Sir Walter Raleigh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer.
Later he became a landlord of property confiscated from the native Irish.
He rose rapidly in the favour of Queen Elizabeth I and was knighted in 1585.
In 1591, he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, without the Queen’s permission.
In 1594, Sir Walter Raleigh heard of a “City of Gold” in South America and sailed to find it, publishing an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of “El Dorado”.
After Queen Elizabeth died March 24, 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested at Exeter Inn, Ashburton, Devon on July 19, 1603 for being involved in the Main Plot against King James I, who was not favourably disposed toward him.
He was sent to the Tower of London and was tried in the converted Great Hall of Winchester Castle for treason on November 17, 1603.
Sir Raleigh conducted his own defence.
The chief evidence against Sir Raleigh was the signed and sworn confession of his friend Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham.
Sir Raleigh frequently requested that Cobham be called in to testify so that he might recant, “[Let] my accuser come face to face, and be deposed. Were the case but for a small copyhold, you would have witnesses or good proof to lead the jury to a verdict; and I am here for my life!” Raleigh essentially was objecting that the evidence against him was “hearsay”; but the tribunal refused to allow Cobham to testify and be cross examined.
He was found guilty and imprisoned in the Tower of London with King James sparing his life.
His son, Carew, was conceived and born in 1604 while Sir Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower.
Also while in the Tower, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote many treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World (published in 1628) about the ancient history of Greece and Rome.
Then after 13 years of imprisonment, Sir Walter Raleigh was released on March 20, 1616.
Upon his release he was asked to lead a second expedition to Venezuela in search of El Dorado.
During this expedition, Sir Raleigh’s men, under the command of Lawrence Keymis, attacked the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana (San Tomé) on the Orinoco River.
In the initial attack on the settlement, Sir Raleigh’s son, Walter, was fatally shot.
On Raleigh’s return to England, an outraged Count Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, successfully demanded that King James reinstate Sir Raleigh’s death sentence.
Sir Raleigh was brought to London from Plymouth, by Sir Lewis Stukeley, and passed up numerous opportunities to make an effective escape.
He was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on October 29, 1618. “Let us dispatch”, he said to his executioner. “At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear.” After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.”
Sir Raleigh’s head was embalmed and presented to his wife.
His body was to be buried in the local church in Beddington, Surrey, the home of Lady Raleigh, but was finally laid to rest in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, where his tomb may still be visited today.
It has been said that Lady Raleigh kept her husband’s head in a velvet bag until her death.
After his wife’s death 29 years later, Sir Raleigh’s head was returned to his tomb and interred at St. Margaret’s Church.
Although Raleigh’s popularity had waned considerably since his Elizabethan heyday, his execution was seen by many, both at the time and since, as unnecessary and unjust, as for many years his involvement in the Main Plot seemed to have been limited to a meeting with Lord Cobham.
One of the judges at his trial later said: “The justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of the honourable Sir Walter Raleigh.”
This view has been less widely held since the discovery of some of the 1603 tribunal’s paperwork in the Bodleian Library in 1994, which strongly supports the case against Raleigh.
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