5 April 1531 – The Boiling of Richard Roose, Bishop John Fisher’s Cook

Apr5,2014 #Bishop Fisher
The boiling scene from The Tudors series
The boiling scene from The Tudors series

On 5th April 1531, Richard Roose (or Rouse), the cook in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was boiled to death after being attainted of high treason. It was claimed that Roose had poisoned a porridge (or pottage)* served to Fisher and his guests on 18th February 1531. All who ate the porridge became ill, and two people died. Bennett Curwen and Alice Tryppytt, who died, had not been guests at the meal but had been fed the remains of the porridge when they had called requesting alms.

Roose claimed that he had put purgatives in the food “as a jest” and had not meant to harm anyone, but Henry VIII persuaded Parliament to pass a bill, the Acte for Poysoning (22 Henry VIII c.9), which attainted Roose of high treason and made it high treason to kill anyone by poison. William Stacy1 and K. J. Kesselring2 both write of how Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, believed that Henry VIII became personally involved in this case and wanted Roose dealt with in this manner because he wanted “to avert suspicion from falling, if not on himself, for he is too noble-minded to have resource to such means — at least on the Lady and her father”, after all, Bishop Fisher was proving to be a thorn in the Boleyns’ side with his opposition to an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.3 There is, of course, no evidence that the King or the Boleyns were involved in the poisoning.

William Stacy believes that the text of the 1531 act points to the act being implemented because of “the heinousness of the crime”, rather than it being anything to do with Fisher being the victim or public suspicion of the involvement of the Boleyns, and that the punishment, which served as a re-enactment of the crime, would deter future poisoners.4 Kesselring notes that the draft bill proposed “to attaint the cook only of voluntary murder”, not treason, and that “the decision to label the offence treason, one suspects, emerged from the King’s desire to bar the benefit of clergy to subsequent offenders.”Kesselring is of the opinion that the act was “an expedient means of extending punishment, and denying clerical immunity, for a particularly dramatic crime.”5

Richard Roose was taken to Smithfield on 5th April 1531 and boiled to death. It would have been a slow and painful death. He was not the only person to be punished in this manner as a result of the 1531 act, Margaret Davies was boiled to death on 17th March 1542 at Smithfield for poisoning “3 households that she dwelled in”.6

*Chapuys referred to the dish as soup or pottage, the 1531 Poison Act referred to it as pottage made with poisoned yeast, and Stacy and Kesselring both refer to it as porridge.

Notes and Sources

  1. Stacy, William R. (1986) Richard Roose and the Use of Parliamentary Attainder in the Reign of Henry VIII, The Historical Journal, 29, I, p1-15
  2. Kesselring, K.J. (September 2001) A Draft of the 1531 ‘Acte for Poysoning’, The English Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 468, pp. 894–899
  3. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2: 1531-1533, 646
  4. Stacey, p4-5
  5. Kesselring, p896
  6. Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, p134-135

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16 thoughts on “5 April 1531 – The Boiling of Richard Roose, Bishop John Fisher’s Cook”
  1. Hey Claire – a little unrelated- but just curious. Did Tudor cooks have any formal training? Or at least the ones that ended up in noble households? Could women obtain the position of main cook? Was this position seen as prestigious or desirable?

    1. I actually don’t know. I would assume that a cook would be someone who worked their way up from being a kitchen hand by watching the cook and learning from him, like an apprentice. I just don’t know.

      1. From the reading I’ve been doing, cooks were trained on the job from a prominsing kitchen helper all the way to king’s chef, if they were that good.

        Chefs in noble households tended to be men until the Victorian era.
        Women cooked for thier own households if they couldn’t afford a chef but wouldn’t have cooked outside the family as it was seen a man’s profession.

        Female cooks became the norm for middle class households from the Victorian era onwards( see Mrs Beeton’s Household Management) but still climbed up the ranks from kitchen maid to cook in an informal apprentiship, trading up thier skills until they obtained the cook’s position.

        Even now, it more likely that a professional chef is a trianed man than an informally trained woman. Compare Gordon Ramsey with Nigella Lawson. Both superb cooks but one still has a higher staus than the other due to his training and gender.

        1. Did some women not tend to work in these big kitchens at food preparation and the likes, like food preserving, baking and confection? Though can’t say I heard of a female chef. I bet Ruth Goodman would know of the Tudor/Victorian Farm fame…

  2. As a chef, this is particularly uncomfortable reading. However, there are certain restaurants where I could well have wished a similar fate on the proprieter. What would the modern equivalent be? Having him marinated, chargrilled, and served in a miso jus?

    1. Reality tv with Gordon Ramsey praying not to be poisoned before cursing a blue streak about everything in the restaurant..

  3. Hi! From what I have read etc it wasn’t a very easy job! The kitchens would have been ridiculously hot, the guys whose job it was to turn the ginormous spits in the huge fireplaces often wore barely a stitch of clothing and were given an endless supply of ale and the huge feasts the rich families had with all those courses meant very long hours sweating away!! I would not have wanted that job! Lol. X

    1. Hi Melanie:

      Not quite sure where you are getting the idea that the men turning the spits wore barely any clothes. That is not true, in Tudor times that would have been considered very improper. A very big part of the problem with being a “spit turner” is that these men were often wearing full Tudor “livery” (meaning a full outfit) and therefore they often succumbed to heat exhaustion or would end up catching sleeves on fire.

      (Knowledge comes from many sources however I am mainly quoting a friend who has done a fair bit of research into medievel/ren food prep)

  4. An interesting note: in the story of Jacob and Esau, Esau trades his birthright for “a mess of pottage”, which, in those times, referred to a savoury dish of cooked lentils.

  5. What a horrible way to die, but he got what he deserved, as he tried to kill a public servant; and killed several other people as well. Poisoning was feared by many people and the Kings personal cook took an oath of fealty to the King himself and prepared the meals in his own private kitchen. I assume that cooks went through some kind of proper training and apprenticship at least in the service of nobles and royal persons, training on the job, through many ranks; perhaps they began as spit turns and then went as apprentice to other cooks and up through the ranks. There were six different types of cook, all having different responsibilities for different areas of the meal and kitchen and a head cook. The meal was probably made by a personal cook and Rous had been in service for a number of years before this incident. He had access to the right things, and could easily be bribed to kill someone.

    I can see why Henry wanted the statute made into treason in this case as it was against a public servant of the crown Bishop John Fisher and if people were prepared to blame the Boleyn faction the King wanted to send a message that he was not involved or did not consent. I think that they could have just hung the man or got him to take hemlock or something, as this was what they did in Ancient times. But I assume the horrible slow death that Henry cooked up, which seems over the top was meant to fit the crime as he was a cook; he was cooked if you know what I mean. Only the Tudor mind could come up with such a punishment!

    I agree Rous had to die, but I am not in favour of such cruel deaths; but on the other hand had the statute said he was guilty of treason he could have been hung drawn and quartered, a punishment much worse and that came onto the statute books by Edward I.

    Could the Boleyn faction have been to blame? They had motive to get rid of a Bishop that stood in their way and publically opposed the divorce. The King would not have sanctioned such a thing but there where people who would act on their own initiative. Rous did not tell us who paid him as the deal had included protection for his family if he did not talk. It must have been hard, especially if he was first tortuored, but then again if the criminal conspiracy to murder Fisher and others went up into the high ranks of the court and government, may-be they did not torture him in case he did reveal who paid him?

    I also wonder why the Tudors had him killed in private in the Tower when he was publically executed at Smithfield? The former fits with the Tudors having the Boleyns involved and a private execution means he does not declare anything from a public platform. But it is still yet another error in the Tudors for dramatic purpose. Rous was foolish to do this but he knew what was at stake and I can only assume he was also well paid to keep quiet and we can only guess who was behind the real plot to kill Fisher and others.

  6. Claire: I have a question about this incident that pertains to what was depicted in The Tudors. When this occurred in the show, they show Thomas More dining with Bishop Fisher and when individuals started collapsing after starting to eat, they show him going to Henry VIII about the matter.

    You indicated that it was two individuals who begged for alms that died as a result of this incident, so unlike in The Tudors, it was not individuals falling over at the table. Can you tell me if Thomas More was indeed present when this occurred and did he go to Henry VIII as shown in the miniseries or was all this fictionalized for dramatic purposes?


    Mary Ann

  7. My Maiden name is Curwen – one wonders whether this gentleman features in my family tree somewhere along the line…

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