Biography: Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh is widely considered by historians to be among the more notable figures of Britain’s Elizabethan era. A 2002 BBC poll placed him among the 100 greatest Britons throughout the island nation’s millennia of history.

Very little is known about the circumstances of his birth, which is assumed to have taken place between 1552 and 1554. There is some debate about the specifics. He was many things in the course of his life, including writer and poet, soldier, spy, explorer, courtier, and politician. According to legal software, notable relatives of his included a younger half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and a cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Raleigh is interestingly known as the man who popularized tobacco across England.

It is known that he was born in Devon, to a Protestant family. He was named after his father Walter Raleigh, and his mother was Catherine Champernowne. Not much is recorded regarding his youth, although it’s known he spent a bit of time in Ireland. Here, in Killua Castle of Clonmellon, County Westmeath, he took part in suppressing in local rebellions, eventually participating in the noted Siege of Smerwick. He would later become a landlord over land and property that had been confiscated from some of the native Irish.

He eventually gained the personal favor of Queen Elizabeth I, and rose rapidly in status, getting knighted in 1585. He served an instrumental role in the British colonization of the North American continent, even receiving a personal royal patent for the exploration of Virginia, leading to later settlements. His influence on that region is reflected by the fact that North Carolina’s capital city is named after him.

In 1591, he married Elizabeth Throckmorton, who happened to be the lady-in-waiting for the Queen. The marriage was done in secret and without the permission of the Queen. The married couple were locked up inside the infamous Tower of London. He did get eventually released, and the two retired to his Sherborne, Dorset estate.

Not long after, he heard about a South American ‘city of gold’ and set sail to find it. He published accounts of his experiences, but they were exaggerated, helping contribute to the ‘El Dorado’ legend. He was locked up in the Tower again following Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 for supposedly plotting against King James I, who did not approve of him. His second release came in 1616 to lead another expedition in search of El Dorado. On that trip, men with him on the expedition found a Spanish outpost and ransacked it, which violated both a peace treaty with that nation and his own pardon terms. He came back to England, where authorities appeased the Spanish by arresting and executing him.