Sir Walter Raleigh hasn’t been in the news for 400 years since he was beheaded on October 29, 1618. This past week, on the 400th anniversary of that event, he was a news item twice … and one of the stories was again about his beheading. Are we in a Raleigh renaissance? Will gentlemen start wearing capes and looking for ladies about to step in puddles? It’s 2018 … will ladies return the favor?
“Contemporary accounts record that, after the head had been displayed for the assembled crowd following the execution, it was placed in a red velvet or leather bag and presented to Raleigh’s widow, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Raleigh (1565 – 1647). Her love for her husband was such that Bess arranged for the head to be embalmed and then kept it by her side until she died 29 years later – at West Horsley Place, where she had come to live with her son and his family.”
Sir Walter first made the news when a drawing found under paint on a wall in the Tower of London looked suspiciously like he did as a prisoner there, which would make it an early selfie. Last week, the curators of West Horsley Place announced that their most resident from the same time period, Raleigh’s widow Bess, kept his disconnected head in a bag after losing its body … and that bag, lost since Bess’ death, may have been found!
“In 1665, Carew Raleigh sold the estate to Sir Edward Nicholas, First Secretary to Charles I and Charles II. It is known that some of the contents were included in the sale – including a collection of family portraits which remained part of the estate until the early 20thcentury – but, to date, we have been unable to find any further reference to the red bag. It was widely presumed that the bag had been buried with Sir Walter’s head in 1660.”
More like misidentified, says Peter Pearce, Director of the Mary Roxburghe Trust which is restoring West Horsley Place to the glory it had when Henry VIII once dined there on a 35-course lunch. The site alleges that a visiting scholar noticed a red velvet bag discovered after someone cleaned out the attic for repairs. Connecting the dots, the authority on historical dress inspected its design and material and dated the bag to the right century. At that point it was whisked away to be fitted with a model of Wally’s dead head.
Is this the bag that once held Sir Walter’s hat rack? There is some doubt because most folklore refers to it as a “leather” bag – which would make more sense for a head, even though Bess had it embalmed. The photos of the bag don’t show any stains, but they’re only of the outside. Like the traitorous Sir Walter who was also a poet and a gentleman, it’s what’s inside that counts – in the bag’s case that would be hair, skin or other remains which can be DNA tested.
Until tests are done, all we have are a red velvet bag and the story of him laying down his cloak for the queen. OK, that story is a fake so all we have is the bag and the likelihood that Sir Walter Raleigh will be in the news again soon.