Britannia Biographies: Sir Walter Raleigh Part 17


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Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh by Christopher Smith

S I R      W A L T E R
 R A L E I G H
Part 19: Raleigh's Execution

The Scene of Raleigh's Execution: Old Palace Yard, Westminster

Back in England and under arrest, Raleigh toyed with thoughts of flight to France, but he decided to face the King and justify his name. Gondomor's trap had been sprung and he would end his tour of duty in triumph. Sir Walter returned to London via Salisbury, past his beloved Sherborne. Here, he feigned illness, so that he could write an appeal in justification of his voyage to Guyana. However, Stukeley was ordered to continue their journey to London. Raleigh made further plans to escape but his servants informed on him and even his cousin would not help. In order that Sir Walter should produce enough rope to hang himself, the authorities allowed Stukeley to accompany him down the Thames in a boat; but Raleigh was stopped at Greenwich and arrested. Sir 'Judas' Stukeley had betrayed him. Stukeley was to die later, a lonely lunatic on Lundy Island. On 10th August, Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower once more.

On 15th October, King James received a letter from the King of Spain sparing Raleigh from execution in Madrid, but urging, in the light of delicate negotiations of marriage, that his death in London would please his mots Catholic Majesty. The Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke gave his opinion that Sir Walter was a man "civilly dead". James, to avoid a show trial when the Nation from the Queen down were all in his support, decided that a small group of commissioners should convict him. On 22nd October, the Attorney General charged him that he proposed war between England and Spain. The Solicitor General added that he had tried to flee from justice and his behaviour at Salisbury had been a fraud to deceive king and state. Raleigh defended himself stoutly but, on 28th October, he was driven from the Tower to Westminster Hall before a succession of the King's Bench, a bedraggled and broken man. The Lord Chief Justice explained that his treason could not be pardoned, said he had been valiant and wise and a good Christian, but execution was granted.

The execution was to take place in the Old Palace Yard, Westminster on the same day as the Lord Mayor's Show. Raleigh was housed overnight in the Abbey gatehouse. Bess left him after midnight. Charles Thynne of Longleat, from his Sherborne days, came to say goodbye. Fussy Dean Tomson gave him spiritual comfort. Communion was celebrated and he ate a hearty breakfast, took tobacco and prepared for his last journey. He dressed magnificently: a satin doublet, black embroidered waistcoat, taffeta black breaches and coloured silk stockings, hat embroidered night cap and a black velvet cloak. The Old Palace Yard was crowded: amongst the onlookers, the young Johns Eliot, Hampden and Pym, watching the death of the last great Elizabethan. As future Cromwellians, it is interesting to wonder how they would have viewed this abuse of law. Tomson and two sheriffs led Sir Walter up to the scaffold. He then made his final speech and ended, "So I take my leave of you all, making my peace with God." Raleigh took off his gown and doublet and asked the headsman to show him the axe. "This is sharp medicine...that will cure all my diseases." He placed his head on the block, refused a blindfold and gave the signal to strike. The headsman delayed: "Strike man, strike!" The axe fell and fell again. Raleigh's severed head was shown to the crowd. A groan arouse with mutterings of, "We have not such another head to be cut off."

That evening, Bess took the head home in a leather bag. Later, she kept it in a cupboard to show her husband's admirers. His body was buried in St. Margaret's, Westminster, south of the altar. Dean Tomson wrote, "This was the news a week since but it is now blown over, and he is almost forgotten".


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