One exciting part of Shakespeare’s life was the almost constant focus on exploration to the New World which saw both Elizabeth I, and later James I of England, send companies of explorers across the ocean to try and settle in what was known as Virginia.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh. 1598. National Gallery of Ireland. Source

This week we continue our look into the life of William Shakespeare by exploring the life and times of one of his most famous contemporaries: Sir Walter Raleigh by asking Did Shakespeare Know Sir Walter Raleigh?

Born in the early 1550s, he would spend his 20s fighting against the Irish rebellion, going on to rise in the ranks of the court of Elizabeth I, being knighted in 1585, and establishing himself as a favorite with the Queen.

Raleigh was instrumental in the English colonisation of North America and was granted a royal charter to explore Virginia. He was famously looking for gold, and wanting to find El Dorado. In search of that goal primarily, he never searched North America himself. Instead, he searched parts of what is now Venezuela. While Venezuela does have gold deposits, we have no evidence that Raleigh ever found gold mines. He is sometimes given credit for finding Angel Falls, but that’s hotly contested.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England” – an illustration included in Frederick William Fairholt’s Tobacco, its history and associations. 1859. Source

Raleigh did send the group that became known as the Lost Roanoke Colony, and was responsible for financing the many journeys to try and settle Virginia.

In 1591, he secretly married Elizabeth I’s lady in waiting, Bess Throckmorton. Bess was pregnant at the time, but the baby died from the plague just a few months after he was born. Bess went back to working for the Queen after giving birth, but once Elizabeth I discovered the unauthorized marriage, she banished Bess from court and imprisoned Raleigh in the Tower of London. Elizabeth released Raleigh briefly in 1592 for him to head an expedition to attack Spain, where he captured a richly prized ship, the Madre de Deus. After his successful expedition, he was sent back to the Tower until the following year. Released from prison, Raleigh returned with his wife to Sherborne Lodge in Cornwall, where he retired with Bess, his wife, and their two sons, Walter and Carew.

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son, Walter. Unknown artist. Portrait 1602. Given to the National Portrait Gallery in 1954. Source

He built a new house, called Sherborne Lodge, and was happily settled until in 1594 he heard a rumor of a lost city of gold in South America. In 1594, Raleigh mounted an expedition to try and find the lost city and wrote of his extravagant experiences in a book called The Discovery of Guiana, which is believed to have inspired the legend of El Dorado.

After Elizabeth I died in 1603, James I had Raleigh arrested under charges of treason. Representing himself, Raleigh called for the writer of the one truly damaging testimony against him to be brought to trial for cross examination. This request was denied, and Raleigh convicted, but James I commuted the sentence to imprisonment instead of death.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s desk in “The Bloody Tower” interior, Tower of London. Source

He remained imprisoned in the Tower until 1616 when he was released to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. It is entirely possible James I thought Raleigh would die trying to complete such a mission as one potential motive to allow it. The only rule was that Raleigh was forbidden to get involved in any hostile altercations during his voyage.

Unfortunately, a detachment of Raleigh’s men attacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana, in violation of peace treaties with Spain, and against Raleigh’s orders. During the attack on the settlement, Raleigh’s son, Walter, was fatally shot. The Spanish ambassador in England demanded that Raleigh’s death sentence be reinstated by King James. After refusing numerous options for escaping, Raleigh went to his death by execution at Westminster on October 29 1618.

The Execution of Sir Walter Raleigh. From The Popular History of England: An Illustrated History of Society and Government from the Earliest Period to Our Own Times by Charles Knight. Illustrator does not appear to be credited. Source

After his death, the embalmed head of Sir Walter Raleigh was given to his wife, Bess, who carried his head with her in a velvet bag for the rest of her life. 29 years later, after she died, his head was buried with the rest of his body at St. Margaret’s Church.

He is remembered for being an adventurer, explorer, and staunch defender of England. He introduced England to tobacco, and is credited with bringing potatoes and tea to England for hte first time, during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

To see a timeline that shows you when during Shakespeare’s life tobacco, potatoes, and tea were first introduced to England during the life of the bard, you can download the Life of Shakespeare Timeline using the links below today’s video.

That’s it for this week. Thank you for watching! I’ll see you next week!

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