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Sir Walter Raleigh and the Search for El Dorado 

His fascinating life included two stints in the Tower of London.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

To say that the life of Sir Walter Raleigh was filled with ups and downs is to engage in some serious understatement. The Elizabethan statesman and explorer was instrumental in the British colonization of both Ireland and North America, helped to popularize smoking tobacco in England, wrote many poems, was favored by Queen Elizabeth herself, and engaged in two quests for the fabled “lost city of gold”. He was also imprisoned several times in the Tower of London and was beheaded at the Palace of Westminster in 1618.

Born to a family of landed gentry in either 1552 or 1554, by the time Raleigh was in his late teens, he was already in France, fighting in the French Wars of Religion, which occurred sporadically from 1562 to 1598. By 1579, when he was less than 30 years old, Raleigh had returned to his native soil, then traveled to Ireland to help put down the so-called Desmond Rebellions.

He was present at the Siege of Smerwick in Ireland’s County Kerry, as somewhere between 400 and 700 freelance soldiers under the pay of Pope Gregory XIII landed there to support the local Catholic rebels in their attempts to cast off the English colonial powers. When the papal soldiers were defeated, summary executions of as many as 600 were ordered, and Raleigh is said to have led the party which carried these orders out. For his services, Queen Elizabeth I named Raleigh one of her “Undertakers” and granted him some 40,000 acres in Ireland.

By 1584, Raleigh had also been granted a royal charter authorizing him to explore, colonize, and rule any “remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People.” This mindset would yield the beginnings of the first English colonies in North America, though Raleigh himself would never set foot on the continent. Instead, he eventually sailed for South America a decade later, chasing rumors of El Dorado.

A Secret Marriage and the Tower of London

Following his service to the Crown in Ireland, Raleigh enjoyed many rewards from Queen Elizabeth I. But one thing he wanted, she was unwilling to give. In 1591, against the Queen’s wishes and without her knowledge, Raleigh was secretly married to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting.

Throckmorton was pregnant at the time of their nuptials and gave birth to a son who was given to a wet nurse and died of plague within a year. In roughly that same time frame, the secret wedding was found out by Queen Elizabeth, and both Raleigh and Throckmorton were imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Though his first stint behind bars, it would not be Raleigh’s last. He was released by 1593 and became a member of Parliament. Despite this rocky start, Raleigh and Throckmorton remained devoted to one another until Raleigh’s execution in 1618. In fact, Raleigh’s embalmed head was presented to his wife after his demise, and it is said that she kept it in a velvet bag until her own death in 1647.

The Search for El Dorado

Hoping to restore his esteem with the Crown, Raleigh became one of many European explorers obsessed with the myth of El Dorado, which promised a city or empire of gold and riches concealed somewhere in the interior of South America. The version of the story which Raleigh had heard called the city Manoa and said that it was located on the shores of Lake Parime in either Brazil, Guyana, or Venezuela.

To begin his expedition, Raleigh and his forces first captured the Spanish colony of Trinidad, located on a small island—what is now the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago—just off the northern coast of Venezuela. Once they had taken the island and captured its Spanish governor, Raleigh’s forces used Trinidad as their jumping-off point for a massive expedition into the interior, up the Orinoco River.

Despite being shadowed and occasionally attacked by Spanish forces, Raleigh’s expedition made it some 400 miles inland before turning back. Along the way, Raleigh saw such sights as the massive Mount Roraima, one of the highest of the region’s flat-topped tepuis, or “table-top mountains.” He has also been credited as “discovering” one of the few natural asphalt lakes in the world in Trinidad, as well as possibly being the first European explorer to ever set eyes on Venezuela’s famed Angel Falls, though this last claim is often regarded as farfetched.

Though Raleigh did not discover the gold and riches he had set out in search of, his expedition was nonetheless at least partially successful in restoring his standing with the Queen. Upon his return to England, he famously exaggerated the discoveries he had made in the New World, which helped to perpetuate the myth of El Dorado.

More Misfortune and the Headsman’s Axe

Royal favor can be fleeting, as Raleigh had already discovered when Queen Elizabeth had him imprisoned following his secret wedding. His second encounter with the Tower of London came after Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by King James I.

James was not as fond of Raleigh as Elizabeth had been, and the feeling was allegedly mutual. In fact, that same year, Raleigh was accused of being involved in what became known as the “Main Plot,” an alleged plan to oust James from the throne and replace him with his cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart.

The primary evidence against Raleigh was the testimony of Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham, who was also implicated in the plot. Raleigh called the evidence against him “hearsay” and demanded that Cobham be made to testify. “Were the case but for a small copyhold, you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to a verdict,” Raleigh said, “and I am here for my life!” This trial has often been cited as influential in the development of the right for the defendant to confront their accusers in court.

Despite his protestations, Raleigh was found guilty, and returned to the Tower of London, where he would remain for the next 13 years. Though King James eventually pardoned Raleigh in 1617, his legal troubles were not yet over. Raleigh left almost immediately for another expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. While there, his soldiers attacked a Spanish outpost along the Orinoco River Basin, which was a direct violation of Raleigh’s pardon and his orders from the Crown, as well as peace treaties between England and Spain. In the course of the battle, Raleigh’s eldest son was fatally shot.

Upon Raleigh’s return to England, the Spanish ambassador demanded that he be put to death. Raleigh was arrested and imprisoned for a third time, before his life was ended by the headsman’s axe on October 29, 1618. He was about 65 years old. Raleigh’s musings upon the chopping block were recorded for posterity, where he was said to observe of the blade that would kill him, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.”