La marchesa di Brinvilliers sotto tortura

The Affair of the Poisons: The Shame of the Sun King

You won’t find the Affair of the Poisons in any schoolbook (God forbid you talk about something interesting, students may wake up and actually ask questions!), but it’s the most upsetting crime beat piece of the Sun King’s era, an investigation that threw the sparkling image of the French court in the mud, right before Europe’s eyes.

12 di rue Charles V
The entrance of hotel Brinvilliers, 12 rue Charles V, IV arrondissement, the house where the marquise plotted her crimes.

It all began in 1672, with the arrest of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a frail and very polite 46 years-old woman, after the recovery of some compromising documents.

Some time before, her father and two brothers died under mysterious, and suspiciously similar, circumstances. All three had slowly wasted away in a long, helpless agony. No one had dared to doubt the devastated, ill-starred marquise.

The truth was that madame de Brinvilliers actually poisoned her father and brothers, with the help of her lover, a great alchemy buff.

Interno hotel Brinvilliers
A glimpse to the interior of the Marquise’s hôtel photographed in 1910 (© Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet)

Sadly, the marquise’s significant other had suddenly died in a nasty incident (maybe an experiment gone awry). During a search of his house, the police had found some damaging documents, some of which signed by the marquise herself. Those papers clearly stated two hard facts: first, the guilt of Madame de Brinvilliers, second, the fact that she wasn’t the criminal mastermind one should expect.

Marquise, marquise, you can’t always get everything on paper, especially if you poison your family members with dastardly regularity!

That levity will cost her dearly: her accomplice made sure to keep every material remembrance of madame de Brinvillier’s rackets (recipes, letters, receipts…) so, should he one day needed to blackmail her, everything would have been in perfect working order. The things we do for love!

As if it wasn’t enough, in the letters the marquise wrote to her accomplice she was planning to poison even her sister and her sister-in-law, to become the only heir of the family’s fortune (ah, the banality of evil!)

Well knowing she had no way out, the marquise tried to run, hiding in a convent, a place where the king’s agents couldn’t reach her. A brilliant police officer then went in undercover as a priest and, in time, managed to gain the fugitive poisoner’s trust, promising to help her escape and, that way, luring her outside the convent.

La marchesa di Brinvilliers sotto tortura
The Marquise of Brinvilliers under “questioning”

Torture, decapitation and be burned at the stake were the endings of this great dame, but the case was far from closed: it was necessary to find and stop who sold the poisons.

Marie Madeleine d'Aubray
Marie Madeleine d’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers, before the execution, as we can determine with a kind of precision because her head is still on her shoulders.

Nicolas Gabriel de la Reynie, the Police Chief, had become aware that trafficking of illegal substances was focused in the bad neighborhood of Saint-Denis (that today includes the city between boulevard de la Bonne Nouvelle and the Porte de Saint-Denis) and had it searched thoroughly by his agents.

A simple map of Paris showing all its arrondissements. In the 17th century, the 10th arrondissement (the red-coloured one) became famous for its illegal activities as selling poisons, for example.

Poison sellers, witches, fortune-tellers and other black-mass riffraff were swept-up and piled up in jails. The King’s order was clear: get rid of the problem from the roots.

Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, police chief who led the investigation and a summary of his intentions. The character of Fabien Marchal in the tv show “Versailles” is, partially, based on him.

Questionings and investigations unearthed new crimes, filthy trappings and a great number of culprits, but the revelations that spiked Reynie’s attention the most were those of the magician La Voisin, so much that he found appropriate to warn even the Minister of War, the famous Marquis de Louvois. A repugnant and unprecedented scandal was taking shape. The most worrying aspect of the story, to Raynie, wasn’t the nonchalant recourse to poison, but the social class of the people involved, la crème de la crème of France!

The king, informed by his faithful minister de Louvois, ordered him to get to the bottom of things, and the inquiry became restless: 319 arrests and 35 death sentences.

Olimpia Mancini
Olimpia Mancini, one of the many ex-lovers of king Louis XIV: banished.

Countess Olimpia Mancini, “dismissed” lover of the Sun King, was charged with trying to seek revenge and poison the ex-rival Louise de la Vallière who, to be fair, had found her peace in a nunnery after being “dismissed” herself. If the countess’s plan was to win back the king, it backfired, because she was banished from the kingdom.

Maria Anna Mancini
Maria Anna Mancini, duchess de Bouillon, Olimpia’s sister: acquitted

Her sister, Maria Anna Machini, duchess de Bouillon (my favorite!) was charged with wanting to poison her husband to be able to marry her lover (who was her nephew, but when you reach a certain scandal-level, everything over it is simply overkilling). During the trial, the Duchess laughed, showing up on her husband’s arm on one side, and on her lover’s on the other. She was cleared of all charges.

Meanwhile, the marquise de Louvois and Reynie had made a terrible discovery: during the questionings, a certain name had come up with alarming frequency: the name of Madame de Montespan, the King’s powerful favorite… and the mother of his children!

The marquis de Louvois, minister of war and officer in charge of the investigations, in a moment of deep discomfort.


Madame de Montespan
Madame de Montespan (1640-1707), the king’s favorite (temporarily).

According to the evidence gathered, to keep the king’s passion alive, Montespan resorted to black masses, hexes, love potions, poisons, and other “pleasantries”. Someone even talked about newborn sacrifices! It was difficult to tell crime from slander in this case, because Montespan had no lack of enemies. However, the king immediately closed the case and had all the papers about her burned, so it’s difficult not to smell a tad of foul play on her part. That was the beginning of her “dismissal”, and of a profound moral crisis for the king.

And guess who didn’t miss the chance at this wonderful literary opportunity? But of course, I’m talking about Alexandre Dumas who, with the success of The Three Musketeers, had already shown that to write good stories you don’t always have to make them up from scratch.

L'Avvelenatrice di Alexandre Dumas
The Marquise de Brinvilliers, a (wonderful) Italian edition by ABEditore

(If you’re interested in the great passions of the Sun King, read some gossip about his most famous favorites in  Palais-Royal: a TV-show’s worth of stories)