The deadly marquise: The affair that scandalized Paris of Louis XIV

The Marais area is divided into two parts at Rue Saint Antoine. Its northern part is the better-known one, due to sites such as Place des Vosges and the Carnavalet museum; however, its southern (and lesser-toured) part houses several buildings related to the more “juicy” history of Paris. The first building, which has its own dedicated post, is Hôtel de Beauvais, which was given to the woman who took Louis XIV’s virginity. The second building is Hôtel de Sens, where Queen Margot’s last love affair ended tragically. Today we’ll walk the short distance between Hôtel de Sens and Hôtel de Brinvilliers, situated in 12 Rue Charles V. Don’t let its beauty and glamour mislead you – in this building dark murders were plotted, and the most famous scandal of the Louis XIV period was born.

From tapestries to poison

The house was built in 1620 by Antoine Gobelin (descendant of Jean Gobelin, inventor of the wall tapestries named after him) and his wife, Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers. Since her husband couldn’t fulfill his wife’s sexual prowess, their marriage started to deteriorate, and the marquise took many lovers, the last of whom was cavalry officer Godin de st. Croix. When her father heard about it, he had the officer locked up in the Bastille, where he met Exili, a chemist, who was his cellmate at the time of his imprisonment. Exili learned the art of poisons in Italy, and had served a long line of famous people, including Olimpia Maidalchini, the almighty lover of Pope Innocentius X, and Christina, Queen of Sweden. Once they were both released from jail, they opened together a secret poison lab in Impasse Maubert, and after concocting several types of poison, they told the marquise of their new venture. These news couldn’t have come at a better time, since the marquise had just finished spending her generous dowry given to her by her father, and was now looking for a way to take over the family fortunes, to avoid bankruptcy.

To test the effectiveness of the poisons, the marquise started volunteering in the famous hospital Hotel Dieu, where she tested her poisons on the most difficult patients, without raising suspicions. Once she thought she found the correct dose, she tried poisoning her father, but the task was not completed easily, and it took her 10 attempts until she succeeded, in 1666. Her brothers died more easily, and they both died shortly after one another. Encouraged by her success, the marquise turned to poison her husband, but to her surprise, he showed no signs of being poisoned, despite the ever-increasing doses of poison she put in his food. The reason for that was that her co-conspirator, officer st. Croix, would remove the poisoned foods, since he wasn’t at all interested in marrying the marquise after her husband’s passing…

The entire thing came to light when the knight st. Croix died (of natural reasons) in 1672, leaving behind him a pile of incriminating letters, which miraculously reached the hands of the authorities. The marquise escaped France to a convent close to Liège, where she hid until the French police found her and brought her back to Paris. On 17 July 1676, the marquise was led to Place de Grève (today’s Place de l’Hôtel de Ville), and before a great crowd of spectators, she was beheaded and her body was burned (her high status saved her from being burned alive on the stake). “Finally, all is behind us,” wrote Madame de Sévigné to her daughter, but in truth, the truly major affair has only just begun.

The staircase in the hotel particulier of the Marquise de Branvilliers
The staircase in the hotel particulier of the Marquise de Branvilliers

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A Parisian Witch Hunt

The marquise’s trial made people recall quite a few suspicious deaths, which occurred among Louis XIV’s courtiers, and rumours of them also being poisoned have started to roam. The king, who feared of being the next victim, appointed Police chief La Reynie as an investigative judge, and gave him full authority to stop and investigate any person suspected of poisoning, including members of the highest nobility. Shortly after, a witch hunt was going wild in Paris, and many women who dealt in fortune telling, abortions, and sale of sexual stimulants were arrested.

After being tortured, they confessed that they provided women of the high society not only with what can be considered 17th-century Viagra, but also with “inheritance powder”, or, in other words, poisons, in order to get rid of burdening relatives. The further the investigation advanced, the more women from the high society were arrested, and the fire began to reach the top of Louis XIV’s court. The investigation reached its peak in 1681, when testimonies said that the royal lover, marquise de Montespan, took part in black masses, mixed sexual stimulants in the king’s food, and poisoned his younger lover, Duchesse de Fontanges (1661-1681).

Just before the chief of police was about to arrest the royal lover for investigation, the King of France decided to stop the witch hunt, in order to avoid a scandal, and the investigation team was disbanded. During the years of the investigation, 367 suspects were arrested, and of them, 36 were executed on charges of poisoning and witchcraft (at least some of them for crimes they didn’t commit, and to which they confessed following tortures; people who died for no fault of their own). As a result, it is not surprising that even today, the French refer to this affair as one of the darkest times in their history. And to all the married men who read this blog – learn your lesson, and make sure to examine your cup of coffee well if you’ve upset your wives…

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