Dr. Lopez Plot


Mary Stuart’s beheading and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the following year - “the power of God having wonderfully overcome them”, did not stop the plotting.

Many Portugueses in those days crept into England as retainers to the exiled Don Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese crown, who was living in England. This unfortunate man had been rapidly sinking into disrepute and poverty. The false hopes which he had held out of a popular rising on his behalf in Portugal had discredited him with Elizabeth. The magnificent jewels which he had brought with him to England had been sold one by one; he was surrounded by a group of famishing attendants; fobbed off with a meagre pension, he was sent, with his son, Don Manoel, to lodge in Eton College, whence, when the Queen was at Windsor, he would issue forth, a haggard spectre, to haunt the precincts of the Court. Yet he was still not altogether negligible. He still might be useful as a pawn in the game against Spain.

King Felipe of Spain was extremely anxious to get Don Antonio out of the way. More than one plot for his assassination had been hatched at Brussels and the Escorial. His needy followers, bought by Spanish gold, crept backwards and forwards between England and Flanders, full of mischief. Anthony Bacon, through his spies, kept a sharp look-out. The pretender must be protected; for long he could lay his hands on nothing definite; but one day his care was rewarded.

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 ha ve 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.

Elizabethan executions by drawing and quartering are universally considered cruel and unusual punishment by today's legal systems. Most criminals these days are subject to fines and prison time, but are rarely subject to any form of capital punishment. Read this page to see the consequences of criminal behavior in the modern era.


Strachey, Lytton: Elizabeth and Essex : A Tragic History (Chatto & Windus - 1928 - London)

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