From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Raleigh was born to a Protestant family in Devon, the son of Walter Raleigh and Katherine Champernowne. Little is known for certain of his early life, though he spent some time in Ireland, in Killuagh castle, Clonmellon, County Westmeath, taking part in the suppression of rebellions and participating in two famous massacres at Rathlin Island and Smerwick, later becoming a landlord of lands confiscated from the Irish. He rose rapidly in Queen Elizabeth I's favour, being knighted in 1585, and was involved in the early English colonisation of the New World in Virginia under a royal patent. In 1591 he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, without requesting 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 "Golden City" 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 again imprisoned in the Tower, this time for allegedly being involved in the Main Plot against King James I who was not favourably disposed toward him. In 1616, however, he was released in order to conduct a second expedition in search of El Dorado. This was unsuccessful and the Spanish outpost at San Thomé was ransacked by men under his command. After his return to England he was arrested and after a show trial held mainly to appease the Spanish, he was beheaded at Whitehall.
Raleigh was born in the year 1552, the exact month is unknown, in the house of Hayes Barton, in the village of East Budleigh, not far from Budleigh Salterton in Devon, England. He was the youngest of five sons born to Katherine Champernowne in two successive marriages. His half brothers, Sir John Gilbert, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Adrian Gilbert, and full brother Carew Raleigh were also prominent during the reigns of Elizabeth I or James I. Katherine Champernowne was a niece of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth's governess, who introduced the young men at court. (Ronald, p. 249)
Raleigh's family was strongly Protestant in religious orientation and experienced a number of near-escapes during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, Raleigh's father had to hide in a tower to avoid being killed. As a result, during his childhood, Raleigh developed a hatred of Catholicism, and proved himself quick to express it after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England came to the throne in 1558.
In 1568 or 1572, Raleigh was registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, but does not seem to have taken up residence, and in 1575 he was registered at the Middle Temple. His life between these two dates is uncertain but from a reference in his History of the World he seems to have served with the French Huguenots at the battle of Jarnac, 13 March 1569. At his trial in 1603 he stated that he had never studied law.