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Roderigo Lopez

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Roderigo Lopez

Lopez (right) speaking with a Spaniard. Engraving by Friedrich van Hulsen, 1627

Roderigo Lopez, also called Ruy Lopes or Roger Lopez (c. 1517 – 7 June 1594) served as physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I of England from 1581 until his death by execution, having been found guilty of plotting to poison the Queen. A Portuguese converso or New Christian of Jewish ancestry, he is the only royal doctor in English history to have been executed, and may have inspired the character of Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which was written within four years of his death.

The son of a Portuguese royal physician of Jewish descent, Lopez was raised a Catholic and educated at the University of Coimbra. Amid the Portuguese Inquisition he was accused of secretly practising Judaism, and compelled to leave the country. He settled in London in 1559, joined the Church of England and became house physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Gaining a reputation as a careful and skilled physician, he acquired several powerful clients, including the Earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham, and eventually the Queen of England herself.

The Earl of Essex accused Lopez of conspiring to poison the Queen by in January 1594. Insisting his innocence, the doctor was convicted of high treason in February and hanged, drawn and quartered in June, reportedly after averring from the scaffold that "he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ"[1]—a statement that, from a man of Jewish background, prompted mocking laughter from the crowd. Elizabeth's three-month delay signing Lopez's death warrant is sometimes interpreted as evidence that she doubted the case against him. In any case she returned almost all of his estate to his widow and children.


  • Early life and family 1
  • Royal physician 2
  • Trial and execution 3
  • Possible literary legacy 4
  • Notes and references 5

Early life and family

A depiction of St Bartholomew's Hospital in the Medieval period

Roderigo (or Rodrigo) Lopez was born into a family of Jewish origin in Portugal around 1517.[2] His father, António Lopes, was physician to King John III of Portugal, and had been baptised into the Roman Catholic Church under coercion in 1497.[2][3] Lopez was baptised and raised in the Catholic faith as a converso or New Christian, and educated at the University of Coimbra.[3] He received a BA degree under the name Ruy Lopes on 7 February 1540, then an MA on 4 December 1541; he enrolled for a medical course on 23 December that year. Records do not survive regarding his doctorate, but according to his biographer Edgar Samuel it is probable that he received it in 1544.[3]

Amid the Portuguese Inquisition, Lopez was alleged to be a Crypto-Jew or marrano—one of Jewish descent who professed the Christian faith, but secretly adhered to the Judaism of his ancestors—and was compelled to leave Portugal.[1] He settled in England in 1559, anglicising his first name as "Roger", and successfully resumed his practice as a doctor in London.[1] Discarding Catholicism, he joined the Church of England.[4] He soon became the house physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield. A colleague there, the surgeon William Clowes, would describe Lopez in 1591 as careful and very skilled in his work.[3]

Around 1563 Lopez married Sarah Anes (b. 1550),[3] the eldest daughter of another New Christian refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, the merchant Dunstan Anes, who had settled in London in 1540.[5] According to Samuel, both the Anes and Lopez households secretly practised Judaism, which was then illegal in England, while outwardly conforming as Anglicans.[3][5] Other scholars are ambivalent on the matter; Lopez would always insist that he was a Christian.[6] Roderigo and Sarah had four sons and two daughters, of whom at least the eldest five—Ellyn (Elinor), Ambrose, Douglas, William and Ann—were baptised within the hospital precincts at St Bartholomew-the-Less between 1564 and 1579.[3][n 1] Lopez's brother Lewis lived with them in Holborn; a second brother, Diego Lopes Aleman, became a merchant in Antwerp and Venice.[3]

Royal physician

Queen Elizabeth I of England, to whom Lopez was physician from 1581

Lopez developed a large practice among powerful people, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the principal secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, and in 1581 he was made physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I of England and her household, with a life pension of £50 per year.[3] In June 1584, Elizabeth granted him a monopoly on the importation of aniseed and sumac to England for ten years; this was renewed in January 1593.[3] In 1588 he was given land and tithes in Worcestershire belonging to the Bishop of Worcester Edmund Freke.[3] An anonymous Catholic pamphlet denouncing the Earl of Leicester in 1584 suggested that "Lopez the Jewe" was one of the earl's agents "for poysoning & for the arte of destroying children in women's bellies".[3]

Fluent in five languages, Lopez was involved in diplomatic intrigue, as many Christians of Jewish origin were at this time.[8] Amid England's war with Spain in the 1580s, Lopez became an important member of a circle of Portuguese exiles in England, and the Queen's intermediary with the Portuguese pretender Dom António, Prior of Crato, who was staying near Windsor Castle.[8] Lopez supported Dom António, but in 1586 one of the pretender's entourage, António da Veiga, wrote to the Spanish Ambassador in Paris, Don Bernardino de Mendoza, claiming that he could persuade Lopez to poison Dom António. The Spanish did not act on this idea.[3]

In 1590, Lopez approached Mendoza, possibly on Walsingham's behalf, with the intention of opening peace negotiations. The Spanish gave Manuel de Andrada, Lopez's intermediary, a jewelled ring worth £100 as a gift for Lopez's daughter.[3] After Walsingham's death in 1591, Lopez continued exchanging letters with Spanish officials without the English government's knowledge or authority.[3] There is no surviving evidence to suggest that Lopez conspired against England or Elizabeth personally, but these Spanish connections would come back to punish him[8]—according to Samuel, "Lopez had acted stupidly and dishonestly".[3]

Trial and execution

By the early 1590s, Lopez was wealthy and generally respected. He owned a comfortable house in Holborn and had his youngest son Anthony enrolled at Winchester College.[8][3] He incurred the fury of one of his former patients, Queen Elizabeth's favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, when he described to Dom António and the Spanish statesman Antonio Pérez occasions on which he had treated Essex for venereal diseases.[3] Learning of this from Perez, Essex began to assemble evidence implicating Lopez as some sort of fifth columnist in the pay of King Philip II of Spain. The Lord High Treasurer Lord Burghley initially thought Essex's allegations against Lopez absurd; the Queen herself also rebuked Essex.[8]

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a major figure in Lopez's downfall

Late in 1593, Essex discovered a secret correspondence between Estevão Ferreira da Gama, one of Dom António's former supporters, and officials in the Spanish Netherlands, and had a messenger, Manuel Luis Tinoco, arrested. Lopez's courier Gomez d'Avila, a London-based Portuguese New Christian, was also arrested. Both implicated Lopez during interrogation.[3] On 28 January 1594 Essex wrote to Anthony Bacon of "a most dangerous and desperate treason", the target of which was Queen Elizabeth: "The executioner should have been Dr Lopus. The manner by poison."[3] Parallels were drawn with a letter written by Andrada to Burghley in 1591, in which reference was made to a plot whereby the King of Spain would deploy "three Portuguese to kill her Majesty and three more to kill the King of France".[3] Tinoco was tortured and Ferreira da Gama threatened with torture until they confessed along the lines Essex suspected;[3] Ferreira da Gama, asked if Lopez might have been willing to poison the Queen, replied in the affirmative.[3] Lopez was arrested and held first at Essex House, then the Tower of London. He confessed when threatened with torture, but promptly recanted this statement.[8]

Revelations regarding Lopez's secret correspondence with Spanish officials did not help his case, particularly when it emerged that he had given the Spanish information about the English court, and apparently donated money to a secret synagogue in Antwerp.[3] Burghley and the spymaster William Wade were soon "ready to believe the worst", to quote Samuel.[3] Lopez, Ferreira da Gama and Tinoco were tried by a commission headed by Essex at Guildhall on 28 February 1594. Lopez insisted that he was innocent.[8] The prosecutor, Sir Edward Coke, denounced the doctor as "a perjured, murdering villain and a Jewish doctor worse than Judas himself ... [not] a new Christian ... [but] a very Jew".[8] The three were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death.[8]

The Queen waited over three months before signing the death warrant; this delay is sometimes interpreted as evidence that the Queen doubted the case against her doctor.[9] Lopez, Ferreira da Gama and Tinoco were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 7 June 1594.[8] Lopez insisted to the end that he was innocent and that his professed Christian faith was genuine. He fell into a state of depression, but on the scaffold gathered his resolve and, according to the 16th-century historian William Camden, declared that "he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ".[1][10] The crowd roared with derision and laughter, taking this, from a man of Jewish background, for a thinly veiled confession.[8][9][10]

Lopez's property was forfeited on his attainder.[8] His widow Sarah petitioned the Queen to be allowed to keep his estate; the Queen kept the ring given to Lopez's daughter by the Spanish, but returned the rest.[3] Elizabeth also granted £30 per year to Anthony Lopez to support him at Winchester.[8] A letter written by the Spanish diplomat Count Gondomar to King Philip III of Spain a decade after the trial seems to indicate that Lopez and Ferreira da Gama had been unjustly convicted, and that there had been no plot involving the Portuguese doctor: "the King our master [Philip II] had never conceived nor approved such measures ... the Count of Fuentes neither received nor gave such an order, moreover it is understood that Dr Lopez never passed through his thoughts, because he was a friend of the Queen and a bad Christian."[3] Lopez remains the only royal physician executed in English history.[8]

Possible literary legacy

Some historians and literary critics consider Lopez and his trial to have been an influence on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (written c. 1596–98), specifically as a prototype for the play's principal antagonist Shylock, a Venetian Jewish moneylender who hates Christians.[8][3][10] The Lopez case prompted a revival of Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta (c. 1589–90), which according to Elizabeth Lane Furdell began rehearsals in London the same day Lopez was taken to Essex House.[8][3][9] There is a mention of Lopez in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (c. 1592), comparing him to the title character: "Doctor Lopus was never such a doctor!" This was probably added after Marlowe's death in 1593.[11]

Notes and references

  1. ^ No record survives of the birth or baptism of the youngest child, Anthony, in relevant parish documents. His age of 14 or 15 in 1596 indicates that he was born around 1581.[7]
  1. ^ a b c d Griffin 2009, pp. 114–116.
  2. ^ a b Rubenstein, Jolles & Rubenstein 2011, p. 616.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Samuel 2004 a.
  4. ^ Barnet 1970, p. 1: "Rodrigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and a member of the Church of England though of Jewish descent ..."
  5. ^ a b Samuel 2004 b.
  6. ^ Griffin 2009, p. 114: "Not all of those who left Iberia were 'unconverted', which is to say that not all of the ethnic Jews who chose exile over commitment to their homeland led secret lives in the faith of their forebears. ... Some recovered their Judaism in exile; some continued to live in their Christian faith. It is not absolutely clear among which of the aforementioned groups we should place Dr Roderigo Lopez."
  7. ^ Green 2003, p. 336.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Furdell 2001, pp. 80–81.
  9. ^ a b c Lynch 2009, pp. xxi–xxii.
  10. ^ a b c Greenblatt 2012, pp. 277–281.
  11. ^ Keefer 2007, p. 150: "The past-tense allusion to him suggests that in its present form this scene must be post-Marlovian."
  • Samuel, Edgar (2004). "Lopez [Lopes], Roderigo [Ruy, Roger] (c.1517–1594)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription or UK public library membership required)  
  • Samuel, Edgar (2004). "Anes, Dunstan [formerly Gonsalvo Anes; alias Gonzalo Jorge] (c.1520–1594)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription or UK public library membership required)  
  • Barnet, Sylvan, ed. (1970). Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Merchant of Venice: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.  
  • Furdell, Elizabeth Lane (2001). The Royal Doctors, 1485–1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.  
  • Green, Dominic (2003). The Double Life of Doctor Lopez: Spies, Shakespeare and the Plot to Poison Elizabeth I. London: Century.  
  • Greenblatt, Stephen (2012) [2004]. Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. London: Random House.  
  • Griffin, Eric J (2009). English Renaissance Drama and the Specter of Spain: Ethnopoetics and Empire. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.  
  • Marlowe, Christopher (2009). Lynch, Stephen J, ed. The Jew of Malta, with Related Texts. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.  
  • Rubenstein, William D; Jolles, Michael A; Rubenstein, Hilary L. (2011). The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. London: Palgrave Macmillan.  
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