17th Century Europe, 17th Century France, Canal +, La Voisin, Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan, The Affair of the Poisons, Versailles
The second season of Versailles covers is sort of inspired by the Affair of the Poisons, one of the most dramatic set of events in the reign of Louis XIV. Normally I don’t cover more than one season of a show, but I’m going to break that rule because it gives me an excuse to write about the Affair.
The first episode of the second season introduces us to Madame Agathe (Suzanne Clément) a close confident of Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster). Initially she seems to be just a fortune teller, but as the season goes on, it’s clear that she’s also a poisoner responsible for supplying poisons to a variety of people at the court, including Sophie (Maddison Jaizani), who slowly poisons her husband, and Gaston de Foix (Harry Hadden-Paton) who apparently murders several people, including one of Louis’ ministers, the man’s wife, and the queen’s favorite clergyman. Montespan, struggling to hold Louis’ affections, even turns to an associate of Agathe’s for a black mass that she hopes will rekindle the spark Louis had for her. It’s eventually revealed that Agathe is hoping to trigger Louis’ overthrow for reasons I couldn’t follow. The season ends with Sophie safely widowed, Gaston dead, Montespan in disgrace, and Agathe burning at the stake.
As we’ll see, that bears only the faintest resemblance to what actually happened.
In 1666, the groundwork for the Affair of the Poisons was laid by the scandalous revelations around Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, a dissolute young noblewoman. Both she and her husband Antoine enjoyed gambling and they maintained an open relationship, with Antoine actively introducing her to her lover, Captain Godin de St-Croix. As a result of their extravagant lifestyle, the couple found themselves in need of money. The Marquise fell out with her family, who objected to her affair with St-Croix and arranged for him to be thrown into the Bastille. This put St-Croix in contact with a poisoner who taught him a great deal. St-Croix then got into contact with a Swiss chemist who worked with him for three years to perfect a recipe for Acqua Toffana, an arsenic-based poison that was odorless and tasteless. While they were perfecting the formula, the Marquise was regularly visiting a charity hospital and feeding the residents pastries laced with the poison to observe its effects.
So in 1666, having working out how to poison people, the Marquise allegedly began applying her knowledge. She placed a servant in her father’s household who spent six months poisoning her father so the Marquise could inherit part of his estate. As her father sickened, the Marquise played the dutiful daughter, tending to him and giving him the final dose. This allowed his estate to be split between the Marquise, a sister, and two brothers.
Then she decided she wanted to be rid of her husband, so that she could marry St-Croix. So she started to poison Antoine. But St-Croix had recently married and felt better having Antoine around, so he began to slip Antoine the antidote. At least, this is the rumor that was going around to explain why Antoine went through 5 or 6 health crises in the later 1660s. Eventually Marie gave up and let him live. But she allegedly tried to poison her sister, a Carmelite nun, and her own daughter, both of whom survived.
By 1668, the creditors were pressing the Marquise quite aggressively, so she decided she needed to inherit some money. She paid St-Croix (who was no longer providing her his services for free) to place a servant in her brother Antoine’s household, and by 1670 he was dead. A few months later her other brother similarly departed this world. Marie split their estates with her sister.
Unfortunately, in 1672, St-Croix died, reportedly by accidentally poisoning himself, and the Paris police came into possession of a bunch of letters and diaries detailing the Marquise’ activities. She fled the country, but in 1675 she was arrested. She produced a 16-page confession of her crimes, but then recanted and insisted vehemently that she was innocent. A confessor eventually persuaded her to recant her recantation. She made a full confession and was publicly beheaded and her body burnt.
The Affair Begins
The scandal around Marie’s confession and execution made people begin paying more attention to what in retrospect seemed like suspicious deaths. Marie had hinted broadly that she was far from the only person at court who had poisoned someone, but she refused to name names.
In 1677, the Paris police arrested Magdelaine Guénisseau and her lover on charges that they had murdered her employer and forged evidence that she had been married to him, so that they could inherit his property. Magdelaine appealed to one of Louis’ ministers, the Marquis de Louvois, who reported it to Louis, who told him and Gabriel Nicholas de La Reynie, the chief of the Paris police, to investigate. (Louvois is a regular character on Versailles, and La Reynie is the loose inspiration for Fabien Marchal).
La Reynie investigated and uncovered a loose network of alchemists, counterfeiters, and poisoners operating around Paris and having ties to various nobles. He found evidence of a plot to poison the king, but was unable to determine who might be behind it. Then he managed to apprehend two women, Marie Vigoureux and Marie Bosse, who seemed to be at the center of this network. La Bosse had boasted that with three more poisonings she would be able to retire comfortably. Although La Bosse insisted she only did palm readings and dabbled in love potions, a search of her apartment turned up arsenic, Spanish fly, powdered menstrual blood, and nail clippings. That evidence caused La Bosse and La Vigoureux to break down and implicate a wide range of people including midwives, abortionists (or ‘angel makers’ as they were sometimes called), sorceresses, a ‘toad vendor’, an herbalist, and several renegade priests. La Bosse admitted that she had sold soap impregnated with arsenic and ‘inheritance powders’ (as many of the poisons were euphemistically called) to a noblewoman who was trying to get rid of her husband.
Then in 1679, as La Reynie’s investigation widened, he reeled in an even bigger fish, Catherine Monvoisin, known generally as La Voisin, who is the inspiration for Madame Agathe. She was a palm reader, alchemist, and abortionist whose clients included Olympe Mancini and her sister Marie, two of Louis’ early mistresses (that link discusses Louis’ mistresses, several of whom will be mentioned below). She had become wealthy enough that she moved freely at the top levels of Parisian society and frequently threw impressive parties. She sold love potions and magical amulets and arranged black masses for her clients as well. She also dabbled in poisoning, although it was not her main stock in trade and she was reportedly much less-well versed in it than others in her circle. Most importantly, she was in contact with two of Louis’ current mistresses, Madame de Montespan and Montespan’s servant Claude de Vin des Oeillets.
The Black Masses
In 1667, La Voisin arranged a black mass for Montespan, the same year that Montespan became maitress en titre.Montespan paid for several more black masses a few years later in 1673, when Louis’ eye began to wander, and she also purchased an aphrodisiac that she gave to Louis.
Paris had a thriving underworld of renegade priests in this period. These were men who had clerical training and ordination, but often did not have any sort of clerical position with which to support themselves (or else they regarded their regular income as priests to be insufficient). One way that these men supported themselves was by performing illicit rituals that drew on the power of Catholic rituals for unsanctioned purposes. They administered fake Masses using unconsecrated hosts for patrons who needed to be seen taking communion but who were unwilling to make the required confession beforehand. They supplied chalices, crucifixes, holy water, holy oil, and consecrated hosts for a wide range of supernatural purposes such as love spells, rituals to protect livestock from disease and wolves, and rituals to communicate with the dead or demons. Etienne Guibourg (the inspiration for Father Etienne in the show) frequently performed a ritual in which he wrote the names of a client and an intended target on the host, then consecrated the host during a regular Mass at his church. He would afterward give the special host to the client with instructions to grind it into powder and mix it into the target’s food. This was supposed to cause the target to fall in love with the client. Another love spell at the time involved a priest blessing a pair of rings and going through a parody of a marriage Mass for the client; this was supposed to ‘marry’ the target in absentia to the client.
What it casually called a Black Mass is actually, in this case, an Amatory Mass. A Black Mass is a form of Satan-worship that parodies the Catholic liturgy for malicious purposes. What Guibourg and others performed was not intended to subvert the Mass but rather to harness its power for magical ends; in the case of an Amatory Mass, the goal was to cause someone to fall in love with the client. Thus although to the Catholic hierarchy the Amatory Mass looked profoundly disrespectful to Catholic belief, to men like Guibourg the ritual was actually expressing a strange sort of respect for the Mass; they believed in the Mass’ power to achieve magical things.
Trigger Warning: the following two paragraphs get rather gruesome. If you’re easily disturbed, skip down to the paragraph that begins “In 1678”.
Guibourg’s Amatory Masses involved using the body of a naked woman as the altar for the Mass; a cloth was placed over her belly and a cross and other implements were placed on the cloth, along with a note describing the client’s desires. The women in question was ideally the client, but did not have to be. Guibourg then performed a standard Mass except that when he elevated the host he read aloud the note along with an invocation to the demons Asmodeus and Astaroth. He then slit the throat of a newborn baby, poured its blood into the chalice, and cut out its heart, which was place in a vase with the consecrated host. He completed the ritual by having sex with the woman. Needless to say, an Amatory Mass was not only deeply sacrilegious, it was also profoundly illegal.
La Voisin was said to procure the babies from prostitutes. She reportedly disposed of the corpses of the babies by burning them in an oven and then burying them in her garden. Several witnesses claimed that she had bragged about disposing of 2,500 infants that way. (One sometimes reads that authorities dug up thousands of corpses from her garden, but that seems to be untrue.)
The Scandal Explodes
In 1678, when Louis became infatuated with Marie-Angélique de Scorailles, Montespan supposedly asked La Voisin to poison both Louis and de Scorailles. La Voisin reportedly tried to pass Louis a petition impregnated with poison, but was unable to do so. Before she could formulate a second plan, La Reynie caught up with her. La Bosse and La Voisin began accusing each other of increasingly severe crimes, implicating a substantial number of France’s lesser nobility in buying inheritance powders and procuring abortions.
Another of their associates, Adam Coeuret, better known as the sorcerer Lesage, got picked up and began trying to save his neck by accusing La Voisin of having orchestrated Black Masses. She accused Lesage of helping her procure poisons, and Lesage retaliated by revealing the work she had done for Montespan. Lesage also accused the duc de Luxembourg, who was the captain of the king’s guards, of trying to arrange the murders of his own wife and Louvois’ son-in-law so that he could marry Louvois’ daughter. This revelation delighted Louvois because he hated Luxembourg and wanted to ruin him. Even more remarkably, Lesage produced a letter from the duc implicating him.
By this point, the accusations Lesage was making were so inflammatory (since Montespan was not only Louis’ official mistress but the mother of several of his acknowledged children) that Louis ordered La Reynie to keep a completely separate unofficial transcript of Lesage’s claims. Fortunately for modern historians, La Reynie’s records both official and unofficial survive for us to reconstruct the events.
La Voisin’s daughter, Marie-Marguerite, testified that she had frequently witnessed her mother and Lesage performing magical rituals, including baptizing wax figurines, making amulets involving pigeon’s hearts and consecrated hosts, and burning a piece of wood as part of a love spell to secure his love for Montespan. Pressed further, she spilled the beans about the poisoned petition. She also testified that she had personally attended two Black Masses that Montespan had participated in.
La Voisin denied these charges, but it didn’t convince anyone. The scandal had become too big and too widely known for it be swept under the rug, especially when the Marquise de Brinvilliers had primed people to think there were an epidemic of poisoning going on. La Reynie identified a total of 442 suspects, 212 of whom were arrested and questioned. Several suspects, include La Vigoureux, died under torture, and 36 people were publicly executed (generally by burning), including La Voisin and La Bosse. La Voisin’s daughter, Guibourg, and Lesage were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment; two other priests were executed.
Of their known clients, a good number fled France to avoid imprisonment or were sentenced to exile for varying periods. Olympe Mancini (who was suspected of poisoning her husband) was exiled and her sister Marie was banished from court. A few were executed, and a couple were fined. Luxembourg spent a short period in the Bastille but managed to return to Louis’ good graces. Most importantly of all, Madame de Montespan was never touched. When des Scorailles died suddenly in 1681, many thought that Montespan had poisoned her. But she was never publically accused of any crime. La Reynie kept his investigation into her role completely under wraps, and it’s possible that even Montespan did not know she was being investigated.
Madame de Montespan was too prominent a figure at the court for anyone to make an open accusation against her. Although the evidence that she was procuring love potions and Amatory Masses is pretty solid, the evidence that she was trying to poison the king is shakier. There are inconsistencies in the testimony against her. La Reynie thought that des Oeillets, Montespan’s go-between with La Voisin, was the real culprit. He suspected that she wanted to poison Louis because the king had refused to acknowledge his daughter by her. He theorized that she had switched some of the love potions Montespan was buying from La Voisin for arsenic. And she was Montespan’s stand-in during the Amatory Masses. So Louis either didn’t believe the poisoning accusations or he allowed her to go unpunished out of a combination of affection for her and concern about how the scandal would look. By 1683, she was out of favor, but remained at court for almost another decade before retiring to a convent in 1691.
Back to Versailles
So let’s take stock of how Versailles depicts this material.
Yes, Agathe/La Voisin provided fortune-telling and love potions for Montespan. No she didn’t use tarot cards. She was a palm-reader.
No, Agathe/La Voisin did not provide poisons to Sophie or Gaston de Foix, because both of those characters are fictitious. But she or an associate certainly provided poisons to women looking to dispose of unwanted husbands. Yes, she sold love charms.
Yes, Agathe/La Voisin may have conspired to poison the king. No, it wasn’t because she hated the king or wanted to overthrow the government. No, Louis wasn’t almost poisoned with a consecrated host and wasn’t saved at the last moment, but yes, it’s possible that he was given arsenic at some point (if so, it would have been by Montespan, thinking it was a love potion). No, this wasn’t just Agathe/La Voisin and Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg; it was dozens and dozens of people involved in various capacities.
No, one of Louis’ ministers and his wife were not poisoned. The Affair never reached quite that high up the food chain at Versailles. And no, so far as we know, none of the poisonings were directly about politics. They were about inheritances and a desire to end unwanted marriages.
Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg did perform sacrilegious Masses over the body of a naked woman, and yes, those Masses did involve the killing of babies. Yes, Montespan had such Masses performed for her, but no, she didn’t act as the altar and may not have even attended them. Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg may have used prostitutes’ babies for the ritual, but no, he wasn’t the one collecting them (unless La Voisin was making things up, which isn’t impossible). No, one of the masses was not broken up by Marchal/La Reynie. No, Marchal/La Reynie did not almost die trying to stop the poisoning.
No, no one at court took fast-acting poison when they were about to be exposed, and no, a priest was not poisoned with a lily. No, the poisons didn’t cause people to vomit blood and die quickly.
Yes, Montespan was desperate to keep Louis’ affections. No, she and Agathe/La Voisin did not have regular meetings to discuss her situation. She used her lady-in-waiting Claude des Oeillets as the go-between.
My verdict is that the second season is only VERY loosely inspired by the actual Affair of the Poisons, which was way more complex and, to me at least, interesting than what the show offers us. Still, it’s nice to see the Affair referenced so much. It’s a fascinating event.
Want to Know More?
Versailles is available through Amazon.
My favorite book on the The Affair of the Poisons is Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France. It’s an excellent look at the Affair from several different angles, including the occult underworld. Mollenauer has a lively, surprisingly humorous style, a rarity for an academic work like this.