October 29, 2012
"Let us dispatch", Sir Walter Raleigh said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear."
On Oct. 29, 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, adventurer, Queen’s confidant, explorer and poet, was beheaded to appease the Spanish after his second, ill-fated, voyage to find El Dorado ended after a battle on the Orinoco River.
Raleigh’s son was killed in the fight, but the Spanish, still smarting from the successive defeats they had received from England under Queen Elizabeth I, demanded that Raleigh be punished.
Raleigh was born into a Protestant family in either 1552 or 1554, in the village of East Budleigh in the southwestern corner of England, near Devon. Raleigh, who had been a favorite of the Virgin Queen, was no friend to King James I, and had been imprisoned by the new king for his alleged part in plots to depose him. Though imprisonment in the Tower was nothing new to the adventuresome Raleigh.
Raleigh was an adventurer and soldier. His part in the successful suppression of the Desmond Rebellions in 1583, where the Irish Catholics pushed for independence from the Protestant Queen, resulted in land grants in Ireland, including the town of Lismore. He was not an exceptionally successful landlord. And preferred the risks, and great rewards, of discovery. He won a concession for the colonization of Virginia in 1584.
He sent an expedition to Virginia, and established a small outpost on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. He mounted a second expedition in 1587 that was originally intended to retrieve the members of the outpost and form colony on the James River. John White, who led the colonists, was forced to leave his colony on Roanoke Island and return to England for supplies. Before he could return, Raleigh’s ships were commandeered (though he was paid well) for the battle against the Spanish Armada. When White returned in 1590, he found only a cryptic notation “Croatoan” carved into a tree to mark where he had left the 118 colonists (including his daughter and granddaughter, Virginia Dare).
Despite the failure, he remained a Queen’s favorite.
Stories abound about Raleigh, most are apocryphal (such as the story of Raleigh tossing his cape across the open sewer for his Queen to cross unsullied), but his dashing good looks, and physical presence created tensions in the Queen’s court.
When Raleigh and Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, were secretly married in 1591 he engendered the Queen’s enmity. The couple was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and then banished to his country estate.
In 1595, he undertook an expedition to Guyana after acquiring a Spanish account of a golden city at the headwaters of Caroni River. He did not discover gold, but wrote an exaggerated account of the adventure, “The Discovery of Guiana.”
The Queen, mollified, appointed Raleigh as Governor of Jersey, in the Channel Islands.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and King James I, formerly King James VI of Scotland, moved quickly to consolidate his power.
Raleigh was accused of participating in the Main Plot to overthrow the King and imprisoned in the Tower in July 1603. He spent his imprisonment writing, and was released in 1616 to conduct an expedition to find that city of gold.
He lost his son, and his chance for the future when the city was not found.
The capital city of North Carolina is named for him.