Saturday, November 09, 2013

Question from Bron - Death of Mary I

I wondered why I never found a reference of any sort to the possibility that Mary Tudor I was poisoned, although her death was extraordinarily convenient for proponents of the reformed religion at the time. It is generally agreed today that she died of stomach cancer/ovarian cysts or uterine cancer, at the age of 41.

Many people are reluctant to speculate on health matters in the dim and distant past. However, I find the topic fascinating. The aspects I find most interesting include motive; ability; technique and results.

Generally, we are led to believe that royalty was very well protected indeed from poisoning. They had food tasters, and were not supposed to accept gifts such as food, fruit, flowers, gloves, clothing, linen, or indeed anything which might contain poison.

The idea of poison which might have been dusted on, or fabrics drenched in it, is impractical: in the first case too many bystanders would be affected and in the second (gloves, for example) the donor (and their associates) could be tracked down.

Now, if you want to poison someone, it is a good idea not to poison yourself in the process. So the poison needs to be containable: it needs to be something that will affect the target rather more than the poisoner. (That means wholesale contamination of tapestries, rugs and bed-linen can be ruled out.) It is also a good idea not to kill your target immediately, because that gives the game away: a subtle long-term process is best. So you need a substance that will not kill you if you are careful when handling it; a substance which is easily available and untraceable and undetectable and is found in every ladys chamber. And a method which no-one would suspect or investigate.

How do you administer such a substance if it cannot be sprinkled around, or given by mouth? This was the question I asked myself when I and the dog went shopping this morning.

And it is obvious. This was a technique which was truly indetectable at the time. The insertion of arsenic in menstrual tampons. Bear with me. Arsenic is a colorless, odorless and tasteless potent poison. It was easily available everywhere in Tudor England. Known as rats-bane, it was also used for makeup, popular with alchemists, and a pea-sized amount of arsenic trioxide was fatal. Usually beggars used it to make large and elaborate wounds on their bodies after scarifying their flesh. I suspect that the insertion of arsenic in the vaginal tract during menstruation, when the tract is more alkaline, would have made it even more effective at that time.

At the moment this is just a theory I have. My husband, of course, has said it is nonsense. And that is exactly what men did, and do. I very much doubt that the royal Councillors would have inspected (or suspected) tampons as an avenue of poison. And used tampons would have naturally been destroyed quickly and privately, for all sorts of reasons.

It would have been quite simple to dowse any tampon-like material with arsenic.

My husband (as the men ruling the Court at that time would have done), has dismissed my idea as nonsense. His immediate reaction was to ask, what proof do I have of any woman being poisoned by arsenic inserted in her vagina? Well, I do have one: the murder of someone called BRIDGET ROBINSON (d. June 12, 1594), whose husband purchased a pennyworth of ratsbane (arsenic) and was told to mix the ratsbane with "glass small beaten and wrapt in the skinne of a shoulder of mutton to the quantity of a haslenut or lesse" and then, when his wife came "to lie with him he should convey it into her privy parts." More details from the pamphlet can be found in Strange Inhuman Deaths by John Bellamy. The actual account from the inquest and indictment are in R. F. Hunnisett, ed., Sussex Coroner' Inquests 1558-1603. See

How much easier to sprinkle or drench menstrual cloths in arsenic?


Anonymous said...

The first problem I see with this theory is that what little information we have about how women handled menstruation during the early modern period indicates that they used a "clout." Imagine it like a string bikini with layers of wool or linen between it and the body.

Here is something I wrote, with a photo of a menstrual clout:

I doubt that a woman of that period would have used a tampon, for reasons including hygiene difficulties and sexual mores.

The other problem with this theory is that Mary had very irregular periods. She was troubled by irregular and painful periods her entire life (she might today be diagnosed with PCOS; then it was called "menstrual retention".) Her menstrual problems were common knowledge at court. It would have been very hard for a would-be murderer to a)know when Mary was going to have a period and b)manage to poison her regularly.

On top of that, at the time of Mary's death, she hadn't had a period in more than a year. She (desperately) believed herself to be pregnant, due in March 1558. She died in November of that year without giving birth, though she may have hemorrhaged.

Kate said...

While all that is very interesting women of that period didn't to the best of our knowlwdge use tampons. Mary's husband was absent and she was very religous and faithful and therefore not having sexual relations with anyone else so that eliminates the possibility of poision introduction by that means. Her periods were very irregular. She had chronic health issues poforis (sp) and false prgnancies which were likely the result of a hormone stimulating tumor of the reproductive organs. People always look for intregue when the simple fact was she died of cancer

Anonymous said...

I agree with you the died of cancer.