Ward's Book of Days.

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OCTOBER 29th  

On this day in history in 1618, died Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh was a courtier of Elizabeth I, who explored North America looking for gold, but found only potatoes and tobacco. 

Raleigh was born in 1554, in Hayes Barton, Devon, the younger son of Walter Raleigh and his third wife, Katherine. Little is known of his early life, but we do know that in 1569, he was in France, fighting on the Protestant side in the Wars of Religion. In 1572, he is known to have been at Oriel College, Oxford, and in 1575, at the Middle Temple.  

In 1580, Raleigh was enlisted to fight against the Irish rebels in Munster, where his outspoken criticism of the way in which the campaign was led, drew the attention of Queen Elizabeth I. He was quickly promoted, and his services gained him a place at the queen’s court. He was rewarded with an estate in Ireland and received trading rights in wines, cloth and various materials imported from the New World. He received a knighthood in 1585.  

In 1588, Raleigh married Elizabeth Throckmorton, without obtaining the queen’s permission. This was illegal as, being a courtier, the monarch should have decided who he would marry. In 1592, when his first son was born, Raleigh’s marriage became public knowledge and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Raleigh bought himself out by paying a fine, financed from his lucrative trading. He was not invited back to the court.  

Raleigh's breach with the Queen allowed him to pursue further trading adventures. He established a colony in North America, which he called Virginia, in order to flatter Elizabeth, England’s virgin queen, but never set foot there himself. He had tobacco and potatoes sent from his new colony. The potatoes were planted in his estate in Ireland, making him the first British potato planter. He also became the first British smoker, using a long pipe with the tobacco in bowl. On one occasion when he was indulging in his new found nicotine habit, his manservant, believing him to be ablaze, threw a bucket of water over him, in a mistaken attempt to save his master’s life.  

In 1595, Raleigh led an expedition to what we now call Guyana, in South America, sailing up the Orinoco River through the Spanish colonial empire. He described the expedition in his book The Discoverie of Guiana. Stories told by Indians had convinced him of Eldorado, a fabulous city of gold in the interior of South America. He did locate some gold, but not on the scale he had been led to believe.  In 1596 he led an expedition against the Spanish city of Cádiz, and was rear admiral on an expedition to the Azores, part of Spanish territory.  

When King James I of England, James VI of Scots, came to the throne in 1603, Raleigh’s enemies conspired to bring him down. He was accused of plotting against the king, convicted on the basis of perjured evidence and, once more, sent to the Tower. In 1616, he was released but not pardoned, after promising to lead an expedition to find gold in the Americas.  

He led a second expedition but found no gold. The expedition was attacked by the Spaniards and most of the crew, including Raleigh's son Walter, were killed in the action. In 1618, when Raleigh eventually returned without any gold, the king invoked the suspended sentence and Raleigh went to the block on 29th October 1618. Raleigh is buried in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. [St Margaret’s Church, St Margaret Street, London SW1P 3JX]

Recommended reading. 

Raleigh, Trevelyan. Sir Walter Raleigh.

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