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Welcome to Episode 172 of That Shakespeare Life the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

Born in Portugal, Dr. Roderigo Lopez fled to England in the 16th century as a Jewish refugee. His family was Jewish, forced to convert to Catholicism, and when he arrived in England he joined the Church of England to become Protestant while still practicing Jewish rituals at home. Serving at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1576, Lopez rose through the ranks as a doctor until he was the Chief Physician there. He served as doctor to some of England’s most notable dignitaries including Sir Francis Walsingham, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. These highly prestigious professional connections were  a boon for Dr. Lopez’ medical career, but the danger of these connections led to Dr. Lopez being entangled with spies and ultimately to his execution on grounds of plotting an assasination against Queen Elizabeth. The scandal of Dr. Lopez’ trial in 1594 happened while Shakespeare was in London, and the cultural anti-semitism of 16th century England that played a role in Lopez’ conviction is echoed in some of the references to Jews we find in Shakespeare’s plays.

Here today to tell us the story of Roderigo Lopez and his part in the life of William Shakespeare is our guest, Susan Abernethy.


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Susan Abernethy has a degree in history and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association.  Her blog, The Freelance History Writer has been continuously publishing historical articles since 2012, with an emphasis on European, Tudor, medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Women’s history.  Her latest novel, a biography of a prominent Stuart royal, is currently in production. Find out more about Susan, and explore her work at www.thefreelancehistorywriter.com


In this episode, I’ll be asking Susan Abernethy about :

  • The Queen had a household staff of at least 15 physicians, how and why did she choose to add Roderigo Lopez to her staff? 

  • Dr. Lopez treated Sir Francis Walsingham and was an immigrant from Portugal during a time when Spain was invading Portugal and England was enemies with Spain. Did Dr. Lopez’s position in the Queen’s household staff put him in a position to serve as an intelligence agent for Queen Elizabeth during these conflicts?

  • What happened to cause a falling out between Dr. Lopez and the Earl of Essex?
  • … and more!

Now, master doctor, have you brought those drugs?


Cymbeline (I.5)

Photograph of an original woodcut. Wellcome Library Title: Roderigo Lopez: he conspires to poison Queen Elizabeth I and is hanged. Photograph after an engraving by F. van Hulsen, 1627. | “Roderigo Lopez, Elizabeth I’s physician, approached by a Spanish or Portuguese nobleman, possibly Estevão Ferreira da Gama, who is attempting to persuade him to kill the queen; in the background, Lopez hanging from a gallows. 1627”–British Museum catalogue | Original text spelling: Quid dabitis? Proditoris finis funis. Lopez compounding to poyson the Queene. F. Hulsius sculp. | Author: Friedrich van Hulsius (born 1580). | Source | Wellcome Library Entry

Roderigo Lopez was an immigrant from Portugal

Roderigo Lopez was an immigrant from Portugual and upon arriving in England, established himself as a physician. 

Lopez was highly educated, graduated college 1544. Rules of admitting physicians to medical practice required that all except Oxford and Cambridge graduates had to pass an assessment by a committee, and while we don’t have a record of Lopez passing this requirement, we do have appointments admitted at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London [which he would not have been allowed to make unless he passed the assesment.]

Lopez was a brilliant doctor and galenic tradition, skillful and careful at gunshot wounds, diet recommendations, uses of purges and bleeding. Contemporaries wrote “learned and expert physician at court” [about Lopez] whose skill and reputation brought him to the attention of Essex, Walsingham, others, and eventually Dudley and the Queen. 

Lopez was an innovative physician as well, producing many widely known medications and remedies for common problems in Elizabethan England. One recipe, in particular, was so well known that the Queen granted him a monopoly on the import of the main ingredient. 

He produced a recipe including anise seeds, calming in teas and respiratory ailments. Dysmenorrhea. Beneficial effects as an antioxidant. Sumac was used for cooking and berry lemonade, [used for treating] digestive ailments. Three years after [Lopez starting prescribing the treatment, the Queen] granted [Lopez] a monopoly on import of sumac.


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St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Mediaeval Period. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Mediaeval Period. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) | Source

Roderigo Lopez was a prominent physician in England

Roderigo Lopez served Queen Elizabeth honorably as the Chief Physician of a staff of at least 15 individuals under whose charge it was to care for the Queen herself. His position as a Portuguese immigrant serving in a prominent position at court during a time when England was at war with Spain entangled Lopez in the spy network seeking to undermine Spain in their plight against Portugal.

Lopez himself was something of an oddity in England, since he was an immigrant, a Jew, and converted to Christianity. One scholar, Gabriel Harvey, wrote on the title page of a book he owned that:

Doctor Lopus, the Queenes physitian, is descended of Jewes: but himselfe A Christian, & Portugall. He none of the learnedest, or expertest physitians in ye Court: but one, that maketh as great account of himself, as the best: & by a kind of Jewish practis, hath growen to much wealth, & sum reputation: aswell with ye Queen herselfe as with sum of ye greatest Lordes, & Ladyes.” Source: Gabriel Harvey’s Marginalia ed. G. C. Moore Smith. Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1913, facsimile edition, the marginalia occurs on the title page of In Iudaeorum Medicastrorum calumnias, 1570.

There was already a belief in England that Catholics pretending to be Jewish physicians were plotting against the Queen. Despite his role as a member of Elizabeth’s staff, Lopez, by nature of his past religion and vocation, were under constant suspicion. Lopez additionally served as a spy for Elizabeth, acting under the direction of Walsingham, and seeking to broker a peace deal with Spain. The details of Lopez involvement are complicated, but we do know that he continued to write letters to Spanish officials without permission from England or Elizabeth I. Despite this action, (called “stupid and dishonest” by scholar Edgar Samuel) there survives no evidence that Lopez acted against the Queen.

Source: Samuel, Edgar (2004). “Lopes [Lopes], Rodrigo [Ruy, Roger] (c.1517–1594)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/17011

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

O noble weakness!
If they had swallow’d poison, ‘twould appear
By external swelling: but she looks like sleep


Antony and Cleopatra (V.2)

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; oil on canvas. circa 1596. after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Public Domain. Original description: 2006-07-23 10:51 Caro1409 814×1018×8 (171906 bytes) Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger oil on canvas, probably 17th century (circa 1596) http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/RobertDevereux(2EEssex).htm http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/images/Devereux,Robert(2EEssex)02.jpg

External links are given because they are part of the original image source record where I found the portrait. I am not endorsing nor vouching for the websites here linked.

Lopez loose lips became his undoing

Apparently at a party, Dr. Lopez (the implication is he was drunk) talked too much about a high ranking patient of his, Robert Devereuax, the Earl of Essex. Lopez relayed to people who not to be privy to personal medical information that Essex had been treated for a sexually transmitted disease. It was highly frowned upon in Elizabethan society to engage in behavior that might lead to an STD, so not only was the indiscretion damaging to Essex’s reputation perosonally but due to his relationship with the Queen, the divulgence by Lopez was harmful to his relationship with the Queen as well. Essex was incensed. 

In revenge against Lopez, Essex gathered information to make a case that Lopez was plotting against the Queen. Essex produced letters that implicated Lopez, and tortured associates with Lopez until they confessed what Essex wanted to hear. The evidence Essex produced accused Lopez of plotting to poison the Queen by feeding her a syrup laced with poison. As Susan points out in this week’s episode, the accusation appears falsified intentionally as Lopez would have known intimately that the Queen did not take syrups. So if he was trying to assasinate her, he would not have done it this way. 

Nevertheless, the charges were damning. The prosecutor, Sir  Edward Coke, declared the doctor a “a perjured, murdering villain and a Jewish doctor worse than Judas himself … [not] a new Christian … [but] a very Jew” (Source: Furdell 2001, pp. 80–81.) As he was lead to the scaffold, William Camden (16th century historian) records that Lopez declared he loved the Queen as much as he loved Jesus Christ. He was making the case that both his faith in Christ and his loyalty ot the Queen were genuine, but the crowd believed he was confessing to hating both. 

Lopez and his associated were found guilty in February of 1594. The Queen would delay execution for months, before she was finally forced to execute the setnence of death for Lopez. He was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tybrun on June 7, 1594. 

Want to learn more?

Here are some books and resources recommended by Susan Abernethy.

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