Is his name properly spelled RawleygheM as he signed it once in 1587, Rauley as he signed it until 1583, or Ralegh as he signed it more or less consistently from 1584 until his death in 1618? The spelling we prefer today is one he may never have used. How should his name be pronounced-rawly or rolly? Both questions and their several answers are appropriate to any consideration of this well-known, yet oddly enigmatic man.
One of the great streams of events in modern history has been the expansion of western Europe, which carried European influence all over the world and brought the influence of distant places back to Europe in the backwash. Sir Walter Ralegh played a pivotal role in the expansion of England into the New World.
We know little about his birth or childhood, other than that he was born about 1554 at Hayes Barton in Devonshire. In 1569 he was in France fighting for the Huguenots. In 1572 he was at Oriel College, Oxford; and 1575 he was at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court.
His career was exciting-fighting for his fellow Protestants in France; exploring the New World with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert; subduing and colonizing Ireland; catching the fancy of Queen Elizabeth and becoming important at court. Did he really put his cape in the mud for the Queen to walk upon as legend goes? Probably not, but it makes an interesting story. On 25 March 1584 he received a patent to lands discovered in the name of the Crown of England. On 27 April 1584 an expedition commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sailed from Plymouth with Simon Fernandez as pilot. They arrived off the coast of what is now North Carolina on 13 July 1584, took possession of the area in the name of the Queen, explored the region, and returned to England, with two young Indian men, Manteo and Wanchese. As a result of this expedition, Ralegh was knighted on 6 January 1585. Later in 1585 Ralegh sent to America a colony under Sir Richard Grenville with Ralph Lane as its governor. The men in this colony, who included John White and Thomas Harriot, gathered a great deal of information and explored as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. But in 1586 they returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. Although disappointed by their unexpedited return, Ralegh did not give up. In 1587 he sent a second colony, one including women and children, with John White as its governor. The disappearance of this colony sometime between John White's departure from Roanoke Island in August 1587 and his return in 1590 is one of the enduring mysteries of American history.
The Roanoke Island colonies, however, were not Sir Walter's only colonial interests. He continued his involvement in Ireland, and in 1585 he acquired a plantation in Munster, an area where land had been confiscated from rebels. Much of the land he held was in County Waterford and in County Cook-sites to which he sent colonists in 1587, the same year he sent the second colony to Roanoke Island. Among the colonist in Ireland were Thomas Harriot and perhaps some of the other men who had returned from the Ralph Lane colony. Sir Richard Grenville was also active in Ireland. An Irish rebellion at the end of the sixteenth century forced many of these colonists to return to England. According to David Beers Quinn in Raleigh and the British Empire, Ralegh did go beyond his contemporaries in his efforts to promote colonies. His desire to end a Spanish monopoly in the Americas was sincere, but success would have brought Ralegh wealth, prestige and power as the ruler, under the Crown, of a huge area in America. According to Quinn "The picture of Ralegh as an idealist, pouring out his money in pursuit of a dream of empire for the good of his country and of future generations, is of course false. He was an acute and hard-dealing businessman. Colonization was a business which he undertook to promote." The Roanoke colonies were only part of his efforts-he also made attempts at colonization in Ireland and on the northern coast of South America, in what is now Venezuela. Ralegh never came to North Carolina, but he did visit both Ireland and South America.
At the height of his career, Sir Walter angered Queen Elizabeth by secretly marrying Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of her ladies in waiting. Elizabeth I had Ralegh put in the Tower and expelled the new Lady Ralegh from court.
In the reign of James I, Ralegh was never in favor. His anti-Spanish attitudes were unpopular with the new ruler, who sought peace with Spain. Under James, Ralegh spent many years in the Tower-ironically, for conspiracy with the Spanish against the Crown and while imprisoned he wrote his Historie of the World. His rights to the New World reverted to the Crown; thus other men founded Jamestown. But the aging adventurer made one last attempt in America, his ill-fated expedition to the Orinoco River in 1618. With the failure of this expedition and attacks on the Spanish, Ralegh's fate was sealed. Spain complained bitterly. He returned to England knowing that execution awaited him. According to tradition, he showed no fear of the axe and declined the blindfold saying "Think you I fear the shadow of the axe when I fear not the axe itself." Lady Ralegh had his head embalmed and kept it with her until her death. Their son, Carew, inherited it and the head was buried with him.
Sir Walter's ghost is said to appear at Sherborne Castle on St. Michael's Eve (20 September). He strolls through the grounds of the castle, granted to him by Elizabeth in 1592, and sits under the tree which bears his name. It was here where he supposedly, while smoking a pipe of the first tobacco brought from America, that he was "extinguished" by a terrified servant who doused him with a pitcher of beer.
A fascinating character, Ralegh has been portrayed as a genius, as an idealist, a pirate, a statesman, a scientist, a writer, a gentleman and a rogue. He was probably all of these and more-truly a representative figure of the Elizabethan Age.
Text by John D. Neville
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Last updated: April 14, 2015