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Sir Walter Ralegh and Virginia, Episode 8 - 05/10/05


Elizabeth I commissions Raleigh to sail to America 1584 (Getty Images)

Elizabeth I commissions Raleigh to sail to America, 1584 (Getty Images)
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The letters patent granted to Ralegh in 1584 contradict the idea that the English created an empire by accident to a degree. The single extract "...granted by the Queen's Majesty to Master Walter Ralegh, now knight, for the discovering and planting of new lands and countries…" suggests Ralegh was instructed to set up colonies.

By this period, the Elizabethans were not so much interested in 'empire' as we know the term, but in establishing 'factories' - settlements for exporting local goods and importing those from England. These would become plantations - districts in which had been planted English traders. The crown would then claim land and this would be a colony. Already in the late 16th century there was a sense that colonies should look like England. Little Englands should be planted. Houses, customs and of course Protestant religion should make a new settlement completely English.

Ralegh is often portrayed as one of the founding fathers of the British Empire. This is misleading. Ralegh certainly imagined more than plantations. He saw Elizabeth ruling over an empire of colonies. Yet his own plans have been exaggerated and it was largely left to others to capitalize on his ideas. He had the chance to exploit a settlement of Virginia (actually North Carolina) but failed to plan properly and find the right people and backers to do so.

When settlers sailed in 1585, Elizabeth wanted Ralegh to stay behind at her Court and so command of the seven ship squadron was given to Richard Grenville. Ralegh was a dreamer (he founded the Poets' Society) as well as a schemer. Most of all he dreamed of gold and, ultimately, his belief in El Dorado was his undoing. Ralegh did not create an empire but he knew that it could be done.

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Historical Figure

Sir Richard Grenville c.1541-91 (Corbis)

Sir Richard Grenville
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Sir Richard Grenville, c. 1541-1591

Another of the Devonian seafarers (although of a Cornish family). In 1585 he commanded the ships that took the first colonisers to what is now North Carolina. He was distinguished at the battle against the Spanish Armada. Three years later, in command of the Revenge, Grenville was separated from the main fleet in another battle and battling against enormous odds, he perished. It is this heroic action that Tennyson wrote about in his ballad, The Revenge.

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Did You Know...

That after 1584 Walter Ralegh never used the modern spelling, "Raleigh" only, Ralegh? Some of his earlier signatures show him using Rauley and James I, who thought him a plotter, on meeting him is said to have punned "I have heard rawly of thee Rauley".

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Contemporary Sources

Elizabeth I patent
In 1584, Ralegh was given a six-year monopoly on searching out what would be called Virginia:

"Granted by the Queen's Majesty to Master Walter Ralegh, now knight, for the discovering and planting of new lands and countries … reserving always to us, our heirs and successors, for all services and duties and demands, the fifth part of all the ores of gold and silver that from time to time and at all times after such discovery, subduing and possessing, shall be gotten and obtained. All which lands, countries, and territories shall be for ever beholden of the said Walter Ralegh, his heirs and assignees of us our heirs and successors by homage and by the said payment of the said fifth part…"

Letter by Captain Arthur Barlowe to Walter Ralegh
Ship master Captain Arthur Barlowe detailed his impressions of Virginia in 1584.

"After thanks given to God for our safe arrival thither, we manned our boats and went to view the land next adjoining, and to take possession of the same in the right of the Queen's most excellent Majesty as rightful Queen and Princess of the same. This island had many goodly woods full of deer, conies, hares, and fowl, even in the midst of summer, in incredible abundance. We remained by the side of this island two whole days before we saw any people of the country. The third day we espied one small boat having in it three persons. This boat came to the island side and there, two of the three people remaining, the third came along the shoreside towards us and, we being then all within board, he walked up and down upon the point of land next to us. After he had spoken of many things not understood by us, we brought him aboard the ships and gave him a shirt, a hat, and some other things, and made him taste our wine and our meat, which he liked very well. The next day there came unto us divers boats and in one of them the king's brother, accompanied with forty or fifty men, very handsome and goodly people, and in their behaviour as mannerly and civil as any of Europe. His name was Granganimeo and the king is called Wingina, the country Wingandacoa…"

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