Sir Walter Ralegh – a biographical sketch
Born in 1554 to a respectable Devon gentry family, Walter Ralegh was the younger son of Walter Ralegh and Catherine Champernowne. His family connections were a strong asset. His uterine half-brother was the adventurer Humphrey Gilbert whose connections to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Ralegh would exploit early in his career. His mother was sister to Kat Ashley, Elizabeth I’s nurse.
Nevertheless, Ralegh’s early life and career were rocky. He would reminisce about fighting alongside the Huguenots during the French wars of Religion. Yet, by 1572 he was at Oriel College Oxford. He left before securing a degree. In 1578 his half-brother secured a patent to discover ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’. Ralegh joined his brother’s fleet as captain of the Falcon. The expedition was a fiasco and Ralegh returned to England in 1579.
In 1580 Ralegh secured a Captain’s commission and served in Ireland against the Desmond Rebellion. He was a successful, brutal soldier and his service gave him his first experience of the court. He first met Elizabeth as a messenger but whatever later attracted to one another later was not in evidence. He was dispatched back to Ireland. Ralegh returned to court in the entourage of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. By 1583, however, the Queen’s regard for Ralegh was such that he became an important courtier in his own right and received substantial grants: monopolies on broadcloth and playing cards and the right to charge all vintners £1 for the licence to sell wine. He also received the second floor of Durham house to be his London residence.
For almost twenty years after Ralegh occupied a position of great prominence. The connection between Ralegh and his queen has been one of the mysteries of Ralegh’s career. Attempts to describe the relationship often rest on their poetic interactions. Yet poetry was a highly conventionalised means of cultivating favour. Ralegh’s poems for Elizabeth express the tempered eroticism and flattery often found in Elizabethan courtly discourse.
Ultimately, Ralegh was never the sole favourite and his rise was limited. He never joined the privy council and he received an official position at court only in 1591, becoming Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. He was more a favoured servant than special favourite. The gifts he received were less extravagant presents than they were the financial foundation for his service to the crown. And serve he did, becoming, among other things, Lord Lieutenant and Vice-Admiral of Cornwall, Warden of the Stannaries, MP for Devon and Governor of Jersey.
In 1591, Ralegh secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting. This marriage crippled his career at court. Elizabeth was outraged, though whether at Ralegh’s temerity or out of sexual jealousy is unknown. Ralegh and his wife were both conveyed to the Tower of London. Though soon released, Ralegh did not return to the court until 1597.
Ralegh’s career collapsed after James I’s accession. Convicted of treason in 1603 for alleged involvement in a plot against new king, he spent fifteen years imprisoned in the Tower. There he wrote his monumental Historie of the World. In 1617, desperate to revive his fortunes, he proposed an expedition to establish a gold mine in Guiana. However, the voyage was a disaster, crowned by the burning of the Spanish settlement of San Tomè. Having ended the long-running Anglo-Spanish war in 1603 and now seeking a marriage-alliance with the Habsburgs, James chose to execute Ralegh.
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