Walter Raleigh (c.1552 – 1618)
Walter Raleigh was an English explorer, adventurer, historian and poet. He was an important courtier at the court of Elizabeth I. At one time he was held in high regard by Elizabeth I; but, he was later executed by James I.
Walter Raleigh was born in Devon to a wealth protestant family. He attended Oxford University and briefly fought in France. He first made a name for himself in dealing with Irish rebellions. This included being involved in notorious massacres of Rathlin Island and Smerwick. However, for his role in quelling the rebellion, he was given large tracts of land in Ireland making him rich.
He then spent time in Queen Elizabeth I’s court before sailing again to America (the new world). Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing back potatoes and tobacco to England. Although they had already been discovered by the Spanish, he helped to popularise smoking in the court.
Secretly, Sir Walter Raleigh married one of the Queens courtiers Elizabeth Throckmorton. When Queen Elizabeth found out she was very angry and had both of them arrested and locked in the Tower of London. It is not certain whether Queen Elizabeth was enamoured with her dashing explorer – Walter Raleigh.
After being released, Sir Walter Raleigh mounted an expedition to south America to try and find – El Dorado – the mythical place of unbounded wealth.
In 1603, Elizabeth I died and Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned by the new King – James I. Despite little reliable evidence, he was convicted of involvement under civil law.
However, perhaps because his trial relied on heresay, his sentence of execution was commuted to imprisonment and he spent 10 years in the Tower of London. In this time he wrote a considerable history of the world, in addition to his own poetry.
However, Raleigh was released in 1816 so that he could lead an expedition to South America – in search of El Dorado. In Venezuela, he was attacked by the Spanish and Raleigh ordered his ships to return fire. The Spanish ambassodor was furious and successfully lobied James I to reinstate Raleigh’s death sentence.
Raleigh was brought back to England, and avoiding opportunities to escape was beheaded on 19 October 1618. It is said at his final hour that:
“At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear.”
He asked to look at the axe which would take his life and he added:
“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.”