On 29th October 1618 Sir Walter Raleigh met his end on the executioner’s block, having been the favourite of one monarch but intensely disliked by her successor.
He had been a swashbuckling adventurer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, making discoveries in the Americas, founding the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen) and being a constant thorn in the side of England’s arch-rival and enemy, Spain.
When in England he had been popular not only with the Queen but also with many of the ladies of the Court, one of whom was Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. The couple married in secret, probably because she was pregnant by him, but this meant that they had acted contrary to the Queen’s wishes, as she would have had to sanction any such marriage of a close personal servant. The couple spent a short spell in the Tower of London for this misdemeanour.
However, that was not what sent Sir Walter to the block. When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by her distant cousin King James VI of Scotland, Raleigh was soon implicated (almost certainly falsely) in a plot to overthrow King James, who had him returned to the Tower, this time for a much longer period.
It was only in 1616 that Raleigh was freed, this being for the sole purpose of leading an expedition to South America in search of the fabled land of gold named El Dorado. One of the conditions of Raleigh’s release was that no Spanish possessions were to be attacked, since James was anxious to repair the damage caused to Anglo-Spanish relations during his predecessor’s reign.
However, Raleigh was taken ill during the voyage and had to send the expedition on without him. His deputy disobeyed Raleigh’s orders and sacked a Spanish-held town, and it was for this misdeed that the Spanish ambassador demanded that Raleigh be executed. King James was only too happy to oblige.
After the axe fell, Raleigh’s head was, somewhat bizarrely, placed in a red leather bag and given to his devoted wife, Lady Raleigh. Even more bizarrely, she treasured this relic of her husband for the rest of her life and proudly showed it to anyone who called at her house. Presumably the numbers who did so were not all that great!
© John Welford