The Devonian landed-gentleman, writer, poet, court favourite, politician, soldier, spy and explorer Walter Ralegh was executed on this day in 1618.
Ralegh was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1584 to explore, colonise and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People [in the New World]”, in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there. He first organised, although did not himself participate in, two voyages to Roanoke in Virginia in the 1580s, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish an English colony in North America, under the governorship of John White (it was not until 1607 that a successful colony was to become established, at Jamestown in Virginia). White first went out to Roanoke in 1587, but returned to England shortly afterwards in order to pick up further supplies. He had intended to go back again within the year, but, for various reasons, was not actually able to do so until three years later than planned. When he finally did arrive back in Roanoke, he found no trace of the colony or of the colonists, other than the word “CROATOAN” carved into tree trunks. Ralegh then himself participated in a voyage in 1595 in search of “El Dorado”, the fabled city of gold in South America, again with no success. In between times, in 1591, he had been temporarily imprisoned in the Tower of London, for having married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, without first having sought the Queen’s express permission. Later, after Elizabeth I died, and James I succeeded her to the throne, Ralegh was imprisoned again, this time on the altogether more serious charge of complicity in the so-called “Main Plot” against the new King in 1603 (which sought to remove him and replace hm with his cousin Arbella Stuart). He was eventually pardoned and released from captivity in 1616, in order to undertake a second voyage in search of “El Dorado”. This time, he did find gold, albeit by the expedient of ransacking a Spanish outpost, in violation of the terms not only of his pardon, but also of the Treaty of London of 1604, that had brought to an end the long-running Anglo-Spanish War. On his eventual return to England in 1618, he was arrested and executed in Westminster Palace Yard, essentially to appease the Spanish.
There is a portrait of Ralegh, by an unknown artist of the English School, in the National Portrait Gallery. It depicts a handsome man wearing an embroidered and padded white doublet, and a sable-trimmed and pearl-studded cloak, in the Queen’s colours of black and white. Ralegh is of course remembered for supposedly once having made the chivalrous gesture of casting one of his cloaks upon a puddle so as to allow the Queen to walk over it without getting her feet wet. He is also widely credited with having supposedly introduced the potato, and tobacco, to England