Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Nun Who Threatened Henry VIII

By Nancy Bilyeau

The journey that Henry VIII made with Anne Boleyn to Calais in the autumn of 1532 is well known. This was when Henry presented his beloved Anne, newly elevated as Marquess of Pembroke, to the king of France, when the couple may have begun to sleep together, when by all accounts he was most deeply in love with her.

Yet just before leaving England, King Henry had a distinctly unromantic encounter with another woman. He met face-to-face with a female who was roughly Anne Boleyn’s age but was not a courtier’s daughter possessing style and Continental polish. Elizabeth Barton, humbly born, was a Benedictine nun of the Priory of St. Sepulchre, in Canterbury.

Sister Elizabeth was, like many people, loyal to the king’s estranged wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and did not want him to marry Anne Boleyn. But unlike the vast majority of English men and women, she was determined to do something about it.

According to a statement taken later, Sister Barton told Henry VIII “she had knowledge by revelation from God that God was highly displeased with our said Sovereign Lord…and in case he desisted not from his proceedings in the said divorce and separation but pursued the same and married again, that then within one month after such marriage he should no longer be king of this realm, and in the reputation of Almighty God should not be king one day nor one hour, and that he should die a villain’s death…”

Henry VIII’s response to Sister Elizabeth’s threat in 1532 is unknown. But less than two years later, she would be dead, the only nun executed in the reign of the king. She had no trial. The methods that the king and his ministers used to persecute and condemn her for treason set the pattern to be used on others that Henry VIII wanted to destroy. She was the first of the retaliation deaths.

Anne Boleyn

Although she presented a serious obstacle to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and was later used as an instrument to bring down the highest-ranking of the king’s critics, Cardinal John Fisher, Sister Elizabeth Barton does not appear in hardly any historical fiction (or TV series or films) taking place in the 1530s except for Wolf Hall in which she is mocked as an attention seeker. She is described dismissively in most works of nonfiction. Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton called her “that deluded prophetess” and, more recently, Geoffrey Moorhouse described her as “the somewhat deranged and visionary serving maid.”

What has undoubtedly diminished the legacy of Sister Elizabeth is the Tudor government’s propaganda machine. A long manuscript was written by Barton’s confessor; a printed tract of her life widely circulated throughout England; an illuminated letter was produced by a monk – all of these documents were destroyed. We cannot read them today. The accepted chroniclers of the 16th century, all of them Protestant, are our sources of her life story, along with a few references made by foreign ambassadors. It is hard to glimpse a view of the human being through the distortions.

Sister Elizabeth’s saga bears some resemblance to Joan of Arc’s, a century earlier. Joan was a peasant who experienced visions. Elizabeth was a servant who fell seriously ill in 1525, lost consciousness, and when she came to, made references to the health of a boy also ill whose fate she could not have had knowledge of. She shared visions that called for veneration of God. Word spread, and those living in Kent began to make pilgrimages. She is supposed to have proclaimed prophecies and performed miracles but we don’t know the details. “She told plainly of divers things done at the church and other places where she was not present, which nevertheless she seemed most likely to behold as if it were with her own eye.”

Church authorities interviewed Elizabeth early on and proclaimed her a genuine mystic. They were not eager to anoint seers; quite the opposite. She was examined rigorously by a series of priests, monks and bishops, all of them on the outlook for “trickery.” The Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham personally saw her and said her visions were genuine. In a letter he described her as a “well -disposed and virtuous woman.” Elizabeth entered the nunnery of St. Sepulchre to be either protected or controlled, depending on how you look at it. “The Holy Maid of Kent” made appearances at a church in Canterbury, and at one point up to 2,000 people jostled to surround her.

What is beyond question is that Elizabeth Barton had some sort of chronic illness for the rest of her life, whether it was physical, neurological or psychiatric. Her visions often came to her while she appeared to be suffering painful fits, writhing on the floor, or in a trance.

Much later, the next archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, known for his skepticism and dislike of superstition, wrote this eyewitness account of Elizabeth’s fit: “Then there was a voice heard speaking within her belly, as if it had been in a tun, her lips not greatly moving, she all that while continuing in a trance. The which voice, when it told everything of the joys of heaven, it spake so sweetly and heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof. And contrary, when it told anything of hell, it spake so horribly and terribly that it put the hearers in great fear.” In our modern minds, these bizarre breakdowns in health would hurt her credibility. But in the medieval era, holy women were often traumatically ill at the time of experiencing visions.

Elizabeth Barton became famous before Henry VIII launched his famous quest for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She already had enemies, though. Elizabeth called for obedience to pious works and traditional worship, tenets that were under attack in a Germany transformed by Martin Luther. All of Europe was in turmoil over the spreading religious reform. 

Henry VIII derided Luther in writing and was rewarded by the pope’s proclaiming him “Defender of the Faith.” What’s hard for us to grasp is that, before 1527, it was unthinkable to the world that the king of England would discard his longtime queen or that he would break with Rome. He was an orthodox ruler, an obedient son of the church. Reformer and scholar William Tyndale, living in exile, called Elizabeth a “false, dissembling harlot.” (Protestant opponents often accused Barton of sexual misconduct, without any foundation whatsoever.) Since Henry VIII opposed, hunted down, persecuted and finally killed Tyndale--who died in the flames crying, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”—Henry Tudor and Sister Elizabeth Barton were on the same side.
Until they weren’t.

The "Holy Maid” did not publicly prophesy against the king. She repeatedly tried to warn him against his course of action, first to his ministers and finally to him in person. In 1528, Barton told Cardinal Wolsey that God commanded her to tell him that if he furthered the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn he would be “utterly destroyed.” (Wolsey was disgraced after he failed to get the king his divorce and died on way to trial.) John Fisher, the churchman who supported Catherine of Aragon, wept with joy when he heard Sister Elizabeth’s visions. Sir Thomas More was more cautious, telling her that her words were “reckless.” Catherine of Aragon herself was careful to never meet or corresponded with Elizabeth, her champion. The embattled queen could see the danger that Elizabeth and her many followers seemed oblivious to.

"The Maid of Kent"

Although he knew of her activities, Henry VIII did not move against the nun for a long time. During one stage he tried to pacify her, even to bribe her. He offered to make her an abbess of her own priory. She refused the offer.

Elizabeth’s fame and influence continued to grow. She met with foreign ambassadors and the papal representative in England. She wrote letters to the pope, urging him to stop the king from divorcing. She had secret meetings with English nobility, including Gertrude Courtenay, the marchioness of Exeter, wife to the king’s first cousin. Collections of Sister Elizabeth’s prophecies were printed and widely circulated.

Barton herself said that she prevented Henry VIII from marrying Anne Boleyn in Calais, as he was rumored to be planning to do. When they did marry, it was in great secret.

It was widely known that Sister Elizabeth predicted if Henry VIII wed Anne, he would soon lose his kingdom and die. After several months had passed and he was very much alive, the king moved against her. Barton and her most devoted followers were arrested and harshly questioned in late 1533. There is no proof of torture, although another woman, Anne Askew, would be racked nearly to death for her religious “crimes” a decade later.

Whatever the means of persuasion, Elizabeth Barton supposedly told her captors what they wanted to hear. She recanted her visions and said, Cranmer wrote, “all was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise.” This did not save her. Henry VIII directed Parliament to pass a special act condemning her for treason without a hearing. The punishment was death.

Elizabeth Barton, around 30 years of age, was hanged and then beheaded on April 20, 1534, her head fixed on Tower Bridge, the only woman known to be so displayed after death. The head of Cardinal Fisher was later mounted as a warning to others when he was executed for treason, in part because he was charged with conspiring with Elizabeth Barton. Five men were executed with her the same day, all of them priests, monks or parsons who had believed in her prophecies.

This same spring of 1534 was when Henry VIII demanded that the church and the people follow him into schism with Rome. The terms of the Act of Succession were proclaimed everywhere. People were warned that if they said or wrote anything against the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or his lawful heirs by her, they would be guilty of treason, punishable by death.

All the records of Sister Elizabeth’s confession come from the crown. In 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn would also be turned into a nonperson after execution: letters, documents, portraits destroyed. Because her daughter grew up to be a great queen, Anne’s reputation was restored. This never happened with Elizabeth Barton. She is usually dismissed as a tool of religious plotters, or mentally ill. The possibility that this was a young woman who felt compelled to have a say in the affairs of the kingdom, and possessed the courage to try to interfere, is rarely acknowledged.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Tudor mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, German, Spain, and Russia. The main character is Sister Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Twitter Contest to Win My Trilogy

I'm delighted to share that my publisher, Touchstone, is running a contest for my entire trilogy in paperback. If you retweet, you are entered. :)

The link is here.

Good luck!


note: as of April 18, the contest is over

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Henry VII and the Danger of Prophecy

By Nancy Bilyeau

The Yorkists were a hard-headed lot, basing their right to rule on bloodline. When their last king, Richard Plantagenet, was slain at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, his devastated Yorkist supporters--as well as the rest of the country--waited to hear what claim to the throne the victor, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, would put forth.

It was a delicate question.

Henry VII
Tudor was the leader of the Lancastrian house, but strictly by default. Stronger claimants had been mown down a while ago. Yes, he'd won the crown in battle but there were laws in England. To hold the crown, he'd have to convince everyone he was the legitimate king. Tudor's father, Edmund, had not a drop of English royal blood; he was the son of French Queen Dowager Katherine of Valois and her Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. (And so half-brother to the last Lancaster king, Henry VI.) Through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor had a stronger claim, as she was in direct descent from Edward III, but the Beauforts were barred from the succession.

We can imagine there was a certain level of suspense as the country waited. Most assumed that the newly declared Henry VII would swiftly marry Elizabeth of York, oldest living child of the dead Edward IV, and attach his weak claim to her greater one. But he did not marry her right away--it was important to him to claim the right to rule on his own.

When he invaded England with French-financed troops, Tudor had marched through his family stronghold of Wales, gaining support and men, under the banner of the red dragon: the battle standard of King Arthur and other Celtic leaders. Now it was announced that Henry Tudor was descended from Arthur himself through Cadwaladr and the Welsh chieftains who were ancestors of Owen Tudor. Genealogists had confirmed this, the skeptical court was informed. Henry's ascension was the fulfillment of prophecy.

Despite such grandiose claims, Henry married Elizabeth of York. But he did not drop the Arthur business. Far from it: He insisted that his first child be born in Winchester, sometimes identified as Camelot in legend. And when that baby boy was born, he was named...Arthur.

Le Morte D'Arthur
What could not be accidental is that in 1485 something else happened in England besides Bosworth. The first printing of Le Morte d'Arthur appeared, a compilation of tales by Sir Thomas Malory of Arthur and Guinevere, Launcelot, Mordred, and the magician Merlin. The tales were so popular, they were reprinted.
Henry VII would not be the first ruler to seize on the romance of Camelot to bolster his regime.  But the direct connection of his legal claim to rule England to a work of mythic entertainment is bold indeed. It was as if, in 1977, the year  "Star Wars" hit theaters, a president appeared who announced himself descended from Luke Skywalker.

But there was a darker element to this claim to Camelot. In legitimizing a mystical prophecy, Henry VII was unleashing a certain kind of power that would reach across the entire 16th century and into the 17th, bedeviling his great-great-grandson. Rebels against various Tudor regimes would repeatedly use their own prophecies to rally support. They effectively co-opted Henry VII's modus operandi, down to the symbolic banners. A frustrated Henry VIII sought to ban prophecy from his kingdom after he was nearly engulfed by seers, witches, and necromancers spouting predictions, many of them derived, allegedly, from Merlin and yet coded and obscure, open to many interpretations. The prophecy whispered in the 1530s was "When the cow doth ride the bull, Then, priest, beware of thy skull." To those obsessed with wizards' predictions, this "ancient" bit of wisdom foretold the rise of Anne Boleyn ("the cow"), whose domination of Henry VIII ("the bull") spelled doom for the Catholic priests.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, and its many banners
"The craving to gaze into the future arises naturally in times of great danger and distress," said Madeleine Hope Dodds in the paper "Political Prophecies in the Reign of Henry VIII." It would be hard to imagine more distress caused than the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some of the rebels who rose up in the Pilgrimage of Grace spouted the "wisdom" of Merlin to lead them. Henry VIII was certain it played a part in the rebellion. In the same letter in which he ordered the Duke of Norfolk "you must cause such dreadful execution upon a good number of inhabitants, hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town, as shall be a fearful warning," he commanded the duke "send to us the Witch of York."

Again and again, strange prophecies emerged in times of political distress in the Tudor era. After a young nobleman named Anthony Babington was arrested for a treasonous conspiracy to murder Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots, a book of Merlin prophecies was found in Babington's London home.

John Dee and Edward Kelley
More than any other Tudor ruler since Henry VII, Elizabeth tried to harness prophecy, to understand it through her consultations with Dr. John Dee and his colleague, the bizarre necromancer Edward Kelley. She is the hard-headed queen, the ruler who said she had no desire for a "window into men's souls." However, she picked her coronation date based on what Dr. Dee told her to do.

It is with James VI that the brew of prophecy and the occult overflows. James was a Stuart king of Scotland, but part Tudor too, descended through both his parents--Mary Queen of Scots and Henry, Lord Darnley--from Margaret Tudor, the oldest daughter of Henry VII. 

Scotland was already a place uneasy with such fears before James VI was born. The Act of 1563 forbade anyone to use witchcraft, sorcery or necromancy or to claim any of its powers, the penalty for both witch and client being death.

James VI overseeing witch trials

As a young man, James VI became convinced that witches were trying to kill him, specifically creating storms to drown him and his bride, Anne of Denmark, as he tried to bring her to Scotland. Afterward he oversaw witch trials, ordering torture of suspects, that led to a flurry of executions. In 1597 James personally wrote an 80-page book called Daemonologie expounding on his views on the dangers of sorcery and magic. Shakespeare drew from it when writing Macbeth, considered by many a tribute to King James, with its three witches spouting eerie prophecy that would change men's destinies.

The witches in 2015 film of  Macbeth

In the speeches of the witches of Macbeth, the ideas of both King James VI and Henry VII can be seen. One witch is angry at the wife of a sailor and her friend says, "I'll give thee a wind." But the most damage they do is telling Macbeth his future: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

His entire life, James VI was tormented by fears of a violent death. He waited for "something wicked this way comes." In the end he died in his bed, the king of England and Scotland. But fears of prophecy and of witchcraft, which he'd done so much to whip into a frenzy, did not die with him; instead, the frenzy led to the deaths of more English victims, and traveled to America with the Puritan settlers, before finally loosening their hold.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England and published in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick for 2012 and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award.

For the month of June, The Crown is discounted 70 perecent on amazon and Barnes & Noble. Go here.

Anne of Cleves is a character in The Chalice and the third book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, which was published by Simon & Schuster in March 2015. The Tapestry is a finalist for the RWA Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Strange Death of Richard the Lionheart

By Nancy Bilyeau

In April 1199, the French King, Philip II, thanked God for the providential death of his great rival: Richard I. Ever since the English king was freed from his prison in Austria in 1194, he had turned his war machine on the French, reclaiming the lands and castles that were taken while he was captive. Had he continued his relentless campaign, Richard might well have conquered the whole of France, and medieval history would have turned out quite differently.

But at the age of 42, Richard died. He was slain during a siege of a small and seemingly unimportant French castle, and certain aspects of his death struck the chroniclers of his time--and later historians--as strange, almost sordid. It was an anticlimactic end to the life of the Lionheart.

Richard was taken captive on his way back from the Third Crusade. Leopold of Austria held grudges against Richard, and he put him in a secret prison. Once Queen Eleanor, Richard's mother, discovered where her beloved son was, she appealed to the Pope. The Holy Roman Emperor set a ransom of 150,000 marks--65,000 pounds of silver. It was an astronomical sum, estimated to be three times the annual income of the English crown. But Eleanor raised it.

In the legends of Robin Hood, Richard is a benevolent ruler, who after being freed forgives his brother John and returns to the task of governing England. But Richard had little interest in England his whole life--he is rumored to have said, "If I could have found a buyer, I would have sold London itself"--and was passionate about going on Crusades or fighting for more French territory than he already possessed as the ruler of the Aquitaine.

Chateau-Gaillard today

Richard decided what he needed was an impregnable castle from which to defend Normandy and then retake critical French land. The vast one that he built required two years of punishing around-the-clock labor and cost an estimated £20,000, more than had been spent on any English castle in the last decade. Legend has it that while building the Chateau-Gaillard, Richard and his men were drenched with "rain of blood," but he refused to take it as an evil omen.

In March 1199, Richard was in the Limousin, suppressing a revolt by the Viscount of Limoges. He "devastated the Viscount's land with fire and sword." Then he besieged the nearby small chateau of Chalus-Chabrol. Accounts differ on why; some say it was because a peasant found treasure underground--either Roman gold or valuable objects--and Richard was so desperate for money, he lay siege to the castle. But some historians say that this entire area was of strategic importance to Richard's hold on France, and he was only there to suppress rebellion.

Ruins of Chalus-Chabrol

What most historians agree on is that Richard was walking the chateau's perimeter without wearing his chain mail and he was shot by a castle defender using a crossbow. The wound in his left shoulder turned gangrenous. It steadily grew worse over the next 10 days. Some wrote that while dying Richard asked that the bowman be brought to him. He then forgave the man, who was named Peter Basil, and instructed that he should not be harmed. Richard died in the arms of his mother on April 6th, historians say. Later, defying Richard's orders, Peter Basil was flayed alive and hanged.

Why did Richard I, a seasoned and expert warrior, expose himself to a bowman's shot? Did the king and crusader put his life at risk to claim some grubby treasure dug up from the ground?

Richard's tomb at the Abbey of Fontrevault

Following the custom of the time, Richard's body was buried in different places. His heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy; his entrails in Chalus; and the rest of his body near his father's remains in Anjou.

Four years ago, a French forensics expert received permission to analyze a small sample of Richard I's heart to determine if the cause of the king's death was indeed septicemia, an infection of the blood. All that was left of it was dried remains, not enough to definitely confirm septicemia. They did detect bacteria but no arsenic or other sources of poison, ruling out an arrow dipped in poison, which was rumored for a while. No one could accept the fact that an ordinary arrow killed the Lionheart.

What the scientists also discovered was that the king's heart was embalmed using materials more akin to the practices of the ancient world than medieval Christian society. According to Scientific American: "Elemental analysis turned up high concentrations of calcium, suggesting that lime may have been used as a preservative. Mass spectrometry identified organic molecules characteristic of creosote and frankincense, both used for preserving tissue." Moreover: “It proves that embalming of Christians did happen,” Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York, UK, who has conducted forensic analyses of Egyptian mummies, was quoted as saying. “The Church has tried to downplay the use of embalming in religious leaders and royalty” in the past because of the pagan origins of the practice, he adds.

However, there is another explanation. Experts speculate that in 1199, when embalming Richard's heart, they were actually trying to replicate the process used in the time of Jesus Christ. This gives another clue as to how Richard was viewed in his lifetime. Dr Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist from Raymond Poincare University Hospital, in France, told the BBC: "The spices and vegetables used for the embalming process were directly inspired by the ones used for the embalming of Christ. For example, we found frankincense. This is the only case known of using frankincense--we have never found any use of this before. This product is really devoted to very, very important persons in history."

The scientific team that performed the test concluded: "We found that the heart was deposed in linen, associated with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury and, possibly, lime. Furthermore, the goal of using such preservation materials was to allow long-term conservation of the tissues, and good-smelling similar to the one of the Christ (comparable to the odor of sanctity)."
Something odd did surface in the testing: Scanning electron microscopy identified pollen grains from myrtle, mint and other known embalming plants, as well as poplar and bellflower. These plants could not have been all in bloom when Richard is said to have died, April 6th. It is weeks too early. Late May is when this level of pollen would have been reached. Yet chroniclers are firm on the early April date.

And so mysteries deepen in the death of the king.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy on historical mysteries, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, published by Simon & Schuster and available in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain. The death of Richard the Lionheart plays a role in the first of the novels, The Crown. The Tapestry went on sale as a paperback in spring 2016.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Bishop's Poisoner

By Nancy Bilyeau

On April 5, 1531, hardened London spectators of public punishment gathered at Smithfield, joined by others too curious to stay away. 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 to be boiled alive.

Roose was not of the magnitude of criminal that usually met his end at Smithfield, located just beyond the London Wall. This was the ground where the English executed the 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.

Roose, the prisoner of our true story, was convicted of high treason, yet had not sought to harm King Henry VIII nor his queen, Catherine of Aragon, nor any royal councilor. He had not tried to overthrow the kingdom's government nor change its religious policies. Roose, a cook, was accused of murder by poison. His two victims were an obscure gentleman in the household of Bishop John Fisher, Bennet Curwen, and a destitute widow who accepted the bishop’s charity, Alyce Tryppytt. The target of the poisoning was assumed to be Fisher himself, the Bishop of Rochester. Ironically, Fisher did not eat the soup—sometimes described as porridge—that Roose prepared and so was unharmed.

Roose admitted to the poisoning but claimed it was a joke gone wrong, an accident.  There is no testimony for us to examine, because Roose had no trial, by command of the king.
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 that of Henry VIII. Although there is no question of who did the killing, this is still a tantalizing Tudor murder mystery, and reveals some of the peculiarities of the early modern age, when laws existed and homicide was considered a heinous crime, but there was no trained police force nor forensic science.

Why did Henry VIII demand this punishment of a lowly cook? Why was Roose executed as a traitor when his crime was murder of commoners? The answer lies in the King's complex feelings for Bishop Fisher.

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 the King’s father, Henry VII, in 1504. Fisher performed 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, then an English scholar at the University of Padua, whether “in all the cities and places where learned and good men might be best known, I had found such a learned man as the bishop of Rochester.”
But by the time of the crime in question, King Henry was no longer proud of Bishop Fisher, 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 had lost his—if he had consumed the soup.
In 1527, when Henry VIII, desperate for a male heir, began his public quest for an annulment from 42-year-old Catherine of Aragon to marry the delectable 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 leading up to February 18th, 1531, the day of the poisoning:
*In 1529, Bishop Fisher announced at the legatine trial of the royal 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, which is significant:

“After this the Bishop escaped a very great danger. For one Richard Rose came into the 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."
An inquiry began at once. Although a trained, salaried police force did not yet exist in England, criminal investigation was taken seriously. Justices of the peace, appointed by the monarch, received and investigated complaints; coroners viewed dead bodies and ordered arrests. Now if a suspect was bound over for trial, freedom was unlikely. Defendants charged with felonies or treason were not entitled to lawyers; rules of evidence did not exist. In fact, murder trials rarely lasted more than 15 minutes.

Roose was soon apprehended, and admitted to adding what he believed were laxatives to the soup as a "jest." No one believed him.

The always skeptical ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote a slightly different version of events 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."

We share Chapuys’ frustration. Who gave the cook these powders and told him that they would sicken and not kill? If that information was obtained, it was not shared with the public, not to mention Chapuys or any other ambassador to the court. No transparency.

Sir Thomas More, the lord 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 unpleasant weather.
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 sitting in prison! Nonetheless, 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.

Several biographers have noted King Henry’s extreme fear of poison. Although the monarch’s paranoia became infamous in later years, there was some basis for concern. Everyone had heard the stories of murder by cantarella in Rome during the time of the Borgias. Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, died—perhaps of poison slipped into his food at a banquet—during the reign of Henry VII. Cantarella was believed to have been arsenic trioxide.

Did substances with poisonous properties exist in England at this time? Yes, they did, and were in the reach of the apothecaries, who acted as pharmacists and diagnosticians for most English people. Not only did the physicians recoil at the thought of an autopsy—which was forbidden by the Church—they rarely put hands on the living. Tudor doctors believed the body was ruled by the four humours, as taught by the Greek 2nd century doctor/philosopher Galen, and often used astrological charts and examined urine to determine treatment.

If poison was ever suspected as the cause of death, there was no way to scrutinize its damage within the corpse to confirm. And should the poison itself be obtained, the field of analytical chemistry was four centuries away.

Not surprisingly, rumors ran wild. Poisoning was rumored (never proven) to be the cause of the deaths of Queen Anne, Richard III’s wife; the eventual death of Catherine of Aragon; and the agonizing death of Henry’s son, Edward VI. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, written in the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, employed poison, of course. Shakespeare wove it into five other plays too.

But there was more to this than royal terror of a poisoned dish. 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 and lack of trial in his letter to Emperor Charles. Regardless of the "demonstrations of sorrow he makes, [Henry VIII] will not be able to divert suspicion," wrote the ambassador. But no accusations were ever made, of course.

In April the crowds of Smithfield witnessed Roose's death. 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 addendum’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 to protect him, but it only enraged the king more. Once he’d ordered a savage punishment of the man who tried to kill Fisher, and now Henry VIII wanted Fisher gone. 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."
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.”

Word 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 greatly unnerved King Henry.

The law of attainder—condemnation of treason without trial—would be used by Henry VIII against Sister Elizabeth Barton, Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, his fifth wife Catherine Howard, and several others.

Boiling to death was employed once again, in 1542 for a woman, Margaret Davy, “a maidservant” convicted of “poisoning three householders with whom she dwelled.”

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

And in 1886, the Catholic Church made John Fisher a saint.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of books set in the reign of Henry VIII: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.