Walter Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) was born in Devon sometime around 1552 into a well-connected family at Hayes Barton. He attended Oxford University for a time, fought with the Huguenots in France and later studied law in London.
In 1578, accompanied by his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Raleigh sailed to America. It is thought that this expedition may have been the inspiration for his plan to colonize the New World, and in 1585, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina).
The colony failed and another attempt at colonisation also failed in 1587. He is famously credited with bringing the first potato and tobacco to Europe, though sources suggest it is almost certain the Spanish beat him to it.
He did however help to make the practice of smoking tobacco popular at court. Indeed he would become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who not only gave him a Knighthood but also made him Captain of the Queens Guard in 1587.
He lost Royal favour in 1592 upon the discovery of his secret marriage to one the Queen’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. As punishment both Raleigh and his new bride where imprisoned in the Tower of London, and the apparently jealous nature of the retribution gave fuel to rumours that he and Elizabeth had been involved in some clandestine relationship. On his release Raleigh set out on an unsuccessful expedition to find the fabled City of Gold, or El Dorado, in an effort to regain the Queens favour.
When Elizabeth was succeeded by King James I in 1603, it soon became apparent the new monarch was not an admirer of the maverick Raleigh, and later that year he was accused of a plot against the King and sentenced to death for treason. Later this would be reduced to life imprisonment. Over the course of the next 12 years he wrote his ‘History of the World’ (1614), and was eventually released in order to take advantage of his formidable seamanship skills and lead a second expedition to find El Dorado which again ended in failure.
During the expedition Raleigh’s men (possibly without the consent of their leader) attacked a Spanish outpost on the Orinoco River. On returning to England the death sentence was reinstated at the request of the Spanish Ambassador to England, and Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in London in 1618. Sources suggest his final words (spoken directly to his axe wielding executioner) were “Strike man, STRIKE!” Afterwards his head was embalmed and presented to his wife, who retained possession of the gruesome keepsake until her death some 29 years later.