Scandal, conspiracy and the affair of the poisons: inside the court of Louis XIV

BBC Two’s Versailles returned on 21 April for its second series, exploring the decadent and turbulent early reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Here, historian Lynn Wood Mollenauer considers the ambitious aristocrats who battled for power within the court and sheds light on the ‘affair of the poisons’, a scandal that reached right into the inner circle of the king…

BBC Two's 'Versailles'. (Photo by © Tibo & Anouchka, Capa Drama, ZodiakFiction &

In 1678, the Parisian police received an anonymous tip warning of a conspiracy to poison the king, Louis XIV. Their investigation of the conspiracy led directly to a criminal magical underworld flourishing in the heart of the capital. There they discovered a loosely-knit community of sorceresses, magicians, and renegade priests who offered for sale an array of products including love spells, magic charms, and poisons known as “inheritance powders” manufactured from arsenic and desiccated toads. Customers from across the social hierarchy had apparently purchased such wares. Some clients dreamed of wealth, and bought charms to ensure that they would always win at games of chance; others aspired to political success and sought “secrets” that would bring credit with the king; others longed for romance, and invested in love charms and spells to vanquish their rivals. Still others wanted to rid themselves of rivals or relatives, and for the purpose bought shirts treated with a type of arsenic (the poison leached into the skin) or enema solutions containing mercuric chloride for their victims. These events would become known as ‘the affair of the poisons’, and the macabre details read like a gothic novel.

Over a score of the Sun King’s nobles were caught up in the affair. Even the king’s official mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart, was implicated. She was suspected of having been a regular client of the city’s most notorious sorceress, La Voisin. Mme de Montespan was eventually cleared of the allegation that she had attempted to poison the king, but considerable, if circumstantial, evidence suggested that she had employed every means possible to increase her hold over him. She regularly sprinkled a variety of love potions into his food and bolstered their efficacy with an assortment of aphrodisiacs. Even more scandalously, she purportedly commissioned a series of sacrilegious magical ceremonies that were intended to ensure Louis’s affections.  


Louis XIV painted in 1701 by Hyacinthe Rigaud. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
 

Trials in the ‘burning chamber’

Louis XIV appointed a special judicial commission in 1679 to try those suspected of trafficking in magic or poison. Its magistrates sat in judgment in a darkened hall, the windows draped in black cloth and the only light provided by flaming torches. These torches lent the tribunal its unofficial name, the chambre ardente or ‘burning chamber’. By the time the king dissolved the commission three years later, it had investigated over 400 people, sending 36 to their deaths, four to the galleys, and 34 into exile. The remainder of those convicted – of those the police could find – received sentences that ranged from reprimands to periods of banishment. Several defendants, such as the duchesse de Bouillon and the duc de Luxembourg, were high-ranking nobles; most were of the middling and lower classes. Approximately 60 suspects were never tried at all. Louis XIV and his ministers considered their potential testimony regarding the activities of his mistress and courtiers to be too inflammatory to be heard even by his handpicked judges. These suspects were instead sent to the king’s most remote border fortresses, where they spent the remainder of their lives in solitary confinement, forbidden to speak even to their jailors. 


An engraving showing the laboratory of Catherine Deshayes, otherwise known as the most notorious sorceress in Paris, 'La Voisin'. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
 

At the close of the trials, Louis XIV issued a royal edict in 1682 that both instituted state regulation of the sale of poisons and declared all magic to be fraudulent. Anyone who claimed to be able to perform it was banished from the kingdom, and magicians continued to be prosecuted in royal courts well into the modern era.

 

Ambitious aristocrats exposed

The affair not only exposed the activities of Paris’s magical practitioners but also laid bare the ambitions of the aristocrats who frequented the Sun King’s court. The court was the heart of the political system in absolutist France, where Louis XIV lured the most powerful nobles in the country to his throne with the promise of the lucrative rewards that were only his to bestow. As Louis parcelled out royal patronage, his court became a site of intense competition. Nobles vied to attract the king’s notice in the hope that they might enlarge their share of royal largesse. The records of the scandal suggest that some of those courtiers, seeking to win the king’s good graces, had turned to the denizens of Paris’s magical underworld. Aristocrats such as the duc de Luxembourg, for example, sought to impress the monarch with military success; the duke purchased charms that were to render him invulnerable to sword wounds and guaranteed victory in battle.


TV show 'Versailles' dramatises a number of the courtiers who vyed for power in the court of Louis XIV. (© Tibo & Anouchka, Capa Drama, ZodiakFiction & Docs, Incendo, Canal+)
 

The majority of courtiers who sought out supernatural assistance to further their ends were women. The magic they solicited was largely for Louis XIV’s love. The affair of the poisons unfolded at a time when aristocratic women were able to wield unparalleled influence within court circles despite their exclusion from public political participation.  That influence was based to a great degree upon romantic intrigue. Therefore, the most influential woman was the one intimately involved with the most powerful man. At the Sun King’s court, that woman was not Queen Marie-Thérèse, who was a non-entity at court, but Louis’s official mistress.

Given the material, political, and social advantages that accrued to the official mistress and her family, it is not unimaginable that some noblewomen had recourse to magical aid in their quests for the king’s affections. Records kept by the head of police who led the investigation into the affair, Nicolas de la Reynie, indicated that as many as a dozen female courtiers bought love charms and spells intended for Louis XIV. The timing of their purchases was not coincidental – rumours were rife that the king’s passion for Louise de la Vallière, his first official mistress, had begun to wane.

 

Madame de Montespan

No woman seems to have been as comprehensive or as successful in her magical quest for the king’s attentions as Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart. Even after she had won the position of official mistress, Madame de Montespan continued to ply the king with La Voisin’s love charms to ensure that his eye did not wander. She was seemingly willing to administer to her royal lover any mixture, no matter how repellent, if it promised to prolong his passion. Some of the potions she allegedly gave the king were concocted of Spanish fly and menstrual blood; others contained bat’s blood, sperm, and iron filings.

A number of suspects arrested during the affair accused Madame de Montespan of participating in a series of spectacularly sacrilegious ceremonies of love magic. One renegade cleric, the abbé Guibourg, claimed that he had been hired to conduct three amatory masses over her naked body. The amatory mass was intended to establish control over the king’s “heart, mind, and will” by harnessing the power of a true mass to its illicit ends. Guibourg maintained that the ceremony also included the sacrifice of an infant, whose blood was added to pieces of a consecrated communion wafer and presented to his client for use as a philtre (love potion). Whatever the veracity of Guibourg’s shocking claims, the idea that Mme de Montespan might turn to illicit magic to achieve her amatory ambitions did not seem wholly unimaginable to those investigating the affair. While the king’s views on the matter cannot be known, it is worth noting that both Mme de Montespan’s tenure as official mistress and the affair of the poisons came to a close in the same year.


Madame de Montespan was the official mistress of Louis XIV for more than a dozen years. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

The place of the king’s official mistress was a difficult position to win and an even harder one to keep. Madame de Montespan’s tenure lasted more than a dozen years, during which she defended her title against the machinations of countless envious rivals. Perhaps she continued to visit the sorceresses and magicians of Paris because their efforts seemed to have helped her achieve her original success. Despite her fabled beauty and celebrated wit, she evidently felt the vulnerability of her position, particularly after she had borne the king several children and lost her figure – an occurrence that did not pass unremarked. In 1678, an Italian nobleman who frequented the court, Primi Visconti, sent a catty description of Louis’s mistress to a correspondent. He had just seen Madame de Montespan, he reported.  She “had grown extremely stout and indeed, while she was descending from her carriage one day, I had a glimpse of one of her legs, and I swear it was as broad as my whole body. But,” he added, “I must say, to be just, that I have lost a lot of weight since you have seen me.”

Through the charms and rituals of love magic provided by inhabitants of the magical underworld, Athénaïs de Montespan and other aspiring royal mistresses sought to reach the summit of the court hierarchy. Louis’s courtiers strove mightily for his affections because only a place very close to the king’s side – whether in bed or out of it – offered access to the rewards, both material and honorific, that only he could bestow. What Madame de Montespan attempted to accomplish through supernatural means was far from unusual at Louis XIV’s court, where vying for the king’s favour was the preoccupation of every aristocrat.

Professor Lynn Wood Mollenauer is a cultural historian specialising in the history of France between the Renaissance and the Revolution, and the author of Strange Revelations: Poison, Magic, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France (Pennsylvania State Press, 2007)

Series one of Versailles is currently available on BBC iPlayer, and series two begins on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Friday 21 April.

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