Doctor Rodrigo Lopez

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Picture of Rodrigo Lopez (left)

Rodrigo Lopez (c.1517-1594) was a physician during the 16th century. He received prominence when he was "appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth I and her household in 1581" [1], but was eventually executed due to his alleged conspiracy with the Spanish throne to murder Queen Elizabeth.

In literature, it has been suggested that Lopez was an inspirational figure for the character Shylock in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.[2]


Early Life

Born in Portugal around 1517, Lopez was the son of the Jewish physician, Antonio Lopes. Lopez was considered a New Christian, or a Jewish descendant baptized by force. Lopez and his family were classified as conversos.

Lopez received his medical training at the University of Coimbra, where he graduated BA on February 7, 1540, MA on December 4, 1541, and later received his degree in medicine in 1544. Lopez settled in London in 1559, soon after Elizabeth I's accession.

Lopez had two brothers, Lewis Lopez and Diego Lopes Aleman. The latter of which was a merchant in Antwerp and Venice. Lopez married Sarah, daughter of Dunstan Anes around 1563, and had six children-Ellyn, Ambrose, Douglas, William, Ann, and Anthony who were all baptized. Lopez and his family conformed to the established church but secretly adhered to Judaism. [3]


After setting up as a doctor in London in 1559, Lopez's career had been extremely successful. Despite racial prejudice at the time, Lopez first became the house physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and eventually became the personal physician to the Earl of Leicester. Lopez reached the pinnacle of his profession when he was appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth I and her household in 1581.

Queen Elizabeth I's Physician

As the physician-in-chief to the Queen, Lopez received a life pension of £50 a year and was granted a monopoly of the importation of sumach and aniseed in June 1584. [4] With a house in Holborn and his son, Anthony, studying at Winchester, Lopez enjoyed the wealth and prestige of a well-respected man during the 16th century.

Lopez Plot

An investigation that started in January, 1594 eventually led Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex to accuse Lopez of having conspired with the Spanish emissaries to poison Queen Elizabeth. Due to Lopez's relations with the Spanish crown, this investigation eventually resulted in the execution of Lopez only six months later.

File:Portrait of Philip II of Spain by Sofonisba Anguissola - 002b.jpg
Portrait of Phillip II of Spain by Sofonisba Anguissola

Support of Dom Antonio and Phillip II of Spain

After the death of Cardinal Henry, the Portuguese Crown was left empty since the Cardinal-King left no descendants. Among the competitors for the crown were Dom Antonio and Phillip II of Spain. However, after the Battle of Alcantara, Phillip II emerged as the victor and was also crowned Phillip I of Portugal in 1581. Dom Antonio escaped Portugal and eventually took refuge in England. Through the Earl of Essex, Lopez was brought into relations with Dom Antonio. Although Lopez initially supported Antonio and persuaded the Queen to recognize Antonio as the King of Portugal, in 1590, Lopez switch his support to King Phillip, who was eager to remove Dom Antonio. As a reward, the King Phillip gave Lopez a diamond and ruby ring worth £100.

Allegations and Trial

In the beginning of 1594, two Portuguese (Esteban Ferreira and Emanuel Loisie) who betrayed Dom Antonio were arrested by the Earl of Essex under the suspicion of being double agents in the pay of Spain. Ferreira eventually confided that Lopez had been negotiating with Spain to poison Don Antonio for a large sum of money. After a series of complicated investigations and events, Essex arrested Dr. Lopez for betraying Dom Antonio. During his interrogation, Lopez also "confessed that he had entertained suggestions to poison the queen for a large of money but, as he alleged, merely with the design of cozening the King of Spain and of getting as much money out of him as possible. Lopez's explanations were not accepted and on June 7, 1594, at the age of around 70, he was executed, hanged, drawn, and quartered before a jeering London mob." [5]

Guilty or Innocent?

According to a letter written by Count Gondomar to Phillip II about the affair, both Lopez and Ferreira had been "innocent and unjustly convicted". Count Gondomar wrote : "the King our master had never conceived nor approved such measures … the Count of Fuentes neither received nor gave such an order, moreover it is understood that Dr Lopez never passed through his thoughts, because he was a friend of the Queen and a bad Christian. (Documentos ineditos, 196–8)". [6]

Historians often disagree about whether Lopez really intended on murdering Queen Elizabeth. While "Dimock ("English Historical Review," 1894, pp. 440-472) denies his innocence on the ground that he kept the negotiations secret, historians such as Major Hume ("Treason and Plot," pp. 115-152, New York, 1901) considers his guilt unproved, as he had been permitted to make similar false suggestions with the connivance of Walsingham in 1590." [7]

It is worth mentioning that even Queen Elizabeth had her doubts about Lopez's guilt. Not only did she delay signing Lopez's death warrant, she gave Sarah Lopez her husband's estate after Lopez's execution. Except for King Phillip's ring, Queen Elizabeth also returned the rest of Lopez's property to Sarah.

Relation to the Shakespeare Character Shylock

Shylock after the trial in the play The Merchant of Venice

Written between 1596 and 1598, Shakespeare's play The Merchant in Venice might have been Shakespeare's response to the events of Rodrigo Lopez. In the play, the Jewish character Shylock was described as a murderous character who hates all Christians. At the time of the play, the audiences would've been well aware of the story of Lopez's plot. Not only was Lopez also Jewish, but his faith in Christianity was questioned during his investigation. Furthermore, in the play, the character Gratiano describes Shylock as being possessed by the spirit of a wolf that was "hanged for human slaughter". This is significant because the surname Lopez originally means Son of Lope and Lope is derived from Latin meaning "wolf". [8]


  1. Samuel Edgar: “Lopez , Roderigo (c.1517–1594).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 Retrieved 5 March 2012
  2. Gross, 64
  3. Samuel Edgar: “Lopez , Roderigo (c.1517–1594).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 Retrieved 5 March 2012
  4. Samuel Edgar: “Lopez , Roderigo (c.1517–1594).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 Retrieved 5 March 2012
  5. "Lopez, Rodrigo", Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 5 March, 2012
  6. As cited in Samuel Edgar: “Lopez , Roderigo (c.1517–1594).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 Retrieved 5 March 2012
  7. "Lopez, Rodrigo", Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 5 March, 2012
  8. Gross, 64


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