It’s easy to look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses, remembering great historical triumphs and victories but often overlooking some of the most violent and horrific events. Although you can learn about some of the most notable cases in the capital on our horrible histories tour, today we’re here to talk about one in particular – the execution of cook Richard Roose during the Tudor period.
There is no doubt that boiling was an extreme form of execution. It is one that we often associate with Asia, but throughout history, it was also used in Europe and England. There is even evidence showing that it was used in the 13th Century by the “Bloody Earl” of Orkney, Jon Haraldsson, who boiled to death two monks who were accused by husbandmen of collecting tithes aggressively. It was also a form of execution that was used during the Middle Ages for swindlers and counterfeiters, and the Holy Roman Empire reserved burning by oil for coin forgers and extremely violent murderers. An example of this was in 1392 when a man was boiled to death in Nuremberg for raping and murdering his own mother.
The Horrific Case of Richard Roose
The practicalities to this horrific art are quite simple; a person is placed within a sealed cauldron or kettle and immersed in boiling liquid. The liquid could be anything from oil, water, tallow or even tar. A hook and pulley system was used to lower the condemned and then to remove him. It was a gruesome practice, and one used to execute Richard Roose, a cook sentenced to death in England in 1531 on the grounds of treason. As one source commented:
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.
Another contemporary source describing that day comes from the chronicles of the Grey Friars of London. This description better outlines the way in which the poor man was executed that day using the rope and pulley system, which dipped him in and out of the liquid until life was extinct:
This yere was a coke boylyd in a cauderne in Smythfeld for he wolde a powsyned the bishop of Rochester Fycher with dyvers of hys servanttes, and he was lockyd in a chayne and pullyd up and downe with a gybbyt at dyvers tymes tyll he was dede.
Richard Roose was the cook in the household of John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester. Roose was convicted of serving a poisoned meal to the bishop and several guests. The bishop saved himself by not being hungry, but the rest of his guests ate the poisoned meal. One elderly gentleman, Bennent Curwen, died suddenly; it is reported that the rest of the guests never recovered their full health. He seemed to acknowledge his guilt straight away and said that it had all been in jest and that he had thought the powder he added to the food was simply a laxative.
Treason or Misunderstanding?
Given the bishop’s high status, the actions of his cook were now considered to be treason and therefore a sentence of death was naturally to be passed. Though quite extremely and instead of the usual hanging, drawing and quartering, it was to be boiling. Roose did not even stand trial as his sentence was passed through attainder, which meant that he could be condemned to his sentence without trial. This was again the case in the execution of Catherine Howard, whose own execution was sentenced by an Act of Attainder.
To us, this would seem like a miscarriage of justice, but during a time when the majority of crime (unless it was treasonous) went unpunished, passing an Act of Attainder showed the might and power of the crown. Given that England and its kingdoms had not long recovered from civil war or from the threat of pretenders, there were times when the crown aggressively asserted its power. Another fact to consider was that 1531 was the beginning of a string of events that would later lead to the Reformation where England dramatically changed the religious and subsequently political landscape of the country. Bishop Fisher did not support Henry’s plans to divorce his wife. He opposed the King and what he wanted to do; he opposed the woman that Henry wished to replace his queen with, the enigmatic and problematic Anne Boleyn.
Given the complicated machinations of the Tudor Court, you can then understand that this incident caused quite a stir. Those who kept their ear to the ground and whose job it was to monitor the whispers and report them did not seem to think that the situation was as straightforward as it seemed. Eustace Chapuys, ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor and nephew to Catherine of Aragon, Charles V, did not seem to hold much stock in the presented account of what happened. He seemed to think that it had all been a misunderstanding, that broth or porridge had not been intended for his fellow servants and had never intended to harm anyone. He was simply pulling a practical joke that had gone terribly wrong.
Paranoia and Conspiracies
However, Henry was a paranoid man. Illness or threat of assassination, it did not matter – an incident such as this would trigger an overreaction on his part. After all, this was the man who had made it impossible for his ministers to tell him at the end of his life he was dying, as Henry had made it an act of treason to even think about the death of the King. Again, it was an overreaction for Henry to issue an Attainder. Attainders were usually dispensed for criminals at large, however, at the time it was issued Rousse had already been arrested and therefore, there was no need for it. Many believe that this swift action was down to Henry’s own paranoia, he viewed Rousse as a dangerous man, did not really care for the true story and wanted to make an example of him. Soon after the incident, Parliament passed An Acte of Poysoning, which made willful murder an act of treason even if the victim was not a person within high office. This came after Rousse’s own execution, and was applied retrospectively to his ‘crime’.
Article 22 was passed by Parliament in 1532, making boiling a legal form of capital punishment. This, as well as the 1531 act, went on to be used against at least one more person – Margret Davy, a poisoner in 1542. It was then repealed during the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI in 1547. Short-lived as it was, there seems to be something quite strange about the circumstances of Edward Rousse’s execution.
However, there is one alternative view, a conspiracy theory if you will. At the time, people thought that Henry himself had chosen to poison the Bishop. As previously mentioned, this event took place on the cusp of great change and Henry did, in fact, have Fisher executed in 1535. Henry was a paranoid man but there was a ruthless streak to him and he was a man not to be trifled with. He was ready to do anything to protect his succession – not only did he marry six times in the hope of strengthening his dynasty with a brood of princelings, but he upturned his country and forced a new religion on his subjects.
Therefore, the question to pose is this: Would Henry be above setting up an innocent man who thought he was playing a prank to get rid of a man who was standing between him and what he wanted?
If you are feeling inspired, you can learn more about the thrilling, horrifying, and often downright strange events of the past on our horrible histories tour of the capital. To book your place, simply get in touch with a member of the team today.