Murder, Poisons, and Conversos

January 5, 2012 | By

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Dr. Rodrigo López was born in Portugal in the 16th century. He was a converso, a Jew who converted to Christianity, but he ended up leaving the country, fleeing the increasingly dogged efforts of the Inquisition, which aimed to persecute lapsed converts.

In London–where he arrived in 1559–López became a charismatic and popular local physician, and a social climber. Seven years after his arrival, he was appointed royal physician to Queen Elizabeth I. It was a position that was advantageous, both socially and financially: He was granted a monopoly on importing aniseed and sumac. He was also renowned for less socially-acceptable ventures; one London directory listed López as gifted in “poisoning and the art of destroying children in women’s bellies.”

López’s quick and unexpected rise to power earned him both admirers and enemies. His steadfastness in demonstrating his adopted Christianity was long-rumored to be the inspiration for The Merchant of Venice, the play by Shakespeare (another of Elizabeth’s favored subjects). But on New Year’s Day 1594, López was accused of attempting to poison the Queen. Though Elizabeth herself was unsure of his guilt, he was hanged later that year.

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