ER,  France,  Western Europe

The Affair of the Poisons

Madame de Montespan

Court is treacherous place full of back biting nobles who would sell their own mothers to get ahead.  The Affair of the Poisons was an episode in the court of Louis XIV that exemplified exactly how far one would go to get where they needed to be in court.

It all started with the arrest of the wife of a minor noble, the Marquise de Brinvilliers.  As with most noble marriages, the Marquise did not marry for love.  In fact, she disliked her husband the Marquis enough to attempt to murder him.  She apparently didn’t do a very good job because she didn’t succeed and got caught.  However, this was not the Marquise de Brinvilliers’ first rodeo.  Turns out she and her lover, Godin de Saint-Croix, had systematically killed her father and two brothers.  That way when her husband was out of the way, the two could marry and be rich.  Perfect plan.  Except she got caught escaping the country, and was convicted of being a witch and a murderess, tortured, beheaded and her remains burnt.  They were not messing around.

Before the Marquise de Brinvilliers died, however, she did complain mightily that she was getting punished for something everyone else was doing already.  That made the head of the Parisian police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, prick up his ears.  At a party a Madame Bosse got massively drunk, as was wont, and began discussing how she was happy to sell “inheritance powders” to whoever needed them.  Bosse was arrested, which led to a glut of fortune tellers and alchemist being picked up.  They were under torture and started singing like canaries.  As we mentioned in a previous post ( ) torture was admissible in a court of law to obtain both a confession and evidence against others.  France had some lovely ones, so it’s not surprising they were accusing everyone and their dog to make it stop.  Real trouble came from the testimony of Magdelaine de La Grange.  La Grange insisted she would be happy to supply the names of much more important people in return for her life.  The names she, and others, gave up were singularly frightening as most of them could put la Reynie in prison for daring to think about investigating them.  La Reynie knew he was in over his head and went to the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s foreign minister, for help.

Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie (1625–1709), 17th century print by Mignard.

The main problem was the finger had been pointed at Catherine Deshayes Monvoison, otherwise known as La Voison or Madame Voison.  Who was she?  Ostensibly, she was a midwife.  However, more famously she was the fortune teller and sorceress to the upper crust.  Her clients included the who’s who of 17th century France including Madame de Soissons, Olympe Mancini, who was the King’s former mistress; Marie Anne Mancini, Olympe’s sister; the Duc de Luxembourg; Marquis de Cessac; Vicomtesse de Polignac; Princesse de Tingry; Duchess de Vivonne; and Marquis de Feuquieres.  The big name that was hushed up was Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart, the King’s current mistress.  

Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart was the clever friend of the King’s former mistress Louise de La Vallière.  Indeed, Louise had introduced them and Athénaïs had used her considerable beauty and wit to usurp Louise’s place in the King’s heart and bed.  Soon she was the formidable maîtresse-en-titre.  However, keeping the eye of a king was hard work especially after bearing seven children.  The King liked them young, and his eye lit upon the beautiful Marie Angélique, who later died after contracting a fever after giving birth to a stillborn child.  According to the testimony of La Voison’s daughter, who was her assistant, these deaths could be attributed to poisoning by Athénaïs.  She also testified that Athénaïs bought aphrodisiacs and participated in “Black Masses” where she lay naked on an altar and babies blood was put over her so she could keep her beauty.  These revelations would tear the court apart if they came out and La Reynie would be quite dead.

To keep all these high nobles out of the public eye, the investigation became secret and they were tried in a special court called Le Chambre Ardente or Burning Tribunal.  There were 442 people implicated in the plot, and at least 218 arrested.  After a five year investigation going from 1677 to 1682, 36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  Lettres de cachet meant that the king simply decided you needed to spend the rest of your life in prison.  There was no trial, no appeal.  You were just stuck.  It is hypothesized that one of the most mysterious French prisoners of all- the Man in the Iron Mask- had something to do with the affair and earned a lettres de cachet  (For more on him, please see this post ).   Even more were either exiled or fled France to escape.  

When the investigations began to get to close to Athénaïs , the courts were shut down.  Marquis de Louvois was nervous because it was he who encouraged the king’s affair with Athénaïs.  If she was convicted, he could go down with her whether he was involved in her shenanigans or not.  Louis XVI began handing out lettres de cachet like candy to anyone who whispered Athénaïs’ name.  He also had all records of the affair he had access to burned.  People took the hint and shut up.  What Louis didn’t realize was La Reynie kept his copies of the investigation records and hid them away.  They were found centuries later.

As for Athénaïs, she stayed with Louis for eleven more years until she retired to the Convent of St. Joseph with a handsome pension.