October 29

1618 The execution of Sir Walter Raleigh

Politics was a blood sport in early-modern England. Men and women paid with their lives for choosing the losing side in a dynastic or religious quarrel. Their posthumous reputations often depended on how they behaved in their last moments when they faced their public execution. No one forgot the stubborn refusal of the Countess of Salisbury to cooperate with the headsman, the last words of Bishop Latimer as he was burned alive, or courage of Walter Raleigh dealing with his unjust fate, the victims of  spineless James I.

Raleigh died nobly. The bishop who attended him, and the lords about him, were astonished to witness his serenity of demeanour. He observed calmly: “I have a long journey to go, therefore must take leave!” He fingered the axe with a smile, and called it “a sharp medicine, a sound cure for all disease”. He laid his head on the block with these words in conclusion:

‘So the heart be right, it is no matter which way the head lies.’

The following is Raleigh’s last poem, written the night before his death, and found in his Bible, in the Gate house, at Westminster:

Even such is time, which takes in trust
    Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us nought but age and dust;
    Which in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
And from which grave, and earth, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.’

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