Death by Pillow-Fight: Ridiculous French Royal Deaths

When it comes to French royals dying, Marie Antoinette always grabs the headlines. Madame la Guillotine has that effect. But if you look a bit further back in French history, there are royal deaths that make having your head chopped off look positively bourgeois in its uncomplicated straightforwardness.

Take Charles VIII, for example. While in residence at the Chateau of Amboise, he went with his queen to watch some courtiers playing tennis in the moat. (The moat would have been dry at the time, one presumes. Water polo is one thing; water tennis quite another.) They decided to watch from the Hacquelbac Gallery, described by a chronicler of the time, Philippe de Commynes, as “the most unseemly place within the house, since everybody used to piss there”.

medieval woodcut of men playing an early form of tennis without rackets, while others watch
The chaps on the far left are betting on the game. The players are wishing someone would hurry up and invent tennis racquets. The chap in the middle has just realized that everybody does indeed piss in the gallery.

Despite being, according to the same chronicler, “very short”, Charles managed to bang his forehead against the door frame. Then, after watching the game and chatting for some time, he collapsed, and died nine hours later “on a shabby pallet,” still in the aforementioned gallery where everybody used to piss. (One can only hope they found somewhere else for this function in the meantime. Refilling the moat, perhaps.)

The throne then went to his second cousin once removed/brother-in-law Louis XII, who in due course passed it on to his first cousin once removed/son-in-law, Francis I. Francis died what might be considered a normal death for a French king: piously repenting his wrongdoings while his mistress lurked in the next room wondering what was going to be in it for her. But Francis’s sons – well, that’s another matter.

Francis’s eldest son, the Dauphin (also called Francis, and Francis III as Duke of Brittany) played a lively game of tennis on a hot summer’s day, asked for a glass of cold water, drank it, collapsed, and died a week later. Suspicion fell on the person who brought him the glass of water, who was blatantly guilty of Being Interested in Toxicology While Foreign, and despite seven medical experts finding nothing suspicious in the post mortem, the poor man was tortured into confessing and then executed in a way that makes Madame la Guillotine seem positively kindly.

Mind you, the Dauphin was not the first French royal to die in tennis-and-drink related circumstances. Louis X, a couple of centuries earlier, had played a full-on game of tennis, downed a whole lotta chilled wine, and then died. (History does indeed repeat, because people don’t pay enough attention the first time.)

A painting of Apollo mourning over the young man Hyacinth who he accidentally killed during a game. A tennis racket lies in the foreground near Hyacinth's body.
Death by Tennis strikes again…

Significant backstory: ten years before, Spain had forced Francis I to sign a peace treaty, after capturing him at the Battle of Pavia. His two older sons, the Dauphin Francis and Henri – eight and six at the time – were traded as hostages in order for their father to get back to ruling France. Francis I had no intention of keeping the treaty, and the boys were imprisoned for more than four years before he ransomed them. On their return, he complained that they were lacking in sprightliness and joie de vivre, and ignored them in favour of their little brother Charles (who also happened to look more like their father).

Charles (aka Charles II de Valois, Duke of Orleans), didn’t just beat his brothers in the competition for their father’s affection. He also managed to outdo them in the sibling rivalry of “who can die in the most ridiculous way?” – not to mention scooping the gong for Most Stupid and Preventable Death. He and his buddies decided to have a pillow-fight in an abandoned house they came across….despite knowing that it was abandoned because all its occupants had recently died of the plague. Ill by evening, dead three days later.

Francis I’s second son Henri, however, managed to survive long enough to outlive his father and become King Henri II. He died of a lance wound to the head. Or, more accurately, of a lance splinter to the head. Well, that’s war for you, you might say. But no, ironically enough, it was peace, not war, that did for him. He was jousting as part of the celebrations of a new peace treaty, bringing to an end decades of squabbling warfare between France and Spain over contested territory in… (checks notes) Italy.

Two jousting knights, one who has been knocked off his horse and one who has been knocked half off.
A great day will be had by all! Bring a picnic! Bring the kiddies!

Personally, I’ve always preferred forms of celebration in which there’s little or no risk of anyone winding up maimed and/or dead, but clearly, the House of Valois is never going to hire me as a party planner. (Not least because they appear to have died out. Can’t think how.)

Some of you may have noticed a rather sport-intensive theme to these deaths, if one can dignify plague-infested-pillow-fighting with the name of ‘sport’. Tennis seems particularly dangerous, whether as player or spectator. In fact, tennis is just all-around dangerous for royalty. Ask James I of Scotland, whose escape from his uncle’s assassins was stymied by the sewer tunnel having been closed off at the far end to prevent the escape of tennis balls (who aren’t even fleeing from assassins).

The moral of the story seems clear: if you want any chance at all of reaching your three score and ten, avoid sports, avoid being royal, or ideally, avoid both. It’s working for me. I’ve already chalked up a greater score of years than Charles VIII (27), the Dauphin Francis (18), Louis X (26), and Charles the Pillow-Fighter (23 – old enough to know better). Five more years of avoiding jousting, tennis courts, and Evil Uncles, and I’ll have outlived Henri II (40) and James I (42ish) as well.

Mind you, with the exception of Louis X (the warning that wasn’t heeded) and the not-even-French James I, this only covers the years 1498 to 1559 – barely more than six decades. So I’m sure there are many other bizarre royal deaths which I have not included – but do feel free to amend my omissions in the comments.

3 Replies to “Death by Pillow-Fight: Ridiculous French Royal Deaths”

  1. Have you watched Horrible Histories on youtube, especially the Stupid Ways to Die sections?
    I will take your advice and not do any sport, especially involving pillows or plagues.

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