Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds.
If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.
So…what kind of street performers were entertaining people back then?
A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!
Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!
So as I say – if street performers are a pain in your view – I’m afraid they’re not going away any time soon.
There’s a certain poetic justice in having a chef boiled to death for murder. The chief in question had poisoned some dinner party guests and in turn found himself being cooked. Not a very pleasant way to go. But this was Tudor England and cruel executions were all the rage!
This rather tasteless execution took place at Smithfield.
I used to work nearby as a journalist in the 1990s and it was still a meat market – though past its glory days. I’m assuming the place of execution may have been chosen as another poetic act. Possibly this is where the cook bought the meat that he then poisoned. And now he was going the same way as his meat.
So why was this chef boiled to death? Well, Richard Rose had got himself embroiled in the sizzling religious politics of Tudor England. He was the cook to Bishop John Fisher who had loudly opposed any attempt by King Henry VIII to divorce his queen (and first wife) Catherine of Aragon.
The bishop had cried out that he would rather die than agree to an annulment of the marriage. Henry VIII no doubt made a note of that commitment. The king was undoubtedly furious with Fisher – as was the woman who hoped to become the next queen, Anne Boleyn.
I’ve always viewed Fisher as a lite, sugar-free version of Sir Thomas More. He had the same arguments with Henry VIII as More did. No you can’t divorce Catherine of Aragon. No you can’t renounce your allegiance to the Pope. And no I won’t recognise you as head of the church. Both Fisher and More repeated these opinions and their heads would soon be detached from their bodies for doing so.
The role of the chef soon to be boiled
Henry VIII didn’t lash out at Fisher immediately. Even though the bishop was apparently plotting with the Holy Roman Emperor for an invasion of England to overthrow his own king.
Instead, somebody appears to have approached the chef in Fisher’s household and offered him enough money to poison his master’s dinner. Unfortunately, the bishop wasn’t very hungry that evening but two of his guests were starving and wolfed it all down. They promptly died.
Sadly, the charitable bishop was also in the habit of sharing his table leftovers with the poor – and some of them died too.
Realising that the cause was the food, it didn’t take long to work out that the culprit was the chef. Richard Rose was arrested, interrogated and realised his goose was cooked. So he duly confessed. In no time at all, he found himself standing in a large cooking pot in Smithfield with an unsympathetic audience booing him while he boiled.
But who had paid the now boiled chef to kill Fisher?
Tongues were soon wagging in Anne Boleyn’s direction. She was an ardent Protestant but more importantly, she was thoroughly hacked off that the sanctimonious bishop had prevented her marriage to King Henry VIII.
No hard evidence was forthcoming and the king – putting his “I’m really shocked by this” face on – agreed to the chef being boiled in public. Maybe it was more important to make the point that servants should never entertain the idea of slipping toxic substances into their master’s meal.
POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.
Below is a depiction of a Tudor boiling alive from the TV series The Tudors – look away if you’re squeamish.