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!”

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
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Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

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- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.