Sir Walter’s Head


Around 1600 royal favour with Queen Elizabeth I had been restored by this time but did not last. The Queen died in 1603, and Raleigh was arrested at Exeter Inn, Ashburton, Devon and imprisoned in the Tower of London on 19 July. On 17 November, Raleigh was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason, due to alleged involvement in the Main Plot against King James.

During the court case Raleigh essentially was objecting on that the evidence against him was the 17th century equivalent of hearsay. But the tribunal refused to allow Cobham to testify and be cross examined. Although hearsay was frowned upon under the common law, Raleigh was tried under civil-law, which allowed hearsay. Mercifully, King James spared his life, despite a guilty verdict.

Nevertheless, he remained in the tower until 1616. While imprisoned, he wrote many treatises and the first volume of The History of the World about the ancient history of Greece and Rome. His son Carew was conceived and born in 1604 while Raleigh was

legally declared dead and imprisoned in the tower.

In 1616, Raleigh was released to conduct a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado. During the expedition, Raleigh’s men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, attacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana on the Orinoco River. In the initial attack on the settlement, Raleigh’s son Walter was killed by a bullet. On Raleigh’s return to England, the outraged Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, successfully demanded that King James reinstate Raleigh’s death sentence.

Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October,

Sir Walter Raleigh

1618. According to many biographers Sir Walter’s final words – as he lay ready for the axe to fall – were: “Strike, man, strike!”

Having been one of the people to popularise tobacco smoking in England, he left a small tobacco box, found in his cell shortly after his execution. Engraved upon the box was a Latin inscription: Comes meus fuit illo miserrimo tempo “It was my companion at that most miserable time”.

Raleigh’s head was embalmed and presented to his wife. His body was to be buried in the local church in Beddington, Surrey, the home of Lady Raleigh, but was finally laid to rest in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, where his tomb may still be visited today. “The Lords”, she wrote, “have given me his dead body, though they have denied me his life. God hold me in my wits.” In fact, Sir Walter Raleigh’s wife kept his severed head in a red velvet bag for almost thirty years. After his wife’s death twenty-nine years later, Raleigh’s head was returned to his tomb and interred at St. Margaret’s Church.

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