Research into the lives of people long dead puts many in mind of lawyers and accountants, poring over wills and property documents -- in theory a dull and dusty pastime. Apart from the glamour of a lawyer pleading a client's case in a courtroom, somehow the lawyer's work and that of the detective's long hours is how many mysteries have been solved -- or not. And then DNA entered criminology to add to the writer's magical box of solutions. Here is an example in my own case.
In one of my earlier books, The Serpent and the Moon, a biography of Diane de Poitiers, I ridiculed an accusation that Diane was a witch. Her antagonist was the French King Francis I's young mistress, a beautiful girl who resented her lover's childhood friendship with Diane. Not only, she argued, was it unnatural for the widowed Diane to be beautiful still at the age of 36, but that she achieved this by witchcraft, drinking a beverage of liquid gold each morning! Ridiculous! Liquid gold would kill her instantly -- and so I wrote in my biography.
Some four years ago, the small town of Anet, west of Paris and next to Diane de Poitiers' great house of the same name, was planning to enlarge its area into an adjoining field. There, wedged, lying flat in the ground, a large stone slab covered with undergrowth was discovered.
Underneath? A bag filled with the human bones of several skeletons. The local people had no idea about them and rushed to their village archives. There they discovered a strange story.
At some time during the French Revolution, a band of drunken radicals had entered the small town and proceeded to pull "aristocrats" out of their tombs and drag their skeletons behind their horses down the main street. Having repeated this merry exercise emptying all the tombs they could find, the loutish band moved on.
The terrified villagers waited for their return, and when no one came, they slowly gathered all the bones and placed them in the bag deep in a hole in the field and covered it. Once the incidence had been recorded in their archive, they chose to forget about it.
Enter a well-known French pathologist often called upon to help identify bones found on historical sites. To the surprise of the owners of Diane de Poitiers wonderful home where her tomb is also situated; to the local people and to me, her biographer, the tomb was empty. There had always been a lock of Diane's famously reddish blonde hair framed behind glass in the chateau d'Anet, and this was used to identify which of the bones belonged to her skeleton and the two children (her grandchildren) originally buried with her.
And so Diane de Poitiers, so rudely removed from her final resting place, was re-buried in her splendid tomb in an impressive ceremony involving all the citizens of the small town dressed in the costumes of the period. Two teams of townsfolk in gloriously colourful military uniforms escorted the black upholstered box with her symbol of interlaced crescent moons, placed in the centre of a black velvet draped flat cart. This was slowly and solemnly pulled by shining black horses with long manes and tails, tall black feathers bobbing on their headbands. Diane's black and white colours dominated this sombre procession, as did her symbols of the triple crescent and the bow and arrow representing "Diana, Goddess of the Moon and the Chase" which she always used.
The village and guests of the chateau passed a weekend of medieval pleasure: jousting performed by actors who performed usually on screen showing how it was done. We learnt the charming medieval dances to perform on the green before dinner in the open; there was a fair just as in olden times with geese parading alongside camels (why camels, I wondered); a dear old bear (not dancing) but the spectacle was superb. Diane had been laid to rest in her own magnificent tomb again and in the chapel built to her orders by her two daughters and the event warranted the celebration.
It was during the luncheon held at Anet following the moving ceremony of re-burial that I found myself sitting next to the pathologist who had put her skeleton together again. During our discussions, he showed me a photograph of her broken leg which had resulted in her abandoning riding during her last two years. The bone had been set by the great doctor of the day, and it was impressive. It was then that he told me: "You know of course she died from poison". What nonsense -- she was almost seventy years old -- quite an age for the time. "Oh yes," he told me, "I found gold in her bones". And there it was -- a clear photograph of flecks of gold in a cross section of Diane de Poitiers' broken femur. Astounded, I spluttered: how was this possible?
It seems that an essence of gold was not unknown as a beverage at the time to reduce blood pressure and as a health beverage. Consulting with medieval medical experts I discovered that even today, essence of gold in taken in capsule form in parts of India and Sri Lanka -- and I managed to acquire some through an Indian doctor friend. And what, if any, are or were the side effects, I asked? It was his reply that solved a number of interesting conundrums for me: "very white skin, and a reddish golden tinge to the hair". Diane was known for both of these attributes -- her glorious hair and parchment white skin. Did she use the essence of gold for her beauty or on medical grounds I wondered, just as today we use a small dose of aspirin to thin the blood? Whatever the reason, one thing is certain in my mind - she was not poisoned by her vanity. To have lived to seventy at the time was quite an achievement in itself and the chronicler Brantôme who visited her shortly before her death, assured his audience that she was as beautiful still as the first time she had arrived at court!
However, I will have to edit my adamant denial that Diane de Poitiers "drank liquid gold" in any further editions!
Both Vol. 2, 'Agnes Sorel Mistress of Beauty' and Vol. 1 'Queen of Four Kingdoms' of Princess Michael's 'Anjou Trilogy' are available in the UK in all good book stores and online, published by Constable & Robinson.
'Queen of Four Kingdoms' was published in the USA in October by Beaufort Books.