Scandal! Murder! Secret poisons! Death in high places! Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.
|Marquise de Brinvilliers|
(after torture, on her way to execution)
|Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie|
Why treason? Simple: Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children. Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her. It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way. After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.
|Madame de Montespan|
The results of the Affair of Poisons were: 36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet. A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives. One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery. For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris. One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc. She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial. She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway. And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife. He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys. (More on the galleys next blog.) The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies.
Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions. And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down. All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name. Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard." We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.
Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her. At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension.
I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682). Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden.
So. Poison. Murder. Scandal. And we end up with a free Eastern Europe. You figure it out.
NOTE: For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France.