One of the questions I get asked most about Sir Walter Ralegh, somewhat to my surprise, is the correct spelling of his name. The reason is that ‘Raleigh’, the spelling in widest circulation – and not only on the internet – is rarely used by anyone who has ever written about him in any depth. Nevertheless, ‘Raleigh’ is the spelling in popular usage, and there seems to be a marked resistance to the suggestion that it might be wrong.
Perhaps that is simply due to familiarity and repetition. After all, he is a well-known figure and most of us will have come across him at some point in our schooling. I think my first encounter with him was through the Ladybird title pictured left, which may cause the odd ripple of nostalgia in readers of a certain age. Arguably, however, our attachment to the spelling and its associations help cement in our minds a stale, old-fashioned and, I believe, deeply misleading image of Ralegh as a national hero and prophet of empire very much in the Victorian mode.
In fact, at least as far back as William Oldys, Ralegh’s first biographer in 1736, students of Ralegh have written it as I do, without the ‘i’. (The exception that springs to mind is Raleigh Trevalyan’s life, for which the author’s familial relationship with Ralegh, as evidenced in his forename, led him to a more personal choice.) True, the ‘Raleigh’ spelling does crop up fairly regularly in contemporary transcripts and endorsements of his correspondence, but there is nothing particularly to suggest why it should have taken such firm root.
It isn’t as if either spelling comes close to capturing the contemporary pronunciation of his name, which would have been ‘Raw-ley’. James I’s drily threatening words to Ralegh when they first met after the death of Elizabeth I – “On my soul, I have heard rawly of thee” – are evidence enough of that.
William Stebbing, one of Ralegh’s two great Victorian biographers, has gone into the question of Ralegh’s name in exhaustive – and no doubt exhausting detail – and I can do no better than to quote his words on the subject, written in 1891.
The spelling of his name for the first thirty-two years of his life was as vague and unsettled as his acts. There was no standard of orthography for surnames till the latter part of the seventeenth century. Neither the owners, nor others, were slaves to uniformity…
For Ralegh’s name his contemporaries never had a fixed rule to the end of him. Transcribers with the signature clear before them would not copy it; they could not keep to one form of their own. His correspondents and friends followed the idea of the moment. Lord Burleigh wrote Rawly. Robert Cecil wrote to him as Rawley, Raleigh, and Ralegh. A secretary of Cecil wrote Raweley and Rawlegh. King James, for whom in Scotland he had been Raulie, wrote once at any rate, and Carew Ralegh commonly, Raleigh. Carew’s son Philip spelt his name both Raleigh and Ralegh. Lady Ralegh signed one letter Raleigh, but all others which have been preserved, Ralegh. The only known signature of young Walter is Ralegh.
The Privy Council wrote the name Raleghe, Rawleighe, and Rawleigh. George Villiers spelt it Raughleigh, and Cobham, Rawlye. In Irish State Papers he is Rawleie. Lord Henry Howard wrote Rawlegh and Rawlie. The Lord Admiral called him Rawlighe. For some he was Raileigh, Raughlie, and Rauleigh. In a warrant he was Raleighe, and in the register of Stepney Church, Raylie. Naunton wrote Rawleigh and Raghley, and Milton, in a manuscript commonplace book, Raugleigh. Sir Edward Peyton in his book spelt the name Rawliegh. Stukely in his Apology spelt it Raligh. The name to his verses printed in Gascoigne’s volume is Rawely, and in a manuscript poem it is Wrawly. In another manuscript poem it is Raghlie. Puttenham printed it Rawleygh.
In the wonderful mass of manuscripts at Lambeth, collected by Sir George Carew, who kept every paper sent him, though his correspondents might beg him to burn their letters, the name, beside forms already given, appears spelt as Ralighe, Raule, Rawlee, Rauley, Rawleye, Raulyghe, Rawlyghe, and Ralleigh. In a letter from Sir Thomas Norreys in the equally wonderful, but less admirable, pile of Lismore papers, he is Raulighe. In the books of the Stationers’ Company he is Rawleighe, and Rauleighe in the copy in the Harleian MSS. of the discourse of 1602 on a War with Spain.
In Drummond’s Conversations with Ben Jonson he is Raughlie. References occur to him in Mr. Andrew Clark’s Oxford Register, as Rallegh, Rawlei, Rauly, Raughley, Raughly, Raughleigh, Raylye, and Rolye. Foreigners referred to him as Ralle, Rallé, Raleghus, Raleich, Raleik, Raulaeus, Rale, Real, Reali, Ralego, and Rhalegh. In addition, I have found in lists compiled by Dr. Brushfield the name spelt Raley, Raleye, Raleagh, Raleygh, Raleyghe, Ralli, Raughleye, Rauleghe, Raulghe, Raweleigh, Raylygh, Reigley, Rhaleigh, Rhaley, Rhaly, and Wrawley.
Ralegh himself had not kept the same spelling throughout his life. Down to 1583 his more usual signature had been the phonetic Rauley. But in 1578 he signed as Rawleyghe a deed which his father signed as Ralegh, and his brother Carew as Rawlygh. A letter of March 17, 1583, is the first he is known to have signed as Ralegh; and in the following April and May he reverted to the signature Rauley. From June 9, 1584, he used till his death no other signature than Ralegh.
It appears in his books when the name is mentioned. It is used in a pedigree drawn up for him in 1601. Of the hundred and sixty-nine letters collected by Mr. Edward Edwards, a hundred and thirty-five are thus signed. Six signed Rauley, one Raleghe, and one Rauleigh, belong to an earlier date. The rest are either unsigned or initialled. The reason of his adoption of the spelling Ralegh from 1584, unless that it was his dead father’s, is unknown. Of the fact there is no doubt.
The spelling Raleigh, which posterity has preferred, happens to be one he is not known to have ever employed.
Nothing that has been discovered in the intervening 120 years or so has materially affected Stebbing’s judgement.