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The Quatercentary of Sir Walter Raleigh's Trial
Part X: Raleigh’s Execution

Raleigh's imprisonment was not quite so severe as might be imagined; he was allowed servants, and given every facility to pursue his interests as a writer and as an amateur student of science. For some time, his wife and family were permitted to reside with him in the Tower, and he was allowed regular visitors. He became a hero to King James's eldest son, Prince Henry, the Prince of Wales, who petitioned his father for Raleigh's release, and famously remarked: "Sure no king but my father would keep such a bird in a cage". But Henry's untimely death, in 1612, deprived Raleigh of any further support from that quarter.

Finally, in 1616, at the age of 64, and having suffered two strokes whilst in the Tower, Raleigh was released to lead a further expedition to Guiana, in search of El Dorado. The venture was a complete failure, and led to the death - amongst many others - of Raleigh's eldest son, Wat. Unfortunately for Raleigh, a detachment sent by him into Guiana encountered a Spanish settlement; there was fighting and bloodshed, and a number of the Spanish were killed. When Raleigh returned to England, without the gold with which James had hoped to enrich his treasury, James was more than willing to accommodate demands for Raleigh's execution by the Spanish Ambassador, the Conde de Gondomar. But James was afraid that the good account which Raleigh made of himself, at the treason trial, would be repeated - to Raleigh's benefit, and James's detriment - so James sought a way to rid himself of Raleigh without a further trial.

At this point, reference should be made to another famous figure in the history of English law, Francis Bacon - by then, Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam, subsequently to become Viscount St Albans. Whatever fame and respect Bacon is entitled to as an essayist, philosopher and scientist, he is surely one of the most odious creatures ever to have disgraced judicial office at any time or in any place. We have already seen how he turned against his former patron, the Earl of Essex, when Essex was on trial for his life. At Elizabeth's request, and for a substantial fee, he wrote a vicious account of that trial; but, no sooner had James ascended the throne, than Bacon again put pen to paper, by way of an apologia for James's "martyr". We have seen, too, how he destroyed the judicial career of the learned and sagacious Coke, of whose brilliance and success Bacon was profoundly jealous.

The career of this undoubtedly talented lawyer and scholar reached a fitting culmination when he was impeached for accepting bribes - an almost unique instance of graft in the long and glorious history of the English judiciary. Bacon's apologists, who are numerous, argue that the acceptance of bribes by judges was a common thing in Bacon's time, and that Bacon did not allow the bribes to influence his decisions. However, when James I (with Bacon's assistance) was looking for an excuse to sack Coke, Coke's conduct as Chief Justice was subjected to the most meticulous examination, and no plausible instance of any form of corruption could be discovered. Nor does it seem very probable that the bribes which Bacon accepted were without any influence on the exercise of his judicial powers; yet, even if that were the case, it is difficult to see how his conduct in accepting bribes is made more virtuous by the fact that he cheated the people who bribed him, by not giving them the benefit of the influence for which they had paid.

Bacon was amongst the many visitors received by Raleigh in the Tower, and it seems that they became firm friends. Most likely, Bacon had a very genuine interest in Raleigh's scientific study and Raleigh's writings; it may be the case that they collaborated on some works, which for political reasons Bacon could not risk publishing under his own name; and they have even been linked, in one of the more far-fetched emanations of the Shakespeare "authorship controversy", as jointly the "real" authors. It was therefore natural that, when Raleigh was offered his freedom to undertake the expedition to Guiana, he sought Bacon's advice. Raleigh was provided with a Commission from the King, which not only gave Raleigh liberty to undertake the voyage, but vice-regal powers over the entire expedition, including the power to dispense justice. Raleigh reportedly asked Bacon whether he should seek the insertion of a provision, formally pardoning him of his previous treason conviction. Bacon's advice to Raleigh was that a formal pardon was unnecessary: that Raleigh had "a sufficient pardon for all that is past already, the King under his Great Seal having made you Admiral, and given you power of marshal law".

Raleigh (in old age)


However, after Raleigh's return from Guiana, and when James sought the Privy Council's advice as to how Raleigh should be dealt with, it seems that Bacon was the first to suggest that the King could obtain execution of the sentence passed 15 years earlier. Other members of the Privy Council scrupled at the injustice of beheading Raleigh after so long; some even argued that, whatever the legalities of the situation, it was distinctly dishonourable to treat Raleigh as being still attainted of treason, after he had been commissioned to undertake a difficult and dangerous voyage of exploration for the Crown's benefit, and had lost his son in the process. The Privy Council provided James with a number of options: a new trial with new charges; a commission of inquiry regarding the failed Guiana expedition, with the possibility of a recommendation that Raleigh's previous sentence be carried into effect; or an application to the Court of King's Bench for execution of the previous sentence. But James, determined not to allow Raleigh any further opportunity to increase his popularity, would not contemplate any possibility which allowed Raleigh again to reclaim the public sympathy which he had won over at Winchester, 15 years earlier.

So, on 28 October 1618, a Writ of Habeas Corpus was delivered to the Lieutenant of the Tower, commanding that he bring Raleigh before the King's Bench at Westminster. The attorney-general, Henry Yelverton, applied for "Execution of the former Judgment". In Cobbett's State Trials, it appears that Coke presided; but this cannot be correct, as Coke had been dismissed as Chief Justice two years earlier; in fact, Sir Henry Montague presided as Chief Justice. Unlike the previous proceedings, Raleigh was addressed with particular courtesy and civility:

    "I am here called to grant Execution upon the Judgment given you fifteen years since; for which time you have been as a dead man in the law, and might at any minute have been cut off, but the king in mercy spared you. … I know you have been valiant and wise, and I doubt not but you retain both these virtues, for now you shall have occasion to use them. Your faith hath heretofore been questioned, but I am resolved you are a good Christian; for your Book, which is an admirable work, doth testify as much. I would give you counsel, but I know you can apply unto yourself far better than I am able to give you; yet will I, with the good neighbour in the Gospel, who finding one in the way, wounded and distressed, poured oil into his wounds, and refreshed him, I give unto you the oil of comfort; though, in respect that I am a minister of law, mixed with vinegar. Sorrow will not avail you in some kind: for, were you pained, sorrow would not ease you; were you afflicted, sorrow would not relieve you; were you tormented, sorrow could not content you; and yet, the sorrow for your sins would be an everlasting comfort to you. You must do as that valiant captain did, who perceiving himself in danger, said, in defiance of death; 'Death, though expectest me, but manage thy spite, I expect thee'. Fear not death too much, nor fear not death too little: not too much, lest you fail in your hopes; not too little, lest you die presumptuously. And here I must conclude with my prayers to God for it; and that He would have mercy on your soul. Execution is granted."

Thus, having 15 years before been convicted of treason on the pretext of a traitorous conspiracy with the Spanish, he was now condemned to die at the behest, ultimately, of the Spanish Ambassador. As was remarked by his only surviving son, Carew, Sir Walter "was condemned for being a friend to the Spaniard; and lost his life for being their enemy".

Raleigh's execution

Raleigh met his death on the scaffold, at Old Palace Yard, Westminster, the following morning. On the scaffold, he showed remarkable courage and placidity. Inspecting the headsman's axe, he remarked: "This is sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases". He declined a blindfold, but - according to legend - was permitted to smoke his pipe; supposedly the first example of the traditional indulgence for a condemned man. He made a moving and dignified speech to the assembled crowd and, before placing his head on the block, proceeded to each corner of the scaffold kneeling and asking the onlookers to pray for him. When finally Raleigh placed his head on the block, somebody suggested that he was facing the wrong direction - that he should face "the east of our Lord's arising" - Raleigh replied that: "So the heart be right, it is no great matter which way the head lieth". But, to oblige the crowd, he stood up and rearranged himself. When he made the signal that he was ready, the axeman hesitated, so Raleigh's last words were: "Strike man, strike!".

Yet subsequently, in Raleigh's cell, was found a poem, apparently written by during his last night:

    Even such is time, that takes in trust
    Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
    And pays us but with earth and dust;
    Who, in the dark and silent grave,
    When we have wandered all our ways,
    Shuts up the story of our days;
    But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
    My God shall raise me up, I trust.

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links to other parts of this article

Part I: Raleigh and Elizabeth I

Part II: The Essex Trial

Part III: James’s Succession

Part IV: The Main and Bye Plots

Part V: Cobham’s Allegations

Part VI: The Law of Treason

Part VII: The Accused

Part VIII: The Prosecutor

Part IX: The Trial

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this page last updated 20 January 2004