Sir Walter Raleigh: the outer man


Sir Walter in 1588, at age 34. Note the pearl earring and impeccable style.

Sir Walter plays a role in my fifth Francis Bacon mystery, Let Slip the Dogs, so it’s time for a post about this extraordinary man. There’s a great Wikipedia article about him, full of illustrations, which doesn’t need repeating. But I’m going to do two posts: this one to lay out the essential facts of Ralegh’s life, and another to share some insights about the inner man.

I find Ralegh fascinating, frankly, and he’s a fun character for my books, especially since I don’t have to write from his point of view. Francis Bacon must have spent many, many hours in his proximity, if not in his company, standing around in the presence chamber. Robert Cecil both schemed against him and recruited him, when necessary. Courtiers hated him; common sailors loved him. Through all the centuries since his death, he has been regarded as the quintessential Elizabethan.

About Sir Walter’s last name: He evidently spelled it ‘Ralegh’ more often than not in the many extant samples of his signature. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days, remember. You’d just follow whatever your ear told you at the moment of writing. Modern historians usually write ‘Ralegh,’ so I did too, in the first book in this series, Murder by Misrule. Since we don’t follow a variable spelling policy nowadays, that fixed my choice once and for all.


The early years


Combe Raleigh Church

Walter was born around 1554, exact date unknown. They were just beginning to keep good parish records in mid-sixteenth century. And no one could have predicted how famous that infant would become!

To the earls (Leicester, Oxford, and Essex) whom Ralegh displaced from the Queen’s side, he was an “upstart Jack,” a nobody. But in fact, his family, like theirs, extended all the way back to the Conquest. A Ralegh was Sheriff of Devon during the reign of Henry II. Another was a judge of King’s Bench; another was bishop of Winchester in the thirteenth century.

A.L. Rowse (see below) notes that one can get a sense of the medieval family’s importance by looking at a map of Devon, spotting towns like Withycombe Ralegh, Coalton Ralegh, and Combe Ralegh.

The family declined in fortune, if not in status. They continued to marry into Devonshire’s upper crust: Champernownes, Grenvilles, Carews. Walter’s mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne of Modbury (a very hip town, one presumes). Her first husband was Otho Gilbert of Compton Castle near Torquay.


Humphrey Gilbert

Lady Elizabeth bore sons with many strong qualities. Walter’s step-brothers were John, Adrian, and Humphrey Gilbert. Humphrey became obsessed with discovering the fabled Northwest Passage to Cathay – rumored to lie in the northern wastes of what we now know as Canada. He exhausted the family fortune in that vain and grandiose pursuit.

John Gilbert, like Ralegh’s full brother Carew Ralegh, was “mean and acquisitive,” in Rowse’s words. Adrian Gilbert was “a dabbler in astrology, alchemy, and necromancy.”

All young men of good family were expected to receive a modicum of formal education, so Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford, for the token year. The Inns of Court were next on the standard program, so he became a member of the Middle Temple, where he distinguished himself by fooling around with a semi-wild gang; more or less standard issue for gentlemen with no desire to become barristers. He also started writing poetry, some of which has survived.

Little is known about these years, but we can readily assume that Ralegh had an eye out for the main chance. A man with his vision, intelligence, and drive would sit around playing cards for long. We know that he entered the service of the Earl of Oxford. That must have been quite a clash. Ralegh was a true Protestant and a hard-working man of serious purpose; the earl had none of those qualities.


Killua Castle

Ralegh left Oxford for Leicester, where he must have been put to better use. Leicester, the Queen’s one true love, was also a hard-working administrator. 

Ralegh fought for the Huguenots – French Protestants – in France from 1569, popping back and forth from battlefield to university. He fought in Ireland between 1579 and 1583, participating in the Desmond Rebellion. That service earned him 40,000 acres of Irish lands. It also commended him to the Queen and her counselors. He spent some of his time in Killua Castle in Clonmellon County — a big step up from chambers in the Middle Temple.

The rise

To get a sense of what Elizabeth saw in the 27-year-old adventurer when first they met, click on over to the National Portrait Gallery to take a gander at Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait. Ooh. La. La. You don’t meet many cis men nowadays who can rock that much lace. Ralegh was also witty and well-read and not intimidated by Her Majesty. I imagine him looking her in the eye to answer her tricky philosophical questions boldly, if respectfully. She was in her early 50s when they met.


Elizabeth in 1585, by William Segar

Walter’s mother had a sister named Katherine, or Kat, who married Sir John Ashley and became Princess Elizabeth’s governess — the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Her recommendation was crucial in the advancement of her nephew. Perhaps through her influence, Ralegh was granted a charter to send ships to the New World in 1585. By all accounts, he dreamed of being an English conquistador, discovering new sources of wealth and glory to lay at the feet of his monarch.

That venture failed, as we know, but it left his name all over our eastern seaboard, even though he never came to our shores himself. It also gave him lots of great stories with which to beguile his queen. That part of their relationship was just about the only thing in Elizabeth: The Golden Age that rang true for me.

She knighted Ralegh in 1585. Interestingly, she never granted him any grander title. She was a shrewd judge of character. She doubtless recognized that elevating Ralegh to the peerage would disrupt the artful balance she maintained among her ministers, giving an innately powerful man too much practical power.

Ralegh, as we can see, was tall, handsome, and bold. He had shining dark eyes, a flair for dramatic self-presentation, and a naturally curly beard. His courage had been proven over and again, as had his administrative abilities. He reportedly only slept 4-5 hours a night and he wrote excellent poetry.

But, according to Rowse, “It was his intellectual gifts that completed the conquest of the Queen: the force and originality of his mind, the constant flow of ideas, his readiness or ‘wit’ as Elizabethans called it, allied to his natural eloquence and persuasiveness, the very ardour, that fascinated this remarkable woman, herself an intellectual, as much as his looks, his vigour and virility.”

The fall


Sherborne Castle

Ralegh’s natural arrogance had grown to monumental proportions. His near-instantaneous rise to favor inspired great envy, which he chose to exacerbate, rather than mitigate. He became “the best-hated man in the country” — at least, among the political class. Ordinary folks in the West Country loved him and he treated them fairly. His expensive costumes were considered outrageous even in this Age of Swank, but they weren’t expressions of personal vanity. Like the Queen, he understood the value of showmanship.

By 1591, Ralegh had plantations in Ireland, Durham House on the Strand in Westminster, and Sherbourne Abbey in Dorset. When the Babington Plot was exposed, Elizabeth gave him all of Anthony Babington’s lands and manors, right down to the furniture.

Ralegh held the right to grant licenses to sell wine, which netted him some L1100 a year — enough to support a peer. Some people hated him just for that. He also held the right to grant licenses to sell wool, England’s major export. Elizabeth made him Lord Warden of the Stannaries (tin mines), Lord-Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Vice-Admiral for both Devon and Cornwall. These were important posts that brought him considerable revenues, but also cost him plenty in travel expenses, clerks, etc. He “performed his duties efficiently and without complaint.”


Tin mine west of St. Agnes, Cornwall. Probably not Elizabethan, but evocative.

Elizabeth raised him high, but Rowse writes, “… it is important to realise the underlying assumption that these rewards were in return for service to Queen and state. On her side she certainly attached a remarkably able man to the chariot of the state and got manful service out of him.”

Ralegh had everything in 1591: honors, lands to support, and a great estate in which to establish his family. Except he had no family — no wife and no sons to carry on his name. Sometime before the summer of 1591, he embarked on a clandestine affair with Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, who will get her own post in a few weeks. We know the season, because she gave birth to his son, Damerei, on 29 March, 1592. The couple married in great secrecy in November, 1591.

Bess returned to court almost immediately, leaving the baby with a nurse in Enfield (on the western outskirts of London today.) She said nothing, simply took up her old duties. As late as 10 March, 1592, Ralegh was still holding up the lie, writing to snooping Robert Cecil that if he had married, he would surely have told Cecil about it first, of all people. Ha!

Ralegh set sail with a fleet heading for the West Indies on 6 May. Elizabeth constrained him to go no farther than Spain, so he was back by 12 May. Bess brought the baby boy to Durham House; recklessly, but his father wanted to see him. Robert Cecil nosed the infant out around 28 May.


The Tower of London

By early June, Ralegh was feeling the first ripples of Her Majesty’s rising wrath, though no direct consequences have yet transpired. He writes to Robert Cecil, “So I leave to trouble you at this time, being become like a fish cast on dry land, gasping for breath, with lame legs and lamer lungs. Yours, for the little while I shall desire to do you service.”

Rumors of his impending disgrace spread rapidly, fueled by vengeful delight. By July, no serious harm had befallen the couple, though they had both grievously deceived Her Majesty’s trust. Rowse writes, “what settled the fate of the guilty couple was the utter absence of any expression of contrition, apology or regret.” 

You know, that chaps my hide too, when people screw me up in some heedless or incompetent way, then refuse to acknowledge their error and take responsibility. I’m with Elizabeth on this one. Ralegh could have pleaded his very normal desire for an heir and probably persuaded her to let him marry, if he’d tried.

She sent them to the Tower, lodged separately, on 7 August. He stayed there for 5 weeks, until they needed him to sort out the chaos resulting from the capture of the Spanish treasure ship, Madre de Dios. Bess spent the rest of the year in prison, but Ralegh was too useful to be wasted. He and Robert Cecil toiled together to record and divide those fantastic spoils.

Ralegh was a free man after that, though barred from the Queen’s presence — and that avenue of influence. He still held all his important West Country offices; only a fool would fire so able an officer. He had his lands. As falls go, it could’ve been worse.

The restoration

The Raleghs retired to Sherborne Castle, which they promptly began to repair and remodel. Ralegh was returned to Parliament from the town of Mitchell — a nothing place, but it got him in the door. He performed admirably, speaking persuasively about the need to support the French king against the Catholic League. He proposed a new tax subsidy, but argued that the “three pound men be spared, and the sum which came from them to be levied upon those of ten pound and upwards.” That’s annual income, those three pounds. Spare the poor, was the message, even though they couldn’t do anything for him. It speaks well of him. His stock rose among the gentlemen of the House of Commons, which Rowse thinks played a role in his positive posthumous reputation.

He wrote constantly to Sir Robert Cecil, now his only hope of restoration to the Queen’s good favor. We call that ‘irony.’ The last thing Cecil the Dwarf wanted was irresistible Sir Walter Ralegh back in the Queen’s daily view.

Guaiana 1Ralegh also started plotting another voyage, this time to Guiana. He’d heard about Antonio de Berrio’s discovery of a route to the upper Orinoco River basin, where de Berrio was certain El Dorado could at last be found. In 1594, Ralegh sold some property and sent Captain Jacob Whiddon to Trinidad to scope out the situation. Both Lord Admiral Howard and Sir Robert invested in the expedition.

Somehow, Ralegh persuaded himself that the expedition had been successful and outfitted another one in 1595, which he led himself. He captured Berrio and made a mildly positive impression on the local chiefs — who would prefer anything to more Spaniards. He ransomed a few Spanish coastal towns to pay the expenses, which means he stood his ships in the harbor and threatened to bombard them with cannon fire until they coughed up a few sacks of gold.

discovery_guiana_ucsdHe became as obsessed with Guiana as his step-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, had been with that non-existent Northwest Passage. So many mysterious places left in the world back then! Ralegh wrote a book about his voyage, the first to be published under his name. It was hugely popular; people had an appetite for books about the New World.

Ralegh wasn’t allowed to return to court until 1597, after the victorious Battle of Cadiz. Sir Robert Cecil was now the Queen’s right-hand man. Essex had been sole favorite all these years, but his ambition was starting to show and causing friction.

Ralegh and Cecil pulled together for several years, united in a genuine drive to perform services for Queen and country and a mutual loathing for Essex. 

But as the sixteenth century drew to a close and the Queen grew visibly frailer, Ralegh began to push harder for a seat on the Privy Council. Cecil refused to support that bid, for reasons unknown, but supposable. First, he probably didn’t have that much influence and second, the Queen knew her man — and his limits. Cecil was too wise to waste arguments on something he didn’t much want.

Throughout the tense 1590s, Cecil had been covertly cultivating the trust and good regard of James VI of Scotland, the only truly suitable heir to the English throne. So when Elizabeth died in 1603, Cecil slipped easily from her right hand to James’s. Ralegh lost his only true supporter, apart from Bess. In a matter of months, his enemies closed in on him, getting him charged with treason as a conspirator in the Main Plot. The idea was to remove James and replace him with Arabella Stuart. It was a stupid idea and I doubt Ralegh had anything to do with it. He was convicted in a shameful trial. The dignity, courage, and wit he displayed throughout the travesty contributed greatly to his undying legend. Thus, in a way, he bested them all.

What to do in prison

Write books, of course. Ralegh was not the type to lie on his bed and moan. Instead, he wrote a four-volume History of the World. Not even Francis Bacon attempted a subject so grandiose, but Ralegh was up to the task. You can download this masterpiece in PDF format. Or pay $8 for the first volume at Amazon.


Second title page of The History of the World, with a portrait of the author.

He apologizes for the hubris in tackling such a topic, saying that his few remaining friends urged him to do it, though he spends a good part of the Preface deriding the “vanity of vulgar opinion.” Approbation is certainly not his motive in writing his history. “For myself, if I have in any thing served my country, and prized it before my private; the general acceptation can yield me no other profit at this time, than doth a fair sunshine day to a seaman after shipwreck.”

Never a lazy man, Ralegh did his homework for this book. He quotes some 600 authors. Rowse says, “The learning and the idiom are traditional; the spirit, skeptical, questing, unquiet, is modern.” He admires the work, and says most historians do too, even though it hasn’t been popular for a long, long time. Rowse says, “There is a constant human interest in the book, besides the immense intellectual energy imposing rational order, so far as was possible then, upon the chronology and making what sense could be made out of Biblical nonsense…”

Ralegh’s prose style has been justly admired since his own time. His poetry is beautiful and sophisticated in mood. The language of The History is surprisingly modern, rather than early modern. Now I’m inspired to start reading it in PDF on my computer. Maybe during popcorn time…

Ralegh spent 18 years in the Tower of London. You can walk through the room he lived in. He used to stroll along the walls, with a guard, of course. People would come to watch him and talk to him. He charmed them; another layer in the construction of his legacy.

The death of a man; the birth of a legend

This post is far too long already, so I’ll wrap it up quickly. Ralegh persuaded King James to let him out for one more voyage to Guiana, swearing on all things holy that he would not provoke the Spanish, but that he would come home with ships filled with gold. He took his son Walter with him.

They didn’t find gold; there isn’t any. But one of Ralegh’s captains violated Ralegh’s orders and attacked a Spanish outpost. Walter died in that conflict.

When Ralegh got home, he had to face the wrath of the Spanish ambassador, who demanded that Ralegh’s earlier death sentence (for the bogus treason plot) be re-instated and executed. James could hardly refuse, given the blatant attack on the port. Sir Walter was beheaded on 29 October, 1618, at the age of 64. Brave and witty to the end, he faced his death with equanimity. He had lived a life, after all, unlike most people. And he is in truth immortal.

Rowse writes that “Ralegh is the most difficult of all the Elizabethans to get right — the most enigmatical or at least self-contradictory, a combination of qualities calculated to both attract and repel.” Before this 1966 biography, there were only two Victorian works, including Edward Edwards 1868 The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh: Letters.

Now I have three on my bookshelf, two of them published since 2000, another on my Kindle, and one on the library-book stand in my living room. (Mustn’t mix up the books!) Ralegh is apparently enjoying a resurgence of interest; historians trying to plumb the depths and navigate those many facets. He was an extraordinary man; a man of legend, except that it’s all true.


Esler, Anthony. 1966. The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rowse, A.L. 1962. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Trevelyan, Raleigh. 2002. Sir Walter Raleigh. Henry Holt and Company. [All the cover quotes are true: this is an impressive achievement, an outstanding biography, and a great read. There’s rather more sea-faring than I like, but that’s not the author’s fault. Each chapter covers a year in Raleigh’s life, starting from adulthood. The author declares his partisanship at the outset, but it doesn’t prevent him from giving us what feels like a balanced view of Sir Walter]

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