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4 min Read
Published February 11, 2014

Raleigh’s Love Story: The Death Of Our City’s Namesake

Sir Walter Raleigh, our city’s own namesake, would be proud to see of what his vision of the New World has become. Sir Walter Raleigh has so many titles attached to his name, it’s hard to keep up with all of his accomplishments.

He was known as an explorer, navigator, published author, poet, and a visionary before his time. This once uncharted territory was known as the “land of opportunity” for English settlers and traders. It was Sir Walter Raleigh who helped fund expeditions to this New World.

I was saddened, therefore, to learn that Sir Walter Raleigh never had the opportunity to explore this beautiful land known as the Old North State.

“It is therefore death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself.” Sir Walter Raleigh

So who was this true Renaissance man our magnificent City of Oaks was named after?

Sir Walter Raleigh was born in Hayes Barton in Devonshire in 1554 to a Protestant family, which may explain his dislike of Catholics. Flamboyant and nearly six feet tall, he was known to speak with a soft Devonshire accent. His debonair appearance, dressed in white satin, brown velvet, and silver and pearl embroidery, made the ladies blush. His sword was embellished with jewels. A ruby pin adorned his hat, and his shoes glimmered with diamonds. Handsome and brash, Raleigh was well known by his peers as being ruthless in politics.

He was arrested twice for dueling and fathered an illegitimate daughter. Raleigh’s funded expeditions to the New World brought the cultivation of tobacco and potatoes to the British Isles. It was Raleigh that introduced smoking tobacco from a pipe to Queen Elizabeth I. Raleigh liked it so much, he gave pipes to many of his friends with bowls of silver. Smoking tobacco was something unheard of in England. Once, Raleigh was drenched with a bucket of water by his servant because he saw smoke coming out of Raleigh’s mouth and thought he was on fire.

The introduction of the potato was far less popular. The English were petrified to eat them, fearing they were poisonous, like the deadly Nightshade their flowers resembled. Queen Elizabeth I tried to convince the English to eat potatoes by serving them at a lavish dinner party but the English only pretended to eat them. So Raleigh transported his potato plants to Ireland, which spread throughout the country. Eventually every cottage in Ireland had a potato patch.

Sir Walter Raleigh was known for courtly manners and brilliant poetry, which no doubt contributed to his reputation as a “seducer of women.” The Virgin Queen was captivated by Raleigh’s charms, as well as stories of his heroic efforts fighting off twenty-two Irish rebels to rescue his friend. The Queen rewarded his efforts with a diamond ring. As she presented the gift to Sir Walter Raleigh, he kneeled before her and gallantly kissed her hand. From this point forward the Queen was smitten with Raleigh and made him her gentleman of the household.

She loved to call him her “Squire of Cloak,” which made her courtiers very jealous of Raleigh. Because of his efforts in the Irish rebellion, he was knighted and quickly became a favorite of the Queen’s Elizabeth I’s royal court.

He served as her Majesty’s adviser and was appointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard. Oddly enough, Queen Elizabeth I was twenty years his senior. She was a “cougar” in her own time.

She gave him power and prestige, igniting envy in many enemies. Queen Elizabeth kept Raleigh tightly by her side, and because of her love, he was kept from adventuring to the New World.

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Raleigh’s love affair with the Queen eventually determined his demise. For it was Elizabeth Throckmorton, an orphan girl that caught Raleigh’s attention. She was one of the Queen’s maids of honor. Raleigh was captured by her beauty and grace and was often caught watching her waiting on the Queen. Raleigh and Elizabeth quickly fell in love and ran away to be married.

Raleigh’s Love Story-- The Death Of Our City’s Namesake - 2The Queen’s maids were not allowed to marry without the Queen’s permission. An enemy of Raleigh told the Queen of Raleigh’s secret marriage.

Queen Elizabeth was heartbroken and so enraged she stripped Raleigh of all his titles and imprisoned both of them in the bloody Tower of London.

A few months passed, and the Queen eventually released the couple. They moved to the western country side and remained there happily for two years. But the Queen never forgave Raleigh for his betrayal of love and would not allow him in her presence and banished him from court.

Raleigh longed for adventure in South America. He was determined find treasures and gold and at long last return his to the good graces of the Queen. Westward Ho!

He sailed from Plymouth to a small island off the coast of Guiana. Local Native Americans secretly boarded Raleigh’s ship, begging to be saved from the Spaniards currently occupying the region. Raleigh captured the Spanish Governor and set the captives free. The King of Spain, defeated eight years before, sought bloody vengeance in England. Raleigh caught wind of the the new Spanish Armada and rushed back to support England’s battle against Spain. Raleigh led the fight to conquer the Spaniards. A hero again in the Queen’s eyes, Raleigh was named Captain of the Guard once more.

But an old enemy, the Earl of Essex, was very bitter about Raleigh’s return to grace. He continuously tried to turn the Queen against Raleigh. When he failed, Essex appealed instead to King James of Scotland, the Queen’s closest relative and heir. King James believed the lies and when the Virgin Queen took her last breath, he quickly took over the throne. Believing Raleigh was a dangerous man, he stripped Raleigh of all his honors. Without the Queen’s protection, Raleigh faced a risky scenario. Falsely accused of attempting to assassinate the King, Raleigh was arrested and sent to the grim and horrible Tower of London. Lady Raleigh, also known as Bess, begged the King for mercy to spare her husband’s life. Impressed with Lady Raleigh’s bravery and devotion, the King granted her request kept Raleigh alive in the Tower of London for the next thirteen years. During this time, Lady Raleigh and the children lived in the Bloody Tower with Raleigh.

He spent his passing time developing elixirs to help cure illnesses for the masses. He also wrote the History of the World which received rave reviews. Eventually a new Governor came to the tower and established stricter rules regarding the prisoners. Lady Raleigh was moved to a small house on Tower Hill and was not allowed to live with her husband anymore.

During Raleigh’s time in the tower, the New World had been established but Guiana was still waiting to be explored. And since Raleigh was the only man that had been to this unknown territory, King James agreed to set Raleigh free from bondage to plunder the riches of gold to bring back to England. Hearing that the man who had helped slaughter his troops was released and venturing to the New World, the King of Spain was enraged. King James assured him if any Spaniards were attacked in Raleigh’s search for gold, Raleigh would be given to Spain to be executed by hanging. By this time, Raleigh’s handsome looks had become worn and aged. His hair was snow-white and this once strong and brash man looked frail and weak. But his eyes still glistened with life as he ventured again into the open seas. This was Raleigh’s final voyage.

Spring arrived and twelve ships set sail from Plymouth Bay headed towards Guiana. By the time the ships arrived, Raleigh’s failing health made him too ill to leave his cabin. The local natives Raleigh had freed years before arrived in crowds and lavished him with gifts. Although Raleigh was too weak to explore, he sent his son Walter Jr. to forge ahead. Sadly, the Spanish were waiting in ambush. Young Walter lost his life fighting bravely. The English soldiers found it impossible to get to the gold mine and returned to give Raleigh the horrible news. Raleigh was grief-stricken. He voyaged back to England to face his accusers, knowing that his failures would surely mean death.

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Once again, Raleigh was placed in the Tower of London. King James, wanting to keep peace with Spain, proceeded with the death warrant. Labeled traitor and charged with treason, Raleigh was sent to Winchester Castle to face his pending demise. Crowds of people gathered from far and wide and waited all night to hear the trial. Raleigh knew there was no hope of innocence.

He gallantly approached the scaffold with the block of wood laying at his feet. The hushed crowd listened starkly as Raleigh’s final words stole the air, “So I take my leave of you all, making my peace with God.” He removed his garments and asked to examine the axe. Analyzing the deadly hatchet, he said to the headsman, “This is sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries. Let us dispatch. At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked with fear.”

Raleigh’s Love Story-- The Death Of Our City’s Namesake - 1The executioner begged for Raleigh’s forgiveness. Raleigh placed his hands on the man’s shoulders and said he forgave with all his heart. Raleigh knelt down, positioned his head on the block, and refused the blindfold. The executioner raised the axe slowly, regretfully.

Raleigh shouted to the man, “Strike man, strike!” And as the axe fell–and then fell again–the headsman held up Raleigh’s severed head to the crowd and shouted, “God save the King!” The crowd moaned with heartache, peering with silent anger at the great atrocity of Raleigh’s death. England held a day of mourning for the loss of their great and valiant hero.

Raleigh’s severed head was embalmed and given to Lady Raleigh in a red leather bag that she carried by her side for 29 years. When Lady Raleigh passed away, Raleigh’s head was then passed on to their youngest son Carew, until his death. Carew Raleigh was buried in Sir Walter Raleigh’s grave along with his father’s head.

“Thy mourning cannot avail me, I am but dust…”

The City of Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in America. In recent years, this expanding metropolis has won many prestigious awards in business, technology, education and it’s advancement in medicine and science. Today, a statue in tribute to Sir Walter Raleigh’s legacy stands tall and graceful in front of the Raleigh Convention Center. It is a city of opportunity, progress, and adventure which mimics the life of Sir Walter Raleigh.

North Carolina owes gratitude to this man. His plan to colonize the region from a swampy marshland and expand West has gone far beyond what he could envision. I wonder what Sir Walter Raleigh would think of his vision if he were alive today? I would hope that he would be astonished of reality his dream has become.

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  • Hope Thompson


  • Trying to educate the world one SLICE OF HISTORY at a time! Hope Thompson is a freelance journalist focused on hidden history, Southern & Appalachian folklife, and Native American culture. She is a native of North Carolina and has been writing for this space for four years. She currently works in state government finance and owns a graphic design business. All my articles.

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