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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Walter Raleigh Loses His Head

On this day, 395 years ago, the great English explorer, writer, governor (and conspirator?) Sir Walter Raleigh was put do death.  He was beheaded on charges of treason, due to his alleged involvement in a plot to remove King James I from the English Throne.

Raleigh is a fascinating character to say the least. As an explorer, his role in charting a large portion of what is now the eastern coastal lands of the United States (particularly Virginia and the Carolinas) catapulted him to fame.  His achievements (or perhaps better put his charisma) also drew the attention of one Queen Elizabeth I, who was, on more than one occasion, quite taken with the young Englishman's  prowess as an explorer and writer. Because of these accomplishments, Queen Elizabeth rewarded Raleigh with an assortment of titles, honors, lands, and government positions, all of which elevated Raleigh to the highest echelon of English society.

Despite these achievements, Raleigh found it difficult to live a life that was completely free of reproach.  While serving in the English Parliament, Raleigh was also secretly married to "Bess" Throckmorton, one of the Queen's Lady's-in-Waiting (personal assistant).  This affair, which was punishable by death, infuriated the Queen, who ordered Raleigh to be arrested.

But the affair would not spell the end for Raleigh.  His charisma and talent were simply too much for the English Crown to ignore.  As a result, Raleigh was freed from prison and sent on an unsanctioned expedition to attack and pillage the Spanish coast; a skill that Raleigh had perfected during his exploring days in the "New World."  After returning with a shipload of Spanish jewels and goods, Raleigh's previous improprieties were, needless to say, forgotten.

Having already escaped one brush with royal justice and the potential loss of his life, one would think that Raleigh would choose to live a more "virtuous" life.  That wasn't his style.  After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Raleigh's stock began to drop.  Gone were the days when he could enjoy having the ear of the Crown (Raleigh's heyday was undoubtedly during the Elizabethan years).

Queen Elizabeth's successor, James I, was, in many respects, like his predecessor.  He was intelligent, thoughtful and determined to see England forward to a new era.  Unlike Elizabeth, however, James was far more militant in his application of policies to ensure England's prosperity. For example, when it came to religious matters, Elizabeth adopted a hands off approach, whereas James was more "passionate."  James helped to push Parliament into passing the Popish Recusants Act (which required citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to the Church of England and against the Catholic Pope), along with laws that enforced strict conformity from emerging Puritans.  James also advocated for laws against witchcraft, which became a bit of a personal obsession of his at least during the early years of his reign.  And, of course, no discussion of James and religion could be complete without at least a brief mention of his role in the Hampton Conference, which eventually led to the completion of a new translation of the Christian canon, known today as the King James Bible.  All of this is relevant to Walter Raleigh because it helps to illustrate the alleged reasons he chose to rebel (I say alleged because some historians argue that Raleigh was unjustly accused and murdered with little to no evidence. With recent historical discoveries, however, I think it is more than evident that Raleigh was indeed involved in the plot to remove James from the throne).

Walter Raleigh was not a religious enthusiast.  Sure, he jumped through the appropriate hoops in order to keep up social graces but he did so for political necessity as opposed to any internal desire to please the divine.  In many respects, Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh were birds of a feather.  They knew religion was important and both advocated for English sovereignty from Catholic authority.  But this was primarily motivated out of political expediency than anything else. In their minds it just made good sense and was in England's best interests.

When James ascended to the throne and began enacting newer and tougher laws, Raleigh must have been upset. Raleigh's sentiments in this regard are best illustrated in his famous poem "The Lie":

Say to the court, it glows 
And shines like rotten wood; 
Say to the church, it shows 
Whats good, and doth no good: 
Of church and court reply, 
Then give them both the lie. 

Tell men of high condition, 
That manage the estate, 
Their purpose is ambition, 
Their practice only hate: 
And if they once reply, 
Then give them all the lie.

As stated earlier, Raleigh's involvement in what became known as the Main Plot was a source of debate among historians for centuries. Recent discoveries, however, have all but proven Raleigh's role in the plot.  Historical records reveal that while serving as Governor of Jersey, Sir Walter Raleigh, along with co-conspirators Henry Brooke and Lord Cobham, had secretly made deals with the Spanish Crown (who financed their endeavors) to create sedition (particularly among the ranks of those who were monetarily and religiously disenfranchised by James' ascension to the throne), which would ultimately force James to abdicate the throne.

The plot failed when Brooke's brother implicated those involved.  Raleigh and others were imprisoned and the plot was squashed. Several years later, on October 29, 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, the great English poet, explorer and statesmen, found his neck on the chopping stump. After requesting to be able to see and handle the axe that would claim his life, Raleigh's final words were (allegedly): "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and all miseries."

Raleigh's contributions and legacy were polarizing in his day, but with time they have become a source of pride for Englishmen (and Americans).  The capitol city of North Carolina (the land he himself explored) is his namesake and he has been voted #41 out of 100 in a recent poll of the 100 most influential Britons in history (King James I was #76).  Raleigh was the epitome of an explorer and a poet at heart, as one of his final poems helps to capture:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation.
My gown of glory, hopes, true gauge;
And this I'll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body's balmer;
No other balm will there be given;
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven.

Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.

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