Authors: Geoffrey Abbott
‘Should a coiner be caught in the act, then let him be stewed in a pan, or in a cauldron half an ell deep for the body… and thus he shall be made to stew in oil and wine.’
A minor scald is painful enough, but the agony of being totally immersed in boiling liquid is unimaginable. Yet this method was employed for centuries in countries ranging from Europe to the Far East. Mercifully short-lived in England, as were its victims, at least three people met their deaths in this manner, all for the crime of poisoning, and doubtless there would have been many more had that type of murder been detectable in those early centuries. So the causes must have been obvious when a maidservant was found guilty of killing her husband ‘by means of toxic substances’, and she was boiled to death at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1531. Eleven years later Margaret Davey or Dawes perished in the cauldron at Smithfield in London for poisoning the family for whom she worked.
This penalty was authorised in 1531 in the reign of Henry VIII by a Parliamentary act which, unusually, included the name of the individual against whom punishment was to be levied, instead of being couched in more general terms. A cook, Richard Rouse, was employed in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (who, incidentally, was beheaded at the Tower of London four years later for refusing to acknowledge the king as the supreme head of the Church). At his residence at Lambeth, London, the bishop provided sustenance for the local poor, and the alarm was raised when some of these, together with members of the cleric’s family, were taken seriously ill, two of them failing to recover.
Investigation revealed poison in the yeast used in much of the food that had been prepared, and blame fell on the cook, Richard Rouse. So appalling was this type of murder regarded by the authorities that a Special Act of Parliament was passed:
‘The King’s Royal Majesty, calling to his most blessed rememberance that the making of good and wholesome laws, and due execution of the same against the offenders thereof, is the only cause that good obedience has been preserved in this realm; and his Highness having the most tender zeal for the same, considering that man’s life above all things is chiefly to be favoured, and voluntary murder most highly to be detected and abhorred; and specially all kinds of murder by poisoning, which in this realm hitherto, our Lord be thanked, hath been most rare and seldom committed or practised; and now, in the time of this present Parliament, that is to say, on the eighteenth day of February, in the twenty-second year of his most victorious reign, one Richard Rouse, late of Rochester, in the county of Kent, cook, otherwise called Richard Cook, of his most wicked and damnable disposition, did cast a certain venom or poison into a vessel replenished with yeast or balm, standing in the kitchen of the reverend father in God, John, Bishop of Rochester, at his palace in Lambeth Marsh; with which yeast or balm, and other things convenient, porridge or gruel was forthwith made for his family, there being; whereby not only the number of seventeen persons of his said family, which did eat of that porridge, were mortally infected or poisoned, and one of them, that is to say, Bennet Curwan, gentleman, is thereof deceased; but also certain poor people which resorted to the said bishop’s palace, and were there charitably fed with remains of the said porridge, and other victuals, were in likewise infected; and one poor woman of them, that is to say, Alice Trypitt, widow, is also thereof now deceased.
Our said sovereign lord the King, of his blessed disposition inwardly abhorring all such abominable offences, because that in manner no person can live in surety out of danger of death by that means, if practices thereof should not be eschewed, hath ordained and enacted by the authority of this present Parliament, that the said poisoning be adjudged and deemed as high treason; and that the said Richard, for the said murder and poisoning of the said two persons shall stand and be attainted of high treason.
And because that detestable offence, now newly practised and committed, requireth condign punishment for the same, it is ordained and enacted by authority of the present Parliament, that the said Richard Rouse shall be therefore boiled to death, without having any advantage of his clergy; and that from henceforth every wilful murder of any person or persons hereafter to be committed or done by means or way of poisoning, shall be reputed, deemed, and judged in the law to be high treason; and that all and every person or persons which hereafter shall be indicted and condemned by order of the law of such treason shall be immediately after such attainder or condemnation, committed to execution of death by boiling for the same.’
Richard Rouse was publicly boiled to death a few days later at Smithfield, an event which, because of its novelty, attracted larger crowds than attended the more commonplace executions involving hanging or burning. The opportunity for watching that particular form of entertainment died out some years later, however, when the act was repealed by Edward VI in 1547.
On the Continent, boiling was much in vogue from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, it being the penalty imposed on coiners in France and Germany. The fate of those caught scraping fragments from coins of the realm in order to melt them down and remould them into new coins was declared in the legal code of the day: ‘Should a coiner be caught in the act, then let him be stewed in a pan, or in a cauldron half an ell deep for the body, so that the man may be bound to a pole which shall be passed through the rings of the cauldron, and which shall be tightly strapped and bound to upright posts on either side, and thus he shall be made to stew in oil and wine.’
These executions also drew large crowds, a man boiled to death in the centre of the town of Lübeck, Germany, in 1329 reportedly attracting a vast concourse of people which had assembled before dawn and grew even larger by the hour.
Not every boiling went well, as the records of the French town of Tours show:
‘On Monday 11 February 1488, a coiner of bad money, named Loys Secretain, was condemned by the Bailiff of Touraine to be boiled, drawn and hanged in the Place-le-Roy. The executioner, one Denis, took the said Loys on a scaffold to the cauldron and bound his legs and his body with cords, made him say his “in manus”, pushed him along and threw him head first into the cauldron to be boiled; as soon as he was thrown in, the cords became so loose that he twice rose to the surface of the water, crying for mercy. Which seeing, the provost and some of the inhabitants began to attack the executioner, saying, “Ah, you wretch, you are making that poor sinner suffer and bringing great dishonour on the town of Tours!”
The executioner, seeing the anger of the people, tried two or three times to sink the malefactor with a great iron hook; and forthwith several persons, believing that the cords had been broken by a miracle, became excited and cried out loudly, and seeing that the said false coiner was suffering no harm, they approached the executioner as he lay with his face upon the ground, and gave him so many blows that he died where he lay.
Charles VIII pardoned the inhabitants who were accused of killing the executioner. As for the coiner of false money, he was taken to the church of the Jacobins, where he hid himself so completely that he never dared to show his face again.’
Some countries varied the medium used, oil or tallow replacing water or wine. Nor were the victims simply lowered into the boiling liquid. The agony could be considerably prolonged by immersing the criminal, tied hand and foot, up to his or her neck in the contents, and then gradually bringing the liquid to boiling-point by slowly stoking the fires beneath.
Many of the early Christian saints who suffered for their faith died in this horrific manner. The cauldrons were made of brass, with handles at each side to facilitate ease of conveyance and, once the vessels had been securely fixed in position, the execution would begin.
Sometimes the victims would be plunged in head first, others doubled up, their knees tied to their chests, before being lowered into the cauldron. The liquid contents also varied, as Saints Saba and Zeno, Veneranda the Virgin, Eulampius and his sister Eulampia discovered, on finding themselves sinking helplessly below the bubbling surface of boiling pitch, molten lead or wax.
‘As a further refinement Perillus incorporated small flutes in the “beast’s” nostrils so that the screams of agony issuing from within would be transformed into the lowing of a bull.’
To ‘bear the brunt’, meaning to cope with whatever is inflicted upon one, is an everyday phrase, derived from the fact that the ‘brunt’ is the name of the armoured breastplate worn by warhorses in the Middle Ages, the chest being the area which took the blows from pikes and similar weapons. And scrutiny of the armour which adorned Henry VIII’s horse, now exhibited in the Royal Armouries, reveals engraved on it the picture of our patron saint, St George. That George did indeed bear the brunt is evidenced by his being portrayed within a brazen bull, a life-size replica of the animal, while beneath it his tormentors stoke roaring fires.
This fiendish device was invented in Sicily by an Athenian artist, Perillus. Made of brass, a material which would heat up quickly, it was hollow and sufficiently large to accommodate a victim forced inside via a trapdoor in its back. As a further refinement Perillus incorporated small flutes in the “beast’s” nostrils so that the screams of agony issuing from within would be transformed into the lowing of a bull.
Anticipating rich rewards for his ingenuity, he demonstrated his brainchild to Phalaris, the tyrant of Agrigentum, but even he, infamous as he was for the harsh treatment of his subjects, recoiled at the diabolical machine, saying, according to the historian Lucian:
‘“Well now, Perillus, if you are so sure of your contrivance, give us a proof of it on the spot; mount up and imitate the cries of a man tortured in it, that we may hear whether such charming music will proceed from it, as you would make us believe.” Perillus obeyed, and no sooner was he inside the Bull, than I shut the aperture, and put fire beneath it. “Take that,” said I, “as the only recompense such a piece of art is worth, and chant us the first specimen of the charming notes of which you are the inventor!” And so the barbarous wretch suffered what he had well merited by such a fiendish application of his mechanical talent. However, that the noble work should not be contaminated by his dying there, I ordered him to be drawn out while still alive, and thrown down from the summit of the rock, where his body was left unburied.’
The bull was later used to torture and execute Christian martyrs, among them St Antipas, St Pelagia the Virgin, St Eustachius, his wife Theopistes and his sons Agapius and Theopistus.
To conclude with another everyday phrase, those who feel that ‘what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’ will no doubt savour the fact that, outraged by Phalaris’s cruelties, the populace finally rose against him, and tradition has it that after his tongue had been torn out he himself died a slow and agonising death – in the belly of the brazen bull.