Raleigh was born to a Protestant family in Devon, the son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne. Little is known for certain of his early life, though he spent some time in Ireland, in Killua Castle, Clonmellon, County Westmeath, taking part in the suppression of rebellions and participating in two infamous massacres at Rathlin Island and Smerwick, later becoming a landlord of lands confiscated from the Irish. He rose rapidly in Queen Elizabeth I's favour, being knighted in 1585, and was involved in the early English colonisation of the New World in Virginia under a royal patent. In 1591 he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, without requesting the Queen's permission, for which he and his wife were sent to the Tower of London. After his release they retired to his estate at Sherborne, Dorset.
In 1594 Raleigh heard of a "Golden City" in South America and sailed to find it, publishing an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of El Dorado. After Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, Raleigh was again imprisoned in the Tower, this time for allegedly being involved in the Main Plot against King James I who was not favourably disposed toward him. In 1616, however, he was released in order to conduct a second expedition in search of El Dorado. This was unsuccessful and the Spanish outpost at San Thomé was ransacked by men under his command. After his return to England he was arrested and after a show trial held mainly to appease the Spanish, he was beheaded at Whitehall.
Raleigh's family was strongly Protestant in religious orientation and experienced a number of near-escapes during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, Raleigh's father had to hide in a tower to avoid being killed. As a result, during his childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Catholicism, and proved himself quick to express it after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England came to the throne in 1558.
In 1568 or 1572, Raleigh was registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, but does not seem to have taken up residence, and in 1575 he was registered at the Middle Temple. His life between these two dates is uncertain but from a reference in his History of the World he seems to have served with the French Huguenots at the battle of Jarnac, 13 March 1569. At his trial in 1603 he stated that he had never studied law.
During his seventeen years as an Irish landlord, frequently domiciling at Killulagh Castle, Clonmellon, county Westmeath, Raleigh made the town of Youghal his occasional home, where he was mayor from 1588 to 1589. He is credited with having planted the first potatoes in Ireland , but it is far more likely that the plant arrived in Ireland through trade with the Spanish. His town mansion, Myrtle Grove, is assumed to be the setting for the story that his servant doused him with a bucket of water after seeing clouds of smoke coming from Raleigh's pipe, in the belief he had been set alight. But this story is also told of other places related to Raleigh: the Virginia Ash inn in Henstridge near Sherborne, Sherborne Castle, and South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, home of Raleigh's friend, Sir Walter Long.
Amongst Raleigh's acquaintances in Munster was another Englishman who had been granted land there, the poet Edmund Spenser. In the 1590s, he and Raleigh travelled together from Ireland to the court at London, where Spenser presented part of his allegorical poem, the Faerie Queene, to Elizabeth I.
Raleigh's management of his Irish estates ran into difficulties, which contributed to a decline in his fortunes. In 1602, he sold the lands to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Boyle subsequently prospered under kings James I and Charles I, such that following Raleigh's death, Raleigh family members approached Boyle for compensation on the basis that Raleigh had struck an improvident bargain.
Raleigh's plan in 1584 for colonization in the "Colony and Dominion of Virginia" (which included the present-day states of North Carolina and Virginia) in North America ended in failure at Roanoke Island, but paved the way for subsequent colonies. His voyages were funded primarily by himself and his friends, never providing the steady stream of revenue necessary to start and maintain a colony in America. (Subsequent colonization attempts in the early 17th century were made under the joint-stock Virginia Company which was able to pull together the capital necessary to create successful colonies.)
In 1587, Raleigh attempted a second expedition again establishing a settlement on Roanoke Island. This time, a more diversified group of settlers was sent, including some entire families, under the governance of John White. After a short while in America, White was recalled to England in order to find more supplies for the colony. He was unable to return the following year as planned, however, because the Queen had ordered that all vessels remain at port in case they were needed to fight the Spanish Armada. The threat of the Armada was only partially responsible for the 4 year delay of the second expedition. After England's victory over the Spanish fleet in 1588 the ships were given permission to sail. Unfortunately for the colonists at Roanoke the small fleet made an excursion towards Cuba in an attempt to capture as prizes the treasure-laden Spanish merchant ships that were reported to be proliferate in those waters at that time. White is said to have objected to this unplanned foray, but was helpless to dissuade the crews who'd been told of the enormous riches to be had by the experienced (he had previously piloted in the Americas in the service of the Spanish), Portuguese pilot hired by Raleigh to navigate the voyage.It was not until 1591 that the supply vessel arrived at the colony, 4 years later, only to find that all colonists had disappeared. The only clue to their fate was the word "CROATOAN" and letters "CRO" carved into separate tree trunks, suggesting the possibility that they were either massacred, absorbed or taken away by Croatans or perhaps another native tribe. Other speculation includes their being swept away or lost at sea during the stormy weather of 1588 (credited with aiding in the defeat of the Spanish Armada). However, it is worth noting that a hurricane prevented John White and the crew of the supply vessel from actually visiting Croatoan to investigate the disappearance, and no further attempts at contact were recorded for some years. Whatever the fate of the settlers, the settlement is now remembered as the "Lost Colony of Roanoke Island".
In December 1581, Raleigh came back to England from Ireland with despatches as his company had been disbanded. He took part in Court life and became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. The various colourful stories told about him at this period are unlikely to be literally true.
In 1584 he was knighted, and in 1585 was appointed warden of the stannaries, that is of the mines of Cornwall and Devon, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and vice-admiral of the two counties. Both in 1585 and 1586 he sat in parliament as member for Devonshire.
In 1592, Raleigh was given many rewards by the Queen, including Durham House in the Strand and the estate of Sherborne, Dorset. He was appointed Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, and as Lord Warden of the Stannaries of Devon and Cornwall. Raleigh was knighted in 1585. However, he had not been given any of the great offices of state. In the Armada year of 1588 he was employed as Vice Admiral of Devon, looking after the coastal defenses and military levies.
In 1591, Raleigh was secretly married to Elizabeth "Bess" Throckmorton (or Throgmorton). She was one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, eleven years his junior, and was pregnant at the time of their marriage. She gave birth to a son, believed to be named Damerei, who was given to a wet nurse at Durham House; the infant does not seem to have survived, and Bess resumed her duties. The following year, the unauthorized marriage was discovered and the Queen ordered Raleigh imprisoned and Bess dismissed from court. He was released from prison to divide the spoils from a captured Spanish ship, the Madre de Dios ("Mother of God").
It would be several years before Raleigh returned to favour. The couple remained devoted to each other. During Raleigh's absences, Bess proved a capable manager of the family's fortunes and reputation. They had two more sons, Walter (known as Wat) and Carew.
He was elected a burgess of Mitchell, Cornwall, in the parliament of 1593.
Raleigh retired to his estate at Sherborne where he built a new house, completed in 1594, known then as Sherborne Lodge but is now extended and known as Sherborne (new) Castle. He made friends with the local gentry, such as Sir Ralph Horsey of Clifton Maybank and Charles Thynne of Longleat. During this period at a dinner party at Horsey's, there was a heated discussion about religion which later gave rise to charges of atheism against Raleigh. He was elected to Parliament, speaking on religious and naval matters.
In 1594, he came into possession of a Spanish account of a great golden city at the headwaters of the Caroní River, and a year later he explored what is now eastern Venezuela in search of Manoa, the legendary city in question. Once back in England, he published The Discovery of Guiana an account of his voyage which made exaggerated claims as to what had been discovered. The book can be seen as a contribution to the El Dorado legend. Although Venezuela has gold deposits, there is no evidence Raleigh found any mines. He is sometimes said to have discovered Angel Falls, but these claims are considered "far-fetched.
From 1600 to 1603, Raleigh was the Governor of the Channel Island of Jersey, and he was responsible for modernizing the defences of the island. He named the new fortress protecting the approaches to Saint Helier Fort Isabella Bellissima, or Elizabeth Castle.
Though royal favour with Queen Elizabeth I had been restored by this time, it did not last. Elizabeth died in 1603, and Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 19 July. Later that year, on 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason due to his supposed involvement in the Main Plot against King James. Raleigh conducted his defence with great skill, which may, in part, explain why King James spared his life, despite the guilty verdict. He was left to languish in the Tower of London until 1616. While imprisoned, he wrote many treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World, about the ancient history of Greece and Rome. His son Carew was conceived and born while Raleigh was legally "dead" and imprisoned in the Tower of London (1604).
In 1616, Sir Walter was released from the Tower of London in order to conduct a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. In the course of the expedition, Raleigh's men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, sacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Thomé de Guayana (San Thomé) on the Orinoco. During the initial attack on the settlement, Raleigh's son Walter was struck by a bullet and killed. On Raleigh's return to England, the outraged Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Spanish ambassador, demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh's death sentence. The ambassador's demand was granted.
The corpse was to be buried in the local church in Beddington, Surrey, the home of Lady Raleigh. "The Lords", she wrote, "have given me his dead body, though they have denied me his life. God hold me in my wits". After Raleigh's execution, his head was embalmed and presented to his wife. She died twenty-nine years later and it was returned to Raleigh's tomb at St. Margaret's, Westminster Raleigh's body was finally laid to rest in St. Margaret's Church, where his tomb may still be visited today.
Although his popularity had waned considerably since his Elizabethan heyday, his execution was seen by many, both at the time and since, as unnecessary and unjust. It has been suggested that any involvement in the Main Plot appears to have been limited to a meeting with Lord Cobham. One of the judges at his trial later said: "the justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh.