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Raleigh in the Tower and Eldorado

In 1588, Sir Walter Raleigh was at the height of his power and prestige. By 1592, he had been disgraced, dismissed from Elizabeth’s court, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although he was never formally charged, it seems likely that his crime lay in offending the queen by concealing from her his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, a maid of honor in Queen Elizabeth’s court. While in the Tower, Raleigh continued to conduct his business, which, in fact, was booming. Ships belonging to Raleigh had captured the Portuguese ship Madre de Dios, which was until then the richest single prize ever brought into an English port. Raleigh, from his cell, secured Elizabeth’s share of the booty and thereby secured his release from the Tower of London Map. Raleigh, who was still banned from court, believed that an expedition to Guiana could win back the queen’s favor.

In 1595, therefore, he set out in search of Eldorado, a mythical kingdom of gold thought to exist somewhere in the Americas. Raleigh finally reached the Orinoco River and sailed up it with a small fleet of rowboats, but he never found Eldorado. His adventures did raise his standing in the eyes of some English people, Tower of London Map but the queen largely ignored his expedition. Raleigh undertook a number of military missions against the Spanish, including an abortive attack on Cadiz, but never regained the prestige of his early years at court. Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James I took over the English throne and began to replace Elizabeth’s court with his own. This did not bode well for Raleigh, who was brought up on charges of treason and, following a sham trial, once again imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He remained a prisoner there for thirteen years, until he was released in order to secure financing for another voyage to the jungles of South America, where Raleigh’s party clashed with a group of Spanish explorers. Raleigh was accused of trying to start a war between England and Spain. He was beheaded in London in October 1618. The massive, Anglocentric History of the World he had been writing while imprisoned remained unfinished. Raleigh’s relevance to colonial America deserves note. He was one of the leading men of Elizabethan England and spent much of his life and fortune encouraging, financing, and participating in colonization schemes. He financed the Roanoke colony, which, although it failed, paved the way for more successful experiments at Jamestown. Reading and Literacy During the medieval and early Reformation periods in Europe, the ability to read or write belonged primarily to clerics and wealthy members of the nobility. In contrast, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the first moves toward a predominantly literate population on both sides of the Atlantic. The reasons for these changes were both religious and social. As in England and throughout Europe, a wide range of literacy existed in the North American colonies.

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