Ralegh, Sir Walter (c.1554–1618), soldier and settler in Ireland, was one of the most famous and infamous Englishmen of the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. He was born at Hayes Barton, Devon, son of Walter Ralegh (d. 1581) and his third wife, Katherine, daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne of Modbury. He matriculated (1572) at Oriel College, Oxford, but did not graduate. He afterwards spent some time at Lyon's Inn and the Middle Temple, though he subsequently asserted that he had never studied law. Born into a family that supported the reformation, Ralegh's first taste of military action came c.1569–1570 when he accompanied a kinsman, Henry Champernowne, to fight in support of the huguenot cause in the third war of religion in France. In 1578 his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert (qv) organised a privateering fleet of eleven ships, but the expedition achieved little and the fleet returned to Plymouth in May 1579.
Service in Munster, 1580–82 In July 1580 Ralegh was given command of 100 foot, who were immediately deployed to Munster to put down a rebellion there. That September the crisis worsened for the English, when 600 papal troops arrived off the Kerry coast in support of the rebels and fortified Dún an Óir fort at Smerwick, at the western extremity of the Dingle peninsula. The lord deputy, Arthur, Lord Grey (qv), invested the fort in November and after a three-day bombardment the defenders surrendered on 10 November, apparently on the understanding that their lives would be spared. Grey then ordered all but approximately thirty of the garrison to be killed. Ralegh was one of two officers charged with carrying out this infamous order, and he oversaw the massacre of the unarmed prisoners. In December he returned briefly to London bearing important letters found on some of the dead soldiers, but was back in Munster by February 1581. Thereafter he was engaged in fighting against the rebel forces in the province and distinguished himself in a number of encounters. On one occasion he and a small party of English were ambushed while crossing a river by a much larger group of rebels. He displayed great courage in coming to the aid of one of his men who had fallen from his horse, and somehow managed to keep the onrushing rebels at bay till his comrade was able to make good his escape. Such exploits led to his appointment soon after to a three-man commission authorised to govern Munster during the temporary absence of the provost marshal of the province.
During 1581 he was one of many English officers who decried what they perceived to be the softness of their commander in Munster, Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond. He called for a return to the methods employed by his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert during the first Desmond rebellion (1569–73), which had involved the indiscriminate massacre of combatants and non-combatants alike. His advocacy of this hard-line stance towards the local Irish was reflected in the manner in which he coveted Barryscourt, the house of Lord Barry. His provocations did much to push David Barry (qv) into rebellion in April 1581, which facilitated his receipt of a temporary grant of the Barry estates of Barry Island, Co. Cork. Meanwhile, Ormond sought desperately to mediate a negotiated end to the uprising and to further this purpose he appears to have confined Ralegh and his cohorts to their base in Cork city for much of April–May 1581.
Despite Ralegh's complaints, the conflict in Munster was savage enough. Many years later he would write in his History of the world that ‘the miseries of war are never so bitter and many as when a whole nation, or a great part of it, forsaking their own seats, labour to root out the established possessions of another land, making room for themselves. . . The merciless terms of this controversy arm both sides with a desperate resolution’; there can be little doubt that he had his period of military service in Munster in mind. His insubordination antagonised not just Ormond but also the lord deputy, Arthur Grey, so it is not surprising that he was among those discharged when the crown reduced its military establishment in Munster in February 1582; he had returned to England shortly beforehand. At some point during this time in Ireland he fathered a daughter with a Cork woman called Alice Gould.
At court: rising fortunes; colonisation Once back in England, his good looks, charm, and wit enabled him rapidly to become the chief favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. His elevated status led to an abrupt shift in his attitudes towards Ormond and the ongoing Munster rebellion. In October 1582 he advised that the speediest means of suppressing the rebellion would be to reappoint Ormond as general of the Munster forces and to proffer generous surrender terms to the rebel captains while categorically ruling out a pardon for the rebel leader, the 15th earl of Desmond (qv). Recognising that Elizabeth continued to hold Ormond in high regard and that she was desperate to reduce her military expenses in Munster, he appears to have rather shrewdly embraced both Ormond and his more moderate courses as a means of consolidating his burgeoning relationship with his queen. Moreover, he lost interest in seizing property from Irish landowners now that far more promising opportunities beckoned in England. In 1583 he received Durham House, the former residence of the bishop of Durham, located on the Strand in London. The following year he got two lucrative monopolies, one on the export of woollen broadcloth, and the other being the farm of wines. In 1585 he was knighted, and became lord lieutenant of Cornwall and lord warden of the Stannaries, while in 1587 he was appointed captain of the guard protecting Elizabeth. He sat as MP for Devon (1584, 1586), and in January 1592 he received a ninety-nine-year lease on Sherborne castle in Dorset.
From 1583 he became involved in various schemes to colonise North America. In March 1584 he was granted a patent for exploration and plantation in the Americas, and over the following few years he dispatched a number of expeditions to found a colony there. The most notable of these was the famous ‘lost colony’ at Roanoke Island, in present-day North Carolina, where 117 men, women, and children established a short-lived colony in 1587, but subsequently vanished without trace. These unsuccessful ventures were reputed to have cost him some £40,000.
Settler in Munster Elizabeth's favour also saw him granted substantial land holdings in the Munster plantation. In February 1587 the queen ordered that he receive three-and-a-half seignories of confiscated land in Co. Cork and Co. Waterford, and on 16 October letters patent were issued to that effect. He thus acquired over 40,000 acres of land centred on the town of Youghal, the barony of Imokilly, and lands along the Blackwater river. This grant was over three times larger than that given to any other undertaker, and drew hostile comment from the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot (qv), who was, however, quickly cautioned by his contacts in London not to cross Ralegh due to his intimacy with the queen. While most other undertakers were hampered by legal wranglings and opposition from the dispossessed Irish landowners, Ralegh's influence was such that he was able to proceed immediately with the settlement of his Irish estates. By May 1589 he had established a colony of between 300 and 400 English there. His was by far the most impressive of the English settlements and he invested heavily in its development. As a progressive landowner, he charged his tenants generous rents to encourage them to develop their holdings. However, the legend, which only emerged around the start of the eighteenth century, that he introduced the potato into Ireland is probably untrue.
In 1589 Ralegh formed a partnership for the manufacture into caskets and export abroad of timber from the woods on his Munster estates. He procured a licence to export to any destination, which was just as well because the main foreign markets for these caskets were the Spanish islands of the Canaries and Madeira; England and Spain were then at war. This business was by far the most ambitious commercial venture yet attempted in Ireland and employed some 200 English settlers. Between 1590 and 1592 alone, over 340,000 caskets were shipped abroad for sale. In 1595 he authorised the establishment of iron ore factories on his Munster estates, hoping to exploit the deposits of ore there. However, his existing tenants opposed this scheme.
He ran his colony from London and appears to have made only two brief sojourns in Munster, in autumn 1588 and August–September 1589. During these brief stays, he accepted the mayoralty of Youghal for 1589–90, although the office was exercised by his deputy, William Magner. He also became alarmed at the attitude of the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), who resented the privileges granted to Ralegh's colony and encouraged the former owners of these lands to challenge his occupancy both by force and by legal action. The manner in which Ralegh single-mindedly pursued his interests in Munster had ruffled many feathers in the province and within the royal administration in Ireland.
Fall from favour Fitzwilliam's boldness reflected the manner in which Ralegh's star had dimmed owing to the emergence of Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex, as a rival for the queen's affections in the late 1580s. However, a gentle decline in influence became a precipitous plunge when in summer 1592 it emerged that he had secretly married the already pregnant Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth's maids of honour, in late 1591. The enraged queen briefly imprisoned the newly weds in the Tower of London and banished her former favourite from her court. In Ireland Fitzwilliam immediately began harassing and extorting money from Ralegh's tenants and also shut down the timber export business, alleging that the timber was being used to build Spanish warships. Nonetheless, the queen did not totally forsake him, and he slowly began to creep back into favour. In 1593 he succeeded in getting permission to resume his export of timber from Ireland and was elected MP for Mitchell in Cornwall. Subsequently he was elected MP for Dorset (1597) and Cornwall (1601). His leading role in the successful English naval attack on the Spanish port of Cadiz in summer 1596 completed his rehabilitation: he was permitted to return to the royal court the next year.
By then his vast outlays on various colonial, privateering, and military ventures had exhausted his finances. His will of 1597 indicated that his property consisted of his lease of the manor of Sherbourne and of his Munster estates, which although vast, yielded modest annual rents of £200 and had required prodigious capital outlays. In 1596 he tried unsuccessfully to sell these estates for £2,000. His failure to do so proved unfortunate, as a mass uprising in Munster in autumn 1598 led to the devastation of these lands. All his tenants fled at the approach of the rebel forces and his main settlement at Tallow, which had comprised sixty buildings, was burned to the ground. That year his was one of many names mentioned for the lord deputyship of Ireland; he wisely declined this poisoned chalice. However, he continued to offer the queen and her ministers advice on Irish military affairs, much of which was quite prescient. His Munster estates having long been a drain on his resources due to a prolonged period of warfare in Ireland, he sold them in December 1602 to Richard Boyle (qv) for £1,500, of which Ralegh was to receive only a third before he was found guilty of treason. By then he had received a permanent grant of the manor of Sherbourne, after which he had set about expanding his property interests in Dorset.
Imprisonment The death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603 brought a sharp reversal of fortune for Ralegh. He lost his monopolies and his lease on Durham House, and was replaced as captain of the guard. In July he appeared before the privy council on charges of treason in connection with the Bye and Main plots against the king's accession, and was sent to the Tower. There he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide. Tried in November, he defended himself with dignity, but was found guilty and sentenced to death. On 10 December, the day before he was due to be executed, he was reprieved and was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London.
During his long and relatively comfortable incarceration he wrote a number of political works, which like most of his earlier prose works were intended for private circulation among leading statesmen and nobles. This was not the case with The history of the world, which he began writing in 1607 and was published in late 1614. Over approximately a million words and five books, he outlined the history of the world from the creation to 146 BC. This work repeatedly decries the wickedness of kings, including various English monarchs, for which it was briefly suppressed. Thereafter it went through six editions by 1666 and proved hugely influential on the subsequent generation of constitutionalists and republicans. As well as his prose, he also wrote a great deal of poetry, although few of his poems were published during his life.
Final expedition and death In 1595 he had sailed to Guiana, where he had heard of El Dorado, a fabulous city renowned for its wealth. Although unable to locate the city, he never relinquished his hopes of returning some day and doing so. By 1607 he was lobbying for his release to pursue this expedition, which he was convinced would provide his monarch with the wealth to challenge the Spanish empire. These efforts finally bore fruit in March 1616, when he was freed and authorised to lead an expedition to Guiana. His fleet left Plymouth in June 1617 and reached the mouth of the Cayenne river in November. However, his search for El Dorado proved futile and he returned to England in June 1618. While he was in South America he had attacked the Spanish settlement of San Thomé, and the Spanish authorities now demanded that Ralegh be punished. He was arrested and, following an aborted attempt to flee to France, he was once more lodged in the Tower on 10 August. Believing that Ralegh had sought deliberately to undermine his policy of cultivating good relations with Spain, the king determined that Ralegh was to die, and the commissioners appointed to examine the case declared that he could be executed on foot of his conviction for treason in 1603. Accordingly, on 29 October 1618 he was executed at Westminster palace. His body was then buried in St Margaret's church, Westminster. Thus the life of Sir Walter Ralegh, soldier, landowner, entrepreneur, writer, poet, privateer, coloniser, explorer, and courtier, ended ignominiously, at the executioner's blade.
With his wife Elizabeth he had three sons: Damerei, who apparently died in infancy; Walter, who died in the storming of San Thomé; and Carew.