Lucrezia Borgia, renowned as a great beauty and a poisoner for over 500 years, died on 24 June, 1519. EC Fremantle’s novel, The Poison Bed, which tells the story of another woman with a similar reputation, is published in paperback on 27 June, 2019. What better way to mark both occasions than a piece by Elizabeth about five (in)famous female poisoners from the past?
Poisoning, a devious method of murder, was for much of history, considered a primarily female art, as the victim was oblivious to the attack. It allowed those who were inferior, both physically as well as in societal position, to prevail over authority, thereby upending the patriarchal hierarchy. This is neatly demonstrated in the case of Shakespeare’s plays which include seven instances of murder by poisoning; in six the poison is administered by a woman and havoc is unleashed.
There have been a number of notable women remembered principally for the poisoning scandals that surrounded them. Whether they were all guilty is impossible to know with the distance of time and it is likely that some, at least, were the victims of venomous gossip.
Remembered as ruthless and domineering, Agrippina was reputed to have poisoned her husband, the Emperor Claudius.
Her aim was to ensure the succession of her son from a previous marriage, Nero, who later, in an ironic twist, had her executed.
It was also said to have been a woman, Locusta, who provided the poison.
The daughter of Pope Alexander VI, she has been considered the queen of renaissance femmes fatales for many years.
She was a great beauty who was reputed to have had a string of lovers and to have worn a hollow ring to aid the slipping of poison into drinks.
Most historians agree that her reputation as a poisoner is unfounded. Yet the myth persists.
She was the wife of Henri II of France and the mother of three kings during a period of violent and complex religious wars. After the assassination of her husband she drew on her legendary ruthlessness to retain power for her sons. She was blamed by some for the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of protestant Huguenots were killed, having allegedly given the order: ‘Kill them all! Kill them all!’
Three days prior to the massacre Jeanne d’Albret, queen regnant of Navarre, died, supposedly by poisoned gloves. Jeanne was the mother of Henry III of Navarre, a Huguenot who Catherine was determined to marry to her daughter Margaret in a dynastic alliance of two warring parties. Jeanne opposed the match and Catherine was her reputed killer.
Frances was a notorious beauty of the Jacobean court and scion of the hugely powerful Howard family. Her family wanted her married to the king’s influential favourite and lover, Robert Carr.
When a friend of Carr’s, Sir Thomas Overbury, who vehemently opposed the marriage, was poisoned, Frances confessed to his murder and she and her husband were convicted.
But there were several people for whom Overbury’s death was convenient, including King James, and it is possible that events were not as clear cut as the trial concluded.
Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, a French aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV, was sentenced to death for conspiring with her lover to poison her father and two brothers in order to inherit their estates.
This precipitated a spate of attempted murders, labelled ‘The Affair of the Poisons’, which rocked the royal court to its foundations, even reaching as far as one of the King’s mistresses, who was thought to have attempted to poison a rival.
EC Fremantle’s novel, The Poison Bed, about Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and the poisoning scandal in which she became embroiled, is published in paperback by Penguin on 27 June, 2019.
Read Elizabeth Fremantle’s Historia feature James I & VI: King or Queen? for more about the background to The Poison Bed.
Author and Historia contributor Catherine Hokin reviews Elizabeth’s previous book, The Girl in the Glass Tower.
The Poison Bed was chosen as one of the best historical books of 2018 by HWA members.
A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier: via Wikimedia
Agrippina the Younger: via Wikimedia
Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora (traditionally Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolommeo Veneto: via Wikimedia
Catherine de Medici, attrib François Clouet: via Wikimedia
Frances Howard, studio of William Larkin: via Flickr
Madame de Brinvilliers: via Wikimedia