Historical Writers Blog Hop: A Touch of Poison

Today it’s my turn on the fabulous Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop, and I have a truly scandalous treat in store for you!

So grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee, or a nice glass of Pays de la Loire – have a sniff or taste first to see if it's safe to consume – then follow me to Paris in the late 17th century! 

King Louis XIV reigns supreme from his ever-expanding and brilliantly glittering palace of Versailles, leaving his capital city of Paris and his old palace, the Louvre, behind. In fact, the king detests Paris! It's dirty, there are too many poor people knocking on the gates, and it's crime-ridden!

As newly installed streetlights banish the shadows in some of the more affluent areas, there is still an underworld of well-organised criminals operating across the city. Poverty is high, and the many midwives, fortune-tellers and alchemists in town are looking for a more lucrative way of making ends meet. 

So they found a handy way for despised husbands or wives, or hated fathers and brothers to meet their grisly end. 

Yes, you’ve guessed it. Poison!

But it didn’t start with poisonous substances. No. Over preceding decades, the trade in fortune-telling flourished. Palm-reading was hugely popular, and if you needed to teach someone a lesson, or convince that crush of yours of your undying love, you could buy a nice but fairly harmless potion to sprinkle into their meal or drink. Or id you need a competitor kicked out of the race to a deal? No problem. They might fall ill for a few days, whilst you’re taking advantage of their incapacitated state, but then they’d get better again once you’ve achieved what you wanted. Everyone's happy. The fortune-tellers. The alchemists procuring the potions. And you, their valued customer!

The Alchemist, David Teniers the Younger, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This successful trade has been under observation by the Paris police for years, but there was no real reason to stop it. It was fairly harmless. Until potions became no longer sufficient. Something else had to be found to get what you wanted. Something far more sinister...

Soon business is thriving. Competitors are easily dispatched. Every life has a price. As the search for turning metal into gold continues, other substances change hands, for the right coin, outside the golden reach of the new streetlights. 

In the 1660s, when some relatively important people began to die and autopsies revealed inconsistencies, no one dared speak of the unspeakable. It was deemed to be a coincidence. They must have consumed something rotten.

Marquise de Brinvilliers, Jacob Ferdinand Voet, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

So we fast forward to 1672, to the death – by natural causes, ironically – of a man named Sainte-Croix. In his possession, a casket, locked. A mystery.

Only when a certain Marquise de Brinvillers tries (a little too hard) to get her hands on the box, the police becomes suspicious and checks out the contents. To their surprise, they find money, several pouches and phials with unknown substances, and a stack of letters written by the good marquise. Not only confirming her as his lover, her letters hint at a payment for services rendered back in 1666 and 1670. What could it possibly be?

The connection is quickly established of how she has been coming into money.

Her henchman, who administered poison to her brothers’ meals, is swiftly arrested, and soon it transpires that the marquise had her father – a former chief of the Paris police, no less – and later her two brothers poisoned, to inherit their wealth.

But the crafty woman herself, meanwhile, has fled the country. Only in 1676 is she arrested, hiding in a convent. Only following the water torture does she admit to the murders. 

On 17th July 1676, the Marie-Madeleine, Marquise de Brinvilliers is executed. Due to her station, she is beheaded by sword, then her remains are thrown onto a pyre. Lastly, her ashes are scattered, so she could not be turned into a martyr. The event is a big spectacle, and much of Paris gathers on Place de Grève to witness it.

Marie-Madeleine, Marquise de Brinvilliers, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The trial and execution of the Marquise the Brinvilliers is seen by many as the beginning of the Affair of the Poisons, an event that would shock the court of King Louise XIV. 

The lady had come from good stock, married into nobility, and was thus very different from the normally rather 'ordinary' clientele in Paris. Suddenly, the poisoners are amongst the nobles, the courtiers. Who else could be involved? Look over your shoulder!

Over the coming years, hundreds of men and women are arrested and interrogated, usually under torture. Fortune-tellers, alchemists, midwives, lawyers, apothecaries, flower sellers, hands for hire (shepherds!). But when a certain Magdelaine de la Grange is questioned, she insists on speaking to the Marquis de Louvois, the Minister of State for War, hinting at a plot to murder the king. This takes suspicions a whole step further, and he questions her personally over several months.

Would anyone close to King Louis XIV wish him dead? Who? And why?

As public curiosity grows, a special court is instructed to find out more. The Chambre Ardente (the ‘burning chamber’) sits for three years, from 1679 to 1682, during which time hundreds of men and women are sentenced to a range of punishments: death by burning alive (mostly women) or by hanging, banishment and exile, being sent to the galleys, or imprisoned in solitude for life by a so-called lettre de cachet, a ‘sealed letter’ by direct order from the king. 

In the end, de la Grange reveals a variety of vague suspicions that never leads anywhere, so she is eventually executed, after several years of incarceration and torture. 

Catherine Monvoisin, La Voisin, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

But the arrest of well-to-do midwife and fortune-teller, Catherine Monvoisin – La Voisin to those who know her – hots things up (no pun intended). La Voisin is a skilled poisoner who is also involved in black masses! Several others have mentioned her, and she doesn’t deny it. But she does not reveal her clients, despite being put to torture, although rumour has it that someone close to the king attended her events several times in the 1660s. 

But who?

Implicated are several courtiers: 

The Duke de Luxembourg, an important general and Marshal of France is briefly incarcerated, before he is released again, to continue as before. 

The Duchess de Bouillon – accused of wishing to poison her husband to marry her lover – appears before court with her husband on one arm and her lover (her nephew, the Duke de Vendôme!) on the other. The claim is thrown out, but she is no longer highly regarded at court. 

And then there is her sister, the Countess de Soissons, against who a series of charges are levied. She flees the country before being caught. Soon after, in England, she has then apparently a hand in the unexpected death of Queen Henrietta, and she flees back to the continent where she is embroiled in further scandals involving poisons. Her son, Prince Eugene, would later join the Habsburg army where he becomes a highly respected general, in the war against France!

And there are other, minor nobles; some are banished from court for perpetuity, some allowed to return later. The king had the last word.

It was only after La Voisin’s execution (she was burnt alive) that her arrested daughter, Marguerite Monvoisin, gives up names of her mother's alleged clients. 

And the biggest fish amongst those: the Marquise de Montespan!

Marquise de Montespan, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Françoise-Athénaïs, Marquise ('Madame') de Montespan is the woman who really rules at Versailles in the 1670s, having eclipsed poor Queen Maria Theresa for a number of years. The king’s favourite mistress for over a decade, she has born him several, later legitimised, children. Adept at organising entertainments and surprises, her parties were renowned. But this would all come to a sudden end.

The accusations against her date back to the late 1660s, when Louis XIV was still enamoured with a young lady called Louise de La Vallière. Madame de Montespan  – always ambitious – was jealous. She was keen to become the king’s mistress and wanted her competition dead. Marriage didn't stop her. In fact, no one should dare to stop her. To that effect, she attended black masses at La Voisin’s. These sinister séances included not only animal sacrifices, but it was said that newborn babies, given up by their mothers or stolen, were used too. Paris was abuzz with rumours. 

Madame de Montespan's ruse worked. Louise de la Vallière retired to a convent as soon as the king tired of her, unhappy to play her role alongside the rising star of the Marquise de Montespan for long. She likely had no idea of how far her rival’s plotting would go. Her escape to the convent may have actually saved her life.

So for years, La Montespan rules over the court as if she were a queen. But all good things must come to an end. 

By the late 1670s, the king falls in love with young Marie-Angélique de Scorailles, and this upset the hitherto favourite. But when young Marie-Angélique dies after short illness (having voiced her suspicion of being poisoned!), the timing of Marguerite Monvoisin's revelation could not have come at a worse time. Was the scheming marquise involved again?

Statue in the gardens at Versailles, image (c) Cathie Dunn

As expected, all this is too much, even for the king. The Chambre Ardente is shut down, and suspects are locked up in solitary confinement in remote fortresses by lettre de cachet, including Marguerite Monvoisin.

Louis distances himself from his longterm favourite, briefly seeking out new mistresses, but none last long. Courtiers treat Françoise-Athénaïs with respect, as befits the mother to the king's children, but she is never again seen in the same light. Her star is extinguished; shot down by her own ambition.

Soon after, Louis begins his probably final affair with Madame de Maintenon, the governess of Madame de Montespan’s children by the king, and clearly much closer to them in affection than their scheming mother. Following Queen Maria Theresa’s death, Madame de Maintenon never leaves his side, and it is still not known whether he clandestinely married her or not. Madame de Maintenon is close to the Church, and in his advancing years, Louis is finally ready for a calmer private life.  

And the Marquise de Montespan? 

Well, Françoise-Athénaïs was requested to retire to her estate. On the rare occasions she returned to court, other courtiers blanked her. Her decade-long reign had come to an end. The Sun King had moved on. 

The King's Bedchamber, image (c) Cathie Dunn

If this has whetted your appetite to read more about the Affair of the Poisons and the intriguing marquises and midwives, I can highly recommend Anne Somerset’s excellent book on the subject, and Kate Braithwaite’s gripping novel, Charlatan.

I have been intrigued by the Affair of the Poisons for many years, but it was only last year that I decided to turn it into a series of loosely-interlinked novels. It’s great fun bringing those characters I described above back to life – the glamorous courtiers as well as the double-dealing fortune-tellers and poisoners. 

The Affair of the Poisons is full of intrigues, from the murkiest backstreets of Paris to the glittering new palace of Versailles. It illuminates perfectly the dark side of the Sun King’s court. 

Now, off you go to read up more about this fascinating event!

PS: That drink that you just had...well... 


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