Oof. Lots to unpack here first for context. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was firmly (and loudly) opposed to Henry VIII’s attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry had started the process back around 1527, and never expected it to take the amount of time that it did. As the Pope continued to refuse his request for an annulment, Henry began to take steps to take steps to curtail the power of the Catholic church so that the matter could be decided in England (where he would be able to control the outcome). With every move Fisher resisted, Henry’s fury mounted – so much so that some historians report that he made several attempts to intimidate Fisher.
In February 1531, Henry was ready to break with Rome entirely, and tried to force Convocation to grant him the title of “Supreme Head of the Church in England” – but Fisher persuaded the group to add the qualifier “insofar as the law of Christ allows.” While Henry’s reaction to this is not recorded, just a few days after this, Bishop Fisher had a number of people over to dine…and while Fisher did not himself eat anything, 17 guests and servants got violently ill (2 died). The authorities quickly arrested his cook (once they found him – he did try to run!) who confessed to throwing a powder into the pottage, though he claimed he thought it was only a laxative that “would only hocus (tromper) the servants without doing them any harm.”
The cook, a man named Richard Roose, did not reveal who gave him this powder, which led to a gajillion conspiracy theories. The most common of course was that the King was behind this – or if not Henry, then Anne Boleyn. Of course Henry did not appreciate this – and took drastic measures to try to place himself above suspicion. First he addressed Parliament for an hour and a half, “expounding his love of justice and his zeal to protect his subjects and to maintain good order in the realm“. He then had them pass “An Acte for Poysoning” and had Rouse convicted without a trial…for the crime which under this new Act was considered high treason (even though no government official was harmed) and carried the penalty of being boiled alive (a gruesome punishment used only rarely, and which had never officially been on the books before this). Interestingly, this over-the-top level of self-righteousness just convinced people more that Henry was guilty and just deflect attention away from himself.
We have the description of the boiling from the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London 1531: “he was lockyd in a chayne and pullyd up and downe with a gybbyt at dyvers tymes tyll he was dede.” It is highly ironic that this man suffered so much for allegedly trying to kill Fisher when Henry himself went on to execute the bishop only three years later for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy….
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