The life of Sir Walter Ralegh

Today’s fragments form an overview of the life of one of England’s most famous explorers and courtiers.

Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) was born at Hayes, near East Budleigh, in Devon. He was the second son of Walter Ralegh and his third wife, Katherine. The Raleghs were an old-established Protestant family; Walter senior was the deputy vice-admiral under Mary I from 1555 to 1558, and Katherine Ralegh’s children from her first marriage included the famous mariner and soldier Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose career greatly influenced Walter.

Little is known of Walter’s early life. It is thought he was an ‘indefatigable Reader’, and remarks gleaned from his History of the World, which he published in 1614, suggest he served as volunteer with the Huguenot armies in France from about 1569.

Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford in 1572, and left without a degree, being admitted to the Middle Temple in 1575. His first published poem appeared in George Gascoigne’s The Steel Glass in 1576.

Walter’s mother’s elder sister, Katherine Astley, had been governess to Elizabeth I from 1544, and she became her chief gentlewoman in 1558. It may have been this connection which offered Ralegh his initial introduction at court. In 1578, Walter’s step-brother Humphrey secured a patent to discover ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’ and Walter sailed in his fleet as captain of the Falcon. The expedition was beleaguered with storms and desertions, but Ralegh continued on into the Atlantic in search of adventure, eventually returning to Plymouth in 1579.

In 1580, he secured a captain’s commission and was sent to Ireland to tackle the Desmond rebellion.  Serving under Arthur Grey in county Kerry, Ralegh oversaw the slaughter of a force of Italian and Spanish adventurers who had landed in support of the Irish rebels. It was at this time that he fathered his first child, of which little is known; it has been suggested that Ralegh later betrothed the child to Daniel Dumaresq, his page, and that the girl died of plague.


Walter returned to court in 1581, and soon attracted the attention of the queen. He was a tall man, with dark hair and attractive features. The famous story of him spreading his cloak over a puddle to allow the Queen to walk without getting her feet muddied is probably no more than gossip recorded by Thomas Fuller. Nonetheless, Walter quickly became one of the queen’s favourites, and he wrote her elegant, courtly poems, one of which, Farewell false love, was read widely during the early 1580s. In 1583, Elizabeth granted Ralegh one of her favourite palaces, Durham Place on the Strand. It came complete with a lantern tower which had views across London ‘as pleasant perhaps as any in the world.’

Humphrey Gilbert died in 1583, and Ralegh took up his half-brother’s ambitious plans to colonise the New World. In 1585, having secured his patents, Ralegh set off on his expedition, taking four ships and 600 men, including his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Ralegh’s grand plans to reach Virginia came to fruition under Grenville, who left men to settle on Roanoke Island, while he himself went on to pursue a private voyage in search of wealth and plunder. By the summer of the following year, the colonists were on the point of starvation, and many chose to return home with Sir Francis Drake, who had anchored at Roanoke on his return from the Caribbean. In 1587, Ralegh embarked on another expedition to the New World, however this enterprise was as unsuccessful as his last; the colonists suffered the same fate as the inhabitants of Roanoke, and by 1590 the settlement was deserted.

There is an historical myth which claims it was Ralegh who introduced both tobacco and the potato to England. However there is nothing in print to link the potato, which originated in Peru and arrived in Spain by 1570 and wider Europe thereafter, with Ralegh until at least 1699. Likewise, Ralegh’s links with tobacco, which is first mentioned by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and was introduced into Europe by Andre Thevet in the mid fifteenth century and was being smoked in England by c.1571. While Ralegh was not responsible for the introduction of smoking in England, he is thought to have popularised it at court.

In 1591, Ralegh began a liaison with Bess, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, and daughter of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. On discovering Bess was pregnant later that same year, Ralegh and she were married in secret, knowing full well that news of their union would greatly displease Elizabeth I. Ralegh worked hard to quash rumours of the marriage, but the couple’s son was born in March 1592, after which Bess returned to court, while Ralegh set sail on yet another expedition. By May, he was back in England, and news of his illicit marriage broke. His son was brought to him by his nurse at Durham Place, perhaps the only time the two were together. Ralegh’s wife was placed in the custody of Sir Thomas Heneage, and Ralegh was committed to the custody of Cecil. Ralegh made a variety of pleas to the Queen which only worsened the situation, and on 7th August 1592, both he and his wife were committed to the Tower. Fortunately, one of Ralegh’s overseas expeditions returned home the following month with a huge treasure hoard, and Ralegh was released to oversee the division of the loot. Elizabeth I allowed him to keep a tiny share of the spoils, and it appears she had softened her attitude towards Ralegh, even permitting Bess to be released from the Tower in December of that year.



Unfortunately Ralegh and Bess’s son died in infancy, but their second child, Walter, was born in November 1593. The couple was still banished from court (and Ralegh would remain so until 1597), but Ralegh spent his time in politics, representing Dorset in Parliament. During these years he also began to plan an expedition to discover El Dorado, the mythical lost city of gold. In 1595, he set sail from Plymouth, arriving at a Spanish colony on Trinidad, before travelling on to Orinoco. However, despite his efforts, he arrived home seven months later empty-handed, to the mockery of both Queen and court.

The following year, he was still much in disgrace but the mounting fear of an attack from Spain brought a demand for Ralegh’s maritime experience and he returned to court. The Queen, fearing an invasion, insisted on including Ralegh in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, which became one of the triumphs of her reign.

In 1603, Elizabeth died, and Ralegh, having by now made some dangerous enemies at court, was quickly rebuffed by the new king, James. He was stripped of his monopolies and told to leave Durham House. In the summer of the same year he was detained for questioning on treason charges, and placed under house arrest. Implicated in the Main plot, which intended the death of the King and a Spanish invasion, Ralegh was sent to the Tower. In intense despair, he attempted a failed suicide bid, and lived as a prisoner at the Tower until 1612. He was permitted two rooms in the Bloody Tower (which can still be seen today), books, and a garden. During his imprisonment he wrote his major work, The History of the World, which he began writing in 1607. It was eventually published in 1614.


Ralegh’s room, preserved at the Tower of London

Ralegh was finally released from the Tower in 1616, and he at once began plans for another expedition to find El Dorado. He set sail in August, but illness, desertion, and a demoralised crew ensured that Ralegh eventually returned to England empty-handed, and something of a broken man. This last failure was a hard blow, ‘My braines are broken,’ he wrote to Bess on 22nd March, ‘and tis a torment to me to write.’

In 1618, Ralegh was once more arrested, this time over reports that activity during his final expedition had placed the peace between England and Spain in jeopardy. Placed under house arrest, Ralegh made a failed escape bid to France, and was once again sent to the Tower. Despite moving speeches and entreaties, Ralegh’s pleas for clemency were ignored, and he was executed on 29th October 1618 at Westminster. His head, severed after the second blow, was placed in a leather bag, and kept by his wife, while his body was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

In the years following his death, Ralegh’s popularity as a poet and adventurer grew. His works were published and republished, and he developed a cult status as a gentleman explorer and pioneer which continues to this day.

Source: Mark Nicholls, DNB.

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  • May 31, 2010 - 11:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you Justine! Anonymous, I assume you’re referring to other posts, since this one is obviously a mini potted biography. I appreciate your comments, many people have made similar points about enjoying the presentation of primary sources as stand-alones. Thanks!

  • Justine
    May 31, 2010 - 11:48 am | Permalink

    Brilliant, as ever! Thanks Dainty!!

  • Anonymous
    May 31, 2010 - 11:46 am | Permalink

    Another excellent post. As an academic I greatly enjoy your blog, since you often leave the texts to speak for themselves. I appreciate that many non-historians might need commentary on and explanations of early modern sources, such as I’ve seen in other history blogs, but yours allows both students to come at the texts for themselves, which is an invaluable learning tool, and more experienced academics to discover new sources and primary texts. Really first rate stuff!

  • May 31, 2010 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you Hamie, glad you enjoyed it.

  • hamie_jones
    May 31, 2010 - 11:31 am | Permalink

    Fascinating and illuminating as ever – thanks

  • May 31, 2010 - 10:48 am | Permalink

    That does sound like an accurate description. Until I started delving into his biography I had no idea how troublesome his life had been. Space didn’t permit me to include a wealth of details. I am quite moved by his rather tragic end.

  • May 31, 2010 - 10:42 am | Permalink

    In 1066 and All That WR’s fate was explained by ‘being left over from the previous reign’ which is probably quite accurate.

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