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