Louis XIV, France's Sun King, had the longest reign in European history, from 1643
to 1715—72 years. During this time he brought absolute monarchy to its height, established
a glittering court at Versailles, and fought most of the other European countries
in four wars. He added more territory permanently to France than did Napoleon.
The early personal reign of Louis was highly successful in both internal and foreign
affairs. Breaking with tradition, Louis excluded from his council members of his
immediate family, great princes, and others of the old military nobility (noblesse
d'epee); his reliance on the newer judicial nobility (noblesse de robe). Local government
was increasingly placed under removable intendants. At home Louis created what we
would call today a dictatorship, replacing the old feudal order. The parliaments
lost their traditional power to obstruct legislation; the judicial structure was
reformed by the codes of civil procedure (1667) and criminal procedure (1669), although
the overlapping and confusing laws were left untouched. Urban law enforcement was
improved by creation (1667) of the office of lieutenant general of police for Paris,
later imitated in other towns.
This becomes important when the Affair of the Poisons is discussed; France was the
only country in Europe in the seventeenth century that had anything we would recognize
today as a police force.
Money was lavished on buildings. In Paris the Louvre was essentially completed with
the classical colonnade by Claude Perrault. At Versailles, Louis XIII's hunting lodge
was transformed into a remarkable palace and park, which were copied by Louis's fellow
monarchs across Europe. When the king moved permanently to Versailles in 1682, an
elaborate court etiquette was established that had the aristocracy, including former
rebel princes, vying to participate in Louis's rising (leve) and retiring (couche).
These ceremonies led to the saying that, at a distance, one could tell what was happening
at the palace merely by glancing at an almanac and a watch.
The turning point in Louis's reign between the earlier grandeur and the later disasters
came after Colbert's death (1683). In 1685 the king took the disastrous step of revoking
the Protestant minority's right to worship by revoking the Edict of Nantes. Many
Huguenots—who constituted an industrious segment of French society—left the country,
taking with them considerable capital as well as skills. In addition Louis's display
of religious intolerance helped unite the Protestant powers of Europe against the
For a time in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Louis's France reigned
supreme, all the world reflecting the Sun King's glory. But at the heart, Louis's
empire was rotten. The Affair of the Poisons, as it was known, was a scandal at which
all France trembled and which horrified the whole of Europe as it implicated a number
of prominent persons at the court of Louis XIV in wild orgies, murder by poison,
abortion and the sacrifice of infants in Satanic rituals, and black magic directed
against the King himself.
* * * * *
It began with the trial of Marie Madeleine d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, who
conspired with her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, an army captain, to poison her father
and two brothers in order to secure the family fortune and to end interference in
her adulterous relationship.
Sainte-Croix was a rake, a spendthrift, an occultist and alchemist, a kind of seventeenth-century
mad scientist who whipped up his own poisons in his own fully equipped laboratory,
where he wore a special mask of leather and glass rather like a modern gas mask while
he brewed his lethal concoctions. The beautiful Marquise developed a reputation for
charity by visiting hospitals for the poor and bringing them dainty delicacies to
eat; no one seems to have noticed that most of her patients died soon after her visits.
What she was doing was testing Sainte-Croix's poisons out on live subjects.
The two murderous lovers were finally discovered when Sainte-Croix's mask slipped
off one day while he was doing some kind of experiment that produced poison gas,
and he collapsed and perished before he could get out of the room. The police found
all kinds of incriminating documents and letters from Marie in his rooms; apparently
the charming fellow was blackmailing his paramour to make sure he got his share of
the family loot.
The marquise fled abroad, but in 1676 was located at Liège. She had gone to ground
in a convent on the Austrian Netherlands side of the border. Not only was she out
of French jurisdiction, but she was on holy ground and good Catholic that he was,
Louis XIV refused to countenance any forcible raid to snatch her out of her sanctified
lair. The commander of the Paris police, Lieutenant General Nicholas de la Reynie,
therefore sent one of his boldest detectives—Captain Desgrez—with orders to somehow
or other get the murdering Marquise in custody on French soil.
The captain disguised himself as a priest, gained entry to the convent, and managed
to become the Marquise's confessor. Apparently the Paris cop was a handsome young
man and Marie still had a yen for such; he declared himself madly and passionately
in love with her, but what with him allegedly being a priest and all, he could not
possibly defile the sacred precincts of the convent with his carnal lust. He managed
to lure Marie out of the convent, with her expecting a one-night stand of priestly
passion. He then threw her into a sealed carriage which pelted pell-mell for the
border, and by morning she was back in France and on her way to Paris under arrest.
The affair greatly worked on the popular imagination, and there were rumors that
she had tried out her poisons on hospital patients. At her trial she was scornful
and insolent, which did her no good. She was subjected to the agonizing water torture
to make her confess, then sentenced to death. Being a noblewoman she was not hanged
on a gallows along with the peasantry, but she was beheaded with a sword by a black-masked
executioner in best theatrical style, and her body was then burned.
The Brinvilliers trial attracted attention to other mysterious deaths. Parisian society
had long been seized by a fad for spiritualist séances, fortune-telling, and the
use of love potions, and the mortality rate among wealthy older men in the capital
was becoming truly alarming, producing a bevy of wealthy young widows beyond the
statistical norm. In 1679 things got so bad that the Catholic Church unofficially
contacted the Paris police to inform them that, although they could not violate the
secrets of the confessional in specific cases, a frightening number of women were
confessing to their priests that they had poisoned their husbands, fathers, brothers,
and other relatives for their inheritances.
The most celebrated case was that of La Voisin, a midwife and fortune-teller whose
real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin. Among her clients were Olympe Mancini,
Comtesse de Soissons, who sought the death of the king's mistress, Louise de la Valliere;
Mme. de Montespan, Mme de Gramont (la belle Hamilton), the Marechal de Luxembourg,
and others. Her husband, Monvoisin, was an unsuccessful jeweler, and she practiced
chiromancy and palm-reading to retrieve their fortunes. She gradually added the practice
of witchcraft, in which she had the help of a renegade priest, Etienne Guibourg,
whose part was the celebration of the Black Mass, an abominable parody in which the
host was compounded of the blood of a little child mixed with horrible ingredients.
She practiced medicine, especially midwifery, procured abortion and provided love
powders and poisons.
Her chief accomplice was one of her lovers, the magician Lesage, whose real name
was Adam Coeuret. The great ladies of Paris flocked to La Voisin, who accumulated
enormous wealth. The bones of toads, the teeth of moles, cantharides, iron filings,
human blood and human dust were among the ingredients of the love powders concocted
by La Voisin. The art of poisoning had become a regular science. The death of Henrietta,
duchess of Orleans, was attributed to poison, and it is unknown how many people of
lesser rank were murdered in this manner.
The Paris police chief de la Reynie was extremely concerned about the rumors of mass
poisoning, which by now were floating all over Europe and worse yet, had reached
the ear of the King, who was asking pointed questions. But he was working in the
dark. All he had to go on were wild and unsubstantiated tales and a few whispered
names, among them that of La Voisin. Once again he called upon the expertise of Desgrez—only
this time it was the talented police captain's equally intrepid, beautiful young
Solange Desgrez became the first undercover policewoman known to history. She went
to La Voisin's shop, ostensibly selling soaps and perfumes, and managed to worm her
way into the poisoner's confidence. Solange played the part of a giddy young married
woman with a secret lover and a rich, elderly husband she wanted to get rid of, and
she succeeded in making "buys" of several lethal quantities of potent poisons from
Catherine Deshayes, who by now seems to have become overconfident in her immunity
and the protection of her powerful patrons.
In April of 1679 de la Reynie swooped in history's first organized crime raid. A
small army of police and soldiers kicked in doors all over Paris and arrested dozens
of people in connection with crimes ranging from fraud, fortune-telling, and keeping
illegal drinking and gambling houses all the way up to murder, blasphemy, witchcraft,
and treason. A special court, the Chambre Ardente [Burning Chamber], was instituted
to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft. Some of the sessions were held in secret,
but others were public, and despite the lack of Court TV, Greta Van Susteren and
Nancy Grace, the world watched in fascination as the gilded denizens of Versailles
and the highest nobles in the land were hauled into court alongside the most sordid
dregs of the Paris underworld.
In an even further similarity to present times, none of the celebrity accused or
witnesses was punished, although some like the Comtesse de Soissons endured one session
of grilling questions from de la Reynie and the stern judges and fled the country,
never to return. It was said that at night the cobbled streets of Paris rang with
the horses' hooves and wheels of the carriages of noble ladies fleeing the city and
heading for their country estates, or for the frontiers of the kingdom to get beyond
the Chambre Ardente's reach. No serious effort was ever made to arrest or try them,
but the thrifty King Louis fined many of his nobles huge sums and in some cases confiscated
all their property due to their wives' indiscretions.
The wretched criminal element was left holding the bag, and they got it in the neck.
La Voisin was burned alive after excruciating torture, after watching her husband
hanged before her eyes. Her lover Lesage died in prison from maltreatment. Her daughter
was dropped into a hole in the floor of the Bastille and never seen alive again.
Dozens of other suspected witches and poisoners were burned at the stake or broken
on the wheel. The Abbe Guiborg and other satanic priests were all made off with,
either immured in dungeons for the rest of their lives or in Guiborg's case sent
to the galleys where he died under the lash chained to an oar.
The immunity which noble ladies enjoyed who had bought poison from the witches, who
had attended Black Masses, or given up their illegitimate infants for sacrifice by
the devilish priests did not extend to those of lesser social status, the wives and
daughters of tradesmen or merchants or artisans who had done the same thing. Throughout
the early 1680s the Place de la Grève sometimes almost presaged the events of a hundred
years later, only in place of a guillotine there were blackened stakes and the swaying
bodies of women and girls hanged in rows on gallows around the square. It is not
known how many people were executed in the Chambre Ardente purge, but it is believed
to be several hundred.
The proceedings lasted for three years, and finally ended when they got too close
to the throne itself. During a number of secret sessions, some under torture, it
became clear that the King's reigning mistress, Madame de Montespan, when she felt
her beauty fading and her power over the monarch slipping, had plotted to recover
his affections by black magic, up to and including arranging for Black Masses wherein
a baby was sacrificed and her own naked body served as the infernal altar. When this
didn't keep the King's eye from wandering, in her increasingly frantic jealous rage,
she hatched a conspiracy to poison Louis XIV, apparently being willing to administer
the poison with her own hand.
This scandal was too much for Louis to bear, and on July 21st, 1682 he closed down
the Chambre Ardente and ordered de la Reynie to seal all of its most sensitive documents
up in a black mahogany chest, which the King then took personal possession of and
sealed with his own seal. Madame de Montespan was quietly but firmly banished from
court. Supposedly, after one terrible confrontation in Versailles between Montespan,
the King, and de la Reynie, Louis swore that he would never again be alone in her
presence, and he kept the vow for the rest of his life.
Twenty years afterward, in 1712, after everyone involved but himself was dead, an
aging and dying Louis XIV summoned his ministers and ordered a fire lit in the conference
chamber, even though it was mid-summer. In their presence opened the black casket
containing the damning documents and testimony which had revealed the rottenness
in his most glorious hour. Then he fed all the papers one by one into the flames.