When Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby, potential successor to the throne and probable employer of William Shakespeare, became suddenly ill in April 1594 with symptoms including copious and corrosive vomiting attacks that stained silver vessels black, and profuse internal bleeding, he was purged to “draw the course of the illness downward” and advised to swallow his own vomit (Purges and pigeon slippers: Elizabethan cures revealed, 16 May).

Pathologists now think he may well have been assassinated. Possible substances include belladonna (atropine), nux vomica (strychnine), almond paste (cyanide) or, more likely, arsenic in the form of distillations from aconite, hellebore and henbane, all favoured tools in the Elizabethan poisoner’s arsenal.

His death from acute renal failure was, concluded his physicians, as attested by a concealed straw poppet, down to the demonic effects of witchcraft.
Austen Lynch
Garstang, Lancashire

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