Macabre Memento; Well Preserved: Sir Walter Raleigh's Head Was Embalmed after Death

Daily Mail (London), February 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Macabre Memento; Well Preserved: Sir Walter Raleigh's Head Was Embalmed after Death


Byline: Charles Legge

QUESTIONIs it true that the embalmed head of Sir Walter Raleigh is keptin an unmarked vault in a Surrey church?

AFTER Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded at Westminster on October 29, 1618, hishead is said to have been embalmed and placed in a leather bag which his widowcarried with her for the rest of her life. His body was buried in St Margaret'sChurch, close to the place of his execution.

Raleigh's third son, Carew, was buried in the chancel of St Margaret's inJanuary 1667. It has long been supposed that he shares his father's grave,although the exact location of Sir Walter's burial place in the church wasnever recorded.

One tradition says that Sir Walter's head was interred there at the time ofCarew's burial, but another claims that it is buried at West Horsley. It hasalso been said Carew was himself reburied at West Horsley (where he owned amanor house) but there is no evidence for the disinterment of his body fromWestminster.

Dr Tony Trowles, Librarian, The Muniment Room and Library, Westminster Abbey.

THERE is good evidence that the head of Sir Walter Raleigh was interred in theRaleigh family grave in St Mary's, West Horsley.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), English writer, poet, courtier, explorer andfavourite of Queen Elizabeth I, fell out of favour with the Queen in 1592following his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of her maids ofhonour. The couple were sent to the Tower of London where they had two sons,Demerei, who died in infancy, and Walter.

Restored to favour in 1597, he was returned to the tower by James I in 1603 andin that year his wife bore him a third child, Carew. Released in 1616, he ledan unsuccessful expedition to search for gold in Guyana. When his men burned aSpanish settlement, an action in which his second son Walter was killed, he wasre-arrested by James and later executed, at the demand of the Spanishambassador.

Sir Walter's body was interred at St Margaret's, Westminster, but, as wascommon at the time, his head was embalmed and presented to his wife. She issaid to have carried it with her at all times until she died 29 years later atthe age of 82.

During this period Elizabeth Throckmorton went to live with her brother SirNicholas Carew, at West Horsley Place.

On his death in 1643, he left his estates to Sir Walter's third son Carew whoalso inherited his father's head after his mother died in 1647. Carew wasrestored to favour by James I in 1628 and later made a Gentleman of the PrivyChamber to Charles I. He married a rich widow Lady Phillipa (nee Weston) withwhom he had three sons and two daughters.

At the restoration of the monarchy, Carew declined a knighthood offered byCharles II which went to his eldest son Sir Walter. Unfortunately in 1660 thesecond Sir Walter, his brother (Carew) and a fourmonth-old sister Henretta alldied.

They were buried under the floor of the south chapel in St Mary's Church and,it is believed at this time, Carew had Sir Walter's head buried alongside hischildren.

Carew Raleigh sold the manor to Sir Edward Nicholas in 1664/5 and moved toLondon. He died in 1666 and was buried in St Margaret's Westminster.

Shirley Asten, in A History Of West Horsley Church And Village, gives one finalchapter to the story.

In 1703 William Nicholas, grandson of Sir Edward, is said to have witnessed theuncovering of Sir Walter's skull from beside the grave of young Carew, when hismother Lady Penelope's grave was dug. He and another witness, FrederickSchoberl, explained the skull was buried in its own small grave, in the chalkyfloor of the Nicholas Chapel.

Anne Grace, East Horsley, Surrey.

QUESTIONIs the story of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, fact or fiction?

THE origins of the razor-wielding barber who turns his customers into meat pieshas long been a subject of debate. …

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