October 29, 2007

October 29 | Sir Walter Raleigh

1552 - October 29, 1618: Age 66

Walter Raleigh was the consummate Elizabethan English gentleman: poet, courtier, explorer, romantic. He was a favourite of Elizabeth I until he risked it all by secretly marrying one of her ladies in waiting, a move he knew would infuriate the Queen. It did, and they had to live away from court for many years. He did return to favour briefly near the end of the Queen's life, but she died in 1603.

Elizabeth died without a direct heir. Her cousin, James VI of Scotland, took power as James I of England, and James I didn't find Raleigh charming at all. Moreover, English Catholics were forever plotting to overthrow the Protestant government, and Raleigh was implicated in one of their plots (although he was very likely innocent). He was arrested tried and, despite the skill of his defence (which he conducted himself), was found guilty. His life, however, was spared indefinitely by the King. Now legally dead, from 1604 on Raleigh lived in the Tower of London, quite literally at the King's pleasure. Being noble, his cell was quite a bit nicer than most people's homes of that day, and his wife and friends visited him freely. His youngest son was conceived there in 1604.

In 1616 he was released in order to lead an expedition to Venezuela in search of gold. He did not succeed in finding any in the conventional fashion and, desperate for booty of some sort, his men sacked a Spanish outpost. The Spanish ambassador furiously demanded that his death sentence be reinstated and politics at the time dictated that James I grant that request.

Raleigh was beheaded on October 29, 1618. He suffered from malaria, and was worried that the daily period of fever and trembling brought about by the disease be mistaken for cowardice. "Let us dispatch," he asked his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." He felt the edge of the axe, commenting, "This is what will cure all sorrows." When the executioner hesitated before striking, he urged him on: "What dost thou fear? Strike, man, strike!"

His embalmed head was given to his widow, who kept it in a velvet bag until she died 29 years later.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

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