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Sir Walter, English navigator, born in Hayes, in the parish of Budleigh,
Devonshire, England, in 1552; died in Westminster, England, 29 October, 1618.
His patronymic was written in thirteen different ways, but Sir Walter himself
spelled it Ralegh. Little is known of his father, Waiter, except that he was a
gentleman commoner, and that an earnest wayside remonstrance from him with the
Romanist rioters of the west in 1544 caused his imprisonment for three days,
and threats of hanging when he was liberated. His mother was the daughter of
Sir Philip Chainpernown, of Modbury, and the widow of Otto Gilbert, by whom
she was the mother of Sir John, Sir Humphrey, and Sir Adrian Gilbert.
Walter became a commoner
at Oriel, Oxford, in 1568, and probably attended the University of France in
1569, but left the same year to join a troop that was raised under the Prince
de Conde and Admiral Coligny in aid of the French Huguenots. Subsequently,
according to most authorities, he served in the Netherlands under William of
Orange, and became an accomplished soldier and a determined foe to Roman
Catholicism and the Spanish nation. On his return to England he found that his
half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had just obtained a patent for
establishing a plantation in America, and he entered into the scheme.
They went to sea in
1579, but one of their ships was lost, and the remainder, it is said, were
crippled in an engagement with the Spanish fleet, and they returned without
making land. Ralegh then served as captain against the Desmond rebellion in
Ireland, and won the commendation of his superiors by his bravery and executive
ability. On his return, according to the popular legend, he met Queen
Elizabeth one day as she was walking in the forest, and, on her approach
to a miry place in her path, took off his mantle and laid it down for her to
tread upon. The queen, who was susceptible to gallant attention, at once
admitted him to court, loaded him with favors, and employed him to attend the
French ambassador, Simier, on his return to France, and afterward to escort
the Duke of Anjou to Antwerp.
A contemporary writer
says: " He possessed a good presence in a handsome, well compacted
body, strong natural wit and better judgment, a bold and plausible tongue, the
fancy of a poet and the chivalry of a soldier, and was unrivalled in splendor
of dress and equipage." He soon used his influence to promote a
second expedition to America, but was prevented by an accident from going in
person, and left the command of the fleet to Sir Humphrey Gilbert (q. v.), who
was lost on the homeward voyage. Ralegh then obtained a new charter in 1584,
with power to land colonies " in any remote, heathen, and barbarous
lands not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people," and
secured the provision that such colonists were "to have all the
privileges of free denizens and natives of England, and were to be governed
according to such statutes as should by them be established, so that the said
statutes or laws conform as conveniently as may be with those of England, and
do not impugn the Christian faith, or any way withdraw the people of those
lands from our allegiance."
These guarantees of
political rights were renewed in the subsequent charter of 1606, under which
the English colonies were planted in America, and constituted one of the
impregnable grounds upon which they afterward maintained the struggle that
ended in separation from Great Britain. The expedition consisted of two
vessels, which sailed, 27 April, 1584, under the command of Capt. Philip
Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. They reached the West Indies on 10 June, and the
American coast on 4 July. They then explored Pamlico and Albemarle sounds and
Roanoke island, returning to England about the middle of September, and giving
such glowing accounts of their discoveries that Elizabeth called the new found
land Virginia, in memory of her state of life, and conferred knighthood on
Ralegh, with a monopoly of mines, from which he enjoyed a large revenue. She
also granted a new seal to his coat of arms, on which was graven "
Propria insignia, Walteri Ralegh Militis, Domini et Gobernatoris
Ralegh, who was now a
member of parliament, obtained a bill confirming his patent, collected a
company of colonists, and on 9 April, 1585, sent a fleet of seven ships in
command of his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, and in immediate charge of Sir
Ralph Lane (q. v.), who soon quarreled with Grenville. The latter, after
landing the colony at Roanoke island in July, sailed for England on 25 Aug.,
promising to return the next Easter. But misfortunes befell the colonists ;
they became disheartened, and in July, 1586, despairing of Grenville's return,
went to England in one of Sir Francis Drake's vessels, that commander having
passed the settlement on his way from his expedition against Santo Domingo,
Carthagena, and St. Augustine. The fruit of this settlement was little more
than a carefully prepared description of the country by Thomas Hariot ;
illustrations in watercolors by the artist, John White, of its inhabitants,
productions, animals, and birds ; and the introduction into Great Britain of
tobacco and potatoes, the latter being first planted in Ireland on Ralegh's
estate. Soon after the departure of the colonists with Lane, a ship arrived
with supplies from Ralegh, and a few days afterward Grenville returned to
Roanoke island with three ships, well provisioned, but, finding that the
colonists had all left, went back to England, leaving fifteen men and supplies
sufficient to last them two years. Meanwhile Ralegh had been appointed
seneschal of Devon and Cornwall, and lord warden of the stannaries, and had
obtained a grant of 12,000 acres of forfeited land in Ireland.
His favor in court
continued to increase, but he was hated by a large faction. He now determined
to found an agricultural state, and in April, 1587, dispatched a body of
emigrants to make a settlement on Chesapeake bay. He granted them a charter of
incorporation and appointed a municipal government for the city of Ralegh,
intrusting the administration to John White, with twelve assistants. They
founded their city, not on the bay, but on the site of the former settlement
on Roanoke island, and when their ships returned, Gov. White went home to
hasten reinforcements. But the fleet that Ralegh fitted out for the colony's
relief was impressed by the government for the war with Spain. White, with
Ralegh's aid, subsequently succeeded in sailing with two vessels that fell
into the hands of the Spaniards, and he was able to send no relief till 1590,
when he arrived, on 15 Aug., to find that all the colonists had disappeared.
It was discovered years afterward that four men, two boys, and a girl had been
adopted into the Hatteras tribe of Indians. The rest had been starved or
Ralegh had now spent £40,000
in his efforts to colonize Virginia. Unable to do more, he therefore leased
his patent to a company of merchants, with the hope of achieving his object;
but he was disappointed. He made a fifth attempt to afford his lost colony aid
in 1602 by sending Capt. Samuel Mace to search for them; but Mace returned
without executing his orders. Ralegh wrote to Sir Robert Cecil on 21 Aug.,
1602, that he would send Mace back, and expressed his faith in the
colonization of Virginia in the words, "I shall vet live to see it an
Englishe nation." Although the colonists perished, Ralegh secured
North America to the English through his enterprise, made known the advantages
of its soil and climate, fixed Chesapeake bay as the proper place for a
colony, and created a spirit that led finally to its successful
He was a member of the
council of war and lieutenant general and commander of the forces of Cornwall
in 1587, and the next year, when the armada appeared, hung upon its rear in a
vessel of his own, and annoyed it by quick and unexpected movements. He
was with Sir Francis Drake in his expedition to restore Don Antonio to the
throne of Portugal in 1589, and captured several Spanish vessels. On his
return, he visited Ireland, and contracted a friendship with Edmund Spenser,
whom he brought to England and introduced to Elizabeth, with the gift of the
first three books of the " Faerie Queen." In the hope of
shattering the Spanish power in the West Indies, he then collected a fleet of
thirteen vessels, for the most part at his own expense, and captured the
largest Spanish prize that had been brought to England. In 1591 he offended
Elizabeth by his marriage with her maid of honor, Elizabeth Throgmorton, and
was imprisoned for several months, and banished from court. But he spent his
time in the Tower in planning another expedition to Guiana, and the next year
sent out one Jacob Whiddon to examine the coast near Orinoco river. After
receiving Whiddon's report, Ralegh, with a squadron of five ships, sailed on 9
Feb., 1595. When he arrived at the end of March he captured the Spanish town
of St. Joseph, and subsequently made a perilous voyage up the Orinoco. When he
returned the same year he published an account of his voyage in his "Discovery
of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana "(London, 1596),
in which he related all the wonderful things he had heard from the Spaniards
and natives, including E1 Dorado, the Amazons, and the Ewaipanoma, a tribe
that had eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their breasts. His book was
read eagerly, and, besides these childish stories, is full of valuable
After his cooperation in
the capture of Cadiz he was restored to Elizabeth's favor, and in 1597 went on
an expedition under the Earl of Essex against the Azores, but quarreled with
his commander, and returned. He was made governor of Jersey in 1600, but,
having been accused of an agency in the death of Essex which event was soon
followed by the death of Elizabeth, he fell into disfavor, and, on the
accession of James I., was stripped of his preferment, forbidden the royal
presence, and charged with a plot to place Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne.
His estates were confiscated, and he was sentenced to be beheaded, but was
reprieved, and passed the thirteen subsequent years in the Tower.
During his imprisonment
he composed his "History of the World" (London, 1614), which
was superior in style and manner to any of the English historical compositions
that had preceded it. Ralegh was liberated in 1615, but not pardoned. He then
obtained from James a commission as admiral of the fleet, with ample
privileges and fourteen ships, and in November, 1617, reached Guiana. His
force consisted of 431 men, and he was accompanied by his son Walter and Capt.
Lawrence Keymis. Ralegh was too ill with a fever to join the expedition,
but sent Keymis and young Walter with 250 men in boats up the Orinoco. They
landed at the Spanish settlement of St. Thomas, and, in defiance of the
peaceable instructions of James, killed the governor and set fire to the town.
Young Walter was killed in the action. Unable either to advance or maintain
their position, the British retreated to the ships. Keymis, reproached with
his ill success, committed suicide, many of the sailors mutinied, the ships
scattered, and Ralegh landed in Plymouth, 16 June, 1618, broken in fortune and
reputation. He was arrested and committed to the Tower, on the charge of
having, without authority, attacked the Spanish settlement of St. Thomas. He
failed in an attempt to escape to France by feigning madness, and it was
subsequently decided to execute him on his former sentence. He was beheaded in
the old palace yard at Westminster.
Ralegh was of imposing
presence, dauntless courage, and varied accomplishments. His knowledge of the
principles of political economy were far in advance of his age. Among his
other literary ventures he founded the Mermaid club. The city of Raleigh, N.
C., is named in his honor. The
illustration represents his birthplace, Hayes farm. Besides the works
already mentioned, he wrote many poems of merit, the most noted of those
attributed to him being " The Soul's Errand." His "Remains"
were published by his grandson, Sir Philip Ralegh (London, 1661); his "
Miscellanies," with a new account of his life, by Thomas Butch
(1748); his collected poems by Sir Edward Bridges (1814); and his complete
works, with his life, by William Oldys (8 vols., Oxford, 1829). Numerous
biographies have been written of him, of which the most reliable are those by
Arthur Cayley (2 vols., London, 1805'6); Mrs. A. T. Thompson (1830); Patrick
Fraser Tytler (1833); Robert Southey (1837); Sir Robert Schomburgk, added to
his "Voyages to Guiana" (1847) ; Edward Edwards, with a full
collection of Ralegh's letters (2 vols., 1866); John A. St. John (1868);
Increase N. Tarbox (1884); and Edmund W. Gosse, in the "English
Worthies Series" (1886). -- -- Edited
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The Avalon Project
: Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh : 1584
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Sir Walter Ralegh
Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618), ...
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