Why Sir Walter Raleigh Was Beheaded

Why Sir Walter Raleigh Was Beheaded


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He was a celebrated soldier, a hero on land and sea. And he wrote poetry that ranks with some of the finest in early modern England. Yet at the age of 54 Sir Walter Raleigh was executed for treason. What caused the downfall of this beloved Renaissance courtier?

For a court favorite, Raleigh actually spent quite a bit of his life locked up in the Tower of London. The first time, in 1592, it was because he’d secretly married his lover, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I. Bess was already pregnant, which explained both the marriage and the secrecy. Enraged by their plotting behind her back, Elizabeth dismissed Bess and imprisoned both of them in the Tower.

Much popular history, including the film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, has tried to explain this punishment by imagining that the queen was in love with Raleigh. However, this is no evidence for this. Rather, Elizabeth’s anger was justified: for young nobles like Bess who were sent to the royal household the monarch became a kind of surrogate parent, expected to supervise their upbringing and encourage lucrative marriages with other influential nobility. For the couple to ignore the queen’s prerogative here was scandalous.

Nevertheless they were soon released and in a few short years Raleigh had regained the queen’s favor. She awarded him a royal charter to explore the ‘New World’ of the Americas and allowed him to organize the first English colonies in Virginia, named flatteringly after the Virgin Queen herself. That these colonial experiments were an unmitigated disaster, resulting in the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke, did not dissuade Raleigh and his backers from believing that fortunes lay in the Americas.

He was convinced that El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, was to be found in northern South America, and made a reconnaissance trip to Guyana in 1595. On his return he wrote a fantastical account of it as a paradise rich for the taking, where gold could be plucked easily from the ground, and where the natives were eager to be ruled over by the English. This ridiculous propaganda would tempt more than one monarch to allow Raleigh to travel there in England’s name.

While he remained in Elizabeth’s favor until her death, James VI’s of Scotland’s accession to the English throne as James I meant that Raleigh’s fortunes plummeted. This was largely because James was attempting a diplomatic rapprochement with Spain, England’s longstanding enemy, against whom Raleigh had been a formidable foe. England’s funds were depleted by their endless struggles against Spain’s richer, mightier forces, so James decided it was time to end the rivalry.

The real crisis for Raleigh came when he was falsely implicated in a plot to oust the new king. Called the Main Plot, its aim was to replace James with his cousin Lady Arabella Stuart. The allegation was that Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, was negotiating with a Dutch prince to have the Spanish give him huge sums of money to foment sedition in England. Cobham was to bring the money back via the Channel Island of Jersey, where Raleigh was governor, and together they would use it to overthrow the king.

The claims were ludicrous and based entirely on the word of Cobham, who never testified in front of Raleigh. As for Raleigh, no man in England had made a larger contribution to England’s war with Spain, so the charge that he accepted funds from the Spanish to undermine England’s crown strained credulity.

But James, in his determination to get on Spain’s good side, locked up Raleigh once again in the Tower—this time for 13 years. Although Raleigh had been given a death sentence, his time in the Tower wasn’t quite as bad as it might sound: the aristocracy were imprisoned there because its conditions were much better than in the other prisons of early modern England, where ‘gaol fever’—or typhus—ran rampant. Raleigh lived with Bess there, and she even conceived a son while they were inside.

It was likely Raleigh’s promises of gold that got him released from prison before his sentence could be carried out: in 1617 he was pardoned so that he could once again travel to Guyana in search of El Dorado. But that quest would ultimately prove fatal: during the expedition a detachment of Raleigh’s men (against his orders) attacked a Spanish outpost, an action that directly contravened the conditions of his pardon.

Upon Raleigh's return, the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar, demanded that his death sentence from 1603 be reinstated. James had little choice but to obey. On October 29, 1618, a full 15 years after he had been convicted of treason in a sham trial, the famous explorer was beheaded at Whitechapel in London.

In the end, it seems Raleigh’s reputation as Spain’s greatest foe was what undid him: the Spanish were eager to see the downfall of one who had won so many victories against them. Unlike all the legends about him— he didn’t introduce tobacco or the potato to England, nor place his cloak over a puddle for the queen—his reputation as a heroic soldier was, for once, justified.


Why Sir Walter Raleigh Was Beheaded - HISTORY

On this day in history, 1618 sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded upon the orders of James I. But why was this man, once a great favourite of Elizabeth I, given such a death and executed as a traitor? With this post, I will give a brief overview of his life up until the reign of James I and then will discuss in more detail the events that lead up to his trial and execution in 1618.

Sir Walter Raleigh was born in 1554 to Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne in Hayes, Devon. Little Walter's family had links to royalty back to the thirteenth century, and his father had previously been Lord Vice Admiral to Mary I from 1555-58. We know from Raleigh's later work that he was an incredibly intelligent man, but really very little is known about his childhood years and what sparked that brilliant mind. What we do know though is that from 1569 (from the age of 15 or so) he served as a volunteer in France during their religious wars. He returned to England in 1570. We also know that he spent some years at Oriel College in Oxford, although the exact date that he entered the college has not been recorded. He left Oxford without his degree, which at the time was not unusual and went to the Middle Temple (sort of like a law school) in the February of 1575. Whilst there he began penning poetry, the first of which was published in 1576. Raleigh was in fact related to Katherine Ashley, first gentlewoman of Elizabeth I's bedchamber, through his mother and it is possible that this link allowed him to meet other great courtiers such as Robert Dudley. In 1578, he teamed up with a man by the name of Humphrey Gilbert and set sail on an adventure to discover remote lands. He returned the following year.

In 1581, following a brief stint as a soldier in Ireland, Raleigh began to attract the attentions of Elizabeth I and spent a good few years as her favourite. That was until he earned her displeasure by entering into a liaison with one of her maids Elizabeth Throckmorton. Having gotten Elizabeth pregnant, the two married in secret. Raleigh knew how displeased the Queen would be and so made plans to set sail once more, yet when he returned from his voyage in 1592, the Queen was well aware of what had happened. She had the couple separated and both were sent to the Tower of London. It took a while for Elizabeth to even think of forgiving the couple and both were eventually released from the Tower. Their first son disappears from the record, but in 1593 Elizabeth gave birth to another little boy. However, they were both still banished from court and it took Raleigh a while to return to favour. Raleigh was not allowed back to court until 1597 and during those years of disgrace had spent a good many years on his travels searching for the fabled El Dorado and explored the areas of Guyana and Eastern Venezuela. He had managed to get his hands on a description of a City of Gold, yet despite his years of searching never found it.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Raleigh had not long been back in favour yet had spent a good few years still adventuring and also dabbling in poetry. When news broke of Elizabeth's death, he hastened to meet the new King James, yet did not exactly receive a warm welcome. Despite being present at the Queens funeral as an official attendant, following this he was rebuffed quite harshly by the new ruler - James I (also James VI of Scotland) stripped him of his monopolies as well as his captaincy of the Guard and was told that he had to leave his current place of residency, Durham Place. In July of 1603 Raleigh was also questioned on two counts of treason and placed under house arrest. Yet what were these treason's? It had come to James' ear that Raleigh had been involved in a number of plots, including planning rebellion and a Spanish invasion, as well as plotting the death of the King. It is said that he planned to place Lady Arabella Stuart in James' place as monarch.

Raleigh was taken to the Tower on 20th July 1603. There he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, and on 27th July tried to take his own life by stabbing himself in the heart with a table knife. The attempt failed, and after a while he realised that the only evidence of any substance held against him was a statement made by a man who thought Raleigh had betrayed him. It seems that the gentleman who made the accusations withdrew them almost immediately although Raleigh did not know this until he was brought to trial on 17th November. At any rate, Raleigh was found guilty - despite the fact that Cobham had withdrawn his accusations, he was still found guilty of a more sweeping treason thanks to various letters from Cobham making out that Raleigh had passed on information on the King's military endeavours and trying to get money out of others for military intelligence. Raleigh was taken back to the Tower, and there held until 1612. After his trial, he despaired of mercy from King James and wrote another letter to his wife. However in December 1503, King James agreed that Raleigh could keep his life.

During his years in the Tower, Raleigh dabbled in chemistry. There he created various medicines, but when he fell sick in 1615 it was put down to his dabbling in chemicals. Whilst locked away he also wrote his famous History of the World. There is a copy of this still on show in the Tower of London. He began the work in around 1607, and it was intended to be widely published as the first part of his history of the world. The entire work works out as around 5 volumes, and the first two volumes make up the biblical history of how the world came into being and the final three volumes deal with the histories of the Greek and Roman Empires.

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1616 and then began his final voyage. The aim of this expedition was to search once more for the fabled El Dorado. He set sail on 19th August 1617 and did not land until November. The journey had been arduous, Raleigh himself succumbing to a nasty fever. On 2nd January 1618, the party arrived at the Spanish settlement of San Thome. The group stormed the settlement, in direct violation of the original agreement. They were there to search for gold, they were there to help relations between England and Spain. They weren't there to attack a Spanish outpost and pillage. Following this, they searched further and further inland for the fabled mines but found nothing. San Thome had been burnt to the ground and on 13th February 1618 Raleigh was told that his son had been killed during the storming of the outpost. Raleigh would accept no apologies for his sons death and began planning another expedition of San Thome, saying that they had missed the mine. His men refused to follow, and in March deserted him completely. Raleigh was left with a tiny force, and returned to Plymouth utterly defeated.

when he returned to England, the Spanish ambassador had already been to King James with reports of the violence that had happened at San Thome. The ambassador demanded Raleigh's arrest and not long after he landed, he was arrested and taken to London. On 10th August 1618, Raleigh found himself back in the Tower. This time, there would be no escape for Sir Walter Raleigh.

On 22nd October, Raleigh was brought before the Privy Council. There he was accused of being ungrateful to the King who had forgiven him his previous treason's, accused of planning to start a war between England and Spain, and moreover was accused of deserting his men. On 28th October, a verdict was passed. Sir Walter Raleigh was guilty. Yet Raleigh threw himself on the Kings mercy, pleading for clemency. It didn't work, and Raleigh was sentenced to execution. He spent his last night in the Gatehouse at Westminster and on the morning of 29th October 1618 was beheaded at Westminster. His execution speech was long and he welcomed the fact that he was going to die. His final speech lasted for almost forty five minutes and in it he insisted that his expeditions had no ulterior motive, that he had never sought to plot with France and start a war between England and Spain.

Just before he knelt he spoke a few more words, admitting that he had been a man of vanity and joked with the executioner that the axe would be his "sharp medicine". And once the fatal blow was struck, his head was placed in a red bag and taken away by his wife who kept it until her own death. It is said that she liked to bring out his head when she had visitors. Once she died, his head was returned to the rest of his remains at St Margaret's Church next to Westminster Abbey.


How did Sir Walter Raleigh lose his head?

Ladies man: Sir Walter Raleigh was one of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite courtiers Credit: Alamy

29 October 1618 – Sir Walter Raleigh is beheaded

E nglish adventurer, writer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in London on this day in 1618 for allegedly conspiring against King James I.

Raleigh came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 as a successful and dashing soldier. Installed as one of her favourite courtiers, he was knighted and granted properties and influential positions. Between 1584 and 1589, when he founded a colony on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina, Raleigh called the area Virginia in honour of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

However, in 1592, Elizabeth discovered Raleigh had secretly married one of her maids of honour, and in a jealous rage, she imprisoned both Raleigh and his wife in the Tower of London. After his release, Raleigh tried to earn back the Queen’s favour by setting off on an unsuccessful mission to find the fabled gold-filled land of El Dorado, mythically situated in present-day Venezuela.

As well as being a dashing ladies’ man, Raleigh was also one of Elizabethan England’s most famous “sea dogs” – basically, a “legal pirate” who only attacked the ships of England's enemies. Raleigh also reputedly introduced both the potato and tobacco to England, though in reality both were probably known already. He did, however, popularise smoking at court.

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Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded today in 1618

On this day October 29, 1618 Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded at the Palace of Westminster.

Born in Hayes Barton, near Budleigh Salterton, Devon in 1554, little is known of Raleigh's early life.

However, in 1569 he is known to have fought on the Huguenot side in the Wars of Religion in France.

By 1572 he is at Oriel College, Oxford, and at the Middle Temple law college in 1575, graduating from neither.

Fighting rebels in Munster between 1579 and 1583 led to him becoming a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and an Irish land owner this, notwithstanding Captain Raleigh's role in the execution of some 600 souls who had surrendered following the siege of Smerwick.

Knighted in 1585, and granted a royal patent to explore Virginia in the New World, with promises of unrivalled wealth from a "City of Gold" in South America, Raleigh's relations with the Queen was to be shattered when he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting.

Sir Walter and Lady Raleigh were sent to the Tower of London by the Queen following the purchase of their release they retired to their country seat in Sherborne, Dorset.

Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of James I, Raleigh's influence at court was further diminished.

In 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh and others were accused of plotting to overthrow King James. Sentenced to death, Raleigh was reprieved and confined to the Tower of London.

He remained a prisoner in the Tower until 1616.

Pardoned by the King, Raleigh was allowed to sail to South America in search of the City of Gold, El Dorado.

However, against his orders, members of his expedition attacked a Spanish outpost on the Orinoco River, thereby violating the peace treaty with Spain.

King James invoked the suspended sentence of 1603, and Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618.

On viewing the axe that would sever his head, Raleigh remarked: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries."


Sir Walter Raleigh

On this day in history, 1618 sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded upon the orders of James I. But why was this man, once a great favourite of Elizabeth I, given such a death and executed as a traitor? With this post, I will give a brief overview of his life up until the reign of James I and then will discuss in more detail the events that lead up to his trial and execution in 1618.

Sir Walter Raleigh was born in 1554 to Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne in Hayes, Devon. Little Walter’s family had links to royalty back to the thirteenth century, and his father had previously been Lord Vice Admiral to Mary I from 1555-58. We know from Raleigh’s later work that he was an incredibly intelligent man, but really very little is known about his childhood years and what sparked that brilliant mind. What we do know though is that from 1569 (from the age of 15 or so) he served as a volunteer in France during their religious wars. He returned to England in 1570. We also know that he spent some years at Oriel College in Oxford, although the exact date that he entered the college has not been recorded. He left Oxford without his degree, which at the time was not unusual and went to the Middle Temple (sort of like a law school) in the February of 1575. Whilst there he began penning poetry, the first of which was published in 1576. Raleigh was in fact related to Katherine Ashley, first gentlewoman of Elizabeth I’s bedchamber, through his mother and it is possible that this link allowed him to meet other great courtiers such as Robert Dudley. In 1578, he teamed up with a man by the name of Humphrey Gilbert and set sail on an adventure to discover remote lands. He returned the following year.

In 1581, following a brief stint as a soldier in Ireland, Raleigh began to attract the attentions of Elizabeth I and spent a good few years as her favourite. That was until he earned her displeasure by entering into a liaison with one of her maids Elizabeth Throckmorton. Having gotten Elizabeth pregnant, the two married in secret. Raleigh knew how displeased the Queen would be and so made plans to set sail once more, yet when he returned from his voyage in 1592, the Queen was well aware of what had happened. She had the couple separated and both were sent to the Tower of London. It took a while for Elizabeth to even think of forgiving the couple and both were eventually released from the Tower. Their first son disappears from the record, but in 1593 Elizabeth gave birth to another little boy. However, they were both still banished from court and it took Raleigh a while to return to favour. Raleigh was not allowed back to court until 1597 and during those years of disgrace had spent a good many years on his travels searching for the fabled El Dorado and explored the areas of Guyana and Eastern Venezuela. He had managed to get his hands on a description of a City of Gold, yet despite his years of searching never found it.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Raleigh had not long been back in favour yet had spent a good few years still adventuring and also dabbling in poetry. When news broke of Elizabeth’s death, he hastened to meet the new King James, yet did not exactly receive a warm welcome. Despite being present at the Queens funeral as an official attendant, following this he was rebuffed quite harshly by the new ruler – James I (also James VI of Scotland) stripped him of his monopolies as well as his captaincy of the Guard and was told that he had to leave his current place of residency, Durham Place. In July of 1603 Raleigh was also questioned on two counts of treason and placed under house arrest. Yet what were these treason’s? It had come to James’ ear that Raleigh had been involved in a number of plots, including planning rebellion and a Spanish invasion, as well as plotting the death of the King. It is said that he planned to place Lady Arabella Stuart in James’ place as monarch.

Raleigh was taken to the Tower on 20th July 1603. There he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, and on 27th July tried to take his own life by stabbing himself in the heart with a table knife. The attempt failed, and after a while he realised that the only evidence of any substance held against him was a statement made by a man who thought Raleigh had betrayed him. It seems that the gentleman who made the accusations withdrew them almost immediately although Raleigh did not know this until he was brought to trial on 17th November. At any rate, Raleigh was found guilty – despite the fact that Cobham had withdrawn his accusations, he was still found guilty of a more sweeping treason thanks to various letters from Cobham making out that Raleigh had passed on information on the King’s military endeavours and trying to get money out of others for military intelligence. Raleigh was taken back to the Tower, and there held until 1612. After his trial, he despaired of mercy from King James and wrote another letter to his wife. However in December 1503, King James agreed that Raleigh could keep his life.

During his years in the Tower, Raleigh dabbled in chemistry. There he created various medicines, but when he fell sick in 1615 it was put down to his dabbling in chemicals. Whilst locked away he also wrote his famous History of the World. There is a copy of this still on show in the Tower of London. He began the work in around 1607, and it was intended to be widely published as the first part of his history of the world. The entire work works out as around 5 volumes, and the first two volumes make up the biblical history of how the world came into being and the final three volumes deal with the histories of the Greek and Roman Empires.

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1616 and then began his final voyage. The aim of this expedition was to search once more for the fabled El Dorado. He set sail on 19th August 1617 and did not land until November. The journey had been arduous, Raleigh himself succumbing to a nasty fever. On 2nd January 1618, the party arrived at the Spanish settlement of San Thome. The group stormed the settlement, in direct violation of the original agreement. They were there to search for gold, they were there to help relations between England and Spain. They weren’t there to attack a Spanish outpost and pillage. Following this, they searched further and further inland for the fabled mines but found nothing. San Thome had been burnt to the ground and on 13th February 1618 Raleigh was told that his son had been killed during the storming of the outpost. Raleigh would accept no apologies for his sons death and began planning another expedition of San Thome, saying that they had missed the mine. His men refused to follow, and in March deserted him completely. Raleigh was left with a tiny force, and returned to Plymouth utterly defeated.

when he returned to England, the Spanish ambassador had already been to King James with reports of the violence that had happened at San Thome. The ambassador demanded Raleigh’s arrest and not long after he landed, he was arrested and taken to London. On 10th August 1618, Raleigh found himself back in the Tower. This time, there would be no escape for Sir Walter Raleigh.

On 22nd October, Raleigh was brought before the Privy Council. There he was accused of being ungrateful to the King who had forgiven him his previous treason’s, accused of planning to start a war between England and Spain, and moreover was accused of deserting his men. On 28th October, a verdict was passed. Sir Walter Raleigh was guilty. Yet Raleigh threw himself on the Kings mercy, pleading for clemency. It didn’t work, and Raleigh was sentenced to execution. He spent his last night in the Gatehouse at Westminster and on the morning of 29th October 1618 was beheaded at Westminster. His execution speech was long and he welcomed the fact that he was going to die. His final speech lasted for almost forty five minutes and in it he insisted that his expeditions had no ulterior motive, that he had never sought to plot with France and start a war between England and Spain.

Just before he knelt he spoke a few more words, admitting that he had been a man of vanity and joked with the executioner that the axe would be his “sharp medicine”. And once the fatal blow was struck, his head was placed in a red bag and taken away by his wife who kept it until her own death. It is said that she liked to bring out his head when she had visitors. Once she died, his head was returned to the rest of his remains at St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey.


Why would Sir Walter Raleigh’s head end up in a bag?

While Raleigh was at one time a favorite confidante and advisor of Elizabeth, he failed to impress the next in line, James, who ruled Scotland as James VI before his mother died. When James became king he immediately stripped Raleigh of his royal privileges and evicted him. Before the eviction James accused Raleigh and others of having conspired with Spain to do away with James and installed his cousin Arabella on the throne in a scheme called the ‘Main Plot.’ For this Raleigh was beheaded. West Horsley Place told The Guardian that “evidence suggests Bess, Raleigh’s wife, kept her husband’s dismembered head with her, just as the legends say.”

Sir Walter Raleigh’s execution via decapitation of his head. ( Public Domain )

Historically verified accounts of Raleigh’s execution day detail that his head was displayed to the crowd before being presented to his wife Bess “in a red leather bag.” The story goes on to say that the widow embalmed her husband’s head and subsequently brought it with her when she and her family moved to West Horsley. An article about the discovery in Smithsonian says, “After Bess’ death in 1647, family lore alleges the head was placed in a cupboard under the stairs.” Then in 1660, when Raleigh’s third son and Carew's three children had all died the head was “buried alongside them at the nearby St. Mary’s Church.”


The decapitation of Sir Walter Raleigh: villain or victim?

On 29 October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, courtier, soldier, explorer, poet, historian, was beheaded. Four hundred years later to the month Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, looks at the official contemporary justification for the execution.

As Queen Elizabeth’s one-time favourite who on one occasion allegedly threw his cloak before her as a mat, and who definitely incurred her displeasure through his secret marriage, Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) is a colourful and romantic Elizabethan figure. His practical influence remains today insofar as he popularised tobacco in England his life, amply documented, renders him a pioneer of empire and representative of Elizabethan greatness.

From the outset of the reign of James I, Raleigh suffered from James’s ire, worsened by his traducement to the king by Lord Cecil and by Henry Howard. Implication in a plot to overthrow the king led to Raleigh being sentenced to death for treason in 1603. He was suffered to live with his family in the Tower of London until 1617, when he was released to undertake an expedition to South America in search of gold.

The expedition failed. Against assurances to the contrary, some of Raleigh’s men attacked a Spanish outpost and Raleigh returned to England to be imprisoned, condemned to death under the ruling of 1603, and beheaded. He died, wrote the parliamentarian John Pym in 1618, ‘most constantly, most Christianly, most religiously’ ‘most courageously’ would have been an apt addition to the list.

Sir Walter Ralegh : a biography / William Stebbing
Stebbing, W. (William), 1832-1926.
RARE BOOK | Clarendon Press | 1891.

Thoroughly unpopular with many during his lifetime, Raleigh became a popular hero after his death. The Declaration, a quarto pamphlet of 72 pages, is James’s attempt to justify his behaviour in reaction to the strong public feeling against it and against him as a perceived Spanish puppet. This copy is from the library of the Baconian Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, where it rubs shoulders with two hefty biographies of Raleigh, William Stebbings’s of 1891 (still considered the best) and Hugh de Sélincourt’s of 1908.

Its presence in a library centred around Sir Francis Bacon is hardly surprising. Together with Bacon, Raleigh was, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘the Renaissance man par excellence’. Raleigh and Bacon knew and admired each other, praising each other’s work. Laudatory reference to Bacon in Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) sufficed to ensure Raleigh’s book a place in Durning-Lawrence’s collection. Moreover, Bacon, who as Lord Chancellor of England was obliged to represent authority, is listed as one of six authors of the infamous Declaration (a seventh author was the king himself).

The text was printed by the King’s printers. It dwells heavily on the message of justice for treason, from the descriptive title ending: ‘… and of the true motives and inducements which occasioned His Majestie to proceed in doing justice upon him, as hath bene done’, onwards:

for that which concerneth Sir Walter Raleigh [sic] late executed for treason … his Majestie hath thought fit to manifest unto the world … upon what proofes and evident matter … his Majesties proceeding have bin grounded, wherby [sic] it wil evidently appeare how agreeable the have beene, in all points to Honour and Justice (p. 2)

‘For these his [ie Raleigh’s] great and hainous offences [listed] … his Maistie was inforced .. to resolve to have him executed …’ (pp65–6).

Within the conclusion, the adjective ‘honourable’ is applied to James four times in 27 short lines. The text reminds the reader of Raleigh’s previous condemnation for treason, explains the terms under which Raleigh was permitted to go to South America, including non-aggression against the Spaniards, Raleigh’s alleged duplicity on the voyage, pretence of illness on his return (presented as cowardice) to forestall judgement, and his plan to escape. Facts were culled, incompatible evidence omitted (strikingly, there is no reference to the execution scene), and evidence is largely hearsay, in an effort, in Stebbing’s words, ‘to depict Ralegh as a man whom nobody need regret to sneer away his lustre and dignity’.

The booklet failed in its aim, with Raleigh’s reputation as a protestant and as a national hero growing in his generation and the next. The Victorians liked him. In another text in Durning-Lawrence’s library, Charles Dickens describes James as ‘his Sowship’ and Raleigh’s trial as unfair, held with ‘as many lies and evasions as the judges and law officers and every other authority in Church and State habitually practised under such a King’ (A Child’s History of England).

A heading in Sélincourt’s biography of Raleigh is ‘the king’s treachery’, and James’s mind is termed ‘base fabric’. According to Stebbing, James ‘butchered’ Raleigh, through his ‘private aversion for one of the three greatest Englishmen of his reign’.

The work was rushed out after the execution. James himself suggested its scope, in a letter dated 18 October 1618, and the manuscript was delivered to the printers before 22 November 1618. They brought the booklet out in under a week, with Sir Robert Naunton writing to the Marquis of Buckingham on the morning of 27 November 1618: ‘Sir Lewis Stukeleyes peticion was published yesterday. The declaration is this day … to follow after. The printer hath sent me 2 copies of each for his Majestie and the Prince, and prayes pardon for some escapes committed in theyr haste, which was such as they were faine to watch 2 nights and sett 20 presses aworke at once.’

The Senate House Library copy represents the second of two issues: the text is the same in both, but the type is more cramped in the first, making it appear shorter. A work of its time, the pamphlet was never printed again.

A declaration of the demeanor and cariage of Sir Walter Raleigh, Knight, as well in his voyage, as in, and sithence his returne …
London: B. Norton and J. Bill, 1618
[D.-L.L.] (VI) Cc [Raleigh]

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.


Supremacy and Survival: The English Reformation

The History website tells us why Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618:

He was a celebrated soldier, a hero on land and sea. He was responsible for the first ever English colonies in the New World. And he wrote poetry that ranks with some of the finest in early modern England. Yet at the age of 54 Sir Walter Raleigh was executed for treason. What caused the downfall of this beloved Renaissance courtier?

For a court favorite, Raleigh actually spent quite a bit of his life locked up in the Tower of London. The first time, in 1592, it was because he’d secretly married his lover, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throckmorton, a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I. Bess was already pregnant, which explained both the marriage and the secrecy. Enraged by their plotting behind her back, Elizabeth dismissed Bess and imprisoned both of them in the Tower.

While he remained in Elizabeth’s favor until her death, James VI’s of Scotland’s accession to the English throne as James I meant that Raleigh’s fortunes plummeted. This was largely because James was attempting a diplomatic rapprochement with Spain, England’s longstanding enemy, against whom Raleigh had been a formidable foe. England’s funds were depleted by their endless struggles against Spain’s richer, mightier forces, so James decided it was time to end the rivalry. . . .

So Raleigh was tried in a sham trial--never allowed to face his accuser and question him--and imprisoned again:

But James, in his determination to get on Spain’s good side, locked up Raleigh once again in the Tower—this time for 13 years. . . .

It was likely Raleigh’s promises of gold that got him released from prison before his sentence could be carried out: in 1617 he was pardoned so that he could once again travel to Guyana in search of El Dorado. But that quest would ultimately prove fatal: during the expedition a detachment of Raleigh’s men (against his orders) attacked a Spanish outpost, an action that directly contravened the conditions of his pardon.

Because Raleigh's men, led by Lawrence Keymis, had violated the 1604 Treaty of London, the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count of Gondomar, demanded Raleigh's execution (Keymis having committed suicide--Raleigh's namesake eldest son had died in the attack) and James I complied. Raleigh was executed at Whitechapel in London.


Why Did Walter Raleigh Fall From Grace? – Anna Beer Explains

We speak to Anna Beer ahead of her Oxford Literary Festival talk, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh. Want to attend, see details below as well as exclusive All About History discount ticket offer.

What drew you to Sir Walter Raleigh in the first place?
Coincidentally, it was his account of his first journey in search of the gold of El Dorado. I was studying English Literature at University, getting a bit bogged down with everything, when suddenly I read this account written 400 years earlier of this incredible expedition and it just felt so real and so exciting and I was hooked – what made it even more interesting was the fact that they didn’t find any gold!

I loved the writing and I realised that I was not just reading about a journey or an expedition, I was reading the work of somebody who was incredible with words. I mean, he makes a completely failed expedition sound fantastic – I think they were only in their canoes up the Orinoco [River] for about eight or nine days and yet you feel like it is a huge undertaking, magnificent and glorious. He just had a way of bringing it all to life.

I then discovered his poetry and his political prose. Raleigh was imprisoned twice, the second time for 13 years. It is not to everybody’s taste to read hundreds and hundreds of pages of history and political analysis but it told me something about the man, that he was imprisoned for so long in a small space and can’t get out, apart from on occasion when he was allowed to walk on the battlements of the Tower of London, and so he travelled in time in his mind to the past, to the Roman and Greek eras, and travelled in space by drawing maps of the places in the historical stories he is writing about.

These incredible notebooks survive and I think that was the point at which I realised that I was going to devote my entire life to this man – for all his faults! He was a very flawed man, the highs were high but the lows were lower, he was a liar and many other things beside, but that vision and that courage to travel across the Atlantic Ocean – I would have been terrified.

Why was Raleigh so keen to go against the Spaniards?
The simple answer is that Spain was the most powerful country in Europe at the time and their power and ambition to invade England – which they repeatedly tried to do – could be paid for by the gold from South America. Raleigh saw that gold corrupting everything in the European political balance, as it gave Spain a hugely unfair advantage over all the other countries.

Spain wanted to invade England and remove Elizabeth I who was a Protestant queen and once she was excommunicated by the Pope in the 1570s, it basically gave permission to any Catholic leader of another country to say you know, she needs to be removed, we need to put our own person in. So that was Spain’s justification which brings me on to the religious side of things – for many of Raleigh’s contemporaries, the war against Spain was an ideological, religious war, Protestant England against Catholic Spain.

However, one of the interesting things about Raleigh is that he is just not interested in that. He was interested in the economic politics of it, he wanted to stop the flow of money, of gold, coming into Spain, and that is why he looked to establish an English settlement, an English colony, an English harbour and port in the area that we know today as Venezuela and Trinidad. This is not just because he wants to settle there but because it is going to interrupt the supply of gold and the riches of South America, which is why he is also leading expeditions against the Spanish in the mid-Atlantic and actually attacking Spain in its own backyard in Cadiz.

England is not a big player at this time, they are small, they are poor, they are isolated in the sense that they are one of the few Protestant monarchies in Europe and the threats were all around. Raleigh tried to get raids done on ports in Brittany in Northern France, from which the Spanish were attacking the South West of England, as well as in Ireland, which is another launching pad from which the Spanish could invade England.

Raleigh fears Spain for all those reasons but he also secretly admires the Spanish. He complains to both Queen Elizabeth and King James that Spain have got it right, they are ruthless, they are single-minded, they know what they are doing and they are winning and so there is a lot of admiration there, but he is determined to fight with the weapons that England have got, which is naval power and ingenuity, to try disrupt at least Spain’s flow of money.

Raleigh was a trusted favourite under Elizabeth I and she depended on him and his ability to spout propaganda, so where did it go wrong under her successor, James I?
That’s a really good question. Raleigh got into big trouble with Elizabeth as well, due to the sexual politics of the Elizabethan court, so he wasn’t indispensable. Throughout his career, it’s tough for him: he doesn’t come from a great family, so it is easier to get rid of him. I’ve tried to explore this in my book but when it comes to James, while as an historian you don’t really want to go down to an argument that James just didn’t like Raleigh, I think there really was an element of that.

The sensible answer is that on both sides there was a lot of distrust and when James was in Scotland, he was being groomed to be king of England by certain people in England, like Robert Cecil. They started this secret correspondence with James and they are just feeding him vitriol about Raleigh, saying that he cannot be trusted, that he is ruthlessly ambitious and he will destroy you. So, it is hardly a surprise that when James comes down to England and everyone is rushing up to be his new best friend that Raleigh tries to make a connection and is completely sidelined – there has got to be a sense that, considering they hadn’t met yet, that James’s mind was poisoned against Raleigh by the people who are going to be powerful under him.

At the same time, Raleigh does himself no favours and believes that as the underdog, attack is the best form of defence and that England needs to be much more offensive against Spain. That was a message that sometimes Elizabeth I listened to but most of the time she didn’t. James was never going to listen because he wanted peace with Spain and so politically and militarily he disagreed with Raleigh.

There is also the issue of sexual politics because James, as everyone around him knew, had a preference for male lovers even though he had a wife and children. Raleigh was too old for him and far too straight and although he could have been really clever and found a beautiful young man, as his rivals did, and place them in the path of James, he didn’t do that. Raleigh would have been far more comfortable with James’s cousin, Arabella Stuart, on the throne, a woman on the throne. Above all, though, he said some very stupid things. Whether he actually plotted to overthrow James is another question – every reader will need to decide what they think having read my book!

Doesn’t Raleigh’s trial and imprisonment seem suspect?
Yes it was and the trial, as I see it, was a show trial. A new regime was coming in, James was coming in, and Raleigh sort of gives himself up on a plate as the scapegoat. There is a really cynical argument that it was engineered so that the new king could have this dramatic trial, remove his enemies and consolidate his power. The problem for James was that at his trial, Raleigh was not going to go quietly, he just defended himself brilliantly and turned himself overnight from the best-hated man in England to a hero.

That really sums it up, best-hated man, and I believe that. In my book I keep saying it because people did not like him, he had risen far too high, he was arrogant, you couldn’t trust him, and if he had just gone quietly in that trial then we would never know about him. It was that trial in Winchester, 1603, that turned things around and gave James more of a problem than any loose talk about overthrowing the monarchy gave – Raleigh, as a prisoner, was more dangerous to James than he was as a free man.

Do you believe that Raleigh’s execution was unjustified and does that make him a sympathetic figure?
That is the million-dollar question. Like I said, I think the trial at Winchester was a show trial and it should have unravelled, because Raleigh showed in his defence that the verdict against him was legally unsound. Then you have got 15 years in which he is a condemned man, he is legally dead and at any point James can pull the trigger and say that, according to the verdict in 1603, Raleigh was a traitor and that he deserves to die.

So, in a sense, his eventual execution at the end of October in 1618 was justified because he had been condemned as a traitor in 1603 but I think that original verdict is flawed. I think Raleigh knew it and therefore that makes the execution unjust as it were, if not directly illegal.

Less abstractly, one of the powerful things about the day of Raleigh’s execution is that he never admits to his crimes and in fact, he says that the only person who is going to judge him is God, which is an inflammatory thing to say. He is not doing the conventional scaffold speech of the condemned man admitting his guilt, God save the king and that he deserves to die, but he claims he is innocent right up to the end.

Unjust or just, legal or illegal, is difficult to say but certainly the sympathy he gained through his behaviour in the last hour of his life meant that people would re-examine the legal charge against him. Raleigh’s incredible speech brought this huge wave of sympathy towards him, so in a weird way he is getting rid of the question of whether it was legal or unjust, he is just saying that he is a good man who doesn’t deserve to die.

Why does Raleigh’s legacy remain highly controversial?
His colonial and imperial legacy is probably the most problematic. This is a man who became a kind of poster boy for 19th century and particularly early 20th century imperialist and colonialist apologists for British imperialism. He was seen as the conceptual founder of the British Empire, the visionary mind behind it. The facts are that Raleigh was active in Ireland (for example with the massacre at Smerwick) and early attempts to colonise both North and South America. One man’s ideas or actions don’t make an empire, so whilst it is absurd to celebrate him as the ‘founder’, it’s equally reductive to blame one individual for Britain’s colonial actions – he was just one man among many scrambling for a foothold in the Americas.

But it is a problematic legacy and ironically Raleigh is most problematic when he is being convincing. He will write about exploration and how much he admires the indigenous peoples and it is a very persuasive view of a benign exchange but it is a big lie, as we now know, in that these people’s lives and lands were going to be destroyed forever. In North Carolina, where the Roanoke colony was attempted, and beyond there is still very deep anger amongst the indigenous peoples – and quite rightly too – that we have this heroic narrative.

His legacy is also controversial in a completely different way in that after his death, political thinkers and activists, particularly Parliamentarians and Republicans, took Raleigh’s ideas and ran with them. They made him far more politically feisty than he actually was, or at least more politically coherent than he actually was, so that is another legacy. Oliver Cromwell admired Raleigh’s work, John Milton did, a lot of the big thinkers of the late 19th century with the Whig movement admired him because they thought he was almost a Parliamentarian, certainly not a democrat, but a man who supported Parliament against the absolute power of the king. That is controversial, simply because they took elements of his thinking and writing and turned him into this champion of opposition to the crown.


Sir Walter Raleigh was an English explorer, soldier and writer. At age 17, he fought with the French Huguenots and later studied at Oxford. He became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth after serving in her army in Ireland. He was knighted in 1585, and within two years became Captain of the Queen&rsquos Guard.

Walsingham asks Reston why the gun was not loaded but receives no answer. After her execution, Walsingham reveals to his horror that he has been duped by Spain the plot was never meant to kill Elizabeth and simply ensured the Queen would act against Mary giving Spain a pretext to invade England.


Watch the video: The DOWNFALL And Execution Of Sir Walter Raleigh