Bess Throckmorton was born in 1565:  she was around 12 years younger than the great Sir Walter, whom she was to marry. Bess was the daughter of the diplomat Sir Nicholas Throckmorton and Anne Carew.  She had family links through both her parents to Henry VIII.  Nicholas was the cousin to Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr.  Anne Carew’s father - another Nicholas - had been a close friend to Henry, but fell from favour and was executed in 1539.

The great influences in Bess’s life were her mother, and Arthur her elder brother, who paid to install Bess as Lady in Waiting in Queen Elisabeth I’s Chamber.  Sir Nicholas had left a scant inheritance and Bess received just £500, which should have been her dowry, but her mother loaned the money to Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon.  Loans among courtiers were common practice at the time, and repayment often unreliable.  Bess learned to read and write, and she would certainly have approved of plans for phonetic spelling, as hers was to say the least, innovative.  It should be remembered that the standard of literacy for many women in Bess’s day was the same as for humblest levels of society.  The Queen, of course, was a brilliant exception. But Bess had character: she was clever, honest, passionate and courageous. 


Her first introduction to court came on 3rd March, 1579, when Arthur wrote tersely in his diary: ‘My sister and I went to court.’ There was a hiccough in plans to gain her a position, when Francis Throckmorton was accused - rightly - of plotting with Mary Queen of Scots, and executed.  In the summer of 1582, Bess received an offer of marriage from one, Bassingbourne Gawdy,  a connection of Lord and Lady Darcy.  Bess clearly resisted the idea of marriage, and Anne Throckmorton  prevaricated.  She had other ambitions for Bess and regarded the court as the key to Bess’s future. Eventually Anne and Arthur’s efforts succeeded, and on 8th November, 1584, Bess was accepted as a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, one of ten or twelve ladies in personal attendance to the Queen.  She was expected to embody virtues such as chastity, modesty and obedience, and absolute loyalty to the Queen.


At the court, there was entertainment in plenty: masques, plays, dancing and a plentiful allowance of food and ale!  Bess settled into her new life and then in 1587 her dear mother died, and this is about the time that the affair with Walter Raleigh, a favourite of the Queen began, and Bess became pregnant. Elizabeth jealously guarded the virtue of her ladies and equally jealously guarded her favourites!    It was bad enough to marry without the Queen’s consent, but for a maid-of-honour and a favourite captain of the guard to marry without consent was almost suicidal.  To make matters worse, instead of grovelling, the pair tried to brazen it out, with Bess back at court after losing her child and Raleigh planning his voyages. In July, 1592, Elizabeth found out that her ‘Water’- as he was known -  had married behind her back, and to the Tower the couple went. Walter had been shamed, but not ruined: he still had Durham House,  Sherborne  Castle, and benefited from his monopolies.  Then, in the September of that year, one of Raleigh’s fleet, the ‘Madre de dios’ arrived in Dartmouth, laden with spoils, and he was released from the Tower to prevent looting,  and to  apportion the riches. By Christmas, Elizabeth had relented and after a spell at Sherborne, Walter was back in good grace with the Queen, and he remained close to her for the rest of her reign.


Bess never apologised after discovery and banishment: she was never allowed to return to court.  But while at Sherborne, where her second child, Walter, was borne, she consolidated her position as Lady Raleigh, enjoying the prestige of being mistress of Sherborne and of Durham House in Town.

The 1590s -  those years of exile  - when Sir Walter was organising his Guiana trip, were a decade of relentless rains and atrocious harvests.  Bess, as mistress of Sherborne would have been involved in charitable works to ease the lot of the many less fortunate in the neighbourhood.  She organised the education of young Wat – as he was always called -   also of her nieces.  There were many visitors to both houses.  Durham House had always been a centre of intellectual and philosophical discussions, and Bess became a close friend of Ben Johnson and of the magnificent John Donne, who was her relative by marriage.

SIR WALTER’S HEAD                                     

During the years after Queen Elizabeth’s death, when James I succeeded to the throne, and  Walter was in the Tower, Beth was his lynchpin.  Their love for each other never wavered. When she was excluded from the Tower, her coach sweeping up to the entrance became a familiar sight. She pleaded, not only for clemency for her husband, but also for his sequestered estates, fighting like a tigress for her children’s rights.  Sir Walter was executed at Whitehall, on 29th October, 1618, and his body  laid to rest at St. Margaret’s, Westminster.  His head was embalmed and Bess kept it beside her in a red bag. During her widowhood she proved herself an astute business woman. 


Bess saw her son Carew go from strength to strength, politically and socially. He married a wealthy widow, Lady Philippa Ashley, and purchased a manor in East Horsley near the place where Horsley Towers now stands.  He also owned Lollesworth Farm in West Horsley. In 1642, his uncle Sir Nicholas Throckmorton left him the house that is now West Horsley Place, and Carew spent £2,000 on the house, and may have been responsible for rendering the original timber-framed exterior with warm russet brick.  According to Raleigh Treveleyan – and other sources – Bess spent much of her remaining life with her son at West Horsley Place, keeping Sir Walter’s head, in the red bag, in a cupboard near her bed.  Most historians give the date of her death as 1647. Sir Walter’s head remained with Carew at West Horsley Place, where he and Philippa raised their family.  There were two sons, Walter and Carew.  In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, he offered a knighthood to Carew, which he declined, asking that it should be given to his eldest son, Walter.  Sadly, in 1660, this Sir Walter died, together with his baby daughter Henrietta, and his younger brother Carew, probably of a plague related illness.  St. Mary’s Church Register for 1660 records the death as follows:

                 Sir Walter Ralegh Knt. deceased the Fifteenth day of August

                  Carew Ralegh deceased the Seventh of September

                  Henereta departed the Twentieth September.

The burial of the bodies of his sons and baby grand-daughter was the occasion for Carew to finally bury his famous father’s head. He and Philippa were heartbroken, and in 1664, they sold West Horsley Place to Sir Edward Nicholas, Secretary to Charles I and Charles II, and went to live in their house at St. Martin’s Lane, London. Carew died in 1666: according to St. Margaret’s, Westminster Parish Register, he was ‘kilt,’ and is buried with his father’s body there.  In the great three-volume  History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, by Manning and Bray, published between 1804 and 1814, it is recorded that in 1703, the Raleigh grave was opened: William Nicholas was burying his mother Penelope, who died in the Great Storm in November of that year. He writes: ‘I do verily believe that the head I saw dug up at West Horsley in 1703 from the side where a Carew Ralegh was buried was that of Sir Walter Ralegh, there being no bones of a body to it, nor any room for any, the rest of that side of the grave being firm chalk.’

Recent Biographers of Sir Walter refer to the burial of the head in St. Mary’s, West Horsley.  The registry of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, where his body reposes, have contacted the Church Office to ask how St. Mary’s, as guardian of the great man’s head, proposed to honour the 400th anniversary of Sir Walter’s death, in October, 2018.


Note:  The family name was spelt in different ways by Sir Walter himself:  there was no fixed spelling at that time.  His usual version was ‘Ralegh,’ and biographers frequently use this.


Beer, Ann, Bess: The Life of Lady Raleigh, London: Constable, 2004

Dale, Richard, Who Killed Sir Walter Ralegh?, Stroud: The History Press, 2011

Lacey, Robert, Sir Walter Ralegh, New York: Atheneum, 1973

Latham Agnes  & Joyce Youings, The Letters of Sir Walter Ralegh, University of Exeter Press, 1999

Manning, Rev. Owen & William Bray, The History and Antiquities of the County of  Surrey, London: Nicholls & Son, 1804-1814, p. 4.

Nicholls Mark & Penry Williams, Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend, London: Continuum International Ltd., 2011

Trevelyan, Raleigh, Sir Walter Raleigh, London: Faber & Faber, 2010


'Elizabeth 'Bess' Throckmorton, Lady Raleigh' by Sir William Segar, courtesy of The Weiss Gallery, London 

'Queen Elizabeth I' © National Portrait Gallery London