The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul

by Eleanor Herman


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


One of Washington Independent Review of Books' 50 Favorite Books of 2018 • A Buzzfeed Best Book of 2018

"Morbidly witty." —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times

"A heady mix of erudite history and delicious gossip." —Aja Raden, author of Stoned

Hugely entertaining, a work of pop history that traces the use of poison as a political—and cosmetic—tool in the royal courts of Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Kremlin today

The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.

In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250140869
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 203,593
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, and several other works of popular history. She has hosted Lost Worlds for The History Channel, The Madness of Henry VIII for the National Geographic Channel, and is now filming her second season of America: Fact vs. Fiction for The American Heroes Channel. Herman, who happily dresses in Renaissance gowns, lives with her husband, their black lab, and her four very dignified cats in McLean, VA.

Read an Excerpt



Imagine a king casting his gaze over a feast of roasted meats, rich sauces, glazed honey cakes, and fine wine. Even though his stomach rumbles with hunger, he might lose his appetite when considering that anything on the table could, in fact, cause him to die horribly over the next few hours.

Were his fears unfounded? Did all those palace personages who died young and unexpectedly succumb not to poison but to natural disease undiagnosed by bewildered physicians? No, alas. While rumor incorrectly attributed many royal deaths to poison, records prove that fear of poison was more than just palace paranoia.

Italy was the beating heart of the poison trade. Both the ruling de Medici family of Tuscany and the Venetian republic set up poison factories to produce toxins as well as antidotes and test them on animals and condemned prisoners. Unlike the ancient Romans, who used plant-based poisons to murder imperial heirs and nagging mothers-in-law, Renaissance poisoners employed heavy metal poisons — the deadly quartet of arsenic, antimony, mercury, and lead.

Among the four million documents of the Medici Archives in Florence are numerous references to poison. In 1548, Duke Cosimo I initiated a plot to assassinate Piero Strozzi, a military leader who opposed Medici rule, by slipping poison into his food or drink. In February of that year, an anonymous correspondent wrote in cipher to Cosimo, "Piero Strozzi usually stops to drink a few times during his journey." The writer requested "something that could poison his water or wine, with instructions on how to mix it."

In 1590, Cosimo's son, Grand Duke Ferdinando, suspected of having poisoned his older brother Francesco to gain the throne three years earlier, wrote his agent in Milan, "You are being sent a bit of poison, and the messenger will tell you how to use it ... And we are pleased to promise three thousand scudi and even four to the one who administers the poison. The quantity being sent is enough to poison an entire pitcher of wine, has neither odor nor taste, and works very powerfully. You need to mix it well with wine, and if you want to poison only one glass of wine at a time, you need to take a half ounce of the material, rather more than less."

The mysterious Council of Ten, one of the main governing bodies of the Republic of Venice from 1310 to 1797, ordered assassination by "secret, careful, and dexterous means" — a clear reference to poison. In a new study, Matthew Lubin of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has identified thirty-four cases of Venetian state-sponsored political poisonings between 1431 and 1767. Eleven of the attempts failed, nine succeeded; in two cases, the intended victims appeared to have died of natural causes before consuming poison, and in twelve cases, the outcomes are not recorded. In all probability, there were many more Venetian poison attempts on political undesirables than were recorded.

The council hired botanists at the nearby University of Padua to create the poisons. Council annals include two detailed poison recipes from 1540 and 1544 that called for the following ingredients: sublimate (mercury chloride, a poisonous white crystal), arsenic, red arsenic, orpiment (yellow arsenic trisulfide crystals), sal ammoniac (a mineral composed of ammonia chloride), rock salt, verdigris (a blue or green powder from corroding copper), and distillate of cyclamen, a flower that blooms in December in Venice.

The widespread popularity of poison lasted well into the seventeenth century. Until her execution in 1659, a woman named Giulia Toffana sold poisons for fifty years in Naples and Rome, mostly to would-be widows, killing an estimated six hundred individuals. She created what became known as Aqua Toffana, a toxic brew of arsenic, lead, and belladonna that was colorless, tasteless, and easily mixed with wine, and which remained in favor long after Giulia's death. To fool the authorities, she disguised the poison as holy water in glass vials with the images of saints or put it in cosmetics containers.

In 1676, the forty-six-year-old Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d'Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers, was executed in Paris for using Aqua Toffana to kill her father and two brothers in order to inherit their estates. During her interrogation, she declared, "Half the people of quality are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk." And indeed, three years later, 319 people — including many courtiers — were arrested in and around Paris, and thirty-six were sentenced to death for poisoning.


It would only take one person to slip a little something into a king's food. Henry VIII had two hundred people employed in his kitchens at Hampton Court: cooks, scullery maids, stewards, carvers, porters, bakers, butchers, gardeners, butlers, pantlers (pantry servants), and delivery men who plucked, chopped, boiled, baked, carried, garnished, plated, scrubbed, and ran errands. Royal kitchens were food factories, pumping out hundreds of meals a day as servants trudged in and out.

With such an unsettling number of hands touching his food, what steps did a royal take to avoid ingesting poison? The earliest advice comes from the great Jewish physician, philosopher, and scholar Maimonides, who in 1198 wrote a treatise on the subject for his employer, Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria. He advised against eating foods with uneven textures, such as soups and stews, or strong flavors that could conceal the flavor or texture of poison. "Care should also be exercised with regards to foods ... obviously sour, pungent, or highly-flavored," wrote Maimonides, "also ill-smelling dishes or those prepared with onion or garlic. All these foods are best taken from a reliable person, above all suspicion, because the way to harm by poison is only to those foods which assimilate the poisonous taste and smell, as well as the poison's appearance and consistency."

According to Maimonides, poison in wine was particularly dangerous and difficult to detect. "The trick is easily done by mixing the poison with wine," he wrote, "because the latter as a rule covers up the poison's appearance, taste, and smell, and speeds it up on its way to the heart. Whoever drinks wine about which he has reason to suspect that someone has tried to outwit him is certainly out of his mind."

In the late sixteenth century, the powerful minister of Spain, Gaspar de Guzmán, Duke of Olivares, was evidently well aware of the dangers of poisoned wine. According to a report in the Medici Archives in Florence, Olivares, when dining in the city of Valencia, "having taken his first drink and tasting a very unnatural flavor in the wine, he feared poisoning and jumped away from the table in a great fury asking for remedies. Meanwhile the wine steward, having heard what was going on, reassured His Excellency that the bad taste resulted from his not having rinsed the wine flask well after washing it with vinegar and salt. When the steward then preceded to drink the same wine, he [Olivares] finally calmed down."

Girolamo Ruscelli agreed with Maimonides. He wrote the 1555 book The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont, Containing Excellent Remedies Against Diverse Diseases, Wounds, and Other Accidents, with the Maner to Make Distillations, Parfumes, Confitures, Dyings, Colours, Fusions, and Meltings, which swept across Europe in numerous translations and editions. In a section called "For to preserve from poisoning," he noted, "You must take heed that you eate not things of strong savor, or of a very sweete taste, because that the bitternesse and stench of poisons in this maner is wont to be covered, for the over-sweet, souer, or salte thing mixed with poison, doth hide the bitternesse of it."

Ambroise Paré, physician to four kings of France, wrote in his 1585 treatise on poisons, "It is a matter of much difficultie to avoid poisons because ... by the admixture of sweet and well-smelling things, they cannot easily bee perceived even by the skillful. Therefore such as fear poisoning ought to take heed of meats cooked with much art, verie sweet, salty, sowr, or notabley endued with anie other taste. And when they are opprest with hunger or thirst, they must not eat or drink too greedily, but have a diligent regard to the taste of such things as they eat or drink."

For thousands of years, kings hired tasters to test each dish before it reached the royal mouth. However, poisons — even a hefty dose of arsenic — don't necessarily work instantly. Contrary to what we see in film, the victim of poison didn't swallow something, grab his throat, and hit the floor dead. The length of time required for the first symptoms (abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea) to appear varied greatly depending on the individual's height, weight, genetics, general health, and how much food was already in the stomach, which would slow the poison's absorption.

One of the few recorded examples of this phenomenon occurred in 1867 when a group of twenty guests sat down to a meal at an Illinois hotel and ate biscuits mistakenly made with arsenic instead of flour. One guest fell ill shortly upon rising from the table, while the others became sick over several hours, although they all consumed the arsenic at the same time. All the victims had nausea and diarrhea, but other symptoms varied, including a burning pain in the gut, a constricted throat, cramps, and convulsions. One victim had diarrhea and difficulty urinating for several weeks. None died.

Certainly, the royal family wouldn't wait at the table an hour or two after a taster tested their meal to see if he started retching — their food would be stone cold. Evidently, kings and their physicians weren't aware of this time lag and expected poisoned tasters to start gagging and vomiting immediately. They also must have relied on the taster to test for unusual flavors or textures.

According to Maimonides, it was preferable if the taster — or a host whom the king suspected of unkindly intentions toward him — took a great heaping helping of the food rather than a polite nibble. "Someone who wants to guard himself against someone else whom he suspects," the philosopher wrote, "should not eat from his food until the suspect first eats a fair quantity from it. He should not be satisfied with eating only a mouthful, as I have seen done by the cooks of kings in their presence." To prevent the poisoning of his hard-won son and heir, the future Edward VI, Henry VIII had tasters stuff their faces with the young prince's milk, bread, meat, eggs, and butter before the boy took so much as a spoonful.

By the Middle Ages, the tasting of the king's food developed into a complicated set of protocols, rituals, and safeguards. Testing began in the royal kitchen. A 1465 report of the banquet held to celebrate the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York described the numerous assays, or tests, of the dishes. "In the mean tyme the Sewer goeth to the dresser," the author explained, "and there taketh assay of every dyshe, and doth geve it to the Stewarde and the Cooke to eat of all Porreges, Mustarde, and other sawces ... And of every stewed meate, rosted, boylde, or broyled, beyng fyshe or fleshe, he cutteth a litle thereofe ... and so with all other meates, as Custardes, Tartes, and Gelly, with other such lyke."

When faced with any dish bearing a crust, such as a meat pie, the tasters broke the crust, dipped bread into the food below, and tasted it. By the time the monarch received a plate of food, the resulting haggis was not only lukewarm but may have looked more like a dog's breakfast than a king's dinner. Servants carried the tested dishes in pompous procession to the royal dining chamber, where they placed them on a credenza, which takes its name from the various "credence" tests for poison conducted there. Each servant had to eat from the dish he himself had carried, and armed guards made sure no unauthorized person approached the food.

Anything the king drank — whether water, wine, or ale — was also tested, of course. The taster poured a few drops of the beverage into the "bason of assay," or testing basin, and drank it. A servant also tested the water the king used to wash his hands before and after eating by pouring some from the royal basin over his own hands to see if it caused pain, itching, or burning.

But tests were not only reserved for food and drink. Servants also kissed the king's tablecloth and seat cushion. If their lips didn't itch or swell, they assumed the items were poison-free.

Even the king's salt was tested. The pantler scooped out a bit of salt from its large, ornate dish and passed it to the porter to taste. The servant bringing the king's napkin from the linen closet did so by hanging it around his neck so that he could hide no poison in its folds. According to the 1465 report, "Then the Carver taketh the Napkyn from his shoulder and kysseth it for his assay, and delyvereth to the Lorde. Then taketh he the Spoone, dryeth it, and kysseth it for his assay." With all this kissing of the king's utensils, it is far more likely his royal highness was sickened with germs rather than arsenic.

According to the 1712 edition of État de la France, an annual administrative report, in his last years Louis XIV employed 324 people to serve the royal table at the Palace of Versailles. The king generally preferred to dine at one o'clock in his own apartments. Though he was the only one eating, he wasn't alone. In addition to the bevy of servants assisting him, courtiers and ambassadors stood watching him. Sometimes the king joined the court and the rest of the royal family at a banquet where the protocol was even more stifling, and members of the public were allowed to walk by, gaping at the sight of a monarch chewing.

Before Louis XIV entered the dining chamber, the Officers of the Goblet "made the trial" of tablecloths, napkins, cups, dishes, cutlery, and toothpicks by kissing them, rubbing them against their skin, and, in some cases, rubbing bread against the tableware and then eating the bread. A servant even moistened the king's fine linen napkin and rubbed his hands with it before folding it and placing it back on the king's table. Oddly, the king thus always used a soiled, wet napkin.

At the same time, servants in the Office of the Royal Mouth in the kitchen tested the king's food. Then each one took a dish and lined up in pompous parade formation with butlers carrying silver batons and guards carrying guns to make sure no one got near the food. This contingent began its long trek to the king's dining room. Leaving the royal kitchens, they crossed a street, entered the south wing of the palace, ascended a flight of stairs, traversed several long corridors, crossed the upper vestibule of the Staircase of the Princes, passed the Salon of the Shopkeepers, the Grand Hall of the Guards, the upper vestibule of the marble staircase, and the Hall of the King's Guards before reaching the first antechamber of the king's apartments. By then, we can imagine, the food was lukewarm at best. Throughout the meal, servants at the table of trial continued shaving off bits of the king's dinner and eating them.

Like Louis XIV, the Tudors usually ate in their private apartments, enjoying a more relaxed atmosphere with reduced pomp and circumstance. But unlike Louis, they built small privy kitchens below the royal apartments in their various palaces. These private kitchens offered the advantages of warmer food, which didn't have to be carried across a cold courtyard, and less risk of poison, as only a handful of trusted servants came near the meals.

In all royal palaces, servants refreshed the decanters of wine and water in the king's rooms throughout the day. If he expressed the desire to whet his whistle, the Officers of the Goblet made the trial in front of him. If the king wanted a picnic on a hunt, the same servants would test his food and beverages. Never would anything, except medicine and Holy Communion, enter the royal mouth without others testing it for poison first.

The household servants had good reason to ensure the king was not poisoned or even suspected he might have been when he was, in fact, merely suffering from an upset stomach. If the royal intestines went into an uproar, the king could have any or all of these servants tortured horribly, and under such torture even the most innocent person would probably confess to a crime. Once a confession was torn out of them, along with chunks of flesh by red-hot pincers, the admitted poisoners would be executed in some awful way: hanged, drawn and chopped into quarters, or pulled apart by four horses.

Some poisoners, aware of the difficulty of poisoning the king's food with so many tasters, came up with more creative methods. On May 26, 1604, when King Henri IV of France opened his mouth to take the communion wafer from a priest, his dog suddenly grabbed the king's coat with his teeth and pulled him back. Henri moved forward again to take the host, but again the dog yanked him back. The king believed the dog was trying to warn him of something and ordered the priest to eat the wafer. At first, he refused, but the king insisted. According to a contemporary report from Venice, "When the priest had taken it, he swelled up and his body burst in twain." Since no known poison causes a body to burst in twain, the correspondent was probably exaggerating the violent effects of diarrhea and vomiting, which can certainly make one feel as if one were bursting in twain. "Thus was the plot discovered," the writer continued, "and some of the noblemen privy to it are now in the Bastille."


Excerpted from "The Royal Art of Poison"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Eleanor Herman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

Part I Poison, Poison, Everywhere

1 Poison from the Banquet Table to the Royal Underpants 3

2 Unicorn Horns and Rooster Dung: Poison Detectors and Antidotes 19

3 Dying to Be Beautiful: Dangerous Cosmetics 31

4 Murderous Medicine: Mercury Enemas and Rat Turd Elixirs 43

5 Putrid Palaces: A Poisoned Environment 61

Part II The Poison Chronicles: Where Rumors of Royal Poisoning Meet Scientific Analysis

6 Henry VII of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor, 1275-1313 83

7 Cangrande della Scala, Italian Warlord, 1291-1329 91

8 Agnes Sorel, Mistress of King Charles VII of France, 1422-1450 97

9 Edward VI, King of England, 1537-1553 105

10 Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, 1528-1572 115

11 Erik XIV, King of Sweden, 1533-1577 123

12 Ivan IV, the Terrible, Czar of Russia, 1530-1584; His Mother, Elena Glinskaya, ca. 1510-1538; and His First Wife, Anastasia Romanovna, 1530-1560 129

13 Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici of Tuscany, 1541-1587, and Grand Duchess Bianca Cappello, 1548-1587 137

14 Gabrielle d'Estrées, Mistress of King Henri IV of France, 1573-1599 147

15 Tycho Brahe, Astronomer and Imperial Mathematician, 1546-1601 155

16 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Artist to Italy's Elite, 1572-1610 165

17 Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, 1594-1612 173

18 Sir Thomas Overbury, Royal Adviser at the Court of James I, 1581-1613 183

19 Princess Henrietta Stuart of England, Duchesse d'Orléans, 1644-1670 193

20 Mademoiselle de Fontanges, Mistress of Louis XIV of France, 1661-1681, and the Affair of the Poisons 203

21 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Imperial Court Musician, 1756-1791 213

22 Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, 1769-1821 221

Part III Poison in the Modern Era

23 Scientific Advances in the Victorian Age 233

24 The Democratization of Poison 239

25 Modern Medicts: The Rebirth of Political Poison 243

The Royal Art of Living and Dying 259

Pick Your Poison 261

The Poison Hall of Fame 267

Bibliography 269

Index 279

Customer Reviews