Wednesday, 13 April 2016

There Is Something In The Water: Fear of Poison at Court

The Affair of the Poisons still stands as one of the greatest scandals of Louis XIV's court. But there were other instances - unrelated to the Affair - where poison was suspected to have played a part. It was quite common that people could die young but some deaths sparked more suspicions that others. Ever since the unfolding of the Affair of the Poisons and the following punishment the fear of poisoning was never far from anyone's thoughts.
Here are five examples of how the fear of poisoning played a role in significant personages' deaths.

Henrietta, Duchesse d'Orléans
The death of Henrietta of England, Duchesse d'Orléans was immediately thought to be the result of poisoning. Her demise - at the age of just 26 - raised more than one eyebrow. Suspicions were soon directed towards the Chevalier de Lorraine who had had a long affair with Monsieur, her husband, and with whom it was well-known that Madame had had bitter feuds.
Henrietta herself believed that she had been poisoned. After suffering from severe consumption for a few days she fell violently ill after drinking a glass of water. Given her suspicions - which she voiced aloud - she was given antidotes and medicine for colic. However, it was all in vain and she died the following night. Following her death an autopsy was carried out in front of a remarkable number of spectators (her being the favourite sister of the King of England, there was a lot at stake). The doctor who performed the autopsy declared that she had died of gastroenteritis but several of those present declared that they most certainly disagreed.

Madame de la Fayette had been present when Henrietta had fallen ill and she declared that Madame's first lady of her bedchamber had also drunk some of it without troubles. Madame de Sévigné was a firm believer that the Duchesse d'Orléans had been poisoned but whether this had happened by the hands of the Chevalier de Lorraine or a jealous courtier she did not guess at.

Henrietta, Duchesse d'Orléans

The main theory (voiced by Madame de Sévigné) was that the Chevalier de Lorraine had become so angry with Madame for having him exiled from court that he had attempted to kill her. This he is supposed to have done through two men in Madame's household - Breuvron and Effiat - both of whom were followers of the Chevalier. One of these was suspected of having administered the poison which had been sent from Italy by the Chevalier.

At court those who believed her to have been poisoned also speculated as to what poison had been used. Generally, Madame was supposed to have died of a deadly cocktail of diamond dust and powdered sugar.

No formal request for an inquiry arrived from the English court which may have been due to diplomatic reasons. The English Ambassador, Montague, was himself convinced that she had indeed been murdered. Over time the case was hushed down which to many only served as a confirmation of their suspicions.

The Marquis de Louvois
Louis XIV's Secretary of State, François-Michel le Tellier, was usually known merely as Louvois which was derived from his title of Marquis de Louvois. He was not very well liked so when he died suddenly in 1691 the usual accusations of poisoning followed soon after.

The main culprit was thought to be Madame de Maintenon with whom it was common knowledge that Louvois had fallen out.

Elizabeth Charlotte d'Orléans (Madame) was convinced that Louvois had been poisoned. She had her doubts as to whether to really was Madame de Maintenon who had ordered the assassination but was not willing to dismiss it either. She actually gives a possible motive: Madame de Maintenon had wanted to accompany Louis XIV on a trip to inspect his army which Louvois (being Minister of War) had opposed. This had angered Maintenon enough to seek her revenge through poison. It should be kept in mind that Elizabeth Charlotte and Madame de Maintenon was infamous for their intense dislike of each other.

Marquis de Louvois

Those who followed the point of view of Madame also noted that the King was not sad to see his minister die. It had not been a secret that Louvois' relationship with the King had soured considerably lately. Some claimed that Louvois had actually poisoned himself rather than falling into public disgrace. This was supported by the fact that Louis XIV's dealings with Nicolas Fouquet presented a bleak prospect for ministers out of favour.

The Marquis de Dangeau records in his journal that when the doctors "opened him up" on the 17th July they found no signs of poison. Generally, there were those who doubted whether this was a case of poisoning at all. However, Dangeau also makes a casual remark on the 21st of that same month. On this day a scullion was imprisoned for poisoning the minister via a water jug which Louvois had been seen to drink from on the day of his death. What became of the poor scullion is not known.

Another suspect was none other than the Duke of Savoy. Madame de Sévigné mentions him as being a suspect since he wanted to exact revenge upon Louvois. This accusation was borne by another rumour that Louvois had poisoned Seignelai.

In 1675 the composer Lully - a favourite of the King's - went to his protector with startling accusations. He believed that his rival Henri Guichard had attempted to poison him. Monsieur urged his older brother to start an investigation which was exactly what the King did.

The nervous Lully

It is believed that Guichard was aided by a corrupt police officer Sébastien Aubry who often saw Lully at the opera and thus had a means of poisoning him. However, they were (allegedly) found out by a third party who then raised the alarm. Whether or not this story happens to be true is known only to history; either way Guichard was not charged.

In a twist of irony Lully died from blood poisoning caused by gangrene.

The Duc and Duchesse de Bourgogne
The Duc and Duchesse de Bourgogne became Dauphin and Dauphine in 1711 after the death of the Grand Dauphin but just a year later they were both dead. Both being young and healthy (as well as popular) few people believed them to have died of natural circumstances.

Fingers were quick to point to the King's nephew, Philippe II d'Orléans, since he stood to gain the most from the couple's demise. With both the Duc and Duchesse de Bourgogne out of the way Philippe would most likely become Regent - which he did - at the death of Louis XIV.
Public opinion soon turned against the Duc d'Orléans as well. When he attended the funerals of the Bourgognes he was subjected to abuse from the spectators who made no attempt at hiding their convictions. To make matters worse, it was well-known that Philippe had laboratories both at Saint-Cloud and at the Palais-Royal which was immediately interpreted as evidence of his guilt.

Louis, Duc de Bourgogne

At both the autopsies both doctors Fagon and Boudin immediately declared that the cause of death had certainly been poison. Meanwhile others - just as in Henrietta's case - were adamant that it was not the case

Once again, a tale was linked to the demise of the Dauphine (who had died first). On the day of her falling ill she had received a beautiful snuffbox from the Duc de Noailles which contained snuff from Spain. She had used some but when the box was searched for afterwards it was not to be found. Naturally, this was immediately seen as conclusive proof of foul play.

There was another rumour which helped to fuel the accusations. Apparently, the Dauphine and the Dauphin should both had received warnings that there was a plot to kill them. The Dauphin is supposed to have received this warning from his relative, the King of Spain, while the Dauphine was warned by the doctor Boudin - who was also quick to announce the "cause of death" at her autopsy.

At court few people in such an advantageous social position had ever been shunned so much as the Duc d'Orléans. Philippe himself pleaded with the King to have the accusations against him investigated so that he could finally be cleared. The King was reluctant to grant such a request. In the beginning Louis XIV had seemed to somewhat believe the accusations against his nephew but that was clearly only short-lived. Just two years later the King expressed his clear opinion on the matter in which he thought the accusations were ridiculous.

Marie Adélaïde, Duchesse de Bourgogne

There were those who defended Philippe. Those who knew him best asserted that he could never have committed such a crime. Over time the obvious fondness Philippe showed towards the sole survivor, Louis XV, was enough to persuade some people of his innocence. They argued that if he had really wanted to seized the crown for himself then he would not have hesitated to kill off this young boy whose health was never strong anyway.

Whereas the death of Henrietta is still a mystery, only few people today doubt the actual cause of death of the Duc and Duchesse de Bourgogne. At this time a particular malignant sort of the measles circulated the court which is consistent with the symptoms shown by both.

Madame de Pompadour
Although Madame de Pompadour did not die from poisoning - and no such suspicion was raised - she did come in close contact with that lethal weapon. Her position was one to always excite jealousy and the influence she had over the King all the more so.

One story tells us of a letter addressed to Madame de Pompadour which contained white powder that turned out to be a deadly poison. The letter was one of many threats made against the King's favourite following the disastrous Battle of Rosbach. The Marquise turned to the Head of Police, Berryer, who began an investigation but it went nowhere.

Madame de Pompadour

From the memoirs of Madame de Hausset we are informed that Madame de Pompadour herself was convinced that Berryer had saved her from dying of poison several times.
Some accused the Duc de Choiseul of having poisoned her although this is most likely merely a court rumour.

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