Sir Walter Raleigh remains one of the most vibrant and fascinating figures in English colonial history. He was born in 1554 at a farmhouse called Hayes Barton, in Devon. His father, Walter Raleigh, was of noble birth but relatively modest means. His mother, Katherine, belonged to one of the more prosperous families in the West Country. Not much is known of Raleigh’s early life, though like other boys of his social standing, he likely learned from a tutor how to read and write in English and Latin. Raleigh was his father’s fifth son, and as such he could expect very little as far as his inheritance was concerned. His father did manage to send him to Oxford, where he probably studied for a year before heading off to the religious wars in France from 1569 to 1574. Upon his return from France, Raleigh took up study at the Inns of Court, though he apparently had little interest in becoming a lawyer. He and his older half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had more exciting plans. They proposed in 1577 to take to sea in an effort to capture Spanish ships, sell them to the Dutch, and use the proceeds to attack Spanish colonies in the Americas. Although Queen Elizabeth was not impressed at first by the idea of attacking the Spanish, she eventually granted Gilbert permission to seek out territories not occupied by Christian princes or people for six years. Their mission was allegedly a colonizing venture, but the real mission was privateering, and in this both Raleigh and Gilbert failed. Raleigh went to Ireland in 1580 as part of large English force sent to crush a rebellion there. Raleigh’s behavior in Ireland, though it may seem vicious, was unexceptional in the eyes of the English.
Raleigh participated in the wholesale slaughter of 600 men at Fort Smerwick. He also wholeheartedly advocated the destruction of Irish crops, Irish livestock, and Irish people. In addition, he seems to have purposefully put himself in harm’s way, apparently so he could extricate himself with a feat of unnecessary bravery. Raleigh, though he hated the Irish as much as anyone, saw little opportunity for money or glory in Ireland, and he chafed under the leadership of Lord Grey, his superior officer there. As legend has it, when Raleigh met Queen Elizabeth for the first time, he spread a new cloak on the ground to prevent her from stepping in a puddle. This story is probably not true, but it points to the larger fact that Raleigh made an immediate positive impression on the queen. Raleigh’s image at court was that of a flashy outsider, and Elizabeth was apparently impressed with his intellect and wit. In 1583, Raleigh interceded with the Queen on behalf of his half-brother Gilbert who, still working on the old patent of exploration, intended to found a colony in North America. Raleigh also supplied a new ship and bought stock in Gilbert’s company. The expedition did claim Newfoundland for England, but it also claimed Gilbert’s life, for he drowned on the return trip.
During this period, Raleigh continued to accumulate gifts from the queen. He received several substantial manors and a large financial gift in the form of the Farm of Wines, a monopoly under which every wine maker in England had to pay Raleigh a fee. Elizabeth also gave Raleigh a license to export cloth, another highly profitable plum. Raleigh began to acquire clothes, jewels, and a serious desire to colonize North America. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth granted Raleigh permission to explore and claim territories, reserving 20 percent of any gold and ore he might find for the British Crown. Under the sponsorship of Queen Elizabeth I, the dashing courtier, military commander, and writer Sir Walter Raleigh organized the first, failed attempt to establish a settlement in North America, the Roanoke Colony, in the 1580s. (National Portrait Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland/Bridgeman Art Library)