16th century France, Alexandre Dumas, Catherine de Medici, Charles IX, Daniel Auteuil, Early Modern Europe, Henry of Navarre, Isabella Adjani, John-Hugues Anglade, Margaret of Valois, Medical Stuff, Movies I Love, Queen Margot, Religious Issues, St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Virna Lisi
My previous post on Queen Margot (1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles) dealt with the film’s treatment of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572. That event and its lead-up takes about a third of the film; the remainer of the film focuses on the fall-out from that event in the lives of Margaret of Valois, the titular Margot, who is by virtue of marriage now queen of Navarre (Isabelle Adjani), her imperiled husband Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), her lover Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez), and the barely stable King Charles IX (John-Hugues Anglade).
The film opens in 1572, a few days before the Massacre. It closes shortly after Charles’ death and the accession of his brother Henry of Anjou in 1574, so roughly two years pass, although the film gives us few markers for the passage of time except for the death of the king. In between these two solidly historical events, the film essentially descends into romantic political fantasy, as far as I can tell.
The massacre of the Huguenots was a huge blow to the Protestant community in France, which lost tens of thousands of adherents and their leaders to slaughter, flight from France, and fear-driven conversion to Catholicism. The film, however, has only a nominal interest in this issue; it is interested in the Massacre primarily because of the dramatic tensions it creates for its main characters. The ensuing political intrigues revolve not around the Huguenot response to so much death, but rather on the complex web of emotions spawned by the crisis. In the film, Navarre converts to Catholicism the day after the Massacre, because he is essentially held hostage at court and needs to find a way to escape. In reality, he promised to convert, but did not actually undergo a formal confirmation at a Catholic; like Elizabeth Tudor during the reign of her Catholic sister Mary I, he used the period of religious instruction to play for time.
In the film, his conversion opens the door to a growing friendship between Navarre and Charles. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), Charles’ mother, quickly realizes that Navarre is beginning to step into the void Coligny’s death has left for Charles; she orchestrated the failed assassination of the Admiral in order to retain her hold on political power, and now that hold is in danger once again. So she immediately plots to murder Henry. At the same time, Navarre is trying to find a way to escape from the court, while la Mole plots to find a way to rescue Margot. But neither can escape without the other; to do so would leave the other in terrible danger and Navarre feels he owes Margot his life, so he is reluctant to abandon her even though he knows she is in love with la Mole. So the tension in the later portions of the film grows from the question of whether the Catholic assassins will manage to kill Navarre before he and Margot can both get away from Paris.
In true 19th century literary fashion, the court is aswirl with plots, poisons, and adultery. Catherine first tries to murder Henry by giving a tube of poisoned lipstick to his mistress, and when that fails, she arranges to lace a book with arsenic. Rumors of political assassination by poison were incredibly common in ancient, medieval and early modern writings, and virtually any political figure who died unexpectedly was rumored to have been poisoned.
But as a historian, I tend to be very suspicious of any claim that a historical figure died from poison. Prior to the 19th century, the poor state of medical knowledge meant that many potentially fatal medical conditions could go undiagnosed and untreated for years. People could have fatal heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms, and the like with no noticable warning signs. The lack of modern hygiene techniques and the poor state of food preservation meant that food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses were probably far more common than people realized. As a result, there were numerous ways that apparently healthy people might suddenly fall ill and die without being poisoned, and many of those deaths could easily be mistaken for poisoning. That’s not to say that poisoning did not happen, only that we ought to be extremely cautious about attributing unexpected death to poison.
In the film, after the Massacre, there are essentially three key incidents: the attempt to murder Henry with poisoned lipstick, the hunting accident where Henry saves Charles’ life at the cost of giving up a chance to escape the kingdom, and the attempt to poison Henry with an arsenic-laced book.
The first incident revolves around Henry’s mistress, Charlotte de Sauve (Asia Argento), who is given a tube of poisoned lipstick and told that it contains a powerful aphrodisiac. Margot, suspecting a plot, stops Henry from kissing Charlotte, who unfortunately dies a horrible death. Charlotte was in fact Henry’s mistress, but she did not die in 1573 or 74; she remained his mistress until 1579, long after he had left the French court, and she only died in 1617, seven years after he had died. She was, in fact, one of Catherine de Medici’s informants, so if Catherine had wanted to poison Henry, she could just have given Charlotte something to slip into his drink. So the poisoned lipstick and Charlotte’s untimely death are entirely Dumas’ invention.
Similarly, as far as I can tell, the hunting accident in which Henry saves Charles from a wild boar also appears to be complete fiction. Charles did enjoy hunting, however, and by the end of his life he and Henry appear to have become good friends (or at least Charles thought they were good friends). In the film, right after the accident, Charles takes Henry to meet his secret mistress, who seems to be a common servant, and infant son. Charles did in fact have a mistress on whom he fathered an illegitimate son, but she seems to have been known at court, and after his death, she received a pension and her son was raised well and allowed to inherit some of Catherine de Medici’s property and a noble title.
What Killed Charles IX?
The third major incident involves Catherine’s attempt to poison Henry using a book on hunting that has been impregnated with arsenic. The pages are stuck together and to unstuck them, the reader must lick his finger and loosen the page; as a result, as the reader works his way through the book, he will inevitably consume a lot of arsenic. Unfortunately, before Henry sees the book, Charles finds it and reads it. so Catherine unintentionally poisons her own son. In the film, Charles lingers for a remarkably long time, constantly exuding a bloody sweat that makes for a ghastly cinematic image, especially because he and Margot wear a lot of white clothes during this part of the film precisely so Charles can bleed on them.
The reality of Charles’ death is rather different. Bloody sweat is a real condition, known as hematohidrosis or hematidrosis, but it’s extremely rare and its causes are unknown. It’s not generally fatal, except in newborns. So it’s wildly unlikely that Charles could have died from such a condition, even if there was clear evidence that he had it. But there isn’t any solid evidence that bloody sweat was a symptom of his death.
We have two narratives of Charles’ death, which you can read here. In the first, Charles spends a long time silent and then sends for Henry of Navarre, with whom he has a substantial conversation. Then he dies some time later. In the second, he experiences pain and sweats a great deal, groans, and has a conversation with his nurse during which he cries a lot. Then he apparently dies. The two narratives are not completely compatible, since the first makes no mention of the conversation with his nurse and the second makes no mention of his conversation with Navarre, but it is not impossible that they could both be true; usually scholars read the second account as happening earlier in the evening than the first account. But neither makes any mention of bloody sweat or indeed blood at all, although in the second narrative Charles laments the shedding of Huguenot blood.
The idea that he died of a bloody sweat is probably a Huguenot story meant to convey divine justice; the monarch who shed so much blood died oozing his own blood as a manifestation of his guilt. There is a long tradition in Western historical writing of monarchs who did awful things supposedly dying in horrible ways. These stories nearly always revolve around the idea that the ruler’s moral corruption somehow becomes physically manifest at the end of his life. For example, William I of England (often called William the Bastard) was badly injured during siege in which his troops burned a church; his horse shifted and threw him against the pommel of his saddle. He died not long thereafter, but according to a monastic chronicle, when his body was placed into his sarcophagus, it burst open and produced such an awful stench that the funeral service had to be hurriedly finished so everyone could flee the smell. While it is not completely impossible that William might have ruptured an internal organ and died of a severe infection that would produce a terrible odor, it’s just as likely that the chronicler in question is trying to demonstrate William’s moral decay with a story about literal rot and stench.
Additionally, Charles’ symptoms do not match those of arsenic poisoning. The classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning include headaches, confusion, diarrhea, sleepiness, convulsions, discoloration of the fingernails, vomiting, bloody urine, hair loss, and stomach pains. Bloody sweat is not one of the symptoms. In the film, Charles experiences several abdominal pain, and possibly confusion (a general issue for him) and hair loss (his hair looks quite thin at the end), but none of the messier and less glamorous symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or bloody urine.
In reality, most historians attribute his death to pulmonary tuberculosis, the symptoms of which include severe coughing, coughing up blood or bloody mucus, chest pain, weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats and chills, and loss of appetite. It’s clear he was producing blood; shortly before his death he had a violent hemorrhage and after his death, one Catholic bishop claimed that the amount of blood he produced was a sign he was a saint. But he seems to have been coughing it up, rather than sweating it. His other symptoms included bursts of manic energy, general weakness and fatigue, heavy sweating, severe weight loss (the English ambassador described him as being “no more than skin and bone”) and pain. Additionally, his brother Henry III also died of a form of tuberculosis, so his family may have been particularly susceptible to it for some reason. Tuberculosis is not a slam dunk diagnosis, but it certainly fits the symptoms more closely than arsenic poisoning.
But Dumas is at least drawing off of 16th century claims that Charles had died of bloody sweat, and his plot uses this story to good effect, dramatizing his moral complicity in the massacre and working in the irony that Catherine, who is trying to murder Henry to maintain her position with her son, instead murders her son and enables Henry to escape the court. It may not be good history, but it’s certainly a good story.
Want to Know More?
Queen Margot (English Subtitled)is available on Amazon. The novel is available in English there as well, as Queen Margot; Or, Marguerite de Valois – With Nine Illustrations.There’s also a historical biography of Margot and her mother Catherine, The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, although Nancy Goldstone is not a professional historian.
If you’re inclined to learn more about Henry of Navarre’s rather eventful life, the only thing readily available is Desmond Seward’s The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France & Navarre. Seward is a popular historian rather than a scholar, but his work is highly readable.