Sir Walter Ralegh’s letter to his wife, the night before execution
To mark the anniversary of Ralegh’s execution in 1618, I thought it worth posting a letter he wrote to his wife from his prison cell in Winchester in December 1603. He had been sentenced to death for treason on 17 November, and wrote this letter, most likely on 8 December, expecting to die imminently, perhaps the following day.
Like most things Ralegh wrote, it is brilliant – by turns, bitter, practical, tender and devotional. For a few brief unmediated moments, we are in Ralegh’s company, beside him as he writes, chasing the twists and turns of his thoughts, as the skittering energy of his mind draws us with it, leaping like fire from one idea or emotion to the next. It was said he never slept more than four hours a night; reading this, it is clear why.
Some of his flaws are laid bare here, too, anger, pride and self-importance among them. Here too is tacit acknowledgement of his fatally weak grasp of other people, of their motives and emotions. He sees it now. But it is too late. He has been humbled, and knows it. But there is no humility, as such. He remains, as he is, brilliantly undefeated.
More than anything, though, the letter is heart-breaking. He signs off with the valediction, ‘ I can say no more, time and death call me away’. But before he can put the quill down his thoughts are off and two more paragraphs spark from his mind. ‘My dear wife farewell,’ reads the last of these. ‘Bless my poor boy. Pray for me and let my good God hold you in both his arms. Written with the dying hand of sometime thy husband but now alas overthrown… Yours that was, but now not my own.’
It is Ralegh at his most naked.
You shall now receive (my dear wife) my last words in these my last lines. My love I send you, that you may keep it when I am dead, and my counsel that you may remember it when I am no more. I would not by my will present you with sorrows (dear Bess). Let them go to the grave with me and be buried in the dust. And seeing that it is not the will of God that I should see you any more in this life, bear it patiently, and with a heart like thy self.
First, I send you all the thanks which my heart can conceive, or my words can express for your many travails, and care taken for me, which, though they have not taken effect as you wished, yet my debt to you is not the less: but pay it I never shall in this world.
Secondly, I beseech you for the love you bear me living, do not hide your self many days, but by your travails seek to help your miserable fortunes and the right of your poor child. Thy mourning cannot avail me, I am but dust.
Thirdly, you shall understand, that my land was conveyed bona fide to my child: the writings were drawn at midsummer twelve months. My honest cousin Brett can testify so much, and Dalberry, too, can remember somewhat therein. And I trust that my blood will quench their malice that have thus cruelly murthered me: and that they will not seek also to kill thee and thine with extreme poverty. To what friend to direct thee I know not, for all mine have left me in the true time of trial. And I plainly perceive that my death was determined from the first day.
Most sorry I am, God knows, that being thus surprised with death I can leave you in no better estate. God is my witness I meant you all my office of wines or all that I could have purchased by selling it, half of my stuff, and all my jewels, but some on it for the boy. But God hath prevented all my resolutions, and even great God that ruleth all in all. But if you live free from want, care for no more, for the rest is but vanity.
Love God, and begin betimes to repose your self upon him, and therein shall you find true and lasting riches, and endless comfort: for the rest when you have travailed and wearied your thoughts over all sorts of worldly cogitations, you shall but sit down by sorrow in the end. Teach your son also to love and fear God whilst he is yet young, that the fear of God may grow with him, and the same God will be a husband to you, and a father to him; a husband and a father which cannot be taken from you.
Baylie oweth me 200 pounds, and Adrian Gilbert 600. In Jersey I also have much owing me besides. The arrearages of the wines will pay my debts. And howsoever you do, for my soul’s sake, pay all poor men. When I am gone, no doubt you shall be sought for by many, for the world thinks that I was very rich. But take heed of the pretences of men, and their affections, for they last not, but in honest and worthy men, and no greater misery can befall you in this life, than to become a prey, and afterwards to be despised. I speak not this (God knows) to dissuade you from marriage, for it will be best for you, both in respect of the world and of God.
As for me, I am no more yours, nor you mine. Death hath cut us asunder and God hath divided me from the world, and you from me. Remember your poor child for his father’s sake, who chose you, and loved you in his happiest times.
Get those letters (if it be possible) which I writ to the Lords, wherein I sued for my life. God is my witness, it was for you and yours that I desired life. But it is true that I disdained my self for begging of it. For know it (my dear wife) that your son is the son of a true man, and one who in his own respect despiseth death and all his misshapen and ugly formes.
I cannot write much. God he knows how hardly I steal this time while others sleep, and it is also time that I should separate my thoughts from the world. Beg my dead body which living was denied thee; and either lay it at Sherburne (and if the land continue) or in Exeter-Church, by my father and mother. I can say no more, time and death call me away.
The everlasting God, powerful, infinite, and omnipotent God, that almighty God, who is goodness it self, the true life and true light keep thee and thine. Have mercy on me, and teach me to forgive my persecutors and false accusers, and send us to meet in his glorious kingdom.
My dear wife farewell. Bless my poor boy. Pray for me, and let my good God hold you both in his arms. Written with the dying hand of sometimes thy husband, but now alas overthrown.
Yours that was, but now not my own.