On this day in 1618, having made one final revision to an old poem and entrusted it to his Bible, Sir Walter Raleigh climbed the scaffold before a large crowd that included his old compatriot Thomas Hariot. According to witnesses, the condemned man ran his thumb along the executioner’s blade and said, “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.”
Mark Nicholls, an Encyclopedia Virginia contributor who co-authored a recent biography of Raleigh, elaborates on the scene:
He rejected a blindfold, saying that since he had no fear of the axe itself, he would not tremble at its shadow. The usual arrangements were made, that the condemned prisoner could pray a while, and then stretch his arms as a signal to the headsman. Ralegh prayed, and reached forward. The axe did not fall. Again he pushed forward, urging an end: What do you fear? he asked. ‘Strike, man.’ Even in the horror of death Ralegh seemed to control his own final moment, and ‘the last act’, according to the familiar contemporary proverb, ‘carrieth away the applause’.
The deed finally done, the head was taken away in a red leather bag and gifted to Raleigh’s wife, Bess, who embalmed it, and stored it in a special case for the remaining twenty-nine years of her life.