I recently purchased James Moore’s The Tudor Murder Files. It’s published by Pen and Sword. It turns out that under Henry VIII there were something in the region of 72,000 executions – which is a rather eye watering figure. Clearly there were assorted bigwigs including as Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard but there were also thousands of nameless men and women such as those who were executed by the Duke of Norfolk during the period of martial law following on form the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-which has just reminded me of another victim of Henry VIII’s famous Tudor tantrums – Robert Aske. Which brings as neatly to today’s post having mentioned beheading and hanging it’s time to move on to being boiled alive.
In Europe the practise of boiling people either in water, oil or tar (anything that got hot and unpleasant basically) continued into much more recent times. In 1531 the Act of Poisoning was enshrined in English law. It came about because a cook called Richard Roose or Rouse was found guilty of murdering two people with broth. Roose is mentioned by name in the act. The act made the crime of poisoning that of petty treason. Petty treason, just in case you were wondering, is when a subordinate (wife or servant) kills or betrays their superior (husband or master). After Roose met his unfortunate end a maid servant was boiled in King’s Lynn for poisoning her mistress and in March 1542 Margaret Davie was boiled at Smithfield for poisoning three households.
Richard Roose was a cook for the Bishop of Rochester – John Fisher (pictured at the start of this post)- the man who had been Margaret Beaufort’s confessor and who wrote her biography. In 1509 he had led the funeral of Henry VII and had tutored Henry VIII in theology. He was regarded as one of the most learned theologians in the Western world which was fine whilst he and Henry VIII were in agreement. In short, he was a very important person until he sided with Katherine of Aragon against Henry in Henry’s Great Matter. In 1527 Henry told Fisher that his conscience was tormented by concerns over Leviticus and Deuteronomy as to whether he was legally married to Katherine. Fisher, not taking the hint, went off and had a conflab with assorted theologians and got back to Henry with the “good news” that he had nothing to worry about. Henry presumably took a deep breath then went off to consult with theologians that Fisher hadn’t thought to ask.
1529, Fisher expressed his views very clearly at the Legatine Court about marriage and Anne Boleyn. He was Katherine’s advocate. This was not at all what Henry wanted.
Fisher found himself briefly imprisoned for resisting the reformation of the clergy and the legal strategy that Cromwell was using to exert pressure on Rome. It didn’t stop him from writing several books in support of Katherine of Aragon. By 1531 Bishop Fisher must have been feeling very uncomfortable indeed. Not only did he resist attempts to limit clerical power but Henry made it very clear that he would throw the bishop into the river if he didn’t start behaving himself.
On the 18th February 1531 the sixteen or so gentlemen who had shared Bishop Fisher’s meal became unwell. One of them by the name of Curwen died. The beggars who gathered at Lambeth for alms – the leftovers- also became unwell. One, a widow called Alice Trypptt died. The soup, or pottage as it was called, was dodgy. The only man who didn’t succumb to food poisoning was Bishop Fisher who hadn’t fancied the soup. Other sources suggest that Fisher wasn’t even present in Lambeth at the time.
The Venetian Archives contains a report about Richard Roose’s interrogation and confession. He admitted having put a “powder” in the soup for a bit of fun. He thought that the powder was a laxative (a man with a strange sense of humour).
At Henry’s insistence rather than being tried for murder in the usual fashion Roose was put on trial for treason as though Fisher was a member of the royal family. What this meant was that there was no jury to hear the case, the verdict being a summary one. The Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, noted that Roose did not say where the powder came from in the first place. Chapuys hesitated to blame Henry VIII himself for dishing out powders to get rid of troublesome priests but did suggest that the Boleyn family might have something to do with it – and let’s remember he wasn’t Anne’s greatest fan. Thomas More reported the rumour that the Boleyn’s were involved to Henry VIII who was signally unamused by the suggestion. It should be noted that neither Chapuys or More presented any evidence. Henry is said to have commented that Anne Boleyn was blamed for everything.
It should be added that Fisher had another near miss involving a canon ball that landed in his study. It appears that the canon which fired the aforementioned cannonball was sited in the home of Thomas Boleyn. In October 1531 Anne Boleyn sent Fisher a message warning him not to attend parliament. She noted that he would not get sick again.
On the 5th April The Chronicle of Greyfriars reported Roose’s end along with the mechanics of execution which as based on a rope and pulley system which lifted him in and out of the water. Another chronicle noted that there was a lot of yelling and that those people not sickened by the sight felt that the axeman was a more edifying sight. Roose died without benefit of the clergy.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but up until this point Henry wasn’t known for executing people willy-nilly he hadn’t got to the point where he was lopping off heads to get the wife he wanted so either he had something to hide and was getting rid of the accomplice in plain sight or he really was deeply concerned about household staff with small bottles labelled with skulls and crossbones getting rid of their employers. Let’s just remember the that the Tudors had a thing about anyone mentioning that they might die – so fear of being poisoned probably would produce alarm and brand new nasty punishments.
Poor Fisher found himself in ever increasing difficulties. In 1534 he was imprisoned for not reporting everything about the Maid of Ken (Elizabeth Barton). And then he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. On 22 June 1535 Fisher became one of the 72,000 execution victims of Henry VIII. When he emerged from the Tower he was gaunt and badly nourished. This probably demonstrates more effectively than anything that Henry had no need to send henchmen to skulk down dark alleys with little bottles decorated by skulls and crossbones. Henry and Cromwell knew how to use the law to intimidate and then silence Henry’s critics without legally getting their hands dirty.
Boiling people was removed from the statute books in 1547 during the reign of Edward VI although Moore dies note that there was at least one execution of this kind during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Moore, James. (2016) The Tudor Murder Files. Barnsley: Pen and Sword