Sir Ralph Lane

Sir Ralph Lane was born around 1530 in Lympstone in Devon England. He was the son of Ralph Lane and his wife, Maud, daughter of William, Lord Parr, and is thought to have been a cousin of Edward Dyer, the poet. In 1563, he became an equerry in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, undertaking a variety of executive tasks, such as searching Breton ships for illegal imports. He served as Sheriff of County Kerry in Ireland, between 1583 and 1585. However, Lane was not much suited to the life of an administrator and appears to have jumped at the chance to accompany Sir Walter Raleigh on his second expedition to the New World. As two Devonshire men at court, they probably knew each other well.

Ralph was made an officer on board the Tiger, under the command of Raleigh’s cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. They sailed from Plymouth on 9th April 1585 but there were numerous troubles during the journey and Lane and Grenville were often in hot dispute. Towards the end of June, they arrived at Wococon on the North Carolina Outer Banks and eventually established a colony of about a hundred men on Roanoke Island in Virginia. When Grenville departed for England in the August, Lane was left behind as governor.

Here the settlers remained for almost a year. Lane dispatched parties to make the first maps of North America and what is now Virginia; but the settlement depended heavily upon the Native Americans for food and this led to many disputes. Ralph is said to have been lacking in diplomatic skills and often reacted violently when provoked by his new neighbors. He quarreled with Wingina, the local chieftain, who then attempted to organize adjacent tribes in an assault on Lane’s colony. Ralph eradicated this threat by killing poor Wingina on 10th June 1586, before the plan had properly taken shape.

Though Raleigh had had problems sending a relief expedition, the very next day, Sir Francis Drake arrived with the promise of supplies and a ship. Unfortunately however, a hurricane blew up and Drake was forced back out to sea. Plans had to change and the disheartened Ralph decided that the whole party should return to England. In the chaos of the evacuation, and in an effort to lighten the ship’s load, many of the settlers’ voluminous and valuable records were thrown overboard by the uncaring sailors. While three colonists, still exploring up country, were actually left behind! Ironically, Grenville arrived at Roanoke shortly after this. An event which caused widespread criticism of Ralph, who was thought to have abandoned Virginia purely because of his mistrust of his one-time commander.

Lane and his colonists finally arrived in Plymouth on 28th July 1586. As something of a minor celebrity, Ralph took the opportunity to set down his “Discourage on the First Colony,” which was sent to Sir Walter Raleigh and, in 1589, printed in Richard Hakluyt’s ‘Principal Navigations’. In early 1592, he wrote to Lord Burghley with a second treatise on his experiences as a colonial commander. Here, he emphasized the need for strict discipline and the avoidance of illness amongst the soldiers. Better known today, are White and Harriot’s meticulous notes on the flora and fauna of North America, published in 1588 and to which Lane wrote the forward. However, Ralph was never again to command a colonial expedition…which may not have been a bad thing.

Back at Court, Lane is said to have introduced smoking to polite society. Though tobacco had been in the country for a number of years already and Sir Walter Raleigh’s influence was undoubtedly much more significant. Ralph accepted a number of military roles from the government of the day. In 1588, he became muster-master at Tilbury Fort in Essex and, the following year, held the same position for the whole English army, attending Councils of War to discuss the country’s defense against the Spanish Armada. He was also made Governor of Guernsey and the Isle of Wight. By January 1592, he was muster-master general and clerk of the check in Ireland, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Though he never married, Lane continued – as throughout his career – to ingratiate himself with his betters and beg favors for his relatives and for himself. On 15th October 1593, he was knighted by Sir William FitzWilliam, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. A year later, he was badly wounded in an Irish rebellion. Sir Ralph never truly recovered and his responsibilities were largely neglected during the last years of his life. He died in October 1603.

Edward Hale summed up Ralph Lane’s career thus: “He seems to have been an eager courtier, a bold soldier, a good disciplinarian, an incompetent governor, a credulous adventurer, and on the whole, though not a worthless, an unsuccessful man.”


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