1580s - Walter Ralegh, Founder of Virginia

No compilation of stories about colonizing America is complete without Walter Ralegh’s. History books usually spell his name ‘Raleigh’ but the man himself more commonly used the spelling ‘Ralegh.’ He is such a legend that his name, to some people, signifies Elizabethan England.

Like his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Ralegh was born in the county of Devon on the southwest corner of England. Devon, along with Cornwall, Somerset, Bristol, and Dorset, were/are often referred to as the West Country. You will notice that most of the men involved with the early attempts to colonize Maine and New England were West Country men.

No one has yet found official records of Walter’s birth. Some historians deduce he was born in 1552, while most say 1554. That means Humphrey was between thirteen and fifteen years old at the time of Walter’s arrival.

When Walter was old enough for college [age twelve or thirteen in those days], he entered Christ Church College at Oxford. Soon after he changed to Oriel College(1), still at Oxford. Intermittent records show he matriculated [commenced studies] in 1568. But whereas most students signed a record book on their first day of school, there is no such signature for ‘Walter Ralegh.’

There were two important clusters of colleges in England at the time, one in the county of Oxford and one in Cambridge [the red stars on the map above]. The Puritan movement was not as strong among the professors in Oxford as it was in the colleges in Cambridge. In general, West Country men attended Oxford and young men from the eastern counties attended Cambridge. [You will notice as we move along how the majority of the Puritans who joined John Winthrop were from Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and other eastern counties. There was another large group from Dorchester in Devon led by Reverend John White. But we will get to all that later.]

As mentioned, Walter was about the same age as Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt also studied at Oxford, but matriculated somewhat later [which implies Walter was born in 1552]. With so much talk going on about English adventurers funding trading companies like the Muscovy Company, it is easy to imagine the two young men sitting around having a discussion about exploring the world. After graduation, Hakluyt, who had inherited a fair amount of money from his family, invested in some of the most important expeditions – not just to North America, but to the Far East and West Indies. This interest led him to publish his book Principall Navigations about other men’s adventures. Hakluyt will die two years before Ralegh in 1616.

Queen Elizabeth’s court society was small, so, of course, Ralegh knew of Francis Drake. Drake was twelve to fourteen years older, a contemporary of Ralegh’s step-cousin, Richard Grenville. Ralegh and Drake were also related by marriage(2) but very distantly.

Ralegh, who would gain a reputation for “staying not long in one place,” left college in 1569 before obtaining a degree. [He was either seventeen or nineteen years old.] That was the year Hawkins and Drake were caught in the hurricane in Mexico, and Humphrey Gilbert was subduing the First Desmond Rebellion in Munster. Ralegh, along with his first cousin, Philip Budockshide(3) [also from Devon] joined their mutual cousin, Henry Champernowne, who was gathering a group of a “hundred or so gentleman volunteers on horseback” to venture to France to help the French Huguenots in their struggle against the French Catholics. The motto Henry’s volunteers carried on their banners read, “Finem det mihi virtus [Virtue give me my end].”

Henry Champernowne and Philip Budockshide had just come home from fighting against the Muslim Ottoman Empire in Hungary alongside Richard Grenville.(4) Henry was four years younger than Grenville, which means he was six to eight years older than Ralegh. Grenville, as you know, went on to Ireland to join his cousin Humphrey Gilbert fight the Desmond Rebellions, while Henry and Philip went to France.

Walter Ralegh got his first taste of the bloody Protestant-Catholic struggles in France. The Catholics dominated the northwestern side of the country. The Protestants [known in France as Huguenots] lived mostly in the northeast provinces, with pockets in other areas, particularly in and around Switzerland, where French reformist John Calvin (1509-1564) had gone to live and preach. [Calvin moved permanently to Geneva c1536. By the time Ralegh was in France, Calvin had died, but the Calvinist Protestant movement was in full swing.]

The French Wars of Religion between the Huguenots and the Catholics raged from 1562 to 1598. Ralegh wrote a book later in life called the History of the World in which he described his participation in the brutal Battle of Jarnac on March 13, 1569. The two Huguenot leaders were captured during the battle and murdered after the Catholics won.

A year or two later, Hakluyt joined Henry Champernowne’s group in France. Soon after his arrival, in May of 1570, Henry Champernowne and Philip Budockshide(5) died in the Protestant port of La Rochelle – it is not known how. The next four years of fighting formed both Ralegh and Hakluyt into experienced soldiers and wiser gentlemen. They returned to England in 1575. Hakluyt was twenty-two and Ralegh was either twenty-one or twenty-three.

Within a couple of years, Queen Elizabeth invited Ralegh to serve as one of her many talented courtiers. Hakluyt returned to school to become an ordained priest.

It was the height of the Renaissance and Ralegh was surrounded by the best minds of the century. Besides his own experience of sea and naval warfare, Ralegh had been watching and learning from his brother Humphrey, who by that time had been knighted for his success in the Irish wars. For years, Ralegh heard his brother speak of finding the great waterway through the northern continent of America. Ralegh could not have been more thrilled when Gilbert, in 1578, received his first patent to explore the “strange lands” John Cabot had discovered over eighty years earlier. But then, as we know, Ralegh sort of blew it.

Ralegh had some growing up to do. The eagerness that got him in trouble with the Falcon got him in trouble at home, too. At least twice, the Queen’s guards threw him in Fleet Prison to cool off after participating in brawls. He and his first cousin Arthur Gorges [heir of Philip Budockshide above(6)] were sent to Marshalsea Prison for “a period of contemplation and remorse” after crossing swords with a man named Wingfield. [Probably of the same family as the Wingfield who will help found Jamestown in 1607.]

Before Walter could ruin his reputation too badly, Queen Elizabeth ordered him to join his brother Humphrey in Ireland where the Desmonds and Ormands were at it again. Ralegh’s energy was much more useful to the crown there. He will form many friendships and alliances with people who will later help him colonize Virginia.

The Second Desmond Wars

In our article about the Irish Situation, we left off with the Captain General of County Desmond, James FitzMaurice FitzGerald [known as ‘FitzMaurice’] hiding in the “wilds of the forest of Aherlow” in County Kerry. From there he was launching hit-and-run attacks on the English and their allies.

In February of 1571, the new Lord President of Munster, John Perrot, led 700 troops in pursuit of FitzMaurice without success. But by 1573, FitzMaurice’s forces were down to under 100 men. In 1575 he sailed to France to solicit help from the Catholics.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth released Gerald and John FitzGerald from the Tower with an agreement that they return to Ireland and cause no more trouble. But a great deal of resentment had built among the Catholic-Irish mercenaries, known as ‘gall oglaigh’ or ‘gallowglass.’ [‘Gall’ meant ‘foreigner.’ ‘Oglaigh’ came from ‘Gael’ or ‘Gaelic,’ the old Celtic stock of the Irish and Scottish clans]. In 1576, the English, under William Drury, the new Lord President of Munster, executed 700 gallowglass. Gerald and John FitzGerald could remain quiet no longer.

The Pope had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the Catholic Church for her harshness during the First Desmond Rebellion. Until that time, she had tolerated Catholicism in private. For the Second Rebellion, she turned her back on Catholicism with a vengeance.

The battles resumed between the Irish and English in 1579 when FitzMaurice invaded Munster with forces from Europe. He was killed in August and John FitzGerald took over as the leader. The English sent 6000 troops against him led by Lord Grey(7,), who had taken over the position of Lord Deputy of Ireland from the notoriously brutal Sir William Pelham. Lord Grey, Baron of Wilton, would be no less brutal. He, like Ralegh, had previously been fighting in France.

King Philip II of Spain had a soft spot for Ireland. He was the country’s king back in the early 1550s, when he was married to ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor. He was still the Emperor of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, and as far as he was concerned, Ireland was still part of that empire. He recruited some 600 Catholic soldiers from Italy, Spain, and the Biscay [northern Spain] and dispatched them for Ireland to support the rebels.

Walter Ralegh’s job, and that of his fellow English soldiers, was to ward off Philip’s Catholic invasion. He made it his task to annihilate the Geraldines as well. By that time they had earned the reputation for being the fiercest, craftiest, and most persistent fighters. Every time Ralegh caught one, he had him hung, drawn, and quartered to make sure the Irish learned that the Queen of England ruled the land. Ralegh even went so far as to have the Geraldine’s body parts hung in chains over the gates of the Irish rebel’s town.

The brutal, barbaric procedure of hanging, drawing, and quartering had been the sentence for high treason in England for hundreds of years. The prisoner was tied to a ladder-like hurdle, or wooden panel, and dragged by horses to the place of execution. Then he was hanged by a rope until he was almost strangled, but not completely. While the prisoner was still conscious, the executioner pierced and sliced open his chest and stomach, yanked out his organs, and only then cut off his head. The remaining body was cut into four pieces to make doubly sure it was no longer alive. In some Catholic cultures, this was an especially disturbing practice because they believed they needed their whole physical body in order to be received in Heaven come Judgment Day.

In London, body parts and severed heads were displayed prominently on spikes lining the London Bridge. This was a warning message to English citizens to follow the laws of the land. Since it was considered indecent to display a woman’s body parts in public, women prisoners were burned at the stake instead.(8)

In late August, 1580, the Irish ambushed a large English force under Lord Grey in the Battle of Glenmalureon in County Wicklow, which was about twenty-five miles south of Dublin on the way to Waterford County. Grey lost 800 of his 6000 men.

Smerwick Massacre

On September 10, 1580, King Philip’s forces landed on the sandy isthmus of Smerwick, and built a fortification called Dún an Óir [Fort del Ore]. Lord Grey marched to Smerwick with what remained of the Queen’s army, including Ralegh and his hundred soldiers, and blockaded the fort. The 600 Irish, Italian, and Spanish Catholics hid in terror behind the fort walls. The English let no supplies or people in or out until, after four days, the Italians waved a white flag begging for mercy.

Lord Grey hated popery(9) in the worst way and refused to parley [barter or talk] with the Catholics. When the fort yielded, he ordered Ralegh and his associate Mackworth to enter it and “fall straight to execution.”

Showing no compassion, the English hanged all the Irish, even the women and children. All 600 of the foreign soldiers were put to the sword [stabbed or decapitated]. Only twenty were spared including the colonel, captain, and camp master of Philip’s army. Of those twenty, the English tortured two by breaking their arms and legs and then hanging them. Grey’s men laid the hundreds of bodies out on the sand for everyone who entered the harbor to observe.

To Ralegh, the dead were enemies of the Queen and God, and as such “malignant vermin who deserved no pity.” It was a bloody business indeed. Even the Privy Council recalled Lord Gray to London for being too brutal. Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, said, “It is very much to our liking.” (10)

Most noteworthy of Walter Ralegh’s time in Ireland was a run-in with a band of Geraldines led by Seneschal John FitzEdmund FitzGerald. The Seneschals were considered the very boldest and fiercest of the Geraldines. They were referred to as the Dogs of Blood because they were so blood-thirsty.

One day, as Ralegh led a small English troop through a forest on his way to Cork, a band of Seneschals came out of what seemed like nowhere and attacked them. Ralegh and a few men took to their horses’ hoofs to escape. But as one of Ralegh’s comrades tried to ford [jump across] a river, he was thrown from his horse. Ralegh could not bear to leave the comrade behind. He knew that if the Seneschals caught him, they would torture him mercilessly, just as badly as the English would torture the rebel. In spite of the odds against Ralegh, which were twenty to one, he dashed back after his man with a quarterstaff(11) in one hand and a pistol in the other. After a vicious and bloody fight, he managed to relieve his little troupe from the Seneschals “with not a man lost.”

News of Walter Ralegh’s heroic acts during his two years of fighting in Ireland were forwarded to Queen Elizabeth. She brought Ralegh home. Within weeks, she summoned him to her side. For the next ten years, except for a brief tour fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands, she kept him there.

Elizabeth and her right arm man, Lord Burghley(12), found Ralegh’s acute ability to observe political events useful. It was said the Queen took Ralegh for a “type of Oracle,” an analysis that nettled everyone else. The Queen also observed Ralegh to be a “scintillating and original genius.”

Meanwhile, Walter and Carew Ralegh’s father, Walter Raleigh of Fardell, died and left the boys a sizable inheritance. Ralegh was already receiving income for his military and court service. With his combined purse [income], he purchased some very expensive and ostentatious(13) new clothing. It was said “the ribbon on his hat was encrusted with pearls and his cloak was of rich soft velvet.”

Even more important to Ralegh than his vestments [clothing] was his favor with the Queen. One day, as he escorted her through a pouring rainstorm, she and he came across a puddle. To prevent Elizabeth from drenching her silk satin slippers in the puddle, Ralegh whisked off his velvet cloak and laid it down over the water, setting a standard for generations ahead of him of true chivalry.

By April of 1582, Walter Ralegh hoped, like most men aged twenty-eight or thirty, for a wife and an heir. He felt honored to be one of the Queen’s favorites, and he loved his monarch very much. However, he knew that because he was not of the aristocracy [not a prince, not an earl, not a duke, nor a baron], the fifty-year-old queen would never marry him. But Elizabeth considered Walter her possession. She wanted Ralegh’s attentions all for herself. She did not want Walter to marry any woman. This will become a problem.

When Elizabeth sent her courtiers back to Ireland to fight, she kept Ralegh behind and sent someone in his place. She allowed him to live a life of leisure, but always at her beck and call.

The arrangement was not without its rewards for Ralegh. He rented a home in Islington, just outside the London Centre. The Queen also granted him two estates in Oxfordshire. The farms on those estates yielded income in addition to his salary. On top of that, she gave him the position of Farmer of Wines.

The Farmer of Wines did not actually farm wines. He received money from every person in the British Empire who sold wines. That meant that every person who sold wines had to pay Ralegh a tax of 20 shillings a year for a license. All tavern keepers came to hate Ralegh. But the business supplied him with a substantial income.

The Queen also granted to Ralegh the patent on broadcloth. Every merchant who sold a bolt of undyed cloth in England or abroad had to pay Ralegh a tax. As mentioned, textiles represented about 80 percent of England’s exports. This position also brought Ralegh a hefty sum.

Elizabeth leased a new home for Ralegh called Durham House on The Strand, right alongside Arundel House and Essex House. It was right down the Thames from her palace. Durham House had been the palace of the Catholic bishops before Henry VIII took possession of all Catholic properties for himself and his heirs in the 1530s.

She also appointed Ralegh lieutenant of the West Country counties of Cornwall and Devon. This placed him in the House of Commons as one of Devonshire’s two representatives, and required that he take care of matters such as the conditions of coal miners in Cornwall, and fortifying the port of Plymouth against the Spanish. Cornwall and Devon were the closest shires [counties] to the Atlantic.

That wasn’t all. Now that the English had toppled the Desmond Dynasty in Ireland, and taken over their properties, Queen Elizabeth was granting their former estates to her noble knights and gentlemen. Peter Carew, a cousin of the Queen, and distant cousin of Ralegh through his grandmother Katherine Carew, was reclaiming Munster lands that the Carews had been granted during the Norman invasion but lost. Carew brought over English Protestants to create colonies that would follow English laws and traditions.

Queen Elizabeth granted Ralegh the largest amount of land of anyone. She gave him 42,000 acres in the counties of Cork, Waterford, and Tipperary. She gave him John FitzEdmund Fitzgerald’s prize castle, Ballymartyr [now called CastleMartyr] in Yougal. She gave him the whole barony of Imokilly. [But she did not make Ralegh a baron.]

Last but not least, Elizabeth appointed Ralegh Captain of her Guard, for which he wore a tawny orange uniform encrusted with jewels. Walter Ralegh was in the zenith of his personal life, though he will not realize that until much later.

Still, Ralegh was not satisfied. Besides wanting a wife, Walter wanted the distinction that came only with being a peer [duke, earl, or baron]. Though Ralegh’s London residence at Durham House was splendid, he wanted a country estate that allowed him to live like the landed gentry and peers.

One day while roaming the countryside, he fell off his horse. From down on the ground where he fell, Ralegh looked up and saw the house of his dreams, a manor called Sherbourne, the residence of a bishop. With a “tarte letter to the reluctant bishop”, Queen Elizabeth took Sherbourne from the see of Salisbury and granted the lease of it to Ralegh for ninety-nine years. The estate came with farmland that added to his income. He appointed his half-brother Adrian Gilbert to live there as overseer.

Sherbourne did not make Ralegh a peer. It did not allow Ralegh to be an equal to the others around him. It did make him a member of the House of Lords, instead of the lowly House of Commons. It did not put Ralegh in a position to earn the hand of the Queen.

A peerage was something Elizabeth would never grant Ralegh. She liked him, maybe loved him. Ralegh was six feet tall, had dark eyes and hair, and was very handsome. He was clever and brave. But Elizabeth knew his faults. He was arrogant. He thought he was better than his fellow man. Ralegh found it difficult to love his neighbor as himself. When he opened his mouth, he made enemies, and that was not good for diplomacy. Ralegh would only be safe when he was in the Queen’s favor.

So Ralegh took his money and began building his own fleet of ships. A fleet will allow him to lead the exciting life of a privateer. It will allow him to be an explorer. It will allow him to colonize his own country, over which he can be the president or even the king. But will Queen Elizabeth let him sail away on any of those ships?

Next article: 1580 Philip II of Spain Takes Control of Portugal


  1. Unlike in America where most colleges have their own campus, in England, several colleges are located together one town. Today they are combined as universities.
  2. Walter’s father, Walter Raleigh of Fardell, was married twice before he married Walter’s mother Katherine Champernowne. Walter Raleigh of Fardell’s first wife was Joan Drake of Ashe. The Drakes of Ashe were a different line of Drakes from Francis Drake’s line. Francis’ line were the Drakes of Crowndale. Possibly both Drake lines descended from Reginald Drake of Tiverton, who lived in the 1200s, some nine to twelve generations back. But since Walter Ralegh did not descend from Joan Drake, then he is not a cousin of Francis Drake. With Joan, Walter Raleigh of Fardell had at least two children: George and John Raleigh, who were, like Humphrey Gilbert, Ralegh’s half-siblings. To make the family tree more complicated, George Raleigh of Fardell married his step-sister, Katherine Gilbert, Humphrey’s sister. Family tree below.
  3. Philip’s parents were Roger Budockshide and Frances Champernowne. Frances was the sister of Ralegh’s mother Katherine Champernowne.
  4. One source stated that Richard Grenville’s mother’s brother married a sister of Sir Arthure Champernowne, and that made him related to Walter Ralegh. But I have not found that link yet. I do not know which sister it was.
  5. Philip Budockshide was the last male heir to his estate, so when his father, Roger Budockshide, died in 1573, the estate went to Philip’s sister Winnifred, who was married to William Gorges. We will talk about William Gorges, and his son Arthur Gorges shortly.
  6. As noted in a previous footnote, Arthur Gorges’ parents were Winnifred Budockshide, Philip Budockshide’s sister, and William Gorges. Like Philip, Winnifred’s mother was Frances Champernowne, the sister of Katherine Champernowne, Ralegh’s mother.
  7. Arthur Grey was the 14th Baron Grey de Wilton (1536–1593).
  8. These laws were later adopted by the Puritans in America and applied to the Quakers, who they considered rebels.
  9. Popery and papist were slang words for people of the Catholic faith who considered the Pope the highest authority.
  10. Monarchs always refer to themselves in the plural.
  11. A quarterstaff is a short pike, a stick about six to eight feet long with a metal spike at the end for spearing the enemy.
  12. William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, was Elizabeth’s advisor most of her reign. He lived from 1520- to 1598, was Secretary of State 1550-1553 and 1558-1572; Lord High Treasurer from 1572 to his death in 1598; and Lord Privy Seal from 1590 to his death in 1598.
  13. Pretentiously and conspicuously showing off to impress others.