Saturday, 29 October 2016


Sir Walter Raleigh
Elizabethan hero, New World colonizer and scorned Jacobean explorer (and alleged traitor) Sir Walter Raleigh met his bloody end on this October day nearly 400 years ago at the dull end of an executioners axe.

The much scorned diplomat - once a favorite of England’s Queen Elizabeth I of Tudor fame - would have spent much of the latter half of his life in and out of prison – beginning in 1591, when the newly minted Knight (Elizabeth had bestowed upon him the honor six years previous) had the audacity to wed one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting in camera, for which the enraged monarch had both the nobleman and his bride holed up in the Tower of London.

By the time Elizabeth expired in 1603, the recently released free man had already gotten himself embroiled in a national scandal: his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow her royal replacement: Elizabeth’s distant cousin, son of the ill-fated Queen of Scotland Mary Stuart, King James VI & I - and place his cousin, Arbella in his stead – a crime for which Sir Raleigh narrowly escaped execution when King James opted to have him imprisoned instead. Once more, the chevalier would find himself forcibly confined within the walls of the Tower of London – this time, for a staggering period of some thirteen years.

It would only be after an early release granted by King James in order for the maligned explorer to seek out the legendary "City of Gold" – El Dorado - believed to be located in Spanish-controlled Guyana that Sir Raleigh would come to face the execution block - this time with no hope of a pardon or converted sentence – after the King learned of the explorers' (and his mens) failed exploits: not only had Raleigh neglected to find the mythical city and returned without handfuls of untold riches - the men under his command were accused of having ransacked a Spanish Outpost – a direct violation on the terms of his pardon/release and the nations' Peace Treaty with Spain. Upon his return to England, pressure by the Spanish ambassador on the King of England began to take its toll. Despite James having been informed of Raleigh’s direct command to his men –– to avoid any form of violence on property or person in Guyana (which had fallen on deaf ears - with immediate and disastrous results: Raleigh’s own son was fatally gunned down during the ransack), the King, in order to maintain peace between both empires, promptly overturned Raleigh’s pardon, re-instating the scorned Knight’s conviction of Treason against England, and had him sent to the chopping block.

In the final hours leading up to Sir Raleigh’s execution, the condemned criminal is alleged to have penned a manifesto of sorts, in the form of a poem entitled What is our life? Its doleful verses expose the prisoner’s inward struggle to make sense of a life filled with riches, and a legacy ultimately besmirched by tragedy:
“What is our life, our life? A play of passion.
Our mirth the music of division.
Our mother's wombs the 'tiring houses be,
where we are dress'd for this short comedy.
Heav'n the judicious sharp spectator is,
that sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves, that hide us from the searching sun
are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing to our latest rest;
Only we die in earnest, that's no jest."

Sir Walter Raleigh at his execution
What is Our Life? would later be immortalized in the form of a madrigal by the English composer Orlando Gibbons, who, interestingly, was a lifetime member of King James’ Chapel Royal and later organist at Westminster Abbey under the King. Given the close nature of Gibbons relationship with the monarch, and the musicians choice to honor Raleigh in such a persisting manner, one must wonder what words of regret may have been uttered by the King behind closed chamber doors.

Whatever James’ personal feelings were for the condemned, whether or not his hand was forced in an effort to maintain some sense of détente with Spain: the end result of Raleigh’s imprisonment, it appears, came as a source of comfort to the crestfallen former hero. After inspecting the sharpness of the (notoriously dull) blade of the axe, Raleigh is said to have remarked to his executioner "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries."

It was but a front: all bravery would be lost to the scorned prisoner when he laid his head on the block and cried out:
“At this hour my ague (fever) comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear…strike, man! Strike!!”

Listen below to Gibbon’s setting of Raleigh’s poem “What is Our Life:” The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets, 1612, no 14:


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