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Sir Walter's Tower of London Jailbird Ale

A well-dressed and sober-looking Walter Ralegh in a 17th-century Dutch engraving.

During the years (1603–1616) that Sir Walter Ralegh (1552?–1618), English navigator and writer, spent imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of sedition, he drank ale instead of water because the Tower's foul drinking water could, like an executioner's axe, kill a healthy man. Ralegh's "water man" became his "ale man." Earlier in his life, a tale (truth or fiction?) is told how a servant when seeing Ralegh (or Raleigh) smoking tobacco for the first time believed his head to be on fire and quickly dumped a mug of ale on Ralegh's head to save him from incineration. A Ralegh biographer, however, disputes this ale tale, saying it was (more likely) water not ale that the servant dumped on the smoking man's head. At life's end, however, it was an executioner's axe, not cancer-causing tobacco, or gut-rotting foul water, or drowning in servant-tossed ale or water that ended Ralegh's eventful life. Source: Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh (New York, 1974).

Boiling factlet: In old-time England, ale-and-brandy drinkers called ale boiled with brandy a humpty-dumpty, a term used today for a short, clumsy person, and perhaps best known as the name of the egghead Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's 1871 book, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, a sequel to his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Source: WBT's ale files.

Pint factlet: The average adult Briton during Walter Ralegh's lifetime drank about 17 pints of ale a week because ale was safer than contaminated drinking water. Source: WBT's ale files.

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