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Sir Walter Raleigh: The last act


The prisoner was taken from the old Gatehouse close to Westminster Abbey at around 8.00 a.m. by an armed guard of pikemen. He was dressed in a black embroidered velvet nightgown, a hare-coloured satin doublet and a black embroidered waistcoat. He wore a ruff-band, a pair of black taffeta breaches and ash-coloured stockings. The whole ensemble combined the wearer’s taste for magnificence with a proper regard for the solemnity of the occasion.

The crowds were such that the escort had to push its way through as it made its way towards Old Palace Yard where a scaffold had been hastily erected the night before. Onlookers noted that the condemned man had a curiously jaunty air, a fact which earlier visitors to the Gatehouse prison had also observed. The Dean of Westminster, Dr Tounson, when sent to take the final confession the previous evening had found the inmate unrepentant and inclined to make light of his fate. The dean had rebuked him gently for his insouciance in the face of death, but on receiving communion the next morning the prisoner was again cheerful and said that he hoped to persuade the world that he died an innocent man, though he confessed ‘Justice had been done and by course of law he must die’. After eating a hearty breakfast and smoking his beloved pipe he had been offered a glass of sack, and on being asked how he liked it replied: ‘I will answer you as did the fellow who drank of St Giles’ bowl as he went to Tyburn: “It is a good drink, if a man might tarry by it”.’

The prisoner had asked that his execution be in public so that he might make a short address. The prosecutors had reluctantly agreed to this but because they feared his way with words and wanted to limit the crowds, they insisted that the execution take place as early as possible on the next morning after his sentencing. The appointed day also happened to coincide with the Lord Mayor’s pageant which would attract people towards the city and away from Westminster. Nevertheless, once the word was out that one of England’s most illustrious figures was to be put to death, the crowds gathered around the scaffold in Old Palace Yard to watch the grim drama that was about to unfold. Some noblemen sat on horses to get a better view while others stood at windows or on balconies overlooking the place of execution. The prisoner was accompanied onto the scaffold by the two sheriffs of London and the Dean of Westminster and after a proclamation for silence he began to speak:

‘I was yesterday taken out of my bed in a strong fit of fever, which hath much weakened me, and whose untimeliness, forbearing no occasion nor place, I likewise expect today. And I do, therefore, first desire the Almighty God to keep sickness from me, that I may have time to deliver my mind; and my next desire unto you all is that if disability in voice or dismayedness in countenance, shall appear, you will ascribe it to sickness rather than to myself.’

Then, sensing that some of the nobles standing on a balcony opposite were having difficulty hearing him, the prisoner invited them down onto the scaffold where they all shook hands. He began his speech again by thanking God:

‘that he hath brought me into the light to die before the eyes of so many honourable and worthy personages; and that he hath not suffered me to die in obscurity in the dark prison of the Tower where, for the space of fourteen years together, I have been oppressed with many miseries, and have suffered much affliction and sickness.’

The prisoner then spoke for some twenty-five minutes, rebutting in some detail several accusations made against him and professing his loyalty to his king and country. At this point the sheriff asked whether he would like to come down from the scaffold for a few moments to warm himself by the fire that had been lit for the occasion, before saying his final prayers. The response was resolute: ‘No good Mr Sheriff let us dispatch, for within this quarter of an hour mine ague will come upon me, and if I be not dead before then, mine enemies will say that I quake for fear.’ He concluded by asking all those present to join with him in prayer:

‘I now entreat that you will all join me in prayer to the great God of Heaven, whom I have grievously offended, being a man full of vanity, who has lived a sinful life in such callings as have been most inducing to it; for I have been a seafaring man, a soldier and a courtier and in the temptations of the least of these there is enough to overthrow a good mind and a good man.’

After a proclamation was made that all should leave the scaffold, the prisoner gently dismissed the assembled nobility: ‘I have a long journey to go, therefore I must take my leave of you.’

When the scaffold had been cleared the prisoner again spent some time in prayer before taking off his night gown and doublet in preparation for the final act. He asked to see the axe which was concealed under the executioner’s cloak and when, with reluctance, this was shown to him he felt the edge of it with his thumb, commenting to the sheriff, ‘This is a sharp medicine, but it is a sure cure for all diseases.’ The executioner then kneeled before the prisoner and received forgiveness in the customary manner. A blindfold was offered but refused with a mild rebuke, ‘Think you I fear the shadow of the axe, when I fear not the axe itself?’

He stretched himself across the block with some difficulty, and when his head was in place the executioner ripped his shirt and waistcoat with a knife in order to expose the neck. The prisoner signalled with his hands that he was ready but when the executioner appeared to hesitate he called out ‘What doest thou fear? Strike man, strike!’ Two blows were struck and as the head was severed the lips still moved. The executioner displayed the head on each side of the scaffold, before putting it into a red leather bag and wrapping both the bag and the body in the dead man’s velvet night-gown. The gown and its contents were carried away in a black mourning coach, drawn by two white horses. The theatrical performance now over, the crowds dispersed, leaving an empty but bloodied stage.

In the fly leaf of the dead man’s bible left at the Gatehouse they found his last written words – the final verse from a love poem he had penned many years before and to which he had added two lines:

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

So ended the life of Sir Walter Raleigh – one of the greatest figures of the Elizabethan age. He made his mark as a soldier, sailor, explorer, colonist, man of business, alchemist, poet, and historian, but above all as a courtier who had dazzled his queen and his contemporaries with his wit, his style and his flamboyance. Theatrical to the last, he had stage-managed his own death, impressing all those who witnessed it with his courage, dignity and eloquence. The battle for his reputation, however, had only just begun.

Extracted from Who Killed Sir Walter Ralegh? by Richard Dale

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