Walter Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) was born into a well-connected gentry family at Hayes Barton in Devon in around 1552. He attended Oxford University for a time, fought with the Huguenots in France and later studied law in London.
In 1578, Raleigh sailed to America with explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his half brother. This expedition may have stimulated his plan to found a colony there. In 1585, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina). The colony failed and another attempt at colonisation also failed in 1587. Raleigh has been credited with bringing potatoes and tobacco back to Britain, although both of these were already known via the Spanish. Raleigh did help to make smoking popular at court.
Raleigh first came to the attention of Elizabeth I in 1580, when he went to Ireland to help suppress an uprising in Munster. He soon became a favourite of the queen, and was knighted and appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard (1587). He became a member of parliament in 1584 and received extensive estates in Ireland.
In 1592, the queen discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. This discovery threw Elizabeth into a jealous rage and Raleigh and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower. On his release, in an attempt to find favour with the queen, he set off on an unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado, the fabled ‘Golden Land’, rumoured to be situated somewhere beyond the mouth of the Orinoco river in Guiana (now Venezuela).
Elizabeth’s successor, James I of England and VI of Scotland, disliked Raleigh, and in 1603 he was accused of plotting against the king and sentenced to death. This was reduced to life imprisonment and Raleigh spent the next 12 years in the Tower of London, where he wrote the first volume of his ‘History of the World’ (1614).
In 1616, Raleigh was released to lead a second expedition to search for El Dorado. The expedition was a failure, and Raleigh also defied the king’s instructions by attacking the Spanish. On his return to England, the death sentence was reinstated and Raleigh’s execution took place on 29 October 1618.