One of the most colorful and politically powerful members of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, Walter Ralegh (sometimes also spelled Raleigh) has come to personify the English Renaissance. Born in Hayes Barton, Devonshire, most likely in 1554, Raleigh came from a prominent family long associated with shipping. In his teens, Ralegh interrupted his education to fight with Huguenot forces in France. On his return to England in 1572, he attended Oxford University for two years and left, without taking a degree, to study law in London. One of the earliest examples of his poetry appeared in 1576 as the preface to George Gascoigne’s satire The Steele Glas. Two years later, Ralegh and his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, sailed for North America in an unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage. In 1580, he participated in the English suppression of Ireland, earning a reputation as a war hero primarily for leading a massacre of unarmed Spanish and Italian troops. Upon his return to England, he was summoned by Queen Elizabeth to serve as an adviser on Irish affairs. Elizabeth was captivated by Ralegh’s personal charm, and he soon became a favorite of hers at her court. In addition to lucrative royal commissions and grants, he was knighted in 1585 and, in 1587, appointed captain of the queen’s personal guard. Most of Ralegh’s poetry was written during this period, much of it designed to flatter Elizabeth and secure royal favor from her. He was able to use that influence to ensure the queen’s favorable reception of her friend Edmund Spenser’s Fairy Queen (1590). Ralegh also used her influence to gain the Queen’s support for her plan to establish the first English colony in North America, on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. Established in 1587, the colony was soon abandoned and its inhabitants disappeared without trace, presumably massacred by members of the Powhatan chief’s tribe.
In 1592, Elizabeth discovered that Ralegh had secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, a member of the royal court, sometime in the late 1580s. Furious at what she believed to be his treachery, Elizabeth had Ralegh imprisoned. the couple in separate cells in the tower of london. Although Raleigh was released after a few months, he was stripped of many of his privileges and exiled from court. In February 1595, Raleigh sailed up the Orinoco River in Guayana (now Venezuela) in search of gold. He regained Isabel’s favor in 1597 by taking part in a daring raid against the Spanish in Cádiz. He was reappointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard, appointed Governor of the Isle of Jersey, and, in 1601, put down a rebellion led by his old rival, the Earl of Essex.
Elizabeth’s successor, James I, disliked and mistrusted Ralegh, and accused him of treason in November 1603. Convicted and sentenced to death, Ralegh was again imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he spent the next 13 years. during this time, he wrote a history of the world, considered a literary, if not a historical, masterpiece. Ralegh eventually convinced James to release him to lead an expedition to find gold and silver in South America. Spain had become rich and powerful thanks to the gold he had taken from the New World, and with England’s treasury nearly depleted, James reluctantly agreed to back the plan. As a result of his previous trip to the Orinoco River, Raleigh knew that there was little chance of finding gold there; Instead, he planned to capture Spanish ships carrying gold back to Spain. Although James had ordered Ralegh not to tempt war with Spain, Ralegh believed that if he could pirate enough gold, the king would overlook his disobedience. unfortunately, the expedition was a disaster. Ralegh met and attacked Spanish forces near São Tomé, and in the ensuing battle, his eldest son was killed. on his return to england, he was imprisoned again and the order for his execution was reinstated. He was beheaded in front of the Palace of Westminster on October 29, 1618.