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Two churches, one delicate question: Who has the head of Sir Walter Raleigh?


LONDON -- St. Margaret's, the white church with the blue sundial on its tower, sits in the shadow of the soaring Westminster Abbey, across the street from the Houses of Parliament, and thus at the vortex of the cyclone of tourism that hits London each year.

And this church has much to offer. It was founded in the 12th century. John Milton, Samuel Pepys and Winston Churchill were married here. William Caxton, who brought printing to England, is buried here. And Sir Walter Raleigh.

Well, not entirely.

Sir Walter's body is here, under the altar. Nobody disputes that. His head was always thought to be in St. Mary's Church, down in West Horsley, a village in Surrey.

The head of Sir Walter, in fact, was one of the two things little St. Mary's had to play in the tourism market, so important these days in recession-bitten Britain. The other was the age of the church. Having been started in 1033, it antedates the Norman Conquest and antedates as well the rich and prideful St. Margaret's up in London.

But more than its antiquity, it was the head that mattered, down there under the organ, a relic to flaunt if ever there was one.

So imagine how St. Mary's vicar, the Rev. Peter Robinson, felt when he saw in the public prints a comment by Donald Gray, canon of London's St. Margaret's, that his church, in fact, has all of Sir Walter.

"Carew [Sir Walter's son] was buried in 1666 [in St. Margaret's], and the story goes that when they buried him, they put his father's head in as well," the canon said.

"It's the first I ever heard that," remarked Father Robinson, a faint trace of indignation in his voice. "It's been accepted in the village for a long, long time that the head's here. Now St. Margaret's says the head is there, too?"

A long sigh of exasperation.

Canon Gray could not be reached for elaboration on his remark. A spokeswoman for Westminster Abbey, Emma St. John Smith, would say only: "Nobody knows [where the head is]. Obviously there are different views on this."

Britain is full of churches with famous people buried in them. But as these things are measured (delicately), Sir Walter Raleigh's head may be worth the entire remains of most other British historical figures.

He was a warrior for the Huguenots, a notorious privateer, an esteemed poet, an explorer in the Orinoco watershed. He was also a favorite of the jealous virgin queen, Elizabeth I, which got him into trouble more than once. He was a man who generated stories and legends around his person.

Did he really throw an expensive cloak into the mud so Elizabeth might not soil her shoe? It's uncertain. Did he establish the colony at Roanoke Island, N.C., where everyone died? He did. Did he introduce the use of tobacco to England? No one else.

His achievements were both great and dubious. He was a man who lived on the edge, who was productive of large measures of both happiness and woe. But he managed to survive 66 years, until he ran afoul of Elizabeth's successor, James I, who had Raleigh's head chopped off as a traitor, and to please the King of Spain.

Still, since he was a national hero, James permitted him an honored interment in St. Margaret's -- of all that remained of him after the executioner did his work, the part from the neck down.

The head was supposed to be exposed on a pike at Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London.

"It was a fairly barbaric period in our history," Father Robinson mused. "Imagine lopping people's heads off and sticking them up on posts."

But they didn't, actually. Not according to Pam Bowley, a local historian in Surrey, who explained just how Sir Walter's head came to rest in West Horsley.

"Raleigh's wife [Lady Beth Throckmorton] was given his head in a red leather bag by the executioner and smuggled out of the old palace yard in Whitehall," she said. "She was supposed to have kept it with her for the rest of her life."

She had had the head embalmed after moving to West Horsley Place, the manor house across from St. Mary's Church. She carried it around, kept it near her bed.

Lady Beth died in 1647 and Sir Walter's son, Carew, inherited the head along with everything else. He put it in a cupboard in the hall. When three of Carew's own children died during a plague, he had them buried under the floor of St. Mary's Church, and put in his father's head.

How does Ms. Bowley know this?

Papers connected to a family named Nicholas, which lived in the manor house after Carew died in a duel and the others moved away, record the burial of Lady Penelope Nicholas, also under the floor of St. Mary's in Horsley. This was in 1703.

"They found a skull in a small hole, all by itself," Ms. Bowley said. "William Nicholas [son of Lady Penelope] assumed it was the skull of Sir Walter Raleigh because it was in the Raleigh children's grave."

That was the last time the floor of St. Mary's Church was opened. An organ has been sitting on the precise spot where the head is supposed to lie. That organ is falling apart, and, according to Father Robinson, a campaign will be launched to buy a new one.

An appropriate moment to open the floor, it was suggested.

"We haven't thought about doing that," Father Robinson said. "We'd have to get the police involved, an exhumation order."

Up in London, Harold Hall, a verger [usher and administrator] at St. Margaret's, expressed a similar disinclination to look under the altar there.

Neither side, it seems, is eager to bring the matter to a head.

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