Sir Walter Raleigh
English Adventurer, Courtier, Navigator and Explorer
Walter Raleigh was educated at
Oxford and studied law in London. He fought the French religious wars on the
side of the Huguenots and in England’s war against the Irish. In 1573 and in
1583he embarked with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert in an attempt to sail
to the newfound Americas, but he did not succeed in reaching the continent.
Raleigh obtained a patent for founding a North American colony in 1584 and
immediately sent out a reconnaissance expedition under the command of Philip
Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. This expedition explored an island, apparently
called Windgandcon by the local Native Americans (present day Roanoke, North
Carolina) and returned with a cargo of Tobacco and potatoes. Raleigh named
the entire area Virginia, in honor of Queen Elizabeth. He subsequently
became a favorite of the Queen and received many honors in return for his
efforts, including a knighthood in 1585.
That year, Raleigh sent out an expedition under the command of Richard
Grenville to establish a settlement on the site he had been permitted to
colonize. Within a year the colony had failed and was evacuated by a force
led by Sir Francis Drake. A skeleton force was left behind to guard the
fort, but Algonquin Indians later wiped out the entire garrison.
This massive failure did nothing to dampen Raleigh’s enthusiasm for
colonization, however, and in 1587 he sponsored a large group of settlers
who hoped to establish another colony, this time in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Unfortunately, their pilot, due to a grievous navigational miscalculation,
left the colonist at the site of the previous Roanoke colony. This second
colony soon disappeared and to this date their fate is still left unknown.
Raleigh fell from the Queen’s favor when he secretly wed one of her maids of
honor and was imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London in 1592. After
buying his release, he set off on an expedition to Guyana (South America) in
1595 and sailed up the Orinoco River looking for El Dorado, the legendary
‘City of Gold’. Although he did find a good deal of gold in his travels, he
never did find a mythical golden city. He then joined Robert Devereux on an
expedition to the Azores in 1597.
Queen Elizabeth’s successor to the Throne, James I, did not share the
queen’s fondness for Raleigh and in 1603, when Raleigh was accused of
plotting to overthrow the King, Raleigh was sentenced to death, even though
most historians believe that Raleigh was most likely innocent of these
charges. James I later commuted the sentence from death to Life
imprisonment. During his time in Jail, Raleigh wrote his ‘History of the
After 13 years in prison, Raleigh convinced James I to allow the explorer to
return to Guyana on behalf of England to look for gold. Although the King
agreed, he warned Raleigh not to attack the Spanish in the area. The
expedition, which set out in 1616, was a complete and total failure. The
expedition found no gold and Raleigh’s own son was killed while attacking a
Spanish settlement (in complete defiance of the King’s orders). When Raleigh
returned to England the old charges were once again revived against him,
along with new ones regarding his illegal assault on Spanish properties, and
in 1618, after writing up a defense of his acts, he was executed.
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