1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh
English courtier, adventurer and writer
(1552-1618)




SIR WALTER RALEIGH (1552-1618), admiral and courtier, was born at Hayes in Devonshire in 1552. After a short residence at Oriel College, Oxford, he took service in the autumn of .1569 with a body of volunteers serving in the French Huguenot army, and he probably did not return to England till 1576. During the course of these years he appears to have made himself master of seamanship, though no evidence of this is obtainable. In 1579 he was stopped by the council from taking part in a voyage planned by his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and in 1580 he commanded an English company in Munster (Ireland). On 10th November he took part in the massacre at Smerwick. He remained in Ireland till December 1581, distinguished for his vigour and ability as well as for his readiness to treat Irish rebels as mere wild beasts, who were to be pitilessly exterminated, and whose leaders might be smitten down if necessary by assassination. In one way or another Raleigh's conduct gained the favourable notice of Elizabeth, especially as he had chosen to seek for the support of Leicester, in whose suite he is found at Antwerp in February 1582. For some years Raleigh shone as a courtier, receiving from time to time licences to export woollen cloths and to sell wine, after the system by which Elizabeth rewarded her favourites without expense to herself. In 1585 he became lord warden of the Stannaries, soon afterwards he was vice-admiral of Devon and Cornwall, and in 1587 was captain of the guard. But he was one of those who were dissatisfied unless they could pursue some public object in connexion with their chase after a private fortune. In 1583 he risked £2000 in the expedition in which Sir Humphrey Gilbert perished. In 1584 he obtained a charter of colonization, and sent Amadas and Barlow to examine the country which he named Virginia. In 1585 he despatched a fleet laden with colonists. They were, however, soon discouraged and were brought back to England by Drake in the following year. Shortly afterwards fifteen fresh colonists were landed, and another party in 1587. All these, however, perished, and, though Raleigh did all that was possible to succour them, the permanent colonizing of Virginia passed into other hands.

In 1584 Raleigh obtained a grant of an enormous tract of land in Munster, in one corner of which he introduced the cultivation of the potato. To people that land with English colonists was but the counterpart of the attempt to exterminate its original possessors. This view of the policy of England in Ireland was not confined to Raleigh, but it found in him its most eminent supporter. In his haste to be wealthy, his love of adventure, his practical insight into the difficulties of the world, and his unscrupulousness in dealing with peoples of different habits and beliefs from his own, Raleigh was a representative Elizabethan Englishman. He did his best, so far as a usually absentee landlord could do, to make his colonists prosperous and successful; but he underestimated the extraordinary vitality of the Irish race, and the resistance which was awakened by the harsh system of which he was the constant adviser at Elizabeth's court. Elizabeth, too, was: unable to support him with the necessary force, and his whole attempt ended in failure. Raleigh's efforts were at least made on behalf of a race whose own civilization and national independence were at stake. The Elizabethan men were driven to take large views of their difficulties, and it was impossible for Raleigh to separate the question whether English forms of life should prevail in Munster from the question whether they should be maintained in England:1 Two conceptions of politics and religion stood face to face from the Atlantic to the Carpathians, and every one of vigour took a side. The balancing intellects were silenced, or, like Elizabeth's, were drawn in the wake of the champions of one party or the other. Wherever the strife was hottest Raleigh was sure to be found. If he could not succeed in Ireland he would fight it out with Spain. In 1588 he took an active part against the Armada, and is even supposed by some to have been the adviser of the successful tactics which avoided any attempt to board the' Spanish galleons. In 1589 he shared in the unsuccessful expedition commanded by Drake and Norris, and for some time vessels fitted out by him were actively employed in making reprisals upon Spain.





Raleigh was a courtier as well as a soldier and a mariner, and as early as 1589 he was brought into collision with, the young earl of Essex, who challenged him, though the duel was prevented. Some passing anger of the queen drove him in this year to visit Ireland, where he renewed his friendship with Spenser, and, as is told in poetic language in Colin Clout's come Home again, took the poet back with him to England, introduced him to Elizabeth, and, persuaded him to proceed to the immediate publication of a portion of the Faerie Queen. If Raleigh could plead for a poet, he could also plead for a Puritan, and in 1591 he joined Essex in begging for mercy for Udall. In the end of 1591 or the beginning of 1592 Raleigh seduced and subsequently married Elizabeth Throckmorton, and was consequently thrown into the Tower by Elizabeth, who could not endure that the fantastic love-making to herself which she exacted from her courtiers should pass into real affection for a younger woman. Previously to his imprisonment Raleigh had been forbidden to sail in command of a fleet of which a great part had been fitted out at his own cost for service against Spain. The ships, however, sailed, and succeeded in capturing a prize of extraordinary value known at the time as the " Great Carrack." No one but Baleigh was capable of presiding over the work of securing the spoils. He was sent to Plymouth, still in the name of a prisoner, where his capacity for business and his power of winning the enthusiastic affection of his subordinates were alike put to the test. The queen at last consented to restore him to complete liberty, though she. tried to cheat him of his fair share of the booty.

Raleigh resolved to use his regained liberty on an enterprise more romantic than the capture of a carrack. The fable of the existence of El Dorado was at that time fully believed in Spain, and in 1594 Raleigh sent out Captain Wheddon to acquire information about the lands near the Orinoco. In 1595 he sailed in person with five ships for Trinidad. On his arrival he found that the Spaniards, who had occupied a place called San Thome at the junction of the Orinoco and the Caroni, had been obliged to abandon it. Raleigh ascended the river to the spot, heard more about El Dorado from the Indians, brought away some stones containing fragments of gold, and returned to England to prepare a more powerful expedition for the following year. When he came back he published an account of his voyage. The hope of enriching himself, and of giving to his country a source of wealth which would strike the balance in its favour in the struggle with Spain, exercised a strong fascination over the imaginative character of Raleigh. In the next year, 1596, however, he was wanted nearer home, and was compelled to content himself with sending one of his followers, Captain Keymis, to extend his knowledge of Guiana. He was himself called on to take the command of a squadron in the expedition sent against Spain under Lord Howard of Effingham and the earl of Essex. It was Raleigh who, on the arrival of the fleet off Cadiz, persuaded Howard and Essex to begin by an attack on the Spanish fleet, and who himself led the van in sailing into the harbour. Before long the Spanish fleet was thoroughly beaten, and all of it, except two vessels which were captured, was destroyed by the Spaniards themselves. Raleigh was wounded in the action, and the subsequent capture of Cadiz was carried out by others. In May 1597 Elizabeth, who was growing somewhat tired of the petulance of Essex, readmitted Raleigh to court. It was arranged that he should go as rear-admiral of a fleet, under the command of Essex, intended to cripple yet further the maritime power of Spain. The " island voyage," as it was called, was on the whole a failure, the only notable achievement being the capture of Fayal (Azores) by Raleigh in the absence of Essex. The generous nature of Essex was overmastered by vanity, and, falling under the sway of meaner men, he grew to regard Raleigh as a personal rival. He did not even mention the capture of Fayal in his official account of the voyage.

In 1598 Elizabeth, who was always ready to reward her courtiers at the expense of others, completed a bargain in Raleigh's favour. In 1591 he had obtained, through the queen's intervention, a lease for ninety-nine years of the manor of Sherborne from the bishop of Salisbury. In 1598 the see was vacant. Aspirants to the mitre were informed that only by converting the lease into a perpetual estate in Raleigh's favour could the object of their wishes be obtained. On these terms Dr Cotton became bishop of Salisbury and Raleigh possessor of Sherborne in full ownership. In 1600 Raleigh added to his other offices that of governor of Jersey. A temporary reconciliation between Raleigh and Essex was followed by a permanent estrangement when Essex was appointed to the government of Ireland, the personal feeling on both sides being probably strengthened by the divergence between their Irish policies,—Raleigh wishing to use force alone, whilst Essex wished to come to terms with Tyrone. When Essex rushed into his final act of rebellion he gave out as one of his reasons his fear of being murdered by Raleigh and Lord Cobham, who at this time were allied.





After the death of Essex the question of the succession assumed a pressing importance with the imminence of the close of Elizabeth's reign. Cecil, allying himself with the intriguing Lord Henry Howard, assured himself of James's favour, and poisoned his ear against Raleigh and Cobham. Into Raleigh's feelings at this time it is impossible to penetrate with certainty, but it can hardly be doubted that, though he professed himself ready to support James's claim, he did not throw his whole heart into the cause of the Scottish king. Raleigh was the man of the struggle against Spain, self-reliant and unrelenting, eager to push on the reprisals on Spain till the Spanish monarchy was utterly beaten down. James was a lover of peace, anxious to live on good terms with all his neighbours, and under the belief that by fair dealing the Catholic powers and the pope himself might be brought to accept loyally the hand which he was ready to hold out. Raleigh, in short, wished to emphasize the differences which divided Christendom; James wished to treat them as hardly existing at all. When James came to the throne, therefore, he was certain to come into conflict with Raleigh, and not being able to' see the advantage of keeping about him men of different tempers he dismissed him from the captaincy of the guard, compelled him to surrender the wardenship of the Stannaries, suspended his patent of wine licences as a monopoly,' and took from him the governorship of Jersey, though for this he gave him a pension to compensate for his loss. That which followed it is impossible to fathom to the bottom. Raleigh must have been very angry, and it is quite possible that he may have used violent language and have even spoken of a Spanish invasion as preferable to the rule of James, or have declared his preference of the title of Arabella Stuart to that of the existing sovereign. The main witness against him was Cobham, and Cobham made and retracted his charges with such levity that it is impossible to trust to his evidence. Raleigh, however, was imprisoned, and, after attempting to commit suicide, was brought to trial at Winchester in November 1603, when he was condemned to death. The king, however, commuted his sentence upon the scaffold to one of imprisonment.

During his imprisonment in the Tower Raleigh devoted himself to chemical experiments and to literary work. It was here that he composed so much of the History of the World as was ever finished, and that he also issued pamphlets on questions of passing politics. Here too he learned that misfortune continued to follow him, and that there was a flaw in the conveyance by which he had made over Sherborne to trustees to save it from the usual consequences of attainder, and that James had seized it for his favourite Carr, though he gave in compensation £68000 and a pension of £6400 a year for the lives of Lady Raleigh and her eldest son.

Raleigh's thoughts had often turned to Guiana. An offer made by him in 1612 to send Keymis to the gold mine which he believed to exist near the Orinoco was rejected, but in 1616 he was himself released at the intercession of Villiers, on the understanding that he was to go in person to Guiana, and was to visit the gold mine. As a security that he would not encroach upon the territory of Spain, he was to remain unpardoned, so that his life might be at the king's mercy if he broke his promise. It is probably not doing injustice to Raleigh to suppose that he had no intention of keeping it if it proved inconvenient. As far as was then known, indeed, the spot where the mine was supposed to be might be reached without passing a Spanish settlement, though he was aware that the Spaniards claimed the whole country as their own. To seize Spanish territory and to fight the Spaniards in every possible way was, however, regarded by him as altogether righteous as well as politic, and he had no respect for James's scruples, which arose partly from weakness, but partly also from a respect for international obligations, which in the case of Spain was foreign to Raleigh's mind. Most likely Raleigh thought that all would be well if he brought home sufficient evidence that the mine was worth possessing. Before he sailed he suggested to James that he should be allowed to attack Genoa, a city in dependence on Spain, and when this plan was rejected he entered into communication with the French ambassador and sent to the admiral of France to ask permission to bring into a French harbour all that he might gain on his voyage. The expedition turned out badly. His sailors would not ascend the Orinoco unless he remained at the mouth to keep off the Spaniards. Those who ascended found a Spanish village in the way, and after a sharp fight drove the Spaniards out and burned the place. The mine, if it really existed, they never reached, and Raleigh had to return to England with failure on his head. He was soon arrested and lodged in the Tower.

Whether James would have pardoned Raleigh if he had brought home large quantities of gold cannot now be said.

Coming home as he did, he had to bear the blame of the attack on the Spanish village, which he had done nothing to avert in his orders to the party going up the river. He was brought before a commission of the privy council. Notes taken of the proceedings have only partially been preserved, but it appears that there was strong evidence that after his failure he had attempted to induce his captains to seize Spanish prizes, or, in other words, to commit what James held to be an act of piracy, though Raleigh, with his views of the rightfulness of fighting Spain in America whatever the Governments in Europe might do, would doubtless have qualified it by another name. At last the commission decided against him, and he was sent to execution formally on his old sentence at Winchester, in reality for having allowed his men to shed Spanish blood after engaging that he would not do so.

He was executed on 29th October 1618. His attitude against Spain gave him popularity at a time when the attempt of James to draw closer the bonds between Spain and England was repudiated by the great majority of the nation. (S. E. G.)



The above article was written by: S. Rawson Gardiner, LL.D.



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