His father was a Devonshire gentleman of property, connected with many of the distinguished families of the south of England. Walter was born about 1552 and was educated at Oxford. He first saw military service in the Huguenot army in France in 1569, and in 1578 engaged, with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the first of his expeditions against the Spaniards. After some service in Ireland, he attracted the attention of the Queen, and rapidly rose to the perilous position of her chief favourite. With her approval, he fitted out two expeditions for the colonisation of Virginia, neither of which did his royal mistress permit him to lead in person, and neither of which succeeded in establishing a permanent settlement.
After about six years of high favour, Raleigh found his position at court endangered by the rivalry of Essex, and in 1592, on returning from convoying a squadron he had fitted out against the Spanish, he was thrown into the Tower by the orders of the Queen, who had discovered an intrigue between him and one of her ladies whom he subsequently married. He was ultimately released, engaged in various naval exploits, and in 1594 sailed for South America on the voyage described in the following narrative.
On the death of Elizabeth, Raleigh's misfortunes increased. He was accused of treason against James I, condemned, reprieved, and imprisoned for twelve years, during which he wrote his "History of the World," and engaged in scientific researches. In 1616 he was liberated, to make another attempt to find the gold mine in Venezuela; but the expedition was disastrous, and, on his return, Raleigh was executed on the old charge in 1618. In his vices as in his virtues, Raleigh is a thorough representative of the great adventurers who laid the foundations of the British Empire.