Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Head of Sir Walter Raleigh, by Katherine Pym

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Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was an intrepid explorer. He introduced the potato to Ireland, tobacco to England, and was the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. His place was happily set until his queen died, and James I came from Scotland to take the throne. Raleigh thought he’d remain high in the new Crown’s esteem, but he was wrong.

Raleigh’s arrogance annoyed England’s new king, and his popularity with the people irritated the powerful Cecil family. Within a few short weeks of James’ succession, Raleigh suggested James was not a good choice for England. That sent the king’s dander flying, and gave the Cecils the opportunity to get rid of Sir Walter. 

Raleigh was sentenced to death in November of 1603, but his popularity with the people wouldn’t allow the execution. Instead, Raleigh was thrown into the Tower where he languished for several years. He stayed in the ‘Bloody Tower’ and walked along the parapets that is now ‘Raleigh’s Walk’. His wife was allowed to be with him, and in 1605, they had another son, named Carew.

It must have been difficult never to be allowed anywhere but within a few feet of your chambers, and three servants. He had to pay for the room and board, plus any coal used to keep him warm. Finally, in 1617, Raleigh was allowed out of the Tower, and sent to South America, where it was believed the Spanish still dug treasure from the earth. The Cecil family took this and ran with it. They betrayed Raleigh to the Spanish.

The trip did not go well. Besides being attacked at the jungle gate by the Spanish, Raleigh lost a son (not Carew), and he became very ill. Upon Raleigh’s return to England, James had him thrown back into the Tower.

Raleigh was still high in regard with the populace. In order to avoid public outcry, Sir Walter was sentenced to be executed October 29, 1618, Lord Mayor’s Day. People would be involved in the Mayor’s pageantry, parties and such, and Sir Walter’s death would hopefully go relatively unnoticed. 

Raleigh being doused by a servant, thinking he'd caught fire
Here’s where it gets interesting. People are really quite unique.

Sir Walter Raleigh gave a long speech, denying any treasonous behavior, then he requested to see the axe. He said, ‘This is sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.”

“Removing his gown and doublet, he knelt over the block; as the executioner hesitated, Raleigh exclaimed, ‘What dost thou fear? Strike, man, strike!’ The executioner responded, bringing the heavy implement down, but a second stroke was necessary to separate the head completely from the body.”

Normally, the head of a traitor would be put on a pike on the south end of London Bridge, but Raleigh’s was not. It is conjectured Raleigh was too popular, and his head on display would show the king had tricked his people by killing one of their favorites. As a result, Raleigh’s head was put in a red leather bag and given to his wife for safekeeping.

Raleigh’s body was buried in “the chancel near the altar of St Margaret’s, Westminster, but Lady Raleigh had his head preserved and kept it with her for the next twenty-nine years...” There was a belief that the brain held a person’s soul, and to hold the head meant that person was always with one.

When Lady Raleigh died, Sir Walter’s son (Carew) obtained his father’s head. They say Sir Walter’s head was buried with Carew, but no one really knows.

References & Bibliography
*Geoffrey Abbott, The Gruesome History of Old London Bridge, Eric Dobby Publishing Ltd, 2008
*Picture of Raleigh being doused: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)