What if… we’re spelling “Raleigh” wrong?

As a writer, one of the times you feel most pretentious is when you correct spelling or grammar. Spelling, especially in English, doesn’t even necessarily have a method to the madness. At some point in history, people started using one spelling more than another and… bam. That’s forever “correct.”

But at the time of Sir Walter “Raleigh,” there really wasn’t much in the way of standardized spelling yet. People just used the letters to approximate sounds and hoped the other person figured it out. Pretentious people didn’t even have the opportunity to stick their noses up and let people know how wrong they were.

For very common words, one particular spelling might become so common that it won out, but many words were up to individuals to spell however they wanted.

Historian Matthew Lyons quotes Sir Walter’s leading biographer, William Stebbing, on this subject. Spoiler: he ends by saying, “The spelling Raleigh, which posterity has preferred, happens to be one he is not known to have ever employed.” But whatever. Do we really want to change the name of our town to “Rawley,” “Raulie” or “Rawlegh”? Nah. Read below for more info on this apparent misspelling. Most historians prefer the “Ralegh” variety, so we at least got pretty close.

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.

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