I recently ‘met’ Jessica Cale via mutual friends on Facebook and I quickly learned that she writes historical fiction set in the 17th-century (yey!). Today, she stopped by The Seventeenth Century Lady with the lamentable story of Minette, Charles II’s youngest sister. The rumours surrounding her death persist to this day. But was Madame poisoned?
Was Madame Poisoned?
Jealousy, Intrigue, and Murder in the Court of Louis XIV
When Charles II makes his appearance in Tyburn, he is mourning the loss of his sister, “Minette,” who he had lost “to the intrigues of Court.” In case you’re wondering how one dies from an intrigue, this post is an informal investigation into the four-hundred year old mystery of the death of Henrietta of England, known as “Madame,” comparing the accounts of the primary sources with what we know about poisons today. While the official autopsy report of the time blamed her demise on a perforated ulcer, the evidence is suspicious, to say the least.
On June 1st, 1670, Henriette Anne, Duchesse D’Orleans, negotiated a secret treaty between her brother, Charles II, and her brother-in-law, Louis XIV. By June 30th, she was dead, believing herself to have been poisoned. Was she?
Known as Madame to the French Court, Henriette was married to Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe, Duc D’Orleans, known as Monsieur. Their marriage was not a happy one. Married in March of 1661 at the Palais Royal, she was seventeen and he was twenty-one, homosexual, and frequently dressed in female attire. Although Henrietta’s confidante, Madame de La Fayette wrote of Monsieur, “No woman was able to accomplish the miracle of inflaming the heart of this prince,” he appeared to be a doting husband for a time. Their relationship became strained as Henrietta rose to be a Court favorite, and was even rumored to have stolen the affections of one of Monsieur’s favorite lovers, the Comte de Guiche.
Henrietta could not steal the affections of the Chevalier de Lorraine. The man who would become Monsieur’s great love joined their household around 1666. Monsieur had even told Madame that he could never love her without the Chevalier’s permission, and the permission was not forthcoming. Monsieur demanded absolute loyalty from the Chevalier, and he treated Madame with blatant disregard. The Abbe de Choisy writes:
“The Chevalier de Lorraine, looking like the painting of an angel, placed himself entirely at Monsieur’s disposal and soon became his favorite, dispensing favors and giving orders in so lordly and authoritative a manner that he might have been taken for master of the house. Madame spoke with horror of this disgraceful situation.”
Madame tolerated the Chevalier, though he was “openly hostile” to her. Nevertheless, when Louis refused Monsieur’s request to grant two abbeys within his appanage to the Chevalier upon the death of the Abbe de Riviere, Bishop of Langres, Madame attempted to intercede on his behalf, begging the King to reconsider as Monsieur had threatened to leave Court and take her with him if his request was denied. Louis refused. Determined to punish those who had caused trouble between himself and his brother, he even had the Chevalier arrested in January of 1670. Monsieur was furious, and may have blamed Madame.
Shortly thereafter and unbeknownst to Monsieur, Henrietta began meeting with the King privately to discuss what would become the Treaty of Dover, and for a short while, she was the most influential person at Court. Monsieur was consumed by jealousy of her intimacy with his brother, and went to great lengths to discover what they were discussing. “Monsieur was infuriated with his wife and complained to the King about the disgraceful way in which he had been treated, informing him that he knew all the facts they had tried to hide from him,” writes La Fare. In spite of her Monsieur’s objections, Madame travelled to England with the King where they successfully negotiated the Treaty of Dover with Charles II, and she returned in triumph.
She began to have mild stomach pains the day she returned to Saint-Cloud, her residence with Monsieur. Accompanied by fatigue, insomnia, and sweating, they worsened quickly over the course of a few days, until on the night of June 29th, Madame drank a glass of chicory water and did not recover. Mademoiselle de Montpensier writes that when she arrived:
“We found her lying on a cot…she was quite dishevelled; she had not been able to relax sufficiently for it to be possible to prepare her hair for the night, her chemise was unfastened at the neck and wrists, her face was pale, her nose pinched, and she looked like someone already dead. We began to cry. Madame was making terrible efforts to vomit, while Monsieur was saying to her: “Madame, try hard to vomit, so that you will not be choked by this bile.” She was clearly upset to see how calm everyone around her remained, despite the fact that her sufferings should have been enough to arouse everyone’s pity. She spoke in a very low voice to the King for a few moments.”
The official autopsy ruled that she had died of a perforated ulcer, but Saint-Maurice had his doubts. As he reported to the Duke of Savoy:
“The stomach of the princess had swollen in the most extraordinary way since her death. The very first incision of the bistoury into her body released such a vile stench that all those taking part in the dissection were obliged to withdraw and could only approach the corpse once more after furnishing themselves with masks against this evil odor. No formal traces of poison were found: the one slightly suspicious element was the discovery in her stomach of a hole with blackened lips… The body was found to contain a great quantity of bile, and the liver was quite putrid.”
Modern science proves that Saint-Maurice’s suspicion was justified. Long term exposure to small amounts of arsenic can result in symptoms such as fatigue and sleeplessness, and as exposure increases, it causes stomach problems including pain, vomiting, and intestinal disorders. Liver breakdown will always occur as a result of slow arsenic poisoning, and is accompanied by bad stomach odor and green or yellow vomit.
Arsenic, known to Louis XIV’s court as “Inheritance Powder,” was as common as it was difficult to detect. It could be used in small quantities to poison someone over a long period of time, or in larger doses to do the job more quickly. Tasteless, it would have been undetectable in Madame’s chicory water and easily could have killed her within the day, particularly if it had not been her first time ingesting it. It is so potent, in fact, that it would have taken less than ⅛ of a tablespoon to kill her, particularly if it had not been her first time ingesting it.
If Henrietta did not know she was being poisoned, she may have suspected it. As her stomach problems began in 1667, only a year after the Chevalier joined Monsieur’s household, she began drinking great quantities of milk, which was a common antidote to the acidic poisons in circulation. Mademoiselle de Montpensier was with the Queen when they were informed that Madame was ill and had likely been poisoned. She wrote:
“The Queen expressed her great grief and mentioned very briefly the vexations which Monsieur had caused Madame, and remembered that when Madame had left for England she had wept bitterly, so it seemed that she must have foreseen her unhappy end.”
From the moment she fell ill until she died nine hours later, Henrietta insisted she had been poisoned, but her doctors insisted that she was only suffering from colic and refused her antidotes. One of the only people present to take her seriously was Lord Montagu, the English Ambassador to France. His letter to Lord Arlington on July 15th raises more questions about Monsieur than it answers:
“I then took the liberty of asking her if she thought she had been poisoned. Her confessor, who was present and overheard my question, admonished her: “Madame, accuse no one and offer your death to God as a sacrifice.” This prevented her answering me, and although I repeated the same question several times, her only response was to shrug her shoulders. I asked her to let me have the casket in which she kept all her letters. so that I might send them to His Majesty and she authorized me to demand them of Mme de Bordes, but that lady was in such a state of fainting and weeping from grief at seeing her mistress so gravely ill that Monsieur took the opportunity to seize the casket before she had recovered.”
Was Monsieur involved in a plot to murder Madame, or had he hidden the letters to protect his lover, a man who had once boasted that he could convince Monsieur to divorce Madame if he so wished? Even if the Chevalier de Lorraine was to blame, he didn’t have to be present to ensure that Madame was poisoned. The Duc de Saint-Simon was informed by his sources that not an hour before Madame fell ill, her valet caught the Marquis d’Effiat, a former a lover of Monsieur’s and a friend to them both, fiddling around in her drinks cabinet. He also suspected that Madame’s steward might be involved in the plot because of “the intimate relationship he maintained, in the servants quarters, with d’Effiat.” The valet let his suspicions be known to the King, who sent his Bodyguards to take the steward into custody in the middle of the night. The steward supposedly confessed that he, d’Effiat, and the Chevalier de Lorraine had poisoned Madame’s chicory water in exchange for a pardon, but insisted that Monsieur had not been involved.
Whether or not you have faith in the credibility of the Duc’s sources, there must have something to it. The Chevalier de Lorraine returned to Court in 1672 and in spite of the suspicion in which he was held, was promoted to Marechal du Camp in the army, prompting Lord Montagu to write the following to Lord Arlington in cipher:
“The Chevalier de Lorraine has not only been allowed to return to the Court but has been appointed to serve in the Army with the rank of marechal de camp. If Madame was indeed poisoned, as most of the world believes, certainly the whole of France regards him as her poisoner and is justifiably astonished that the King of France she have so little consideration for the King our master as to permit him to return to Court, in view of the insolent manner in which he constantly behaved toward the Princess during her lifetime. My duty compels me to tell you this, so that you may acquaint the King with this news, and if the King thinks fit, he should speak to the French Ambassador in the strongest possible terms, for I can assure you that he would be doing himself an injustice if he were to endure this matter.”
Jessica Cale is an author and journalist based in North Carolina. Originally from Minnesota, she lived in Wales for several years where she earned a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She kidnapped (“married”) her very own British prince (close enough) and is enjoying her happily ever after with him in a place where no one understands his accent. Her first novel, Tyburn, is out now through Liquid Silver Books. Her second, Virtue’s Lady, is due out April 13th.