“Betrayal is about learning not to idealize external sources.”—Linda Talley.
What’s a good costume drama without courtly intrigue? Royal courts were more than super households: they were centers of international power. A well-timed whisper in the king’s ear, on the right day, could make (or break) fortunes. No wonder that seemingly menial positions—from handmaid to steward—were coveted positions among the country’s elite. The kings and queens of history hired only the best to serve and entertain at their courts. And with this much power at stake, royal courts naturally became epicenters for the art of espionage, plotting, and intrigue.
As it turns out, even the royals get backstabbed. From secret affairs to not-so-secret assassinations to fashion statements that literally kill, see past the well-dressed courtiers and expose these 42 scandalous facts about the juiciest court intrigues.
42. Monster In Law
Competition in the Ottoman Imperial court extended to the sultan’s consorts and his mom. Take Nurbanu Sultan, the Queen Mother of Sultan Murad III, who suspected her daughter-in-law was poisoning her son from “performing” with other concubines. In 1583, Nurbanu ordered her maids tortured in suspicion of witchcraft.
41. Affair of the Poisons
The break-up of an underground French poison ring managed to ruin the reputation of multiple royal court figures, including the chief mistress of a Louis XIV. Under intoxication, one conspirator testified that Madame de Montespan herself had procured aphrodisiacs and even performed Satanic rituals to stay ahead of her rivals for the king’s heart. While she was never formally charged, the scandal was enough for her career to never recover.
40. Brought Down By the Bling
By 1785, Marie Antoinette’s reputation was already on its last legs. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace tarnished it further, as the queen’s name came up in a plot by scammers to con crown jewelers out of a priceless necklace. Earlier, the Queen had been offered the accessory and even tried it on. However, she turned it down. Unfortunately, hucksters used her earlier interest in the decadent purchase as a pretense to disguise a sex worker as the Queen, approach jewelers, and make off with the windfall. One of the conspirators, Jeanne de La Motte, has managed to worm her way into the Queen’s circle. Her proximity to Marie Antoinette cast doubt on whether the Queen was that uninvolved in swindling her own subjects.
39. I Didn’t Do It
The first major sex scandal of Henry VIII’s reign might not have involved him. In 1510, his distant cousin Anne Hastings was caught in her room with a close friend of the king’s, William Compton. Hastings was married, so this was a huge deal. Both Hastings and Compton denied anything inappropriate about their relationship; the latter even took swore a sacrament to prove his innocence. Nevertheless, Henry was upset that his wife’s lady-in-waiting had outed his friend and banished the woman from court. The Queen’s own personally upset reaction to that snowballed into rumors that Henry was the one sleeping with Hastings, and his friend Compton was merely their go-between. While rumors are all that stands to hold up this theory, the episode remains a regularly cited early chapter about Henry VIII’s (alleged) sex life.
38. I Wouldn’t Bet On It
Edward VII was a huge gambler. The son of Queen Victoria was most irresponsible in his Prince of Wales days, such as when he bet £600 (a fortune today) in an 1894 horse race. Of course, he lost. Unfortunately, he was being watched by more than his bookies; a keeper had been keeping tabs on Edward for his mom, and they promptly wrote to warn of her son’s dangerous spending habits.
37. Dee. John Dee.
As a top spy for Elizabeth I of England, John Dee signed his private letters to the queen with codename “007.” Centuries later, Ian Flemming would copy the insignia for his own spy hero, James Bond.
36. Big Bess Is Watching You
Queen Elizabeth’s “Watchers,” as they were called, were a network of spies she used to control and capture intelligence at her court. From intercepting mail to interrogating possible dissenters, the Watchers kept intelligence on even seemingly innocent subjects. Because of them, some argue that Elizabethan England was Europe’s first truly modern surveillance state.
35. Having Nun Of It
Isabella Hoppringle was a 16th-century nun who knew how to have fun—if by “fun” you meant “leverage her intimate position with Queen Margaret of Scotland to sell intelligence to the English King Henry VIII.” It was a sweet gig for the prioress who lived in a convent at the English and Scottish border. In 1523, it looked like her jig was up. She was saved by her beloved Queen Margaret, who called off the lords from ransacking the entire convent in punishment for Margaret’s crimes. The queen ensured Hoppringle’s safety in exchange for her loyalty. Hoppringle returned her queen’s forgiveness… by continuing to spy on her for the English.
34. Never Trust a Writer
Don’t mistake him for the female author of Middlemarch—this George Eliot was 1580s murderer-turned-spy who went after people who wrote books… specifically books about why you should be a Catholic in Protestant England. Robert Dudley himself sent Eliot after a Jesuit priest who had become a thorn in their religious policy. Eliot kept an eye on the priest himself at his parish. He then promptly called the local magistrate to get the man of god arrested for his ideas.
33. Hello From the Other Side
Bertrandon de la Broquiere had the unenviable task of infiltrating 15th century Palestine for intel that the Duke of Burgundy could use against the Turks. While he did provide military intel, he also brought back stories of being cared for while sick, and how many of the people there co-existed with him and others despite their different religious backgrounds. Nevertheless, he also wrote in favor of the Crusades. This one Crusade never happened, but Bertrandon’s espionage reports provide an interesting look into the life in the Middle East in a time that we know little about.
Petrus Alamire was the codename of a musician, scribe and spy employed by Henry VIII of England to keep tabs on the king’s suspicious cousin, Richard de la Pole. The spy’s name was a pun on his musical disguise; “A-la-mi-re,” like the musical notes… get it? Perhaps bold flaunts lie that were why Alamire was eventually caught and never returned to England.
31. Boom Goes the Third Wheel
Did Mary, Queen of Scots murder her husband? If they had juries back then, they might still be out on that one. By the birth of their son in 1566, Mary’s marriage to Henry Darnley had disintegrated both personally and politically. While Mary was away, Darnley rested in a former abbey at Kirk o’Field. The abbey exploded… and Darnley was killed not by the boom, but from being smothered in the garden. Suspicion was immediately cast on not just Mary, but also on her ally and suspected lover, James Bothwell.
30. Unholy Matrimony
On 12 April 1567, James Bothwell was acquitted for the murder of James Bothwell, Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband. A free man, he set off to divorce his wife and marry the queen. Whether or not Mary went willingly with Bothwell is still a matter of debate. Nevertheless, the bad optics ruined support for Mary in Scotland. She was forced to abdicate and flee to her doom in England; Bothwell was exiled to Denmark and died in prison. In other words, both got the exact opposite of a Disney ending.
29. One Is As Good As The Other
Wu Zeitan was not content to be a Buddhist nun upon the death of her first Emperor. When Emperor Li Zhi died, his successor Emperor Taizong visited paid her a visit. After a reminder of her beauty and intrigue, the new Emperor defied tradition by bringing his own father’s consort back home as his own partner.
28. Damn, This Dane Lived
In addition to having the best name possible in 15th century Denmark, Brita Tott was born into an aristocratic family. It’s not like she needed to spy… but spy she did, even plotting with Charles VII of Sweden against her own king. When this was discovered in 1452, she was sentenced to death being walled alive, brick by brick, (yes, like in the Cask of Amontillado). As if this life weren’t intruding enough, she somehow finessed her way out of any punishment and went on to be a huge patron of art.
After escaping death for spying, Brita Tott turned her passion for intrigue into a career in forgery. Legend goes she swindled money off people living and dead. Eventually, Tott was put on trial for forgery and condemned for illegally selling estates to the royal court. Again, she was spared. She was not a Tott to pin down for long.
26. The Littlest Intrigues And You
Francis Walsingham started a school for spies in England. They would learn things from literacy to coded messages, all in the name of national security… at least in theory.
25. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Known professionally as “Pompeo Pellegrini,” Antony Standen was an Elizabethan spy and underling of Francis Walsingham. Unfortunately, he could never get his alliances right: he was Catholic, which put him in Italian exile. Still working for the English, he played a big role in getting information that allowed the English to crush the Spanish fleet… but by the time he came back to England, Standen’s mentor had passed and, therefore, so too was any favor the Queen could possibly grant him.
24. Any Attention is Good Attention
“Pompeo Pellegrini” yet another agent to try and two-time Queen Elizabeth and the Pope. After getting passed over for praise his role against the Spanish Armada, the spy Antony Standen tried to help the Catholic Church make intelligence moves in England. Queen Elizabeth finally gave Standen the attention he was after…by promptly locking him in the Tower of London.
23. Arrgh, Where’s My Plea Bargain?
In 1571, England got confirmation that Spain and the Pope were working to depose Elizabeth I—all thanks to a captured pirate. A key informant in the plot had been arrested and isolated at England’s Marshalsea Prison; a detained pirate named William Herle was also detained for his crimes and apparently cut a deal. Herle presented himself as a someone who could get things done for the target, including passing letters. And pass the letters along he did—right after he copied them for the queen, of course.
22. This is Why You Always Check For Monsters Before Sleep
Did Francis Walsingham fake a murder attempt on his own Queen Elizabeth? Some theorists suggest as much, as the spymaster and others were eager for the queen to sign Mary Queen of Scot’s death warrant. In 1587, an underling named William Stafford “uncovered” an assassination attempt against Elizabeth’s life by the French ambassador and his secretary. Stafford reported they intended to plant gunpowder under her royal bed, which would have gone off and killed her. In the end, everyone was cleared of all charges. Walsingham accused Stafford of lying to extort money… yet Stafford didn’t lose any favor in his service. This weird episode led some to wonder whether this was a botched attempt by Walsginham to shake up his queen and secure Mary’s death warrant.
21. Out of the Stable and Into Your Beds
Why should men get all the fun? According to some accounts of the day, Catherine de Medici was rumored to have a “stable” of 86 (Or maybe even 300? Who can keep track…) beautiful ladies-in-waiting whom she weaponized into the beds of courtiers to keep tabs on local intelligence. These women, who came to be known as “Flying Squadron,” even graced the beds of her own sons.
20. Alternative Negotiation Tactics
One of Catherine de Medici’s “Flying Squadron” spies were rumored to be the beautiful Louise de la Béraudière. It’s also said Catherine sent Louise to seduce the King of Navarre. Why? To get him to surrender the regency of France to her mistress, Catherine, of course. For the record, it’s entirely possible (or probable) this was a rumor meant to invalidate how Catherine came to power.
19. A Sexy Smoke Bomb
A love triangle is at the heart of Catherine de Medici’s most famous Flying Squadron tale. Catherine supposedly deployed Charlotte de Sauve into the bed of her son-in-law, Henri of Navarre… all while Charlotte was also sleeping with Catherine’s younger son, Francis the Duke of Alençon. Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (aka Henri of Navarre’s wife) didn’t take her mom’s interference very well. In a supposed letter, Marguerite complains how “[de Sauve] treated [Navarre and Alençon] in such a way that they became extremely jealous of each other, to such a point that they forgot their ambitions, their duties and their plans and thought of nothing but chasing after this woman.” In (sexy) snap, Catherine had managed to turn potential allies against her son into enemies against each other
18. Dear Penthouse
While other tales have been told more, few Flying Squadron stories get steamier than the (alleged) 1577 banquet, where all of Catherine’s lady-spies served the guests while “half-naked.” The source for this story was not present at the buff bash in question, but something like dubious sources can’t stop such a scandalous night from making it into the history books.
17. My Pet Spymaster
Before he was Lord Chancellor and Henry VIII of England’s “pet dog Thomas,” he was Thomas Cromwell—an Englishman who served overseas as a mercenary and rumored spy. As he rose in the king’s court, Cromwell had cultivated for himself a massive network of spies across the British Isles. Unfortunately, his career (and neck) came to an end in 1540, after the disastrous marriage of King Henry to Anne of Cleves. Many of the people who suffered for Cromwell’s spymastership were happy to see him go, and some even helped ensure it happened.
16. A Matter of National Insecurity
If you were a courtier at Versailles, you might find yourself thrown out and not know why. Well, you might have written something off-putting about King Louis XIV. Paranoid about plots, Louis had all mail at Versailles opened, read, and then resealed to keep his subjects in check. Don’t try hiding your diss within some secret code either; Louis also employed top cryptographers to decode every letter’s hidden messages.
15. What Happens Between Siblings… Doesn’t Stay Between Siblings
In the 1540s, Henry Howard, Early of Surrey, suggested to his sister Mary that she should seduce the king and become his powerful mistress. Mary outright refused. For one, the king in question was her father-in-law, Henry VIII. She would later testify to this exchange when Howard was arrested and eventually executed for treason.
14. Get Away From My Niece
The Tudors loved their secret marriages. Margaret Douglass was a niece of Henry VIII by his sister, Queen Margaret of Scotland. While she enjoyed great favor from her uncle, she also drew his wrath twice for contracting “bad” marriages. By 1536, Margaret had engaged herself to Thomas Howard, an uncle of Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, Anne had just been executed and Margaret had essentially brought a traitor’s uncle into the family—one where Margaret was suddenly very high in the line of succession. Howard was condemned to death, and while he was spared the block, Henry VIII’s would-be nephew-in-law died imprisoned on Halloween 1537.
13. Two Times The Harm
It’s one of the lesser talked-about affairs of Tudor court intrigue: in 1539, Margaret began an affair with Charles Howard. Not only was Charles the nephew of her last lover (the one who died in prison for her), but he was also the brother of the current Queen Catherine Howard. For the dalliance, Margaret spent another period in disgrace with Henry VIII, but at least she lived to tell the tale.
12. Warning Shot
As the last wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr narrowly escaped execution thanks to her arrest warrant just “happening” to “drop” outside of her room. Armed with a warning, she was able to smooth things over with her king and avoid being burned for heresy.
11. Cry Uncle
In 1549, a failed plot to kidnap 11-year-old King Edward VI of England resulted in only two casualties. The first: the king’s precious dog, who was stabbed by the king’s own uncle, Thomas Seymour. The second: Seymour himself, who was executed for trying to abduct the boy-king in a seizure of power against his brother. Seymour went down for 33 charges for treason, which I’m sure included royal animal cruelty-related crimes.
10. Dismiss Her, Sis
Thanks to films like The Favorite, it looks like Sarah Churchill will mostly be remembered as a hanger-on/nightmare BFF to her mistress, Queen Anne of Great Britain. However, Churchill was already a powerful advocate for Anne’s interest well before her childhood friend became queen. In the preceding reign of William I and Mary II, Churchill advocated for then-Princess Anne to get a government income that would make her independent from her sibling. The queen ordered her sister and heir, Anne, to dismiss the troublesome Churchill. Anne refused, which destroyed the sisters’ relationship.
9. Best Friends For Never
The intrigue which spelled the end of Sarah Churchill’s friendship to Anne of Great Britain was of scandalous origin: accounting. Churchill was Keeper of Anne’s Privy Purse; she was supposed to know all the ins and outs of the Queen’s accounts. By 1707, the controlling Sarah was being replaced by her own cousin, Abigail; Anne had even attended Abigail’s secret wedding without Churchill’s knowledge. When Churchill found out, she also discovered Anne had gone over her head to pay Abigail’s dowry out of her own purse. This clerical mishap humiliated Churchill and toppled her control over Anne.
8. Can’t Put a Price On Discretion
Court spies and intrigue didn’t die out with royal power. In 2010, Sarah Ferguson—the ex-wife of Prince Andrew, Duke of York—was caught by an undercover journalist, who posed as a buyer of court secrets. She had accepted £500,000 (approx. $700,000 USD) in return for her royal family member intel, and the journalist had caught it all on video.
7. Premature Evacuation
Cardinal Richelieu wasn’t just a Three Musketeers Villain; he was a real dude who shared influence over Louis XIII of France for years with the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. By 1630, their alliance had soured; Marie essentially told her son, “It’s me—your mom—or this dude!” Louis went to Versailles on a hunting trip to think about it, but Richelieu was not optimistic. In fact, everyone thought Richelieu’s career was over—I mean, it was the king’s mom they were talking about—and enemies celebrated his demise at Luxembourg Palace. Unfortunately, this was premature: Louis came back home to side with his Cardinal. Rejected mommy dearest slunk away to exile, and this embarrassingly too-soon celebration would go down in history as “The Day of the Dupes.”
6. Delete Your Inbox
Intrigues of the French court were not kind of the Louis XIV of France’s mother, Anne of Austria. While she was still queen consort to his father, Anne was investigated for secret correspondence during the war with Spanish forces. She admitted her guilt and as a result, she lost a ton of queenly freedoms. No longer able to visit convents without permission, or even be alone without a trusted supervisor, it wasn’t great to be queen.
5. Cheaters Never Prosper
One Elizabethan spy made a grave mistake in trying to play both the Queen and the Pope. William Parry had spent his career spying on Catholics for Queen Elizabeth. In 1583, he ran out of money and tried to write the Pope, offering his espionage services to him and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, he was found out just two years later. Elizabeth had pardoned him from death before, related to previous assault charges, so she showed no mercy this time: Parry was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his involvement in a royal assassination attempt.
4. I Spy Some Overkill
A spy’s work is never done. Francis Walsingham, the spymaster to Queen Elizabeth I, spent the better part of his career undermining plots to overthrow Elizabeth and see her replaced with Mary, Queen of Scots. When Mary was finally executed, Walsingham even burned the headless queen’s clothes and encased her body in lead to make sure no part of her would end up in the wrong hands. Now that’s what I call dirty work.
The death of Amy Robsart cast a pall on the lifelong romance of her husband Robert Dudley and his childhood friend, Elizabeth I of England. Robsart never followed her rising star husband to court; she was rumored to be suffering from long-term illness. One day in 1650, she gave all of her servants the day off to attend a fair… and then was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home. Her suspicious death launched a formal inquest against Dudley, who was suspected of killing his wife to make way for the Queen. No charges were ever filed; it was ruled she tripped and suffered head injuries. Nevertheless, her death neatly nixed any chance of Dudley and Elizabeth ever marrying each other, under threat of massive backlash.
2. Hands of Fate
In 1572, Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre, suddenly dropped dead right before her son’s wedding. Rumors swirled that she had been poisoned by none other than her rival, the ruthless Queen Mother of France, Catherine de Medici, whose daughter was set to marry d’Albret’s son. Nothing was proven, but the popular theory is that she was poisoned by a gift of poisonous gloves from Catherine. If that was the case, then the Queen had literally killed her rival with kindness.
1. Message In a Bottle
By the 1580s, Mary Queen of Scots had been under arrest by her cousin Queen Elizabeth of England for some years. Perhaps outside of her knowledge, a group of assassins was planning to kill her cousin and crown Mary on the English throne. One of these men sent a secret note via a beer shipment that was set to her rooms. Unfortunately, Mary didn’t know that her courier was a double-agent for Queen Elizabeth—he had already opened, read, then resealed the note, sent it to Mary, and waited for a reply. She made the mistake of writing back, which exposed the plot and got her executed. But this was no cut-and-dry execution—the headsman botched the first attempt at beheading Mary, and needed two swings to do the deed. Goes to show: watch what you drink.