Raleigh was born in Devon in the west of England, a younger son of a poor but distinguished family. He was registered at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1568 to 1572 but spent most of this time in France fighting for the Huguenots. Returning to London, he studied law at the Inns of Court and published poetry.
In 1578, his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert obtained a patent to colonize North America and Raleigh accompanied Gilbert in search of Spanish treasure. While this voyage was a disaster, it whetted Raleigh’s appetite for colonization. In 1580, he led an army to England’s first colony, Ireland, and put down a rebellion with brutal force.
Such actions attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and Raleigh quickly became a royal favorite. The queen bestowed on Raleigh vast estates in Ireland, lucrative patents and licenses, and various government offices. She knighted him in 1585.
In 1583, Gilbert died while trying to establish a colony in Newfoundland, and the following year, Queen Elizabeth granted Raleigh exclusive license to colonize America. Immediately, Raleigh dispatched an exploratory expedition to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an ideal location for looting Spanish fleets.
Receiving favorable reports of America, Raleigh dispatched his cousin Sir Richard Grenville to the Roanoke islands to erect a colony named Virginia after the virgin Queen Elizabeth.
However, the colonists angered local Native Americans and decided to abandon Roanoke less than a year after their arrival. In April 1587, Raleigh dispatched a second group to America, but shortly after they arrived England engaged the Spanish Armada and all contact with the colony was cut off until 1590.
When a relief vessel finally got through, there was no trace of the colonists. Although Raleigh failed to erect a permanent settlement, he continued to advocate American colonization, writing in 1602, “I shall yet live to see it an Inglishe nation.”
After Roanoke, Raleigh turned his attention elsewhere. In 1592 he married one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who bore him a son, Wat. He led an expedition of Guiana in 1595 and launched an attack on Cádiz a year later. Raleigh’s dedication to Queen Elizabeth sat poorly with the monarch’s successor, King James I, who remarked upon meeting the adventurer, “I have heard but rawly of thee.”
In 1603, the king charged Raleigh with conspiring with the Spanish. Convicted, Raleigh was sentenced to death but lived in the Tower of London for the next 12 years and wrote the antimonarchical treatise History of the World. Still frustrated with Raleigh, the king allowed him to make a second attempt at claiming Guiana for England.
When the expedition failed and Raleigh’s men mutinied, the king enforced Raleigh’s conviction from 15 years earlier. A hero at his death, Raleigh told his reluctant executioner, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a sure cure for all diseases.”