Sir Walter Ralegh: The Alpha Smoker

Brave, impetuous and dramatically gallant, Sir Walter Ralegh (his own spelling for his name) is perhaps best known to readers here as the European alpha smoker. He's the man who popularized smoking in the old world and whose image has been emblematic of the tobacco that bears his name since before any of us can remember.

The first European pipe enthusiast, Sir Walter brought tobacco back from North America, and he smoked it. Often. It's said that a servant walked in on him smoking one day and tossed a pitcher of water onto him, thinking he was on fire, though it's most likely that the anecdote is an amusing legend rather than fact. Everyone knew Sir Walter smoked. He even charmed the Queen into tolerating it.

The son of a Devonshire gentleman farmer, Ralegh went off to war in France at age 14, and took command of a royal ship at age 25. He had proven himself a leader, but his softer side also impressed the Elizabethan court. He was a poet, and he and the queen would sometimes start and end each other's poetry. He was 30 years old when he famously spread his cloak over a puddle for the queen to walk over.

He once made a bet with the queen that he could weigh the smoke from his pipe. He weighed a pipeful of tobacco, smoked it, then weighed the ashes and declared the difference to be the weight of the smoke. The queen was delighted.

Everyone knew Sir Walter smoked. He even charmed the Queen into tolerating it.

Sir Walter's relationship with King James after Elizabeth's death were less friendly. He had argued that James, from Scotland, was not worthy of being the British monarch, and that England needn't continue as a monarchy at all. King James did not forgive that, and his attack on tobacco, through the pamphlet A Counterblaste to Tobacco, was at least partially motivated by his distaste for Ralegh.

It was his own son who caused Ralegh's demise. In 1617, in Guiana to find gold, Ralegh sent 400 men up the Orinoco River, including his son Wat, with strict instructions to avoid the Spanish Fort because King James was working on improving relations with Spain. However, Wat led a force of men in an attack on the fort, successfully taking possession. Wat was killed in the attack, but Spain insisted on Ralegh's head, a demand King James obliged.

Before his execution, he had a big breakfast, and he smoked one of his pipes, a clay with sterling silver band and mouthpiece. Some were scandalized that he would smoke at such a moment. But Ralegh was a pipe man, and I think we can all relate, and would choose the same.


    • Ricardo E on April 3, 2019
    • By the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, tobacco was very popular in some parts of continental Europe. I believe Sir Walter may be credited to introduce it in Great Britain, but not in Europe, unless we are talking about pipe smoking (about that I donĀ“t have any data, although I believe it is worth investigating).
      Best regards.

    • Gary Sole on April 8, 2019
    • A very interesting article and more on Sir Walter Raleigh would be most welcome !

    • William Peppin on July 28, 2019
    • Enjoy these histories and information items you send.Celtic

    • Jack Koonce on September 12, 2020
    • Short, but sweet article. Would enjoy an more in- depth article, but still the article was enjoyable to read. Thank you

    • PickyPiper on September 23, 2020
    • Ironic that a burley blend would be named after SWR when it hadn't been found yet during his time.

    • Jim on September 23, 2020
    • @PickyPiper: That's marketing for you!

Join the conversation:

This will not be shared with anyone

challenge image
Enter the circled word below: