The Affair of the Poisons: who plotted to kill King Louis XIV?
In the 1670s, Louis XIV of France was the target of a series of assassination attempts involving poisons and necromancy. But who was the perpetrator? Josephine Wilkinson untangles a conspiracy that scandalised a nation
On a cold day in February 1680, a woman in her early forties was driven through the streets of Paris to the Place de Grève. A huge crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle to come. A priest stood to one side, a prayerbook in his hand, his voice silenced by the roar of the crowd. The executioner, his face concealed within a leather mask, ordered the woman to be brought forward.
Her drunken state dulled some of her terror as she was tied to the stake, seated and bound with iron. Wood and straw were piled up around her. The fire was lit. After some time, her screams were ceased as her earthly agonies came to an end.
The woman’s name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, known as La Voisin. She was arrested, tried and executed during the Affair of the Poisons, among the most sensational crime scandals in French history, one that saw everyone from anonymous peasants to members of the nobility accused of necromancy and murder.
Who was La Voisin and who were her clients?
By the time of her death, La Voisin had enjoyed a long and successful career as a fortune-teller, sorcerer, poisoner and abortionist. While she catered to a wide clientele, most of her patrons were ladies from the court of King Louis XIV, to whom she would supply love potions, creams to enhance beauty, or the means to free themselves from an unwanted pregnancy.
Mistresses consulted her to learn when their lovers would leave their wives – or, if they would not, to find a way to relieve them of their spouses. Others were impatient to rid themselves of a rich father, so they could get their hands on the family fortune.
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There were many sighs of relief at the news of La Voisin’s demise. But, perhaps, no one was happier than her daughter, Marie Marguerite Monvoisin. The 21-year-old had been arrested in January 1680, several months after her mother. The women had been imprisoned at the Château de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris and, although they were held in separate cells, Marie Marguerite feared that her mother’s magical powers could still harm her.
It was only when La Voisin was dead that Marie Marguerite felt able to tell investigators what she knew of her mother’s crimes and, more significantly, her clients. Tales of fortune-telling could be dismissed, as could the provision of beauty creams. But other stories could not be so easily ignored. Marie Marguerite spoke of poisonous potions, infant sacrifices, black masses – and a plot to murder the king.
That there was a conspiracy to kill Louis XIV – the so-called ‘Sun King’ who ruled over France from 1643 to 1715 as it emerged as Europe’s pre-eminent power – was sensational enough. Yet what scandalised the French public further still was the identity of the woman whom Marie Marguerite identified at the centre of the plot. That was none other than the king’s official mistress, Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart marquise de Montespan.
Who was Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan?
Louis was hardly a stranger to extra-marital affairs during his 72-year reign. Yet of all his mistresses, Athénaïs was arguably the most renowned. Celebrated for her intellect and beauty, she reigned as the “real queen of France” for many years, bearing the king seven children. Now, however, courtesy of Marie Marguerite’s explosive testimony, she stood accused of the most heinous of crimes.
I have come to the conclusion that, while there was indeed a plot to poison the king... it wasn’t orchestrated by Athénaïs
Marie Marguerite’s allegations would wreck Athénaïs’ relationship with Louis and cast a long shadow over her reputation. The allegations set out against her have dogged her name for 300 years. And they persist to this day, with TV dramas like Versailles consolidating Athénaïs’ alleged guilt. Yet, all the while, some historians have argued that Athénaïs’ reputation has been unfairly tainted.
During my research into the life of Louis XIV, I have come to the conclusion that, while there was indeed a plot to poison the king – planned from within the confines of the court – it wasn’t orchestrated by Athénaïs. The true culprit was, in fact, another of Louis’ lovers, a woman with whom Athénaïs would have been all too familiar. Her name was Claude de Vin des Œillets.
The lengths to which she went to strike at the Sun King were truly extraordinary. Primi Visconti, a contemporary court observer, and the Archives de La Bastille, a collection of contemporary documents, shine a light on Claude’s life and her campaign against Louis XIV.
Who was Claude de Vin des Œillets?
She was born in c1638 to two itinerant actors before, at the age of 30, taking up a position at court, her career facilitated by one of her mother’s patrons. Once installed at court, it was not long before Claude became the close companion to the patron’s daughter, Athénaïs.
One of Claude’s duties was to collect love potions that Athénaïs had ordered from La Voisin. Athénaïs would administer these to Louis to keep his love for her alive and to spice up their sex life. Perhaps they were more successful than she intended, for the king had an insatiable sex drive. If Athénaïs was busy or unwell, it was not unknown for him to find satisfaction with Claude.
Eventually, Claude came to think of herself as Louis’ unofficial mistress, and she would later claim that she had several children by him, although only one is known. In time, Claude hoped to replace Athénaïs and to have the child she was then carrying recognised as the king’s and legitimised. To achieve that goal, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Why did Claude plot to kill Louis XIV?
Claude now started consulting La Voisin on her own behalf and took part in a ritual, in which a bundle of sticks were burned and an incantation read out. The king, it was supposed, would find no rest or sleep until Claude’s will had been fulfilled. Louis, however, had no interest in replacing Athénaïs and saw little need to recognise Claude’s child as his own.
Enraged, at some point in 1677, Claude concluded that the king must die. And so she came up with a plan: to pass a powerful poison to Athénaïs, who would administer it to Louis, thinking it to be an aphrodisiac.
- Read more | Spanish fly, holy bread and mashed worms: history's weirdest aphrodisiacs and love potions
Claude’s first attempt at murdering the king this way ended in failure, probably because the poison wasn’t strong enough or Athénaïs had been unable to administer the ‘potion’. And so Claude turned to two men – known as Latour and Vautier – who were well-versed in the art of poisons and were recommended by La Voisin. She offered to pay them handsomely for their services, and promised to facilitate their escape to England once Louis was dead.
What was Claude’s connection to England?
This last point raises questions over Claude’s motives, for she was frequently accompanied (and possibly bankrolled) by a mysterious Englishman, referred to in the records only as an “English milord”.
This has led some historians to speculate that Claude had become involved in an anti-Catholic conspiracy against Louis originating in England. Certainly ill-feeling towards Louis did exist in England at this point. It was driven by resentment of a king whose recent victory in the Dutch War had made him the most powerful monarch in Europe. Louis also offered shelter to the exiled Catholic James II & VII of England.
- Read more | Britain and France: the best of enemies
Did Claude try again, and what happened at the black mass?
Whatever Claude’s motivations, the poisoned potion was once again passed to the king via the unwitting Athénaïs. Yet, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the king survived the assassination attempt. Undeterred, Claude changed tack. She and her English Milord paid another visit to La Voisin, and agreed to participate in a black mass.
Among the diabolical ingredients needed for the ritual were the blood of a bat, bodily fluids… and the blood of a sacrificed baby
The officiating priest was the sinister Catholic clergyman and occultist Abbé Guibourg, who was dressed in the vestments of his holy office. Among the diabolical ingredients needed for the ritual were the blood of a bat, bodily fluids taken from the English Milord and Claude – whose naked body was used as the ‘altar’ in the service – and the blood of a sacrificed baby.
Prayers, which mentioned the name of the king, were recited over the potion. The rite completed, Claude was instructed to put some of the potion onto Louis’ clothes or to place it in his path. Once accomplished, Louis was expected to die slowly of languor. But, once more, he survived the plot.
The following year, Claude abruptly left Athénaïs’ service, but her extraordinary campaign to kill the king wasn’t over quite yet. At Christmastime 1678, Louis took another mistress, the beautiful Mademoiselle de Fontanges. Consumed by jealousy, Claude hatched a plot to murder both the lovers – and this time she had a plan B.
She sent an accomplice, a man named Romani, in the guise of a salesman, to offer Fontanges fine cloth that had been impregnated with poison. If this did not work, Fontanges was to be tempted with Italian gloves, also poisoned. Taking advantage of Louis’ policy of allowing his subjects access to him, Romani would also try to pass a petition to the king. This was impregnated with a poison so powerful that he was instructed to give it to no one but Louis.
How many attempts were made on Louis XIV’s life?
As it happened, Romani failed to gain access to either of his intended targets. Soon after, La Voisin attempted to succeed where Romani had failed, travelling to Saint-German in March 1679 to pass the king yet another poisoned petition. Luckily for Louis, he was unavailable that day. Once again, the king had cheated death.
This would mark La Voisin’s last participation in the Affair of the Poisons. Louis had long harboured a fear of being poisoned and, once he’d learned of the affair, had appointed a man called Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie to investigate the case. La Voisin was denounced in spring 1679 by a fellow poisoner and arrested. With her imprisonment, Claude’s vendetta against Louis was finally over.
La Voisin paid a terrible price for her part in the plot. But why didn’t Claude follow her to the stake? Why did La Voisin’s daughter Marie Marguerite identify Athénaïs, not Claude, as the perpetrator of this poisonous crimewave? Was it simply a case of mistaken identity?
In her testimony, Marie Marguerite recalled going to a house at Clagny (near the Palace of Versailles) several times to deliver powders to a lady there. Some of these were love powders, others were imbued with magical powers that had been strengthened by the intervention of an ordained priest.
It was well-known that Athénaïs had a house at Clagny, a gift from the king. However, Louis had also given Claude a house, not far from Athénaïs’. Marie Marguerite assumed that items delivered to Claude were intended for Athénaïs. Instead, Claude was using her association with Louis’ principal mistress to conceal her own criminal activities.
At the black mass, the Abbé Guibourg could not identify the lady who allowed her naked body to be used as an altar, because her face and upper body were covered by her long hair. Marie Marguerite and La Voisin’s accomplices were told that the mysterious lady was Athénaïs, and they had no reason not to believe it.
When asked to describe her mother’s client, Marie Marguerite said that she was tall and brunette. She called her “la dame á double queue” from her distinctive dress that was embellished with two trains. This description did not match Athénaïs, but it fitted Claude perfectly.
The Abbé Guibourg could not identify the lady who allowed her naked body to be used as an altar
Later, as a part of de La Reynie’s investigation, Marie Marguerite was required to identify Claude. At first, she declared that she did not know who the lady was. She later retracted this and admitted that the woman she had been shown was, indeed, Claude.
As for Athénaïs, she had no reason to kill the king. Everything she had – her position, her influence – originated with him. The future prospects of their children also rested with the monarch. Circumstantial evidence for Athénaïs’ innocence is provided by the fact that she did not know of Louis’ liaison with Mademoiselle de Fontanges until spring 1679. Since La Voisin had already been arrested by this time, Athénaïs could not have had anything to do with the conspiracy against the lovers.
None of this was enough to save Athénaïs’ relationship with Louis. The king did not dismiss her from her post of superintendent of the queen’s household, nor did he send her away from court, but their love affair was over. She continued at court until 1691 and retired to a life of piety and charitable works.
What happened to Claude?
But what of Claude de Vin des Œillets, the true mastermind behind this extraordinary crimewave? On Louis’ orders, Claude was not investigated about her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons – the king didn’t want people to know that he was an assassin’s target, and also sought to keep his relationship with Claude out of the spotlight.
Instead, she retired to a luxurious life, dividing her time between her home on the rue Montmartre, Paris, and her château just outside the capital. Claude died in 1687, taking the true motivations behind her remarkable vendetta against the most powerful monarch in Europe with her to the grave.
Josephine Wilkinson is an author specialising in French history. Her books include Louis XIV: The Power and the Glory (Pegasus, 2020)
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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