Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Strange Story of the Aristocratic Assassinations

                   When Mrs Phillida Bathurst heard of the disappearance of her husband Benjamin she arranged for her brother and herself to go immediately to Perleberg, Prussia, travelling via Sweden and the Baltic on Swedish passports. She sent Herr Heinrich Röntgen ahead, to gather what information he could, and they met him in Berlin, where he told her that he had heard from a lady in Magdeburg that Benjamin had been taken prisoner and was being held in the fortress there. She had told him that the Governor of Magdeburg, had said to her, “They are looking for the English Ambassador, but I have him up there,” pointing to the fortress. 


Röntgen added that he had been to see the Governor himself, who confirmed that he had said this, but it had been a mistake. Mrs Bathurst determined to speak to the Governor herself and went to Magdeburg, where she had a two-hour audience with him. He told her what he had told Röntgen, that he had spoken to the lady at a ball and said he had the English Ambassador in custody, but the mistake was his as the prisoner was one Louis Fritz, an English spy in the pay of George Canning, the English Foreign Secretary (and later, he served the shortest-ever term as Prime Minister – he died after only 119 days in office). 

George Canning

Mrs Bathurst demanded to see Fritz but was told that he had been transferred to Spain. When the party returned to London, Röntgen wrote to Canning, inquiring about this Louis Fritz and received a reply denying all knowledge of him. Röntgen also told Mrs Bathurst that a certain Comte D’Antraigues, someone unknown to him, wished to speak to her. She knew the name from the incomplete letter discovered in her husband’s trousers, found by two peasant women collecting fuel in the woods outside Perleberg, and she received D’Antraigues the following day. 

He railed against Napoleon and the French, but Mrs Bathurst was cautious and on her guard. The Comte told her that what she had heard about Magdeburg was true, that Benjamin had been abducted by armed men and taken to the fortress, and that the Governor had written to Paris, to Fouché, the Minister of Police, asking what he should do with the prisoner. The Minister had replied that mad Englishmen should not bother the Emperor, and that the Governor should dispose of him. As he had already spoken about Bathurst, the Governor made up the story about Fritz to cover himself but it was all a lie and Mrs Bathurst’s husband had perished at Magdeburg. She thanked him for the information but begged his pardon and asked if he could furnish her with proof of what he had told her. He could, he said, but he would need to send a ciphered message to France and would return with the reply, which he would translate for her when it arrived. He asked her to stay in London and wait for him to return. 

Comte d'Antraigues

Emmanuel Henri Louis Alexandre de Launay, Comte d'Antraigues, was born in Montpellier on Christmas Day 1753, and had joined the army at the age of fourteen, rising to become a cavalry Captain. In 1778, he left the army and mixed in intellectual circles – he was a friend of Rousseau and Voltaire – and became a supporter of the French revolution, issuing pamphlets in defence of it, but following the storming of Versailles by a mob on October 5th 1789, he changed sides and became a defender of the Bourbon monarchy (it was rumoured that he had once, unsuccessfully, tried to seduce Marie Antoinette). When his part in a plot to aid the Royal family to escape from Paris was exposed, d’Antraigues fled to Switzerland, where he married his former mistress Madame de Saint-Huberty, a famous opera singer, before moving to Italy. 

Madame de Saint-Huberty

He became a secret agent for the future King Louis XVIII, but as the political landscape of Italy became much more fluid he was again forced to flee. The French captured him at Trieste, where Napoleon Bonaparte questioned him, but he and his wife managed to escape, (aided, it was said, by Napoleon’s wife, who was an admirer of Madame de Saint-Huberty’s vocal abilities). Louis XVIII, suspicious that he may have betrayed his interests in return for his freedom, dismissed d’Antraigues from his service, which antagonised him greatly and he became a vocal critic of the King. D’Antraigues’s loyalties passed to Czar Paul I of Russia, for whom he also worked as a secret agent, before moving to London, where he spied for Canning, the Foreign Secretary. 

On the morning of July 22nd 1812, d’Antraigues had a ten o’clock appointment with Canning, so he and his wife rose early to travel from their home in Queen Anne Street West, Barnes Terrace, London into the city. At seven o’clock, their Italian servant Lorenzo drew a poignard and a pistol from his master’s bedside, and standing six paces from him on the staircase, he shot at him. The ball missed, passing between d’Antraigues and his wife, and Lorenzo lunged at his master, stabbing him in the shoulder. The Comte, mortally wounded, staggered back into his bedroom and Lorenzo turned the blade next on his mistress, stabbing her fatally in the breast. She did not scream but only repeated, “Lorenzo, Lorenzo,” as she died. The murderer went back up to his master’s room and found him lying dead from his wounds on the floor. D’Antraigues, ever cautious because of his dubious dealings, always kept the poignard and four loaded pistols by his bedside, and Lorenzo took another of these, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly. Madame was noted for her sharpness with her servants and had fired Lorenzo the previous day. It was this, some said, that had caused him to seek vengeance, although others felt that Napoleon and Louis XVIII had sufficient cause to wish d’Antraigues dead and drew their own conclusions. In a later biography of d’Antraigues, Un Agent Secret sous la Revolution et L'empire - Le Comte D'antraigues by Léonce Pingaud (1893) there is no mention at all of Benjamin Bathurst.

Un Agent Secret sous la Revolution et L'empire - Le Comte D'antraigues by Léonce Pingaud

In either case, Mrs Phillida Bathurst did not receive the proof from d’Antraigues that she had sought from him. But this was not the end of the tribulations of this poor lady.

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