Walter Raleigh, ca. 1552 - 1618

portrait of Walter Raleigh
With his son Walter, oil on canvas, author unknown (1602)
Walter Raleigh signature

Born: circa 1552, Hayes Barton, Devon, England
Died: 29 October 1618, Whitehall, London, England

Raleigh's early life is not recorded, but he was from a Protestant family of enough prominence to be in occasional conflict with Mary I, the Catholic queen, leaving him with a life-long hatred of Catholics. He registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford but may not have attended at all, choosing to fight with the Huguenots in France. He registered with the Middle Temple in 1575, meaning he intended to take up a legal career, but at his trial he stated that he never studied law. He was active in suppressing the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland, after one siege he oversaw the slaughter of Italian and Catholic troops who had surrendered; he was given 40,000 acres in the province of Munster for his part in 1583. Legend says that he was responsible for planting the first potatoes in Ireland but it's more likely that they came from Spanish traders. He attempted to colonize Virginia, he funded two voyages including the first colony at Roanoke Island. He returned to England and a life at court, becoming a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, was knighted, and was appointed "warden of the stanneries", meaning he was in control of the tin mines of Cornwall and Devon, a position of surprising power. He secretly married Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton in 1591, as one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting this required the Queen's consent; when it was discovered Raleigh was imprisoned and Bess dismissed. Raleigh's rehabilitation at court developed over time, by 1601 he represented three counties in the House of Lords, unique in Elizabeth's reign. After the Queen's death he fell dramatically from favor, in 1603 trumped up charges of treasons were advanced and he was sentenced to death. Apparently uncertain about the validity of the verdict, James stayed the execution—Raleigh was confined to an apartment in the Tower of London for twelve years. He was released in 1616 to take one more try at finding the "City of Gold" on the Orinoco in Venezuela. Failing that he attacked a Spanish outpost. His son Walter was killed in the raid and the Spanish were outraged, demanding his punishment. As he was already legally dead based on the earlier sentence, he could not be tried, but the sentence was carried out. His body was buried and his embalmed head was given to his wife, almost thirty years later Bess died and the head was added to Raleigh's tomb at St Margaret's, Westminster.

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