Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618)

England's Famous Discoverers: Cap. Davies, Sr Walter Ralegh, Sr Hugh Willoughby, Cap. SmithEngland's Famous Discoverers: Cap. Davies, Sr Walter Ralegh, Sr Hugh Willoughby, Cap. Smith. Repro ID: PU3722 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonDuring his own lifetime, Walter Ralegh was one of the best-known men in England. He was a courtier, politician, soldier, seaman, explorer, businessman, philosopher, historian and poet. Although nowadays his name is often spelt 'Raleigh’, he seems never to have used this version himself.

How did Walter Ralegh become a courtier?

Ralegh was the son of a Devonshire squire but his family, particularly on his mother's side, had some important connections. One of these was Humphrey Gilbert, an explorer and adventurer. He accompanied Ralegh on his first trip to the West Indies on a mission to attack Spanish ships laden with gold. Ralegh's family were fervent Protestants and believed that Catholic Spain was England's greatest enemy. Ralegh was ambitious and knew that to gain the notice of the Queen he had to prove himself as a soldier and explorer. For this reason he also went to Ireland (where his family had some land) and quelled a rebellion there. These exploits, and his prowess as a poet, enabled him to join the inner circle at Court.

Is the story of the cloak true?

The famous event of the cloak is believed to have occurred at Greenwich Palace. Soon after his return from Ireland, Ralegh, dressed very flamboyantly as usual, was walking with the Queen and other courtiers. When they came to a muddy puddle Ralegh spread out his plush velvet cloak so that the Queen would not have to step in the dirt. Whether it was true or not, Ralegh was rewarded 'with many suits', the lease of Durham House on the Strand and many other privileges.

Did Walter Ralegh fight against the Spanish Armada?

Walter Ralegh was interested in seamanship and navigation. With his new wealth he built a warship which he named the Ark Ralegh. He later gave this to the Queen who changed the name to the Ark Royal. This ship later became the flagship of the English fleet which fought against the Spanish Armada under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham. Although Walter Ralegh did not command a ship, he was a naval adviser to the Queen and helped Sir John Hawkins to implement improvements to the design of ships, an important factor in the success of the English fleet against the Spanish.

What foreign lands did Walter Ralegh explore?

When Ralegh's cousin Humphrey Gilbert died on an expedition to Newfoundland, Ralegh continued to organize and finance exploration in North America with the aim of finding and mining gold and increasing trade. Queen Elizabeth would not allow Ralegh to risk such hazardous voyages himself. The first voyage, in 1584, was commanded by members of Ralegh's own household. In 1585, Ralegh sent a party of colonists to found a settlement on the east coast of North America. They landed in North Carolina, which Ralegh later named Virginia in honour of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

Was this new colony successful?

On the nearby island of Roanoke, a hundred settlers were well received by the Algonquin Indians, who taught the men how to make fish traps and about the medicinal properties of the local herbs. However, after a hard winter the settlers became short of food and stole supplies from the Indians. Soon there were attacks and many people were killed on both sides. Supplies from England were often held up because most ships at that time were needed to protect England against the threat of a Spanish invasion.

Although this colony failed, an accurate account called A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was written by Thomas Hariot and beautifully illustrated by John White. This report showed future colonists what to expect.

What did Walter Ralegh bring back from Virginia?

Walter RaleghThe true and lively portraitur [sic] of the Noble and learned Knight Sr Walter Ralegh by Simon Van de Passe [artist], R. Vaughan [engraver]. Repro ID: PAD2432 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonWalter Ralegh is given the credit for introducing both tobacco and potatoes to Britain, although both of these were already known from Spanish explorers. Ralegh certainly helped to make smoking popular at court. He was convinced that tobacco was a good cure for coughs and often smoked a pipe.

Did Walter Ralegh have any rivals at Court?

The Queen did not like her courtiers to marry because she wanted all their attentions, so when Ralegh married Elizabeth Throckmorton he kept it secret. When the Queen found out, she punished Ralegh by putting him and his wife in the Tower and taking away some of his privileges. His position at court was now threatened by a rival, the Earl of Essex.

Was this the end of Ralegh's adventures abroad?

Ralegh hoped to regain his position at court and tried to interest the Queen in his plan to find the fabled land of El Dorado, where he was convinced there was much gold. This 'Golden Land' was situated somewhere beyond the mouth of the Orinoco river in Guiana, now Venezuela. After his release from the Tower, Ralegh took an expedition there and tried without success to get evidence of this gold, but had to abandon his plans. It was only after the death of Queen Elizabeth that he was ordered back to Guiana on a mission for King James. This resulted in the death of his only son Wat and Ralegh's imprisonment in the Tower again on his return to England.

Did Walter Ralegh find favour at the Court of King James?

When James I followed Queen Elizabeth on the throne of England and Scotland he was determined to have peace abroad, and those who were involved in war against the Spanish did not enjoy his favour. When James first met Ralegh, the king is believed to have said with an ominous pun, 'I have heard rawly of thee’. Soon after this, James heard of a plot against him and thought that Ralegh was involved in it. He was again put in the Tower where he stayed for 12 years.

What did Ralegh do in the Tower?

Ralegh spent his time in the Tower pursuing experiments and writing his History of the World, which began at the Creation and ended with his own times. He became a tutor to the young Prince of Wales and taught him about navigation. He also made herbal cordials, one of which cured Queen Anne of Denmark, but unfortunately Ralegh was later unable to save Prince Henry who died of fever at the age of 18.

Soon after his release from the Tower, Ralegh was again arrested on his way down the River Thames to a ship that was to take him to France. He was condemned to death for treason. He delivered a long speech at the scaffold and faced his execution with dignity and courage.