Sir Walter Raleigh

Literary Biography


Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) had the fortune of living a tremendously diverse and unique life. Throughout it he published a number of literary works, clearly inspired by the terrible and fascinating things events he experienced. He was born in circa 1552 to an old family in Fardell of moderate wealth, having once possessed four manors. The family had moved from their manor in Fardell to a farm in Hayes Barton in Devonshire, England, where Raleigh was born. His father had three wives, and Raleigh was born to the third, Catherine, the daughter of Sir Phillip of Chanpernown. Raleigh’s family was, despite the risks from living in Catholic Devonshire, Protestant. His family also allegedly had ties to Elizabeth’s court and was supportive of the monarchy, although they were not of nobility.

Little is known of Raleigh’s early life and education until he entered Oriel College in Oxford. He only stayed here for three years and never received a degree. Around this time also, he fought in the French civil wars with the Huguenots against the Catholics. In 1575 he became a member of the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court, English honor societies. Raleigh may have written his earliest poetry during this time, specifically an eighteen-verse introductory poem for George Gascoigne’s publication, The Steele Glass.

In 1578 he joined up with his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert on an expedition in search of the North West Passage to China. This voyage was unsuccessful, however, due to attacks of piracy and privateering, as well as quarrels between the passengers on board. The Spanish finally captured the Falcon, Gilbert’s ship, and Raleigh, barely escaping with his life, returned to England.

Shortly after returning, in 1580, Raleigh was given a position of command in the Irish Wars, the Desmond Rebellions, by the Queen, in an attempt to revive his reputation after the disastrous voyage. These wars were partially driven by religious disputes between the Earl of Desmond, head of the FitsGerald feudal dynasty and the English State. This further reveals Raleigh’s firm belief in Protestantism and anti-Catholic tendencies. He was able to capture several enemy documents and influential people, and is known for his reckless displays of courage. It was through his military success in these battles that Raleigh distinguished himself and found favor with Queen Elizabeth I.

Legend tells that Raleigh first attracted the Queen’s attention by spreading his cloak over a muddy puddle for her to walk on. It is more likely that after being impoverished from his many ventures, he acquainted himself with the Queen’s favorite, the aging Earl of Leicester. It is said that the Earl of Sussex saw him as a possible replacement of the Earl, and both men introduced him to the Court. This combined with Raleigh’s eloquence, education, and military fame can be attributed to his rise to courtly favor.

He soon became the new favorite of the Queen, who in turn gave him an estate in Ireland, land confiscated from the Irish rebels. She also granted him a patent for licensing wine sales. With this Raleigh had a monopoly that brought him tremendous fortune and fame, although it also brought upon him some resentment for the industrial feudalism the monopoly caused. In 1584 Raleigh was given the license to export woolen broadcloth, which also proved very profitable for him.

Through the next two decades, Raleigh continued to grow in popularity and influence in the court. In 1584 he was elected as a member of parliament, and seven years later was chosen as a member of the Queen’s Guard, allowing him intimate access to the queen. He was additionally appointed as warden of stannaries, or the mines in Devon and Cornwall, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice admiral of Devon and Cornwall. In 1585 he was knighted.

In 1592, the Earl of Essex began his rise in favor with the Queen, becoming Raleigh’s primary competitor in the court. This initiated Raleigh’s slow decline in popularity with the court, the first stroke of which was the revelation to the Queen of his marriage to the Lady in Waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton. He and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower of London as punishment. In an attempt to appease and regain favor with the Queen, Raleigh wrote probably his best-known surviving poem, "The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia". All that remains of this work are books 21 and 22, suggesting that Raleigh once wrote a great epic in verse to the Queen during his imprisonment. The poem has a courtly theme, telling of the Petrarchan love between the water (Raleigh) and the moon (the Queen). There are also elements of psychotic collapse and an overall sense of defeat that are telling of Raleigh’s state of mind while in the Tower of London.

In 1593, Raleigh was released from the Tower due to the Queens need of his services against Spanish piracy. He fought in a naval battle in Cadiz in 1596, and participated in an expedition to the Azores in 1597. With the motivation of furthering England’s dominance over Spain, Raleigh supported and helped sponsor the colonization of the New World. In 1595 he sailed to what is now Guyana in search of the legendary “City of Gold”. Upon returning he published one of his major works, The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Giuana. This was significant in it’s uses as propaganda for the British imperialization of the Americas. He was also involved in the designing of warships to fight the Spanish Armada, and the conducting of rescue missions for lost ships. He was later readmitted to Parliament and eventually regained his position on the Royal Guard, but he never recovered the intimate access to the court he had previously.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by James I. A combination of King James’ pacific attitude towards the Spaniards, Raleigh’s record of unsuccessful voyages and his taboo marriage scandal, and his anti-Catholic views, caused him to become increasingly unpopular at court. Additionally, James I considered the Earl of Essex his partisan and took offense when Raleigh encouraged the charges leading to his execution. After an argument at a courtly dinner party, Raleigh was charged of beliefs in atheism. He was encouraged to return to Ireland for his safety, but found himself devoid of finances. He was forced to sell his estate in 1602. Interestingly, Raleigh’s manor neighbored that of Edmund Spenser, who included mention of him in "The Faerie Queene" as the character Timias.

King James and Raleigh’s enemies at court stripped him of his position in the Royal Guard, his monopolies, and his government positions. Enraged, he involved himself in anti-monarchical activities. He was convicted of treason, sentenced to death, and imprisoned for a second time in the Tower of London in 1603. His time here lasted fourteen years. During this time, he wrote the vast work, The History of the World as well as many treatises. The History of the World has been said to be Raleigh’s attempt to redeem himself from the charges of atheism. It describes the events dating from the second century BCE to the present in a Christian context. He was briefly released to lead a second expedition to Guiana, but this failed miserably, resulting in the death of Raleigh’s son, and fight with the Spaniards, despite the King’s orders. He was imprisoned again upon his return under charges from fifteen years earlier, and beheaded in 1618. At his death, he is famed to have said “Strike, man, strike!”

Sir Walter Raleigh’s life was much like a grand epic. Coming from a modest background, he worked his way to fame and wealth as a soldier, an explorer, a poet, and servant. At the height of his success he lost everything and fell quickly out of favor with the Court in which he was once revered. Throughout this, his literary works serve as a record and testament to his inner feelings and relationships with others. Through them one can see the fragility of courtly relationships and the dangers that arise when those in power resent one’s choices and beliefs. There is no wonder as to why his story’s remembered through so many biographies.


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8. "Desmond Rebellions." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 2011. Web.
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