He was an explorer, courtier, navigator, cartographer and part-time corsair. Young Walter took part in privateering expeditions to the West Indies, an increasingly important staging post between the newly opened-up North America and Britain, hub of the fledgling empire.
He was sent by Queen Elizabeth I to suppress rebellion in Ireland. On his return from this mostly unsuccessful sortie he became a favourite with the Queen, though he had failed in Ireland. The Queen knew her history; all English attempts to sort out the Irish Question had failed, sometimes spectacularly. Always had, always have and always will. So Elizabeth, never lacking in a sense of humour, rewarded Raleigh for what he had done in Ireland with a gift of land – in Ireland.
From 1585 to 1591 Walter was occupied arranging colonising expeditions in Virginia (named for the Queen). Virginia is one of the original thirteen English colonies running down the east coast of what would become the United States. Raleigh’s efforts in Virginia failed. But he brought back tobacco, the potato and other unheard of stuff from America. Tobacco rapidly became a cult and a must for the British, though the future James I disliked the weed intensely, and wrote tracts against it.
Raleigh had been chief courtier to the Queen, but this honoured position was soon acquired by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who used his new powers to persuade the Queen to take against Raleigh. He was committed to the Tower of London for a period. On release, he was exiled by the Queen’s ministers. He was never sure why she had turned against him, but as a romantic poet he should have known that the Queen was dazzled by the beauties of young Essex. He did however know, as did everybody except the Queen, that Essex was feeble-minded. As we have seen so often in articles on this blog, favourites quickly become unpopular, and when Essex got himself involved in an anti-Cecil plot, something no wise man who should have countenanced, he was efficiently dealt with by the axeman. Elizabeth was said to be saddened, but the rest of the Court was relieved. Two royal favourites ordering everybody else around was too much.
Raleigh meanwhile found backing for a new expedition, this time to Guiana in South America, where he had been told there were fabulous gold mines for the picking. When the expedition returned (empty-handed) Raleigh wrote about it in a pamphlet called The Discoverie of Guiana, an evocative narrative that tells us a lot about Elizabethan adventuring. He was an accurate topographer and cartographer, as well as a precise mathematician. He made notable contributions to navigation with these skills, and seafaring men owe Raleigh a great deal.
Then, just when he was about to be seen in a good light by the Queen again – she died. Raleigh was disappointed and frustrated again. He had made many enemies in his short life, and now they plotted his downfall once more. The false accusation that he was planning to dethrone the new king, James I of England and VI of Scotland got him shut up in the Tower again. He was to stay there for thirteen years but was able to set up a laboratory for conducting experiments in chemistry, including a system for condensation of fresh water from sea water.
At last someone suggested Raleigh should be free to be a man of science and poet, and the King freed him. He promptly said he would organise another expedition to Guiana in search of gold, which he would donate in thanks to the King. The Council told him this would be fine, but that he need not and must not interfere with the Spaniards. It was one of those all too short periods when England was not at war with Spain.
Raleigh’s fleet arrived at the mouth of the Orinoco. Raleigh had stayed in Trinidad. Five English ships set off upriver but came upon a small Spanish settlement. The English could not resist a scrap as usual, and fighting broke out with the Spanish. In which Sir Walter’s son was killed.
During his stay in the Americas Raleigh wrote some of his best, certainly most melancholic verse, which can be found now in good libraries. He returned to London, where at the request of the Spanish Ambassador Gondomar, he was seized, imprisoned, and beheaded, almost without trial. He had had a sad but adventurous life, not exempt from failure. The capital of North Carolina in the United States is named after him.
Notable wits said after his execution that he had been killed because James thought he had been left over from Elizabeth’s reign, and was therefore redundant.