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October 21, 2017

The Last Elizabethan

On this day in 1618, English adventurer, courtier, soldier, historian and poet, Sir Walter Ralegh (also Raleigh) was executed. Though neither a major writer nor a central historical figure, "the last Elizabethan" lived and died with flair, and on the main stage. Whether he threw down his legendary cloak for her or not, Elizabeth I made him her favorite, and conferred many lucrative properties and positions upon him -- until imprisoning him in the Tower for secretly marrying one of her attendants. A decade later, James I found it politically convenient to lock him up again, this time for 13 years. Many of Ralegh's poems were written in the Tower, as was The History of the World. His pardon and release was conditional upon the success of his wild promise to voyage again to South America, and discover the fabled el dorado. When this final adventure failed, James contrived to reapply his old execution order, and Ralegh was beheaded. As one account of Ralegh written in 1641 put it, he was Fortune's "Tennis-Ball."

Once resigned to it, Ralegh effectively turned his execution into a show of poise and wit. To a friend the night before who urged him to not be too defiant, Ralegh replied, "It is my last mirth in this world. Do not grudge it to me. When I come to a sad parting [i.e. with his head] you shall see me grave enough." To an old servant in the crowd who lined the streets, and who wanted to comb his master's hair, Ralegh said, "Let them comb it that are to have it" and then asked, "Dost thou know, Peter, of any plaster that will set a man's head on again when it is off?" To one friend who said he would attend the event: "I do not know what you may do for a place. For my own part, I am sure of one; you must make what shift you can." To his executioner, who would moments later throw down his cloak for Sir Walter to kneel, he inquired if he might see the axe, and then declared it "a sharp medicine" and "a sure cure for all diseases" -- all this so unnerving the executioner that he failed to act upon Ralegh's signal: "What does thou fear? Strike, man, strike!" Ralegh had to say. When the head was dutifully displayed to the crowd, one voice came back, "We have not another such head to be cut off!"

To his wife, in his last-night letter -- it would not have been delivered to her long before the head arrived, embalmed for her keeping -- he wrote "with the dying hand of sometimes thy Husband, but now alasse overthrown. Yours that was, but now not my own." To his public, also on his last night, he wrote his last lines of verse in the fly leaf of his Bible, first copying out part of an earlier poem and then appending two new lines:
    Even such is Time, which takes in trust
    Our youth, our joys, and 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.
             And from which earth, and grave, and dust,
             The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
For generations afterwards, Ralegh's life was held up in wonder, a source of not just anecdote and inspiration, but parable: "He hath been a star," wrote one, "at which the world hath gazed. But stars may fall, nay, they must fall when they trouble the sphere wherein they abide."

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