Sir Walter Raleigh led an adventurous life as an Elizabethan spy and explorer. You’d think he may have died after landing on an unexplored island laden with hostile natives or from being captured, speared by enemies or shot in a duel. He had his head cut off though and here I am near the Houses Of Parliament (or Palace Of Westminster) where he breathed his last breath in 1618 aged approximately 65 years old.
Walter was Queen Elizabeth's favourite courtier but shortly after her death he was accused of participating in a plot to overthrow her successor King James I. Although innocent he was found guilty of treason at a sham trial and put in the London Tower. He remained there for about thirteen years. Eventually the King pardoned him and he was released and made second expedition to locate El Dorado (a city of gold in Venezuela.) While there his men attacked a Spanish colony (a violation of the terms of his release.) This meant the Spanish ambassador demanded the death sentence be reinstated. King James had little choice but to obey and on Monday 29th October 1618 Walter was brought here to Old Palace Yard across the road from the Houses Of Parliament. Not paralysed by fear he was still able to speak and said to the axe man, "Let us dispatch!" He added, "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." He gave a long speech to the audience and was allowed to see the axe that would cut through his neck minutes later. He ran his thumb along the blade and commented, "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." After putting his head on the block he shouted "Strike, man - strike!” It took two swings of the axe.
I had a stroll around the square in the sun. Nobody knows the exact spot where the executioner's block stood. This area is called Old Palace Yard. It stretches from a restricted area (full of concrete barriers) which is now the House Of Lords car park to the where I’m stood. Guy Fawkes was also brought here to be hanged but he dived head first off the scaffold breaking his neck. I had a lot of places to visit that day and only just resisted the temptation to visit Walter who, oddly, lies about 80 feet away in St Margaret’s Church (will visit his tomb one day.) For about thirty years Sir Walter's wife kept her husband's head in a red velvet bag and after her death it was returned to his body.
He is a Sir Walter Raleigh data dump:-
1. He was born into a privileged, land-owning family in Devon and became a soldier in his teens.
2. The Queen adored him so much she knighted him in 1585 granting him land and titles. It’s thought he whipped off his cloak and laid it across a puddle for the queen to step across.
3. He married secretly to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton but without her permission. Bride and groom were thrown in the Tower of London but released after a few months.
4. He searched for the lost city of gold El Dorado in Venezuela (twice) but never found it.
6. He popularised tobacco after bringing samples of crops to show the Queen. He’s credited with bringing potatoes and tea to England?
7. He was wealthy as he had a monopoly on wine licences (granted to him) but spent money almost as quickly as it came in.
8. His cell in the Tower of London was rather comfortable and contained a wooden desk on which he hand-wrote and illustrated his two volumes of History of the World (about ancient Greece and Rome). He also had access to a full library.
9. A chaplain attending Raleigh at his execution later wrote that he was “the most fearless of death that was ever known; and the most resolute and confident, yet with reverence and conscience.”
10. His official family lineage has ran out but perhaps it still exists today as while in Ireland Walter had an illegitimate daughter with a local woman named Alice Goold (but she died in the plaque.)