Why was Sir Walter Ralegh executed?

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. So how did he fall from grace and come to be executed in 1618? BBC History Revealed explains…

Sir Walter Raleigh bids goodbye to his wife, Elizabeth Throckmorton

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

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His first fall from grace came when Elizabeth found out he had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting in 1591, earning him a stay at the Tower of London. And while Raleigh managed to rally from that, things went wrong again in 1603 when James VI of Scotland came to the English throne, as James I. Hearing that Raleigh was involved in a plot to overthrow him, James swiftly had him imprisoned for treason.

He was found guilty and sentenced to death and then not executed. Instead, Raleigh spent 13 years in the Tower, legally dead, but very much alive. Having escaped the axe, he somehow clawed himself back up again until he was permitted to lead an expedition to find the mythical El Dorado in the New World.

It was a failure. Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish settlement, against royal orders, leading Spain to put pressure on James to act. Willing to oblige, in 1618 the King finally delivered on the death sentence handed out 15 years earlier.

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This article is taken from the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed