Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sir Walter Raleigh - Famous for Doing Things he Didn't.

Sir Walter Raleigh - Elizabethan adventurer and explorer.

It’s funny how times change. My youngest son tells me at school they no longer study ‘history’, but something called ‘Opening Minds’. I suppose this is fair enough, after all nothing stays the same, especially what we assume are facts!
Take Sir Walter Raleigh as an example. What most school children can tell you about this famous Elizabethan adventurer is that;
 - Raleigh put his cloak over a puddle to let Queen Elizabeth I pass.
  - He brought potatoes back as a gift for Elizabeth.
 - And he introduced tobacco to England.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!  On all counts wrong!

Millais' famous painting - 'The Boyhood of Raleigh.'

Elizabethan Chivalry.

It’s a fantastic image, the chivalrous Sir Walter spreading his cloak beneath Elizabeth’s feet – but it never happened. This myth arose from Walter Scott’s romantic novel ‘Kenilworth’ written in 1821, over 200 years after Raleigh’s death. The scene struck the public imagination and it quickly became the Victorian equivalent of an ‘urban myth’, whereas in reality there was no basis in fact.

A Chip off the Old Block.

Popular history has it that Raleigh brought the first potatoes to England, after his voyages of exploration to the Americas. However, more likely is the potato came from Spain and was already widespread in Europe around the time of Raleigh’s birth.
Happily Raleigh does indeed have a link to potatoes. He grew the vegetable in the garden of his manor in Ireland, to the displeasure of his neighbours who threatened to burn his house down. Potatoes are a member of the Nightshade family, and thought to be poisonous, and the villagers were suspicious of his motives….

Up in Smoke.

Again, Raleigh is widely attributed with introducing and popularizing smoking in Elizabethan England. Not so! Legend has it that one of his servants, thinking his master was on fire, doused Raleigh’s pipe with water. Although Raleigh was a smoker he didn’t discover tobacco.
That plaudit falls to a Frenchman, Jean Nicot. (It is from Nicot’s surname that the word ‘nicotine’ derives.) The first recorded mention of smoking was in 1556 (Raleigh was four years old) when a Bristol sailor was seen;
‘Emitting smoke from his nostrils.’

So there we have it. Perhaps that’s what the teachers mean by ‘Opening Minds’ instead of ‘history’ – studying facts instead of fables. (Although I doubt it somehow…)

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son.


  1. A real eye-opener of a blog post. And the origins of "nicotine" is an excellent trivia question!

  2. Thank you Vikram, regular readers of my blog are bound to score well in pub quizzes et.c LOL!
    Have a good day.
    Grace x

  3. Great post. Fascinating stuff.
    I've nicked one of your pictures from it and linked back to you - from


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