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Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618)

An Epitaph

Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.

           Sir Walter Ralegh mixed scholarship with soldiering from an early age, fighting on the Protestant side in the French Wars of religion before attending Oriel College, Oxford. In 1580 his courage and outspoken manner distinguished him in a campaign against Irish rebels in Munster, and he soon attracted the attention of Elizabeth I.

           He became the Queen's favourite at court, receiving a knighthood in 1585 as well as numerous other favours, and huge estates in Ireland. He took part in many expeditions abroad, including attempts to establish colonies in both North and South America, and several literary works resulted from these travels. Ralegh was a very cultured man, and a close friend of the poet Edmund Spenser, whom he met in Ireland in 1580. He was also linked with a group known as the 'School of Atheism', whose circle included Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman.

           Ralegh's fiery character ensured that his fortunes at court were very unstable; in 1592 a jealous Queen Elizabeth imprisoned him for a short time for marrying one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. He eventually regained favour with Elizabeth, but his enemies successfully conspired against him when James I ascended the throne. Ralegh was convicted of treason and spent the next thirteen years in the Tower of London. He passed his time in prison by writing several books, including A Discourse of War and his History of the World. The History was intended for ordinary readers, not just experts, and its outspoken criticisms of unjust kings amount to an indirect attack on James I.

           In 1616 he was released from the Tower to lead a gold-hunting expedition to Guiana. The trip was his last chance to prove his worth to King James, but it was a spectacular disaster. Ralegh was struck down by a tropical fever and the officer he entrusted with command not only failed to find any gold, but attacked and burned a Spanish settlement, an action which had been strictly forbidden by the King. Ralegh's eldest son was killed in the fighting, and the officer later committed suicide. Returning home in disgrace, Ralegh was beheaded outside Westminster Hall. The poem 'Epitaph' is traditionally said to have been composed on the eve of his execution.



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