The Head of Sir Walter Ralegh, and its Supposed Burial Place in West Horsley Church

March 27th, 2014 by admin

Sir Walter Ralegh and his son Wat, 1602

On the eve of his execution, Sir Walter Ralegh bade farewell to his wife, Bess, at the Abbey Gatehouse at Westminster. She was distraught, and particularly anxious that his body should be given up to her for burial. ‘It is well, dear Bess, that thou mayest dispose of that dead which thou hadst not always the disposing of when alive,’ he said.

Key to West Horsley church

Ralegh went bravely to the scaffold on the morning of 29 October 1618. It took two strokes of the axe to sever his head which, bleeding profusely, was then held up for the inspection of the stunned onlookers. The silence was broken when a clear voice called out from the throng: ‘We have not such another head to be cut off’. It was an expression of the general mood.

Having been ‘showed on both sides of the scaffold’, Ralegh’s head was ‘put into a red leather bag, and his wrought velvet gown thrown over it, which was afterwards conveyed away in a mourning coach of his lady’s’. As she had feared, Bess was to be denied the disposing of her husband’s body. It was buried not at her brother’s church of Beddington in Surrey, as she would have wished, but in St Margaret’s, Westminster, on the south side of the altar.

Filing cabinet marking Ralegh tomb

As for the head, it ‘seems that Bess had it embalmed and kept it with her to her dying day, and after her it came to her son Carew, with whom it was buried’ (A.L. Rowse, Ralegh and the Throckmortons, London 1962, p.319). Bess died in 1647, having lived with Carew, from 1628, in the manor-house at East Horsley in Surrey (which he purchased), and from 1643 in that of neighbouring West Horsley, where he succeeded his uncle, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (Rowse, pp.329, 330). They also had a house in St Martin’s Lane, Westminster: Carew retired to it late in life, after selling his Surrey estates. He was ‘killed’ in unknown circumstances towards the end of 1666, and buried close to his father in St Margaret’s Church.

However, the parish register of West Horsley records Carew Ralegh’s re-burial in the church there in September 1680. According to the evidence of a young lad who witnessed the event – the son of Sir Edward Nicholas, to whom Carew had sold the estate – he was reunited in the tomb with his father’s head.

The tomb – in a side chapel, surrounded now by splendid monuments to the Nicholas family – is unmarked, but a kindly and well-informed member of the West Horsley Decorative and Fine Arts Society, to whom I lectured the other day, admitted me to the church with a magnificent key and pointed out the position to me, precisely under the front right-hand leg of the filing cabinet in my picture, but occupied until quite recently by a monstrous Victorian organ.

Nicholas monument in West Horsley Church