Walter Ralegh

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Sir Walter Ralegh, or in common usage Sir Walter Raleigh,[1] (1554?—1618) was an English courtier, explorer, colonizer, adventurer, poet, and historian. He was born near East Budleigh in Devon, and Aubrey said that he retained a Devon accent all his life.[2] Aubrey, Naunton,[3] and Fuller[4] have various anecdotes about him, but the difficulty of knowing the assumptions of a past age make it difficult to judge his character.

The courtier and politician

Walter was the fourth son in his family, and it is uncertain how he was introduced to the court of Elizabeth, but by 1583 he had an acknowledged position there, and was soon very influential. He destroyed this influence by his marriage to one of the queen's maids of honour, and although he was eventually reinstated at court he never regained the same influence, and he never became a member of the Privy council, which may indicate that his judgment was not much valued. He was a Member of Parliament for various seats, all in the West Country.[5] The main thrust of his politics was opposition to Spain and he was considered a leader of the anti-Spanish party. His prominent position at court was enough to make him generally hated, but his prosecution for treason, and imprisonment under James VI and I, who was conspicuously pro-Spanish, helped to make him a popular (Protestant) hero.[6]

Soldier, colonizer and explorer

Ralegh appears to have served as a volunteer in the Huguenot wars in France, and was certainly part of the English army in Ireland. Here he was granted estates in the plantation of Munster, where one of his neighbouring settlers was Edmund Spenser. As a military man, he was one of the two leaders of the successful English raid on Cadiz in 1596.

Ralegh promoted, through his writings and through his actions, the establishment of an English, Protestant empire in America, displacing the Spanish, Catholic one. He attempted unsuccessfully to found two colonies in Virginia, but never settled there himself.

His principal exploration on his own account was in two expeditions, to Guiana (now Venezuela). After the first he claimed to have discovered gold. Released from prison in 1616 to make the second expedition, forces under his command attacked and sacked Spanish settlement, whether with Ralegh's authority is not known. This and the failure of the expedition revived the treason charges against him, and he was executed.


Ralegh's first published venture into prose writing was a propaganda piece about the last fight of the Revenge against an overwhelming Spanish fleet, vindicating his kinsman Sir Richard Grenville. Others include his Discoverie of Guiana; but his most famous work was The History of the World (1614), written during his long imprisonment in the Tower of London. This went up to 168 BC, though the Preface summarised recent European history,[7] and the main text drew parallels between ancient and modern events. It was influential for much of the rest of the century.

Like other Tudor gentlemen, Ralegh composed a variety of lyrics and incidental poems, which circulated in manuscript, though commendatory verses such as those printed with The Faerie Queene might get into print. He seems to have had no great interest in the publication of his poetry. The result is that only a handful of poems are securely attributed to him, though many (such as The Lie) are probably by him.[8]

The progressive

Ralegh was a patron of scientific enquiry, as well as of exploration. He was a patron of the mathematician, astronomer, and navigational expert Thomas Harriot, who lectured to Ralegh and his sea-captains on navigation. Hill argues that Ralegh was a proponent of economic reform, in the interest of the rising English middle classes, though he also claimed to have doubled the income of tinners in his capacity as lord warden of the stannaries. His political writings emphasised utility and expediency, with limitations on regal power.[9]

The attacks on his religion show to what extent he was a controversial figure. On the one hand he was accused of atheism, on the other, of being involved in Catholic plotting. He ended up as a supposed martyr for the protestant cause. In fact he seems to have veered towards Deism, without being dogmatic on anything. The lines written just before his execution "Even such is Time" express a conventional faith:

But from this earth, this grave, this dust,

My God shall raise me up, I trust.


  1. This was the spelling of his surname he regularly used in later life. Earlier, he used a variety of spellings; some of these began with Raw-, suggesting the pronunciation. Present-day families with this name usually spell it Raleigh, and he is today referred to by that form of his name. The 1938 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, calls him Raleigh and makes no mention of alternative spellings. The 1957 edition of Webster's Biographical Dictionary says: Raleigh or Ralegh, Sir Walter. Spelled his named consistently Ralegh (from 1583) but never Raleigh, the prevailing modern form.
  2. Aubrey's Brief Lives ed. O L Dick. Secker & Warburg 1949 (earlier editions are said to have been bowdlerised)
  3. Naunton, Robert. Fragmenta Regalia: or Observations on the late Queen Elizabeth, her times and favourites. 1641
  4. Fuller, T. History of the Worthies of England. 1662
  5. Nicholls, M and Williams, P. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  6. Hill, C. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. Oxford University Press. 1965. ch 5
  7. Drabble, M (ed). The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. rev ed 1995
  8. Drabble (ed)
  9. Hill