13 Facts About Sir Walter Raleigh

William Bray and William Upcott, Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S., Vol. III, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
William Bray and William Upcott, Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S., Vol. III, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the Elizabethan era, Sir Walter Raleigh was a true Renaissance man—writer, poet, explorer, soldier, and courtier—who lived an adventurous life and suffered a brutal death 400 years ago this month. Read on for more facts about Raleigh and how his life is still commemorated in various ways.

1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEENAGE SOLDIER.

Walter Raleigh was born into a privileged, land-owning family in Devon, England, in 1554 (although some date his birth to 1552). He became a soldier before he was even out of his teen years, fighting with the Protestant French Huguenots during the religious civil wars that took place in France in the latter decades of the 16th century. After studying at Oxford University's Oriel College, Raleigh first piqued the interest of Queen Elizabeth I when he served bravely (and brashly) in her army in Ireland.

2. HE WAS A FAVORITE OF THE QUEEN.

The tall and handsome Raleigh quickly became a favorite of the queen’s court. She rewarded him in various ways—knighting him in 1585 and granting him land holdings, trade charters, and the title of Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Legend has it that Raleigh once doffed his cloak and laid it across a puddle for the queen to step across. A 1662 account of this event famously stated that “the queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a footcloth.”

3. RALEIGH MARRIED IN SECRET.

When the queen discovered that Raleigh had secretly courted and married one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton, without royal permission (which was a customary requirement), he was banished and thrown in the Tower of London with his bride in July 1592. The queen allowed Raleigh to leave the Tower to recover booty from a captured Portuguese ship, which brought Raleigh back into the queen's favor. The couple was officially freed from the Tower in October of the same year.

4. HIS COLONY IS AT THE ROOT OF A 400-YEAR-OLD MYSTERY.

With a charter from the queen, Raleigh sponsored the first attempt to found a permanent English settlement in the New World. An exploratory expedition in 1584 found that Roanoke Island, part of the barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, would make a suitable place for a colony. They called the land Virginia, after Elizabeth, England’s “virgin queen.” A small settlement and fort were established on Roanoke the following year, but the colonists clashed with Native American tribes and grew more desperate as they awaited further supplies from England.

In 1587, Raleigh—who never actually visited Roanoke—sent a contingent of 118 men, women, and children to replace the earlier group of colonists (most of whom had sailed back to England). They elected John White, a friend of Raleigh’s, as their governor. White soon returned to England to beg for more support and supplies, but his return to Roanoke was delayed due to the outbreak of war with Spain. When White finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony had disappeared. The only clue was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post, a possible reference to the Croatan tribe farther south, but searches of the area turned up nothing. Although many historians have attempted to discern what happened to the so-called “Lost Colony,” no definitive evidence has ever been found.

5. HE SEARCHED FOR A LOST CITY OF GOLD. (HE DIDN'T FIND IT.)

Exploration in the 16th century gave rise to a legend that the New World possessed a city of riches known as El Dorado. Several unsuccessful searches for this city had occurred throughout South America by the time Sir Walter Raleigh got wind of the legend and wanted in on the action. Convinced that El Dorado existed somewhere in Guiana (present-day Venezuela), Raleigh set sail in 1595 to find it. Raleigh and his men explored and plundered the region, but eventually gave up and returned to England with little to show for their quest for gold.

This didn’t stop Raleigh from speculating about the lost city in a book called The Discovery of Guiana, which also served as a vivid account of the country. “On both sides of this river we passed the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld,” Raleigh wrote of the river valley, “and whereas all that we had seen before was nothing but woods, prickles, bushes, and thorns, here we beheld plains of 20 miles in length, the grass short and green, and in divers parts groves of trees by themselves, as if they had been by all the art and labor in the world so made of purpose.”

6. RALEIGH HELPED POPULARIZE TOBACCO (AND THE BEATLES WOULD CURSE HIM FOR IT).

Although historians say that tobacco was seen in Europe before Raleigh’s time, the explorer is often credited with popularizing it in England, after returning Roanoke colonists brought samples of the crop to the queen’s court. Raleigh might even have convinced Queen Elizabeth to try smoking it. By the turn of the 17th century, a steady transatlantic trade in this so-called “brown gold” began.

Much later, musician John Lennon would deride Raleigh’s involvement with tobacco in the song “I’m So Tired,” on The Beatles’ acclaimed White Album: “Although I'm so tired, I'll have another cigarette/And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/He was such a stupid git.” Today, you can still purchase Sir Walter Raleigh brand pipe tobacco.

7. HE LIKED TO RHYME IN HIS SPARE TIME.

Raleigh was an unabashedly romantic poet, writing dramatic works with titles like “The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia” and "Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk." It is thought that “Cynthia” is a pseudonym for Queen Elizabeth I. One poem, “Farewell, False Love,” declares false affection to be the ultimate enemy:

Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason.

8. RALEIGH SPENT 13 SURPRISINGLY PRODUCTIVE YEARS IN JAIL.

In 1603, only months after Queen Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh was accused of participating in a plot to overthrow her successor, King James I. Although Raleigh maintained his innocence, he was found guilty of treason, which carried a penalty of death. The king commuted his sentence to imprisonment in the Tower of London, where his cell was rather comfortable. It featured a wooden desk on which Raleigh hand-wrote and illustrated his History of the World (about ancient Greece and Rome). He also had access to a full library. James eventually released and pardoned Raleigh, giving him permission to sail again to Guiana in search of El Dorado.

9. HE PAID THE ULTIMATE PRICE FOR HIS BAD RELATIONSHIP WITH THE KING.

Things went badly for Raleigh on his second quest for El Dorado. When a group of his men attacked a Spanish colony, a violation of the terms of Raleigh’s release from prison, the Spanish ambassador prevailed upon King James to reinstate Raleigh’s long-standing death sentence. The king complied, and Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618, at the Old Palace Yard in Westminster. A chaplain attending Raleigh at his execution later wrote that he was “the most fearless of death that was ever known; and the most resolute and confident, yet with reverence and conscience.” On the day of execution, Raleigh—then in his mid-60s—gave a long farewell address and then asked to see the axe that would fell him. He ran his thumb along the blade and said, “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.” With two thwacks, Raleigh was gone.

10. RALEIGH'S HEAD AND BODY MIGHT BE IN TWO DIFFERENT PLACES.

Although Raleigh’s body was entombed in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, only a few yards from Westminster Abbey, his severed head was presented to his wife Bess, who had it embalmed and kept it in a red bag the rest of her days. After her own death about 29 years later, it is thought that the head was interred near Raleigh’s body at St. Margaret’s. Yet persistent rumors argue that the head was actually interred at St. Mary’s Church in Surrey. The truth might never be known.

11. A FORT IN NORTH CAROLINA COMMEMORATES THE COLONY HE SPONSORED.

Today, visitors to Roanoke Island can walk the very grounds where Raleigh’s colonists lived and defended themselves. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes a visitor center, monuments, and museum exhibits about the New World expeditions and the Native American tribes living in the area when Raleigh arrived. Reconstructed defensive earthworks mark the location of similar works built there by the colonists in 1585.

12. ANDY GRIFFITH PLAYED RALEIGH IN A TONY-WINNING PRODUCTION.

For more than 80 years, Raleigh’s doomed settlement in the New World has been the subject of an outdoor symphonic drama called The Lost Colony. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green and first produced in 1937, the play runs every summer at the Waterside Theatre at Fort Raleigh. The late actor Andy Griffith portrayed Raleigh in the play for several years beginning in the late 1940s, and the production gave Broadway and film actor Terrence Mann his first paid acting role. In 2013, the drama won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre.

13. YOU MIGHT CATCH RALEIGH IN A TUTU.

The city of Raleigh was established as North Carolina’s state capital in 1792 and is named for the explorer who first sent English colonists to its shores. An 11-foot statue of Raleigh that was commissioned for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 and sculpted by Bruno Lucchesi stands near Raleigh’s convention center. The statue is often given temporary makeovers—wearing tutus, guitars, even an alligator head—to coincide with road races and special events. For the statue’s 40th anniversary in 2016, the convention center posted a festive photo of the statue on Instagram with the caption, “Happy Birthday Sir Walt!”

Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Elsa, Getty Images
Elsa, Getty Images

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions will host the Chicago Bears.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?

In 2006, because six-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the New Orleans Saints will welcome the Atlanta Falcons.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

'Obscene' Books From Oxford's Bodleian Libraries Go on Display for the First Time

The title page of The Love Books of Ovid (1925), translated to English by James Lewis May and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère
The title page of The Love Books of Ovid (1925), translated to English by James Lewis May and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford // Reproduced with permission from Alain Bilot

A Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were deemed so scandalous in the Victorian era that a separate restricted library was created within the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries just to store them. If a student wanted to read one of these semi-banned books, they had to submit a letter of support from a college tutor.

They were dubbed the “Phi books” after the Greek letter phi, which was the shelfmark used to categorize them. Now, for the first time, these so-called “obscene” books are on public display at the Bodleian's Weston Library in Oxford.

An illustration of two people about to kiss
The title page of the 1974 book The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort, with illustrations by Chris Foss.
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ © ChrisFossArt.com

The collection contains around 3000 items, including scientific and scholarly works, as well as novels that were deemed too inappropriate for public consumption at the time. One of the texts on display is a volume of Love Books of Ovid that was held in the Phi section due to its erotic illustrations. The unillustrated version, on the other hand, was publicly available in the library.

Two other books on view are The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted "presumably because of its homoerotic subtext," and a first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was reportedly smuggled into Britain to avoid censorship laws. There will also be sex manuals, books about phallic symbolism, the "first modern European work of pornography" (the 17th-century Satyra Sotadica), and even a copy of Madonna's 1992 book Sex.

Why does the Bodleian have so many sexually suggestive books in the first place? It serves as a legal deposit library, meaning it's entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK. “This partly accounts for the Libraries' large Phi collection although the collection has also grown through donations and bequests," the library notes on its website.

Illustration of Dorian Gray
Title page of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1925), written by Oscar Wilde and illustrated by Henry Keen
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The title "Phallic objects and remains" is written under an illustration of a rocket ship
The cover of the 1889 book Phallic Objects, Monuments and Remains; Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea (Sex Worship) and Its Embodiment in Works of Nature and Art, written by Hargrave Jennings
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The Phi shelfmark, which was established in 1882, only stopped being used in 2010 when the library opened its Book Storage Facility in Swindon and changed the way it catalogs books. As a result, the “obscene” books were no longer grouped together, and the Bodleian Libraries stopped separating sexually explicit books from other reading materials. 

The collection, called the "Story of Phi: Restricted Books," will remain on public display until January 13, 2019. Admission is free.

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