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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
A tale for our times

By Lisa Jardine

Queen Elizabeth in the Virgin Queen
Elizabeth was unclear over her trusted Dr Lopez's guilt

Suspicion of foreigners, fears over terrorism, suspects held without charge - an Elizabethan episode has useful lessons for today's times.

In January 1594, Queen Elizabeth I's headstrong young favourite, the Earl of Essex, accompanied by officers from the Elizabethan security forces, raided the residence of the Queen's personal physician, Dr Roderigo Lopez.

They detained him on suspicion of treason, interrogated him briefly and imprisoned him. Intelligence, carefully gathered over the preceding months had, Essex claimed, uncovered an elaborate plot, masterminded and financed by the Spanish government, to poison the Queen, restore the Catholic religion and seize the English throne.

The would-be terrorist recruited to carry out the assassination, who had infiltrated the very Court itself, was none other than Dr Lopez. Essex reported to the Queen in person that he had 'discovered a most dangerous and desperate treason'. The Queen remained unconvinced. Lopez, she maintained, was a trustworthy and loyal servant. Essex was a 'rash and temerarious youth', making claims he could not substantiate.

Nevertheless, Dr Lopez was held for 38 days without charge, before eventually being brought to trial. His home was subjected to a ruthlessly thorough search, ransacked and turned upside-down while his family stood by and watched.

Nothing significant was uncovered. As one of Elizabeth's ministers reported to her: 'In the poor man's house were found no kind of writings of intelligences whereof he is accused'. Lopez was repeatedly interrogated, and eventually subjected to torture. On the rack, he confessed that he had accepted 50,000 crowns from the Spanish intelligence services to carry out the poisoning using exotic drugs he had obtained abroad. He later retracted that confession.

Five years after the failed Spanish Armada, the English government remained in a state of agitation at the possibility of an imminent Catholic invasion from the European mainland. The country was still on high alert.

Society doctor

Correspondence from overseas was regularly intercepted, dawn raids - carried out by the intelligence services - were normal. The public were told to be on the look-out for foreign spies and extremists in their midst, and to report suspicious individuals immediately. Personal freedom was curtailed in the interests of national security - the Elizabethan state had become to all intents and purposes a police state.

Dr Lopez was a Jewish immigrant, born in Portugal. He had studied medicine in Spain before settling in London in his thirties. There he quickly established himself as a successful society doctor, first at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and later as the personal physician to leading members of the English government.

He prospered, took an English wife, and settled in a comfortable city house. Lopez reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed personal physician to Queen Elizabeth herself.

The Earl of Essex in the Virgin Queen
The Earl of Essex was behind the surveillance and charges

At the end of February 1594, Lopez was tried in camera, by a special commission at London's Guildhall, charged with leaking intelligence to the king of Spain, attempting to stir up rebellion, and conspiring to poison the Queen. Found guilty on all charges, he was hanged, drawn and quartered alongside two fellow alleged conspirators in June. Right to the end Lopez protested his innocence.

In the fraught 1590s, not much was needed to convince a jittery public of the guilt of a foreigner, who dressed distinctively, and was thought to practise what seemed like an outlandish religion. The evidence used to convict Lopez had been obtained while he was under police surveillance.

It consisted of an intercepted letter, sent to him by one of his so-called co-conspirators. It contained the sentence: 'This Bearer will tell you the price of your Pearls, and about a little Musk and Amber which I am determined to buy.'

According to the evidence of Essex's intelligence officers, this was a coded set of instructions. 'The bearer will tell you the price of your pearls' meant that Lopez's offer to assassinate the Queen was accepted and he should carry it out forthwith.

Detention limit

The 'Musk and Amber which [his correspondent was] determined to buy' meant that the King of Spain would then immediately attack and burn the Queen's fleet, anchored in the Thames. Ludicrous as this sounds to us today, in the atmosphere of terrorist-hunting hysteria which prevailed, the 'evidence' of the letter was accepted as conclusive proof of Lopez's guilt.

This week a report from the influential Home Affairs Committee found that the present 28-day limit for detention of terrorist suspects was justified. Indeed, the committee's chairman, John Denham MP, told the Today programme last Monday that 'if the current trends towards more conspiracies and more complex conspiracies continues, then we may well get to the point where 28 days isn't sufficient'.

Cartoon showing Lopez on the right
The atmosphere at the time was feverish and paranoid

Only a few days earlier, Mr Denham had also publicly defended the need for control orders to restrict the movement of suspected terrorists. Control orders, he said, are a 'justifiable safety valve' as 'proper protection of civil society'.

It was Michael Mansfield QC, responding to Denham's remarks, who made me think about the case of Dr Lopez. He warned against using the argument that because we live in particularly perilous times we have to be prepared to give up 'due judicial process'.

'This is not a new problem,' he said. 'This is precisely the issue that infected Elizabethan times. We have lived with plots, and spies and [allegations of conspiracies] for centuries.'

To give up 'due process' of the law is permanently to damage the personal freedom of each and every one of us. When we argue that detention arrangements and control orders must not infringe the human rights of an alleged perpetrator or suspect, we are not simply taking the 'liberal' point of view - we are also arguing for our own protection.

The Kahar brothers, arrested as terrorists during a dawn raid at Forest Gate last month, on suspicion of preparing a chemical bomb, were able to clear their names, and received a police apology. In stark contrast, we will never know for sure whether Dr Lopez was innocent or guilty. He was held for more than a month with no clear idea of the reasons for his detention and eventually tried in closed court session. He was denied the opportunity to counter the evidence against him, or to call witnesses.

Fallible processes

In spite of his privileged position, entrusted with the health and welfare of the body of Queen Elizabeth I herself, Lopez's voice cannot be heard anywhere in the records - he was silenced at the time, and remains so today. His voice is drowned out by the barrage of evidence systematically assembled against him by members of the security forces, convinced in advance of his guilt.

The processes of surveillance and information-gathering will always, as in the case of Dr Lopez and the Kahar brothers, be fallible. We ought each of us, then, to take their terrifying ordeals personally. However well-placed or well-connected we are, any one of us may some day find ourselves under suspicion, in need of the protection of the law against an accusation made unjustly or in error.

It was not until the end of the seventeenth century, by a slow process, during and after the English Civil Wars, that the civil liberties fatally undermined during the Age of Elizabeth began gradually to be restored. It took until the nineteenth century for the individual human rights we take for granted to become fully enshrined in law.

The process by which people who are alleged to have committed offences against the state are brought to court, so that the allegations against them can be properly examined, has been honed over centuries. Once dismantled, due process of the law will take centuries to rebuild.

If, in order to be able to detain those we suspect of intending harm, we reduce, for the time being, the long-established methods of accumulating evidence and establishing the burden of proof, how will we be able, at some future date, to reinstate them? How long will it take our children and our grandchildren to recognise the importance of what has been lost, to recover and reinstate the rights we freely gave away?

Add your comments using the form below.

Direct threats against Elizabeth I and James I/VI by Catholic fanatics were very real, as real as the threat from Islamic terrorists today. Take a good look at the plotting of Mary Queen of Scots and the Gunpowder plot of 1605.
Helen James, Adelaide South Australia

Unfortunately for Dr Lopez, even Shakespeare would draw heavily on his experiences to create the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
Candace, New Jersey, US

Fascinating article. "Ludicrous as this sounds to us today, in the atmosphere of terrorist-hunting hysteria which prevailed, the 'evidence' of the letter was accepted as conclusive proof of Lopez's guilt" - this made me wonder whether some of the methods used today will be equally derided in years to come.
Lucy Jones, Manchester

As a historian, I often wonder as to why the experiences of the past are not used more regularly to enlighten current affairs. However the criticism Lisa Jardine is making seems once again to be the easy Aunt Sally of the 'government'. The case of Dr Lopez seems to me to clear Elizabeth but blame those who manipulate the news or information. The world we live in, outside of London, is not one where racially, religiously or politically there is a strong cohesion or 'identity'. There is an acceptance but little public trust of 'foreign' beliefs.

Essex represents those who want to make personal advance on the backs of intolerance, there are many who should have the responsibility to fight intolerance. Yet the media belittles Christianity and other faiths, rarely combats deep seated issues and mocks politicians who mostly try to confront issues they seek to avoid in anything more than a soundbite. The media and the BBC in this is really good at burying the bad news that British society is self seeking, self motivated and with difficult and uncomfortable views that need time understanding and calm to tackle. Headlines are ok for football but for tackling the root causes of any issue particularly terror footnotes often contain the answers.
Paul Silvester,

Dr Lopez was executed. No repeal for him. Terror suspects today can have convictions reversed. Alternative, wait for the terrorist to organise or commit mass murder. No repeal for the dead or suffering of the bereaved. Alternatively deport all suspects to sympathetic states with compensation with loss of UK nationality.
ken, Swansea South Wales

This is rent a quote stuff. The grandiose notion that process of law has been in the ascendence to the present day and is only now breaking down is just a pompous narrative fallacy. Britain has used internment throughout the last Century (WWI, WWII, Kenya, Ireland, even Iraq) to deal with actual or potential enemies. The standards of process Prof. Jardine refers to were hardly applied in those cases. To follow her own theory, she should be asking how the rights supposedly abolished on those occasions were reinstated. Because there they are, in place, once again 'under threat'. Questions of identifying and confronting enemies are more complex than this sort of pious and under-researched undergraduate fodder makes out.
David S, Kent

An interesting comparison. But as ever, those on the liberal left that are fixated with ┐human rights┐ imply that whatever the threat to society, the rules on protecting that society should never, ever, change. The equilibrium always erring on the side of the individual. What they fail to grasp is that their fixations blind them to the fact that it is inevitable that as the threat to society grows, the rules have to change, within limits, to accommodate that threat. To not do so is an equal abuse of the human rights of those who would be killed should that threat materialize.
Kevin Law, Dundee

What we all need to realise is that terrorism is defeated through bravery and refusing to give in, not through security measures. We have to realise that it's the survival of our society, rather than us as individuals, which matters. Obviously we need security services to watch for and try and prevent plots, but we also all need to individually state that we will not give up our freedoms, and if that means some of us are killed, so be it, but never will any of us surrender. It's time for public bravery, instead of individual fear.
Jack Howard, Leeds, UK

I live in a foreign country and I understand just how frightening the police may seem, whatever their intentions. I carry a foreign id card, and the police often stop me randomly (which they are not allowed to do without just cause under the Japanese constitution) because they are curious to know where I am from and want to chat or practise their English. The police are kind and good natured- but it is scary to realise that your lberty or justice is basically at their whim. I could have been arrested or heavily fined for forgetting to carry the card on me for instance- or if incidentally I had forgotten to ensure all the facts are up-to-date. I sympathise heavily with anyone who even just looks Muslim...
anonymous in Japan, Nagasaki, Japan

The Queen allowed Lopez's relatives to inherit in the usual way; rich traitors were normally a source of income to the throne as their worldly possessions became crown property. Elizabeth apparently did this to underline the fact that she had never believed the accusations in the first place; this was a snub to the eager beaver, later to turn traitor, Essex. But what good did it do Lopez; I still think that it is a blemish on the character of one normally so brave that she did not use all that power to save the poor man's life by going against the baying for his blood. Our society is not beyond witch hunts and the spectre of terrorism hangs over our heads; no doubt the names of 21st century innocents will appear in history works later on and the then readers will be shaking there heads before reading on.
A Peiters-Guide, Bruges-Flanders

In another example of historical events being relevant today, Benjamin Franklin once said "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security ... shall have ... and deserve neither". How true is his observation!
Barry Hunt, Paris, France

Well written and poignant piece for our times. When people cheer the incarceration without trial or access to lawyers of "terrorists" they assume guilt has already been established and fail to recognise the dangers of such acts. This is all ok, until it happens to you. When it happens to you, you feel the outrage, the powerlessness and the injustice of your situation. How can this help combat terror? By definition, unless we distinguish ourselves by adhering to a proper code of justice, we become what we fear, albeit a state sanctioned and approved terrorist in our own right. Unfortunately, human nature tends to want revenge, but is often mistaken and misguided in its focus, including many innocents, who in turn want their revenge and so the cycle continues.
Chris, Nazareth, Israel

A most important point. I was reminded of a comment made last week by a woman who had lost her daughter in the the July 7 bombings. She said that she thought there was too much "political correctness" about human rights, presumably suggesting that we could protect people better if we continue to dismantle our legal protections against intrusive surveillance and allegations made without sufficient evidence. I really felt for her loss, but the fact is that if we give up our essential rights to due process, then the terrorists have well and truly won the day.
George Bryson, Sydney, Australia

An important further consideration is that the prosecution of Dr Lopez was quite possibly brought to augment the political standing of the Earl of Essex. Although one hesitates to condone the hysteria in the United States over the possible political manipulation of warnings over the terrorist threat, it is an interesting further parallel, and an important concern raised in relation to the events leading to the Hutton report.
John Scott, Cambridge, UK

Cultivating a paranoic reaction to a threat whether it be perceived, manufactured or actual would appear to be a time proven and (by them) acceptable tool of many governments or regimes to be used as a powerful aid towards the justification of policy or the retention of power. Perhaps the civil liberties we wish to believe in are realy only permitted illusions that have been cultivated by the establishment for the same purposes.
Malcolm Osman-Barter, Exmouth, UK

Hmm...that's a really good photo of the Earl of Essex. In colour, too. Those Elizabethans were clearly far more advanced than I gave them credit for.
Michelle, Cambridge, UK

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