Not to be too ghoulish, but on this day in 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh—on trial in the Tower of London for treason—attempted suicide. He took up a table knife, one that he used to cut his food, apparently, and stabbed himself in the heart. Among contemporary observers, the effectiveness of his essai, as the French might say, was up for debate. Some claimed he suffered no more than a flesh wound (obligatory Monty Python link), while others suggested something much more serious.
Whatever the case, the prosecutors immediately pounced. “Rawleigh’s purpose and attempt to murder himself strongly presumeth the guiltiness of his own conscience.” King James thought that he should be “well probed” by a good preacher. And one of Raleigh’s many enemies began circulating an anonymous pamphlet ridiculing him—”Sir Walter Rauleigh’s stabb” it was called.
Our contributor Mark Nicholls, in his recent biography of Raleigh, argues that, this being Raleigh, there must have been “an element of dangerous play-acting here.” But Sir Walter did write a pretty affecting note to his wife, Bess:
Hope and dispaire live not together … I am onely tempted with sorrowe, whose sharpe teeth devour my harte.
IMAGE: Sir Walter’s quarters in the Tower of London and, presumably, the site of his “attempt to murder himself”