On June 7, 1594, Rodrigo Lopez, the official physician to Queen Elizabeth I of England, was executed before a London crowd, on charges that included conspiring to poison the queen.
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Lopez was born in Crato, Portugal, in or about 1525, and raised as a Converso – a New Christian who continued to maintain a Jewish identity secretly. In the wake of the Portuguese Inquisition (which began in 1536), Lopez moved to London, where he set up a successful practice as a doctor.
He was appointed house physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and tended to a number of highly placed clients, including Robert Dudley, the powerful earl of Leicester, for whom Lopez was at one point accused unsuccessfully of having prepared poisons. He also served Francis Walsingham, who became spymaster to Queen Elizabeth.
In 1586, Lopez was awarded the prestigious position of chief physician to the queen, who three years later bestowed upon him a monopoly on the import of aniseed and sumac.
Lopez seemed to have it all: a home in London’s Holborn district, a son studying at Winchester College, the private boarding school established in the 14th century (and still in operation today), and responsibility for the care of the monarch. Outwardly, he led the life of a Protestant, but was part of the small community of other Portuguese Conversos in London who secretly carried on lives as Jews.
But he also had made himself an enemy, in the person of Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, a former patient about whose medical record an indiscreet Lopez revealed details publicly. It was Essex who in 1594 accused Lopez of plotting against the queen.
Damning cryptic letters and torture
Lopez had apparently become involved in a plot against Don Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese crown, who was now in exile in England. In early 1594, two servants to Antonio were arrested on suspicion of being double agents working for the Spanish monarchy. Orders were given to port officials at crossings to Spain to confiscate all suspicious correspondence passing through the port.
Within weeks, a Portuguese man living in England was arrested as he entered the country; on his person was found a cryptic letter addressed to an unknown person.
Though the prisoner, Gomez d’Avila, would reveal no details of his mission, he was overheard asking someone he encountered during this questioning to carry word of his arrest to Dr. Lopez.
In the meantime, a letter had been intercepted from Esteban Ferreira, one of the two men arrested earlier on charges of plotting against Antonio. In the note, he warned Lopez to do anything he could to prevent Gomez d’Avila from entering England, otherwise, “the Doctor would be undone without remedy.”
Lopez’s response, similarly intercepted, assured Ferreira that he “would spare no expense” to keep Gomez from coming.
When Ferreira was confronted with the two letters, he told his interrogators that Lopez had long been in the pay of Spain and was plotting to poison Don Antonio. Gomez was then tortured, and he confessed his involvement in a similar plot.
Essex oversaw the investigation of the unfolding plot, which grew increasingly complex. What became clear to him, however, was that his nemesis, Dr. Lopez, seemed to have been in the service of the Spanish crown.
Lopez was arrested, denied any wrongdoing, and Queen Elizabeth was inclined to release him. But Essex continued to dig into the case, until one of the servants of Don Antonio made the explicit claim that Lopez had agreed to undertake to poison the queen on behalf of Spain, for a price of 50,000 crowns.
Lopez was questioned again, and confessed to the charges. A jubilant Essex wrote to a friend: “I have discovered a most dangerous and desperate treason. The point of conspiracy was her Majesty's death. The executioner should have been Dr Lopez; the manner poison. This I have so followed as I will make it appear clear as noon day."
At his trial, in February 1594 Lopez claimed his confession had been induced under torture, but that did not prevent his conviction.
Although Rodrigo Lopez was sentenced to death, the queen was reluctant to see the punishment carried out, and for months, the warrant for his death remained unsigned Only on June 7, 1594, was he taken from the Tower of London and hanged, drawn and quartered before a public audience. He is reported to have continued to maintain his innocence to the final moment, and to have declared before his death that he loved his queen as well as he loved Jesus. The crowd understood the remark as ironic and jeered at the convicted man.
A widely held literary theory suggests that Shakespeare based the character of Shylock, in “The Merchant of Venice,” written between 1596 and 1598, on Dr. Lopez. One piece of evidence for this is that Shylock’s enemy in the play is Antonio.