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Famous Prisoners, the Tower of London: Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh Desk Tower of London courtesy Historic Royal Palaces copyright Perhaps one of the most famous prisoners held in the Tower of London, Walter Ralegh enjoyed notoriety throughout his life, first as a favourite of Elizabeth I and later as an enemy of James I. A flamboyant and heroic character, he was imprisoned in the Tower on three separate occasions, passing a total of thirteen years within its walls.

Walter Ralegh first encountered Elizabeth I at Greenwich in 1581. She was very impressed by the dashing young man and made him Captain of the Queen's Guard and knighted him. Ralegh was imprisoned in the Tower of London for the first time on 7 August 1591 after incurring the Queen's displeasure following his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, her Maid of Honour. On this occasion, Ralegh may have been imprisoned in the Brick Tower and was released after five weeks.

His second stay in the Tower was under a different monarch, King James I. On 14 July 1603 the King had him arrested for involvement in a conspiracy to place the crown on the head of Lady Arabella Stuart. Whilst imprisoned in the Tower awaiting trial, Ralegh attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself with a table knife. On 17 November 1603 he was condemned to death but soon after the sentence was revoked to life imprisonment.

Ralegh was held in the Bloody Tower. He was able to use part of the Lieutenant's Garden and was allowed to move freely around the Tower of London. The raised wall between the Bloody Tower and Lieutenant's House where Ralegh exercised is still known as Ralegh's Walk today.

The Bloody Tower was enlarged to accommodate Ralegh's family. Accounts from 1605-6 survive and confirm the division of "the roome into two stories for Sir Walter Rawleigh". His second son, Carew, was born in the Tower in 1605 and baptised in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula on Tower Green. The entry can still be seen in the Chapel register.

A prisoner of high rank, Ralegh was allowed three servants, including John Talbot, his secretary and son Wat's tutor. Ralegh passed much of his time in the Tower conducting chemical experiments and converted a small hen house into a laboratory. Responsible for introducing tobacco to this country from the United States, after serving as Governor of Virginia, Ralegh tried to grow his own in the Lieutenant's Garden. He also wrote extensively, notably commencing his History of the World here. Although the book was never completed, it was published in 1614.

Ralegh believed he could find the ancient city of El Dorado and the riches it contained. In 1616, he negotiated temporary release to pursue his quest. The expedition failed and involved Ralegh's men attacking the Spanish settlement of St Thomas. On his return to England, Ralegh began his third stay in the Tower. He was sentenced to death at the insistence of the Spanish Minister, Conde de Gondomar and executed in Old Palace Yard, Westminster on 29 October 1618. In keeping with his character, Ralegh faced death boldly. On the scaffold he felt the edge of the axe and exclaimed, "Tis a sharp remedy, but a sure cure for all ills".

Spelling in Ralegh's time was much less formal than it is today. Recorded spellings of his name include Raleigh, Ralegh, Rawleigh and Rawley - the last two confirming how the name should be pronounced.


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