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March 25, 1584 – Sir Walter Raleigh and Virginia

Sir Walter Raleigh c1585, by Nicholas Hilliard (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date, Sir Walter Raleigh was given a patent to colonize Virginia.  This would be the very first attempt to colonize the new world….and it would not go well: the first settlers arrived at Roanoke Island, off the coast of Virginia, and stayed there about a year before leaving, then a second group arrived in 1587 only to disappear without a trace. But that’s getting way ahead of things. Instead I want to focus on the significance of today’s grant.

Raleigh was introduced to the court of Elizabeth I thanks largely to the influence of his paternal aunt, Kat Ashley, who had been governess and second mother to Elizabeth I. He was a soldier and explorer, which made him a good candidate in this push to curb the growing power of Spain. The plan was clear: the patent would allow Raleigh, on England’s behalf, to access and exploit the riches of the new world as Spain had been doing for decades. Raleigh’s powers included the right to disrupt and seize any ships that encroached on his territory unless they sailed for countries “in perfect amity with England.”  That was a HUGE and deliberate loophole – a way to encourage Raleigh to capture Spanish treasure ships while giving Elizabeth plausible deniability that Spain was being targeted (though this was four years before their disagreements flared into the Armada so she really wasn’t fooling anyone).

Here is some of the text of that charter, cleaned up to modernize the spelling and to remove a lot of the legalese that crowded the document (for example, every time Raleigh is mentioned so are “his heirs and assigns and all and every one of them”). For the original and complete version , click through the citation at the end:

Elizabeth by the grace of God of England, France and Ireland Queen, defender of the faith etc. To all people to whom these presents shall come, greeting. Know ye that of our especial grace, certain science, and mere motion, we have given and granted, and by these presents do grant to our trusty and well-beloved servant Walter Raleigh Esquire, free liberty and license to discover, search, find out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince, nor inhabited by Christian people, to have, hold, occupy and enjoy, with all prerogatives, commodities, jurisdictions, royalties, privileges, franchises and preeminences, thereto or thereabouts both by sea and land, whatsoever we by our letters patents may grant, and as we or any of our noble progenitors have heretofore granted to any person or persons, bodies politic or corporate; and the said Walter Raleigh shall go or travail thither to inhabit or remain, thereto build and fortify, at the discretion of the said Walter Raleigh, the statutes or act of Parliament made against fugitives, or against such as shall depart, remain or continue out of our Realm of England without license, or any other statute, act, law, or any ordinance whatsoever to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding.

And we do likewise by these presents, of our especial grace, mere motion, and certain knowledge, give and grant full authority, liberty and power to the said Walter Raleigh, that he shall and may at all and ever time and times hereafter, have, take and lead in the said voyager, and travail thitherward, or to inhabit there with him, such and so many of our subjects as shall willingly accompany him: and to whom also we do by these presents, give full liberty and authority in that behalf, and also to have, take and employ, and use sufficient shipping and furniture for the transportations, and navigations in that behalf.

And further that the said Walter Raleigh shall have, hold, occupy and enjoy all the soil of all such lands, territories, and countries so to be discovered and possessed as aforesaid, and of all such cities, castles, towns, villages and places in the same with the right, royalties, franchises, and jurisdictions, as well marine as other within the said lands or countries, or the seas thereunto adjoining, to be had, or used, with full power to dispose thereof, and of every part in fee simple or otherwise, according to the order of the laws of England, as near to the same conveniently may be, at his will and pleasure, to any persons then being, or that shall remain within the allegiance of us, our heirs and successors: reserving always to us, for all services, duties, and demands, the fifth part of all the oar of gold and silver that shall be there gotten and obtained.

And moreover, we do by these presents give and grant license to the said Walter Raleigh, that he shall and may for his defense encounter and expulse, repel and resist as well by sea as by land, and by all other ways whatsoever, all and every such person as without the especial liking and license of the said Walter Raleigh shall attempt to inhabit within the said countries, or within the space of two hundred leagues near to the place within such countries (if they shall not be before planted or inhabited within the limits as aforesaid with the subjects of any Christian prince being in amity with us) where the said Walter Raleigh or his associates or company, shall within six years (next ensuing) make their dwellings or abidings, or that shall enterprise or attempt unlawfully to annoy, either by sea or land, the said Walter Raleigh or any of his companies; giving and granting by these presents further power and authority to the said Walter Raleigh to take and surprise by all manner of means whatsoever, all those persons with their ships, vessels, and other goods and furniture, which without the license of the said Walter Raleigh shall be found trafficking into any harbor or creek within the limits aforesaid, and those persons wit their ships, vessels, good, and furniture to detain and possess as of good and lawful prize, according to the discretion of the said Walter Raleigh. And for uniting in more perfect league and amity, of such countries, lands, and territories, so to be possessed and inhabited as aforesaid with our Realms of England and Ireland, and the better encouragement of men to these enterprises: we do by these presents, grant and declare that all such countries so hereafter to be possessed and inhabited as aforesaid, from thenceforth shall be of the allegiance of us, our heirs and successors. And we do grant to the said Walter Raleigh and to all and every other person being of our allegiance whose name shall be noted in some of our courts of record, that with the assent of the said Walter Raleigh shall in his journeys for discovery, or in the journeys for conquest hereafter travail to such lands, countries, and territories, that they, being either born within our said Realms of England or Ireland or in any other place within our allegiance, and which hereafter shall be inhabiting within any of the lands, countries, or territories, with such license, shall have all the privilege of denizens and persons native of England, and within our allegiance in such like ample manner and form, as if they were born and personally resident within our said Realm of England.

And forasmuch as upon the finding out, discovering, or inhabiting of such remote lands, countries, and territories as aforesaid, it shall be necessary for the safety of all men, that shall adventure themselves in those journeys or voyages, to determine to live together in Christian peace, and civil quietness each with other, whereby everyone may with more pleasure and profit enjoy that whereunto they shall attain with great pain and peril, we are likewise pleased and contented, and by these presents do give and grant to the said Walter Raleigh that he shall and may, within the same mentioned remote lands and countries, in the way by the seas thither, and from hence, have full and mere power and authority to correct, punish, pardon, govern and rule, by his good discretion and policies, all such our subjects as from tie to time adventure themselves in the said journeys or voyages, or that shall at any time hereafter inhabit any such lands, countries, or territories, or that shall abide within 200 leagues of any of the said places, according to such statutes, laws and ordinances as shall be by him devised or established for the better government of the said people. So always as the said statutes, laws, and ordinances may be, as near as conveniently may be, agreeable to the form of the laws, statutes, government, or policy of England, and also so as they be not against the true Christian faith now professed in the Church of England, nor in any wise to withdraw any of the subjects or people of these lands or places from the allegiance of us as their immediate Sovereign under God.


Provided always, and our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby declare to all Christian kings, princes, and states, that if the said Walter Raleigh shall at any time hereafter rob or spoil by sea or land, or do any act of unjust or unlawful hostility, to any of the subjects of us or of any of the kings, princes, rulers, governors, or estates then being in perfect league and amity with us, and that upon such injury, or upon just complaint of any such prince, ruler, governor or estate, or their subjects, we shall make open Proclamation within any the ports of our Realm of England that the said Walter Raleigh shall make full restitution and satisfaction of all such injuries done; so as by we and the said princes or others so complaining may hold us and themselves fully contented.


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March 25, 1584 – Sir Walter Raleigh and Virginia
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