History: A Man Named Raleigh

Story by Gordon Mercer and Marcia Mercer. Pictures from WikiMedia.

“Fear not to touch the best; The truth shall be thy warrant: Go, since I needs must die…” Sir Walter Raleigh, 1554-1618

As Sir Walter Raleigh was sentenced to death on charges of plotting against King James of England and attacking a Spanish outpost in Guiana, he knew the real reason for his imminent beheading was his failure to return from the New World with vast riches.

Raleigh was an adventurer, writer, explorer, poet and soldier for whom North Carolina’s Capital is named. He was twice imprisoned in the famed ‘Tower of London’ and eventually beheaded.

Did Raleigh deserve his fate?

Roanoke Island

Sir Walter Raleigh twice failed in attempts to establish permanent English settlements on Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina. Queen Elizabeth knighted Raleigh in 1585 and granted him a charter to explore and settle the New World. He was one of the most influential members of the Queen’s Royal Court.

Raleigh financed the attempted colonization of Roanoke Island in 1585 with his own money. Sir Frances Drake brought back these first settlers, who had become discouraged.

Raleigh began a second colonization attempt in 1587 on Roanoke Island. When John White, leader of the colony, returned to England for supplies, he was grounded and unable to return. Queen Elizabeth had ordered all large ships to remain near home to fight the Spanish Amada’s invasion of England.

By the time the supply ship could return to Roanoke Island in 1590, the settlers had vanished, leaving the name of a nearby island, “Croatan,” carved on a tree. The fate of “The Lost Colony” remains a worldwide mystery.

Prisoner of Love

While Sir Walter Raleigh was among the more confident, adventurous and well educated men of his period, a series of events began to unfold that led to his beheading. Raleigh was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorites. She bestowed on him a great deal of property and they exchanged poetry.

In 1591 Raleigh secretly married Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, maid of honor to the Queen. The marriage was discovered when Bess became pregnant and the Queen was furious because they had not asked permission to marry. The Queen was also, rumor had it, jealous. Raleigh and Throckmorton were imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Mercifully, one of Raleigh’s vessels soon captured a Spanish treasure ship and Queen Elizabeth, upon receiving her share of the bounty, released the couple.

Cities of Gold

Raleigh began an expedition to investigate stories of a city of gold around Guiana and Venezuela. His book, “The Discovery of Guiana,” set in motion the El Dorado vision of a city of gold.

His stories and voyages inspired other explorers and resulted in more territories claimed for England.

Back to the Tower

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, Raleigh’s enemies gained power. King James did not care for Raleigh and wanted peace with Spain. Raleigh was charged with plotting against the Crown and sentenced to death. All seemed aware his trial was a sham. King James, rather than imposing death, imprisoned Raleigh in the Tower of London.

Risky Move Ends in Failure

By 1616 King James was short of money and decided release Raleigh and send him in search of El Dorado with the stipulation that Raleigh could not attack the Spanish. Raleigh, however, found the Spanish in territory he had previously claimed for England. Raleigh attacked the Spanish, lost his son in the battle, and failed to find gold.

Off With His Head

A special commission was set up to try Raleigh upon his return but the commission would not convict. King James utilized an earlier death sentence to execute Raleigh. Crowds watching his execution lamented that there would never be another Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh’s Legacy

Sir Walter Raleigh had begun the colonization of what would become the United States of America. His vision of colonization lived and thrived and the world was forever changed.


Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published author and columnist.