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Ralegh, Sir Walter (c. 1552–1618) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

ralegh’s spanish queen expedition

Sir Walter Ralegh, a courtier, explorer, planter, and prisoner who also wrote, was born at Hayes, Devonshire (1552?), the youngest son of Walter and Katherine Champernowne Ralegh. While his extended family connections (Ralegh, Champernown, Drake, Carew) no doubt opened doors for him, his rise to power and his subsequent fall were of his own making. After spending his teen years in France fighting for the Huguenot cause (1568–72), Ralegh spent time in residence at Oriel College, Oxford (1572), and the Middle Temple (1575) before going to Munster (1580) to fight against Irish rebels. There, his outspoken criticism of England’s Irish policies brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth.

Returning to London in late 1581, Ralegh quickly established himself in Queen Elizabeth’s court, both as an expert on Irish affairs and as a royal favorite. The queen’s favor brought Ralegh rapid social and economic advancement, in the form of estates in Munster, monopolies of wine licenses (1583) and broad-cloth exports, (1584) and even new colonies; the queen knighted him in 1585 and made him warden of the Stannaries, lieutenant of Cornwall, vice admiral of Devon and Cornwall, and, in 1587, captain of the Queen’s Guard. When Ralegh’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton (1588) became known by the birth of a son in 1592, the queen had both husband and wife imprisoned in the Tower of London. Subsequently, in 1593, a commission called by Ralegh’s enemies at court investigated him for unorthodox religious thought, but without success. Although Ralegh was released from the Tower after several months and continued to work in the queen’s service, the two were not reconciled until 1597. In 1601 Ralegh helped to put down the Essex rebellion. Ralegh’s service at court ended shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603; King James stripped him of his offices and monopolies, then had him tried and convicted of treason.

Ralegh is perhaps best known as an explorer and adventurer, activities that engaged him before and during his years at court and even after his imprisonment on the treason conviction. Between 1584 and 1589 Ralegh unsuccessfully attempted to establish a colony of English settlers at Roanoke Island (also known as the Virginia colony, in present-day North Carolina). But it was as privateer that Ralegh made his name. In 1578 Ralegh captained a ship in Sir Humphery Gilbert’s search for a Northwest Passage to the Indies, a failed expedition that evolved into a privateering voyage. Ralegh proved himself adept at the extremely profitable art of raiding Spanish ships, an exercise he practiced and sponsored for the rest of his life. In 1595 Ralegh led an expedition into Guyana, in South America, in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold reported in Spanish documents and Indian stories. The Discoverie of Guiana (1596) recounts the failed expedition up the Orinoco River, through the heart of the Spanish colonies. In 1596 Ralegh accompanied the earl of Essex on the Cadiz raid and in 1597 on the expedition to the Spanish-held Azores Islands.

Leasing cheap land in Ireland, Ralegh styled himself a planter. From about 1583 through 1602, he expended great time, energy, and resources in an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Ireland. When the English, led by Lord Grey of Wilton, quashed the Desmond rebellion in Southern Ireland in 1583, they decimated the population and devastated the land. Ralegh saw this as an opportunity for the English finally to convert Ireland into a friendly and prosperous extension of the British homeland. To this end, Ralegh personally took possession of vast tracts of land in counties Cork, Waterford, and Tipperary and encouraged others, including Edmund Spenser, to do the same. The plan failed politically and financially, as the English planters were continually besieged by Irish rebellions. By 1602 Ralegh had sold most of his Irish holdings and turned his attention to more pressing matters.

Ralegh’s raids on Spanish shipping and his generally anti-Spanish political views, while encouraged by Elizabeth’s governments, did not sit well with King James and his policies of appeasement. At the urging of the Spanish ambassador, in 1603, James had Ralegh arrested and tried on trumped-up charges of treason. In a rigged trial, Ralegh was convicted of betraying England to Spain, no less, and sentenced to death. Public outcry led James to defer execution of sentence and leave Ralegh imprisoned in the Tower of London. Ralegh spent his years in prison productively, despite several strokes and periods of extended illness. While he invested in several expeditions to the Americas, his primary occupation was as tutor to Prince Henry, heir to the throne. In this role he wrote most of his prose tracts, instructing the teenaged Henry on a wide range of topics, all tending toward radical Reform Protestant and anti-Spanish ends. The best known of these works is the monumental History of the World , left unfinished after Henry’s death in 1612. In 1616 Ralegh persuaded King James, by then deeply in debt, to permit him to establish a gold mine in Guyana; the expedition failed, and Ralegh returned to England, where the French ambassador convinced him to escape to France rather than return to the Tower. Betrayal by a friend led to his capture and subsequent beheading, on 29 October 1618, on the trumped-up 1603 treason conviction.


Much Ralegh scholarship has emphasized and been dedicated to questions of canon, chronology, and text, questions to which any discussions or criticism of the poems is subject. For example, while Yvor Winters places Ralegh in the tradition of the “plain style” poets (with Gascoigne, Googe, and Turberville, as opposed to the Petrarchan school of Spenser and Drayton), two of the four poems upon which he bases his interpretation have been excluded from Ralegh’s canon by some recent editors. Still, the trend of recent scholarship on Ralegh continues to focus on his role as a court poet, subordinating his roles as explorer, planter, prisoner, and general Protestant provocateur.

Greater critical attention has been paid recently to Ralegh’s exploration writings, as means of understanding the roots of European (especially British) colonization and imperialism. Additionally, Ralegh’s life and his relationships to Edmund Spenser have come under increasing scrutiny in the study of England’s complex relationship to Ireland in the later sixteenth century. As with the poems, Ralegh’s prose works seem read not so much for their intrinsic or artistic value so much as for what they say about a fascinating character who played a major role in a fascinating age.

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