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Sir Walter 'the Unfortunate' Raleigh (1552-1618)

Walter Raleigh (or perhaps Ralegh) was born in the farmhouse of Hayes near Budleigh Salterton Bay1. He apparently did nothing of interest until 1580, when he tried to make up for his slow start by being twice arrested for dueling2.

Of course, his big claim to fame these days is the story that he once gallantly threw his cloak over a mud puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I wouldn't get her feet dirty. Like most of these nifty stories, it's almost certainly wrong. He actually had another legend as well, much less well-known these days--he supposedly used a diamond to scrawl verses on a window pane in order to get the Queen's attention3.

Whether it was because of the verses or not, Walter became Sir Walter in 1584, which just goes to show you that a prison record doesn't always have to hold you back. The Queen chose him as a favorite and showered him with gifts of land and money, but, strangely, never gave him any high office4. In return, he introduced tobacco from the New World to England, earning the gratitude of physicians everywhere on the British Isles.

In 1585, Sir Walter decided to start his very own colony in the New World . He got a patent from the Queen giving him permission and sent his first batch of settlers to Roanoke Island5. Of course, this didn't work very well, but Sir Walter was never one to balk at a challenge. Over the next two years, he sent two more groups of colonists to meet their respective dooms in the same spot. By 1588, he was no longer a favorite at the English Court6. The following year, Sir Walter admitted defeat and sold his patent rights to a merchant company.

Sir Walter and Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of his, were both named atheists in 1590. This was a big deal back then, as you couldn't get into any of the good clubs if you weren't the same religion as the country's ruler7. Sir Walter didn't let this faze him, though; he kept right on voyaging, perhaps thinking he'd be better off not staying in one place too long. But one day the Queen recalled him from a voyage. She was extremely angry with him for seducing one of her maids of honor8 and forced him to return to face the music. The lady in question was named Bess Throckmorton9, and the Queen reacted very badly to the news of Sir Walter's attachment to her10. The pair were thrown into the Tower for a time (separate cells, of course) until the Queen relented due to a lot of really obsequious, overly-flattering letters Sir Walter sent to her. Bess and Sir Walter were released and duly married, whereupon they retired to Sir Walter's estate, which he had, in happier times, "extorted from the Bishop of Salisbury by unscrupulous use of the royal influence."

Though he and Bess were reported to be very much in love, Sir Walter was off adventuring again by 1595, when he went exploring for gold in South America11. He wrote a much-romanticized version of hie journey on his return to England, but it was not well-received. He was now very unpopular, due to his "greed, arrogance, and scepticism in religion."12

In 1602, the unfortunate Sir Walter was ejected from his house, which the Bishop promptly reclaimed. Sir Walter was then accused of conspiring against the new ruler, James I13, and was sent to the Tower of London14. This was one of the lowest points in Sir Walter's life. He tried to stab himself, but failed miserably in that, too, and got only a slight wound. He eventually got out by promising to find gold in South America without bothering the Spanish15. The expedition was poorly equipped. Sir Walter caught a fever and nearly died, and his son did die, at the hands of the Spanish16. Sir Walter made it back to England just in time to be executed on 29 October 1618.

But he did write some poetry, which is why he's on this list. Two separate editions of his poems were published during his lifetime, which was no mean feat.


  1. Now a place better known for an extremely brief mention in a Monty Python sketch.

  2. The British had recently decided that dueling was too French to be tolerated on their island.

  3. A noise like that would get anyone's attention.

  4. The Queen may have been on to something. Or she may simply have been being difficult. She was known for that.

  5. Yes, that Roanoke Island.

  6. The Queen had probably had quite enough of him slowly depopulating her country.

  7. Unfortunately, back then the royal religion kept changing. Citizens had been darting back and forth between Catholic and Protestant for nearly sixty years at this point, and they were beginning to get confused.

  8. They were very serious about that title in the sixteenth century.

  9. No comment.

  10. The Queen was probably extra angry because Bess' father had once insulted the Queen in a letter he'd written. Queen Mary I would have been even angrier if she'd still been on the throne--Bess' father Sir Nicholas Throckmorton had actually beaten a charge of treason that Mary levied against him. This was just not done in those days. The jurors who found him not guilty were promptly imprisoned and forced to pay a fine of 2,000 pounds each before being released. Really, I'm not kidding.

  11. He thought the Spanish might have missed some.

  12. Nowadays, these are the sorts of qualities that can set you on the road to the White House.

  13. Personally, I'm not sure he even noticed there was a new ruler.

  14. This was not at all the popular tourist spot that it is now.

  15. He knew perfectly well this was impossible, but he was really sick of the Tower.

  16. Apparently someone bothered them.


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