A Gory Discovery In A Medieval House Could Solve The Mystery Of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Severed Head

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Bamber Gascoigne, once a familiar figure on British TV screens, has invited Mark Wallis to visit the gorgeous but crumbling country mansion he’s inherited. Gascoigne has a red velvet bag that he wants Wallis, an expert on historical costumes, to see. And Wallis is astonished by the artifact. He believes it dates from the 17th century, in fact, and that it might once have belonged to the wife of Sir Walter Raleigh.

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Before we move on to the possible significance of this bag in the story of Sir Walter and his wife, let’s first find out a little more about the man’s life. Raleigh was born sometime around 1552 in a farmhouse called Hayes Barton, close to an English countryside village known as East Budleigh.

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His family were well-to-do gentlefolk, but details of his childhood are scarce, although we know he was the fifth son of Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne. Raleigh’s family were staunch Protestants, a dangerous thing to be when Catholic Mary I of England was on the throne. But Raleigh Jr.’s faith did him no harm in later life when Protestant Elizabeth I became queen in 1558.

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Raleigh was just a teenager in 1569 when he joined the Protestant Huguenot forces’ battle against Roman Catholic armies in France, during that nation’s bloody Wars of Religion. He was clearly a youth with a taste for adventure and danger, appetites that would remain with him for the rest of his life.

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After his spell fighting in France, Raleigh spent some years studying. In 1572 he attended Oriel College at Oxford University, and three years later Raleigh was a law student at the Middle Temple in London. Then in 1579 he returned to the battlefield, this time helping to suppress a rebellion in the Irish province of Munster.

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In fact, Raleigh was to spend four years in Ireland putting down what were known as the Desmond Rebellions. He took part at the Siege of Smerwick in 1580, personally heading a detachment of soldiers who captured and beheaded several hundred Italian and Spanish Papal troops.

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Raleigh’s participation in this brutal action was well rewarded by Queen Elizabeth. She granted him some 40,000 acres of land in Munster, making him one of the province’s largest landowners. The Queen also gave Raleigh various trading licenses and knighted him in 1585. Still only in his early 30s, life was good for Sir Walter.

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Raleigh made a dangerous mistake in 1591, however, by secretly wedding one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers, Elizabeth Throckmorton. She was expecting a child when the two married, although the baby boy passed away not long after his birth after contracting the plague. And when the Queen found out about the clandestine marriage, she consigned the couple to the Tower of London.

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By 1593 the Queen appeared to have forgiven Raleigh his transgression, even if he wasn’t ever to be her favorite again. He was not only released from the Tower, in fact, but was also able to take a seat in Parliament. Then, in 1594 Raleigh read a report of a fabulous city dripping with gold in the Americas.

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In search of these fabled riches, Raleigh set sail for the New World and explored parts of modern-day Venezuela and Guyana. He found no gold, however. But his swashbuckling exploits continued with his part in the conquest of the Spanish city of Cadiz in 1596 and his role in England’s victory over the Third Spanish Armada a year later.

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But Raleigh’s run of good luck came to a juddering halt in 1603 when his patron Queen Elizabeth passed away. He was taken into custody soon afterwards and accused of treason. The charges alleged that Raleigh had been part of the Main Plot, a treacherous plan to overthrow the new king, James I of England. Once again, Raleigh found himself locked up in the Tower of London.

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Raleigh handled his own defense at the subsequent trial, though since he was found guilty, this tactic cannot be described as a success. While he did at least escape with his life, Raleigh was incarcerated in the Tower for the next 13 years. He spent his time writing, with his works including The Historie of the World.

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Then, in 1617 the king decided to grant Raleigh a pardon. And the monarch had a mission for him. He was to travel back to the New World in another attempt to find the riches of El Dorado. The trip didn’t go well, however. In Venezuela, some of Raleigh’s men defied his orders and raided a Spanish settlement along the Orinoco River. Even worse, Raleigh’s own son was killed in the engagement.

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Raleigh had not authorized this attack and its leader, Lawrence Keymis, asked the bereaved father to forgive him. When Raleigh was unwilling to do so, Keymis subsequently killed himself. There were to be other consequences of this ill-fated skirmish. Indeed, Raleigh was about to lose more than a son.

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In pardoning Raleigh and sending him to the New World, King James had made some strict stipulations. For instance, in accordance with a peace treaty that James had made with Spain, there were to be no attacks on Spanish ships or settlements. The chief Spanish diplomat in England, Count Gondomar, was consequently enraged by this unprovoked assault on a Spanish base.

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Gondomar demanded that the English king should properly punish Raleigh. Nothing less than a sentence of death would satisfy the Spanish for this flagrant breach of the peace treaty, in fact. As a result, James felt that he had no alternative but to comply with the Spanish demands.

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Raleigh was now brought to London and was taken on October 29, 1618, to the Palace of Westminster’s Old Palace Yard, where his head was chopped off. According to Raleigh Trevelyan’s 2002 biography Sir Walter Raleigh, his last words, addressed to his executioner as the axe was poised above his neck, were: “Strike, man, strike!”

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Afterwards, according to some accounts, Raleigh’s severed head was embalmed and placed in a bag that was claimed by his wife Elizabeth. She’s said to have had this macabre memento of her husband close by her for the rest of her life. And Elizabeth ended her days at her son Carew’s house, West Horsley Place.

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Of course, West Horsley Place was the property that Bamber Gascoigne inherited from his great-aunt Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, when she died in 2014 at the age of 99. As we’ve heard, after Gascoigne came into possession of this magnificent country house, a red velvet bag came to light in the attic. And when historical costume expert Mark Wallis examined it, he wondered if it might be the bag that had once carried Raleigh’s head.

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Others, however, are skeptical of the theory. Speaking to The Guardian in October 2018, historian Anna Beer said, “It’s almost definitely not the bag. Almost every source on Raleigh’s execution has wonderful detail of the full horror of it, and that Lady Raleigh took his head away in a red leather bag.” And this bag, of course, is made of velvet, not leather. But nonetheless, the idea that it could once have contained Sir Walter Raleigh’s head remains very intriguing indeed.

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