Raleigh was born in Devon, the son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne. Little is known for certain of his early life, though he spent some time in Ireland, in Clonmellon, Killua Castle, Westmeath, taking part in the suppression of rebellions and participating in the Siege of Smerwick.
He was involved in the early English colonisation of Virginia under a royal patent. In 1591 he married Elizabeth Throckmorton in secret without the Queen's permission, for which he and his wife were imprisoned at the Tower of London. After his release, they retired to his estate at Sherborne, Dorset.
In 1594 Raleigh heard of a "City of Gold" 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 Plot against King James the First, who was not favourably disposed toward him.
In 1616 he was released to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. This was unsuccessful and men under his command ransacked a Spanish outpost. He returned to England and, to appease the Spanish, was arrested and executed in 1618.