The Jewish Encyclopedia gives the following account:
Court physician to Queen Elizabeth; born in Portugal about 1525; executed June 7, 1594, for having attempted to poison the queen. He settled in London in 1559, and in 1571 was residing in the parish of St. Peter le Poer. Previous to this he had become a member of the College of Physicians, and was selected in the lastmentioned year to read the anatomy lecture at the college—an honor which he declined. Before 1584 he had become body-physician to the Earl of Leicester; and he was accused of assisting that nobleman in removing some of his enemies by poison. Two years later he became chief physician to Queen Elizabeth, who in 1589 granted him the monopoly of importing aniseed and sumac into England.
Relations with Don Antonio.
At court Lopez became acquainted with the Earl of Essex, and was thus brought into relations with Don Antonio, the pretender to the crown of Portugal, and with Antonio Perez, the discharged secretary of Philip II. He assisted them in inducing the queen to permit the attempted invasion of Portugal in 1589, and suffered some loss of influence through its failure. An indiscreet revelation of some of Essex’s ailments set that nobleman against him; and about 1590 Lopez began intriguing against Antonio with the court of Spain, at first with the connivance of Walsingham, who hoped through Manuel de Andrada, one of Lopez’s adherents, to obtain useful information of Spanish projects. Andrada brought back a diamondand ruby ring worth £100 as an earnest of the reward Lopez would get if he removed Don Antonio. Lopez offered the ring to the queen, who refused it, presumptive evidence, according to Major Hume, that she knew it came from Philip II. Later on, the ring was used as evidence of Lopez’s designs against the queen.
In Oct., 1593, one Esteban de Gama was seized in Lopez’s house on a charge of conspiring against Don Antonio; and shortly afterward a person named Gomez d’Avila was likewise seized on landing at Dover. He proved to have mysterious correspondence relating to “the price of pearls” and to musk and amber, and to be in some relation with Lopez. A third conspirator, Ticino, was induced to come over from Brussels with an invalid safe-conduct. By confronting the prisoners some evidence was elicited leading to the conclusion that the “price of pearls” referred to a plot against the queen, in which Lopez was implicated. He was seized and examined by the Earl of Essex, who failed, however, to find any definite cause for suspicion. Later, confessions of the minor conspirators led to Lopez being put on the rack, where he confessed to having entertained suggestions as to poisoning the queen for the sum of 50,000 ducats, but, as he alleged, merely with the design of cozening the King of Spain and of getting as much money out of him as possible. This excuse was not accepted; and, after lingering some time in the Tower, he, with D’Avila and Ticino, was hanged, drawn, and quartered as a traitor, declaring with his last breath amid the derision of the spectators that he loved the queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ.
His trial created a great sensation at the time. References are made to it in Marlowe’s “Faustus,” Dekker’s “Whore of Babylon,” and Middleton’s “Game at Chess”; while it has been suggested by Sidney Lee that he was the original Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” a version of which appears to have been put on the stage about two months after Lopez’s execution. The fact that Shakespeare was on the side of the Earl of Essex, and that Antonio is adopted as the name of the hero, lends some plausibility to this suggestion. See Shylock.
Historians are divided as to the exact amount of criminality involved in Lopez’s connection with Spanish plots. Dimock (“English Historical Review,” 1894, pp. 440-472) denies his innocence on the ground that he kept the negotiations secret. Major Hume (“Treason and Plot,” pp. 115-152, New York, 1901) considers his guilt unproved, as he had been permitted to make similar false suggestions with the connivance of Walsingham in 1590.
Prayer and Reflection: This historical event, full of intrigue, suspicion of Jews and Jewish Christians, and high politics and treason, does shed light on the genuineness of significance of Lopez’s character and faith, but rather on the turbulent times in which he lives, and the precarious nature of his existence in the corridors of power. His identity as a Jewish believer in Yeshua cannot be separated from the currents of social exclusion, blame and distrust. Lopez is reported to have proclaimed his innocence with the words “For I love Queen Elizabeth better than I love Jesus Christ” (Stewart, p 194), yet these words are thrown back at him by the crowd with the retort “but he is a Jew” and therefore he was guilty.
Lord, help us in our day not to construct the enemy as ‘other’ but to put into practice the harder challenge of loving our enemies, as you commanded. Help us, as Jewish believers in Yeshua, to protect the rights of others who have been falsely accused of wrongs they have not committed, and to stand for truth, justice and right thought and action wherever we find ourselves. Forgive us our prejudices as we forgive those who are prejudiced against us. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.
- Lee, in Gentleman’s Magazine, Feb., 1880; idem, in Tr. New Shakespeare Society, 1887-92, pt. ii., pp. 158-162; idem, in Dict. Nat. Biog. s.v.;
- Graetz, Shylock in der Sage, im Drama, und in der Gesch. Krotoschin, 1880; Forneron, Philippe II. vol. ii., Paris, 1890; Hume, Treason and Plot, p. 116, note.
A discussion of the historiographic issues, including the “narrative assault” on Jews and Judaism, is found here:
More information here at tudorplace.com:
Rodrigo Lopez, a Jewish-Portuguese doctor, driven from the country of his birth by the Inquisition, had come to England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and set up as a doctor in London. He had been extremely successful; had become house physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital; had obtained, in spite of professional jealousy and racial prejudice, a large practice among persons of distinction; Leicester and Walsingham were his patients; and, after he had been in England for seventeen years, in 1586 he reached the highest place in his profession: he was made physician-in-chief to the Queen. It was rumoured that he owed his advancement less to medical skill than flattery and self-advertisement; and in a libellous pamphlet against Leicester it was hinted that he had served that nobleman all too well – by distilling his poisons for him. But Dr. Lopez was safe in the Queen’s favour; in Oct 1593 he was a prosperous elderly man -a practising Christian, with a son at Winchester, a house in Holborn, and all the appearances of wealth and consideration.
In 1594, his position as Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician put him at the center of court intrigue, he was accused by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex of having conspired with Spanish emissaries to poison the Queen.
In Jan that year, news reached Essex House that a certain Esteban Ferreira, a Pórtuguese gentleman, who had been ruined by his adherence to the cause of Don Antonio, and Emanuel Loisie, another servant of the Portuguese pretender, were arrested on suspicion of being double agents in the pay of Spain. The information was certainly trustworthy, and Essex obtained from Elizabeth an order for the arrest of Ferreira and Loisie. Ferreira was accordingly seized; no definite charge was brought against him, but he was put into the custody of Don Antonio at Eton. At the same time instructions were sent to Rye, Sandwich and Dover, ordering all Portuguese correspondence that might arrive at those ports to be detained and read. While they were being questioned in Guildhall at London, it emerged they had had some dealings with Rodrigo Lopez.
A fortnight later, Gomez d’Avila, a Portuguese of low birth, who lived near Lopez’s house in Holborn, was arrested at Sandwich. He was returning from Flanders, and a Portuguese letter was discovered upon his person. The names of the writer and the addressee were unknown to the English authorities. The contents, though they appeared to refer to a commercial transaction, were suspicious; there were phrases that wore an ambiguous look. “The bearer will inform your Worship in what price your pearls are held. I will advise your Worship presently of the uttermost penny that can be given for them… Also this bearer shall teIl you in what resolution we rested about a little musk and amber, the which I determined to buy… But before I resolve myself I will be advised of the price thereof; and if it shall please your Worship to be my partner, I am persuaded we shaIl make good profit”. Gomez d’Avila would say nothing about the hidden meaning of this. He was removed to London, in close custody. When there, while waiting in an ante-chamber before being examined by those in charge of the case, he recognised a gentleman who could speak Spanish. He begged the gentleman to take the news of his arrest to Dr. Lopez.
Ferreira managed to convey a note from Eton, in which he warned Dr. Lopez to prevent the coming over of Gomez d’ Avila from Brussels, ‘for if he should be taken the Doctor would be undone without remedy’. Lopez had not yet heard of the arrest of Gomez, and replied that ‘he had already sent twice or thrice to Flanders to prevent the arrival of Gomez, and would spare no expense, if it cost him £300’. Both the letters were intercepted, then Ferreira was sent for, confronted with the contents of his letter, and informed that Dr. Lopez had betrayed him. He immediately declared that the Doctor had been for years in the pay of Spain. There was a plot, he said, and Lopez was the principal agent in the negotiations. He added that, three years previously, Lopez had secured the release from prison of a Portuguese spy, named Andrada, in order that he should go to Spain and arrange for the poisoning of Don Antonio. The information was complicated and strange; the authorities waited for further developments.
At the same time, Gomez d’Avila was shown the rack in the Tower. His courage forsook him, and he confessed that he was an intermediary, employed to carry letters backwards and forwards between Ferreira in England and another Portuguese, Tinoco, in Brussels, who was in the pay of the Spanish Government. It was quite true, he admitted, that there was a plot to buy over Don Antonio’s son and heir to the interests of King Felipe.
Two months later Lord Burghley received a communication from Tinoco. He wished, he said, to go to England, to reveal to the Queen secrets of the highest importance for the safety of her realm, which he had learnt at Brussels; and he asked for a safe-conduct. A safe-conduct was despatched; it allowed the bearer safe ingress into England, but it made no mention of his going away again. Shortly afterwards Tinoco arrived at Dover; upon which he was at once arrested, and taken to London. His person was searched, and bills of exchange for a large sum of money were found upon him, together with two letters from the Spanish governor of Flanders, addressed to Ferreira.
The letters, vague and mysterious, were sent to Essex, who decided himself to interrogate the young man. The examination was conducted in French; Tinoco had a story ready -that he had come to England to reveal to the Queen a Jesuit plot against her life; but he broke down under the cross-examination of the Earl, prevaricated, and contradicted himself. Next day he wrote a letter to Burghley, protesting his innocence. He said that with his small knowledge of French, he had failed to understand the drift of the inquiry, or to express his own meaning; and he begged to be sent back to Flanders. He was more rigorously confined after this letter. Again examined by Essex, he avowed that he had been sent to England by the Spanish authorities in order to see Ferreira and with him to win over Dr. Lopez to do a service to the King of Spain.
Every line of inquiry, so it seemed to Essex, led straight to the Jew. His secret note to Ferreira had been deeply incriminating. Ferreira himself, Gomez d’Avila, and now Tinoco all agreed that Lopez was the central point in a Spanish conspiracy. That conspiracy, if they were to be believed, was aimed against Don Antonio; but the matter must be sifted to the bottom. Essex went to the Queen; and on the 1 Jan 1594, Dr. Lopez, principal physician to her Majesty, was arrested.
He was taken to Essex House, and there kept in close custody, while his house in Holborn was searched from top to bottom; but nothing suspicious was found there. Lopez was thereupon examined at Burghley’s house by Essex, Robert Cecil and Burghley and, though Essex was not satisfied with his explanations, the doctor succeeded in convincing the Cecils that there was nothing sinister in his connections with the arrested men. The Cecils were convinced that Essex had discovered a mare’s nest. In their opinion, the whole affair was merely a symptom of the Earl’s anti-Spanish obsession; he saw plots and spies everywhere; and now he was trying to get up a ridiculous agitation against this unfortunate Jew. When Cecil told the Queen that Lopez was in the clear, Elizabeth became irritated that he had been detained in the first place. At her next encounter with Essex, she had burst out that he was “a rash and temerarious youth, to enter into the matter against the poor man, which he could not prove, but whose innocence she knew well enough”. The flood of words poured on, while Essex stood in furious silence, and Sir Robert surveyed the scene wilh gentle satisfaction. Furiously Essex flung himself away to sulk in his chamber for two days, and the Queen could only coax him out by agreeing that he might, after all, pursue his enquiries further.
Lopez was removed to the Tower, and further pressure was applied to Don Antonio’s servants, and after much prodding they volunteered evidence which incriminated Lopez. One of them deposed that Lopez had sent “obscurely worded” letters to Spanish agents, promising “to do all the King required”, whereupon his colleague capped this by saying that Lopez had agreed to undertake the Queen’s murder for a payment of 50,000 crowns. Lopez himself had staunchly maintained his innocence in the face of a remorseless interrogation, but when confronted with these claims, he broke down and confessed “that he had indeed spoken of this matter [the Queen’s murder] and promised it, but all to cozen the King of Spain”. He said that it was at Secretary Walsingham’s behest that he had established contact with the Spanish Court, and explained that the Secretary had used him to pass false information to the enemy, but unfortunately Walsingham was not available to confirm the Doctor’s version of events.
To Essex, the facts were clear. He wrote jubilantly 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”. And indeed, when Lopez went to trial in Feb 1594, the fact that he claimed to have made his confession under fear of torture did not prevent him being found guilty and having “judgment … passed against him, with the applause of all the world”.
The Queen, however, still seems to have had her doubts about Lopez’s guilt, and for three months his death warrant remained insigned. On 7 Jun he was finally executed, hanged, drawn, and quartered before a jeering London mob. But the fact that Elizabeth agreed that Lopez’s widow could retain valuable lease, which theoretically should have been forfeit to the crown on his conviction, suggest that she continued to be troubled by his fate.
The hostility stirred up against Lopez spawned a number of comically villainous stage Jews, perhaps including Shakespeare’s Shylock.
A discussion of the historiographic issues, including the “narrative assault” on Jews and Judaism, is found here:
The Double Life of Doctor Lopez: Spies, Shakespeare and the Plot to Poison Elizabeth I
Born a into a Converso family in Portugal in 1525, Roderigo Lopez studied medicine in Spain before moving to London in 1559. A talented surgeon, Lopez soon rose to prominence at court, and displayed a capacity for intrigue and espionage. In the service of spy networks, he became deeply entwined in English foreign policy. When the 1st Earl of Essex was poisoned to death, Lopez numbered amongst those suspected. But in 1586, undeterred by the scandal, he was appointed personal physician to the Queen. However, Lopez was financially over-extended and became so desperate, that he embarked on a high-risk enterprise as a freelance diplomat and spymaster, contacting the Spanish in an attempt to set up a conduit for peace talks. Suspicious of Lopez’s involvement in his father’s death, the 2nd Earl of Essex began an investigation. The case against Lopez was damning. Lacking vital corroboration of his story by the Spanish, and despite the Queen’s support, amidst an atmosphere of anti-Semitism stirred up by Essex, Lopez was executed in 1594. He protested his loyalty and Christianity to the last, and provided the young Shakespeare with inspiration for a topical new play, the Merchant of Venice.