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The decapitation of Sir Walter Raleigh: villain or victim?

Raleigh

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.

 

Cover image: Wikimedia Commons

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