The Elizabethan courtier, explorer and author Sir Walter Ralegh wears armour in the style of a peascod doublet (with exaggerated stomach), imitating contemporary clothing fashions. His gold, brocaded trunk hose (short breeches) and lace collar convey his wealth and status. He also has a richly ornamented shoulder strap, or baldric, which supports an ornate sword. Ralegh’s right hand grasps a baton, a symbol of authority. This fashionable armour is likely to have been designed for royal jousting tournaments, held in the tiltyard on the Queen’s birthday.
Ralegh entered the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1580–81, where he quickly became a favourite. The Queen knighted him in 1585 and he was honoured with several offices, including Captain of the Guard. In 1585 and again in 1587 he despatched expeditions to colonise North America. Both failed after the colonists experienced desperate food shortages.
At the beginning of the 1590s, Ralegh began a relationship with one of the Queen’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. When she fell pregnant the couple married in secret. After the Queen was informed of the liaison, Ralegh and his new bride were briefly imprisoned at the Tower of London. They were later released but banished from court circles.
In 1595 Ralegh planned a new expedition with ambitions to establish a major source of wealth for England through the discovery of silver and gold located, he believed, within the region of Guiana, South America. At Trinidad, his party employed considerable brutality to overwhelm a Spanish colony, before travelling up the Orinoco River. Finding no natural riches, they sailed for home and attempted to plunder the Caribbean town of Cumana before returning to England empty-handed.
Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) courtier, explorer, and author
Oil on canvas
height: 94.50 cm, width: 72.00 cm
Purchased from J F Andrade, 1948
tr: Sir Walter Ralegh
Collection of politician Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke (1757-1834) of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, by 1820; by descent to landowner and bankrupt dandy Charles Philip Yorke, 5th Earl of Hardwicke (nicknamed Champagne Charlie) of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire; by whom sold through Christie's, London, 'A Highly Important Collection of Historical portraits, and Valuable Pictures Chiefly Old Master, removed from Wimpole Hall, Cambridge', on 30 June 1888 (catalogue number 62) as by 'Zucchero', bought in at 55 guineas; collection of the Earl of Hardwicke; by whom sold, as part of the Wimpole estate, to landowner and politician Thomas Agar-Robartes (1844-1930; later sixth Viscount Clifden of Lanhydrock, Cornwall) in 1894; collection of J. F. Andrade (possibly a dealer); from whom purchased by the Ministry of Works in 1948
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