Welcome back, intrepid readers, to Nerds On Earth’s serial biography of Sir Walter Ralegh. Over the course of the first three installments, we’ve seen this British adventurer and polymath climb the social ladder to the very top. As a soldier, explorer, and confidant of Queen Elizabeth, Ralegh was on top of the world. But as any good nerd will tell you, what goes up must come down…
Following the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Sir Walter’s fame and fortune continued to grow. His ship, the Ark Ralegh, had been the flagship of the fleet that had destroyed the Armada, and his shipbuilding designs revolutionized the fighting capabilities of the English Navy. The Queen had granted him the right to colonize the Americas in the name of the Crown in 1584, and the chance to explore the New World held an appeal that little else could match.
Ralegh funded many expeditions of exploration and colonization throughout the 1580s. In 1587 Ralegh, his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and their cousin Sir Robert Grenville planned an expedition to settle the land called Virginia (named, coincidentally, by an earlier expedition Ralegh had funded as well). Ralegh would have commanded the expedition himself, but Elizabeth couldn’t bear to part with her dear Walter. The Queen’s caution (or selfishness) proved auspicious, for this was the infamous and mysterious Roanoke expedition, and Sir Humphrey and his entire crew drowned at sea after depositing the settlers and their supplies at the island.
Jealous of his string of successes, Ralegh’s contemporaries constantly smeared his reputation with court gossip and outright slander. So when he entered into a romance with Bess Throckmorton, a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber to the Queen, news of their furtive tryst fueled the fires of the court gossips for months. When Bess became pregnant in 1591, Ralegh married her—again in secret—and managed to hide the pregnancy and birth from Elizabeth.
In the midst of this trial of love, he finally gained permission from the Queen to personally command an expedition of general banditry and brigandage. Ralegh set out with his fleet in May 1592 but was recalled to London after less than a day at sea—the Queen had finally uncovered his affair with Bess, and her fury knew no bounds. She had them both thrown into the Tower of London, where they languished for months. Ralegh was released in August and Bess in December of the same year, but it took years for Ralegh to find the Queen’s favor again. She never forgave him for his “unfaithfulness” to her. (The fleet he had gathered and taken to sea proceeded to stockpile the largest treasure seen in Elizabeth’s reign under his handpicked commanders while he sat in the Tower.)
While in retreat at Sherborne Castle, more rumors began to circulate about Ralegh. The charge this time was atheism amongst him and his circle of friends, who awesomely called themselves the School of Night. He spent much of his time learning and conversing with the foremost English intellectuals of his day—the mathematician Thomas Hariot, the wizard John Dee, Balliol fellow Lawrence Keymis, and the literary wunderkind Christopher Marlow, among others. The charges were never validated, but the accusations would haunt Ralegh to his grave.
Out of favor with the Queen and with no signs of a thaw coming, Ralegh spent the next several years adventuring and generally becoming a living legend. Free of Elizabeth’s clutches at last, he led an expedition to the New World to find El Dorado in 1595. The myth of the golden city took him and his crew to Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America, where they captured the Spanish colony of Trinidad and its governor. After defeating a pursuing Spanish fleet and making friends with the natives, whose ancestors still spoke of Ralegh returning to them a full one hundred and fifty years later, he sailed up the Orinoco River to find the City of Gold. He found no cities or gold, but his account of the quest, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana, cemented his legend around Europe.
Sir Walter continued to serve the Crown throughout the 1590s. His prowess as a military commander and intrepid sea captain won him respect and fear across the royal courts of Europe.
His quick thinking saved the English fleet at the Battle of Cadiz in 1596, though another received credit for his success. In a campaign to the Azores in 1597 he attacked and won the city of Horta. Ralegh’s fleets ravaged and burned hundreds of Spanish ships. Having brought glory and gold to his country beyond his wildest dreams, Ralegh found himself back in favor with the Queen.
Elizabeth attempted to resume her fond and flirty relationship with the swashbuckling adventurer, but the passing of time had changed everything. The Queen was not the beautiful, virginal woman Ralegh had first befriended decades before—Elizabeth was growing old very quickly and in constant poor health, and an abortive plot to overthrow the government had left her shaken and depressed. Ralegh sadly described his Queen as “a lady whom time had surprised.” By the time Elizabeth died in 1603, Ralegh had lived a lifetime of ups and downs. He had become one of the greatest explorers in England, maybe even in Europe, the companion of a queen, and a champion of English expansion. But with the Virgin Queen gone, Ralegh’s fortunes were about to change dramatically. More adventures would follow, but never again would he own the world as he had in the time of Gloriana.
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In our next chapter, Ralegh will meet King James (of biblical fame), be accused of demonic possession, and become reacquainted with the Tower of London!