Sir Walter Raleigh's Notebook for his History of the World


This is a manuscript notebook compiled by Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618) during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London. Raleigh occupied many roles throughout his life, but he is perhaps best known as a famous Elizabethan explorer, colonist and adventurer.

The book was written and drafted in Raleigh’s own hand, and contains several beautifully detailed maps with extensive annotations. Raleigh had a large library in the Tower, and from about 1607 he used this notebook to alphabetically record geographical and historical (biblical) information from his research. These notes were later published in History of the World (1614), which was suppressed by King James I (1566–1625) and the Archbishop of Canterbury for its critical view of the monarchy. The printed volume was one of the most published and admired books of the politically turbulent 17th century: Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) is known to have read and recommended it to his son.

On the final page is a poem, written by Raleigh, which has been identified as one of the ‘Cynthia poems’ composed for Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603).

What are the ‘Cynthia poems’?

Raleigh wrote a series of love poems for Queen Elizabeth, which he addressed to the romanticised pseudonym ‘Cynthia’. Cynthia is another name for Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt and wild animals.

The Cynthia poems adhere to the courtly love tradition, in which a male writer pines for an idealised woman while expressing his undying love and devotion to her. The courtly love conceit was central to Elizabeth’s court, just as it had been to Anne Boleyn’s, and required all aspiring courtiers to be witty and romantic towards their Queen both in person and on paper.

The collection of Cynthia poems consists of five autograph manuscripts. Four were written by Raleigh in a bid to regain royal favour after his scandalous secret marriage to Elizabeth’s Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber Elizabeth (‘Bess’) Throckmorton, and are held at Hatfield House (former residence of Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State). The fifth poem is written in Raleigh’s hand on the last page of this volume, and was rediscovered in the 1950s. The Cynthia poem digitised here is titled ‘Now we have present made’, and was probably composed to accompany a gift for Elizabeth.

Full title:
SIR WALTER RALEGH: notebook comprising an historical gazetteer, library-lists, etc.; circa 1606-1608 . Mostly autograph . Partly Latin and French . This notebook dates from Ralegh's imprisonment in the Tower from Dec. 1603, when he was at work on his History of the World (1614).
1606–08, London
Manuscript / Quarto
Walter Raleigh
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 57555

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Key features of Renaissance culture

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Shakespeare’s life and world, Elizabethan England, Renaissance writers

Andrew Dickson follows the progress of the Renaissance through Europe, and examines the educational, religious, artistic and geographical developments that shaped culture during the period.

Earth and the Heavens in maps

Article by:
Peter Whitfield
Science and nature

Peter Whitfield shows how British Library maps chart the evolution of man's understanding of the earth and cosmos.

Love poetry in Renaissance England

Article by:
Emily Mayne
Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Poetry

Love poetry in the Renaissance often expressed sexual or romantic passion, but it could also serve a variety of political, social and religious ends. Emily Mayne explores the origins and development of Renaissance love poetry and the many forms it took.

Related collection items