Published: July 21, 2017
Sir Walter Raleigh, English landed gentleman, writer, soldier, courtier and explorer was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites. Why, he had even cast his expensive cloak on to a muddy puddle to protect the royal feet as the monarch processed through Greenwich. There was no stopping him after that. Until this day.
That was when the Queen discovered Raleigh had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting. Elizabeth had not been consulted and she was furious.
The pair were immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. And so began Raleigh’s descent into disfavour, disgrace and – ultimately – death.
It is worth noting at this point that the story of Raleigh’s gallant gesture with his cloak came from Thomas Fuller, an English scholar and historian whose work, Histories of the Worthies of England, was published after his death in 1622. Fuller enjoyed anecdotal tales and was known for embellishing the truth.
For what it’s worth, here’s what he wrote about the cloak incident:
“Coming to the English court, Raleigh found the Queen walking, till meeting with a plashy place, she seemed to scruple going thereon.
“Presently, Raleigh cast and spread his new plush cloak on the ground, whereon the Queen trod gently, rewarding him afterwards with many suits, for his so free and seasonable tender of so fair a footcloth.”
True or not, Raleigh was never to fully regain favour with Elizabeth after the marriage betrayal and when she died in 1603, to be succeeded by James I, he found himself in a perilous position having spoken out against the successor.
Soon facing trumped-up charges of treason, he was to spend 13 years in prison before facing execution at Westminster on October 29, 1618.
But his courage never left him. Details of the execution, incorporating a contemporary account, are recorded in the book Criminal Trials by David Jardine, published in 1832:
“Then, a proclamation being made that all men should depart the scaffold, he prepared himself for death, giving away his hat, his cap, with some money to those that stood near him, saying: ‘I will now take my leave; for I have a long journey to go, and an assured hope to be quickly there.’
“And then putting off his doublet and gown, desired the executioner to show him the axe . . . So, it being given unto him, he poised it in his hand, and felt along the edge of it with his thumb, to see if it was keen; and, smiling, spake unto Mr Sheriff, saying: ‘This is sharp medicine, but it will cure all diseases.’
“As he was laying his head on the block, the executioner would have blindfolded him; upon which he rebuked him, saying: ‘Think you I fear the shadow of the axe, when I fear not the axe itself?’ ”
Other reports say that he told the executioner: "Let us dispatch. At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear. Strike, man, strike!"