Naomi Clifford brings us a terrible tale of murdered nobles... prepare for intrigue aplenty!
I'm off gadding about again, so shall see you on 17th November!
Barnes Terrace, Surrey, 22 July 1812
A few minutes before 8am, a young Italian man entered the White Hart, a coaching inn facing the Thames at Barnes, and ordered a glass of gin. He drank it down swiftly and rushed away to his place a few yards away at No 27 The Terrace, where he worked as a servant.
Less than an hour later his employers, French emigrés who had fled the Revolution in 1790 and were neck-deep in intrigue and double-dealing in their adopted country, were dead.
That morning Count and Countess d’Antraigues were preparing to travel from their house, a grand six-bayed townhouse, to their London residence in Queen Anne Street. They had ordered the carriage to be at the front door at eight.(1)
The coachman, David Hebditch, brought the carriage round and Lorenzo (2), the manservant, opened the door and placed a can of oil inside. According to witness reports, what he then went back inside but returned soon afterwards. The Countess came downstairs with two of her servants, Susannah Black and Elizabeth Ashton but when Black ordered Lorenzo to open the carriage door for her mistress, he ignored her and went back into the house. Soon afterwards, a pistol shot was heard.
Hebditch, the coachman, told the Inquest that he saw the Count come down the staircase, followed by Lorenzo, who had a pistol in one hand and a dagger in the other. He saw him plunge the dagger into the Count’s left shoulder, and then rush outside and stab the Countess in the breast, who fell to the ground. Ashton rushed to the nearby Sun public house to get help, while Black and Hebditch attended to the wounded. Lorenzo managed to enter the house and a minute or so later the servants heard another shot.
Two surgeons were called and came swiftly but there was little they could do and both the Count and Countess died soon afterwards without speaking.
Lorenzo, the least of their concerns, was found lying face down on the floor of the Count’s room. He had shot himself in the mouth. The Count and his wife had been killed with the Count’s own weapons, kept ready in the event of assassins. Little did they know that they had harboured an enemy within.
An inquest held at the White Hart the following day found that the d'Antraigues had both been murdered by their servant and that he had committed suicide, "being in his senses" (that is, not insane).
Were the murders a spontaneous act of violence or were they connected with the Count’s dodgy political dealings? In his essay on the Count d’Antraigues (3) Thomas Munch-Peterson described him as “a man of passionate enthusiasms and hatreds” and he certainly had a reputation as arrogant and hot-headed. With his tall and imposing figure he must have been a formidable master and perhaps, with Lorenzo, he had overstepped the mark.
Susannah Black told the Inquest about an incident three weeks earlier. She had heard a gunshot, on that occasion from within her master’s own bedroom. When she peeked in she saw Lorenzo amid the smoke. He claimed the pistol had discharged accidentally and he was later spoken to “coolly” by the Countess. Black also said that the Count had been sharp with Lorenzo the day before the murders after the parlour door had slammed in a gust of wind. Unfortunately, the true relevance of these incidents will never be known.(4)
Were the murders a spontaneous act of violence by a resentful underling connected with the Count’s dodgy political dealings or a spontaneous act of violence by a resentful underling? Both the Count and the Countess had colourful pasts full of intrigue and lies, and latterly the Count had made many enemies.
Emmanuel Henri Louis Alexandre de Launay, comte d'Antraigues had retired from politics but his earlier career was a intricate combination of diplomat, negotiator and spy.
At 14 he became a soldier but he later became disillusioned with military life and joined the intelligentsia, cultivating friendships with the philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire. For d’Antraigues the Revolution was exciting and its cause just but his initial enthusiasm veered off to implacable opposition after the mob invaded Versailles, and in early 1790 he fled to Switzerland after he was exposed as a conspirator in the plot to help the Royal family escape into exile.
His mistress Antoinette-Cécile Clavel, a celebrated opera soprano, joined him there. She was born in Strasbourg in 1756, the daughter of a répétiteur. She almost scuppered her career by marrying Claude-Philippe Croisilles de Saint-Huberty (sometimes Saint-Huberti) who gambled, fought duels, stole her jewellery and beat her. Eventually, she obtained an annulment.
By 1782, Antoinette was earning vast sums and was the top of the bill at the Paris Opéra, noted for her tragic roles, and despite her reputation as an erratic, demanding and volatile star, indulged and fawned over. Even Louis XVI, who not an opera fan, insisted that she should have a huge pension.
It was not to last. Around 1786, her voice deteriorated. To preserve it, she was reduced to singing only once or twice a week and she fell out irrevocably with the Opéra’s management. But by now she was d’Antraigues’ mistress (although neither of them were known for their fidelity) and four years later she followed him into exile. They married soon afterwards.
Thereafter the couple wandered around Europe, the Count willing to work for more or less anyone who would pay. His suspicious escape from custody (he had been arrested and then interrogated by Napoleon Bonaparte, then a commander of the French army in Italy) destroyed his relationship with the royalist court in exile, and was followed by years in Austria operating as an agent for various European governments. Between 1802 and 1806, he was in Dresden, attached to the Russian legation to the Saxon court, and although he managed to make many Russian enemies, he also had a protector, Prince Adam Czartoryski, who arranged for his removal to London in the summer of 1806. He received a tidy pension from the Russians in return for information (most of which he appears to have made up).
D’Antraigues, ever the intriguer, made himself useful to the British government and was rewarded with another pension. On 21 July 1807 he sent Canning a letter containing “secret intelligence from Tilsit”, although it is likely that this was merely another product of his imagination. Nevertheless it bolstered his claim to be an indispensable channel of communication between the British government and the Russian court.
Weirdly, Jane Austen met d’Antraigues in 1811 through her sister-in-law Eliza (née Elizabeth Hancock, whose first husband was Capot de Feuillide, like d’Antraigues, an officer at Versailles). (5)
Monsieur the old Count, is a very fine looking man, with quiet manners, good enough for an Englishman - & I beleive [sic] he is a Man of great Information & Taste. He has some fine paintings, which delighted Henry [her brother] as much as the Son’s music gratified Eliza.
What she thought of the violent end of her acquaintance is not recorded.
The Count and Countess’s only child, Julien, suspected that the murders were politically motivated but the d’Antraigues’ own lawyer had not “the slightest suspicion” that it was anything other than a tragic domestic incident. Lorenzo was a deserter from the French army in Spain, was possibly mentally unhinged and it seems likely that, in a volatile state of mind, something had pushed him over the edge.
(1) The main sources for d’Antraigues are Colin Duckworth, The D'Antraigues Phenomenon: The Making and Breaking of a Revolutionary Royalist Espionage Agent. Newcastle upon Tyne: Avero Publications, 1986 and Léonce Pingaud, Un agent secret sous la Révolution et l’Empire: Le Conte d’Antraigues (https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Un_Agent_secret_de_l%E2%80%99%C3%A9migration_-_Le_Comte_d%E2%80%99Antraigues)
(2) Lorenzo’s name was anglicised to Lawrence in the newspaper reports of the time.
(3) Count d’Antraigues and the British political elite, 1806-1812. http://www.cairn.info/revue-napoleonica-la-revue-2008-2-page-121.htm
(4) The Times, 24 July 1812.
(5) Information from Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen, A Life (London, 1997), who quotes Léonce Pingaud.
About the Author
Naomi Clifford's true-life Regency mystery - a tale of abduction, shame and lies - is due to be published by Pen & Sword in spring 2016, and she is hard at work on the next book. She posts vignettes of Georgian life, love and death on her website www.naomiclifford.com. She tweets as @naomiclifford.
Written content of this post copyright © Naomi Clifford, 2015.