According to Sir Walter Raleigh, the English explorer, in ‘On the Life of Man’ (1612): ‘What is our life? a play of passion; Our mirth the music of division …. ‘. This was written during his sentence for life imprisonment after being accused of high treason in 1603. At first, he was condemned to death but this was commuted to life imprisonment and he was released in 1616 to make a final gold mining expedition to South America.
Raleigh was born in around 1554 to a Protestant family in Devon and was the son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne – not many of them around! He was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer and the cousin of Sir Richard Grenville.
In 1591, he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, without the Queen’s permission, for which he and his wife were sent to the Tower of London. After his release, they retired to his estate at Sherborne, Dorset. In 1594, Raleigh heard of a ‘City of Gold’ in South America and sailed to find it, publishing an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of ‘El Dorado’. After Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, Raleigh was arrested and charged with assisting Spain in attempting to put Arabella Stuart on the throne. At his trial in September 1603, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, the evidence against him – possibly cobbled together by the Earl of Salisbury who viewed Raleigh as a rival – was so weak that he was reprieved but imprisoned again in the Tower of London.
He was released in 1616 to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. This was unsuccessful and men under his command ransacked a Spanish outpost. He returned to England and was executed today, in 1618, under the terms of his original death sentence.