Authors: Sir Walter Ralegh

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English explorer and poet

Author Works


The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, with a Biographical and Critical Introduction, 1813

The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, 1962 (Agnes Latham, editor)


A Report of the Fight About the Iles of Açores, 1591

The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, 1596

The History of the World, 1614


Works of Sir Walter Ralegh, 1829 (8 volumes; Thomas Birch and William Oldys, editors)

Selected Prose and Poetry, 1965 (Agnes Latham, editor)


Sir Walter Ralegh (RAWL-ee), or Raleigh, epitomizes the merchant adventurers who lent glamour to the court of Elizabeth I and spread her fame throughout the old and new worlds. Born into the landed gentry, which was just beginning to realize its potential power, Ralegh had to make his way through his own ability, ambition, and charm.{$I[AN]9810000401}{$I[A]Ralegh, Sir Walter}{$S[A]Raleigh, Sir Walter;Ralegh, Sir Walter}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Ralegh, Sir Walter}{$I[tim]1552;Ralegh, Sir Walter}

Sir Walter Ralegh

(Library of Congress)

Ralegh was born about 1552. He attended Oriel College, Oxford, in 1568, but within a year he left the university to fight for the Huguenot cause in France. Although he returned to study at the Inns of Court in 1575, the North American expedition being planned by his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, interested him far more than his law books. Another distraction was his apparent association with the coterie of writers and artists who were gathered in London, as evidenced from his poetic records. He is reported to have commanded one of the ships on Gilbert’s ill-fated venture in 1579; the fleet was broken up by the Spaniards and returned to England soon after its departure.

Ralegh had been introduced at court in 1577, and, through the efforts of Gilbert and other friends, he was appointed captain of a troop of foot soldiers in the Irish campaign of 1580. Returning to court with dispatches the following year, he won the favor of Queen Elizabeth, and his career flourished: He was knighted in 1584, given a number of lucrative trade monopolies, awarded lands, made a member of Parliament, and, in 1587, named captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, a duty that would keep him close to the queen. During these years he planned and invested heavily in colonies in North America, but none of his settlements survived.

The rise of the earl of Essex in the queen’s favor supplanted Ralegh, making his position precarious. He retreated to his estates in Ireland, where he formed a close association with Edmund Spenser. Soon thereafter he incurred the royal wrath by his hasty marriage with Elizabeth Throckmorton (or Throgmorton), one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor. The Raleghs were briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, then exiled from the court.

While prohibited from attending the court, Ralegh waited in the wings, again becoming familiar with the poets and playwrights of the day. He is known to have been involved in a group dubbed the School of Night and may have been included in meetings that took place at the Mermaid Tavern that are supposed to have counted Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson as regular members.

Sir Walter again turned his attention westward. He commanded an expedition to Guiana in 1595, believing firmly that untold riches lay just ahead of him, but he returned empty-handed to England. The most successful result of this voyage was his book The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, which was very popular and served to answer some of his enemies’ claims that he had faked the story of ever having reached Guiana.

Partially reconciled with the queen, Ralegh served as rear admiral in the fleet that destroyed the Spanish navy at Cadiz in 1596. Friction with Essex and misplaced trust in Robert Cecil, who had succeeded his father, Lord Burghley, as chief minister of state, marked Ralegh’s next few years, but he lived comfortably until Elizabeth’s death. Cecil, who desired undisputed control of the government without the interference of the domineering Ralegh, had laid careful plans and cleverly turned the peace-loving James I against Sir Walter, who tactlessly greeted the new king with plans for military campaigns.

In 1603, Ralegh was arrested and tried for treason for his alleged involvement in a plot to put Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne. Sir Edward Coke, one of England’s ablest legal minds, attacked Ralegh viciously, and in spite of his impassioned plea of innocence, Sir Walter was convicted and sent to the Tower, where he remained until 1616, four years after Cecil’s death. He passed the early years of his imprisonment writing The History of the World, with which he hoped to gain royal clemency.

Ralegh was freed to undertake another voyage to Guiana to find gold for the ever-empty treasury of the king, but this expedition, too, failed, and Ralegh’s eldest son lost his life in a battle with Spanish colonists. Spanish influence was high at the English court at this time, and at the insistence of the king of Spain, James ordered Ralegh’s execution on October 29, 1618.

Although Ralegh’s arrogance and opportunism had made enemies among both the nobility and the commoners, he became a great popular hero during his imprisonment, and he was widely mourned. Ralegh’s terse, understated poems and his fine prose works are highly valued by modern students of sixteenth and seventeenth century literature, but it is as a colorful personality rather than as a writer that history best remembers him.

BibliographyGreenblatt, Stephen J. Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. Greenblatt discusses Ralegh’s role-playing and theatrical nature as demonstrated in his court poetry and in The History of the World, both of which receive chapter-length treatments. He also provides the context for The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, which he regards as reflecting Ralegh’s personal sorrow and the national myths of his age.Lacey, Robert. Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. Lacey’s account reflects the multifaceted nature of his subject in the book’s structure. There are some fifty chapters, divided into seven sections, each charting the ups and downs of Ralegh’s checkered career. From country upstart to royal favorite, from privateer to traitor in the Tower, his life was never still.Ralegh, Walter. The Letters of Sir Walter Ralegh. Edited by Agnes Latham and Joyce Youings. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1999. Brings together all that is known of Ralegh’s correspondence, uncollected since 1868 and much expanded and refined. Students of history and literature will grasp at this book as it throws a beam across the life of one of the more attractive personalities of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods.Rowse, A. L. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962. The first truly significant biography of Ralegh, Rowse’s book offers a perspective gained from the recently discovered diary of Sir Arthur Throckmorton, Ralegh’s brother-in-law, on Ralegh’s life and writing. Illustrated.Waller, Gary. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. London: Longman, 1986. Waller deconstructs Ralegh’s poetry, which he claims demonstrates how power works on language. For Waller, Ralegh’s poetry simultaneously pays homage to and criticizes the courtly arena where he must play different roles. “As You Come from the Holy Land” and one of the “Scinthia” poems, thus, become poems of tension and value.
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