Of all the tales of rags to riches, few can be more fantastic, or more bizarre, than that of Sophie Dawes, the bare-footed winkle-picker from the Isle of Wight who became known as the Queen of Chantilly.
Born at St. Helens in 1792, the youngest daughter of a local oyster-catcher, her early years were spent in comparative security. Her father was a successful smuggler, and the family was able to live quite comfortably on the substantial profits of his illicit trade. At his death, however, early in the nineteenth century, they were left destitute. Sophie, her mother, brother, and elder sister were reduced to the dubious living of winkle-picking on Bembridge beach. And eventually to the bleak comforts of the House of Industry at Parkhurst.
Sophie, however, was not the sort of girl content to spend her life in the workhouse, nor on the nearby farm where she was sent to work when she was thirteen. Her mid-teens found her blossoming into a beautiful young girl—a fact of which she was modestly aware. She knew that beautiful young girls could find much easier ways of making a living.
Determined to seek her fortune, she ran away to Portsmouth, and worked for awhile as a chambermaid at the George Hotel. Gradually, making best use of her physical charms, she inched her way northwards. Before long, she found herself in London.
Her first job was as an assistant in a milliner’s shop, but her amorous tendencies soon came to light, and she was dismissed after an affair with a young water-carrier. Nothing daunted, she started work at Covent Garden, selling oranges in true Nell Gwynn tradition. She appeared on stage as a mediocre actress, and gained the first of her legion of lovers. By 1812, she was the concubine of a wealthy gentleman at Turnham Green.
When he tired of her she became a harlot in a Piccadilly brothel, it was here that she first attracted the attention of a certain Monsieur Guy, the personal servant of an exiled French nobleman. He thought that the young St. Helens girl would make an excellent companion to his master. Louis-Henri-Joseph. Duc de Bourbon.
HIS WIFE AS STAKE
At that time Britain was heavily embroiled in a vicious life and death struggle with the tyranical might of Napoleonic France. London was full of French noblemen outlawed by the Bonapartist regime. The Duc de Bourbon, fifty-two years old, homesick and dejected, and mourning the death of his son, the Duc de Enghiem, murdered at Napoleon’s orders proved easy prey to Sophie’s seductive talents.
With acquired expertise, she wheedled her way into his affections, shrewdly judging that she would be on to a good thing when Britain finally trounced Napoleon and the Duc would he able to return to his native land. Graciously, she played the part of the adoring mistress, submitting to his every whim; even allowing him to play cards with the Duke of Kent, using herself as a stake
In his turn, the infatuated Frenchman lavished money, gifts, and affection upon her. He had her educated at vast expense. She was taught French, Greek, and Latin, Music, dancing and deportment.
The year 1814 brought about the defeat of Napoleon, and restored the monarchy in France. The little despot was exiled to the island of Elba, and the Duc de Bourbon returned to his father’s house in Paris. Sophie followed hot on his heels, but bitter disappointment awaited her.
The Palais Bourbon, the beautiful estates at Montmorency, Guise, Enghiem and Chantilly. all were closed to her. As long as his father. the Prince de Conde lived, the Duc could not allow Sophie’s existence to be known to him. For the next four years she had to make do with lodgings in Paris, seeing her lover only on separate, far-flung occasions. Nevertheless, she wavered not a moment from her goal. She was determined to dominate him. She showered him with letters of affection, flattering him, blinding him, bending his weak will more and more towards her.
In 1818 her patience was rewarded. The Prince de Conde died, and the Due inherited the title. At last she could enter the Bourbon’s house. but not as his official mistress. She was of common blood, and that could lead to a scandal the Duc, now Prince de Conde, dared not risk. Instead, it was decided that she was to be known as his “illegitimate” daughter. She was introduced to a Monsieur Adrian de Foucheres, an officer in Louis XVIII’s Guards. The unfortunate dupe fell in love with her. They were married, and allowed to live in the Prince’s palace. The masquerade of respectability was complete.
For a while everything ran smoothly. Sophie was content to bask in the novelty of her new position. The Prince was happy, and so was her husband, unaware that his loving wife was also the former’s mistress. With petulant vanity, Sophie lived in the lap of luxury. She staged her own private theatrical, playing all the leading parts herself. She travelled the length and breadth of France, visiting the Bourbon estates and becoming known as the Queen of Chantilly. The Prince de Conde and Monsieur de Foucheres looked on benevolently. Both were living in a fools paradise.
Bit by bit, the true nature of Sophie de Foucheres, ‘nee Dawes, revealed itself. Her goal achieved, she need no longer keep up her veil of adoration. It was the Prince who bore the brunt of her biting tongue, fiery temper, and arrogant disposition. She was twenty-six, beautiful and domineering. He was sixty, weak-willed and easy-going. Sophie led him a dog’s life, shouting at him, humiliating him, crying him down in front of the servants.
Before long she turned to her old ways, collecting scores of new lovers, the Prince’s own hairdresser among them. Her toadies filled the household, spying on the Prince’s every movement. Her nephew, James Dawes, a meat-porter from London, arrived to take over the position of the Prince’s first equerry. From the Isle of Wight, came her mother and sister. Both were given comfortable lodgings in Paris.
At length, Sophie’s real relationship with the Prince reached the ears of her trusting husband. In thunderous rage he horse-whipped and divorced her. The scandal became publicly known. Everywhere she went Sophie was hissed and insulted. But still the ageing prince could not escape from her iron-hard rule.
The years dragged by and the Prince’s health deteriorated. Sophie began to fear that he might die without leaving her in his will, a situation more than likely under the circumstances. She set her ruthless mind to work, dreaming up a cunning scheme to ensure her ‘own well-being when at last the Prince succumbed.
The Orleans family, she learned—barely on speaking terms with the Bourbons—were not well off. If she could persuade the Prince to leave his wealth to the Duc de Aumale—the Duc de Orleans’ penniless son—they would be eternally in her debt. She could be sure of a substantial allowance. Secretly, she entered into negotiation with the Duc de Orleans, Louise-Philippe. The plan was given his whole-hearted approval. All that remained for her to do was to turn the thumb-screws on her long suffering lover, the luckless Prince de Conde.
It was a long struggle but Sophie held all the trump cards. She plagued the Prince night and day. Pestering him, bullying him. His love for her turned to hate, his infatuation to fear. But still she dominated him. Still he could not summon the courage to put her in her place.
In August 1829, the Prince gave way to Sophie’s pressure. Suffering from ill-health and a bad heart, he signed a will leaving the Duc de Aumale nearly 80 million francs. Sophie was jubilant, now, come what may, she would be in clover.
One spark of defiance still lived in the senile Prince, however. And when, in 1830, the French King, Charles X, was forced into exile by the July revolutionaries, the spark burst briefly into flame. Louis-Philippe. Duc de Orleans, was proclaimed King of France. and the Duc de Aumale. Dauphin.
Obviously, the Duc de Aumale would not be in need of the Prince’s fortune now that he was heir apparent. But, the Duc de Bordeaux, the exiled king’s grandson. would he in need of every penny.
Hurriedly, the Prince made preparations to alter his will, leaving everything to the Duc de Bordeaux. Sophie got wind of his plans. however, and informed Louis-Philippe. Without thinking of the possible consequence. the king snapped out a single sentence. Stop him at all costs
Sophie resolved to obey the words to the letter. On the night of the 27th August, 1830, at Sophie’s orders, her current lover, a sergeant in the Gen’d Armes, crept into the Prince’s apartment and smothered him while he slept. Then, hurriedly and clumsily, he tied two handkerchieves round the corpse’s neck and suspended it from the cross-bar of the French windows in a half-hearted attempt to indicate suicide.
The body was discovered the following morning, and the police were called. Their rigid questioning coupled with the murderer’s feeble bungling soon brought some awkward facts to light. The Prince had hardly the strength to walk, how had he managed to reach up and rig the halter to ‘the cross-bar? In any event, the noose was not nearly tight enough to cause strangulation.
Before long, an inquiry was held into the Prince’s death. All the evidence pointed to the fact that the Prince had not committed suicide, but had been murdered, the instigator of the crime being Sophie. Louis-Philippe put his influence to work, however, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, the verdict of the court was suicide. Sophie had narrowly escaped the guillotine.
Public opinion was still strongly against her. She was forced to leave France with her nephew and the latter died soon afterwards. Rumour had it that he knew too much and had been poisoned. In all events Sophie saw to it that he was buried in his home town of St. Helens. The memorial stands in the village church-yard to this day. A magnificent memorial, “Erected by his aunt, Madame La Barrone de Foucheres.”
Sophie’s amazing climb to fame, had now reached it’s peak. Her looks faded and her body grew fat. In 1837 she purchased the estate of Bure Homage near Christchurch, and the following year developed dropsy. No doubt, seeking to make her peace with heaven, she gave much of her fortune away to charity. Several convents around Paris benefited, and a nephew (Edward Dawes) was given an estate on the Island.
She died suddenly in 1840 of a heart attack, leaving large sums to charity and the Roman Catholic Church. To her much-wronged husband Adrian de Foucheres, she left 10 thousand pounds. The memory of his cruel whip had not destroyed the sense of guilt she felt for the way she had used him. The proud officer refused to receive a penny of it, however, and it was passed on to a niece of the deceased named Sophie Thavaron.
From Islander Magazine 1972
18 July 2005