RALEGH, Walter (1554-1618), of Durham House, London and Sherborne, Dorset.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. 1554, yr. s. of Walter Ralegh of Fardel, Devon by his 3rd w. Katherine, da. of Philip Champernown, wid. of Otho Gilbert; bro. of Carew Ralegh and half-bro. of Adrian and Sir Humphrey Gilbert. educ. local g.s.; Oriel, Oxf. c.1572; Lyon’s Inn; travelled in France c.1573; M. Temple by 1576. m. Nov. 1591, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 3s. Kntd. 1585.

Offices Held

On Henry Champernown’s expedition to aid French Huguenots 1569; on voyage against Spanish shipping Nov. 1578-9; capt. in Ireland 1580-1; esquire of the body by 1581; warden of stannaries, steward, duchy of Cornw., ld. lt. Cornw., v.-adm. Cornw., Devon 1585-1603; capt. of the guard c.1587-1603; keeper of parks at Gillingham, Dorset and Mere, Wilts.; j.p. Dorset from c.1592-1603, custos rot. 1599-1603; j.p. Som. from c.1592-1603; gov. Jersey Sept. 1600-3.

On Orinoco expedition Feb.-Aug. 1595; Cadiz June 1596; Azores Aug. 1597; Orinoco June 1617-June 1618.1


Ralegh’s father, of an old-established minor gentry family, had been deputy vice-admiral in the south-west under Mary. He retired to Exeter about 1569, and thenceforth took little part in county affairs. He died early in 1581. Through his father’s three marriages the future courtier was connected with many of the leading west-country families. After some time in France, he was back in London by 1574 but it is not known when he first went to court, where his mother’s relationship to Elizabeth’s friend and confidante, Kate Astley, ensured him a welcome. Adrian Gilbert is said to have loaned him the £10 he needed for his first appearance there. Following a ‘fray’ with Sir Thomas Perrot in February 1580, both spent a week in the Fleet. Ralegh was again in prison, this time the Marshalsea, for another ‘fray’ on 17 Mar.2

Next, Ralegh spent some time on active service in Ireland before returning to a minor appointment that was nevertheless close to the sovereign. By 1582 Hatton was complaining that there was ‘too much water’ at court. Ralegh was given most of the local west-country offices made vacant by the death of the 2nd Earl of Bedford in 1585, but his occupation of Hatton’s lodging at court that year is said to have earned him the comment from Elizabeth that ‘she had rather see him hanged than equal him with [Hatton] or that the world should think she did so’. There is much in this remark, whether or not it was ever made, for Hatton was a statesman of the first rank as well as a royal favourite, whose abilities took him from the captainship of the guard to membership of the Privy Council and the lord chancellorship. Though Ralegh was made captain of the guard after Hatton, further promotion eluded him. He failed to succeed Heneage as vice-chamberlain in 1595, failed to become chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, even failed, to his great chagrin, to be made of the Privy Council, as he confidently expected to be before the Parliament of 1601. Had he succeeded in this it is at least possible that he might have weathered the storms of the succession despite the damaging neutrality of Robert Cecil, who was fighting for his own survival at this critical juncture.

Meanwhile, in 1587, Ralegh received many lucrative marks of royal favour. As captain of the guard he had constant access to the Queen, which brought him substantial perquisites from suitors who needed his goodwill; he received—despite objections from Burghley—a grant of the farm of the customs for exporting overlength cloth; wine and tin monopolies; Sherborne; estates in Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire from the Babington conspirators, and 40,000 acres in Ireland.3

In Parliament, Ralegh was unique in this period in representing three counties. He was junior Member for Devon in 1584, and was knighted by the Queen at Greenwich on Twelfth Day, 6 Jan. 1585, during the Christmas recess. By 1586 he was warden of the stannaries and vice-admiral and he occupied the senior Devon seat. He was in Ireland at the time of the 1588 election and remained out of the 1589 Parliament. In 1593 he came in for Mitchell, probably by courtesy of Richard Carew. It is true that he was in disgrace at court for seducing one of the Queen’s maids of honour, but it is difficult to see how this could have prevented his obtaining a county seat if he had wanted one; conversely, if he could not obtain a county seat his return for Mitchell shows a determination to be of the Parliament that might not have been suspected. In 1597 his Sherborne estate and his general standing in the county brought him election for Dorset, and in 1601 he was elected for Cornwall, where he was lord lieutenant and warden of the stannaries.

He had also some interest in borough patronage, though, as always, it is difficult to disentangle the names of his nominees from those of his friends and the dependants who had sufficient local influence to secure their own return. His servant Edward Hancock found a seat at Plympton Erle in 1597. At Bridport he placed through his servant Morgan Moone, Gregory Sprint, Adrian Gilbert, and perhaps John Fortescue II. In Cornwall Ralegh was respected both by the gentry as an administrator, and by the lower orders as an employer. Between 1586 and the end of this period some 60 Cornish Members were connected with him, his relatives and his close friends, though again it should be stated that this does not mean he brought them into Parliament. However, Ralegh’s concern with borough patronage may be seen from a letter he wrote to Sir John Gilbert in 1601: ‘I pray you get some burgesses if you can, and desire C[hristopher] Harris to write in my name for as many as he can procure’.

Ralegh had a vested interest in the 1584 Parliament which was to give a first reading (14 Dec.) to his bill for the discovery of foreign countries. The committee included a number of his friends, Drake, Grenville, Sir William Courtenay and Sir William Mohun, while Hatton and, probably, Walsingham were appointed for the government. Ralegh himself was appointed to committees on Suffolk cloth (7 Dec.), liberty of ministers (16 Dec.), the continuance of statutes (19 Dec.) and the subsidy (24 Feb. 1585). He is not known to have spoken in this or in his next Parliament, when his committees were on the subsidy (22 Feb. 1587) and on a learned ministry (8 Mar.).

Though he was in disgrace at court and sitting for a borough, Ralegh’s parliamentary activity increased dramatically in 1593, when he took a leading part in the tortuous negotiations between Queen, Lords and Commons over the subsidy. Clearly he was trying to work his passage back into favour. His first speech on the subsidy, 2 Mar.—indeed his first known speech in the House—is reported by the anonymous diarist:

Then Sir Walter Ralegh spake of the subsidy, not only as he protested to please the Queen to whom he was infinitely bound above his desert but for the necessity of that he saw and knew, he very well and exactly discovered the great strength of the King of Spain.

On 5 Mar. he suggested that the Commons should compromise with the Lords over their wish to be concerned with the Commons in the subsidy negotiations. He thought the House would not object to a general conference with the Lords ‘without naming a subsidy’ and this was agreed to nem. con. Elaborating on this next day:

we agreed all to a general conference but not in particular for the subsidy, for this we refused. If we confer generally it must be of our dangers, and of the remedies, which must be ... money and aid. So our conference must be of subsidy or rather aid, but to agree upon this with any resolution either in the matter or substance, it is not our meaning,

as fine a piece of hair splitting, it may be thought, as occurs within these pages, yet valid for all that. The Lords must not be seen to be joined with the Commons in a financial resolution. On the amount of the subsidy, in the House next day (7 Mar.):

the longer we defer aid the less able shall we be to yield aid, and in the end the greater aid will be required of us ... For ... one hundred thousand pound would have done the last year that which three will not now do, and three will do this year that which six will not do hereafter.

There is a neat contrast, incidentally, in the length and content of Ralegh’s speech and that of Drake, who spoke soon after him. At the committee that afternoon Ralegh developed his theme:

The time is now more dangerous than it was in ’88. For then the Spaniard which came from Spain was to pass dangerous seas, and had no place of retreat or relief if he failed. But now he hath in Brittany great store of shipping, a landing place in Scotland, and men and horses there as good as we have any.

On 23 Mar. 1593 Ralegh made a long speech on the bill against aliens retailing foreign wares in this country, of whose committee he was in charge. It was an ‘honour to use strangers as we be used amongst strangers’ but ‘a baseness in a nation to give a liberty to another nation which we cannot receive again’.

The Dutchman ... hath gotten trading with all the world into his hands, yea he is now entering into the trade of Scarborough fishing and the fishing of the Newfound-Lands which is the stay of the west countries. They are the people that maintain the King of Spain in his greatness. Were it not for them, he were never able to make out such armies and navies by sea. ... to conclude, in the whole cause I see no matter of honour, no matter of charity, no profit in relieving them.

More far-sighted was his attitude towards the Brownists, a group of nonconformists who wished to secede from the Anglican church. Ralegh agreed (4 Apr.) that they should be ‘rooted out’. But to enact a law to transport them was bad in principle:

men not guilty will be included in it. And that law is hard that taketh life and sendeth into banishment when men’s intentions shall be judged by a jury.

And also on grounds of expediency:

At whose charge shall they be transported? or whither will you send them? I am sorry for it, I am afraid there are near 20,000 of them in England, and when they be gone who shall maintain their wives and children?

Ralegh was named first in the committee appointed on this bill that day. Also in 1593 he was appointed to all committees on the subsidy as well as to those on privileges and returns (26 Feb.), provisions against recusants (28 Feb.), springing uses (9 Mar.), forgery (10 Mar.), the poor law (12 Mar.), cordage for the navy (6 Apr.) and a legal bill (7 Apr.).

In the 1597 Parliament Ralegh took a leading part in the committees, conferences and discussions on the poor law. On 14 Jan. 1598 he complained that the Lords had received discourteously the members of the Commons appointed to confer with them, ‘to the great indignity of this House, and contrary to all former usage of their lordships’, and was nominated to the Commons committee to inquire into this. On 20 Jan. the Lords denied that they had given the commoners ‘any just distaste’. Ralegh also sat on committees in this Parliament on armour and weapons (8 Nov.), monopolies (10 Nov.), the subsidy (15 Nov.), merchant strangers (13 Jan.), Thomas Knyvet’s lands and explanation of statutes (18 Jan.), excess of apparel (19 Jan.) and a bill concerning debts incurred by tellers and receivers of the Exchequer (31 Jan.). He was not named to the privileges and returns committee of 5 Nov. 1597 (perhaps this is not significant) but he was to that appointed at the outset of the 1601 Parliament, 31 Oct. Despite his open disappointment at his failure to receive promotion in court office or appointment to the Privy Council, Ralegh was active in furthering the interests of government at this time. He was appointed to the main business committee (3 Nov.) and took a prominent part in the debates on the subsidy. On the afternoon of 7 Nov. in the committee of the whole House he moved for the subsidy ‘and the manner and quality thereof’. Last Parliament three subsidies had been granted ‘upon fear that the Spaniards were coming. But now’, he went on, with a reference to the recent landing of a Spanish army in Ireland, ‘we see they are come, and have set foot even in the Queen’s territories already’. During this committee session Ralegh was asked to stand so that he might be heard better—not the first time he had been asked to speak up. He replied that, the House being in committee ‘he might speak sitting or standing, and so repeated over again his former speech’. Still on the subsidy (9 Nov.) he liked not ‘that the Spaniards our enemies should know of our selling our pots and pans to pay subsidies’. He was against Francis Bacon’s proposal not to exclude the £3 men, ‘Call you this par jugum when a poor man pays as much as a rich?’.

He was much against hasty economic legislation, especially if this was at the expense of the rights of the individual. On 4 Nov., concerning the sowing of hemp:

I do not like this constraining of men to manure or use their grounds at our wills; but rather, let every man use his ground to that which it is most fit for, and therein use his own discretion.

Again, 2 Dec., he criticized a bill to regulate the conduct of ale houses because one of its provisions would debar the offender from ever being an innkeeper again. ‘How dangerous to the innkeepers that might, by negligence of a servant, suffer’ such a heavy penalty. On 12 Dec., on the clumsy procedure for convicting offenders under the proposed recusancy bill:

All the church wardens of every shire must come to the Sessions to give information to the grand jury. Say then there be 120 parishes in a shire, there must now come extraordinarily 240 churchwardens. And say that but two in a parish offend in a quarter of a year, that makes 480 persons, with the offenders, to appear. What great multitudes this will bring together! What quarrelling and danger may happen, besides giving authority to a mere churchwarden! How prejudicial this may be!

In the event the bill was lost by one vote, and, during the ensuing recriminations Ralegh caused ‘a great loud speech and stir’ by confessing to having pulled Members by the sleeve to prevent them going out to vote. But on a previous occasion (9 Dec.) when two Privy Councillors rose to lead Members to vote before he had a chance to speak he was quick to protest:

I thought I had deserved of the House to have been heard to speak as well as he that spoke before the division of the House; and in that I offered to speak and was not heard, I had wrong.

His attitude to the great subject of this Parliament, monopolies, was ambivalent. He contrived (20 Nov.) both to defend the underdog—in this case the tinners—and his own tin monopoly:

I am urged to speak in two respects. The one because I find myself touched in particular, the other in that I take some imputation and slander to be offered unto her Majesty. I mean by the gentleman that first mentioned tin (which was Mr. Martin) for that being one of the principal commodities of this kingdom and being in Cornwall it hath ever (so long as there were any) belonged to the Dukes of Cornwall, and they had special patents of privilege. It pleased her Majesty freely to bestow on me that privilege and that patent being word for word the very same the Duke’s is. And because by reason of mine office of lord warden of the stannaries I can sufficiently inform this house of the state thereof I will make bold to deliver it unto you. When the tin is taken out of the mine and moulten and refined then is every piece containing a hundredweight sealed with the Duke’s seal and by reason of his privilege (which I now have) he ever had the refusal in buying thereof, for the words of the patent are nisi nos emere volumus. Now I will tell you that before the granting of my patent whether tin were but at 17s. and so upwards to 50s. a cwt., yet a poor workman never had above 2s. a week, finding himself. But since my patent whosoever will work may, and be tin at what price soever they have 4s. a week truly paid; there is no poor that will work there but may, and have that wages. Notwithstanding if all other [patents] may be repealed I will give my consent as freely to the cancelling of this as any member of this House.

This ‘sharp speech’ produced ‘a great silence’ in the House, and must be accounted one of his failures, as was his attempt (1 Dec.) to get a proviso exempting debts under £5 from the provisions of the bill to prevent double payment of debts upon shop books. Ralegh was in charge of the committee on this bill and was outvoted both by his fellow committeemen and by the House at the report stage. Ralegh’s committees in 1601 not already mentioned were on the penal laws (2 Nov.), Exeter churches (10 Nov.), customs duties (10 Nov.), insurance (13 Nov.), pluralities (16 Nov.), clothworkers (18 Nov.), monopolies (23 Nov.), the Marquess of Winchester (28 Nov.), the Countess of Sussex (3, 17 Dec.), Dunkirk pirates (3 Dec.), cloth (4 Dec.), export of ordnance (8 Dec.)—he was sure one of her Majesty’s ships could beat twenty Spanish; the Belgrave privilege case (8 Dec.), tillage (9 Dec.), Dover harbour (10, 14 Dec.), Questor’s denization (14 Dec.)—he supported Cecil on this; Exchequer reform (16 Dec.), captains, soldiers and mariners (16 Dec.)—he ‘much excepted’ against this ‘by reason of the generality of the bill’; fines within ancient demesnes (17 Dec.) and deceits in auditors (17 Dec.).4

Reference has already been made to his seduction of the Queen’s maid of honour Elizabeth Throckmorton, and his secret marriage to her some five months after the conception of a boy who was to die in infancy. Less than three weeks before the birth of the child, when the news of his wife’s condition was becoming known, Ralegh wrote to Cecil from Chatham, 10 Mar. 1592, where he was fitting out for a reprisal raid against Spain for the loss of Grenville’s Revenge:

If any such thing were, I would have imparted it unto yourself before any man living; and, therefore, I pray believe it not, and I beseech you to suppress, what you can, any such malicious report. For, I protest before God, there is none of the face of the earth that I would be fastened unto.

Clearly he hoped to be away before the matter came to the ears of the Queen. In the event he was recalled, arrived back in London in June 1592, and was put in the Tower in July. However, his fleet captured off the Azores the great Portuguese carrack, the Madre de Dios, and Ralegh was released in September to supervise the distribution of its immensely valuable cargo. He afterwards complained that he who ventured most in the expedition incurred the greatest loss. He finally settled, on 24 Jan. 1593, for a share amounting to £15,900. Neither he nor his wife apologized for their rash behaviour, and neither was forgiven by the Queen. Almost five years were to pass before Ralegh was again allowed to exercise his captaincy of the guard. He never fully regained the royal favour.5

Ralegh was executed on 29 October 1618.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


Throughout this article recourse has been had to the DNB and the lives of Ralegh by E. Edwards (1868) and W. Stebbing (1891, 1899).

  • 1. A. L. Rowse, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, 159-162; Vis. Devon, ed. Vivian, 405, 639; C66/1255, m 40; Lansd. 47, f. 41; 105, ff. 99, 101; PRO Index 4208.
  • 2. Ralegh, Hist. World, bks. iv. and v.; C. Monro, Acta Canc. (1847), pp. 176-7; APC, xi. 384, 388-9.
  • 3. E. St. John Brooks, Hatton, 301-4; Lansd. 41, ff. 81, 99; 49, f. 51; 71, f. 142.
  • 4. D’Ewes, 337, 339, 340, 343, 356, 409, 413, 471, 474, 477, 481, 484, 486, 488, 490, 492, 493, 496, 497, 499, 508, 509, 517, 519, 520, 552, 553, 555, 557, 561, 575, 578, 579, 580, 581, 582, 583, 585, 586, 589, 591, 622, 624, 629, 630, 632, 633, 634, 635, 636, 641, 642, 646, 647, 649, 651, 658, 661, 665, 666, 668, 671, 672, 673, 674, 676, 677, 678, 680, 683, 684, 686, 687; Cott. Titus F.ii anon. jnl., ff. 42-3; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 188, 197, 198, 204, 235, 270, 278, 293, 299, 301, 302-3, 309, 320, 321, 322, 327; HMC Hatfield, xi. 484. Some variant readings for 1601 from Stowe 362.
  • 5. Rowse, loc. cit.; Lansd. 70, f. 217; 73, ff. 40-1.