Sir Walter Raleigh, stoically peering out at you from history books and gallery walls, is the ultimate Elizabethan. He’s depicted at various times in his life as dashing and confident, yet often foppish, titivated by a pearl earring or a vast ruff that appears to detach his head from his body.
Born in 1554, close to Budleigh Salterton in Devon, Raleigh’s family were already well-connected to the higher echelons of society. His aunt, for example, was Queen Elizabeth I’s former governess. At the age of 24, after dropping out of Oxford University, he joined his half-brother on a failed expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Despite this, he was employed by Queen Elizabeth as a soldier of service and made quite an impression on her when he helped to suppress a Catholic uprising in Munster, Ireland.
Raleigh, charismatic and handsome, took full advantage of his privileged access to the Queen, or ‘Cynthia’ as he called her, and wrote of her adoringly in poems. Walter and the Queen become close, maybe even romantically, enabling his wealth and status as a result of his proximity to the monarch.
These included a tidy property portfolio, lucrative businesses and Raleigh’s promotion to Captain of the Queen’s Guard in 1587. The same year, an expedition under Raleigh’s stewardship made its second voyage to the Roanoke Colonies, located in modern-day North Carolina. The mission had aimed to establish a permanent base for mining gold, copper and other rarities in the Americas, but when the expedition returned to the colonies for the third time in 1590, there was no trace of the 117 men, women and children who had settled there.
This was bad news for Raleigh on more than one front. Firstly, the Queen wasn’t impressed by Raleigh’s failure to exploit the rich resources of the Roanoke Colonies in favour of returning, by proxy, with potatoes and tobacco from neighbouring Virginia.
Raleigh is credited with the introduction of both products, but this is apocryphal. Firstly, tobacco was well known to Spanish and Portuguese sailors and was arguably brought to England in 1565 by renowned naval commander Sir John Hawkins. As for the potatoes, the Spanish introduced them to the English in the 1570s. Besides, Raleigh and his Queen would have had no interest in eating vegetables, widely regarded as peasant food. However, Raleigh arguably introduced the habit of smoking to the court and may well have been responsible for making it fashionable.
Not that any of this would have helped conceal the failure to establish a base on the Roanoke Colonies. There were other consequences too as it was an excellent location from which to interfere with Spanish trade.
Raleigh had a lucrative side hustle as a privateer, a person commissioned by the sovereign to attack ships and seize their goods. In other words, Raleigh was a state-sanctioned pirate. Despite his image as a gentleman explorer with a penchant for courtly poetry, Raleigh was a self-aggrandising rogue destined to become unstuck by playing fast and loose with the powers that be. And so it came to pass.
Unbeknownst to the Queen, Raleigh had fallen in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, better known simply as Bess. In 1591, Bess fell pregnant and the pair, she 19, and he 37, married in secret. The Queen found out the following year and was furious.
After having Raleigh and his wife arrested and flung into the Tower of London for a month, the cooled relationship between Elizabeth and Raleigh was given a second lease of life when, in 1592, a fleet of Raleigh’s ships captured the Madre de Deus. This vast Portuguese carrack was stuffed full of diamonds, rubies, gold, silver, pearls, ebony and spices making the Queen about 80k (over £28 million in today’s money) wealthier.
This sudden windfall in cash may well have led to the Queen granting Raleigh a royal commission to search for El Dorado in 1595, the legendary Spanish City of Gold. This time, Raleigh himself was to lead the expedition to South America, but after locating some gold mines the plan to colonise the area was abandoned and, once again, Raleigh found himself out of favour. But in 1603 the Queen died and the son of Queen Mary, James VI and I succeeded the throne.
James was keen to avoid further conflict with the Spanish. So, when a plot to overthrow James was discovered, Raleigh, the Spanish bothering privateer, was accused as one of the co-conspirators. He narrowly avoided being executed and was, once again, imprisoned in the Tower of London where he wrote poems and books, including the acclaimed, The History of the World.
15 years later, the king, facing bankruptcy, was forced to release Raleigh to resume his hunt for El Dorado. Raleigh set sail in 1617, but he and his crew were struck down by disease. While Raleigh recuperated in Trinidad, Raleigh’s son, also called Walter, led the ongoing exploration. Instead of heeding James' warnings to keep clear of the Spanish, Walter Jr. invaded a Spanish settlement in Guiana where he and some of the settlers were killed in the skirmish.
Raleigh returned home in 1618 without his son, any gold and, it would seem, any friends. In the light of Spain and England trying to resume diplomatic relations, the Spanish ambassador called for Raleigh to be executed for his contribution to the invasion of Guiana, which James granted that June.
On 29th October 1618, Raleigh was taken to the Old Palace Yard in Westminster. He was extravagantly dressed and, despite the circumstances, in good spirits, even demanding to examine the executioner’s axe before declaring, 'This is sharp medicine...that will cure all my diseases!' His final words were, 'Strike man, strike!' after the executioner momentarily paused before bringing the axe down on his neck.
His wife took his head home in a leather bag and later arranged for it to be embalmed. The rest of his body was buried in St. Margaret's, Westminster, just south of the altar. As for the head, it was found in a cupboard in West Horsley Place, Surrey in 1660 and subsequently buried in the neighbouring St Mary’s Church alongside his three young grandchildren, where it rests to the present day.