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Sophie Dawes (c1792 - 1840) was a remarkable woman who elevated herself from her humble background as the daughter of a destitute Isle of Wight smuggler to the highest echelon of French aristocratic society. A woman who went from winkle-picking, the workhouse and whoring to hoodwinking the nobles of France.
Sophie was born around 1791-2 in the village of St Helens on the Isle of Wight's east coast, the third of three children to Jane and Richard 'Dickie' Daw1. Dickie Daw was a well-known fisherman and oyster-catcher who, like many Islanders, used his knowledge of the local waters to bring in additional money through smuggling French goods, usually brandy, tobacco and silk. In fact a passage through the treacherous rocks off Bembridge today is still known as Dickie Dawes' Gut in his honour. Despite the lucrative trade, keeping money was never Dickie's strong point and he often drank away the money he earned. Sophie, her mother Jane, brother James and sister Charlotte helped bring in money by winkle-picking along the beach off Bembridge.
Sophie was only nine years of age when she lost her father. The money the family earned through winkle-picking was not enough to live off, so the family was incarcerated within the Isle of Wight's workhouse, the House of Industry in Parkhurst2. As was workhouse policy, at the age of 13 Sophie was sent out to be a domestic servant, her wages to be paid directly to the workhouse. It was not uncommon at the time for domestic servants to be abused and assaulted. Whether she suffered any abuse is unknown, however after two years, at the age of 15, she ran away and fled to Portsmouth.
In Portsmouth Sophie worked as a chambermaid in the George Hotel as she grew into a young woman. Though never described as being outstandingly beautiful, she was well-developed and extremely talented in the art of seduction, and by all accounts had a voracious sexual appetite. Tiring of her life in Portsmouth she kept moving on bit by bit, and soon was in London.
In London she found work as a milliner's assistant, but when her affair with a water-carrier was discovered she was dismissed. She then worked at the Covent Garden Theatre as an actress and orange seller, just as Nell Gwyn had a century earlier. There she mixed with men of a higher social standing and enjoyed their company as lovers. By early 1812 at the age of 20 she was the concubine of an officer and a gentleman who allowed her to live in his villa in Turnham Green. Sophie soon tired of him, and left having been given an annuity of £50.
After this she opened a high-class brothel in Piccadilly. There she attracted the attention of the Duke of Kent, (later the father of Queen Victoria), and Monsieur Guy, servant to the exiled French nobleman Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon. Monsieur Guy introduced the Duc to Sophie. The Duc was one of the richest French aristocrats in exile in England. At the age of 52 he was mourning the death of his only beloved son, the Duc de Enghiem, who had been executed by Napoleon Bonaparte (ruled 1804-14, 1815), and soon became besotted by Sophie and her wiles. However the Duke of Kent was also enamoured of her and both were determined to make her their mistress. The matter was finally resolved by a game of cards – winner take Sophie. The Duc de Bourbon won.
Now the Duc's mistress, Sophie was given a house in Queen's Square, Bloomsbury, as well as property in Turnham Square, the Duc's family jewels and £800 a year spending money. She was wise enough to also request an education. For three years she studied hard and learnt all that an aristocratic lady would be expected to know, including French, Greek, Latin, music, singing, dancing and deportment.
In 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated and the Royal Monarchy under King Louis XVIII (ruled 1814-15, 1815-24) was restored in France. The Duc was finally able to return to his home in Paris, which he did without notice, leaving Sophie behind. Sophie, however, refused to be abandoned, and tracked him down. As the Duc's father the Prince de Condé, was still alive, the Duc refused to risk being disinherited by being known to be associated with a commoner. Sophie spent four years living in lodgings in Paris seeing her lover only sporadically, but continuing with her education. She also wrote constant letters of affection to him, insidiously becoming a greater and greater part of the Duc's life.
In 1818 the Duc's father died and he inherited not only the title Prince de Condé but also the Palais Bourbon, and the Châteaux Montmorency, Guise, Enghiem and especially Chantilly.
Sophie's original upbringing meant that her nature as his mistress could not be known; the Prince de Condé was desperate to avoid the fact that he was enamoured with a woman of common blood to become a scandal. Instead, Sophie proposed that she should be explained as his illegitimate daughter. To help with the illusion, Sophie suggested that she be allowed to marry an officer in the Royal Guard she liked the look of, Monsieur Adrian Victor de Feuchères3. He was rewarded with a title of Baron, making Sophie Baronne de Feuchères. He was given permission to live in the Prince's palace, where Sophie could continue her affair with the rich and ageing Prince de Condé as well as enjoy the attentions of her younger, loving husband.
Sophie used her new position to benefit her family, explaining that her brother and sister were actually her niece and nephew, to maintain the pretence that she alone was de Condé's illegitimate child. Her brother James, formerly a meat porter, became the prince's equerry, had the title Baron de Flassons purchased for him, and he soon acquired a noble wife. Her sister Charlotte also married well and was given a large dowry, while her mother was given a house in Paris.
Sophie enjoyed the life of luxury, travelling across France to all the Prince's houses and was soon nicknamed the Queen of Chantilly, after her favourite Château4. Her theatrical nature returned and she staged her own private show in which she played all the leading roles.
Sophie began to separate the prince from his sole surviving relative, his daughter Madame de Rully. Over time she gradually surrounded the prince with new servants who were loyal to her, and were willing to keep track of both the prince's and her husband's movements while she indulged in frequent affairs, including with the prince's own hairdressers. However, her cuckolded husband eventually discovered the true nature of his wife and her relationship with her 'father'. He horse-whipped her, publicly divorced her, and the true scandal was revealed.
Principal Princes Without Principles
By the age of 26, though no longer accepted in polite society, Sophie began to openly dominate her 60-year-old, weak-willed and ill lover. She had a fiery temper, an even hotter tongue, and was becoming arrogant. She would frequently shout at him, humiliate him and make him break down and cry in front of her servants. She began to realise that he would not live forever, so convinced him to write a will leaving her 12 million francs. Sophie was wise enough to know that if she was the only beneficiary in his will, French society would contest it and she would likely be left with nothing. She needed powerful allies in the French court. The Duc d'Orléans, Louis Philippe, seemed to be the perfect candidate.
The Duc d'Orléans and his family were a noble, if debt-ridden, branch of the Royal Family who were not on speaking terms with the Bourbons. Louis Philippe promised that if Sophie was to persuade the Prince de Condé to leave most of his fortune, over 80 million francs, to Louis Philippe's penniless son Henri Eugène Philippe Louis, Duc d'Aumale, then he would forever be in her debt.
In August 1829 the Prince de Condé signed a will leaving his cousin the Duc d'Aumale 80 million francs and Sophie 12 million francs. However fate had a surprising twist in store. In August 1830 King Charles X (ruled 1824 - 1830) of France fled into exile and Louis Philippe (ruled 1830 - 1848), Duc d'Orléans, was proclaimed King of France. His son, the previously penniless Duc d'Aumale, became Dauphin, heir to the throne.
Murder and Madame la Guillotine?
With the Duc d'Orléans on the throne, the now extremely frail Prince de Condé decided to change his will. The Duc d'Aumale no longer needed the 80 million francs, but Charles X's grandson in exile, the Duc de Bordeaux, obviously would. The Prince de Condé planned not only to change the will, he was also going to leave Sophie for a life in exile with his former king. Sophie learnt of these secret plans through one of her loyal servants and sent a message to Louis Philippe informing him of this. Louis Philippe, insecure on his new throne, sent back the message: Stop him at all costs.
True to her kingly orders, on the night of 26/27 August, 1830, the night before he was due to leave, one of Sophie's lovers, a sergeant in the gens d'armes, crept into the prince's room and smothered him as he slept. He then tied two handkerchiefs around the prince's neck and hung them as a noose from the crossbar above the window to imply that the prince had committed suicide. The following day, the prince's valet discovered the body of the last Prince de Condé hanging in his room, and the gens d'armes were called.
The prince's surviving family loudly suspected murder and contested the prince's will. The case came to court, where the judge learnt that the prince was so frail he could no longer walk and struggled to lift a brush to dress his hair. How, then, could he have tied the noose and killed himself? Also the noose had not been tied tight enough round his neck to kill him and there was no sign of strangulation. If Sophie were found guilty, then she would be sent to the guillotine. Her only defence would be that she had acted on the express orders of King Louis Philippe.
Curiously, just before the judge was due to pass sentence, he retired. A new judge was appointed by Royal Command, who quickly concluded that there was no case and that obviously the prince had committed suicide. Sophie, naturally, was innocent and free to go. Despite this, Sophie was now considered contemptible throughout French society, and she decided it would be prudent to return home to England5.
The Voyage Home
On Sophie's voyage home from France, her favourite nephew James mysteriously became ill and died suddenly. Although put down to apoplexy, a surgeon suspected otherwise and requested permission to perform an autopsy, which was denied. Since then many conspiracy theorists have believed that James was aware of the truth behind de Condé's murder and had been poisoned to prevent the truth coming out. In any case Sophie brought his body back to St Helens on the Island, where she erected a memorial in his honour, labelled:
Erected by his aunt, Madame La Baronne de Feuchères
In England Sophie bought a large Hampshire estate near Christchurch, where she built the mansion of Bure Homage6, as well as purchasing a fine house in Hyde Park Square, London. Her mother, who had been institutionalised inside a workhouse for much of her life, sought out the sanctuary of a convent in Hammersmith, where she died at the age of 90.
Dead as a Dawes Nail
In her latter years Sophie donated much of her wealth to charities, and was a well-loved benefactress to those on the Island. Living a life of luxury began to have its toll as she grew fat, her looks faded, and in 1838 she developed dropsy. On 15 December, 1840, she died suddenly from a heart-attack.
Although she had not signed a will, her surviving family benefited most. Her nephews Edward and William Henry Dawes were given estates on the Island, Wydcombe and Gotten Manors, while much of her money was given to her niece, Sophie Thavaron, daughter of Charlotte.
It was only after Sophie's death that a package containing the letter from Louis Philippe and other proof of her involvement in de Condé's murder was discovered, although Jean-Charles de Fontbrune, author of Nostradamus: Historian and Prophet, claimed in 1980 that Nostradamus had foretold the murder of the last of the Condés with the words:
De nuict dans lict supresme estranglé
Pour trop avoir seiourné blond esleu
Par trois l'Empire subroge exanclé
A mort mettra carte, et paquet ne leu.
Roughly translated as:
At night the final one will be strangled in his bed,
Because he was too involved with the blonde elect.
The Empire is enslaved and three men substituted,
Put to death, neither letter nor packet read.
Mind you, this 'prophecy' is also interpreted as a warning of the strangulation symptoms involved in smoking cigarettes and ignoring Government Health Warnings printed on the packets. A more reliable presentation of the story can be read in Marjorie Bowen's 1935 account, The Scandal of Sophie Dawes. William Makepeace Thackeray may well have been inspired by Sophie's story for his 1847 novel Vanity Fair.
Today the cottage she was born in bears a blue plaque. It is part of the National Trust's Discover the Duver trail, as the Duver is an area of sand dunes owned by the National Trust outside St Helens. The plaque reads:
Madame de Feuchères
Daughter of Richard Dawes
Fisherman & Smuggler
The Queen of Chantilly
was born here