The Death and Burials of Sir Walter Raleigh

sir walter

Sir Walter Raleigh lived such a full and varied life that it doesn’t seem possible that it was the life of just one man. Originally getting the attention of Elizabeth I after helping to put down a rebellion in Ireland, Raleigh eventually ended up marrying one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton. When the secret of their marriage came out, they were ultimately imprisoned by the furious queen.

After Elizabeth’s death, James I, her successor, wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with Raleigh. One of his goals as monarch was to achieve peaceful relations with other countries, and someone like Raleigh was challenging that goal. Not long after James I’s ascension to the throne, he had Raleigh arrested for conspiring against the king. The sentence was death, but this was but the first of Raleigh’s scheduled executions. This one was ultimately reduced to a lifetime of imprisonment in the Tower of London.

He remained locked up there for 12 years, during which time he tutored the royal children and wrote historical works.

Eventually, in 1616, he was released from his imprisonment in the Tower and sent back out on a mission that he’d already been on, and failed at. That mission was to find the elusive city of El Dorado. Not surprisingly, Raleigh and his crew didn’t find the mythical city, but what they did find on the way home was the Spanish. Getting into a fight with Spain went directly against the king’s orders, and it was for that treasonous act that Raleigh got his second sentence of execution.

This time, he was unable to avoid it. He was executed in October 1618, suffering from a fever, malaria, and dysentery from the unsanitary conditions that prisoners were kept in before being removed from their cells for their execution. It took the executioner two blows to remove his head, and after it had been displayed to the crowd that had assembled for the event, it was placed in a red bag, covered with velvet, and presented to his wife.

Lady Raleigh, once Elizabeth Throckmorton, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, truly did love her doomed husband. She never remarried, but she did keep her husband with her until the day she died. She had his head embalmed and kept it by her side for the 29 years she outlived him. According to some stories, she kept the head in a glass case in her home, and curiosity seekers and family friends alike would travel to visit and pay their respects to the head.

Once she passed away, the head passed on to their son, Carew. He continued the tradition of keeping the embalmed head, and when he passed away, the head was buried with him in Surrey.

The rest of Raleigh’s body had been buried immediately after his execution in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster. In a private ceremony, he was laid to rest in a place of honor in spite of the accusations of treason that had led to his death sentence. For reasons that remain unclear, he was buried in an unmarked grave.


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