Saturday 2 June 2012

POISON! (Part 1)

Linda Buckley-Archer

The Sun King

When a spate of poisonings in the 1670s threatened to bring down some of the greatest in the land, the ‘Affaire des Poisons” as it became known, drew all eyes to the court of the Sun King at Versailles.   Once the scale of the problem began to emerge, it was clear that something had to be done about the macabre fashion for getting rid of an unwanted relative with a touch of arsenic or antimony. This fascinating – and disturbing – episode is too involved for a single post so I have decided to split it into two.

I was first alerted to the ‘Affair of the Poisons’ by this intriguing (and famous) description in a letter written  by the ever observant and witty Madame de Sévigné:

At length it is all over: La Brinvilliers is in the air; after her execution her poor little body was thrown into a large fire, and her ashes dispersed by the wind, so that whenever we breathe, we shall inhale some particles of her, and by the communication of the minute spirits, we may be all infected with the desire of poisoning, to our no small surprise.

La Marquise de la Brinvilliers on the day of her execution

Madame de Sévigné (whose abundant correspondence is a major source for historians of the period) had just returned from what can only be described as a society execution.  Everyone who was anyone was in attendance.  Indeed, Madame de S. was more than a little put out by the poor view her position in the great  crowd afforded her. 

The Marquise confessed everything under torture
The lady whose remaining particles were floating in the air, the Marquise de la Brinvilliers, was an unlikely murderess: the sort of nice, quiet woman who liked to do good works and visit the sick in hospital. In fact, rumour had it that it was on the sick that she had tried out her poisons before inflicting them on those closer to home.  La Brinvilliers had taken a lover and, in order to inherit, had poisoned first her father (it took him eight months to die an agonising death though she nursed him conscientiously), and then started on her two brothers.  She was finally brought to justice and, under water torture, confessed everything.

Though she quickly became a celebrity ‘poisoner’ (Alexandre Dumas Senior wrote about her, and, later, an opera told her story), la Marquise de Brinvilliers was not alone in looking to poison to sort out her home life.   The Chief of the Paris Police, Daubray, was poisoned by his wife, and some maintained that the death of ‘Madame’ (Henrietta, the King’s sister-in-law) was also no accident. When Daubray was replaced by La Reynie (who soon won respect for his policing of the city), the latter began to suspect that  poisoning was a lot more common than he had thought.    A priest from the cathedral of Notre Dame came to the chief of police to confide something troubling to him.   More and more, during confession, people were admitting to the priest that they had poisoned their relatives.  La Reynie listened, and believed him, and became  determined to tackle this unpalatable epidemic. But neither La Reynie, nor the King, suspected the true scale of the problem, nor who would be dragged into the Affair of the Poisons.

Linda Buckley-Archer’s Time Quake Trilogy is published by Simon & Schuster.


H.M. Castor said...

This is fascinating... I can't wait for Part 2! Did anyone doubt the value of the Marquise's confession under torture, incidentally, or was her guilt absolutely clear? And was torturing a noblewoman deemed shocking (both in terms of her class & her gender?)

Linda B-A said...

Thanks for your comment, Harriet. I don't know enough about 17th-century legal history to do more than guess at how common it was for a female aristocrat to be tortured. Torture, of course, was not rare at all, and routinely used, but it must have been rare for a woman of la Brinvillier's rank to have to submit to it. There was no doubt at all about her guilt - apparently she willingly confessed and 'made a good end'. Her execution and burning caused a very big stir but, as you can see from the tone of Madame de Sevigne's letter, the court ladies took it in their stride... What was really shocking, though, (now and at the time) was the scale of the poisonings.

H.M. Castor said...

Many thanks, Linda. I'm looking forward to your next post!