Teaching Students About Sir Walter Raleigh

Teaching students about the historical figures that have shaped today’s world can be an engaging and enlightening experience. One such figure is Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, writer, and politician famous for his expeditions to the Americas and his role in popularizing tobacco in England. This article provides a framework for educators looking to teach students about the fascinating and complex life of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Early Life

Born in 1552 (or 1554) in Devon, England, Walter Raleigh grew up in a time of political unrest and religious conflict. Encourage students to research the socio-political context in which he lived to understand what fueled his ambitions later in life. As a young man, Raleigh attended Oxford University briefly before leaving to fight for the Huguenots (French Protestants) in France.

Exploration and the New World

Raleigh’s interest in exploration was largely driven by a desire for wealth and power. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted him permission to explore, colonize, and claim land in North America. Encourage students to investigate how Raleigh’s voyages impacted both England’s colonial aspirations and native populations in the Americas.

Discuss with students his numerous voyages, with a specific focus on:

1. The first expedition under his command (1585) established the Roanoke Colony.

2. The failed resupply mission to Roanoke (1587) when they found it deserted.

3. The Virginia Company voyage (1607) which established Jamestown after his imprisonment.

4. His exploration of Guiana (1595) in South America looking for El Dorado.

Involvement with Queen Elizabeth I

One intriguing aspect of Raleigh’s life was his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. Starting as one of her favorites due to his charm, intelligence, and military valor, he later experienced a downfall in the Queen’s eyes after marrying one of her maidens without permission. Encourage students to dive deeper into this royal relationship and how it shaped his life.

Politics and Imprisonment

Raleigh had a tumultuous political career. After experiencing high positions within Queen Elizabeth’s court, he fell out of favor, only to regain prominence again during King James I’s reign. Discuss with students how his changes in political fortune often were linked to religious conflicts, espionage allegations, and shifting alliances.

In particular, spend time covering these key events:

1. The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587) – Explore Raleigh’s role in this.

2. The Main Plot (1603) – Examine how Raleigh was implicated and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

3. Release and final expedition (1616) – Discuss his release from prison, the attempted exploration of Guiana for gold that violated peace terms with Spain.

4. Execution (1618) – Explore with students the reasons behind his beheading.


Sir Walter Raleigh was a complex figure whose actions continue to influence modern-day issues around colonization and globalization. Teaching students about his life helps them develop a greater understanding of historical events and the impact they have had on current society. By studying Sir Walter Raleigh, students can improve their critical thinking skills as they analyze the motivations behind human decisions and the consequences that follow.

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