A Canterbury Tale: sudden death and a hint of poison

At the east end of Canterbury Cathedral is a mysterious tomb. Placed awkwardly between two pillars, it lies in one of the Cathedral’s most prestigious burial sites, the Trinity Chapel, formerly the location of Becket’s shrine. This unadorned tomb is so plain that visitors pass by unaware of its fascinating history: one that involves murder, betrayal and attempted grave robbery. Who is the occupant of that humble tomb resting near to the Black Prince?

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The Huguenot Cardinal

Attached to one of the pillars above the tomb, a scrolled memorial tablet declares: ODET DE COLIGNY CARDINAL DE CHATILLON Bishop of Beauvais 1517 – 1571.

Odet was born into one of the most influential families in France. Brought up at the Renaissance court of King Francis I, Odet’s early life was one of privilege. Although never ordained, he became a Cardinal at 16, attended papal elections in Rome and added the wealthy Bishopric of Beauvais to his clutch of spiritual titles.

Yet despite this cynical acquisition of power – largely engineered by his uncle, the Constable of France – Odet was a man of conscience. When his friend Rabelais was accused of heresy, Odet protected him. To express his gratitude, Rabelais dedicated a book to “The most illustrious prince and most revered Odet Cardinal of Chastillon”.

Odet’s conscience also inspired him to champion the Huguenot reformers and become a Protestant. Despite being excommunicated by the Pope – and having married – Odet was initially protected by the French court, remaining close to the Dauphin and the Queen Mother Catherine de Medici. However, Catherine subsequently turned against Odet and his powerful brothers, issuing an order for their arrest. While his brother Gaspard, the Admiral of France, fled with his followers to La Rochelle, Odet sought refuge in England.

When he landed at Dover “somewhat sickly of sea”, his arrival with some 30 retainers caused consternation. The Governor of Dover, not knowing what to do, wrote a frantic message to Lord Cecil, the Queen’s chief adviser, marked “haste, haste, haste … for the Queen’s Majesty’s Affairs.”

In an attempt to find temporary lodgings for Odet, Cecil wrote to Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London. However, Grindal proved reluctant, possibly due to the size of Odet’s retinue. Replying to Cecil’s enquiry, he wrote: “I pray you to spare me, for surely I lack convenient furniture”.

Further problems arose when Thomas Sackville was ordered to house Odet and his followers at the Palace of Sheen. Unable to provide sufficient furniture, plate and linen for the needs of Odet and his companions and stung by the criticisms of the Queen’s agents, Sackville retorted that not only had he had to give up his own basin and ewer but that his wife’s waiting women had had to give up their bed and sleep on the floor!

Hoping to move to London, Odet was to experience problems similar to those experienced by many modern flat-hunters. He refused one house because “he found the walls and windows in so great decay that it would be hard for my lord Cardinal to repair it in so short a time.”

Although England provided a refuge from immediate danger, Odet’s movements were closely watched by both the French and Spanish ambassadors. Having invited Odet to stay with him, Sir Thomas Gresham noted that “the Cardinal had not been a quarter of an hour in my house, but the French ambassador came to visit him” and that the two had “long communications”.

When Odet visited the French Huguenot church in Threadneedle Street, he abandoned his Cardinal’s robes for “a short cloak with a rapier” and – as the Spanish ambassador noted – a jewel in his cap.

A dashing figure, Odet was described by one observer as “a handsome old man with a good figure, a long white beard, dressed always in black with a great ‘saye’ of velvet or satin and a long cloak.”

A man of great personal charm, he won the favour of Queen Elizabeth causing her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, to note: “Her Majesty had a marvellous liking of him: and one thing more than I looked for, which is, her liking to hear of his wife, and is very desirous to see her, and hath sent one expressly to visit her.”

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Leicester’s surprise at this gesture was due to the fact that Elizabeth disapproved of clergy wives.

While in England, Odet tried to enlist the Queen’s help for his co-religionists – especially those at La Rochelle. Disguised as Odet’s retainers, Huguenots obtained access to Elizabeth’s court and were given loans from her Treasury. However, they never received the military help in terms of men and materiel that they desired. As the leader of a small Protestant nation, Elizabeth was treading a tight-rope between the great Catholic powers of Spain and France. She could not afford to attract their combined hostility.

In 1570, Odet’s brother Gaspard marched on Paris and forced Queen Catherine to agree a treaty. Odet was eager to return home but bad weather and his wife’s illness caused him to postpone his plans.

Finally, he set out for Dover, breaking his journey at Canterbury where he lodged with prebendary John Bungay whose house at ‘the Homors’ was located near the east end of the Cathedral. During this visit, Odet was presented with a gift of “ducks, mallards, teeles, wood-koks and partridges” by the Corporation of Canterbury.

Sadly, Odet never returned home. He fell ill with a fever and, after languishing for several weeks, died on 23 March 1571.

 A murder mystery?

Odet’s brother, Francis, had died two years earlier amid rumours of foul play by Queen Catherine. Although she denied the accusations, Catherine wrote of her “great pleasure” at his demise and her “hope that God will give to the others [i.e. Huguenots] the treatment they deserve…”

When Odet died, his widow claimed that he had been murdered. At the post-mortem, Odet’s physician said that spots on Odet’s stomach indicated poisoning. In a subsequent report, Queen Elizabeth’s Commissioners said: “There appears to be no ground for suspicion that he had been poisoned.” Nonetheless, they failed to reach a final verdict.

Two years later, the stories of poisoning re-surfaced. According to one theory, the murderer was Odet’s valet-de-chambre, a Basque called Vuillin working for Queen Catherine.

Truth or rumour? Who knows.

What is clear is that a year after Odet’s death, Queen Catherine ordered the assassination of his brother Gaspard and the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day.

Meantime, Odet had been given a temporary tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. (It was not even recorded in The Chapter Burial Register). Quickly bricked over and covered with a layer of plaster, his coffin awaited collection by his family. But, overtaken by war and death, they never came.

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A tale of tomb robbers

In August 1990, two ex-Foreign Legionnaires were arrested in the Cathedral precincts. They were equipped with an impressive burglar’s toolkit and a map of the Cathedral. The explanation for their escapade bemused Canterbury magistrates. The two men claimed that they were hoping to open Odet de Coligny’s tomb and prove that it held, not the bones of the Huguenot exile, but those of Thomas Becket whose tomb was dismantled during the Dissolution of 1538.

*For further information on Becket – especially some of the less well-known facts – see my previous article: Murder, Martyrdom and the Quest for Bones.

This entry was posted in Canterbury, Cathedrals, Exiles, History, Huguenots, Odet de Coligny and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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