Why Sir Wal­ter Raleigh lost his head (he wasn’t very nice)

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY LARRY E. TISE

We are this fall com­mem­o­rat­ing two of the most no­table be­head­ings in North Carolina’s his­tory. On Nov. 22, 1718—300 years ago—the iconic pi­rate Ed­ward Teach, or “Black­beard,” was cut down in North Carolina’s Ocra­coke In­let in a bloody clash be­tween his crew and a group of boun­ty­hunters dis­patched by Virginia’s gov­er­nor. Block­aded by two Virginia sloops, Teach valiantly faced his en­e­mies in handto-hand com­bat un­til stopped by five gun­shots and 20 sword slashes to his body. The Virginia com­man­der, Robert May­nard fin­ished this gory busi­ness by separat­ing Teach’s head from his body, dis­pos­ing of the corpse in the wa­ters be­low, and sus­pend­ing the head to the bowsprit of his sloop as he set out for Wil­liams­burg to col­lect his re­ward. Teach had been de­clared guilty of piracy with­out trial by a colo­nial gov­er­nor with no au­thor­ity to do so.

On Oct. 29, 1618—400 years ago—the ex­plorer and name­sake for North Carolina’s cap­i­tal city, Sir Wal­ter Raleigh, re­ceived two axe blows to his neck separat­ing his head from his body in the shadow of the Houses of Par­lia­ment. He had been on death row in the Tower of Lon­don for 15 years. A duly-em­pow­ered court found him guilty of trea­son for con­spir­ing against King James I and for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Gun­pow­der Plot of 1605 to blow up Par­lia­ment. In 1618, he was found guilty of piracy for cap­tur­ing a gold-laden Span­ish ship in spe­cific con­tra­dic­tion of Royal au­thor­ity. Fol­low­ing the ex­e­cu­tion, his head was pre­sented to his faith­ful widow El­iz­a­beth (“Bess”) Throck­mor­ton. His body was in­terred with­out a marker in the ad­ja­cent church of St. Mar­garet.


I grew up in North Carolina where we lauded Raleigh for choos­ing the Carolina coast for the first English ex­plo­rations and at­tempted set­tle­ments in North Amer­ica. We com­pared him with a mythic Prince Charm­ing for paving a muddy path with his finest robe for Queen El­iz­a­beth who then made him her “fa­vorite.” In a land where to­bacco was our rich­est prod­uct, he won hon­ors for in­tro­duc­ing pipe smok­ing to re­fined English so­ci­ety. And for im­port­ing the potato to starv­ing Ire­land. When I be­came a his­to­rian, I found much dis­be­lief on these sup­posed ac­com­plish­ments.

Yet I thought I knew enough about Raleigh to ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion in 2006 to talk about our hero in the Ir­ish city of Youghal (pro­nounced “y’all). Upon fin­ish­ing my talk, a man in the au­di­ence an­grily re­buked me for fail­ing to men­tion that in 1580 Raleigh had per­son­ally su­per­vised the mas­sacre and dis­mem­ber­ment of six hun­dred “popish” pris­on­ers at nearby Smer­wick—one of black­est mo­ments in English his­tory.

Then I learned that Raleigh trans­ferred some of his ex­e­cu­tion­ers to Roanoke Is­land in 1585 un­der the com­mand of Gov. Ralph Lane, who used these same tools to ex­e­cute na­tive In­di­ans. Lane’s reign of ter­ror cul­mi­nated in the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Al­go­nquian chief Pemisi­pan, who saved the bum­bling English from star­va­tion dur­ing the win­ter of 1586. This diplo­matic blun­der as­sured the fail­ure of Raleigh’s 1587 ven­ture—a per­ma­nent set­tle­ment of men, women, and chil­dren. Though we’ve spun this egre­gious er­ror into the ro­man­ti­cized saga of a “lost colony,” Raleigh’s er­rors con­signed in­no­cent be­ings to in­ex­orable death and per­ma­nently soured In­dian views of Euro­peans.


Though a grand fig­ure in the court of Queen El­iz­a­beth, a lu­mi­nous poet, and fear­less warrior against a Span­ish Ar­mada, Raleigh was a trou­bled hu­man be­ing who left de­struc­tion wher­ever he turned. He dis­af­fected him­self from the queen by im­preg­nat­ing and se­cretly mar­ry­ing Bess, a gen­tle­woman of the queen’s Privy Cham­ber. His delu­sional searches for El­do­rado in Guiana (Venezuela) de­pleted Bess’s for­tune, lost their beloved son Wat in a jun­gle skir­mish, and spurred him to pi­rate a Span­ish ship.

We’ve failed to ac­knowl­edge Raleigh’s tragi­comic ca­reer. Black­beard has in­spired dozens of ad­ven­ture books and count­less movies. Raleigh’s legacy is schol­arly works and unin­spired movies. When I brought Raleigh’s great bi­og­ra­pher, Cam­bridge his­to­rian Mark Ni­chols, to North Carolina a few years ago, he wanted to see how his sub­ject is ven­er­ated in his name­sake city. I sheep­ishly told him not much at all.

When I or­ga­nized a Raleigh re­search con­fer­ence at the Tower of Lon­don a few years later, my cha­grin about our Raleigh ig­no­rance mul­ti­plied. As I told my North Carolina born, bred, and ed­u­cated sons I was headed to Eng­land to pre­side over a con­fer­ence about Raleigh at the Tower of Lon­don, they asked, “Why the Tower of Lon­don?” “That’s where Raleigh lived for fif­teen years,” I ex­plained. “Why?” they asked. “Be­cause he was a traitor and a pi­rate,” I replied. With a look of dis­be­lief, they asked, “He got out, right?” “No,” I said, “he was be­headed.” With jaws droop­ing, they asked rhetor­i­cally, “Why did we not learn that in school!”

Larry E. Tise is for­mer di­rec­tor of the N.C. Divi­sion of Archives and His­tory and a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of his­tory at East Carolina Uni­ver­sity.

JULI LEONARD jleonard@new­sob­server.com

Wil­lie T. Sorrell III takes a photo of blue­grass band None of the Above from Pin­na­cle in front of the Sir Wal­ter Raleigh statue in 2014. Raleigh was be­headed on Oct. 29, 1618.

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