27 October 2022

The Queen's Poisoner


Queen Christina of Sweden (r. 1632-1654)
 That one got your attention, huh? Kind of a vague term, "the Queen's Poisoner." Does it mean "the person who poisoned the queen?" Or maybe, "The poisoner who worked for the queen, perhaps even filling an official position of "queen's poisoner"? Or it could be the title of a fantasy novel?

For our purposes it's something altogether–uh, okay mostly different. The "poisoner" in question is a professional. The queen is unconventional. And this story has two parts. Today we'll talk about the poisoner and the queen. In two weeks, we'll talk about the indirect impact these two persons had on an entire country–and not the one the poisoner called home (Italy) or the one ruled by the queen (Sweden).

First, the poisoner.

The formidable Olympia Maidalchini
It's easy to sum up the historical record on our poisoner, because said historical record is so slim. His name (we think) was Nicolò Egidi. But he is better remembered by his nom de guerre: "Egidio Exili" ("Egidio the Exile"?). Exili first enters the historical record while serving in the household of Olympia Maidalchini, the influential sister-in-law of the current pope, Innocent X (r. 1644-1655). Exili's position was listed as "poisoner."

It's important at this point to understand that the profession of "poisoner" most often could have been more accurately called "alchemist," which in many ways was a forerunner to what we refer to as a "chemist." Granted, a lot of the experimental research done by these individuals involved coming up with poisons, not least because the only way to prepare an antidote for a particular poison was to experiment with the actual thing. 

How long Exili worked for the powerful (and by all accounts, formidable) Donna Olympia is not recorded. And when next he pops up, it's several hundred miles to the north, at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Which brings us to the queen. 

(We'll get back to Exili in a moment).

Queen Christina dressed as a man

Born in 1626, Christina came to the throne upon the death of her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, in battle. She began to rule in her own right in 1644, and then took two steps guaranteed to ensure her reign was brief: she made public her desire to never marry (and thus never to produce an heir), and eventually made public her conversion from the Lutheranism of her youth (and in service of which her father had died, a casualty of the so-called Thirty Years' War) to Catholicism. 

Neither move was popular with her subjects, who were both A) overwhelmingly chauvinistic by our standards, and B) overwhelmingly Lutheran by any standards. And that's not all. During the ten years before she abdicated in favor of a male cousin, Christina acted in ways very unlike the "conventional" queen of her era.

For starters, she frequently dressed as a man. Coupled with her lack of interest in marriage, it has been speculated that Christina might have been either gay or even transgender. Both are possible, as is the notion that she dressed as a man because she felt men were taken more seriously in the areas which really interested her: the arts and sciences.

While she reigned Christina's court in Stockholm was a hot bed of artistic and scientific inquiry: artists, scholars, scientists (or, as they were known at the time, "natural philosophers") from all over Europe flocked to Sweden hoping for some of the royal patronage with which Christina was so generous that she nearly bankrupted the state treasury.

Exili was among those who went to Sweden looking for a "research grant," and he entered the queen's service and stayed in that position for several years.

Including that time the queen sent him to Paris on royal business, and the French promptly tossed him in the Bastille.

And that's it for now. Come back in two weeks to find out what happened to both this queen and her poisoner, as well as what climactic event they had an indirect impact on. See you in two weeks!

The Bastille surrounded by the eastern part of Paris in 1649.


2 comments:

  1. Ah, Queen Christina - reincarnation of Hatshepsut or absolutely unique?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Uh-oh! Dum-de-dum-dum. I'll tune in again next time for another episode of…

    ReplyDelete

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