The Headless Sir Walter Raleigh

You never know what is in a lady’s purse or hidden in the cupboard!  At least that is the case with Elizabeth Throckmortin Raleigh.

Elizabeth steps onto the pages of history as a lady-in-waiting in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.  While at court, she met and became romantically involved with a man twenty years her senior, Sir Walter Raleigh.  The relationship was a dangerous one as Raleigh was highly favored by the queen.

Raleigh was born in Devon.  His parents, Walter and Catherine Champernowne Raleigh were Protestants.  After spending time in Ireland suppressing rebellions, he rose to the status of landlord, of properties confiscated from the Irish of course.

In 1585, he was knighted by the queen and armed with a royal patent became involved in the colonization of Virginia.

The love trust between Elizabeth Throckmorton (Bess) and Raleigh was kept a secret from the queen.  In 1591, the couple secretly wed after she revealed to Raleigh that she was carrying his child.  Upon learning of the couple’s betrayal, the queen sent both of them to the Tower of London.  Upon their release, they retired to Raleigh’s estate at Sherborne, Dorset.

Raleigh’s spirit of adventure stirred wildly in his heart and he set out for South American in search of a “City of Gold.”  It was from his exaggerated account of his journey that the legend of “El Dorado” sprang.  Raleigh did not find El Dorado and soon after his return, his Queen with whom he had regained favor, died in 1603.  Raleigh once again found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London after he was accused of being involved in what became known as the “Main Plot”,  a conspiracy to remove King James I from the throne to which he ascended after the death of Queen Elizabeth.  It was in the Tower that he stayed awaiting his trial and after a guilty verdict, where he stayed awaiting his sentence of execution to be carried out.

Though Raleigh was not looked upon favorably by the king, the desire for a share in American gold caused the king to release Raleigh to make a second expedition in search of El Dorado.  However, the expensive journey did not lead to a city of gold and actions taken by the men under Raleigh’s command further stressed the relationship between the Spanish and England.  A division of Raleigh’s men who were under the command of Lawrence Keymis attacked a Spanish outpost, San Tome’.  This attack cost Raleigh more than political troubles at home.  His eldest son, Walter was struck by a bullet and died. Count Gondomar, the Spanish Ambassador to England was outraged by the attack on San Tome’ .  He demanded that the death sentence earlier handed down to Raleigh be reinstated.

On October 29, 1618, in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster, Raleigh faced his pending death with an uncanny air of bravery.  He spoke to the executioner and was reported to have said, “Let us dispatch at this hour my ague comes upon me.  I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear.”  It is said that he asked to see the axe that would sever his neck.  After looking at it, legend has it that he added, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.”  Some say his final words were, “Strike, man, strike!”

When his effects were gathered from his cell in the Tower of London, a small box used for holding tobacco was discovered.  The lid of the box was inscribed with a Latin inscription, “Comes emus fit ill miserrimo temp (It was my companion at that most miserable time.).  This reminds the world of the role Raleigh played in the spread of the use of tobacco from Virginia to Europe.

After his execution,  Raleigh’s body was buried in St. Margaret’s at Westminster, but his head was not laid to rest.  His head, however, was delivered to his wife.  Bess had his head embalmed and kept it by her side in a red leather bag.  Other accounts say that on occasion, she displayed it in a cupboard for visitors to see.  For twenty-nine years, Elizabeth kept her beloved Walter’s head.  From this point the story becomes less certain.  Some say that at her death it was buried in the tomb with Raleigh, though most agree with a different story.  Most accounts say that at Bess’s death, the head was handed down to their son Carew who took care of it until his death in 1666 when Carew and Raleigh’s head was buried in his father’s grave.  Then in 1680, Carew’s body was exhumed and reburied in West Horsley, Surrey.  It is said that the head of Raleigh was buried with Carew.

This chapter in history opens a lot of questions and raises even more eyebrows.  But, you just never know what’s in a woman’s purse or hidden in the cupboard.

Photo 1:  Fossil HD October 17, 2011

Photo 2: Sir Walter Raleigh’s Execution

Photo 3: Sir Walter Raleigh’s Wife Elizabeth(Bess) Throckmorton

Photo 4: The tower cell of Sir Walter Raleigh(Photo by Kjetil Bjørnsrud)

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