After a murky beginning, Raleigh first started his rise to prominence when he took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland. He was awarded with estates that made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, where he made the acquaintance of the poet Edmund Spenser. The two men traveled together to London in the 1590s, where Spenser presented part of his poem, the Faerie Queene, to Elizabeth I.
Raleigh’s estates in Ireland failed to prosper, so he turned his attention to the New World, even drafting a plan for the colonization of Virginia in 1584. He started traveling to the colonies, funding the voyages himself or borrowing sums from his friends. His first colony, at Roanoake Island, failed. His second attempt to colonize the island in 1587 went better, until the colonists vanished sometime before 1590.
Despite these failures, Raleigh became a favorite at the court of Elizabeth I, who knighted him in 1585 and provided him with several titles, positions, and homes. He almost blew it when he secretly married her lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, in 1591. For daring to do so without the queen’s approval, Raleigh was thrown in the Tower of London. Although he was released, it would be several years before he returned to favor. He and his wife, however, had a highly successful marriage that produced two living sons: Walter and Carew.
Raleigh continued exploring throughout the latter part of the 16th century. He explored what is now Guyana and eastern Venezuela in 1595, publishing an account of the voyage a year later that greatly exaggerated his finds and contributed to the legend of El Dorado. He took part in the capture of Cadiz in 1596 and was the second in command of the Islands Voyage to the Azores in 1597.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by James I, who was not a fan of Raleigh’s. He wasted no time having Raleigh arrested, imprisoned in the Tower, and tried for treason, allegedly for his involvement in the Main Plot, which aimed to put Arabella Stuart on the throne instead of James. The main piece of evidence against him was the confession of one man, who was never permitted to come to the court and face Raleigh in person. Raleigh was found guilty, but James spared his life, keeping him in the Tower until 1616, when he was released to lead another expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. During the trip, some of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost. The Spanish ambassador to England was incensed and demanded James reinstate Raleigh’s death sentence.
Reinstate it he did, and Raleigh met his end in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster. Upon seeing the axe, he’s believed to have said: “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.” His head was embalmed and sent to his wife, while his body was laid to rest in St. Margaret’s, Westminster. After Lady Raleigh’s death 29 years later, the head was finally reunited with the body.