spain, however, and when he finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony had been abandoned.
While Raleigh's colonists were struggling at Roanoke, Raleigh was engaged against the Spanish. He took part in the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and led several expeditions against Spanish possessions. During the 1590's, his power reached its height as his wealth increased and his influence grew. He obtained a pension for poet Edmund Spenser, and helped Spenser publish The Faerie Queene.
Raleigh lost the queen's favor when he married one of her maids-of-honor, Bessy Throckmorton, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London (1592). Hoping, upon his release, to recover his position, he led an expedition to Guiana, in South America, to search for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. The expedition failed.
Elizabeth died in 1603. The new king, James I, distrusted and feared Raleigh, charged him with treason and condemned him to death, but commuted the sentence to imprisonment in the Tower. There he lived comfortably for 12 years with his family and servants, and wrote his History of the World, which was published in 1614.
Released in 1616, Raleigh was allowed to lead another expedition to South America. King James ordered him not to invade Spanish territory, but Raleigh disobeyed that order and invaded and pillaged Spanish settlements.
Raleigh was arrested upon his return to England, and sentenced to death for disobeying orders. He was beheaded in 1618.
There is little to confirm the famous story of Raleigh spreading his cloak across a mud puddle so that the queen could walk over it, except for the cloak included in his coat of arms.
In 1596, Raleigh introduced the potato, which he had discovered during one of his expeditions to America, to Ireland, planting the tuber on part of his estate.
This page was last updated on January 25, 2017.