There are many unusual, one off documents within all three of the Society’s collections. For example, this eye witness account of the speech made by Sir Walter Ralegh prior to his execution in 1618. It is contained in a parchment letter from Edward Prue to a Mr Edwards.
According to the Dictionary of National Biography this moving speech lasted about three quarters of an hour. The lack of punctuation can make documents of this style difficult to comprehend. Geoff Swinfield who is a member of the SoG and also a professional genealogist has kindly taken the time to transcribe the letter (see below) for ease of understanding. The Society is very proud of this 400 year old letter.
[reported by Edward Prue] this day for Mr Edwards at My Lord of Dorset
The speech of Sir Walter Ralegh who was beheaded at the old Palace of Westminster on the 29th October 1618 between 8 & 9 am. The [following]Lords were present
Earle of Arundell Lord Percye
Earle of Oxenford
Earle of Lincoln Lord Sheffeeld
Lo Viscount Doncaster Lord Windesor
along with many knights and gentlemen of rank and quality. Having ascended the scaffold he saluted those Lords who were present and said the following :
“If I appear to tremble, I beg that you don’t put it down to cowardice on my part but rather to a strong and violent fever that is hindering me in what I intend to say. This is the third fit that I have had and when I got up yesterday it was at its worse.
I pray that [this fever] doesn’t hinder my voice or the delivery of what I want to say, for I desire that your Lordships may witness it. I thank God that I have been delivered out of the darkness to die here in the light …”
The Lords, who had mostly been at the window overlooking the scaffold asked him to delay his speech so they could come down to him, which he did.
“As I said, thank God that I came out of the darkness of my imprisonment in the Tower to die in the light. As for the matter that caused the King to take so great offence against me, I must confess that there was probably some cause, yet it is far from the whole truth. The main material points are as follows:
Firstly, that I slandered the King concerning dealings with France. Secondly, that I used abusive language about the King.
With regard to the first matter with France I herby call eternal God to witness that I never directly or indirectly had any dealings, treaty, messages or business with the King or State of France or with anyone there. Neither did I have any dealings with the French agent. Indeed I had never ever seen him before until he came to my house. Oh Lord I call upon your all seeing majesty to witness that I am most clear and innocent in this matter. Alas, it would be foolish madness for me to lie in the presence of God as I will be going to him soon and before whom I am now making my account. How would it profit me to make light of such matters and hence risk my soul? It’s a fearful and terrible thing for a man to ask God to be his witness but to then lie and ask God to witness a falsehood. I now have no power in the world and am in no position to flatter Kings for I am now sentenced to death.
It is true that I intended to flee to La Rochelle and to stay there until I could make my peace. But I never intended to do anything [wrong] nor was I commissioned to do anything by France as has been strongly inferred against me. Oh Lord I will forsake your mercy if I evener intended such a thing.
As for the second point about words spoken against His Majesty I hereby solemnly protest and, oh Lord I beg you to throw my soul into the fiery flames of eternal damnation if I had ever spoken such words or had any such thoughts within me. It grieves me that a *renegade Frenchman, a kind of *cyncical, Chinese physician who caused me no end of irritation should be believed above me. For I have always loved the King and loved him when he was King of Scotland. However, I have forgiven him and Sir Lewis Stewkley also as Mr Dean can witness for me as he administered the sacrament to me this morning.
[* the direct transliteration of the terms Runnegate Frenchmen and Chinnincke phisicion would today be considered racist abuse and hence the above loses some of the colour and emphasis of the original]
[According to the Dictionary of National Biography Sir Lewis Stucley, cousin of Sir Walter Ralegh and Vice Admiral of Devon infamously betrayed Ralegh by arresting him after being firstly involved in aiding his attempt to escape to France]
And although I have forgiven Stewkeley, which I do with all my heart, I think it necessary to warn you to beware of such dangerous men as Stewkeley who is my kinsman and who above all others has betrayed me. For he is not ashamed to swear to my face, that I offered him a bribe on our way to London to let me escape in return for payment for £10,000. I call God as my witness that I never offered him any such money. However I did offer money that might be used to pay his debts if he could arrange for my escape order. For if I had had £10,000, I know well enough how I might have used it to achieve my safety and would never used such means to run away and save my life. Stewkeley also swore that I told him that My Lord Carew, my kinsman, advised me to flee and that my Lord Doncaster (who is also related to me by his first wife) had promised me that I would find assistance in France. Thus [Stewkeley] hoped to turn my good friends into my enemies. Oh Lord you are a witness that such thoughts were far from my mind. He [Stewkeley] also said I suggested that I was poisoned while at the house of Sir Edward Parrams (my wife’s near kinsman and who had once been my loyal follower). Stewkeley himself told me that he suspected some such thing. Rather than report such lies I said he should not think such a thing of Sir Edward Parram for I know him to be a noble and worthy gentlemen and the cook had even been my old servant. However I have forgiven him [Stewkeley].
It has been said that I never intended to undertake any voyage to Guiana but that it was only a trick to gain my liberty. I say I had no other intent or purpose than to go there, truly hoping and assuring myself that I would discover a gold mine that would enrich both the King and myself and the crew. It is generally well known how [that venture] failed for the man I depended on after the death of my son, was violent to me after I reproved him. And while it was said that I was forced back by my own crew, there are several worthy gentlemen in this town that went with me and who can testify that I was forced into my cabin by the uproar and seditious mutiny of my crew. The Gunner Room turned against me and took an oath not to return back to England but to turn pirate. But afterwards through gifts and fair promises I wormed my way back through the Master Gunner of my ship who was one of the leading men of his .. . And so at last I got him to land me in Ireland where he intended to put me ashore on the north part amongst the red shanks. But I persuaded him otherwise and promised to obtain a pardon for some of them accused of piracy. So I managed to land on the south part of Ireland by giving them £125 out of my own purse to relieve them. If I had had any intention of not returning to England I might easily have kept my liberty as I had it then in my own hands. After I came to Plymouth I walked wherever I wanted. Sir Lewis Stewkeley was my keeper but I could have escaped easily if I had feared such strict questioning.
My Lord of Arrundell can bear witness with me, as I now well remember that the last time he was aboard with me before my going away, he asked me to perform one request for him. Whether the voyage went well or ill I was to return again to England, which I promised accordingly and which solemn protestations bound me [to that promise] and which I have performed accordingly to finish my days here now in this place.
It has been rumoured that however the journey went that I had profited from my voyage before hand and that I received £16000 from it. But the mistake has grown out of this. The whole adventure was worth £30,000 and I myself was due £14000. But a search of the Scriveners Books showed it all in my name so it was concluded that I got that £16000. Indeed I paid the bills and ran it in my name but the other investors had the disposal of [the balance] as they themselves know. After I left I had but 160 pieces in all the world of which I left 25 with my wife.
It has also been said that I starved my men of fresh water and other things that could be sold, as anyone who is familiar with such voyages knows well. The rules of propriety must be observed otherwise all shall perish.
There is one thing above all that bothers me and that is a false scandalous report that has blemished my reputation and honour. It is said that when that noble and worthy Earle of Essex left this world I stood at a window drinking, [taking] tobacco, laughing and making merry at his downfall. The all judging God knows that I wept bitterly at that time and shed tears of heartfelt and true sorrow for his reign. For I well know his noble and worthy parts and that his fall would be my destruction. Indeed, I was in the armoury of the Tower at that time but too far away to be noticed. And I was told afterwards that he wanted to speak to me and to be reconciled with me, and I was sorrowful even if I was happy to have known that, for he was a person of contradictions.
As for my “counterfeit sickness” and those matters of my escape, I trust God will not judge it as a sin against me, for the holy prophet David did feign his own madness and let spittle run down his beard to save his life when he was in danger. I’ll let pass and not speak of the thundering reports that came to me of my having got into the habit of “blistering” myself to escape and save my life. I give them no weight, but most heartily desire almighty God and Jesus Christ his son, who opened the gates of salvation to all mankind, to forgive all my sins. For I confess myself to be a most wicked, sinful and wretched man; a poor worm of the earth; one who has delighted and trod in all ways of vanity. For my whole life has been bred up to that, having been a courtier, a captain and soldier – professions in which vices have their best nourishment.
Oh my blessed Saviour, let my merits and passion wash this scarlet off my soul that I may leave the pollution and filth of it behind me. I beg your Christian and charitable payers to God for me and this is all I have to say.”
Then he bowed to all the Lords and gentlemen and embraced them and then took his leave and prepared to pray.
Yo(u)r ever poore loving friend