Walter Raleigh may have been a great adventurer and favourite of Elizabeth I – and supposedly happy to get his cloak muddy to save the queen some laundry – but he had been tempting fate for decades before his demise in 1618.


History remembers Raleigh as a polymath: a poet; a historian; a political theorist; a soldier; an explorer; and founder of the first English colony in the Americas who, it is thought, introduced tobacco to England, bringing it over from Virginia. While he was from a modest background, he made his way upwards through the court of Elizabeth I, ending up as captain of the queen’s guard.

His first fall from grace came when Elizabeth found out he had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, in 1591, earning him a stay at the Tower of London.

Sir Walter Raleigh depicted during his long imprisonment at the Tower of London
Sir Walter Raleigh depicted during his long imprisonment at the Tower of London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

While Raleigh managed to rally from that, things went wrong again in 1603 when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I and came to the English throne, as James VI and I.

Raleigh had “made no overtures to the presumptive heir, before Elizabeth died in 1603,” writes Mathew Lyons. “Which was doubly unfortunate, because one of James’s closest English confidantes was Lord Henry Howard, a former associate who had grown to deeply loathe Raleigh. Thus, when James came south in the late spring of 1603, he was already disposed to distrust Raleigh. Even if that weren’t the case, James simply had no need of him. Moreover, James had Scottish friends and supporters whom he needed to reward.”

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In mid-1603, Raleigh was implicated in the Main Plot, which favoured the removal of James from the throne and the insertion of Arbella Stuart, James’s first cousin, in his place.

Hearing that Raleigh was involved in a plot to overthrow him, James swiftly had Raleigh imprisoned for treason. Ahead of Raleigh’s trial in November 1603, it seemed certain that he would be convicted and executed. And yet Raleigh put on such an audacious display at his trial that he transformed himself into a public hero.

He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and then – largely due to concern over his public support – was not executed. Instead, Raleigh spent 13 years in the Tower, legally dead, but very much alive.

“James, his authority only recently established, baulked at proceeding further,” writes Mathew Lyons. “Raleigh’s execution was stayed, but the treason verdict was not rescinded. Raleigh would remain in the Tower, alive for now – but with the legal status of a dead man.”

A 19th-century engraving of Sir Walter Raleigh parting with his wife shortly before his execution
A 19th-century engraving of Sir Walter Raleigh parting with his wife shortly before his execution. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Having escaped the axe, he somehow clawed himself back up again until he was permitted to lead an expedition in 1616 to find the mythical El Dorado in the New World, attempting to find gold in South America. (Raleigh had led an earlier, failed expedition in 1585). But Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish fort, against James’s express royal orders. The Spanish wanted revenge; willing to oblige, in 1618 the king finally delivered on the death sentence handed out 15 years earlier.


During his final moments on the executioner’s block, Raleigh reportedly urged the executioner wielding the axe to “Strike, man, strike!”


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast