Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in 1618. His widow had an extraordinary way of grieving for her loss.
The demise of Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), explorer, poet, and much else besides, was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I but was loathed by her successor, King James I, who came to the throne in 1603. Raleigh, who was the governor of Jersey at the time of James’s accession, was soon implicated in a plot against James, the charge being that he had handled a large sum of money raised by the plotters.
Whatever the right and wrongs of the case, the accusation was enough to send Raleigh to the Tower of London. He was sentenced to death, on highly dubious evidence and after a poorly conducted trial, but James commuted the sentence, preferring to let Raleigh rot in jail instead, which he did for the next thirteen years.
In 1616 Raleigh was released from the Tower and sent on a mission to find the fabled city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” which was supposed to exist in the forests of South America. Raleigh had searched for it during a much earlier expedition, not surprisingly without success given its non-existence. James, however, was a greedy man who was not prepared to overlook an opportunity to seize a vast amount of treasure, but he also knew that sending Raleigh was his best hope of success.
Raleigh was no longer a swashbuckling youth but an old man (for those times) in his sixties. He no doubt relished the prospect of freedom from the Tower, but did not much care for the idea of hacking his way through a tropical jungle on a wild-goose chase. He therefore stopped off on the island of Trinidad and sent his men on ahead, including his son Wat. They were under strict orders not to do anything to annoy the Spanish.
However, the orders were not obeyed and, in an attack on the fort of San Thome, Wat was killed.
The expedition then returned to London, not only without any gold but with the Spanish ambassador being extremely annoyed and demanding that Raleigh be punished.
King James did not take much persuading to re-instate Raleigh’s original death sentence, by beheading, which was duly carried out on 29th October 1618.
Bess Raleigh’s red velvet bag
As was customary with beheadings at this time, Raleigh’s body was buried but his head was embalmed and presented to his wife, Bess. This might sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it did not seem to displease her. At least she had something of her husband to remember him by.
Bess found a red velvet bag, popped Sir Walter’s head in it, and carried it with her wherever she went. When people came to visit she would get the head out of the bag to show her visitors. She did this for the next thirty years or so, until her own death in 1647.
When her surviving son acquired the head he also kept it, and it was not buried until his own death in 1668, half a century after it last been attached to the rest of Sir Walter.
We English are renowned for being eccentric in our habits, but sometimes we go just a little bit too far.
© John Welford