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.

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'.

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?

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