Story of Sir Walter Raleigh - M. D. Kelly

Raleigh's Death

It was summer-time when the Destiny  sailed at last into Plymouth Bay. Lady Raleigh had hurried to Plymouth, and was there to meet her husband. It must have been a very sad meeting for them both.

They decided to go to London and throw themselves on the King's mercy. But they had only travelled about twenty miles, when they met a messenger from the King who had orders to take Sir Walter prisoner; he had also been told to seize Raleigh's ship. So they had to go back to Plymouth, where they stayed some days while the King's messenger was looking after the Destiny.

Lady Raleigh begged her husband to escape while there was yet time. No mercy was to be expected from the unjust King. To escape would be easy while he was in Plymouth among Devon men and on the coast.

She pleaded so earnestly that Raleigh gave way at last. One of his old Devon captains engaged a French ship, which was lying in the harbour, to carry him to France.

At midnight Raleigh said good-bye to his wife, and stole from the house where they were lodging. On the beach he found the captain waiting for him with a little row-boat. They started at once to row to the French ship, which was lying some distance from the land to be out of gunshot.

Suddenly, when they were less than a quarter of a mile from the ship, Raleigh ordered the captain to turn the boat round and row back to the shore. Before he sailed to Guiana he had promised he would come back to England, and he must keep his promise. In vain the captain besought him to go on.

Sir Walter answered firmly that he could not fly; to fly would be to confess he was in the wrong. He had not kept his word by just landing at Plymouth. He must return and face his accusers.

So they rowed back to the beach. And Lady Raleigh, though faint with fear at the thought of her husband's danger, was prouder of him than ever because he could not be false to his word.

Sir Walter Raleign


A few days later they set out for London with the King's messenger.

They passed through the green lanes of Devonshire, where Raleigh had played as a boy; and the men of Devon, who had always loved their great countryman, crowded to bless him as he passed.

The road led past the beautiful west-country manor-house where Raleigh had spent such happy years. It was to this lovely home he had first taken his young wife. Here, too, the brave son, who now lay in a soldier's grave far away in Guiana, had spent his childhood.

No wonder Lady Raleigh's eyes were dim with tears as she looked at the woodland glades and wide green fields where her boy had loved to play.

No wonder Raleigh, as he gazed for the last time on that beautiful park, exclaimed bitterly: All this was mine, and it was taken from me unjustly."

Once more Sir Walter heard the great gates clang behind him as he entered his old prison in the Tower of London. This time his keepers even took from him the diamond ring Queen Elizabeth had given him, and which he always wore.

Soon afterwards poor Lady Raleigh was made a prisoner in her own house. So now, when her husband most needed her, she could no longer be with him.

Raleigh himself was never left alone, day or night. His guards were told to listen to every word he said, and repeat it to the King. They hoped to entrap him into saying something which might be used against him. They even opened and read his letters to his wife.

King James had resolved that Raleigh should die; but he did not want his English subjects to know that it was to please the King of Spain. Above all, he did not care to send Raleigh to Spain to be hanged. He knew that all England would be filled with horror and wrath. So for a few weeks the cowardly King delayed, and tried to find a new reason for killing Raleigh.

But the King of Spain, who was thirsting for the blood of his greatest enemy, began to send impatient messages to King James, saying that Raleigh might be beheaded in England, but it must be done at once.

James remembered how Raleigh at his first trial had turned the hatred of his enemies into sorrow and pity. This time James determined to judge him in secret, that he might not win the people's hearts again.

Very early on a chilly autumn morning Raleigh was roused from his bed. He was ill and very weak. They led him through the dark passages of the Tower to the carriage which was waiting to carry him to his secret trial. As they drove away he looked back for the last time on the grey battlements of the gloomy prison which had held him for so long. Weak and weary though he was, Raleigh spoke out as bravely as ever at this mock trial. But nothing could save him now. He was condemned to die.

When Raleigh heard that he was to die early on the next morning, he earnestly asked his judges one last favour. "My Lords," he said, "I desire thus much favour, that I may not be cut off suddenly; but may have some time granted me before my execution, to settle my affairs and my mind, more than they yet are . . . . I would beseech the favour of pen, ink, and paper. . . . And I now beseech your Lordships that when I come to die I may have leave to speak freely at my farewell."

But the judges could not put off the execution by a single minute. The cowardly King had hidden himself away in the country that he might not be troubled by appeals for mercy. Queen Anne had already tried to save her friend's life, but the King had roughly refused, and was resolved to be bothered no more. Raleigh must die, and at once.

After the trial, Sir Walter was led from the Hall at Westminster across the Palace yard to a small prison called the Gate-house. This building had once stood at the gate of a monastery, a place where holy men, called monks, had lived together. The monastery and the monks had been gone for many a year; but their little gate-house, where the poor and sick had come for help, still stood, and was now used as a prison.

In this place Sir Walter spent his last hours on earth. Many of his friends came to say good-bye, and one of them declared afterwards, "He was the most fearless of death that ever was known, and the most resolute and confident."

At dusk Lady Raleigh came to the old gate-house. She had hoped almost to the last that her husband's life might yet be saved. Her little twelve-year-old son, who had been born in the Tower, had written a pitiful letter to the King pleading for his father's life.

Already it was night-time, and she had only just heard that her husband was to die early the next morning.

She sat with him until they heard the great clock of Westminster Abbey strike the hour of midnight.

Raleigh told her that he could not bear to speak of their poor little son, so soon to be fatherless. He talked instead of what Lady Raleigh must do to defend his memory, in case he was not allowed to make a farewell speech before he died.

So he tried to make the terrible parting a little easier by showing his brave wife how she would still be able to help him. And because she loved him so much, Lady Raleigh kept back her bitter sorrow, though her heart was breaking. At midnight she tore herself away, and went out into the dark and lonely night.

Sir Walter was left to spend his last hours alone. The Lords had granted his request for pen, ink, and paper. He used them to write a last note declaring that he was innocent. Then in the stillness of the night he wrote in his Bible a short but most beautiful poem.

Early in the morning he was led out to die. He seemed bright and cheerful, and "made no more of his death," we are told, "than if it had been to take a journey."

The scaffold or platform on which the prisoner was to be executed had been put up in the Palace Yard. Early as it was a great throng of people had come to look for the last time on one of the noblest among Englishmen.

As they crowded near to see and bless him, Sir Walter noticed a poor old man without a cap. Taking his own cap from his head, he threw it to the old man, saying kindly, "Take this; you need it, my friend, more than I do."

He was allowed after all to make his farewell speech from the scaffold. He spoke for some time, and very earnestly. He thanked God he was to die in the light and in the sight of his countrymen, and not in darkness, nor in that Tower where he had suffered so much. Then once more he solemnly declared that he was innocent. And lastly he said, with a sad smile, "I have a long journey to take, and must bid the company farewell."

The executioner, kneeling down, begged Sir Walter to forgive him. "With all my heart!" answered Sir Walter, placing his hands on the man's shoulders.

Then he knelt down and laid his head on the block. The poor executioner could hardly bear to do his work. "What dost thou fear?" said Raleigh. "Strike, man, strike!"

The axe fell, and a groan burst from the crowd. The executioner lifted the head up and called "God save the King!" but there was no answering cheer from the people, who looked on in silent anger at the shameful deed. "We have not such another head to be cut off," muttered one man as he turned away.

All through England the story was told of how valiantly Sir Walter Raleigh had died. His very death became "a wonder and example." And the people looked with scorn on the craven King, who to please a Spanish prince had put to death his greatest subject.

Englishmen remembered then the glorious days of Good Queen Bess, when men like Raleigh had been free to fight England's battles and win for her new lands beyond the sea.

They remembered too how Raleigh himself had fought for the honour of his country in the weary waste of rebel Ireland, out on the broad ocean, in the New World, and even on the shores of Spain.

And some of them felt that the King of England would have to be taught that the lives of his subjects were too dear to England to be thrown away, as Sir Walter Raleigh's had been, cruelly and unjustly.