A soldier, explorer, scholar, and courtier, Walter Raleigh fought on the side of the French Protestants, the Huguenots, possibly in the Battle of Jarnac during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). He also participated in the massacre at Smerwick, brutally suppressing Irish rebels and slaughtering papal troops. He was tutored by the vicar John Ford, enrolled at Oriel College, Oxford University, and studied at one of the Inns of Court, the Middle Temple. Family connections probably won him a place in Elizabeth I’s court, as Esquire of the Body Extraordinary.
His own charisma won him many favors from Elizabeth I, including a license to tax vintners for retailing wine in England, Durham House, a knighthood, the title of Lord and Governor of Virginia, thousands of acres of land in Ireland, and an appointment as Captain of the Guard. He also was elected to Parliament and appointed Lord Warden of the Stanneries, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and ViceAdmiral of Cornwall and Devon. He used his wealth to fund voyages to Roanoke Island in hopes of settling a colony there and instead mysteriously losing the colonists. Although he did not introduce the potato and tobacco in Virginia, as he is often credited for doing, he did popularize smoking at Court.
He lost Elizabeth I’s favor when he secretly married one of her maids of honor, Elizabeth Throckmorton (1565-1647), who as a royal attendant could only marry with the Queen’s permission. She briefly imprisoned them both in the Tower of London. He soon continued his colonizing efforts by exploring Guiana in South America and futilely searching for El Dorado, the so-called Lost City of Gold.
Much of what he gained from Elizabeth Raleigh lost when she was succeeded by James I. Raleigh was implicated in two conspiracies against James I, the Bye and the Main Plots, for which he was condemned of treason and imprisoned for over ten years in the Tower. Upon his release, he courted James I’s favor by again voyaging to Guiana in search of gold. He failed in this intention and, worse, disobeyed James I’s injunction not to violate Spanish rights when his men destroyed the village of Santo Tome de Guyana. For endangering England’s peace with Spain, Raleigh was beheaded.
Raleigh’s writing records the fierce, cynical, plausible voice of the man and his many exploits. His love poetry wooed and “won” Elizabeth I; his book The Discoverie of the large and bewtiful Empire of Guiana mythologized El Dorado; and his History of the World educated James I’s son, whom Raleigh befriended during his imprisonment. His pastoral poetry both repeats and renews that classical genre, with his reply to Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd gaining much attention. His poem The Lie, with its all-encompassing attacks on the Court, Church, Men of High Condition, faith, wit, and learning, provoked several answering, often defensive, poems. His travelogue, like many that follow, blends fiction with “fact.” And his History recovers the past in an attempt to shape the future.