Raleigh on his Execution

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he is the two-dimensional swash-buckler I had previously, rather idly, thought him to be (probably because of the Blackadder episode, in which he is portrayed as a pompous idiot). He was an English renaissance man if ever there was one, one of his many achievements being some elegant and witty poetry.

Perhaps in his glory days, Raleigh was something of a boaster – he surely had much to boast of. But in A Dead Man in Deptford we meet an older, wiser Raleigh. When the experienced adventurer meets the young playwright for the first time, he apologises for his presumption in having written a wry answer to Marlowe’s early lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. (I have blogged on these two poems before, here and here). He asks him to take it as the voice of experience replying to the voice of innocence, rather than a whole-hearted debunking. Marlowe, who we can imagine being a lot less disingenuous than his shepherd, agrees, and they become fast friends.

Raleigh keeps interesting company. He introduces Marlowe into his circle of cultured gentlemen, who smoke, drink and discuss the great questions of the universe, as well as the more pressing matters of court intrigue. Foremost among this group is the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, known to contemporaries as the Wizard Earl, in whose smoke-filled London home, Syon House, the men meet. The Wizard Earl is another interesting character of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: son of the 8th Earl, who had risen against Elizabeth for Mary Queen of Scots and the old faith, he was himself, less an orthodox Catholic, but interested in magic, the occult and all stripes of ancient learning . Playing the more rationalistic foil to Percy, is his friend and employee, the great scientist Thomas Harriot.

Raleigh’s arch-enemy at this time is the rising star in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Devereux, who really is the self-regarding swash-buckling loud mouth of stereotype. A shallower, vainer individual is hard to imagine – as the poetry he left shows (see my post here). Essex was the ageing queen’s favourite at court, jealous of the memory of her older, more deserving favourite, Sir Walter – and himself fighting for prominence with Elizabeth’s more sober counsellors, the Cecils – to whom Marlowe’s sometime employer, the spymaster Francis Walsingham answers. Burgess weaves an interesting plot out of these connections, as the ascendant playwright gets caught up in a power struggle between two (or three) court factions, and his patron.

From these wranglings among court factions, Burgess provides a plausible explanation for Marlowe’s mysterious death in a Deptford pub. It is not clear that the historical Marlowe ever really met Raleigh or Northumberland, but it is entirely conceivable: they too were accused being atheists. Real atheists were hard to come by in the sixteenth century: the term was used rather loosely, as much against occult dabblers, Catholics or various kind of rebels as that very small minority of people who could conceive of – and speak of – a world without a creator. Marlowe, certainly, and Northumberland, perhaps, could be numbered among actual atheists, but with Raleigh we can’t be sure: certain poems he left betray a cynicism towards the claims of Christianity, but this must be balanced against others – notably the sweet love lyric As You Came from the Holy Land, in which a forlorn lover searches for the woman he met on the way home from a pilgrimage to Walsingham. It may be a love poem, but the setting is religious, and, intriguingly, Catholic. It’s provenance is doubtful, so perhaps he didn’t write it, or perhaps he did write it, but in the voice of a pre-reformation pilgrim. At a distance of four hundred years or so, it’s hard to know.

Burgess’s narrative ends, of course, with the death of the playwright, but there is much in the lives of his supposed associates that would make compelling drama. Both Northumberland and Raleigh lived out Elizabeth’s reign, despite the hostility of the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth’s first Minister, Burghley, the elder Cecil tired of the young favourite’s antics at court and made him Governor of Ireland – a great honour, and a poisoned chalice. When Essex failed in his brief in Ireland, he lost the queen’s favour and never regained it. In a desperate attempt to regain his previous fame, he raised a band of rebels to take London. When this was defeated he was tried, convicted of treason and executed. At some point during his downward spiral, he wrote that famously sulky poem.

Raleigh was made governor of Jersey in the channel islands, then, early in the reign of James I, was involved in a plot to put a rival contender on the throne. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by the King and left in prison indefinitely.

Northumberland met a similar fate. He was thrown in prison in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot. In truth, he hadn’t been involved. Unfortunately, another Percy, one of his kinsmen and employees, was one of the main plotters, and had used Northumberland’s offices in London to gain close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. The Percy family and a long history of rebellion and the attorney general Edward Coke was out to get him, exploiting the earl’s natural shyness and his stutter at the trial. Life wasn’t so bad in prison if you were a celebrity, mind – the earl still held his smoky gatherings of intellectual free thinkers, while Raleigh, for his part, began working on a history of the world.

He didn’t finish because in 1616 he was plucked out of prison by the King, who had been persuaded by some courtiers to let him lead a mission to find the lost city of El Dorado and claim it for the British. The Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Count of Gondomar, was unhappy with this, and Raleigh had to make the not especially realistic promise that no Spaniard would be hurt in the venture. The mission was a disastrous failure, and the English, having been shot at first, had attacked a Spanish outpost. Raleigh returned home in disgrace. Gondomar demanded that Raleigh be handed over to the Spanish for trial and, most likely, execution. James could not agree to the handover, but he agreed to the execution. He, naturally, had no fondness for the old adventurer, and now that Raleigh’s glory days were behind him, he was expendable.This time there was no reprieve.

Raleigh left not one but three poems written on the night before his execution.

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

A very elegant epitaph, that, and very appropriate to Raleigh’s life, what with the talk of wanderings and stories, for few men had wandered as far and wide as Raleigh nor had such impressive stories to tell. The last couplet with its final ‘I trust’ might be read as a devout confession of faith in God, or a wry expression of doubt.

In his second poem, Raleigh’s mind turns from death in general to the approaching, violent, method of his own demise:

Cowards fear to die, but Courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

The meaning of ‘snuff’ here is the charred end of a candle wick, which Raleigh thinks better put out than left to smoulder uselessly. This is the warrior in Raleigh speaking, the adventurer on the bough of his ship in hostile territory facing death, though the hostile territory in question is his own England. It’s a simple enough message: if you’re gonna die, be a man about it!’, but it is delivered with relish, and with echoes of Shakespeare. In the context of Raleigh’s life, the epigram has a wider resonance: he had been smouldering away in prison the last twelve or thirteen years before his last mission, which was his finalchance for glory, or a more fitting end, which is what he got, kind of.

He was as brave on the gallows as on the page, calling ‘Strike, man, strike!’ to the waiting executioner.

The last poem is a translation of Catullus. For poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the joys of translating and mimicking Roman poetry was to escape briefly from the conventional pieties of the age. In contrast to the first poem, the third betrays no belief in the afterlife. But then, it is Catullus speaking, not Raleigh – perhaps, in terms of faith, he was keeping his options open to the last.

The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.



A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage, 1994

Poems found in The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs, Ed. Geoffrey Grigson, 1977

Details of the trial of Northumberland are from The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Hynes, The History Press,1994

Details of the last adventures and trial of Raleigh are from The Cradle King: A Life of King James VI & I, Alan Stewart, Random House, and The History of England Volume III: Civil War, Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, 2014




7 thoughts on “Raleigh on his Execution

  1. Reblogged this on sweettenorbull and commented:

    Hi to all Sweettenorbull readers. After a long hiatus (mostly due to the birth of my daughter), I am blogging again over at Andy Fleck’s Blog. The remit is a little wider than Sweettenorbull, but there will still be a lot about poetry. I guess about a quarter of the posts will focus on poetry, and I will reblog those here on Sweettenorbull.


  2. I will certainly pick it up one day, but not for a while… I think a few years ago I began to think I’d had enough of the horrors and glories of the twentieth century, so his historical fiction holds more interest for me. Then there are his very prescient dystopian novels – maybe The Wanting Seed is the next I’ll read.


  3. I read in a poetry anthology years ago this account of Raleigh just before his execution. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or true, but I hope it is. It supposedly took place just a day or two before execution. Someone remarked to him that he looked remarkably composed for a man whose head was about to be cut off. He replied “At the sad parting you’ll see me grave enough.”

    I’d hope to be so unafraid of my impending death to make a pun about it. But I suspect I’d be begging for my life instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard that – there’s some impressive gallows humour there. Two puns for th price of one… I guess he left the grief for private moments, or else he was past caring after spending so much of his latter years banged up by the King. I’m inclined to like James I (or VI for the Scottish), but his treatment of that English hero and renaissance man is a real stain on his reputation.


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