Born about 1552, educated at Oxford. Served with the Huguenot army in France in 1569, and joined expeditions against Spanish interests in 1578. He became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth for services rendered in Ireland, and organised two ventures to colonise Virginia, both of which failed. He fell out of favour as Essex grew in the Queen's favour, and was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London before being freed and going to sea again, this time for South America.

After the death of Elizabeth he was accused of treason against James I and was imprisoned for twelve years. He wrote his History of the World during this time and made various scientific researches. In 1616 he sailed again to seek gold in Venezuela, but was unsuccessful, and was executed on the old charge of treason upon his return in 1618.