Has The “Red Bag” That Once Held Sir Walter Raleigh’s Decapitated Head Been Discovered At An Old Family Manor?
Four hundred years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh, the famous English poet, soldier and explorer responsible for the first ever English colonies in the New World, was beheaded for conspiring against Queen Elizabeth I’s successor, James. Traditions recount how Raleigh’s widow, Bess, had her husband’s head embalmed. Now at West Horsley Place in Carew, England, where Raleigh’s family lived, a “red bag” has been discovered that might have at one time held Raleigh’s head.
West Horsley Place explained on their website that the discovery of the “red velvet bag” was made in 2014 and measured “just the right size for an embalmed human head.” Mark Wallis, an expert on historical clothing, determined that the bag does indeed date “to the time of Raleigh’s death.” Wallis told reporters at The Guardian ,“It’s clearly a bag of the period. Whether it held the mummified head, I couldn’t say. But that Lady Raleigh lived there means that it’s much more likely than it would be otherwise.”
Why would Sir Walter Raleigh’s head end up in a bag?
While Raleigh was at one time a favorite confidante and advisor of Elizabeth, he failed to impress the next in line, James, who ruled Scotland as James VI before his mother died. When James became king he immediately stripped Raleigh of his royal privileges and evicted him. Before the eviction James accused Raleigh and others of having conspired with Spain to do away with James and installed his cousin Arabella on the throne in a scheme called the ‘Main Plot.’ For this Raleigh was beheaded. West Horsley Place told The Guardian that “evidence suggests Bess, Raleigh’s wife, kept her husband’s dismembered head with her, just as the legends say.”
Sir Walter Raleigh’s execution via decapitation of his head. (Public Domain)
Historically verified accounts of Raleigh’s execution day detail that his head was displayed to the crowd before being presented to his wife Bess “in a red leather bag.” The story goes on to say that the widow embalmed her husband’s head and subsequently brought it with her when she and her family moved to West Horsley. An article about the discovery in Smithsonian says, “After Bess’ death in 1647, family lore alleges the head was placed in a cupboard under the stairs.” Then in 1660, when Raleigh’s third son and Carew's three children had all died the head was “buried alongside them at the nearby St. Mary’s Church.”
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18th Century Diary Surprise: Raleigh’s head and none of his bones in family burial plot
Under normal circumstances academic historians would disregard ‘all’ of these spurious lines of logic as no more than old wives tales, but in 1703 a diary entry after the family plot was dug up during another burial stated: “Raleigh’s head was found, with no other bones and no room for other bones.” Having no good reason to doubt the validity of this record, many experts have looked further into the discovery of the ‘red velvet bag’ at West Horsley. For example Peter Pearce, director of the Mary Roxburghe Trust told reporters, “It was assumed the bag that contained it [Raleigh’s head] was buried, too, but the find opens up the possibility that it was not. The velvet bag is currently out for analysis to look for signs that it once held an embalmed head.”
But, But… How does leather transform into velvet?
An embalmed head would fit in the red velvet bag. Image: The Mary Roxburghe Trust
Let us stand back from this tide of speculative observations and remember that every single discovery that has ever been made, brings with it skeptics, and this instance is no different. Anna Beer is a Cultural historian and author of the book Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh, and she told reporters at The Guardian that “she doubts the story”, as she has “not come across any eyewitness accounts that Bess kept a mummified head in her possession.” Beer pointed out that what we know about Raleigh is in a great part mythological, “including the story that he brought the first potato to Europe and that he once placed his cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth I.” Supporting her suspicions, Beer reminds that “almost every source on Raleigh’s execution has wonderful detail of the full horror of it and that Lady Raleigh took his head away in a red leather bag.” “It’s almost definitely not the bag,” she says.
What we have here is a classic historical stalemate where two factions of academics have presented two sets of observations, each one apparently as valid as the other. In the red corner, West Horsley Place has presented a red ‘velvet' bag, while in the blue corner Cultural historian Beer falls just short of asking ‘when in history has leather ever transformed into velvet?’ Hopefully, if CSI is anything to go by, a fragmentary piece of 17th century scalp, hair or blood will soon be found by forensic scientists, or as the case may be, they find absolutely nothing whatsoever. By settling this debate, once and for all, Mr Raleigh may rest in peace(s).
Top image: The bag alleged to have once held Sir Walter Raleigh’s head, found in West Horsley Place. Source: The Mary Roxburghe Trust
By Ashley Cowie