Was Madame Poisoned? Jealousy, Intrigue, and Murder in the Court of Louis XIV – Guest Post by Jessica Cale

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?

madame 1

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 CaleJessica 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.

You can visit her at http://www.authorjessicacale.com or on Twitter @JessicaCale

Hear ye! 11 thoughts — so far — on “Was Madame Poisoned? Jealousy, Intrigue, and Murder in the Court of Louis XIV – Guest Post by Jessica Cale”:

  1. Eileen O'Leary

    I have no doubt that any one of the scoundrels she was surrounded by could and would have poisoned her!

  2. Valerie Herzig

    Very interesting and well-researched Jessica (and thanks to Andrea for the post invite ;))! I was wondering if you had read, and if so, what you thought of Karleen Koen’s “Before Versaille”; specifically, her fictionalized account of Madame’s relationship with Louis…

  3. hubertdesouthchurch

    “Cui bono”? Both her husband Monsieur and the Chevalier had motive, opportunity, and a reasonable expectation of immunity from being charged as murderers, because of their positions at Court. Louis XIV may have also been concerned about the inevitable diplomatic repercussions if it should have become public certainty that Monsieur or his favourite had poisoned Minette. Charles II would have been even more angry than he undoubtedly was already.

  4. Z

    Although many do, I don’t think it probable Madame’s death resulted from negotiations, secret or not, in Dover. Poison, as popular in our day, in the form of polonium, as arsenic in hers, was an easily apprehended tool for personal advancement or vengeance, as La Valliere discovered, and while there are few manifest reasons for acquitting Lorraine, a self-consciously vile little adder, or Monsieur, it might be worthwhile questioning the comtesse de Soissons, a fearless narcissist who knew intimately, and reguarly employed, the poisoners of the day, and who more than once successfully bullied, and on one occasion to his face threatened the life of the Sun King himself.

  5. Donna

    Interesting commentary. I greatly enjoyed “Versailles” and was in search of more information as to the truth of Henriette’s poisoning. I visited Versailles and the musical gardens a couple of years ago; the show makes me want to return.

  6. Kt

    While poisoning is possible, I believe the most probable explanation is ulceration of the stomach (either gastric or duodenal ulcers), leading to peritonitis. The description of what was seen at her autopsy is a spot-on description of the appearance of duodenal ulcers. The horrible stench could have been caused by the build-up of gasses caused by the H. pylori bacterium, one of the main causes of these ulcers. Additionally, these ulcers can ultimately lead to obstruction, the build-up of stool known as melena (red stool caused by blood in the feces), vomiting (including of blood), and severe pain.

    Descriptions of her eating habits and her thinness have in the past been attributed to anorexia, but many gastrointestinal diseases (IBS, Crohn’s, inflamatory bowel disease, etc.) can cause malabsorption, weight loss, feelings of being full after eating very little, and loss of appetite. Alcohol can exacerbate these problems, and knowing the propensity to drink wine rather than water, well, you know where I’m headed.

    Her increase in drinking milk *could* have been because she wanted to counteract the effects of being poisoned – but for people with stomach or intestinal issues, lactose in milk could contribute and/or worsen many stomach symptoms. Even if she wasn’t born lactose intolerant, any stomach or intestinal infection can cause a person to develop lactose intolerance. Strangely, if she did have issues with lactose, it is known that, especially in lactose intolerant females, psychological manifestations like depression can occur. Another protein in dairy, casein, has recently been linked to mood disturbances. Lactose intolerant or not, she could have been contributing to her various problems by drinking so much milk. Could this have been the cause of some of her psychological symptoms?

    As for arsenic, it does cause many of these symptoms as well, but if she was poisoned there are a few things to consider. One, long-term exposure to arsenic typically causes skin issues first, lesions, cancers, abnormal thickening of the skin, pigmentation changes, etc. As no one mentioned any skin anomalies, perhaps she wasn’t exposed longer-term. Other symptoms of arsenic poisoning: paralysis, numbness, convulsions or seizuring. No mention of these. There were also no mentions of extraordinarily red mucous membranes, another symptom of arsenic poisoning, and something that would have been noted by anyone at an autopsy, especially with the large numbers of physicians present. Finally, back to wine: arsenic is often cited as being a component or a by-product of winemaking. Whether or not a person could drink the necessary amount to expose themselves to poisonous levels of arsenic is a factor with this argument.

    So, yes, poison could have been possible, but for me, there are perfectly reasonable medical explanations that dispute her cause of death as being from poisoning.


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