A wise sage once said, steal a penny and you're a thief, steal a million and you're a lord. The same principle, I think, applies to Sir Walter Raleigh, Elizabethan Adventurer par excellence. He has been so often variously and romantically described as Soldier, Courtier, Scholar, Explorer, Man of Science, that it is easy to overlook other descriptions such as Self-Seeking Opportunist, Royal Flatterer, and Large-Scale Pirate.
Born in Hayes Barton, Devonshire, in 1552, Walter Raleigh came from an upper-class if impoverished family. Although not well-off, his father had high ambitions for him and scraped and saved to send him to be educated at Oxford. Here, young Walter first showed his mettle - he was a very popular, much sought after fellow, but took care to be a brilliant scholar as well.
Information of his life in the immediate years after Oxford is somewhat scanty. His exact movements are not known, though he seems to have taken up soldiering on the Continent and offered his services to the French and the Dutch. This was, I guess, equivalent of what we now call as the gap years. Having kicked his heels thus, he then returned to England, to London, to study Law and settled down into a Law Career. But his heart wasn't much into it and he chucked his studies without compunction to accompany his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in a royal-sanctioned expedition to discover and encroach upon 'remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or people.'
However, in actuality, the intrepid explorers far from bringing any civilization to the heathens grew much remote on the way from all traces of their own Christian civility, and the expedition ended in failure. Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh then attempted to civilize a barbarous land closer to home - Ireland. Here too, as subsequent history has proved, they failed spectacularly. But not before a lot of savagery and killing had been unleashed on both sides. Upon quitting Ireland in 1581 - with utmost relief, it must be said - Walter Raleigh returned to London and presented himself at Queen Elizabeth I's court. The Queen, a noted flirt, had an eye for tall, very handsome young men and Raleigh, who fitted this bill to perfection, shrewdly did everything humanly possible to keep himself in her sight. We have a famous story about how he flung his rich, fur-lined cloak in the path before her so the royal feet wouldn't have to squelch through the mud like everybody else - romantic if impractical and a waste of a good cloak, and probably untrue. But he certainly did gain in her esteem and garnered all the special concessions and benefits due to a Queen's favorite - Knighthood, a grand home in London, estates in Ireland and Dorset, and business privileges. These soon made him a very wealthy man. He utilized his new-found wealth to send an expedition to America, to a land that he later named Virginia. A land that was not only rich in cotton, potatoes and tobacco - unheard of things in Elizabethan England - but whose 'kind and loving' natives weren't likely to cause too much trouble in the taking over of their homes. However, it turned out that the Elizabethan English were not yet ready to forsake Old Bess long enough to settle in other lands. People either refused to go or those that did failed to flourish and, if not killed by Indians, the Wilderness, or disease, returned pronto to home shores. Walter Raleigh's many efforts to colonize Virginia came to naught and finally he left it to the coming generations to take over the world.
As before, he then decided to seek adventure closer to home and so began his career of harassing and looting the treasure-laden Spanish Merchant Ships. Here he struck gold, literally, capturing the ship 'Madre de Dios', But some of the shine was tarnished by the Queen's discovering that though a flatterer he was a two-timing one - behind her back, he had been carrying on an affair with one of her maids-of-honor, Bessie Throgmorton. He was tossed into the Tower of London for this affront and remained here until the Queen - placated by the Spanish treasures and distracted by the new favorite the Earl of Essex - saw it fit to release him.
Raleigh then married Bessie Throgmorton and, not being made welcome at Court, he plunged himself for a while, into London's literary scene, associating with writers like Richard Haklyut, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe and others.
But he was too restless to be satisfied with intellectual pursuits solely and soon drew up plans for an expedition to Guiana, present-day Venezuela, a land rumored to be steeped in gold and other fabulous treasures. If he acquired these, it would also restore his prestige with the Queen. So he set off and met with moderate success, returning with gold-rich quartz, the first Mahogany seen in England, and material for an excellent travel book 'Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana'.
Then, together with Admiral Lord Howard and the Earl of Essex, he took part in the famous raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz. From their point of view, it was a brilliant stroke - much of the Spanish fleet was burnt or sunk, all its riches looted, and a good many of the Spanish sailors captured to be later released for hefty ransoms. Raleigh was injured in the leg during this adventure, but the positive outweighed the negative. He was back in favor with the Queen and was to remain so until her death, becoming quite politically powerful.
His downfall came in 1603 after her death and the accession to the throne of James of Scotland. Suspected of conspiring against the new King in favor of another claimant to the English Throne, Arabella Stuart, Raleigh was sentenced to death. But, instead of being executed, he was consigned to the Tower of London for the next 13 years. Always a man to make the best of worst conditions, Raleigh engaged himself in studying science and writing on a wide variety of topics - history, geography, politics, opinion pieces - aside from regular, heart-felt pleas to the King requesting an early release. His 'The History of the World' was begun during this sojourn in the Tower.
The King relented finally in 1617 - but only under the condition that he set forth at once for Guiana and bring back the fabled treasures. Walter Raleigh set off confidently - his old enemies, the Spaniards, had already staked their claim to Guiana, but that was no doubt a small, unimportant matter in his mind. What he didn't know was that the good King James, just to put a spoke in things, had informed the Spanish Ambassador of the mission and he in turn had alerted his compatriots. So they were well-prepared for his arrival and there was no Cadiz-type raiding victory for Raleigh. Practically wiped out by the Spanish attack, he just about managed to make it back to England.
Perhaps it would have been better to have got lost in the American wilderness - at least there was a chance of a future there. Back in Merry England, he was arrested and tossed back into the Tower to finally undergo the execution sentence that he had received way back in 1603. He died as he had lived - with heroic composure.