On 29 October 1618 the great explorer and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded on the orders of King James I of England. Famous for being one of the first to popularize tobacco brought back from his American adventures, Raleigh left a small bag of the stuff in his cell with the words “It was my companion at that most miserable time” inscribed upon it. He met his death with exemplary courage, urging the executioner to “strike man, strike!”
Fighting from an early age
Born in Devon in 1554, (or possibly 1552) Raleigh’s adventuring began early when he volunteered to fight with the Protestant Huguenots in a religious civil war in France at the age of just 15.
He returned a few years later, and after spurning an Oxford degree he went overseas once again – this time to Ireland. Here he fought once again, and started his long and bitter relationship with the Spanish when he was part of a group ordered to massacre a group of their soldiers who were assisting the Irish rebels at the siege of Smerwick.
After the fighting this young soldier became a rich landowner in Munster, where he met the English poet Edmund Spenser. After Spenser composed the Faerie Queene in honour of Elizabeth I, the two men headed to her court in London, where it was performed. Here Raleigh met his future patron, the virgin Queen, who found him rather enthralling.
From firm favourite to the tower: Raleigh’s complicated relationship with Elizabeth I
At Elizabeth’s court Raleigh must have made much of his abilities and ambitions as an explorer, for he was given the royal mandate to explore the New World in 1584, as well as permission to take some of the profits of his ventures himself. In 1578 he had sailed to America with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert – himself a famous explorer – and developed an interest in this exciting new continent.
Raleigh is perhaps best remembered for bringing tobacco and the potato back to England – and did much to make smoking fashionable at court after this trip. Under his supervision, the two attempts to plant the first English colonies in America – at Roanoke – were carried out. The settlers, however, would ultimately disappear without a trace after a promising start.
Despite this disaster Raleigh remained a firm favourite of the Queen until 1592, when she found out that he’d been having an illicit affair with one of her maids of honour, who he had then married in secret. Thrown into a jealous rage, the famously capricious Elizabeth threw Raleigh and his new wife into the tower. Her old favourite managed to get himself released by promising to lead an piratical expedition to the Spanish coast, and he returned with an incredibly rich prize of a Spanish trade ship returned from South America before being unceremoniously dumped back in the tower.
After a while the Queen’s stance softened and despite still being out of favour Raleigh was elected a Member of Parliament. Emboldened by this rise in his fortunes he decided to act upon a captured Spanish manuscript describing a legendary city of gold in the New World; El Dorado. His expedition to South America in 1594 – predictably enough – failed to find any gold, but when he returned Raleigh published a book of his experiences called The Discovery of Guiana, which did much to enhance his growing celebrity.
Over the next few years Sir Walter’s adventures continued as he was wounded capturing the Spanish city of Cadiz, lead an expedition to the Azores and helped defeat the lesser-known third Spanish Armada in 1597. A national hero and restored to Elizabeth’s favour, everything was falling into his lap until 1603, when the Queen whose rule had come to define an age suddenly died.
Raleigh returns to the tower
Her successor, James I, was less inclined to reward handsome explorers and he and Raleigh certainly got it off on the wrong foot. The hero of Cadiz was implicated in a plot that year to overthrow James and replace him with his cousin and imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirteen years. There Raleigh mused on past glories and took to writing, composing a well-regarded history of ancient Greece and Rome during his long stay.
Suddenly and unexpectedly in 1617 he was pardoned by the King, and given permission to lead a second expedition to find El Dorado. During this expedition, just as fruitless as the first, a detachment of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost without having been given orders to do so, and in the confused fighting Raleigh’s son Walter was killed. And worse was to come.
England was now at peace with Spain, and when James was informed of this incident by the Spanish ambassador he held he now aged explorer responsible. With his friends in high places now long-gone Raleigh was lead to the block on 29 October 1618. A still-popular and beloved son of England, one of the judges at his less than fair trial later said
“The justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of the honourable Sir Walter Raleigh.”