The Man Henry VIII Boiled to Death
Many methods of execution were initially developed throughout history to make the death penalty more humane and painless. These included the guillotine, the gas chamber, lethal injection, and the electric chair. However, in one instance, history went in the opposite trajectory and sought to make execution as painful and brutal as possible: the time a man was boiled alive.
The first man boiled to death in Great Britain was one of the most brutal executions in human history. Richard Roose, in 1531, was boiled alive after allegations of poisoning food. This form of execution was later banned under Edward VI, deemed so horrific it should never happen again.
According to K.J. Kesselring at The English Historical Review, Parliament passed an “Acte for Poysoning” in 1531, a statute that made murder by means of poison a form of high treason punishable with death by boiling. Previously, poisoning was not deemed an act of treason. But Henry VIII was simply notorious for executing people. He executed two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. He is estimated to have executed 57,000 people.
But Richard Roose holds a particularly strange place in English history. Kesselring notes that Roose was a cook employed by John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester. Roose was rumored to have mixed poison into the porridge of people in Fisher’s household, and the porridge poisoned many people, particularly the poor. Every person who ate the porridge became very ill, and two people died, including a man and a poor widow.
However, Fisher himself never ate the porridge. Instead, he wasn’t harmed at all — Roose claimed the whole act was just a joke where he intended to put laxatives into the food of the people present in the household.
Somehow, the matter garnered the interest of Henry VIII. Henry VIII had no personal animus against Roose — instead, he had a strong fear of poisoning. As the king of England, Henry VIII regularly employed food tasters to guard himself against poison. When the bill passed, anyone who was convicted of fatal poisoning would be declared treason.
The reason Henry VII took particular interest in the Roose case was because of the person Roose intended to poison: John Fisher. Fisher was a political opponent of Henry VIII. He spoke out against Henry VIII’s divorce, and some suspected Henry VIII hired Roose to poison Fisher. But Henry VIII addressed Parliament to heighten the punishment for anyone accused of poisoning.
Fisher was a particularly vocal defender of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. He invoked the ire of Henry VIII after opposing his divorce and desire to marry Anne Boleyn. According to Kesselring, Henry VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon for failing to produce a male heir.
This is the story of Richard Roose, the first man boiled to death. Little is known of his life beyond his execution, but the details of his case present a miscarriage of justice and power struggle between church and state.
Roose’s case was unprecedented for more than just the method of execution. Roose was not a prominent man and was simply a common criminal — at most, he was the cook of Fisher’s household. Kesselring notes he did not receive a trial, and his rights were stripped the moment he was sentenced to death for treason. Three years later, in 1534, a woman named Elizabeth Barton, who apparently had mystical experiences and was outspoken against Henry VIII’s matrimonial policy, was also condemned to death without a trial.
We cannot tell the story of Richard Roose without mentioning Fisher. Many speculated Henry VIII and the Boleyn family paid Roose to poison Fisher — after all, Fisher was a prominent political enemy. In response to these rumors, Kesselring says Henry reacted angrily. But that does not explain why the crime was labeled treason or why boiling was chosen as the method of execution. In the drafts of the “Acte of Poisoning,” we perhaps find an answer. Since poisoning was already a felony, one draft introduced death by boiling as punishment.
However, the decision to label poisoning treason was out of Henry VIII’s volition. He wanted to send a message to anyone who wished to poison anyone in the future:
“The decision to label the offence treason, one suspects, emerged from the King’s desire to bar the benefit of clergy to subsequent offenders.”
What is the benefit of clergy? According to Anne Duggan in Medieval Worlds, the benefit of clergy was often a way to avoid the death penalty and receive a trial from an ecclesiastical court instead of a secular court. The practice arose during the reign of Henry II in a dispute with Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket thought clergymen should not be tried in secular courts when accused of a crime. Henry II was forced to give the benefit of clergy after 1170, when Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral and public opinion turned against him.
Henry VIII and his predecessor further stripped away at the benefit of clergy, and Henry sought in Roose’s case to stop anyone accused of poisoning from getting immunity from the death penalty through claiming clerical status. Only those who had the clerical rank of subcleric or above could invoke the benefit of clergy for poisoning. Previously, in 1512, Kesselring says Henry VIII removed the benefit of clergy for anyone who committed murder, a felony on consecrated ground, or robbery on the king’s highway.
Bishop Fisher opposed Henry further stripping away the privilege. And it made sense for Fisher to oppose Henry’s political maneuver — it was his household that had been targeted by poisoning, and Henry was trying to attack the rights of the clergy after a poisoning he was rumored to have supported. Roose later partially confessed to the poisoning after getting tortured.
Regardless, Henry VIII succeeded in getting Parliament to declare the act of poisoning treasonous. Since it was deemed treasonous, the benefit of clergy was stripped for any clergy accused of poisoning, particularly fatal poisoning.
On April 5, 1531, Richard Roose was executed at Smithfield. Clearly, he suffered, and he suffered a lot. One person present described the scene:
“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.”
According to British journalist Hugh Chisholm, only one other person was executed by boiling in English history: Margaret Davy, who was also accused of poisoning, and was executed in 1542, also at Smithfield. In 1547, Edward VI repealed the poisoning act.
Roose simply got unlucky at suffering the wrath of Henry VIII, being thrown in the middle of a power struggle between a king and a bishop. Of course, killing two people in a poisoning was an unacceptable act that he needed to be held accountable for. But not being given a trial and having an especially vicious form of execution suggest Roose suffered the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Death by boiling stands apart from other methods of execution which tried to be more humane versions of the death penalty. If you wanted someone to suffer while they died, like Henry VIII wanted for poisoners, death by boiling was the method of choice.