Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh), explorer, courtier, writer and poet, is buried in the chancel of St Margaret's Church Westminster and there is a memorial tablet and stained glass window to him there. The brass memorial on the south east wall of the church was given in 1845 by the Roxburghe Society, replacing one of wood (put up in 1818) which had decayed. This includes his coat of arms (gules, five lozenges in bend, argent) and the inscription reads: 

Within ye chancel of this church was interred the body of the great Sr. Walter Raleigh, Kt. on the day he was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster Oct. 29th Ano.Dom. 1618. Reader - should you reflect on his errors Remember his many virtues and that he was a mortal

The memorial window over the west door was installed in 1882 and the glass is by Messrs Clayton & Bell. It was subscribed for by American donors led by J.T. Lord. At the top angels hold banners with the arms of the United States of America and the Royal Arms. Below various angels hold other coats of arms and Tudor emblems. Five figures are shown in the main window - Elizabeth I, Henry, Prince of Wales (young son of James I), Raleigh himself, Edmund Spenser (the poet), and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the celebrated navigator. Panels represent Raleigh sailing for America, his (supposed) landing there, Spenser presented to the Queen by Raleigh, his imprisonment and burial. The inscription was composed by James Russell Lowell, US Ambassador in London at the time of the unveiling:

The new world's sons from England's breast we drew, Such milk as bids remember whence we came; Proud of her past, from which our present grew; this window we inscribe with Raleigh's name.

His life

He was born at Hayes in Devon, a son of Walter (died 1581), deputy vice-admiral in the south west of England in the reign of Mary I , and his third wife Katherine (Champernowne) (she was sister to Kat Astley, governess to Princess Elizabeth). His elder brother was Sir Carew Raleigh, Member of Parliament, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-83) was a half brother. He was educated at Oriel College, Oxford, and admitted to the Middle Temple in London in 1575. It was Gilbert who introduced him to the royal Court. He served as a soldier in Ireland and became a favourite of Elizabeth I. Despite what the window depicts, he himself did not go to Virginia but was the mastermind behind expeditions to colonize this part of America.

His marriage to Elizabeth (Bess) Throckmorton, one of the Queen's maids of honour, was performed in secret in late 1591, and their son Damerei was born soon after (he died young). Their other children were Walter (1593-1618) and Carew (usually pronounced Carey). He suffered a period of imprisonment but was released and wrote several poems in honour of the Queen. When James I came to the throne he dropped out of royal favour and was put in prison again, although there he continued to write prose. On release in 1616 he planned an expedition to discover the fabled El Dorado in South America. Arrested again for supposedly plotting with France he was beheaded in the courtyard adjoining St Margaret's, known as Old Palace Yard. It is said that his widow carried his severed embalmed head around with her in a red velvet bag.

Carew Raleigh

He was buried with his father in the chancel on 1st January 1667, the burial register saying he was "killed". It is a tradition in the church that Walter's head was buried in the grave at this time. Carew was born in 1605 and married widow Philippa Ashley (nee Shelton). He purchased property at East Horsley in Surrey and inherited his uncle's property at West Horsley but he died in London. At the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 he declined a knighthood but it was conferred on his son Walter (who died about 1663). His other son was Philip and he had a daughter Anne. He was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Member of Parliament and Governor of Jersey. 

Philip was interred in the Great Vault in the church on 5th February 1706.

Further reading 

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"The letters of Sir Walter Raleigh" ed. A. Latham & J. Youings, 1999

"The Life of Sir Walter Raleigh together with his letters" E. Edwards, 2 vols. 1868

The small statue of Raleigh once in Whitehall was moved a few years ago to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich


Writer; poet; explorer; soldier


St Margaret's Church

Memorial Type

Window; plaque

Material Type

Stone; glass

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh memorial

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh figure in his window

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster