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!”

The History Behind 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. Turkey

A roasted turkey on a platter.
612645812/iStock.com

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as … served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. Stuffing

Pan of breaded stuffing.
mphillips007/iStock.com

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. Cranberries

Dish of cranberry sauce.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting president to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. Gravy

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to create a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. Corn

Plate of corn.
PeopleImages/iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. Green Bean Casserole

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you probably know was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. Pumpkin Pie

Slice of pumpkin pie.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. Wine

Two glasses of wine.
Moncherie/iStock.com

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce on Thanksgiving?

MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images
MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images

While plenty of people eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie year-round, it seems like cranberry sauce almost exclusively exists in the Thanksgiving universe. Although we don’t know for sure whether it was eaten at the very first Thanksgiving, the jiggly, gelatinous side dish does have deep roots in the history of America’s fruited plains.

According to Insider, cranberries are one of only three commercially grown fruits native to the United States, and the Wampanoag tribe had been using them for food, dye, and medicine long before feasting with the Pilgrims in 1621. If there were cranberries at the party, they probably didn’t taste much like the sweetened sauce we’re (circumstantially) fond of today; at that point, the settlers hadn’t yet succeeded in growing sugar cane in the New World.

But a little more than 50 years later, according to a 1672 account cited by The Washington Post, the new Americans and Native Americans had both started to enjoy cranberries much like we do at Thanksgiving dinner: “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.”

In 1796, Amelia Simmons—author of American Cookery, the first-ever American cookbook—took it one step further by recommending that roast turkey be served with cranberry sauce. Considering that the Library of Congress included the book on its list of “Books That Shaped America,” it’s possible that Simmons’s suggestion reverberated through kitchens across the nation, and the tradition gained momentum from there. She does mention pickled mangoes as an alternate side dish for turkey, but the then-Indian import was likely less common than the locally-grown cranberry.

Then, in the early 1800s, Ocean Spray revolutionized the labor-intensive process of hand-picking cranberries from vines with what’s called a wet harvest. Basically, farmers flood the bogs where cranberries grow, and then they wade into the water to collect the floating berries en masse.

farmer wet-harvesting cranberries
A farmer gathering cranberries during a wet harvest.
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This was a more efficient technique, but a mass harvest meant that more cranberries got damaged. So in 1912, Ocean Spray began crushing them into canned, jellied cranberry sauce—maximizing the yield and making it easier than ever for every home in America to slice up a cylinder of solid, sugary, berry goodness.

Explore the stories behind your other favorite (or least favorite) Thanksgiving foods here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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