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Sir Walter Raleigh

Famous Irish People.

Sir Walter Raleigh

(152? - 29 October 1618).

Raleigh was born at Hayes Barton, his family home in Devonshire, and attended Oxford University. He left university before graduating to join a band of gentlemen volunteers who were helping the Huguenots in France. In 1578, he returned to England and joined his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage of discovery and piracy.

In 1580, Raleigh became a captain in the army in Ireland. There he distinguished himself by his ruthlessness at the siege of Smerwick where he ordered the massacre of 600 enemy troops who had previously surrendered. The next year, he went to Queen Elizabeth's court with dispatches . There is a famous story about his meeting with Elizabeth. The queen was out walking, and stopped before a large mud puddle. Raleigh removed his cloak and placed it over the puddle for her to walk on. It is doubtful that this story is true. However, Raleigh did become the queen's favorite. Elizabeth granted him an estate of 4,860 hectares (12,000 acres) in Ireland. She also gave him trade privileges and the right to colonize in America. In 1585, Elizabeth made Raleigh a knight.

For reasons principally of greed Raleigh became deeply interested in exploration, like many prominent English people of his day. He sent several expeditions to America, and spent a fortune trying to establish an English colony there. His settlers landed in what is now the state of North Carolina and explored the coast as far as present day Florida. Raleigh named this entire region Virginia in honour of Elizabeth, known as "The Virgin Queen."

Raleigh's first colonizing expedition left Plymouth in April 1585. But sickness and fear caused the survivors of this first English colony in North America to go home with Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

In 1587, Raleigh sent a second expedition. A group of 117 colonists, including 17 women, landed on Roanoke Island. On August 18, 1587, the first English child was born in North America. John White, the governor, went back to England for supplies. He was delayed by war with Spain, and when he returned to Roanoke three years later in 1590, no sign could be found of the settlers.

Raleigh also took part in the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. He led other expeditions against Spanish possessions and returned with much booty. During the 1590's, his power reached its height, and he had much influence and many enemies. Raleigh, who was also a poet, obtained a pension for the English poet Edmund Spenser and helped Spenser publish The Faerie Queene. Raleigh also helped introduce the potato plant and the use of tobacco to Ireland.

Raleigh lost the queen's favour by marrying one of her maids-of-honour. Hoping to recover his position and the money he had spent, he led an expedition to Guiana, in South America, to search for El Dorado, a legendary land of gold. But the expedition failed.

Elizabeth died in 1603, and the new king, James I, distrusted and feared Raleigh. He charged Raleigh with treason, and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. There Raleigh lived comfortably for 12 years with his family and servants, and wrote his History of the World. Raleigh was released in 1616 to lead an expedition to search for gold in South America. The king ordered him not to invade Spanish territory. But Raleigh's men attacked the Spaniards. Raleigh's son Watt was killed in the attack, and Raleigh was forced to abandon the search and return home.

Upon his return to England, largly to appease the Spannish he was imprisoned and a show trial staged, he was sentenced to death for disobeying orders. Raleigh was beheaded at Whitehall on 29 October 1618, he met his fate bravely, joking with the executioner, and even gave the signal for the axe to fall.

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