Catholic Spain was doing rather well out of its conquests on the Spanish Main in the 16th century. Its treasure fleets brimming with gold were making their way back across the Atlantic, under the green eyes of protestant England.
Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t going to stand for that. In 1578, she issued letters patent to Sir Humphrey Gilbert to settle the North American coast for England. But before Sir Gilbert could carry out his instructions in earnest, he died.
So, on 25 March 1584, the responsibility passed to his half-brother and court favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh, to settle “such remote heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed by any Christian prince”.
That worked out well for Raleigh, since he had also been drawing up his own plans to carve out a slice of the Americas. A colony would not only be a potentially lucrative trading post in the New World, but it would also serve as a base from which to launch raids on Spanish shipping.
Raleigh wasted no time in dispatching an expedition that April. In July the following year, the ships landed on an island off the coast of modern-day North Carolina, Roanoke, and the English flag was raised.
The expedition returned to England with glowing accounts of the land they had found along the coastline. Elizabeth decided to name her new territory after herself, the ‘Virgin Queen’ – Virginia.
But while further attempts were made to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, none were ultimately successful.
Part of the problem was that Raleigh had bank-rolled much of the expeditions himself, and inevitably, provisions had run short. What was needed was a more steady and reliable source of funding.
Later attempts at settlement in the early 17th century, during the reign of King James I, would meet with better success, thanks in part to the financial support of the merchant class.
The joint-stock London Company was founded in 1606, helping to create a blue-print for further colonisation in North America, and what would eventually become the British Empire.