Walter Raleigh


Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

Sir Walter Raleigh was in charge of creating the Roanoke colony in the name of England. Though unsuccessful, it paved the way for further colonization of the New World.

Name: Walter Raleigh

Birth/Death: 1554 CE - 1618 CE

Nationality: English

Birthplace: England

Sir Walter Raleigh, 1829, by Henry R. Robinson, The Mariners’ Museum.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh, 1829, by Henry R. Robinson, The Mariners’ Museum.

Early Life

  • Walter Raleigh was born in 1554 into a protestant family. The Queen at the time was Mary I, a notable Catholic who persecuted numerous protestants during her reign. Raleigh’s family was among those persecuted, building a strong dislike within Raleigh of Catholics.
  • Much of his early education is believed to have come from his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who home-schooled Raleigh early on. The duo would pair up when Raleigh was older and sail to the New World to claim land for England. The trip would fail but Raleigh’s interest in the New World began to grow.

The Mystery of Roanoke

  • The failure of the mission with his brother did not set Raleigh back in terms of his relationship with the crown. Queen Elizabeth I, who had recently replaced her sister Mary, took a strong liking to Raleigh. She forced Raleigh to remain at her side, leaving him to plan exploration missions from afar.
  • In 1584, Raleigh sent a scouting party to the New World in order to determine a site for a settlement. His actions impressed the Queen and he was knighted in 1585, making him Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • He then began plans for a settlement in the New World, focusing his attention on Virginia. The actual site of the Roanoke colony was in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At the time, however, the entire area was considered Virginia.
  • Raleigh sent an expedition to the area led by his cousin Richard Grenville, unable to leave the Queen. The group arrived at Roanoke Island in June of 1585 and began to build a small settlement. The colonists were unprepared, however, and tensions began to rise between the colonists and the local native tribes. Grenville left to resupply the colony and, while he was away, Sir Francis Drake arrived in support. Drake had intended on a simple resupply mission of his own but found the colonists so displeased with life in the settlement that he took them all back to England himself. Grenville, on the other hand, returned to find the colony abandoned. He left fifteen men behind while he returned to England for instructions. Unfortunately for the men, no ships ever returned to retrieve them. They were never seen again.
  • Raleigh, upset with the failure and afraid of punishment from the Queen, ordered a second colonization attempt to be made right away. The new area was the Chesapeake Bay and the ships set sail in 1587. Entire families made the journey across the Atlantic. The commanders, upon arrival, were not satisfied with the area and ignored orders, sailing south back to Roanoke. Life was once again hard and the governor left to resupply. He was trapped in England, however, when the Spanish Armada arrived and did not return until 1591. When he landed there were no signs of the colonists. The only clue that was found was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree. The colonists were never found.

The Legend of El Dorado

  • The Queen was furious with Sir Walter Raleigh after the failure in Roanoke, locking him in the Tower of London. Raleigh was only released when a large amount of Spanish gold was brought back to England.
  • In order to regain his reputation, Raleigh organized a bold voyage to South America. Legend told of a city full of riches still untouched by the Spanish, known as El Dorado. Raleigh wanted to find the city and establish English power in the region to compete with the Spanish. The voyage left in 1595 and Raleigh was able to harass Spanish shipping along the South American coast. He was unable, however, to find the fabled city. He returned to England in disgrace.
  • The Queen died and the new King, James I threw Raleigh back into the Tower of London for conspiracy. Raleigh sat in prison for many years until he was given another chance at freedom. The King ordered Raleigh to once again find El Dorado but this time he would have to do it without ever harming a Spanish citizen. Accepting the nearly impossible task, Raleigh once again set sail to South America. He was unable to keep control of his men, however, as they attacked a Spanish settlement. Raleigh was sentenced to death upon his return on the charge of conspiracy against the King. He was beheaded in 1618.


  • Sir Walter Raleigh had never been successful in colonization of the New World for England. His expeditions did, however, provide a wealth of knowledge for colonization attempts afterwords. The Jamestown settlement, for example, would benefit greatly from the mistakes learned in the Roanoke colony.
  • Successful colonization of the New World by England later would allow England to become a vast empire throughout the world.

1.  Who was the Queen when Sir Walter Raleigh was born?

a.)  Mary I

b.)  Elizabeth I

c.)  Victoria I

d.)  it was a King, James I

2.  TRUE or FALSE: Sir Walter Raleigh’s hatred for the Spanish came when his family was killed by one of their ships.

3.  Why was Sir Walter Raleigh knighted in 1585?

a.)  he had captured a Spanish treasure ship

b.)  he had sent scouts to find land to settle

c.)  he had defeated the Spanish Armada

d.)  he had found El Dorado

4.  TRUE or FALSE: Raleigh led the first expedition to Roanoke himself.

5.  TRUE or FALSE: The colonists at Roanoke were so unsatisfied with life in the colony that they left with Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

6.  What was the only clue as to what had happened to the colonists at Roanoke?

a.)  the remains of a Spaniard were found

b.)  the colony showed signs of a fire

c.)  the colony showed signs of native attacks

d.)  “CROATOAN” was found engraved on a tree

7.  What fabled city did Sir Walter Raleigh have to find for King James I?

a.)  Cibola

b.)  Ciudad Blanca

c.)  El Dorado

d.)  El Domingo