Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Death of the Bishop's Poisoner

By Nancy Bilyeau

On April 5, 1531, hardened spectators of public punishment gathered at Smithfield, joined, perhaps, by others who were too ghoulish or genuinely curious to stay away. For an execution had been announced of a type that none had witnessed in their lifetimes, nor ever heard of.

The condemned man, Richard Roose, was not of the magnitude of criminal expected to meet his end at Smithfield. This was the ground where the English executed the fearless Scottish rebel William Wallace: hanged, drawn and quartered in 1305. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant's Revolt, was run through with a sword at Smithfield in 1381, in the presence of young Richard II.

Death of Wat Tyler, at left, in a 14th century depiction of Smithfield

Roose, the victim of 1531, had not sought to harm King Henry VIII nor Queen Catherine nor any royal councilor. He had not tried to overthrow the nation's government nor change its religious policies. Roose, a cook in the service of Bishop John Fisher, was accused of murder by poison, his victims an obscure gentleman in the bishop's household and a destitute widow. He is believed to have admitted to the poisoning but claimed it has a joke gone wrong, an accident.  There is no testimony to examine because Roose had no common-law trial, by command of the king.

John Fisher, sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger

Moreover, Roose was boiled alive at Smithfield without benefit of clergy. In the words of the Greyfriars Chronicle of London, a contemporary document:
This year was a cook boiled in a cauldron in Smithfield for he would have poisoned the bishop of Rochester Fisher with divers of his servants and he was locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times until he was dead."
Roose's crime, the legal method of his condemnation and finally the form of punishment create a bizarre chain of events that, in a more modern age, might well have raised questions of motive in several parties, including Henry VIII. Although there is no question of who did the killing, this is still a Tudor murder mystery.

Roose's death by boiling preceded the period of brutality Henry VIII is well known for. In 1531, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were still alive, as were Sir Thomas More and Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell. The most noteworthy execution up to that time in the reign was of Henry Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, beheaded at the Tower following a trial in which he was found guilty of conspiring against the king.

So why did Henry VIII demand this punishment of a lowly cook? Why was Roose executed as a traitor when his crime was murder? The answer lies in the King's complex feelings for Bishop Fisher, whom many assume was the target of the poisoning attempt. Fisher did not eat the soup--sometimes described as porridge--that Roose prepared and so was unharmed.

John Fisher, a devoted patron of Cambridge, served the King's family in three generations: He was the chaplain of the King's pious grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. He was made bishop of Rochester by Henry VII in 1504. Fisher gave the funeral services for mother and son when they died, within months of each other, in 1509. In the first 20 years of the reign of Henry VIII, Fisher was considered "the greatest Catholic theologian in Europe, without any rival," writes Eamon Duffy. The English king was proud of his Bishop's fame, and once asked a young Reginald Pole whether "in all the cities and places where learned and good men might be best known, I had found such as learned man as the bishop of Rochester."

Statue of Fisher at St John's College, Cambridge

But in 1531 King Henry was no longer proud of Bishop Fisher, then 62 years of age. It would be safe to say he considered him an enemy. And it would have made the King's life much easier if Fisher were to lose his--if he had consumed the soup.

Henry VIII

Once Henry VIII decided to pursue an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Fisher became one of his most serious obstacles. The question of the royal marriage was a theological one, and if Europe's most respected theologian had agreed in the rightness of King Henry's cause, it would have done much to bring about the annulment. But Fisher took the side of Catherine of Aragon, vigorously and openly. The marriage was legal and could not be dissolved. The king and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey put increasing pressure on him to cease his opposition--to no avail. He refused to sign a statement of support from the clergy that Archbishop of Canterbury Warham submitted to the king, and when Warham said the statement had unanimous support, Fisher said loudly, to the King's face, that that was a lie.

To understand how strained affairs must have been between king and bishop, consider the chronology:

In 1529, Bishop Fisher said loudly at the legatine trial of the marriage that it would impossible to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage, as John the Baptist did.

In that same year, when a proposal came to Parliament to dissolve the smaller abbeys--the beginning of Henry VIII's destruction of the Catholic monasteries as part of his break from Rome--Fisher "openly resisted it with all the force he could."

In 1530 he devoted himself to writing books defending the cause of the King's first wife--he would publish seven in all.

In December 1530, Fisher was summoned to the house of Archbishop Warham and there, with a compliant bishop and two of the King's legal advisers, ordered to retract his writings and take the King's side. He did not.

In January 1531, Henry VIII received letters from the Pope telling him that he must order Anne Boleyn from the court and that if he were to marry her before a divorce from Catherine of Aragon was decided, he would face excommunication.

The quest for a divorce was not going well.

Enter one Richard Roose. One of Fisher's earliest biographers, Richard Hall, wrote in 1655 the most complete account of the poisoning. He is the only source to say that Roose was not the chief cook in Fisher's household:
"After this the Bishop escaped a very great danger. For one Richard Rose came into they Bishop's kitchen (being acquainted with the cook) at his house in Lambeth-marsh, and having provided a quantity of deadly poison, while the cook went into the buttery to fetch him some drink, he took his opportunity to throw that poison into a mess of gruel, which was prepared for the Bishop's dinner. And after he had waited there a while, he went on his way.
But so it happened that when the Bishop was called into his dinner, he had no appetite for any meat but wished his servants to fall to and be of good cheer, and that he would not eat till toward night. And they that did eat of the poisoned dish were miserably infected. And whereof one gentleman, named Mr. Bennet Curwen and an old widow, died suddenly, and the rest never recovered their health till their dying day."
Roose was soon apprehended, and admitted to adding what he believed were laxatives to the soup as a "jest." No one believed him.

Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote a slightly different version to his master, Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon:
They say that the cook, having been immediately arrested... confessed at once that he had actually put into the broth some powders, which he had been given to understand would only make his fellow servants very sick without endangering their lives or doing them any harm. I have not yet been able to understand who it was who gave the cook such advice, nor for what purpose."
Sir Thomas More, the chancellor, informed Henry VIII that there were rumors that Anne Boleyn and her father and brother, Thomas and George Boleyn, were involved in the poisoning attempt. The king reacted angrily, saying Anne Boleyn was unfairly blamed for everything, including the weather.

Anne Boleyn

The murder motive and the question of a larger plot were soon obscured by Henry VIII's drastic actions. He decided that Roose should be condemned by attainder without a trial--a measure usually used for criminals who were at large. Roose was in prison. Parliament passed "An Acte for Poysoning," making willful murder by means of poison high treason even if the victim was not head of the government of the land. And boiling to death became a form of legal capital punishment. This crime was especially heinous, the king's representatives said, and thus called for such measures.

As historian K.J. Kesselring wrote in "The English Historical Review, "This may explain the severe, exemplary punishment of boiling, but not the need to label the offense treason."

Chapuys questioned the King's actions in his letter to Emperor Charles. Regardless of the "demonstrations of sorrow he makes he will not be able to divert suspicion." But no accusations were made, of course. And in April the crowds of Smithfield witnessed Roose's death, to their horror. According to an eyewitness:
"He roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work." 
There are several coda's to this story.

When, after the king married Anne Boleyn, Bishop Fisher refused to swear an oath of supremacy to the king, he was arrested. The pope made Fisher a cardinal but it only enraged the king more. After a difficult imprisonment, during which he was continually pressured to sign the oath and refused, Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1535 on Tower Hill. The crowd gasped when they saw him on the scaffold for he was "nothing...but skin and bones...the flesh clean wasted away, and a very image of death." In his speech to the crowd, Fisher is said to have shown a calm dignity. As Eamon Duffy writes, "Maybe absolute integrity is destined always to fall afoul of absolute power."

A plaque on Tower Hill commemorating Fisher and others executed there in reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII

Fisher's head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge, as was the custom with traitors.

But then something very disturbing happened. According to Fisher's biographer:
"And here I cannot omit to declare to you the miraculous sight of his head, which after 14 days grew fresher and fresher, for that in his lifetime he never looked so well.... the face looked as if it beholdeth the people passing by and would have spoken to them. Which many took as a miracle."
Rumors swept through London of the miracle of Fisher's head, drawing thick crowds to look on it, until "an executioner was commanded to throw down the head in the night time into the Thames." All of these reports were said to have unnerved King Henry.

Condemning someone by attainder, without common-law trial, used for the first time in this way on Roose, was employed for a range of accused in the reign, from the mystic nun Elizabeth Barton to Thomas Cromwell to Queen Catherine Howard. None of them was allowed a proper defense in a trial.

Boiling to death was employed once again,  in 1542 for a woman, Margaret Davy, who had used poison to murder her employer.

Smithfield today

Then, in the reign of the King's son, Edward VI, in 1547, the 1531 act was quietly repealed. No one was ever lowered into a boiling cauldron again, for whatever reason, in Smithfield.

And John Fisher was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical mysteries set in the reign of King Henry VIII, published in nine countries: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. The Crown opens at Smithfield. To learn more, go to


  1. Fascinating history! No trial does raise eyebrows . Are we to believe all that was the newly installed cook's idea?

  2. Interesting that the cook supposedly confessed, though the seemingly most reliable account said Roose was only visiting.

    1. Just visiting? Then I find it even more suspicious also indicates inside help in that how would a visitor know his way about the bishops kitchen
      He certainly could have believed he was involved in a jest. What I don't find believable is it was his idea . Without a trial there was no chance to find out who was behind it ...rather the point it would seem.

      Fascinating the Boleyn family was rumored . People sometimes get big breeches just before becoming very important . They over step themselves . Such doings is the King's prerogative

  3. Was Henry VIII's use of Attainder an abuse? Had other monarchs before him used it? as much as he did? Thank you.

    1. I believe the first attainders were issued during the reign of King Henry VI. Initially, they were used to deprive Lords of their lands, as once one was issued, the land could not be passed down in inheritance and reverted to the crown. Many of these attainders issued by Henry Vi, Edward IV and Richard III were eventually reversed. Although some people were executed, that was the exception not the rule. Henry VII used them as a threat to keep Lords in line and issued few of them.

      The common use of the attainder as a way to convict without trial people of all walks of life, not just nobility, went into full swing during the reign of Henry VIII. They were issued most often to avoid the reactions of the subjects of the realm to lessen the chance of active revolt a trial of a popular person might lead, to prevent (usually without success) the identification of an individual as a martyr, such as Elizabeth Barton or just to enable the government to expediently address as issue, as what happened in this case. Almost always, the reasons were political. These attainders were most frequently used while Thomas Cromwell was Chief Minister, and ironically one was issued against him, leading to his execution without trial of falsified charges. Many people were arrested and executed via attainder during Henry VIII's reign.

      Interestingly, if a noble was issued an attainder, he was no longer exempt from torture rules. All people arrested via attainder were considered legally dead. If the attainder was reversed, which was rare in Henry VIII's reign, evidently the person "came back to life".

  4. One small point I do not understand: "In 1529, Bishop Fisher said loudly at the legatine trial of the marriage that it would impossible to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage, as John the Baptist did."

    Please refresh my memory. What did John the Baptist do?

    1. The Baptist is reported to have condemned the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, the former wife of his brother. Hence the analogy with Henry the VIII, Katherine and the (dead) Arthur.


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