We are pleased to welcome back Michael Long. He is a freelance author and historian and has written many articles on medieval and Tudor history mostly in the UK. He has spent more than thirty years teaching history and is presently writing a novel based on the exploits of Willikin of the Weald.
The woman visiting the shabby, dark house in the Pont Marie, on the right bank of the Seine, looked out of place on a dark Parisian April evening in 1667. Her horse-drawn carriage, her fine clothes and her pale alabaster skin marked her out as being part of the Royal Court, not someone who would frequent the seedy, run-down home of ‘La Voisin.’ Known in the Parisian slums as ‘La Voison,’ Catherine Deshayes was a witch. She looked many years older than her thirty-five years. Draped in a flowing robe embroidered with mystical symbols she cast horoscopes, read palms and practised necromancy. For those in the know, and this seemed to be many of the women at King Louis XIV’s court, she performed incantations to increase breast size, promote fertility, firm up sagging skin and create a radiant glow. She also performed darker magic, celebrating Black Masses, using babies blood to create magic potions and providing poison for wives seeking to rid themselves of their husbands.
The woman calling on La Voison that April night had no need for beauty remedies, for she was the most alluring woman in all of France. Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan, beneath whose seductive beauty lay a venomous cunning, was seeking a love potion to make Louis XIV reject his mistress of five years Louise de la Vallière, and take her instead. For more than a year Athénaïs had tried to snare Louis, but he had eyes only for Madame de la Vallière. King Louis told his younger brother, the Duke of Orleans, “She tries hard, but I am not interested.” La Voisin created for Athénaïs a love potion made up of bats, toads, blood from dead infants, ground human bones and herbs. She was to administer this to the King each day until the potion worked. How she would do this was left up to her.
By the spring of 1667 Louise de la Vallière was pregnant with the King’s fourth bastard child and sought company each evening. She asked one of her closest friends at court to stay with her during her confinement. Her close friend, Athénaïs de Montespan readily agreed. King Louis’ wife Marie Therese was also pregnant and also sought the help of someone to engage the King in conversation over dinner each evening; she considered who amongst her ladies-in-waiting could fulfil the role and selected her close confidant, Athénaïs de Montespan.
Presented with these opportunities, Athénaïs slipped her love potions into Louis’ food. Within months, perhaps as a result of her sparkling conversation, Louis had fallen madly for Athénaïs and installed her as, “Maitresse en-titre,” his official mistress. Louis gave Athénaïs rooms next to Louise, though it became apparent to all at court that Madame de Montespan was the favoured one. Athénaïs, not content with replacing Louise in Louis’ affections, demanded that the King appoint Louise as one of her ladies of the toilet. Louise, although humiliated by this situation acquiesced uncomplainingly until 1674 when she asked to be allowed to retire to a convent.
Louis’ sister-in-law observed that Athénaïs had a whiter complexion than Louise and had a beautiful mouth and fine white teeth behind a sullen expression writing in 1675, “One only has to look at her to see she was scheming something.” But for a decade Athénaïs remained the Kings mistress giving him seven illegitimate children. Louis’ eye did wander; he seemed to have a penchant for young girls of fifteen. Louis valet, Alexandre Bontemps brought them to court, many pushed there by eager, ambitious mothers, hoping to replace Madame de Montespan but knowing that once Louis had ‘used’ them they might find suitable husbands at court. But Athénaïs’ response was to purge the maids–of–honour at Court and replace them with much older, plainer married women.
Late in 1677 a Parisian woman, Magdelaine de La Grange was arrested and charged with poisoning her lover. De La Grange was another who sold potions and lotions, told horoscopes and cast spells. She told prosecutors that she had valuable information about other crimes committed by prominent people. This information was relayed to the King, who instructed the Chief of the Paris Police, Gabriel La Reynie, to investigate further.
La Reynie became convinced that there was a ring of poisoners operating in Paris, selling their wares to anyone who could afford it. The investigation led to accusations of witchcraft and murder leading directly to the French court. La Reynie arrested known alchemists and fortune tellers and under torture, they revealed the names of their clients. It wasn’t long before the authorities arrested ‘La Voisin.’ She was found guilty of being a witch and burned at the stake in the Place de Grève on February 22, 1680. Her daughter, who had been arrested with her, was interrogated and implicated in poisonings, prominent figures at King Louis’ court including the Comtesse de Soissons, the Duchesse de Bouillon, the Duke of Luxembourg and most significantly, Athénaïs de Montespan.
La Voisin’s daughter claimed that Athénaïs had bought aphrodisiacs potions from her mother over a period of years, but more damningly, Athénaïs had engaged in Satanic rituals where she lay naked on the altar while the demonic mass was said. Meanwhile, at court Louis’ eye was taken by the young seventeen-year-old beauty Marie Angélique de Scorailles who he took as his lover. Described as being, “as stupid as she was beautiful,” Louis was besotted by her and made her Duchesse de la Fontanges.
Marie Angélique died suddenly in 1681. It was claimed she had given birth to a stillborn child in March of that year but caught a fever in June and passed away. Chief of Police La Reynie saw suspicion in the death and some of those he had arrested spoke of a plot to poison the Duchesse de la Fontanges. La Voison’s daughter claimed Athénaïs had come to her mother and asked her to have both Marie Angélique killed. La Voison developed a plan to poison King Louis, by coating a petition in poison which they would deliver into the Kings hands at court. She said she went to court on March 5, 1679 to give the petition, but there were too many people, and the King did not accept any audiences that day. She was arrested before she was able to formulate another plan to kill Louis. However, no clear evidence emerged to implicate La Voison in any plot to kill Marie Angélique.
The King established a special court in Paris under La Reynie, Le Chambre Ardente [the burning tribunal] to try suspects accused of poisoning, malefecium and murder. It lasted just over a year and investigated many royal courtiers and thirty-four people were sentenced to death for poisoning or witchcraft and several more, including the Comtesse de Soissons were exiled. King Louis abruptly closed the court in 1682 because of the fear of the publicity. By the time the court was shut down, la Reynie had become convinced of Athénaïs de Montespan’s involvement. Another suspect, a year earlier had mentioned under torture Athénaïs’ name, but La Reynie had thought nothing of it at the time. He wrote in his notes that the story had, ”the appearance of truth.” And he felt, on balance that Athénaïs de Montespan had been involved in a criminal conspiracy and witchcraft.
La Reynie baulked at proceeding further against Athénaïs, fearing for his own career and for his life. His interests conflicted with the interests of his King and the interests of justice. He knew that doing nothing risked allowing the guilty to go free. “If these crimes are hidden,” he wrote in his notes, “what other strange and unknown things will befall if one does not dare penalise these crimes on account of their enormity.”
But Louis abruptly brought the investigation to a close. The full extent of the number implicated may never be known. King Louis signed ‘lettres de cachet’ by which suspects, male and female, were imprisoned without trial or right of appeal. Athénaïs’ maid, Mademoiselle Desoeilltts was named as being involved, but no firm evidence was ever produced against her.
Louis knew that Athénaïs was implicated in the ‘Affair of Poisons,’ as the scandal became known and perhaps that was the reason for stopping the investigations in 1682. He ordered the evidence, court papers and witness statements to be sealed and kept locked up in a chest controlled by his secretary Gaudion. The ‘Affair of Poisons’ ended the influence of Athénaïs de Montespan at court, although Louis still continued to visit her. She eventually fell out of royal favour and in 1691 left to live in a convent on the rue Saint-Dominique in Paris where she died aged sixty-six in 1707. It is unlikely she was directly involved in any poisonings, especially that of her young rival the Duchesse de la Fontanges. Her death was classed as unexplained or resulting in long-term consequences of her stillbirth. Twenty-first-century investigations have suggested she died of natural causes possibly from a tumour. Far more likely is the opportunity the affairs created at court for her rivals, and there were many, to start rumours and intrigue against her. Had Athénaïs de Montespan wished to poison Louis, she had ample opportunity most evenings.
Louis XIV was a ruthless monarch, and it is inconceivable that he would allow a known poisoner and Satanist to live alongside him at the royal court. He could have banished her to a convent very quickly, for many married women did choose to end their years in prayer. Thus it is likely that Louis accepted Athénaïs was a client of La Voisin and purchased love potions from her, but he chose to overlook this. By 1681, Louis was no longer in a relationship with Athénaïs but kept her at court nonetheless.
Louis came to believe that poison posed a genuine threat to his courtiers and that he too could be in danger. He also perceived Athenais as being no risk to him. The ‘Affair of Poisons’ revealed the belief in the capacity for evil that existed at the French Court. Despite allegations, no proof was brought to show anyone at court used poison or attempted to poison the King. Writing to his cousin at the height of the hysteria, the Comte de Saint-Mayol observed, “the ladies at court would have given themselves to the devil for the love of the King.” Having broken the Fronde early in his reign, Louis was particularly skillful in setting up the Chambre Ardente, subjecting the French nobility to its justice where before they had the right to be tried by Parliament. It subjugated the nobility to the will of the King with the threat that protest could lead to imprisonment without trial.
The ‘Affair of Poisons’ was a witch hunt amongst French society driven by the fundamental misconception that there was a poisoning epidemic amongst the nobility. The judicial process and its reliance on torture and leading questions fuelled the crisis implicating leading figures in the moral corruption that was Versailles under the Sun King.
Further reading: “The Affair of Poisons” by Anne Somerset, “The Sun King” by Nancy Mitford, “Love and Louis XIV” by Antonia Fraser, “Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge” by Eleanor Herman