Walter Ralegh 1554-1618

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Sir Walter RALEGH or RALEIGH 1554-1618

Biographical Note

Born at Hayes, Devon, son of Walter Ralegh, landowner. Saw military action as a mercenary in France 1569-70 before matriculating at Oriel College, Oxford ca.1572, where he did not graduate; admitted at the Middle Temple, 1575. Sailed as a captain in Humphrey Gilbert’s Altantic expedition in 1578-79; in military service in Ireland 1580-81; returned to England where he became a favourite in Elizabeth’s court. Led privateering/colonising expeditions to America in the 1580s; out of favour, and banished from court, in the early 1590s. Led a largely abortive expedition to South and Central America, 1595-96. Involved in the English sacking of Cadiz, 1596, which helped restore him to favour, but his fortunes were reversed again after Elizabeth’s death. Accused and convicted of treason 1603, held in the Tower of London from then until 1616, when he was released to be allowed a further expedition to Guiana, which sailed in 1617 but served only to antagonise the Spanish (contrary to the orders Ralegh had been given). Tried and condemned again on his return, he was executed 1618. His reputation rests not only on his buccaneering activity but (more concretely) on his writings as a poet and a historian – his History of the world (1614), written while he was imprisoned, was much reprinted and an influential text in the 17th century.


A commonplace book written ca.1606-08, mostly in Ralegh’s hand (now BL Add.MS 57555) lists ca.500 vols which comprised his library while imprisoned in the Tower of London. The books are listed in shelf order, reflecting the physical arrangement of the collection. subjects covered include theology, history, chronicles and chronology, geography, philosophy, law, medicine, science and cosmography; there is noticeably little by way of literary material. languages include English, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. The collection was assembled partly as a working library for the writing of The history of the world. The fate of the library after Ralegh’s death is unclear; a contemporary letter from his widow shows that she made efforts to preserve it but some books at least were dispersed soon after 1618. Ralegh gave £50 to the Bodleian Library in 1603. Examples: Bodleian ms.Add.A.185; F. Patrizi, La militia romana, 1583, Worcester College, Oxford; St John’s College, Cambridge D.8.47.

Characteristic Markings

Inscription of Walter Raleigh (Royal College of Physicians D1/45-e-14 B. Rocca, De discosri di guerra, Venice, 1582)

Ralegh sometimes inscribed his name on titlepages, possibly with mottoes Amore et virtute, or Marti quam mercurio.