Sunday, 14 April 2013

Affair of the Poisons

During Louis XIV's reign the infamous Affair of the Poisons was played out. The court was a tense place and
the competition for influence, titles and privileges escalated when courtiers suddenly died and the fear of poisoning was ever present. It would cost several people their lives and there are still many whose deaths seem just a little to sudden to be by natural causes ..

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie - head of
police in Paris
The Affair of the Poisons lasted from 1677 to 1682 when Louis XIV was presiding over the French court. It all began with the trial of Madame de Brinvilliers. She was charged with having poisoned her father and two brothers - this conspiracy was allegedly planned with her lover, Godin de Saint-Croix. The crime was aimed at insuring the estates that would inevitably pass on to Madame de Brinvilliers after the death of her male relatives. Madame de Brinvilliers knew that she had little chance of being found not-guilty, so she fled but was captured at Liège. It turned out that she was right - she was found guilty and sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning. On July 17, she was tortured, beheaded and her remains were burnt at the stake.

Following the arrest of Magdelaine de La Grange, the situation quickly reached the very centre of power at court. Magdelaine had appealed to the Marquis de Louvois and insisted that she knew of other cases that would surely be of his interest. Louvois immediately went to the highest authority he could think of: the King. Alarmed, Louis XIV quickly contacted Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie who was the top of Parisian police and demanded that Gabriel were to catch all the poisoners - suck out the poison.

Consequently, the Parisian police began an investigation that would start with the interrogation of obvious suspects such as fortune tellers and alchemists. It was suspected that they had provided the poisoners with so-called "inheritance powders" - or poison. Some of the accused were tortured and promptly gave up several names of high-ranking people who had wanted to rid themselves of their rivals.
The affair escalated when the midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoison (also known as La Voison) had been named by the poisoner Marie Bosse.

La Voison herself
La Voison raised the affair to the highest level of society when she mentioned Olympe Mancini (the King's former mistress), Marie Anne Mancini (her sister) and the Duc de Luxembourg. But the scandal lay in the last name: Madame de Montespan. La Voison explained that Madame de Montespan had ordered aphrodisiacs and even black masses in order to keep the King's interest on her alone - it should be stated La Voison allegedly was drunk when she told this. Madame de Montespan should even had lend her own body to the Devil in exchange for securing her position. Her condition when she revealed this meant that there was no other evidence and despite never being convicted of the crime the rumour would cling to Madame de Montespan's name. La Voison was not so lucky - she was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1680.

The entire affair implicated no less than 442 people - 36 of these were executed and 218 were arrested. You can almost imagine the fear of being poisoned spreading through Paris. Some of the accused never saw the inside of a court room but was found guilty by a lettre de cachet and sentenced to life in prison. It was considered that the King's safety was in danger which escalated the situation further and is most likely the
Madame de Montespan -
accused but never tried
reason for why the number of accused and convicted rose to such high numbers - after all the threat was not as great as it was made out to be.
At court the affair meant the immediate departure of Madame de Soissons (Olympe Mancini) who went into exile.

The court during the affair was an extremely uncomfortable place. Paranoia seized most people and every time a person suddenly died the situation got worse.
This infamous affair implicated many courtiers - whether they were actually guilty or not is lost to history. Here are some of the names that popped up during the trial (some of which are already mentioned in this post); you might be amazed at how high the scandal actually went in French society:

Madame de Soissons - former mistress of the King and thought to be a client of La Voison

Marquise de Montespan - the King's present maîtresse-en-titre. She was never tried.

Marquis de Cessac - allegedly client of the poisoner Lesage. He fled France to avoid a trial

Vicomtesse de Polignac - accused of being the client of La Voison but fled the country

Marie Anne Mancini - Banished to the provinses

Princesse de Tingry - discharged

Duchess de Vivonne - discharged

Marquis de Feuquieres - never tried

For further reading take a look at the "Reading Versailles" section.


  1. Montespan was never tried, but she lost in kings eyes after this affair and also finally lost her position as a mistress.

    Btw. I'm seriously happy I found this blog! <3