1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Raleigh

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 1:44-50.



The pitiful weakness evinced by King James the First, in sacrificing to the jealousy of a foreign Court the life of so distinguished and deserving a man as Raleigh, has ever been regarded with feelings of horror and indignation. The manner, too, in which this was effected is such as to brand with infamy all who had any share in the barbarous transaction.

The original conviction, on which, after a lapse of fifteen years, and a virtual, if not legal, pardon subsequently granted, it was thought proper to order his execution, was, in itself, so palpably unjust, and so inconsistent with all law, as to cast a stain, which can never be effaced, on the character of Coke, the Attorney-General, by whom he was prosecuted, not with the sober and temperate zeal of a public accuser, but with the hatred and malignity of a personal and inveterate foe. And who can think of the base conduct of Lord Bacon, whose splendid talents have merited the reputation of the first Philosopher of modern days, but whose character is for ever sullied by the meanness, dissimulation, craft, and avarice, by which his public life was uninterruptedly marked, without experiencing the deepest feelings of disgust at so degrading a prostitution of talents so conspicuous, to purposes so unworthy? It was this man who, when Raleigh was about to depart on his last ill-fated expedition, advised him to decline the grant of a formal pardon, which was offered him for 700, saying; "Sir, the knee-timber of your voyage is money. Spare your purse in this particular; for, upon my life, you have a sufficient pardon for all that is past already; the King having, under his broad seal, made you Admiral of your fleet, and given you power of martial law over your officers and soldiers." And it was this man who, on his return, as appears by "Dr. Birch's Original Letters," urged the weak-minded James to take him off on his old sentence for treason, as the only judicial way of proceeding against him.

When, on his return to Plymouth, Raleigh was taken into custody, he wrote a pathetic letter to James, in which he stated the circumstances of his case in a clear and just light. But James was not to be moved by considerations of justice or compassion; and his situation, at length, grew so dangerous, that yielding to the urgent intreaties of his friends, he attempted to make his escape; but he entered into this scheme with so little cordiality, that even after he had got into the boat which was to convey him to a vessel secured for the purpose, he re-surrendered himself. Being, afterwards, convinced that his fate was determined on, he applied, in a fit of despair, to one Manowrie, a quack, to assist him in a second attempt. In order to effect this, Manowrie gave him drugs which flung out, upon the whole surface of his body, innumerable blotches and boils, and Raleigh, to forward the success of the plan, condescended, it is said, to many unmanly meannesses. These so far prevailed, that, on account of his apparent ill state of health, he was suffered to repair to his own house; but Manowrie betrayed the secret to Stuekly, his inveterate keeper, who, though a near relation, had been employed by the Court, first to inveigle Raleigh to land, and afterwards to guard him. This infamous wretch, in consequence of private orders, appeared to encourage the design, and received a considerable sum of money from Raleigh to forward it; indeed, his treacherous dissimulation was carried so far that he actually accompanied his prisoner into a boat, which was immediately beset by the officers of the Court, and Stuekly had the hardened assurance to own the deceit, and carried his kinsman to the Tower. He soon, however, reaped the just reward of his crimes, for he was taken in the fact of clipping the very coin which he had received in reward for his perfidy. He was condemned to be hanged for the offence, and was driven to the streight of selling his shirt to procure his pardon. He withdrew himself to an island in the Severn, where he died raving mad, in less than two years after Raleigh's execution.

On the 28th of October, 1618, and in the sixty-sixth year of his age, Raleigh was taken out of his bed, though in a fit of the ague, and brought to the King's Bench. He attempted to make a defence, by explaining the justness of his conduct in the expedition, but was interrupted by the Court, who told him that the matter of the voyage had nothing to do in the present case, and that treason could not be pardoned by implication, after sentence was pronounced. He addressed the Court in very pathetic terms for a respite of execution for a few days, that he might settle his private affairs, and vindicate his reputation; but an order was produced, ready signed by the King, though at that time in Hertfordshire, for his execution the next morning. Barbarous as was this haste, it had no effect on the composed mind of the illustrious prisoner. His manly and philosophical deportment, during the interval of his sentence and execution, was admirable; as was also his behaviour on the scaffold.

To some who deplored his misfortunes, he observed, that "the world itself is but a larger prison, out of which some are daily selected for execution." When brought up for sentence, he had an ague fit, to which he alluded when on the scaffold, informing the spectators, that as he was, the day before, taken out of his bed in a strong fit of a fever, which much weakened him, if any disability of voice or dejection of countenance should appear in him, they would impute it rather to the disorder of his body than any dismayedness of mind.

The mode of his execution is thus related:

"Proclamation being made, that all men should depart the scaffold, he prepared himself for death, giving away his hat, and cap, and money to some attendants, who stood near him. When he took leave of the lords and other gentlemen, he intreated the Lord Arundel to desire the King that no scandalous writings to defame him might be published after his death; concluding, 'I have a long journey to go; therefore must take leave.' Then, having put off his gown and doublet, he called to the headsman to shew him the axe; which not being suddenly done, he said, 'I pr'ythee, let me see it: dost thou think that I am afraid of it?' Having fingered the edge of it a little, he returned it, and said smiling, to the sheriff, 'This is a sharp medicine, but it is a sound cure for all diseases;' and having intreated the company to pray to God to assist him and strengthen him, the executioner kneeled down and asked him forgiveness, which Raleigh, laying his hand upon his shoulder, granted. Then being asked, which way he would lay himself on the block, he answered, 'So the heart be right, it is no matter which way the head lies.' As he stooped to lay himself along, and reclined his head, his face being towards the east, the executioner spread his own cloak under him. After a little pause, he gave the sign, that he was ready for the stroke, by lifting up his hand, and his head was struck off at two blows, his body never shrinking nor moving."