History in the News
The bag that held Raleigh’s head?
After Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618, the legend goes that his wife kept his embalmed head in a bag until her own demise 29 years later. Now, a red bag of silk and velvet dating to the 17th century has turned up in the Surrey manor house in which she lived until her death. Could it be the same one?
Raleigh was beheaded on the orders of King James VI and I, after a group of his men attacked an outpost in Venezuela, violating a treaty between England and Spain. Some years before, Raleigh was charged with treason for being part of a plot against the King – but was pardoned. The conditions of the pardon combined with the later attack saw his death sentence reinstated.
It is believed that Raleigh’s wife, Elizabeth, took the head on the day of the execution. She later moved to West Horlsey Place in Surrey, the home of her son Carew.
The bag was discovered there in 2014, but it was only by chance – when it was noticed by a visiting expert in historic clothing – that anyone realised it may be part of one of the great myths surrounding Raleigh. A first glance indicated that it was from the right century and it is now being tested further to see if it could have held his head.
Mark Wallis, co-director of the Past Pleasures historical costume company, who viewed the bag, told The Observer: “It’s clearly a bag of the period. Whether it held the mummified head, I couldn’t say. But that Lady Raleigh lived there means that it’s much more likely than it would be otherwise.”
Walter Raleigh was a favourite of Elizabeth I The suspect bag is certainly the right age