In the Elizabethan era, Sir Walter Raleigh was a true Renaissance man—writer, poet, explorer, soldier, and courtier—who lived an adventurous life and suffered a brutal death 400 years ago this month. Read on for more facts about Raleigh and how his life is still commemorated in various ways.
1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEENAGE SOLDIER.
Walter Raleigh was born into a privileged, land-owning family in Devon, England, in 1554 (although some date his birth to 1552). He became a soldier before he was even out of his teen years, fighting with the Protestant French Huguenots during the religious civil wars that took place in France in the latter decades of the 16th century. After studying at Oxford University's Oriel College, Raleigh first piqued the interest of Queen Elizabeth I when he served bravely (and brashly) in her army in Ireland.
2. HE WAS A FAVORITE OF THE QUEEN.
The tall and handsome Raleigh quickly became a favorite of the queen’s court. She rewarded him in various ways—knighting him in 1585 and granting him land holdings, trade charters, and the title of Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Legend has it that Raleigh once doffed his cloak and laid it across a puddle for the queen to step across. A 1662 account of this event famously stated that “the queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a footcloth.”
3. RALEIGH MARRIED IN SECRET.
When the queen discovered that Raleigh had secretly courted and married one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton, without royal permission (which was a customary requirement), he was banished and thrown in the Tower of London with his bride in July 1592. The queen allowed Raleigh to leave the Tower to recover booty from a captured Portuguese ship, which brought Raleigh back into the queen's favor. The couple was officially freed from the Tower in October of the same year.
4. HIS COLONY IS AT THE ROOT OF A 400-YEAR-OLD MYSTERY.
With a charter from the queen, Raleigh sponsored the first attempt to found a permanent English settlement in the New World. An exploratory expedition in 1584 found that Roanoke Island, part of the barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, would make a suitable place for a colony. They called the land Virginia, after Elizabeth, England’s “virgin queen.” A small settlement and fort were established on Roanoke the following year, but the colonists clashed with Native American tribes and grew more desperate as they awaited further supplies from England.
In 1587, Raleigh—who never actually visited Roanoke—sent a contingent of 118 men, women, and children to replace the earlier group of colonists (most of whom had sailed back to England). They elected John White, a friend of Raleigh’s, as their governor. White soon returned to England to beg for more support and supplies, but his return to Roanoke was delayed due to the outbreak of war with Spain. When White finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony had disappeared. The only clue was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post, a possible reference to the Croatan tribe farther south, but searches of the area turned up nothing. Although many historians have attempted to discern what happened to the so-called “Lost Colony,” no definitive evidence has ever been found.
5. HE SEARCHED FOR A LOST CITY OF GOLD. (HE DIDN'T FIND IT.)
Exploration in the 16th century gave rise to a legend that the New World possessed a city of riches known as El Dorado. Several unsuccessful searches for this city had occurred throughout South America by the time Sir Walter Raleigh got wind of the legend and wanted in on the action. Convinced that El Dorado existed somewhere in Guiana (present-day Venezuela), Raleigh set sail in 1595 to find it. Raleigh and his men explored and plundered the region, but eventually gave up and returned to England with little to show for their quest for gold.
This didn’t stop Raleigh from speculating about the lost city in a book called The Discovery of Guiana, which also served as a vivid account of the country. “On both sides of this river we passed the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld,” Raleigh wrote of the river valley, “and whereas all that we had seen before was nothing but woods, prickles, bushes, and thorns, here we beheld plains of 20 miles in length, the grass short and green, and in divers parts groves of trees by themselves, as if they had been by all the art and labor in the world so made of purpose.”
6. RALEIGH HELPED POPULARIZE TOBACCO (AND THE BEATLES WOULD CURSE HIM FOR IT).
Although historians say that tobacco was seen in Europe before Raleigh’s time, the explorer is often credited with popularizing it in England, after returning Roanoke colonists brought samples of the crop to the queen’s court. Raleigh might even have convinced Queen Elizabeth to try smoking it. By the turn of the 17th century, a steady transatlantic trade in this so-called “brown gold” began.
Much later, musician John Lennon would deride Raleigh’s involvement with tobacco in the song “I’m So Tired,” on The Beatles’ acclaimed White Album: “Although I'm so tired, I'll have another cigarette/And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/He was such a stupid git.” Today, you can still purchase Sir Walter Raleigh brand pipe tobacco.
7. HE LIKED TO RHYME IN HIS SPARE TIME.
Raleigh was an unabashedly romantic poet, writing dramatic works with titles like “The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia” and "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk." It is thought that “Cynthia” is a pseudonym for Queen Elizabeth I. One poem, “Farewell, False Love,” declares false affection to be the ultimate enemy:
Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason.
8. RALEIGH SPENT 13 SURPRISINGLY PRODUCTIVE YEARS IN JAIL.
In 1603, only months after Queen Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh was accused of participating in a plot to overthrow her successor, King James I. Although Raleigh maintained his innocence, he was found guilty of treason, which carried a penalty of death. The king commuted his sentence to imprisonment in the Tower of London, where his cell was rather comfortable. It featured a wooden desk on which Raleigh hand-wrote and illustrated his History of the World (about ancient Greece and Rome). He also had access to a full library. James eventually released and pardoned Raleigh, giving him permission to sail again to Guiana in search of El Dorado.
9. HE PAID THE ULTIMATE PRICE FOR HIS BAD RELATIONSHIP WITH THE KING.
Things went badly for Raleigh on his second quest for El Dorado. When a group of his men attacked a Spanish colony, a violation of the terms of Raleigh’s release from prison, the Spanish ambassador prevailed upon King James to reinstate Raleigh’s long-standing death sentence. The king complied, and Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618, at the Old Palace Yard in Westminster. A chaplain attending Raleigh at his execution later wrote that he was “the most fearless of death that was ever known; and the most resolute and confident, yet with reverence and conscience.” On the day of execution, Raleigh—then in his mid-60s—gave a long farewell address and then asked to see the axe that would fell him. He ran his thumb along the blade and said, “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.” With two thwacks, Raleigh was gone.
10. RALEIGH'S HEAD AND BODY MIGHT BE IN TWO DIFFERENT PLACES.
Although Raleigh’s body was entombed in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, only a few yards from Westminster Abbey, his severed head was presented to his wife Bess, who had it embalmed and kept it in a red bag the rest of her days. After her own death about 29 years later, it is thought that the head was interred near Raleigh’s body at St. Margaret’s. Yet persistent rumors argue that the head was actually interred at St. Mary’s Church in Surrey. The truth might never be known.
11. A FORT IN NORTH CAROLINA COMMEMORATES THE COLONY HE SPONSORED.
Today, visitors to Roanoke Island can walk the very grounds where Raleigh’s colonists lived and defended themselves. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes a visitor center, monuments, and museum exhibits about the New World expeditions and the Native American tribes living in the area when Raleigh arrived. Reconstructed defensive earthworks mark the location of similar works built there by the colonists in 1585.
12. ANDY GRIFFITH PLAYED RALEIGH IN A TONY-WINNING PRODUCTION.
For more than 80 years, Raleigh’s doomed settlement in the New World has been the subject of an outdoor symphonic drama called The Lost Colony. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green and first produced in 1937, the play runs every summer at the Waterside Theatre at Fort Raleigh. The late actor Andy Griffith portrayed Raleigh in the play for several years beginning in the late 1940s, and the production gave Broadway and film actor Terrence Mann his first paid acting role. In 2013, the drama won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre.
13. YOU MIGHT CATCH RALEIGH IN A TUTU.
The city of Raleigh was established as North Carolina’s state capital in 1792 and is named for the explorer who first sent English colonists to its shores. An 11-foot statue of Raleigh that was commissioned for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 and sculpted by Bruno Lucchesi stands near Raleigh’s convention center. The statue is often given temporary makeovers—wearing tutus, guitars, even an alligator head—to coincide with road races and special events. For the statue’s 40th anniversary in 2016, the convention center posted a festive photo of the statue on Instagram with the caption, “Happy Birthday Sir Walt!”