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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Walter Raleigh

(also spelt Ralegh, c.1552–1618, kt 1584)
The outstanding example of the Elizabethan adventurer, combining great talents with more than a dash of buccaneering bluster. His early career was as both sailor and soldier, in expeditions against Spanish galleons and Irish rebels. He came to the attention of the queen in about 1582 and rapidly became her chief favourite, acquiring much wealth and a knighthood; he remained in favour until her death, apart from a spell in the Tower in 1592 for having secretly married one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton.

He had meanwhile been an energetic early promoter of English colonies in *America, sending out the expedition to Roanoke Island and naming the region Virginia in honour of the queen. In 1595 he himself sailed west and penetrated some 700km/435m up the Orinoco river in search of the fabled El Dorado, the supposed source of Spanish gold. Yet another major theme in his life was literature. He was a poet (mainly in private praise of Elizabeth) and he wrote several prose works of history and polemic. He was also a generous patron, introducing *Spenser at court and encouraging the publication of The Faerie Queene.

Raleigh's troubles began after the queen's death in 1603. The new king, *James I, became convinced that he had plotted against his accession. A death sentence for treason was commuted to imprisonment, but this second spell in the Tower lasted for 13 years. During it Raleigh busied himself with chemical experiments and undertook a History of the World (his one completed volume reached no further than the 2nd century BC but long remained his most popular work). He was released in 1616 to lead another gold-seeking expedition to south America. It proved a disaster and on his return he was beheaded.

Such a life attracts romantic legends. There is no way of proving or disproving the two best-known (both from Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England 1662). In one Raleigh spreads his cloak over a puddle for the queen. In the other he writes with a diamond on a window pane 'Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall', to which she replies by the same means 'If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all'. The often stated theory that his colonists brought the *potato back to Europe is untrue, but he may have introduced it to Ireland.

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