Sir Walter Raleigh executed 29 October 1618: An eye witness account from the archives of the Society
Edward Prue got up very early indeed on Monday 29 October 1618. It was still dark, damp and quite chilly. He dressed carefully, taking care that his best jacket was brushed and clean. Then he set out for the Palace Yard, Westminster in London. Mr Prue was on what he considered to be an important mission. His good friend, Mr Edwards, had asked him to attend Sir Walter Raleigh’s execution, on behalf of my Lord of Dorset. Mr Edwards had asked Mr Prue to send a letter to him, describing what happened. Mr Prue was thrilled by this request and wanted to report on the event in the best way possible.
It’s 400 years since Mr Prue walked through the streets of London to carry out his mission. The SoG is very fortunate to have the letter that he wrote to Mr Edwards. It’s on parchment, it’s a little tattered around the edges, but it’s an eye witness account of what happened, who was there, and what Sir Raleigh did in his last hours.
Walter Raleigh – an adventurer, a poet, a courtier
Most of us know a little about Sir Walter Raleigh. He was the dashing young man who laid his cape over some mud, bowed low, and protected Elizabeth I’s shoes and ankles. The story may not be true but it appeals to all of us. Born in 1552, Raleigh was a landed gentleman, a writer and poet, an explorer and a soldier, a courtier and a spy. He was handsome, vigorous and very active, quite tall, with dark features and a beard that ‘curled up naturally’, according to John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century. It is claimed that he spoke with a soft Devonshire accent all his life.
Mr Prue and Mr Edwards
We cannot be absolutely sure of the identity of Mr Prue, our letter writer, or his friend, Mr Edwards. The parchment letter is part of the Ebblewhite Bequest, made in 1956. Ernest Arthur Ebblewhite was a barrister, a citizen of London and a local politician. He was also Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
and published a number of books on historical subjects. His bequest is held in our Lower Library in the Document Collection. In a notebook in the Collection, he makes a reference to Hugh Edwardes of Merton, County of Flint, a gent and his will (pp 296-299). He also describes finding transcripts in parish registers and many other documents, relating to the 1600s, that he took away for ‘cleaning and keeping’.
What really matters is the wonderful account that Mr Prue gives us of the execution. Many historians describe the event and there are also a number of accounts written by people who witnessed it. But I think Mr Prue’s description is excellent.
According to Mr Prue the following Lords were present, watching from a window overlooking the scaffold. Most of those named had been members of Elizabeth’s Privy Council.
“…Earle of Arundell, Lord Percye, the Earle of Oxenford (Raleigh’s patron in the 1570s who had tried to stir up resistance to James I), the Earle of Lincoln, Lord Sheffeeld, Earle of Northton (Northampton), and Viscount Doncaster and Lord Windesor.
There were many other well-dressed gentlemen but Mr Prue didn’t know who they were and really didn’t have time to record them all. So he wrote
“…and also many knights and gentlemen of rank and quality”.
The execution was set to be carried out between 8 and 9 am in the Old Palace at Westminster. The scaffold had already been erected in the Palace Yard. Raleigh had been taken from the court in Westminster Hall, after sentencing, to the Gate House in the Old Palace Yard. He had had farewell visits from friends, his wife, and Dr Touson, the Dean of Westminster.
On the morning, Raleigh had a good breakfast, a pipe of tobacco and a cup of wine before he left his room. He wore his finest clothes and jewellery. He set out at 8 am. Historians tell us that 60 guards escorted him to the Old Palace Yard. There was a huge crowd waiting for him to appear and they pressed around the procession. Many people had come to London to celebrate the Lord Mayor’s Day and the execution was considered a bonus. If we could see all this now, we would recognise Raleigh’s natural talent for marketing. He really understood the effectiveness of setting a stage and delivering a show.
Raleigh knew that this was his last chance to clear his name. He climbed up on to the platform of the scaffold and began to speak. Mr Prue records that Raleigh started by referring to his ill health. In fact, the years spent in the damp Tower of London had aggravated Raleigh’s tendency to rheumatism – his joints ached. Since his first stay in the Tower in 1591, Raleigh had not been a healthy, vigorous man. He continued:
"If I appear to tremble, I beg that you don't put it down to cowardice on my part but rather to a strong and violent fever that is hindering me in what I intend to say. This is the third fit that I have had and when I got up yesterday it was at its worse. I pray that [this fever] doesn't hinder my voice or the delivery of what I want to say, for I desire that your Lordships may witness it."
The knights and gentlemen were watching from a window overlooking the scaffold. Mr Prue tells us that when they realised that he was going to speak, they called out to him to wait. To save his voice they would come down to him. No doubt this is what Raleigh had hoped for. The image of all these finely dressed, important people rushing down the stairs and out into the dank morning is wonderful. With his audience in place, Mr Prue tells us that Raleigh picked up his speech where he had left off. Typically, for a man that has been active all his life, he claims:
“…thank God that I came out of the darkness of my imprisonment in the Tower to die in the light.”
He denies having ever slandered or abused James 1. However, Mr Prue does record the refreshing candour that Raleigh uses to sidestep his actions:
“As for the matter that caused the King to take so great offence against me, I must confess that there was probably some cause, yet it is far from the whole truth.”
Mr Prue writes in full how Raleigh appeals to his audience and to God in a way that even now we would find very moving:
“Oh Lord I call upon your all seeing majesty to witness that I am most clear and innocent in this matter. Alas, it would be foolish madness for me to lie in the presence of God as I will be going to him soon …. It’s a fearful and terrible thing for a man to ask God to be his witness but to then lie and ask God to witness a falsehood.”
Can you imagine how hard Mr Prue was working to get all this down? He couldn’t possibly have remembered it all and written it down later. Did he sit on a step somewhere or at the edge of the crowd? Did he have another person with him so that they both could write down what Raleigh was saying? I can imagine poor Mr Prue, scribbling away to get everything down.
There are many versions of the final part of Raleigh’s speech. Some historians say that the Sheriff was showing impatience to be done. But we will use Mr Prue’s version, which once again shows how Raleigh could be so refreshingly candid about his vices:
“…I confess myself to be a most wicked, sinful and wretched man; a poor worm of the earth; one who has delighted and trod in all ways of vanity. For my whole life has been bred up to that, having been a courtier, a captain and soldier – professions in which vices have their best nourishment….. I beg your Christian and charitable payers to God for me and this is all I have to say.”
Mr Prue says that Raleigh then bowed to all the Lords and gentlemen, embraced them, took his leave and prepared to pray. He ends the letter at this point. Was he too upset to continue? Did he start to move away from the crowd so that he could get his letter copied and despatched? Whatever the reason, Mr Prue does not tell us what happened next: that Raleigh refused a blindfold; that he faced westward on the block; or that he shared a joke with the executioner before he died.
He signed the letter: Your ever poore loving friend Edward Prue
I think we are all very thankful to Mr Prue for his fantastic letter and for all the people that have carefully looked after this document. I recommend a visit to the Lower Library to see it in the Document Collection – it will give you goose bumps.
This account uses the spelling ‘Raleigh’. There are many variations. Raleigh himself didn’t keep to the same spelling throughout his own life, using ‘Rauley’, ‘Rawleyghe’ and ‘Ralegh’. Mr Prue spells it as ‘Ralieghe’.
E. Gosse Raleigh Pub. Longmans, Green & Co 1886
M. Lyons The Favourite – Raleigh and His Queen, Pub. Constable 2011
M. Nicholls and P. Williams Sir Walter Raleigh – In Life and Legend Bloomsbury Continuum 2011
Researched & written by Sherryl Abrahart