A Point in Time: The Affair of the Poisons

Last night, I watched a fascinating programme on France 3 about Madame de Montespan, the longtime maîtresse en titre of the Sun King, Louis XIV

For many years, I’ve been intrigued by Louis XIV and his court, and especially by an event mentioned further below. It’s time I start to explore that era further...

The programme traced her family seat to a château in Poitou, southwest of Paris, and it was intriguing to see a member of her family still in residence. His jacket was missing a button and he looked like a real character, so I’m guessing the family isn’t overly rich anymore.

The Marquise de Montespan

Born Françoise de Rochechouart, of old French nobility, she was married to the Marquis de
Montespan. She was supposedly in love with another young noble, but as he made the silly – and illegal – decision to take part in a duel, he had to flee the country, so Montespan it was. They liked each other, which helped.

Thanks to her family’s influence, in her twenties, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Maria Theresa, the somewhat naïve but very Catholic Austrian-Spanish wife of the king. But Françoise set her sights higher: to the king!

Over time, she managed to nudge the king’s current mistress, young and pretty Louise de la Vallière, off her pedestal after the king had sexual relations with both ladies – and the queen – for a while. He must have been a very busy man at night. Apparently he went to bed (his, to start with), then visited one lady after the other, and lastly joined the queen, often around 5am. 

Seeing her rival gain the king’s affection, young Louise fled to a Carmelite convent, and the path to Louis was clear. 

Françoise, a highly intelligent, witty and ambitious woman, took over. She reinvented herself as ’Athenaïs’ – alluding to the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy. She organised dances and plays, helped with the designs for the new palace at Versailles Louis had built at that time and played a pivotal role in his daily life. He often sought her advice. Many paintings show her through different stages in her life. She detested the queen, and acted as if she were in her place. All with the king’s approval.

In over ten years, she bore him seven living children, which he legitimised. They held royal titles and were treated as his own, and later married off to other European nobility. We can well imagine what poor Queen Maria Theresa thought of that...

But then Madame de Montespan went too far. Realising that the king’s attention began to wander after over a decade – she was overweight due to all her pregnancies and had become moody – she sought to retain his affection by other means: love potions. That sounds harmless enough, but in fact, it wasn’t.

As the so-called Affair of the Poisons gripped Paris from the late 1670s, implicating many nobles amongst a group of ’witches’, necromancers and wisewomen, plus many charlatans out to fleece desperate ladies, one name kept cropping up in admissions under torture: Madame de Montespan.

Midwives, priests, ordinary women, ladies and lords of noble families were all caught out in this affair, with the main culprits burnt at the stake. Nobles were banished or beheaded. The court was in shock.

In typical fashion, Louis had all reports mentioning her name burnt, but with it, she lost her influence over him, and was banished to quarters further away from the king. At the same time, the governess of her children, Françoise Scarron, got closer to the king. She showed more interest in his children than their mother, something the ageing king found comforting. As it turned out, it was this Françoise, later elevated to Madame de Maintenon, who the king eventually married after the death of the queen. 

Madame de Maintenon with three of Montespan's children

Madame de Montespan withdrew from court and found solace in faith. Oh, how she must have reminisced about the days she wielded power...

Only later did the records kept by the chief of the Paris police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, emerge, showing her real involvement in the dark arts.

The Affair of the Poisons is one of my favourite historical events. It’s a fascinating hotchpotch of a noble class desperate to keep the king’s favour, to gain the love of a lord or lady, or to seek power, and the dark underworld of Paris with its chancers, alchemists, midwives, and priests offering black masses (and yes, Madame was said to have taken part in sacrifices involving children). 

I've always wanted to write about this event, and after last night’s programme, I scribbled down the outline of a new novel. It was very exciting. I couldn’t sleep, adding notes until about 2am to my phone, so I didn’t forget by the morning. It’s been playing on my mind for years, so watch this space...

If you’re curious about this affair, there are a few books I can highly recommend:

Judith Merkle Riley’s The Oracle Glass
Kate Braithwaite’s Charlatan
Anne Somerset’s The Affair of the Poisons

And in French:
Claude Quétel's L’affaire des poisons (an in-depth account)

All images: Wikimedia Commons