Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

An Authentic Narrative of the Last Hours of
Sir Walter Rawleigh.

The close of the life of Sir Walter Rawleigh was as extraordinary as many parts of his varied history; the promptitude and sprightliness of his genius, his carelessness of life, and the equanimity of this great spirit in quitting the world, can only be paralleled by a few other heroes and sages. Rawleigh was both! But it is not simply his dignified yet active conduct on the scaffold, nor his admirable speech on that occasion, circumstances by which many great men are judged, when their energies are excited for a moment to act so great a part, before the eyes of the world assembled at their feet; it is not these only which claim our notice.

We may pause with admiration on the real grandeur of Rawleigh’s character, not from a single circumstance, however great, but from a tissue of continued little incidents, which occurred from the moment of his condemnation till he laid his head on the block. Rawleigh was a man of such mark, that he deeply engaged the attention of his contemporaries; and to this we owe the preservation of several interesting particulars of what he did and what he said, which have entered into his life; but all has not been told in the published narratives. Contemporary writers in their letters have set down every fresh incident, and eagerly caught up his sense, his wit, and, what is more delightful, those marks of the natural cheerfulness of his invariable presence of mind: nor could these have arisen from any affectation or parade, for we shall see that they served him even in his last tender farewell to his lady, and on many unpremeditated occasions.

I have drawn together into a short compass all the facts which my researches have furnished, not omitting those which are known, concerning the feelings and conduct of Rawleigh at these solemn moments of his life; to have preserved only the new would have been to mutilate the statue, and to injure the whole by an imperfect view.

Rawleigh one morning was taken out of his bed, in a fit of fever, and unexpectedly hurried, not to his trial, but to a sentence of death. The story is well known. — Yet pleading with “a voice grown weak by sickness and an ague he had at that instant on him,” he used every means to avert his fate: he did, therefore, value the life he could so easily part with. His judges, there, at least, respected their state criminal, and they addressed him in a tone far different from that which he had fifteen years before listened to from Coke. Yelverton, the attorney-general, said —“Sir Walter Rawleigh hath been as a star at which the world have gazed; but stars may fall, nay, they must fall, when they trouble the sphere where they abide.” And the lord chief-justice noticed Rawleigh’s great work:—“I know that you have been valiant and wise, and I doubt not but you retain both these virtues, for now you shall have occasion to use them. Your book is an admirable work; I would give you counsel, but I know you can apply unto yourself far better than I am able to give you.” But the judge ended with saying, “execution is granted.” It was stifling Rawleigh with roses! the heroic sage felt as if listening to fame from the voice of death.

He declared that now being old, sickly, and in disgrace, and “certain were he allowed to live, to go to it again, life was wearisome to him, and all he entreated was to have leave to speak freely at his farewell, to satisfy the world that he was ever loyal to the king, and a true lover of the commonwealth; for this he would seal with his blood.”

Rawleigh, on his return to his prison, while some were deploring his fate, observed that “the world itself is but a larger prison, out of which some are daily selected for execution.”

That last night of his existence was occupied by writing what the letter-writer calls “a remembrancer to be left with his lady, to acquaint the world with his sentiments, should he be denied their delivery from the scaffold, as he had been at the bar of the King’s Bench.” His lady visited him that night, and amidst her tears acquainted him that she had obtained the favour of disposing of his body; to which he answered smiling, “It is well, Bess, that thou mayst dispose of that, dead, thou hadst not always the disposing of when it was alive.” At midnight he entreated her to leave him. It must have been then, that, with unshaken fortitude, Rawleigh sat down to compose those verses on his death, which being short, the most appropriate may be repeated.

Even such is Time, that takes on trust

Our youth, our joys, our all we have,

And pays us but with age and dust;

Who in the dark and silent grave,

When we have wandered all our ways,

Shuts up the story of our days!

He has added two other lines expressive of his trust in his resurrection. Their authenticity is confirmed by the writer of the present letter, as well as another writer, enclosing “half a dozen verses, which Sir Walter made the night before his death, to take his farewell of poetry, wherein he had been a scribbler even from his youth.” The enclosure is not now with the letter. Chamberlain, the writer, was an intelligent man of the world, but not imbued with any deep tincture of literature. On the same night Rawleigh wrote this distich on the candle burning dimly:—

Cowards fear to die; but courage stout,

Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

At this solemn moment, before he lay down to rest, and at the instant of parting from his lady, with all his domestic affections still warm, to express his feelings in verse was with him a natural effusion, and one to which he had long been used. It is peculiar in the fate of Rawleigh, that having before suffered a long imprisonment with an expectation of a public death, his mind had been accustomed to its contemplation, and had often dwelt on the event which was now passing. The soul, in its sudden departure, and its future state, is often the subject of his few poems; that most original one of “The Farewell,”

Go, soul! the body’s guest,

Upon a thankless errand, &c.

is attributed to Rawleigh, though on uncertain evidence. But another, entitled “The Pilgrimage,” has this beautiful passage:—

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of truth to walk upon,

My scrip of joy immortal diet;

My bottle of salvation;

My gown of glory, Hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage —

Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,

Travelleth towards the land of Heaven —

Rawleigh’s cheerfulness was so remarkable, and his fearlessness of death so marked, that the Dean of Westminster, who attended him, at first wondering at the hero, reprehended the lightness of his manner, but Rawleigh gave God thanks that he had never feared death, for it was but an opinion and an imagination; and as for the manner of death, he would rather die so than of a burning fever; and that some might have made shows outwardly, but he felt the joy within. The dean says, that he made no more of his death than if he had been to take a journey: “Not,” said he, “but that I am a great sinner, for I have been a soldier, a seaman, and a courtier.” The writer of a manuscript letter tells us, that the dean declared he died not only religiously, but he found him to be a man as ready and as able to give as to take instruction.

On the morning of his death he smoked, as usual, his favourite tobacco, and when they brought him a cup of excellent sack, being asked how he liked it, Rawleigh answered —“As the fellow, that, drinking of St. Giles’s bowl, as he went to Tyburn, said, ‘that was good drink if a man might tarry by it.’”1 The day before, in passing from Westminster Hall to the Gate-house, his eye had caught Sir Hugh Beeston in the throng, and calling on him, Rawleigh requested that he would see him die to-morrow. Sir Hugh, to secure himself a seat on the scaffold, had provided himself with a letter to the sheriff, which was not read at the time, and Sir Walter found his friend thrust by, lamenting that he could not get there. “Farewell!” exclaimed Rawleigh, “I know not what shift you will make, but I am sure to have a place.” In going from the prison to the scaffold, among others who were pressing hard to see him, one old man, whose head was bald, came very forward, insomuch that Rawleigh noticed him, and asked “whether he would have aught of him?” The old man answered —“Nothing but to see him, and to pray God for him.” Rawleigh replied —“I thank thee, good friend, and I am sorry I have no better thing to return thee for thy good will.” Observing his bald head, he continued, “but take this night-cap (which was a very rich wrought one that he wore), for thou hast more need of it now than I.”

His dress, as was usual with him, was elegant, if not rich.2 Oldys describes it, but mentions, that “he had a wrought nightcap under his hat;” this we have otherwise disposed of; he wore a ruff-band, a black wrought velvet night-gown over a hare-coloured satin doublet, and a black wrought waistcoat; black cut taffety breeches, and ash-coloured silk stockings.

He ascended the scaffold with the same cheerfulness as he had passed to it; and observing the lords seated at a distance, some at windows, he requested they would approach him, as he wished that they should all witness what he had to say. The request was complied with by several. His speech is well known; but some copies contain matters not in others. When he finished, he requested Lord Arundel that the king would not suffer any libels to defame him after death. —“And now I have a long journey to go, and must take my leave.” “He embraced all the lords and other friends with such courtly compliments, as if he had met them at some feast,” says a letter-writer. Having taken off his gown, he called to the headsman to show him the axe, which not being instantly done, he repeated, “I prithee let me see it, dost thou think that I am afraid of it?” He passed the edge lightly over his finger, and smiling, observed to the sheriff, “This is a sharp medicine, but a sound cure for all diseases,” and kissing it laid it down. Another writer has, “This is that that will cure all sorrows.” After this he went to three several corners of the scaffold, and kneeling down, desired all the people to pray for him, and recited a long prayer to himself. When he began to fit himself for the block, he first laid himself down to try how the block fitted him; after rising up, the executioner kneeled down to ask his forgiveness, which Rawleigh with an embrace gave, but entreated him not to strike till he gave a token by lifting up his hand, “and then, fear not, but strike home!” When he laid his head down to receive the stroke, the executioner desired him to lay his face towards the east. “It was no great matter which way a man’s head stood, so that the heart lay right,” said Rawleigh; but these were not his last words. He was once more to speak in this world with the same intrepidity he had lived in it — for, having lain some minutes on the block in prayer, he gave the signal; but the executioner, either unmindful, or in fear, failed to strike, and Rawleigh, after once or twice putting forth his hands, was compelled to ask him, “Why dost thou not strike? Strike! man!” In two blows he was beheaded; but from the first his body never shrunk from the spot by any discomposure of his posture, which, like his mind, was immovable.

“In all the time he was upon the scaffold, and before,” says one of the manuscript letter-writers, “there appeared not the least alteration in him, either in his voice or countenance; but he seemed as free from all manner of apprehension as if he had been come thither rather to be a spectator than a sufferer; nay, the beholders seemed much more sensible than did he, so that he hath purchased here in the opinion of men such honour and reputation, as it is thought his greatest enemies are they that are most sorrowful for his death, which they see is like to turn so much to his advantage.”

The people were deeply affected at the sight, and so much, that one said that “we had not such another head to cut off;” and another “wished the head and brains to be upon Secretary Naunton’s shoulders.” The observer suffered for this; he was a wealthy citizen, and great newsmonger, and one who haunted Paul’s Walk. Complaint was made, and the citizen was summoned to the Privy Council. He pleaded that he intended no disrespect to Mr. Secretary, but only spoke in reference to the old proverb, that “two heads were better than one!” His excuse was allowed at the moment; but when afterwards called on for a contribution to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and having subscribed a hundred pounds, the Secretary observed to him, that “two are better than one, Mr. Wiemark!” Either from fear or charity, the witty citizen doubled his subscription.3

Thus died this glorious and gallant cavalier, of whom Osborne says, “His death was managed by him with so high and religious a resolution, as if a Roman had acted a Christian, or rather a Christian a Roman.”4

After having read the preceding article, we are astonished at the greatness, and the variable nature of this extraordinary man and this happy genius. With Gibbon, who once meditated to write his life, we may pause, and pronounce “his character ambiguous;” but we shall not hesitate to decide that Rawleigh knew better how to die than to live. “His glorious hours,” says a contemporary, “were his arraignment and execution;” but never will be forgotten the intermediate years of his lettered imprisonment; the imprisonment of the learned may sometimes be their happiest leisure.

1 In the old time, when prisoners were conveyed from Newgate to Tyburn, they stopped about midway at the “Old Hospital,” at St. Giles’s-in-the-fields, “and,” says Stow, “were presented with a great bowl of ale, thereof to drink at their pleasure, as to be their last refreshment in this life.”

2 Rawleigh’s love of dress is conspicuous in the early portraits of him we possess, and particularly so in the one engraved by Lodge.

3 The general impression was so much in disfavour of this judicial murder, that James thought it politic to publish an 8vo pamphlet, in 1618, entitled, “A Declaration of the Demeanor and Cariage of Sir Walter Raleigh, Knight, as well in his Voyage, as in and sithence his Returne: and of the true motives and inducements which occasioned his Maiestie to proceed in doing justice upon him, as hath beene done.” It takes the whole question apologetically of the licence given him to Guiana, “as his Majestie’s honour was in a manner engaged, not to deny unto his people the adventure and hope of such great riches” as the mines of that island might yield. It afterwards details his proceedings there, which are declared criminal, dangerous to his Majesty’s allies, and an abuse of his commission. It ends by defending his execution, “because he could not by law be judicially called in question, for that his former attainder of treason is the highest and last worke of the law (whereby hee was civiliter mortuus) his Maiestie was enforced (except attainders should become priviledges for all subsequent offences) to resolve to have him executed upon his former attainder.”

4 The chief particulars in this narrative are drawn from two manuscript letters of the day, in the Sloane Collection, under their respective dates, Nov. 3, 1618, Larkin to Sir Thos. Pickering; Oct. 13, 1618, Chamberlain’s letters.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53