WALTER RALEIGH BIDS FAREWELL TO
WIFE A FEW HOURS BEFORE HE EXPECTS
TO BE EXECUTED
Many critics have pointed
out that this
dramatic letter is marked by a "Shakespearian eloquence." It was
written with what Raleigh believed was his dying hand, as he expected
to be executed the following morning.
1552, Walter Raleigh achieved early fame as a favorite of Queen
Elizabeth, as the classic type of courtier, as historian, explorer, and
foreign adventurer. He is known partly in legend and partly in
history for his gallantry and for his colonial exploits, which led to
the introduction of tobacco to the civilized world. He was
supplanted in the Queen's favor by the Earl of Essex, went to Ireland,
and was finally restored to favor until the Queen discovered his
intrigue with Elizabeth Throgmorton. After his rise and fall, his
many powerful enemies at court took advantage of one of his
unsuccessful colonial expeditions to South America and had him brought
to trial at Winchester, on a charge of conspiring against the
crown. On his conviction, he was sent to the Tower of London in
1603, under James I. During his stay there, he wrote the famous
History of the World, which contains
his oft-quoted apostrophe to death. It is quoted here because it
is relevant to the theme of his letter:
therefore death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself.
He tells the proud and insolent, that they are but abjects, and humbles
them at the instant; makes them cry, complain, and repent; yea, even to
hate their fore-passed happiness.
the account of the rich, and proves him a beggar; a naked beggar, which
hath interest in nothing, but in the gravel that fills his mouth.
He holds a glass before the eyes of the most beautiful, and makes them
see therein their deformity and rottenness; and they acknowledge it.
just, and mighty death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded;
what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath
flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised: thou hast
drawn together all the farstretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty,
and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow
words, Hic jacet."
". . . I
am but dust."
shall now receive (my deare wife) my last words
in these last lines. My love I send you that you may keep it when I am
dead, and my councell that you may remember it when I am no more. I
would not by my will present you with sorrowes (dear Besse) let them go
to the grave with me and be buried in the dust. And seeing that it is
not Gods will that I should see you any more in this life, beare it
patiently, and with a heart like thy selfe.
First, I send you all the thankes which my heart can conceive, or my
words can rehearse for your many travailes, and care taken for me,
which though they have not taken effect as you wished, yet my debt to
you is not the lesse: but pay it I never shall in this world.
Secondly, I beseech you for the love you beare me living, do not hide
your selfe many dayes, but by your travailes seeke to helpe your
miserable fortunes and the right of your poor childe. Thy mourning
cannot availe me, I am but dust.
Thirdly, you shall understand, that my land was conveyed bona fide
to my childe: the writings were drawne at midsummer was twelve
my honest cosen Brett can testify so much, and Dolberry too, can
remember somewhat therein. And I trust my blood will quench their
malice that have cruelly murthered me: and that they will not
to kill thee and thine with extreame poverty.
To what friend to direct thee I know not, for all mine have left me in
the true time of tryall. And I perceive that my death was
from the first day. Most sorry I am God knowes that being thus
surprised with death I can leave you in no better estate. God is my
witnesse I meant you all my office of wines or all that I could have
purchased by selling it, halfe of my stuffe, and all my jewels, but
one for the boy, but God hath prevented all my resolutions. That
God that ruleth all in all, but if you live free from want, care for no
more, for the rest is but vanity. Love God, and begin betimes to
your selfe upon him, and therein shall you finde true and lasting
riches, and endlesse comfort: for the rest when you have
travailed and wearied your thoughts over all
sorts of worldly cogitations, you shall but sit downe by sorrowe in the
Teach your son also to love and feare God whilst he is yet young, that
the feare of God may grow with him, and then God will be a husband to
you, and a father to him; a husband and a father which cannot be taken
Baily oweth me 200 pounds, and Adrian Gilbert 600. In Jersey I also
have much owing me besides. The arrearages of the wines will pay my
debts. And howsoever you do, for my soules sake, pay all poore
men. When I am
gone, no doubt you shall be sought for by many, for the world thinkes
that I was very rich. But take heed of the pretences of men, and
affections, for they last not but in honest and worthy men, and no
greater misery can befall you in this life, than to become a prey, and
afterwards to be despised. I speake not this (God knowes) to dissuade
you from marriage, for it will be best for you, both in respect of the
world and of God. As for me, I am no more yours, nor you mine, death
hath cut us asunder: and God hath divided me from the world, and you
Remember your poor childe for his father's sake, who chose you, and
loved you in his happiest times. Get those letters (if it be
which I writ to the Lords, wherein I sued for my life: God is my
witnesse it was for you and yours that I desired life, but it is true
that I disdained my self for begging of it: for know it (my deare wife)
that your son is the son of a true man, and one who in his owne respect
despiseth death and all his misshapen & ugly formes.
I cannot write much, God he knows how hardly I steale this time while
sleep, and it is also time that I should separate my thoughts from the
world. Begg my dead body which living was denied thee; and either
it at Sherburne (and if the land continue) or in Exeter-Church, by my
Father and Mother; I can say no more, time and death call me away.
The everlasting God, powerfull, infinite, and omnipotent God, That
Almighty God, who is goodnesse it selfe, the true life and true light
keep thee and thine: have mercy on me, and teach me to forgive my
persecutors and false accusers, and send us to meet in his glorious
Kingdome. My deare wife farewell. Blesse my poore
boy. Pray for me, and
let my good God hold you both in his armes.
Written with the dying hand of sometimes thy Husband, but now alasse
was, but now not my own.
ACTUALLY, Sir Walter Raleigh was not
executed the following morning, but was confined in the Tower of London
with his wife until 1616, when he was allowed to undertake an
expedition to the Orinoco in search of gold. But this proved only
a reprieve, and he was finally executed in 1618, in the same courtyard
of the Tower where he had once witnessed the execution of his bitter
and far more popular rival, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.