In A Nutshell
Sir Walter Raleigh was a longtime favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but after she died he found himself facing execution by order of James I. He narrowly dodged his first execution date, sent off to find the mythical city of El Dorado. Failing to find that and being accused of treason did finally get him executed, but that’s not the end of the story. While most of his body was buried, his mourning wife was given his embalmed head in a velvet bag, and kept it with her until she died.
The Whole Bushel
There’s so much living packed into the story of Sir Walter Raleigh that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re all the deeds of one man. Originally getting the attention of Elizabeth I after helping to put down a rebellion in Ireland, Raleigh eventually ended up marrying one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton. When the secret of their marriage came out, they were ultimately imprisoned by the furious queen (Raleigh was apparently very well-liked).
After Elizabeth’s death, her successor James I wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with Raleigh. One of his goals as monarch was to achieve peaceful relations with other countries, and someone like Raleigh was doing him no favors. Not long after James I’s ascension to the throne, he had Raleigh arrested for conspiring against the king. The sentence was, of course, death, but this was the first of Raleigh’s scheduled executions. This one was ultimately reduced to a lifetime of imprisonment in the Tower of London.
He remained there for 12 years, during which time he tutored the royal children and wrote historical works.
Eventually, in 1616, he was released from his imprisonment in the Tower and sent back out on a mission that he’d already been on—and failed at. That was, of course, finding the elusive city of El Dorado. Not surprisingly, Raleigh and his crew didn’t find the mythical city, but what they did find on the way home was the Spanish. Getting into a fight with the Spanish went directly against the king’s orders, and it was that treasonous act for which Raleigh got his second notice of execution.
This time, he wouldn’t be able to avoid it. He was executed in October 1618, suffering from a fever, malaria, and dysentery from the unsanitary conditions that prisoners were kept in before being removed from their cells for their execution. It took the executioner two blows to remove his head, and after it had been displayed to the crowd that had assembled for the event, it was placed in a red bag, covered with velvet, and presented to his wife.
Lady Raleigh, once Elizabeth Throckmorton, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, truly did love her doomed husband. She never remarried, but she did, however, keep her husband with her until the day she died. She had his head embalmed and kept it by her side for the 29 years she outlived him. According to some stories, she kept the head in a glass case in her home, and curiosity seekers and family friends alike would travel to visit and pay their respects to the head.
Once she passed away, the head passed on to their son, Carew. That son continued the tradition of keeping the embalmed head, and when he passed away, the head was buried with him in Surrey.
The rest of Raleigh’s body was buried more immediately after his execution, buried in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster. In a private ceremony, he was laid to rest in a place of honor in spite of the accusations of treason that eventually led to his death sentence. For reasons that remain unclear, he was buried in an unmarked grave.